There are many things Indians are very good at, and one of them is sweeping mental health issues under the carpet. Side Effects of Living boldly attempts to take the shame and prejudices head on with a collection of voices in prose and poetry. Some of the writers have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety attacks, et cetera. Others write about the sufferings of their parents, siblings and friends.
One of the most touching pieces in the book is Coming Out of the Closet by Amit Kathpalia who, at the age of nine, discovered that his older brother Ravi, the school topper and volleyball captain, had schizophrenia. As his brother's screaming bouts increased, Kathpalia cut himself off from his friends because he didn't want them to witness his brother's “embarrassing” behaviour. Kathpalia makes a confession: “It took me 30 years to come out of the closet and start discussing Ravi’s illness with my friends and acquaintances. It took me 30 years to overcome my feelings of resentment against Ravi and my parents for my lost childhood; thirty years to realise that we had all blundered because we had no one with whom we could share and discuss our problems; it took all of us 30 years to realise how psychiatric drugs can turn a person into a vegetable; and it took me 30 years to realise that there are many families like mine, facing similar situations, hiding in closets not knowing what to do.”
Lingering guilt plays a huge part in The Wildflower of Old Tehri, too, where Namarita Kathait writes about her mother: “It scared me, and pained me to understand the darkness my mother had been living in. And, instead of protecting her from her own demons, how many times had I left her alone, hurt, abused and desolate. How many times had I questioned my father about why we couldn’t leave her in an asylum where someone would take better care of her?”
“There's someone in my head, but it's not me.” This line from a Pink Floyd song is said in different ways in the intensely personal accounts by survivors. Most have contemplated suicide, many have experienced terrible periods of helplessness. “There have been times when you've woken up in the middle of the night sobbing loudly, rolling on the floor. Your friends think you had a break-up, the neighbours think you're on drugs, and your parents fault their upbringing. No one ever diagnoses the right cause," writes Bijaya Biswal in her account (Side-Effects of Living). In It’s All in Your Mind, Zehra Mousavi says that when she's in the throes of depression she has “stopped replying to people’s ‘How are you doing?’ with ‘I am fine’ because I am not. I am at war with myself.” Swati Agarwal echoes that sentiment in her poem, My Illness: “I am not ill/I am broken/I wasn’t born with my ‘illness’, you know.”
If you think this is bad enough, the treatment brings far more trauma in several cases. “He is advancing towards me with a huge syringe. In my peripheral vision, I am aware of a cage in a corner of the room, painted dark green. It is the sort they lock an animal into, or perhaps a mad woman... This is not a scene from a science fiction film or the pages of a thriller. This had happened to me in 2007, when my family colluded with my ex-husband and had me incarcerated, committed, locked up, put away — take your pick — into a mental health facility, aka asylum. I spent a gruelling 46 days there. Unfortunately, it is still the place people are routinely put away —for bad divorces, property disputes and other feuds, alcoholism, and oh, in some cases, maybe mental health issues as well,” Jhilmil Breckinridge writes about her de-humanising experience in Flashbacks of VIMHANS, and it makes you shudder.
Or take Roohi Kapur's treatment in Enter the Light: “The doctor recommended that I go for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I was in a severely catatonic state. My brother's wedding was only a few weeks away and this treatment would have the fastest and most effective results, he assured... When my treatment started, I remember the cold hands on the sides of my head and being plugged onto wires — then everything went blank. A blank that stretched on for weeks. I do not recall any of the wedding events. The photographs show me all dressed up with a plastic smile and vacant eyes. They also reveal that, knowing my numb condition, my brother kept me by his side to protect me from the questioning eyes and hurtful tongues.”
One thing is very clear: mental healthcare in India is pathetic, and you may have to go through several psychiatrists and/or therapists to find one who works for you.
Then there are also those humiliating visits to astrologers and shamans who fill your already confused head with nonsensical things, like you're being punished for a crime in your previous birth, or being haunted by a spirit.
While all the poems in this anthology are dark, capturing moments of despair, the prose is not that depressing. The survivors have not only lived to tell their tales, they have learnt to cope and lead relatively happy lives despite periodic setbacks. Many agree that keeping busy, exercising, writing, meditating, et cetera, helps keep the blues away. This is the sort of book you should share with family and friends, because you never know when anxiety or depression strike, and it’s comforting to realise that you are not alone.
Rupa Gulab is a freelance writer and the author of Girl Alone, Chip of the Old Blockhead and The Great Depression of the 40s...