I’ve Spent Too Many Years Sugarcoating My Mental Illness For You

(Trigger Warning)

In post-Mental-Health-Care-Bill India, one of the most commonly used responses to psychological distress has become “let’s talk about it.”

It’s important to dispel myths and fears around the subject, in a country where people living with mental illness are still routinely misunderstood, abused, and even ‘treated’ for demonic possession.

To that end, many of us have adopted a helpful protocol of saying “I’m here, if you need to talk.” We’ve even begun to use analogies like “if you have a broken leg, you’d ask for help, so why shouldn’t you do that for your mental health?”

All of this is great – definitely an upgrade from carting people off to shock therapy – but it doesn’t always pan out the way you want. I know, because when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety three years ago, I thought I was going to take that secret to an early grave.

The first step to fixing a problem is pretending you don’t have one – that was my motto for a long time when I felt like I had no other options. Because how do you explain yourself, anyway, when you can’t keep it together long enough to do normal everyday things like get out of bed, or eat, or form sentences? How do you explain unfinished homework, when your whole evening was spent googling “painless ways to kill yourself”? How do you explain that all you’re capable of doing right now is sitting stock still and not talking?

A thick silence had coiled around me. I had no words, no language to convey what I was going through. And in the din coming from people around me – a million thoughts, and opinions overflowing every minute of every day – cobbling up even something as rudimentary as “I’m not well” seemed futile, impossible, laughable even.

Even on some of my better days traces of my illness remained – as fatigue, as irritability, as not making eye contact, not talking, reading a sentence 12 times without understanding it, as headaches, blood pressure, and disinterest.

But my silence was also due to the fact that many of my symptoms did not look like I was ill. Symptoms like forced laughter, checklists, organising bookshelves, colour codes, rambling conversations, and saying “yes” too many times in a row.

High functioning depression is a carefully constructed performance. It mimics the kind of routine any well-adjusted person ought to have. And it’s to put your mind at ease, and maybe mine too.

It was the prospect of people finding out, and how they would react that made it so difficult to talk. I feared being discredited, because the word “crazy” now carries a sharper edge to it. I feared being inadequate, because it’s difficult to perform tasks I used to be good at. I feared being patronised – being treated like a child with no agency, being imposed upon, or being told my “fragile” mind doesn’t know what it needs. So I pushed on, without saying much, stumbling, halting.

Of course, omission isn’t as satisfying as you hope it will be. When I hit the age of college applications and work experience, people became overly-fond of asking questions like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” The answer “probably dead” has leapt to my mind an awful lot, but I can’t say this without raising alarm. I usually settle for “Oh, I’m still figuring it out,” so that you can nod politely, and be on your way, untouched by my reality. This sort of thing became standard practice for me. I became very, very good at it, in fact. And it was as much a part of my performance as anything else.

For years I’ve sugarcoated my experiences in front of people to whom the world is not as daunting as it is to me. It’s a world where phrases like “you’ll get over it”, “it’s not a real problem”, or “stop pretending” are supposed to, as if by magic, cure you. This is a world where many cannot even afford therapy, and many more are discouraged by their families from seeking it. That often leaves people – people like me – in the midst of peers who are in no way equipped to handle a mental health problem. We turn to other things, whatever is within reach, objects, people, vices, routines, the good, the bad, anything that promises relief in as unobtrusive a way as possible, so we can get back to class, to work, to that family dinner, that vacation, that school reunion. In short, we stay in hiding, behind masks.

Even today, in post-Mental-Health-Bill India, we are light years away from talking about just how complex things are. My mental illness is not the airbrushed version that maybe you’re used to seeing on TV. You know, the ones that moved towards a predictable (and desirable) resolution? My mental illness has its emotional, economic, political, sexual, and gendered dimensions too, and it determines the choices I make and the things I’m capable of.

So far, I’ve buried the experiences under stoic offerings like “I’m fine”, “just tired”, or “talk later”. But I’m beginning to think it’s a disservice to myself when I don’t let the words form into shapes that look like acceptance. I have feverishly resisted putting my experiences within your reach, thinking “what will you say?” But really, I should’ve been thinking “you need to recognise some of the things people around you are going through”.

So if we’re gonna talk about it, let’s talk about it. And let’s recognise the work that people like you and I are going to have to put in – to become more aware, open, and proactive, but also know where to give room, be sensitive, and supportive.

Because for years I have felt like I must deal with my mental illness all by myself. And maybe I still have to. But it will not be in secret.