According to a 2015 WHO study, titled Depression And Other Common Mental Disorders, over 5 crore Indians suffer from depression and over 3 crore have anxiety disorders. By sharing stories of her individual struggle, Shaheen Bhatt, who fought depression, is helping us lift the veil and speak about mental health candidly.
“One of my most vivid memories is from when I was a teenager. I was standing at the door of a mostly empty train compartment, making my way back home from a friends’ house. I stood silently at the door and stared, fixated on the train tracks as they flew past me in a blur of colour. That’s when a little voice piped up in my head, ‘Jump’, it said. ‘Jump, and it will all be over.’ It was my 16th birthday. I was consumed with pain and anguish so ferocious, that in that moment, insane thoughts like ‘Jump’ didn’t seem insane at all. I had been living with this familiar but unexplained torment for four years already, but what I didn’t know as I stood defeated and helpless on that train was that the torment I was experiencing had a name. It wasn’t until two years later that I was diagnosed with depression, and until then, I had continued to suffer in silence, all the while believing I was a damaged, broken thing that could never be fixed. As poet CS Lewis put it, ‘Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden. It is easier to say, my tooth is aching, than to say, my heart is broken.’
I spent the better part of my early 20s and teenage years concealing my hurt. I learned from the world around me that bad feelings were meant to be kept to yourself, no matter how real those feelings were. When I was unhappy, I locked myself in my bedroom so no-one would see me crumble. When I was outdoors, I plastered a smile on my face even though I was screaming on the inside. I tucked my pain away because I believed it was wrong, and that it meant that I was crazy. I craved nothing more than to fit in, to be ‘whole and happy’ like everyone around me seemed to be.
It wasn’t until very recently that I stopped hiding. Depression was exhausting enough already, without me choosing to wear a mask and spend all my time and energy concealing it. What was the worst that could happen? I would be labelled different, but I was already different, so how did it really matter? So, I stopped. I began to be honest about why I wasn’t leaving the house, I started to tell people that I go to therapy and take anti-depressants to feel ‘normal’.
And things got better. I was no longer focusing on trying to be someone I wasn’t, and I was able to look after myself. Things didn’t magically change though, and not everyone understood. Getting through a bad day was still an uphill climb, but the burden of pretense had been lifted from my shoulders and for the first time in my life, I was authentically me. If I keep talking about this, I’m going to become the poster-child for everything sad, I grumbled to my mother. So what, darling? my mother said. It’s a conversation that needs to be had. We need to talk about things that are real. And that’s when I realised—one way or another, pain exists and not talking about it is never the answer. I can’t entirely control my depression, neither can I control the way people perceive me. All I can control is how I choose to look at depression myself, accept it and not be ashamed of who I am. That’s when I realised that I’d much rather be real and ‘broken’ than artificial and ‘whole’, because good or bad, you should never be afraid of who you are.”