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The news of a death

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.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve had a relapse and I didn’t recognise it

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. That being ultra-focused on recovery and maintaining status quo means you are missing all the red flags.
  5. 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.

March is for renewal. 

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. 

Part iv: How do I know therapy is working?

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 therestlessquill@gmail.com) 

A.k.a recovery.

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?

  1. 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 🙂
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?

  1. Therapy, therapy, therapy: Do not stop your therapy, till you are asked to. I have nothing else to say.
  2. Do everything you need to do: keep a log, exercise, have your medication, go to therapy, eat, sleep — adequately.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Equip yourself with trustworthy information: Ask  your therapist to recommend books about issues you’re dealing with. This has helped me quite a bit.
  6. 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.

Part iii: What do I expect in my first therapy session?

If you’ve just come to this, then here are parts 1 (Do I need a therapist?) and 2 (How do I know this therapist right for me?)

When I signed up for therapy and decided that I was going to go it didn’t even cross my mind to prepare for it. That’s usually me, absolutely no foresight. Sometimes, I think I live my entire life just by winging it. But, as I was saying, I went entirely unprepared for my first appointment with the psychiatrist. All I knew was I wanted to feel better. I wanted stop feeling like I was going to dissolve or explode or any of those feelings of restlessness that used to grip me in those years. So when I went to my appointment, I started to say some basic thing with no real relevance because how do you get to the heart of what you want to say when you’re sitting across a stranger? About two sentences in. I started to cry. The rest of the appointment is a disaster but more about that later. For now, I’ll just tell you what I think you should expect from your first appointment for therapy.

Overcoming resistance:

First, from within. You will find resistance from within yourself. You will want to put things out there politely, even though you want to get to the problem immediately, you’ll still keep things pleasant and polite and understated the first time. You’re never really getting to the ugly details. This is normal. You can’t just talk to a stranger about all the darkness in your life. To combat this, I suggest you list things down starting a few days before your appointment. I still list down my questions, ideas and themes I want to discuss at my appointment but I do it the day before now, instead of a few days. I say do it a few days before because as you near your appointment date, you’ll find it is on your mind and your mind will keep bringing up things you should talk about. It’s best to start two or three days before the appointment and to keep jotting them down as they occur to you. This will help you structure your session and what you want to say in it. Once you’ve got them down on paper, you’ll find you have enough distance from the issues to at least last one session coherently enough to explain your situation. And that’s exactly why you need to do this: in order to convey clearly to your therapist why you’re seeking help.

Whys and whats

Which brings me to they why of things. Once you explain you problem to the therapist, most of them are going to ask you this or a variation of it, “And what do  you want to achieve from therapy?” This is a good question because it forces you into a position of trying to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, which is therapy. Some of us answer saying we want to be more happy, others — like me– say we just want the pain to stop and want our life back in order and in some semblance of control. Some of us specifically say we want to be stronger, others say they’re doing it because someone asked them to or that they want to save a relationship. Loads of reasons why people go into therapy, yeah? Find your reason. Simple statement, few words, and don’t worry about sounding like an idiot. You won’t and it’s okay if you do.

Participating

A therapist is not a magician. Once you state your problem, it might be that your mental health professional might take over and conduct the session, and that’s okay for now. But it’s extremely important to participate in your sessions. Help your MH expert with details you think are important, correct them when they are wrong so that they get a better idea of your life. Ask questions about what you need to do next; ask them what their treatment plan is and, if medications are involved, ask tiresome, relevant and really involved questions till you get your answers. Be in charge of your narrative.

Your shrink

What must your shrink be in order to trust them?

  1. They must listen to you in a calm, unhurried way. No checking phones, or answering calls that seem, well, not important; no looking distracted or unintersted, and maintaining eye contact. Your doctor or therapist must let you talk and not hurry you. The first shrink I ever went to talked to me for 11 minutes or so while rifling his papers and said, “Yes, yes, you have bipolar disorder, take this medicine.” That’s it. It was a terrible, terrible experience. He didn’t explain what it was, what I must do, what I need to do next etc.
  2. They shouldn’t show any signs of judgement. No raising eyebrows at your colourful sex life, no change in expression when you say you actually hate someone you love, etc. Walk out of there if any of this happens ever.
  3. Finally, your MH professional should discuss the treatment plan with you and seek your consent to go ahead with it. Ideally, they should also tell you how much it’s going to cost per session. But feel free to ask.

Emotion wise, be prepared to feel a little underwhelmed or, as it happens to some one us, brimming full of hope. Both feelings are a bit deceitful and neither of them tells you whether this is going to work out or not. Persistence is usually the key to getting the results from therapy that you are looking for. Continue therapy sessions, and suddenly you’ll find that the voice of your therapist is now becoming your inner voice and you’re on the road to getting better.

I conclude this series with a final and fourth part, where I will talk about recovery. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to incorporate them. 

Part ii: How do I know this therapist is right for me?

The first part of this series is “Do I need a therapist?”

Finding the right therapist is of immense importance, if you’ve decided to opt for therapy. You’ll find you don’t know who to go for, in the beginning. Should I see a psychiatrist or a psychologist or just a counsellor? This is an easy one actually. Personally, I prefer going to a psychologist first, mostly because I want to avoid medication as much as I can. Unfortunately, I have seen the difference between a non-medicated me and a medicated me and I have to say, it really helps to have my focus in order and my moods under control. So, while I struggle with medication, I also see why I need it. But I digress.

First to tell the different kind of professionals apart.

  1. A psychiatrist is a person who went to medical school and has a medical degree in psychiatry. This enables him to prevent, diagnose, treat and understand mental illness by prescribing medication and course of treatment or therapy. She will also monitor how you react to medication short term and long term, so expect blood work and the like to be part of your interaction with her.
  2. A psychologist is someone who has an academic or doctoral degree in psychology, not a medical one. This person can is qualified to do counselling and psychotherapy, perform psychological testing, and provide treatment for mental disorders. A psychologist cannot and must not prescribe medication to you, or perform medical procedures.
  3. A counsellor is someone who doesn’t have a PhD but a Masters in psychology. In order to practice, a counsellor must have trained at an organisation for a few years before obtaining a license. Unlike a psychologist, a counsellor may not be authorised to diagnose an illness but is effective in treating one with the aid of therapy.

Now that that’s out of the way, how can you tell if this therapist is working for you? Most people will tell you go with your gut. But I am going to say ignore that advice. Here’s why. Consider that you are at a therapist because you are not feeling your very best. Consider that when you aren’t at your best, it is very likely that your ability to listen to your gut, to distinguish the voice of your gut is highly impaired. What you mistake for gut reaction could be fear of vulnerability or of having revealed so much to a practical stranger. Consider that when you are emotionally or mentally disturbed, your gut might not be your best friend. Therefore, don’t go with your gut right in the beginning. Because if you do, you’re bound to come up short almost always. The first time you go to a therapist and your gut is always going to tell you to run and never come back.

These are the things I have found useful in understanding whether a certain therapist is right for me.

 

  1. Be prepared for never knowing that this is the right person for you in the first session. In my exp, it takes at least 3 visits to figure out if it’s your gut feeling, or if you’re second guessing yourself, or if you are just getting comfortable.
  2. Do they glance at phone/clock/out the window often enough to register on you and distract you?
  3. Do they display any emotion or judgement at anything you’ve said so far? If yes, and it makes you uncomfortable, stop seeing them. You should be seeing someone who makes you feel like you are working together; and not someone who hands you only instructions on what to do. There will be instructions in the course of your treatment but that will be with your willingness.
  4. Do they talk more than you do and make you feel like you  haven’t been heard? If yes, stop seeing them. Your sessions shouldn’t be a fight to be heard.
  5. Write down notes about what you liked and what you didn’t like about the session afterwards. When/if you switch therapists, the notes you take will show you what you need.
  6. If you have a diagnosis, ask clear questions about the treatment plan and what their stand on medication is. A treatment plan should include your consent and your ideas. Don’t go to someone who doesn’t include you.
  7. Understand what your own stand on medication is, should you need it.

In short, I suggest you give it two to four visits before you decide this is the wrong person for you. Of course, there are those who immediately know whether this person is working for them or not but in case you’re wondering how to determine whether a therapist is working, these above tips help.

Good luck!