My mental health has always made me feel as if I am in the middle of a hurricane. I see the physical signs of a lived life — I see my age, body, and spirit grow — and yet, most of my memories elude me; nostalgia springs up for an unremembered childhood, pinning me down under its weight. I have faint memories of vivacious laughter, hints of confidence. But at the end of the day, the library of my memories is stacked with emptiness, an endured displacement.
Growing up in a religious household, I was forced to choose between the (imagined) dichotomy of spiritual contentment and a very distinct, chaotic desire for freedom. I picked the latter, a choice that left me isolated from the rest of my family. By the age of ten, I was suspicious of everything I was taught, disbelief — an act belittled as blasphemy by my family — left me feeling perennially sick to my very core; I didn’t feel like I could speak openly about my doubts, or that my thinking would be understood. As far as I knew, there wasn’t anyone in my family that had strayed from our ‘values’, even my cousins were devout followers. I observed these people, with whom I shared blood, and I could not fathom that I was one of them. Sometimes I told myself that the simple reason behind my black sheep-ness was that I was adopted; my parents had simply picked me up from somewhere and brought me home with them.
My friendships only proved to be just as challenging; fitting in always felt like an impossible task. From elementary school right up till college, it was an endless cycle of bullying, feeling inadequate, being a constant fifth wheel, an afterthought, a puppet kept around to entertain others. By the time I was twelve years old, I was unable to fall asleep at night until I went through maps of the neighborhood I lived in over and over in my head, in preparation for the day I finally dared to run away.
I think I was religious when I was much younger, my grandmother continuously reminds me of how I used to be visited by the Imams and The Prophet in my dreams. When did this change? I never made much use of the internet. I mean, I wasn’t even allowed to use Youtube. Thinking about the source of deconditioning, and the consequential lies I compulsorily had to tell to escape the constant suffocation, has always been particularly perplexing. It’s safe to say that I have been living a double life since I was ten years old; hiding clothes in my backpack because I could not dress the way I wanted to, lying about where I was going or what I was doing, pretending to be someone I did not want to be to belong in a family I never could belong in.
It was disheartening to see that I was not loved for who I was by my kin, and simultaneously also not being enough for my kith despite trying to be who I thought I was. The moment in which we live often disillusions us. We think that we are intelligent, and know exactly what we are doing. We make quick decisions without really processing anything. It’s only in retrospect do we understand how not-right we are. We see our mistakes. We see what changed us, what made us what we are now. It’s like I remember the names of the chapters of my life but there are no words filled in.
It’s funny how we may not remember what exactly happened but we manage to recall what we felt like. I mostly remember feeling forlorn throughout my childhood. I was a walking, ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode, throughout school; my emotions had me in a state of perpetual disorder. It was like a game of tug of war between my mind and body that just kept going on, ad infinitum. Anger, sadness, joy, love, hate, all of it came in extremes.
The more I educated myself on mental health, the more I saw myself relating to certain symptoms. By the time I was in my junior year of high school, I was studying psychology. I was convinced that I had been dealing with depression for a long time, and I had started recognizing myself in the descriptions of bipolar disorder. I did not want to diagnose myself, these guesses were discredited and set aside; I wasn’t anywhere near comfortable with the idea even of seeing a therapist. Even if I was, I didn’t have it in me to ask my mother to spend money on a therapist. The bizarre thing is that my classmates seemed to think the same thing — their eyes always found their way to me in psych class whenever the word “bipolar” was uttered. I would sometimes get immensely angry for no particular reason, and then there were times you would see me sprinting across the corridor, my arms up in the air, the loudest scream emanating from my mouth. Looking back, it was like being high. There was this constant rush in my brain. I felt on top of the world, convinced that I could do a million things all at the same time. Hundreds of ideas zipping through in my mind without any comprehensive plan; and then, I would crash. It’s like a wave becoming as enormous as it can be, up in the air, but then it has to come gushing down onto the earth. All the indications were there. It seemed right.
I didn’t have the kind of relationship with my parents where I was open about my thoughts and feelings. I hardly told them anything about myself or what went on in my life. There wasn’t much that I knew about them either honestly. My aunt often told me that my mood swings were nothing serious, ‘It’s just puberty, after all, you’re a growing girl so it is completely natural”. I kept hearing this for years, and the older I got the more doubtful I grew — it can’t be just puberty, can it? Why is no one taking me seriously? Why is it so unbelievable that something might actually be wrong? The first time I had a suicidal urge was when I was in 6th grade. The first time I broke down and impulsively tried to end my life was in my freshman year of college. That was also when my mother took me to a psychiatrist and I was officially diagnosed for the first time. They told me I had Bipolar Disorder II — I was more prone to depressive episodes, which made sense because my high/mania only came and went occasionally, only lasting for small periods of time whereas my low was a never-ending slippery slope. I began my medication, primarily anti-psychotic pills to stabilize my mood. I never liked therapy. I thought it was great for anyone who wished to go for it, but for myself personally, I just had too much judgment. I was also scared. I didn’t know what I would learn about myself. What if it was something horrible? What if I realized that I was just a terrible person beyond redemption? I was always so very guilty; therapy and psychiatric help is a privilege only the richer can afford.
We act as if mental health is wrong, something to be ashamed about, but really it’s the most important thing, it’s what keeps us alive. It is what dictates the choices we make in life, the things we say, the way we behave. We are privileged enough to even be able to think about our emotional and mental health, or even physical for that matter. What about the sections of society who do not have the luxury to dwell on these things because they need to be performing rigorous labor continuously, without much reward, in order to barely survive?
I spent my growing years in the United States of America, and the rest back in Delhi. I thought I would continue living in the former for my whole life; so, when Mother’s student visa was canceled and I had to move back it was a tremendous culture shock. I think the most difficult aspect of it was that I had no idea that I would be coming back. My mother and I came for the summer and I thought I was only here for our yearly vacation. My books, music, friends, my whole life was in Michigan. Delhi had become unfamiliar and I had no memory of the life I had lived before I moved to America. When my mother broke the news to me that we would not be going back my whole world turned upside down. I was devastated, confused, angry, and mostly in shock. I could not read or write in Hindi, and my speech was broken although I understood if someone else was speaking to me in the language. I didn’t get the time to pull myself together, I had to learn it within a month in order to be eligible for schooling here. Once I got more settled with my new surroundings the differences between the first and third worlds began revealing themselves to me wherever I went.
It is incredibly devastating that money breeds greed. Some come from nothing, and by hard work and tremendous luck, they make it to the mountaintop — which is essentially just the right amount of money that will allow you to lead a comfortable life. We are ruled by paper, it tempts us into becoming our worst selves. Like a double-edged sword the more wealth you acquire the more the hassles you face in life become manageable, or vanish altogether; but along with it comes the overgrown ego, the decline of humbleness, a self-entitlement that spreads across a vast ocean. The similarities I saw amongst the rich here and there were overwhelming. I had grown up with the belief that you are entitled to basic human rights, you are entitled to free housing, universal healthcare, an equal distribution of wealth, freedom of speech, and equal pay for the amount of labor we put forth. You’re entitled to social security, and the right to love who you want to love, be the gender you choose to be. You are entitled to freedom from oppression on the basis of your race, caste, or class. Discrimination of any sort, racism, sexism, casteism, heteronormative hegemony needs to be eradicated. But with age, I realized that just because we are entitled to these things does not mean that these needs will be granted.
Living in the first world I got swept away with its comforts. No matter where you are, individuals will always be suffering in their own ways no doubt, but a million avenues of opportunities present in America made things so much easier. The effortless existence required in this place as compared to developing countries, it is no wonder the youth and the elderly refuse to grow beyond their sphere. You don’t have to dwell on the system when you’ve hardly been given a reason to complain, and that is the epitome of privilege. It was only after coming back to India that I truly understood that I had been living a sugar-coated life up until then. These basic rights didn’t exist here unless you had the power, the money, and the right contacts.
India changed me in ways I never thought it would, coming back was … humbling, and perhaps this isn’t exactly the right way to express what I am thinking but it is the only thing that comes to mind for now — being here makes me think I found more soul in who I am, I began to understand the system we were stuck under more clearly. The atmosphere here endorsed this spirit of an endless search for knowledge. Questioning my family, my immediate beliefs, the authority I continuously struggled against was only the gateway to the questioning of the history of mankind, a tale that has been told for generations by upper-class, upper-caste men, of the patriarchal state and its kin of institutions which perform in the theatre of democracy, telling us that we are provided for, we are protected.
Being diagnosed the first time did not do much good; I refused to go for therapy. Just the idea of sitting for an hour every week with a stranger talking about nothing but myself seemed too narcissistic an act for me to be comfortable enough to even try it. I was only creating obstacles for myself, by avoiding therapy, and only depending on medication I was not allowing for much progress to occur. On some days it felt like I wanted to keep feeling sick and sorrowful. I had gotten so used to being a despondent person, any state other than that was frightening, a new venture I was not ready, or able, to take on. My psychiatrist kept telling me what I had to do, but I was stubborn. I eventually stopped taking my medication on my own (which, by the way, is something you shouldn’t ever do), I concluded trying to get ‘better’ and convinced my mother I was okay so that she’d put the issue to rest. You think you’re miserable, but when the actual storm hits, you realize that you have no idea what you are doing, what you are in for, and how you could possibly survive. I kept telling myself something was wrong with me, a statement that holds much power when you keep repeating it to yourself over and over again. I was in my first year of masters when I attempted suicide for the third time; It was (again) a repulsive outcome of a psychotic breakdown. I felt enough pain to finally break through my pattern of not asking for help. This time I was taken to a different psychiatrist, I took multiple psychological tests before I was diagnosed for the second time in my life. When I read the results of all the tests I took for the first time, I remember my chest dropping. I started shaking and I couldn’t stop crying. To read in writing all the turmoil that has been going on inside your mind and body for over eight years which you could never express or process healthily is a powerful moment. I was heartbroken but I somewhere also felt validated. Borderline Personality Disorder was just one major part of the whole diagnosis, within that were multiple different disorders each having different values and workings in the blueprint of my functioning.
I was put on different and stronger medications — antidepressants, anti-psychotics, anti-anxiety, you name it. The dosage increased every month as I became sicker and sicker. The side effects of these medications were another struggle altogether. The tremors were insufferable. I never knew when they would come, how long they would last, which part of my body would be affected, what people around me were thinking when they saw me shaking so violently with no sense of control. I hated the pitied looks and the incessant questions which followed. I hated having to explain over and over again that it was because of the pills, feeling vulnerable when they would ask me why I needed to take them in the first place. There were also times when I would not be able to breathe, the air would get stuck in my chest and the panic would begin. My anxiety attacks became worse, I ended up in the hospital quite a few times struggling to breathe but once admitted the doctors would realize that everything is normal. The problem isn’t physical, it’s mental. Imagine living a life where you never know if the pain you are feeling is because of actual illness or whether the symptoms you are undergoing is just your mind messing around with you, convincing you something is wrong when it isn’t. My paranoia grew worse with time, I turned into a hypochondriac. I saw myself deteriorating, I could hear myself repeating delusional stories over and over again. This prolonged breakdown was more dangerous than any of the others I had had in the past; I was removed from reality, my schizotypal tendencies were heightened and my hallucinations became recurrent and draconian. I was unable to do anything anymore. I had to drop out of my master’s program, I stopped singing, I became excessively bitter and resentful, and being in a toxic and abusive relationship throughout all of this didn’t help either.
Then, in December 2019, I made my fourth attempt at suicide. I overdosed on my medication and had gone past the point of my final seizure when I was found. I was hospitalized and held in a psychiatrist ward for over two weeks once I was physically more stable. It was a major set back, I felt humiliated and angry at myself for not succeeding even at this. I was disappointed at how instead of getting better I had fallen all the way back down again. My trauma grew stronger, my memory weaker. I had never had a sense of self, to begin with, another major symptom of BPD, but after the overdose, I lost any hope I might have had for seeing myself as a person.
I learned a long time ago that it was best if I did not allow myself to be too intimate with other people; emotional dysregulation has no space for consistent meaningful relationships. I found myself bored with people easily, I would grow close to someone, we would speak regularly, then suddenly like a switch that admiration would disappear. I become cold, and everything you do becomes immensely annoying. Being severed from the emotional comfort a family is meant to provide, I was desperate to find that kind of love in my friendships. I ended up giving more of myself than I should in my relationships only to inevitably feel worthless and abandoned every time I did not get the same amount of effort in return. Not being able to understand my emotions much less articulate or regulate them set me back in every aspect of my life. The overwhelming crushing sensation you feel when you realize that most of your experiences, that you thought were a result of the people and the environment around you, stem from your personality disorder is disturbing. The world applauds itself for having made progressive changes in understanding mental illnesses but the truth is a majority do not understand it at all. Our judgments are clouded by misconceptions, false rumors, and the innate desire to parade our superiority of knowledge. Depression and anxiety need to be taken seriously, but that is not where it ends. You cannot choose to only engage with the good that comes in human beings. We need to understand the bad, the ugly, and the strange parts that exist within us. It goes without saying that weaponizing your mental illness in order to manipulate and consciously hurt other people with malicious intentions is not okay. It never will be. However, we also need to realize the extensive amount of impact these illnesses have on us. The most simple way to explain the process is that our thoughts affect our emotions, and our emotions affect our behavior.
I recognized recently, while working with my second therapist, how my behavior in many, if not all, circumstances has been governed by the symptoms of my disorder. Particularly, one of the biggest symptoms of BPD includes violent behavior in emotionally aggressive situations despite active mental restraint. In other words, I will be aware of how irrational I am acting, my mind will be telling me, “no, don’t do this” but my body doesn’t listen. I keep screaming or hitting, despite the voice in my head yelling at my arms and my mouth to restrain themselves.
I have been a toxic person time and time again, but haven’t we all? Our existence is defined by dualistic thinking, we love calling out others, putting them in good/bad categories but that is not how the world works, it never will work that way. A holier than thou attitude is simply another expression of narcissism, one that we must attempt to tame. What matters is our ability to grow and change from our mistakes. To recognize the behavior that does more harm than good and to work on altering it, while simultaneously understanding that several others struggle with these kinds of issues as well — giving and creating space for growth is so very important, to yourself and to everyone else.
We tend to marginalize that which we do not understand, those that we are afraid of because they are different from us. Mental illnesses like Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Multiple Personality Disorder — are not the romanticized myths we consume through films and literature. They are the lived experiences of human beings who spend their entire life with this constant self and a social reminder of how their minds are not wired the way a “neurotypical” would have it.
What we must remember is that the people we cast out of society because of their “inhuman” personalities — serial killers, psychopaths, pedophiles — essentially the worst of the worst, are not inhuman. They are monsters, but they are human monsters. The bad that resides within them, resides within all of us. Recently I read a paragraph in John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” which really struck me —
“Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back. Might it not be that in the dark pools of some men the evil grows strong enough to wriggle over the fence and swim free? Would not such a man be our monster. And are we not related to him in our hidden water? It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.”
Putting all the “bad” in one corner and ignoring it is never the right answer, whether it is with our emotional burdens or the individuals that commit heinous crimes in society. What we need to do is make therapy more accessible, create support systems for the disadvantaged, the minorities, the oppressed classes. We need to emphasize rehabilitation and push for the abolishment of prisons and psychiatric institutions which serve the rich more than they serve the people in need of help. The idea is outdated, but the truth is not supposed to be so grand every time. It is often simple and within reach. The truth is that people are all we have. I have generally had a negative outlook towards the world, I still do, but cynicism is how we defeat ourselves before the fight has even begun. Cynicism is what allows this system to oppress us, it is the poison of complacence. The revolution of our minds, our bodies, and our civil liberties are all connected — this struggle of emerging from the hellish social systems we have created is no longer, and in all honesty has never been, about the individual, it is a path of war we have been collectively imprisoned in since the emergence of human consciousness.