Three nights ago, at bed time, I slipped in with nine year old till he fell asleep. As usual, we started chatting softly about whatever it was that he wanted to talk about that night. Something came up where I found myself mouthing a cliche — don’t be afraid to be who you are, my love, I said.
In a voice brimming with honesty, groundedness, and innocence, he said, “But I don’t know who I am many times. Can you tell me who I am, Amma?” My heart squeezed at the sweetness of it. I proceeded to choose my words carefully as he lay facing away from me, spooning his tiny body into mine, the back of his messy head under my chin. As I gently proceeded to tell him who I thought he was, his body told me he was listening intently. Every few words, I would see the mound of his cheekbone rise, telling me he was smiling at the wall; pleased at what he was hearing sometimes, and amused at others. It’s been nine years since I gave birth to this child. His magic never grows old, and this moment was possibly the most tender thing that I have been fortunate to experience yet.
And would you like to hear about my ten year old? She makes popsicles, stands up for her little brother, creates magic from mud, clay, wax and anything she can sculpt into things. I watch her when she’s not looking; and I know over and over again what falling in love feels like. Her incredibly cute, dainty little nose, her thoughtful mouth that breaks into the most wicked smile I’ve seen on a child, her beautiful eyes, almost always clouded over in contemplation or caution, I can’t tell which many times. To my brain and to my eyes, this child glows with all the light she holds in her being.
As all mothers, I love my children very much. And I possibly continue to be alive because of them. I used to think we need a bigger reason to live than other human beings, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s need be no bigger reason than these two. Because if I weren’t alive, they’d lose the only parent who is a constant in their lives. I’ve been a single mother since by son was four months old. We could move schools, cities, countries, houses; we could yell, shout, be out of money as we often are, we could cry every now and then that they cannot take vacations, we could all silently feel heartbroken about not having their father around — but the one thing that my kids can count on to be there is me. Me at my bipolar best. Me at my BPD worst. It’s not easy on them; I am unpredictable in my moods on some days, I am too tired on others; I am overaffectionate on some days and on others I am stern. I joke about it but I am pretty sure they’ll have to go into therapy when they are older. I hope, unlike me, they’ll choose to work in jobs that pay well.
But here’s the deal. I am all they’ve got. And they’re all I’ve got. And coming Monday, we will have a lot more of each other. They will be home from school because their fees are unpaid, the only thing their father is responsible for. I haven’t had a steady job since April of last year; and even then I don’t make enough to put money away for fees and to run a full house. After several reminders from the school to him, they had to say that the kids won’t be allowed in school February 4 onwards.
The last time my life came to a grinding halt like this was five years ago when I had just been diagnosed with my mental illnesses, unable to work and had no money. That week, I didn’t have money to buy milk for my children I promised myself I would never put myself in that situation again. The last time it happened, I picked up my crochet hook and sold the things I could make. I wrote where I could to earn enough to feed and clothe my kids. I found a therapist who would allow me to pay what I could when I could. It was then that I started to have a semblance of control on my life, the slightest hint of how to deal with my illnesses, and an awareness of what anxiety does to me.
All that went for a toss recently.
For three weeks now I’ve been in an email battle with a company whose senior employee I helped call out. I posted the complainant’s post anonymously. Since then, every week I have an email with them threatening legal action. Their last email to made their intentions extremely clear. For three weeks now, I check my email inbox with dread in my throat, nausea in my gut. For three weeks now, I have am attacked by anxiety for no reason. I know we bandy the word anxiety a lot. Sometimes unnecessarily. Here’s how my anxiety works — it takes a grip of my gut and doesn’t let go. I am in constant, dull pain and my breathing is shallow. I feel lightheaded. It almost feels like falling in love. Except with something beating the insides of your gut with a rock.
In the midst of all this, my kids manage. On the school group, I hear mothers talk about the details their kids tell them and I look at the faces of my children and wonder if they tell me enough. If they trust me enough. If I am available enough. I found the answer to the last one a few days ago, when my daughter came up to me and said, “Can I please cuddle with you? I want some attention from you,” when I asked her to do the next chore in the house that was meant for her. I cannot say for sure that she may have been trying to get out of it. But I look at them for signs of distress, and I don’t see much apart from a reluctance to bathe on cold mornings, or when they fight bed time. They’re good kids.
It took a message from someone I barely talk to asking me to look after myself to look at the picture my life is and allow myself to feel the weight of it. Instead of running from it. Instead of running around like a headless chook looking for an immediate urgent solution. Instead of letting myself feel like a victim of my circumstances and wallow in self pity. Although, I am going to allow myself at least two days of wallowing this time. For four months, I’ve been fighting battles that I never saw as anything but my own — whether the story belonged to me or someone who reached out to me on social media to help take it to the world. I’ve been fighting because my god the stories never end. I’ve been fighting because I cannot not.
Yet, this morning on twitter I saw a bunch fragile, unthinking young people decide to say things to me they’d never say to me if they saw me in person. They said things that weren’t rude or abusive, but so patently empty and unkind that I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d say this in person; not just to me but anyone who they were having perfectly polite conversation with. I don’t ask a lot of people for kindness. I employ as much kindness as I can when I see innocuous but disagreeable things online. I rarely ever initiate unkind comments when I am not part of the conversation.
I am pretty sure it is the fragile emotional state I am in now but I saw a bunch of completely random people talk utter nonsense to me and for the first time, instead of being amused and their fucked up immaturity, I became angry. I wanted to tell them to check their own nonsense before they come hunting for me. I wanted to say unkind things to them back. Then I had to remind myself that I am 39 and age always shows. But I won’t deny they hurt me. I won’t deny their lack of thought and thoughtfulness made me want to lash out and breakdown their own responses irascibly till they went home questioning their own minds. But all I did was break down, allowing everything else that was hitting me finally come to the fore. And it reminded me to, once again, walk in someone else’s shoes before I make up my mind about something. It reminded me that for all the privilege of my upbringing and education, my life choices and my mental illness have gotten in the way of living a life where I can feel secure. It reminded me that for 10 years, my life has been tumultuous and that kind of thing probably does things to your brain, I don’t know. And if it does, then, I had to remind myself, there was going to be no one else to look after me and nurture me back as well as I could. And I have to do it on the go. Life doesn’t stop when you’re a mum. It reminded me that I must rebuild.
I am heartbroken and crushed in spirit today. But I must rebuild.
They had just heard. and they had forgotten. They had heard news of the death and they had forgotten that you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead; not even in passing, after they had passed.
Death, I now see, insidiously urges you to drop every mask of civility.
Because now it is important to speak the truth. Now the person isn’t there any more to defend or change or craft your assumptions of them. You don’t even know what it feels like not to have that person in your life anymore; you won’t know till, one day, when you’re in the middle of your inane daily, perhaps making rotis or watching a terrible old film, and it comes to you, with the speed and ease of light that you should reach out to that person and tell her about this thing or that. Almost immediately, it comes to you that she isn’t there any more to do that to. That, at 51, she died too young. That her dreams, as abundant, present and busy as her, suddenly don’t exist.
The other thing about death: Unless it’s a parent, a spouse or a child that has lost their life, reactions to the news of death fascinating. The voice and activity of the second-circle harbinger of news after the death – there’s a certain … vibrance to the situation. He takes it upon himself to tell the larger circle that someone beloved has passed away. There is a purpose, a certain excitement to these moments of his life – the moments of announcing their passing, when they have the luxury and have taken on the duty to do so. This walks hand in hand with the inability to hold and understand her death. There is no room in his chaotic mind to sit down for a minute, or few, and grieve the passing of someone he knew for 30 years as family. Death gives you no time, whether you are someone it is coming for or if you are someone who has received the news of death. Death has no space for pause.
Just like my aunt whose news of passing I got last afternoon. She had turned 51 a month ago, vibrant, tough. Cynicism hadn’t touched her. She went back to college at 47 to do a second masters. She was a dancer, a mimic, a reader, movie and music mad, loved dogs and babies, had the nicest smile and an indomitable will to go after what she wanted, if she decided she wanted it. Her hand was maddeningly legible, and she wrote between the lines, never touching the top or the bottom rules. She raised two incredibly feminist sons, she looked after her widower father till the end of his life. I don’t think she ever rested. In her mind or in her body. I think she was also deeply misunderstood by everyone except those who were related by blood to her. Her kids and her parents. And I loved her.
My uncle is broken. She married him and came into our family when I was 8. Her long nails and incredibly vibrant, infectious nature had me fall in love with her within two hours of meeting her. That love and connection, the latter sometimes fractured, lasted the 30 years I knew her.
My cousins, her two sons, called me to find out how I was doing on hearing of her death. She who was the centre of their universe. That’s the kind of child she raised.
I will go to Hyderabad tonight for the funeral, which is perhaps tomorrow. I haven’t yet shed a tear. Death, I say again, leaves you with no time.
Mondays are therapy days for me. I start the week with a wringing, a venting, a draining, a regaining. I start with talking about all the things I need sorted, and after 45 minutes of talking about random things, I get to the thing that’s hurt me the most.
For the last four weeks, every therapy session has ended in my crying, unable to voice anything of what I’d been feeling. I’d finish crying at therapy, go to work, manage to get through the day and drive back to pick up the kids. During this drive, I’d send voice notes to a friend asking me how I was doing. I’d start to a bright note, and by the time I was done, I was choking with tears or outright crying trying to tell her what was going on.
I’d get home and do what was required of me, bare minimum and then lose myself on Twitter or Instagram because nothing numbs you to yourself like the details of other people’s lives. This has been my way of functioning for over three months.
I’d fall asleep — aided by my medication — by 8.30, without putting my things away: books, painting things. I’d tell myself I was just going to rest my head and the next thing I knew I was waking up a little past midnight, groggy af and looking around me to see why I hadn’t finished all that I wanted to. I’d put things away in the kitchen, put my undone art work away, then go back to bed. Only to wake up reluctantly at 5 a.m., manage breakfast, bathe — myself and the kids — get everyone out of the house, do a school drop off and head to work. Rinse, repeat.
Through all this I had been journaling, organising, supposedly listening to my feelings and managing bare minimum exercise. I was supposed to have been in touch with how I am feeling. Everything was written down, include the nights I went to bed hoping I didn’t wake up the next day. I ignored that as the stray suicidal ideation that assails all of us once in a while. My appetite was dropping but because of a recent weightloss, I thought I had been ignoring my eating only because I was afraid to put that weight back on. I was supposed to be on the path to being better.
Yet this Monday, as I sat crying in my therapist’s room filled with books, I was hearing myself and him telling me that I had a relapse of depression. That for over four months now he had been noticing the change in my mood and was guiding me with exercises and direction so I could overcome it or deal with it. But this Monday, when I broke down, he had to tell me in as many words that I had relapsed.
So why hadn’t I caught it? Why hadn’t all my journaling for mental health, all my organising, all my breathing and meditation helped me in a) keeping this at bay and b) helped me identify that I was going back to those dark, futile spaces I had left some time ago?
Both the mental illnesses that I have been diagnosed with have depression as a huge component. The last time I was deeply depressed was very different. I was crying all the time, I refused to eat for days, I was afraid to go out, I had attempted suicide and I was incapable of functioning. For me, getting better, then, meant functioning. And here I was, two years after my severe depressive episode, functioning well. Work, kids, and reading all of it was on track. And yet, with each passing day, my ability to go on was diminishing. My ability to do work outside of my workplace was reducing. My temper was shorter than it had ever been. And for five months, I had missed all the signs of being depressed.
I was forced to confront it only when I took a look back at the last two weeks and realised how I had been crying every day. How I had been craving sleep because I didn’t want to be awake and feel these things. How I had been skipping meals and was rarely ever hungry. Add to that not being able to do the things I love, I decided to talk to my therapist about it. And lo, as I was speaking it dawned on me what he had seen for so long. That I had had a relapse.
I started this post to talk about relapses in objective terms but clearly I am feeling too miserable for myself to be of any good to you, dear reader. But I shall still try.
Things I have learnt with this relapse are a few. Let me try and enumerate them.
- That it is possible to function and go on with life doing adequately what is required of you through depression. I think this state occurs when you have therapy to buoy you and a regular life and routine to adhere to.
- That even though you’ve been in the thick of depression, you are so aggressively focusing on dealing with your disorder, that you can be completely blindsided EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE CONTEMPLATING SUICIDE.
- That your last depression needn’t look anything like your current one. Like I mentioned, the last time I was a creature only existing because I had breath in my body and a beating heart. This depressive episode, I work, eat, sleep (ish), and do what is required of me. My only red flag this time, which I totally overlooked, was that I wasn’t enjoying anything I was doing. That my energy to do anything was progressively decreasing. To a point where if I sat down, I didn’t want to get up, move, breathe, blink. I wanted to become part of wherever I was sitting.
- That being ultra-focused on recovery and maintaining status quo means you are missing all the red flags.
- That you can do everything right and you can still be depressed.
Now over six years after I was diagnosed, two years of feeling renewed hope and finding new meaning, two years of doing so much, and having made what I think is progress, I am once more defeated. I hate the thought of anti-depressants. But I am back on them. Look at the possible side effects of the SSRI I am taking. Who wants that shit? But here I am because I cannot find the will to wake up in the morning and take on what is coming my way.
At this point, I feel like I am never going to get better and that every few years this is going to be my condition. Just when I think I have my life sorted out, the rug is going to be pulled from beneath me and I am going to fall, fail and never get up again. But who knows, right? If my last romantic relationship taught me anything, it was that words and promises mean precisely zilch. And ‘forever’ particularly means a big, fat load of nothing.
I think what might help is a social media break, a holiday, someone who loves and cares for me unconditionally taking care of me for a few days, and allowing me to be as pathetic as I am now. I think what might help is someone taking on the tasks of parenting two very beautiful, impressionable children for a few weeks. I think what might help is work can be taken off my hands for a week. But none of this is going to happen. So I will say a prayer and pop a Prodep and remind myself that hope floats.
I’ve been going down this road for a year now, when shops are shut, traffic is almost nonexistent, and there’s a smattering of morning walkers. When I reach a particular spot, I pay attention to my rear view mirror. Because at this point, the road starts to tell a story. On some days, everything looks cool and asleep, with the sun so flat – videogame light, the love of my life used to call it – that you doubt it’s there. On other days, it was a hall of mirrors and gilt, filtering, reflecting, diffusing, suffusing, making shadows and beams. Like so.
On some days, like today, it’s a quiet, flat space. But every day is a story that fits perfectly in the frame of my rear view mirror. It is my slice of beauty, just before I get into work. It is my personal, private, quiet dose of the miracle of light and renewal. Today, after that really showy, brazen display of sound and light, I saw that all leaves along my route were washed clean.
When I left home, hurrying my kids, I fleetingly wondered what I would see in the mirror today as I drove down that street. When I got to it half an hour later, I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t a good day for drama, I guess. I was nearing the end of the street and was about to focus on the junction ahead when it hit me.This street and its trees weren’t quiet at all. Every tree, that, two weeks ago had shed leaves like a woman mourning, had now started to sprout new leaves. Look at the many greens there. The older leaves, a sturdy dark green: in the prime of their lives, sorted, sage, solid — things I think I’ll never be. The leaves that sprouted perhaps last week are a more vibrant green: playful, giggling, waiting to burst at the seams. That lighter green is truly the colour of the pulse of my life. Everything is that green — always roiling, always remembering, always alive and then I saw the green on the middling branches, trees that were younger, friendlier, less sure. That green, my friend, was the green of the heart of your hearts. the one the damaged exterior doesn’t get to. The one that holds all the innocence you carry with you unknowingly. The innocence that you only wear when a lover who is devoted to you, and you to him, looks at you. An innocence of being.
I pull up by the kerb, get out of my car to see the youngest leaves, to see if they have anything to tell me because I have forgotten that everything around me talks. I laugh at the poems that sing of the breezes and trees talking because I am so city and so smart. I am afraid to approach the tender new leaves but I do. And there, right there, a colour I do not know. Chartreuse mixed with… brown?
A colour with no name in my mind. Exactly like the redolent lifetime of promise when something is born. No name, no idea of the details. This tight new leaf, this beacon of promise. I took a picture for you but it hurts that I cannot show you its glistening lifeforce. That I cannot show you that when layer upon layer of day and human interaction creates a scab over your core, there is hope. That every day when you suffer, when you laugh, when you give up or go on, you are this leaf, you are this renewal. I feel inadequate that I cannot share the ache I felt when I looked at that tiny, defenseless, perfectly content new leaf. Or that, for me, it stood for hope, because these days, it is all I have to go by.
Perhaps it is all we ever had to go by.
If you’ve missed the first three parts; Part 1: Do I need a therapist?, Part 2: How do I know this therapist is right for me? and Part 3: What to expect in my first therapy session. This part 4 concludes this series. (Feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is possibly the result each one of us looking at therapy wants. Recovery. Will I be better? Will my life transform? Will I be able to do things without feeling all the intense feelings that assail me when I want to do things? Mostly, will I just be “normal” and not feel so much?
Before I answer those questions, let me tell you a little story. The first time I felt I had recovered, I was over the moon. I was functional: able to get out of bed at a decent hour, pack the kids off to school without doing too much damage, I was able to put in a few hours of work and I was able to sleep at night, even though it was aided by medication. I was also functioning without those whom I thought indispensable. I was eating well and regularly, I was getting some outdoors time, I was able to connect with my friends, and I was able to lead a life that looked slightly beautiful. Then, one night, I got into an argument with someone in my family and I tried to kill myself. Within moments, any idea that I had recovered vanished. That night, I was exactly where I was when I first started therapy — tired of life, emotionally unstable and severely prone to great hurt.
After my discharge from the hospital, I had to restart the process of recovery. And I had to start even farther back from the last time. Many months went by and soon I was feeling a little better. I stopped going to therapy. It was too far away, she wasn’t doing anything for me, I didn’t need her etc etc etc. I went for a year without therapy, and told everyone who asked me that I was going now and then. And in private, what I did was get much, much worse.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of my recovery. This is, possibly, the story of any recovery. Over the weekend, I saw Split, a film about Dissociative Identity Disorder. While my mental illness isn’t that severe (or isn’t severe in that way, whichever suits us all better), there were many things the film depicted that I totally identified with. For instance, doing everything to get what your mind wants, which may not be good for you, if you consider the larger picture. They might give you little dopamine hits but that’s temporary: in the larger scheme of things, it’s bad for you, and yet you still do it. That process, actually, encompasses the journey of recovery for me. The ability to fool everyone around you that you’re doing what’s good for you while you are actually going ahead and doing what’s really terrible.
It took another year of therapy to get where I am today and now I can say with deep, deep conviction that I am nowhere close to recovered. On my high days, I feel like my future is bright and unfolding in front of me and I am capable of all the intense juggling and hard work it requires to make it a success. On my dull days, I go to bed hoping I don’t wake up the following morning. And on my “normal” days, I am just about functional. Which is to say, I wake up at the crack of dawn, get my kids, myself and breakfast ready and drop them off to school; I go to work, do what I can, and what is important, and try to give it my 100 percent. Though it’s not always possible. I come back home and I am done. I don’t do anything else other than basic upkeep of home, myself and the kids. I could do so much more in the three hours I have till the kids’ bed time but I don’t. And this is what recovery looks like. It starts with you getting functional, even happy and jubilant, then you crash, and regress. Then you get stuck at functional because that’s what’s become a habit. What doesn’t take place is flow or enjoyment or inspired living. That happens on my high days, days when I am churning out one creative thing after another. I am afraid of those days, because the crash that follows it is terrible.
So what can you expect from recovery?
- You can expect to feel less intense about everything you have been overwhelmed with. You will, by and by, learn to take hold of your emotions, experience them instead of fighting them or analysing them, and you will learn to acknowledge them. After that, they are supposed to not bother you any more but we’ll see 🙂
- You can expect recovery to be slow and very like climbing a steep hill when it’s coming down in buckets. The path is barely visible, and it’s slippery because of all the gushing water. The only thing that’s steady is you, if you find your centre, if you find your adult self. You’re going to go forward some, and then you’re going to be knocked back and everything is going to seem pointless.
- Here’s what you’re going to feel when the above happens: That all your therapy is wasted, that you’re never going to get better, you’re going to catastrophise the rest of your life and believe that you are never going to be happy or at peace. All of this is not true. Your brain lies and this is one instance of your brain lying very convincingly.
- You will go through a few of these cycles before you find the steadiness in you that will tell you with conviction that this too shall pass. I still haven’t found it without being reminded, most times. Sometimes I find it, many times I don’t. So it’s a good idea to have friends about who remind you that you’ve gone through worse before, and this will go away too.
- It will take time. Please expect this and remember this. It will take anywhere between six months to many years to achieve some level of control over your emotions, your reactions to stress and your life in general. Needless to say, the more severe your condition, the longer it’s going to take for you to accept the things that are required of you in therapy.
- Your therapist is not a magician. Give them time. Trust them unless, time and again, you seem to come up against yourself where trust is concerned. If you just can’t trust them or settle down with them after four to six sessions, do yourself a favour and approach someone new. It doesn’t matter if you have to go through the process again; it’s better than staying with someone you don’t like or trust.
- There will be bad days. There will be terrible days, because now that you’ve started therapy, your self awareness will be super high, and you are going to open yourself up to very deep levels of reception. It is going to hurt you. You will feel the pain, when this happens, in very physical ways. You will feel asocial and like you don’t want to talk to anyone (and yet be taken care of!). These can be very bad days: reach out to a friend or your therapist to see you through those. But don’t give up.
How do I recover then?
- Therapy, therapy, therapy: Do not stop your therapy, till you are asked to. I have nothing else to say.
- Do everything you need to do: keep a log, exercise, have your medication, go to therapy, eat, sleep — adequately.
- Chart your recovery: Go back a year ago and see how you were, and look at yourself now. Ask your family and friends for testimonies about you — a small, informal chat is enough. Write it down: what they said, as well as what you feel. This is invaluable. It gives you a great, great sense of how far you’ve come since you began to get help.
- Practice, practice, practice: Practice all the breathing, all the thought recording, all the note taking, all the alternative thinking, all the exercises to cope with situations. Practice all of them as much as you can till they start feeling like part of your personality or nature.
- Equip yourself with trustworthy information: Ask your therapist to recommend books about issues you’re dealing with. This has helped me quite a bit.
- Lastly, and most importantly, if you fail, stop blaming yourself and condemning yourself to a lifetime of misery. Stop that negative self talk. Your therapist is there to see you through. Your friends are around, and if you have a supportive family, them too. You’ll be better again. The best part of about regression is, every time you fall, your return is faster and stronger, more aware. So you know what not to do next time, and what to do. The next step from there, as a result, is a leap ahead, not just small steps.
Your recovery feels like that phrase I hate so much: “So far, so good.” One day at a time, small, achievable goals that don’t overwhelm you, small expectations and the ability to manage if a mismatch occurs, it’s like brushing your teeth every day. Recovery is the recognition that today you have to do this, and you do. Just like brushing your teeth doesn’t usually give you crippling anxiety, handling a day, too, shouldn’t give you that. It may collapse tomorrow, but for today you are fine.
So, go well, my readers. And fight the good fight.