...and then

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

How crochet saved my life and other stories of mental health

Crochet is as feminine as you can get. It uses thread and a hook to create extremely beautiful things, a skill that's been handed down from one generation of nimble fingers to another. Folks ask me, sometimes, how I started to crochet. It was a bored summer vacation, we hadn't gone anywhere that year. I was in class eight or nine, or in between and possibly getting on my mother's nerves. A neighbour offered to teach me crochet and my mum jumped at it. I was a non-indoors kid. I wasn't interested in sewing, cooking, working with hands (or any of the other things that were thought generally "girly" or non-cerebral) but I am also extremely polite and couldn't say no even though I wanted to. I made some really ugly pen-holder covers and coasters in bright red and yellow acrylic yarn. Safe to say I was nowhere close to being hooked. I let it go after that summer and didn't pick it up again till I was 27. From then on, I crocheted intermittently till last year where I launched into it rather feverishly. It saved my life, and not just literally.

Recently, a flight attendant had a job offer withdrawn by Emirates when they found out she had once been treated for depression. I was angry, saddened and outraged by this in equal measure. People with mental illnesses have it tough as it is, without them being at the mercy of unemployment. In light of that, the following post is about mental illness, two of which I live with. If you'd like to stop now, you should. Because, I know, one story of mental illness sounds like another story of mental illness. And it might be exactly the same thing. Because illnesses are a great leveller. But every time a story is told, two things happen.
1. The person who tells the story feels, I think, better, in varying degrees.
2. Some lonely old soul, ill herself, might find hope in the fact that there is another one like her, and that help is possible. 

In the summer of 2012, I was diagnosed with one mental illness. I remember the diagnosis making me laugh. Such an inappropriate reaction, I thought to myself even as I laughed and I couldn't understand it. But apparently, that's how most of us react to news we don't understand. Since forever, I'd been told I was mature far beyond my age, I'd been told how strong I was, how even my grandmother felt stronger because I was around, how my female friends felt the same. My bane, funnily enough, is that I'd never been told I can't do something.

I sat in the doctor's office hearing her say, "I wish it was bipolar, (as suspected) it would have been easier to treat." (A little lacking in her bedside manner, I thought, fleetingly.) I laughed, sought to understand the condition a little more ("I urge you to read online about it.") and asked her what I must do next. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disordera not very well understood disorder, and fairly new in terms of research and ideal treatment. I now knew why I was screwing up so badly for the few years before that. My life, almost literally, was unravelling. If you don't mind a little personal information, read on. I was underperfoming at my job, made worse by the fear I'd get the boot. I was living in a (second) ruined marriage, I was angry all the time, or sad. I had been sleeping for perhaps two hours a night, or not at all, for about three years. I was yelling at my kids, I was overcompensating for it by stretching beyond my means to give them things and experiences. I spent money badly. I was alienating everyone in my family, parents and brother who genuinely love and care for me (although in their own definition of it) and I gradually stopped reaching out to close friends. I kept new friendships superficial, albeit genuine. Nothing, in short, was going right and I came to a point where I felt everything was spinning way out of my control. 

If you've ever played the fun game of imagining what it is like to be in the middle of a whirlpool trying to gather loose pages of your 800-page manuscript, while wanting to save a couple of somersaulting kids, and your favourite shoes, tying up your hair, drinking your last glass of wine, then you probably know what it felt like to be me then. I'd fix one thing and another would fall apart, I just couldn't keep up. I ran and ran, I struggled to keep it together but somewhere a leak sprung, then another, and another. I was tired of it and in October of that year, even though I had started on anti-depressants, I tried to end my life (obviously unsuccessfully). You'd think after drinking a solution of finely-powdered coal mixed with water (what they gave me in the hospital to clean my stomach) and being made to solemnly promise to the police (yes) that I would never do such a thing, I'd have better sense than to try it again. You'd be wrong. Because about eight months later I did it again.

My self-worth, my sense of how dispensable I was, sense of having done nothing right was so deep that even the presence of my kids didn't stop me from wanting to end it all. So when the nurse asked me why I did it and hadn't the thought of kids stopped me, I found myself saying I was convinced that anyone who took charge of them after I was gone -- their father, my parents, my brother -- would do a better job than I did or would do. It was after my second episode, when my medication and the therapy was going r.e.a.l.l.y slow, that I was diagnosed with bipolar-disorder as well. While the borderline personality disorder explained the intensity of joys and sadnesses, when I felt them, my inability to maintain 'normal', peaceful relationships, my constantly-slipping world and my irrational anger, this one explained better my erratic swinging between great highs and great lows. The latter was easier to treat, I was told, because it had more to do with chemicals in my brain than with my very personality. 

The first time I tried to commit suicide, my folks were around and enlisted the help of their friends who were also their neighbours, for moral support I guess. In hushed tones, this lady told me consolingly that their daughter too had gone through a rough patch some time ago and needed help, though they mostly keep it quiet. I was too spaced out to ask why, and grateful that they were there for my parents, but I remember thinking why. Moving on from there, I remember thinking, if more people knew about mental illnesses, panicky, desperate cases like me would be easier to spot. 

It would be safe to say mental illness is as debilitating to your life as cancer is to your body. It isn't easy to spot, in yourself or in someone else, because we all have different ideas of what is normal. Perhaps there is no normal, but I am sure there is happy, there is peace, there is love, there is gratitude and there is contentment. If you find none of these in your life for long periods, then you need some level of help.

I belong to a Facebook group that has women as members. It's all kinds of things from a place for networking to seeking support, apart from being a place to meet other like-minded women. The number of difficult, sad, painful stories on that group astounds me. For each real story of pain and depression, I want to reach out and hold that woman and tell her there's no guarantee that things will be any better, and all we can do is try. Their posts, strength, dilemmas all make me cry. Many others, within and outside that group, don't have the kind of support I do. I don't even want to imagine what their challenges are like. 

Today, I live completely broken. I say this as a matter of fact and admission. It is not an attempt at pity, from myself or anyone else. I say it as a matter of truth: I live with the generous financial support of my parents, the support of my counsellor, the deep, miraculous kindness of my friends and the everyday reminder that I have kids touched by the best of the universe. I am thankful for it every day but the truth is nothing works in my life, right now, in the way that will make me independent and secure. I struggle for companionship. I struggle to live a life that is fulfilling because many times, I can't do the things I want to -- either for mental or emotional reasons, or financial ones. I struggle to do everyday things on some days: be civil to my kids, bathe, eat, answer calls, meet deadlines. I do more things in one day that I hate myself for than a whole month-ful of things for which I like myself. I am terrified to join the work-force again because I feel I might get in my own way of success, or even functioning. I still cry a lot, I am still deeply sad, I still fly into terrifying rages, I still feel the strong clutches of hopelessness and despair and I continue to have suicidal thoughts. 

But the counselling has brought back a modicum of self-awareness and preservation. I am able to keep the suicidal tendencies and thoughts at bay, but with great, great difficulty. I fight hard when I fight back against the desire to end it all, but it's usually touch and go, like a really close, really equal arm-wrestling match that you don't know which way it is going to go. I can't stress enough the importance of getting help, of sticking to your counsellor till he or she tells you, no matter how much better you're feeling. 

One of the things I discovered through the most difficult phases in the last couple of years is that depression, a huge part of many mental illnesses, is deeply seductive. It loves holding you in its cold, lonely womb and you feel safe there, because you can continue to beat yourself up over all the things that you think you did wrong. Why is beating yourself up so comforting? I don't know, because it is natural, I guess. As kids, we aren't taught to feel good about ourselves, we aren't taught to feel proud of our achievements. Our small triumphs are always compared with the bigger ones of others, and so the natural thing for us to do is to self-flagellate, to berate ourselves till we can shed responsibility for what we do. 

The other thing I discovered was not everyone will believe you, understand you or try to understand you. Family members will be in denial (my father and brother still are, constantly challenging my explanations of why I am the way I am or blaming me directly for my "failures".) Friends will say, "oh, that's the latest fad, everyone seems to have it". (I don't blame them for thinking that, though, India has very very large numbers of depressed people alone, so I can't imagine the numbers for other mental health issues.) Others will quietly listen to you and make sure they don't get in touch often. But then there are others who will put every bit of kindness and gentleness their soul can summon and shower it on you. In my estimation, none of this is their fault. We talk too little about mental health issues in India and the reason I write this fractured, and possible uninteresting post, is to contribute to the small number of voices that talks about mental health issues to bring it out into a less shameful, more supportive space. (In fact, even as I write this I hesitate to post a link on my Facebook because, you know, how will it affect my family. I don't even know if this is worth sharing, in fact.)

And this is where I will come back to my crochet. The mindless hours I spend doing the work of crochet, of repetitively using my hook, of constantly being surrounded by my yarn, helped me see some things. First of which was to see how working with your hands gives you some level of focus and clarity. I found out making beautiful things that people like is deeply gratifying, but there also lies the trap of validation and seeking approval. Doing hours of crochet allowed me sit at home, be asocial and yet be productive. I understood why many, many treatment systems use occupational therapy. Seeing all the colours of my yarn, envisioning a product, designing it and finally finishing it all give me varying levels of satisfaction, and joy. It's a great tool to shut my mind down and not think about the bad things, and by the time I am done fighting the darkness in my head, I've created something that's beautiful and usable. 

I don't know where I am headed. I do hope, though, that I'll live to see my kids grow up into happy adults, that I'll find companionship again, someone I can fall in love with and someone who might feel the same way about me. I hope I'll ease the pain that I cause my family. I hope I'll leave a mark in this world in some small way, find my own place in the sun. I have a long way to go, I am nowhere close to taking complete control of my own life, and at 34, that makes me feel all kinds of terrible things. On good days, I have great hope and optimism. On bad days, like today, I can't even write a decent blog post. All I can do is continue to focus on my one reason to not crash the car the next time I drive. 


If you think you might be suffering from depression or any other mental illness, here are a few things that I hope will help. 

1. Go to a good counsellor any way. You could come away with an all-clear. My suggestion would be to go to a counsellor instead of heading to a psychiatrist first. I find the latter, in India, are all too eager to prescribe medication, and have generally found them less willing to listen, and use alternate therapies. A good psychiatrist or psychologist will usually suggest a combination of medication and what is informally called talk-therapy. I was lucky enough to find it at NIMHANS.

2. I regularly told two people in my life that I think something is wrong with me and that I need help. They were in denial and didn't make much of it. (I don't blame them, I was a fully functioning individual.) Don't be afraid to tell someone you love and/or trust that you want to seek help, and badger them over it. Enlisting support to go to a counsellor is a good idea, the diagnosis can be a bit sudden and quite possibly, a shock to take.

3. Don't overread or take pop-quizzes and self-diagnose. We all have traits of most "disorders" in us. Only when they start affecting the smooth functioning of your life can it be considered a problem.

4. You don't have to be ashamed, afraid, cynical. You might be extremely intelligent, extremely self-aware and you might think no counsellor can help you. I did. I was wrong.

5. Find a hobby.