The ceiling fan creaked. Strange, I hadn’t noticed it before. As I lay stationary staring up at it for eternity (it seemed), the little observation entered my realm of consciousness. The silence of the warm afternoonwas comforting. I was alone and thankful for it. Nothing crossed my mind. I felt indifferent and numb to the hum of the world outside, and inside. I felt physically and emotionally unable to get myself to step outside and participate. All I wanted to do was to vegetate and fade into oblivion.
Days went by as a vegetable. Till one watershed moment when the old me fought its way to the surface, took me by the shoulders and shook me hard. And that’s when I said it aloud, “I need help.”
These three words put my whole life into-perspective. A bulb lit up inside and I sat up. I repeated the words and every time I did, I became more convinced that I had stumbled upon a solution to get myself out of the pit that had engulfed me for weeks.
A close friend who is a professional psychologist had often recommended therapy to me. Perhaps she had watched me circle the mouth of the ominous pit and wanted to save me before I fell. Whatever it was, I called her and she put me through to somebody who I’ve been going to for years now.
I can’t say that this lady rescued me from my depression; no, that was my own doing. But she certainly did help me in the ways she was supposed to. By helping me understand the deep-rooted connection between my childhood and adult life, identify common behavioral patterns that wound me up in trouble, and discover coping mechanism that lay within me, I was able to gradually, haul myself out of the pit. The work doesn’t stop there of course; sometimes it is a longer journey than planned. And self-development is a lifelong process. But I can say this – I am better, more self-aware and emotionally healthier, thanks to therapy.
The news that I was seeking professional help clearly disturbed and perplexed my family. I was probably the first to do so. While I felt a little jittery about the social consequences of this, another part of me found it to be a sign of strength to acknowledge my weakness and embrace the truth that I needed help.
It’s a pity that mental health is still a taboo. When you openly talk about it, people stare at you for visible signs of “madness” while silently judging you. They whisper about you and you may even be shunned in social circles as being unstable and unfit for healthy interactions.
“We all like to feel a sense of control over our lives, and feel bad if we can’t keep it together on our own,” explains Sujata Chatterjee, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist. “As a result, we struggle with difficult feelings when reaching out to another person for support. To make it worse, vulnerability and struggle are often seen critically or even attacked and people are shamed for it.”
Ritu, who also realised that she needed external help and has been undergoing therapy for a few years adds,“The thing with mental health is it can’t be “seen” in most cases and thus not understood. Something as simple as not being able to get out of bed and not being able to function, terrible mood swings or stress eating are very clear signs of negative mental health. But since the physical demonstrations are not as pronounced, people rarely realize that it’s a condition that needs attention. The fear of being laughed at and victim shaming makes it worse”
It is heartbreakingly true. While physical health is highly sought after, mental health still struggles for the kind of attention it deserves. “We feel safer dealing with tangibles. Unseen or felt things do not get concretised into something with as much legitimacy as say a physical or socio-economic problem would, despite the fact that our emotional lives have such a strong bearing on every other aspect of our life,”explains Chatterjee.
So I ask her the pertinent question. How can we draw people out of this mindset so that they can seek help or be sensitive to those seeking help?
She advises, “One needs to be as supportive as possible. It can be terribly difficult to make the decision to go in for emotional help and involves incredible hard work once the process is started. I always admire and am full of respect for the tenacity of those in therapy. Taking responsibility for one’s own thoughts, feelings and actions and emotional acceptance of difficult experiences are some of the toughest things any human being does.”
According to Ritu,“awareness and conversations about mental health need to be mainstreamed. People need to understand that it is a medical condition. From personal experience I can say that several issues can be addressed by addressing issues of self-esteem and self-confidence, which are also a part of our social conditioning.”
On a social level, Chatterjee believes that as with any broad societal change, this will take time and effort. “People from all walks of life will have to be educated about the need and benefits of having spaces in which one can learn to think about one’s life, begin to find words for experiences that have left us with difficult feelings and process them. The need goes beyond just one-to-one therapy, and extends to sensitivity-building across the board – beginning with parents, to schools, workplaces, law enforcement and so on.”
She also states that mental health requires a solid economic investment.“Legitimacy is often derived from economic resource allocation. These resources are needed to build spaces where people can access help, to train professionals, provide supervision and professional support to therapists and mental health workers, aid continuing professional training like for medical professionals, fund research and so on.” she says.
Exploring the outcomes of therapy, I sought a professional insight from Chatterjee. “It depends from person to person. But the biggest gains in my view would be a sense of calm, being comfortable in one’s own skin, an ability to objectively understand our responses to things, which in turn makes us compassionate towards others and brick by brick builds a safer and stronger relationships, families, societies.”
For Ritu, therapy has been a life saver and her therapist more of a guru. “I am now able to identify triggers that cause anxiety and depression and then take measures and adopt tools to deal with that anxiety without allowing it to spiral.There are still days that I don’t succeed and that’s okay.I try to take life in the best way possible without stressing about control and this outlook keeps me sane. Therapy has helped me so much!”
So how does therapy work?Chatterjee provides a very simple answer. “Therapy is best done by a trained person who is unrelated to the person’s life and as far as possible and objectively works through emotional themes as they come up by helping people think for themselves and by asking the right questions.”
Ritu adds to this, “It isn’t about highlighting where I’ve failed. It’s about analysing where I was wrong, where I could have done better and then finding strength in myself to be able to overcome.”Just like me, Ritu finds solace in talking to a stranger because it’s a neutral third party and the view offered is therefore objective.
However, finding the right therapist is key for the process to be a fruitful one.Kanishkaa, who’s had three stints with therapy since a teenager but had to discontinue every time iterates, “I admit I didn’t let any of the sessions run their full course. Maybe I didn’t fully establish that deep connect with any of my therapists to enable that. I would encourage anyone to pursue therapy since it’s important. But it’s crucial to find someone who you feel an instant bond with.” He emphasises that just the act of seeking help made him feel better that he was doing something about the issue, irrespective of the outcome.
For those who have been in therapy, the axis of life shifts forever. While seeking to find a semblance of sanity and balance in our own “mad” lives,we cannot help but go around recommending therapy to people who we believe could truly benefit from it. These could be folks who’re either deeply disturbed by past of current events or those who have absolutely no control over their emotions and subsequentresponses.
“Now that I can see people more clearly and gauge if they need therapy, I find myself in a funny situation. I can’t stop myself from recommending therapy to the few men that I’m interested in dating! They meet me, they share their problems, I suggest therapy, they get better and then date other women, and that’s okay. My friends joke that I’m a rehab centre for men,” shares Ritu with a laugh.
I guess, this may stem from our natural urge to help others in the same way we’ve been helped, like throwing a life jacket to another after we’ve safely climbed into the boat. Climbing into the boat in no way ensures that we’ll never fall back into the waters again, but it does teach us the skills needed to swim towards it and save ourselves from drowning. And that’s what reaching out for help achieves.
So once and for all, let’s do away with the stigma and embrace our weaknesses as we do our strengths, see beauty in our vulnerability and reach out when we need help. It makes the experience of boating all the more pleasant.