This is my story.
I need to tell it to you before my voice gets muffled or permanently silenced. I’m afraid, though, that you might start thinking I’m calling you the villain of my story.
I promise, however, no matter what it begins to sound like, you are not the villain. Because you will start seeing, a little over a few sentences in, that this isn’t my story, it’s yours.
No one should have to be the villain of their own story. Hopefully, you don’t think you are.
Shall we begin?
I first fell in love with dancing when I was a three-year-old. Fifteen years later, as a student and performer, I have been consistently enraptured every powerful stance, every flying graceful leap, and twirl. There have been too many times when I have spent over nine to ten hours a day just dancing.
I don’t know whether I started with weak knees or if it was ten years of stringent practice and falling over and over again that did it. When I was 14, the pain in my right knee got so bad, grit wasn’t helping me in class anymore. First I couldn’t kneel, my leg work became weak, and then one day, I could no longer walk. The first and second set of doctors told me it was nothing, just a simple hairline fracture that would heal itself. “Do yoga,” they said.
The third set of doctors I went to charged me a royalty, nothing close to anything I could afford continuously for treatment. And well, after that, I had run out of doctors.
My inability to walk, dance or function properly made people around me annoyed. I was not the same person I used to be, I was clearly stunted.
Some days, when I’d had the time to really rest my knees well, I was able to function almost as well as I used to — but the moment I did exert myself, the pain came back. The injury got worse.
Nobody around me believed it actually hurt though; it was but a hairline fracture after all. One day, one friend picked up an iron rod and smashed my knee in. “You’ve got to get over this, and this is the only way you will learn how,” she said, while others agreed. I screamed, cried and rolled on the floor in pain. They did not flinch. “Everybody gets a few aches here and there all the time,” another said, “so you’re not special.”
“Stop making a big deal out of this.”
My knee was broken. It wasn’t a hairline fracture anymore. It was ground into sharp protruding pieces of bone. It grew blue and was swollen up to the size of a melon. Soon enough, it got torn and bloody, septic and fraying fragments of skin barely hanging on. By then, I had lost almost all of my friends and I was failing at almost anything I attempted. Desperate, I still tried dancing, I still tried walking. Believe me, I tried.
I tumbled and crashed, my legs wobbled and gave way every three seconds. Every time my facade of steely grit faded ever so slightly, someone would hit me again with iron rods, with sharp, splintered wooden planks. They would kick me, obviously out of the best intentions. I began wearing long skirts, the kind that wouldn’t hurt my knee too much but would also hide the injury as much as possible. I became afraid that if people saw the injury, they would hurt me, they would think I was incompetent and delusional.
I needed to learn this wasn’t real, it was all in my control and I simply needed to snap out of it.
Now, I have altogether stopped walking or dancing. The pain and injury are making it impossible. Ignoring it, wishing it to go away instead of treating it, has left me nearly dead.
The story I’m telling you sounds inhumane and dystopic, doesn’t it? Even outlandish and unrealistically cruel. Unfortunately, it isn’t. What if I told you that a version of this story happens almost in every household in this country?
You have been the harmful friend, a passerby that does nothing, or the friend that has been harmed. Or perhaps all three, in this culture that conditions you and me to stigmatise mental health.
That’s what this is really about.
I admit I changed the facts of the story ever so slightly. Instead of a physical knee injury, what I have been diagnosed with is an anxiety disorder.
Traits of it had been found in my family before and the incidents of sexual assault, bullying, and marginalisation in my childhood have likely been fairly instrumental in the development of the disorder.
It began with minor panic attacks, one after every few days, particularly during stressful times. My chest would tighten up, my heart-rate would increase and it felt like there were hammers going hard at my ribs, from the inside. My vision used to become blurry, the world around me would swim and sway. My knees would turn to jelly, and I would fall with a thud on the floor. I would often break into a cold sweat, knowing that something disastrous was about to happen. I never knew what, and nothing ever happened.
During the worst of these times, I ended up helplessly crying for hours straight, my nausea made me throw up. I considered self-harm and I almost attempted suicide once. I started to think I was irreparably mad and then I would black out and slip out of consciousness.
It worsened and I would have at least nine or ten attacks, every single day. It didn’t matter whether something happened externally to trigger it. Eventually, I started noticing that I was worried almost all the time and afraid of everything. I stopped talking to people. I was afraid they would hate me and hurt me if I did. I couldn’t hide it anymore, you see. They stopped talking to me too. I stopped trying new things at work. I was afraid I’d fail at anything new, I was already failing at the old.
I soon lost the will to wake up, because if I woke up, I’d be afraid. If I got too afraid, I’d go through an experience where I would either think I was dying or I would want to kill myself.
Let’s have this conversation.
Mental health disorders aren’t about crazy people being possessed by evil spirits or controlled, elaborate schemes privileged people unravel to garner attention.
These are medical conditions, biological and psychological — imbalanced hormones, trauma in the past, ineffective cognitive functioning — that need medical help like any other physical illness. Whoever has heard snapping out of a broken bone? They are ailments that affect several people, anxiety alone affects 1 out of every 4 persons in this country. 10% of the people in this country have at least one mental disorder that needs to be treated through therapy and medication.
There is added guilt, detrimental self-doubt and painful triggers that come with the culture that is largely ignorant of psychological functioning and that stigmatises mental health.
Unless we collectively begin de-stigmatising mental health, there never is going to be a culture that prioritises its care. By ridiculing or not believing people who do seek out help, you are doing an incredible amount of harm. By perpetuating conversations that stigmatise mental health, you are silencing even those that may be seeking help. The country is culturally, socially, systematically making mentally ill persons head towards a life with devastating days and numbing nights. A slow painful death or a quick bloody, self-engineered one.
In the wake of mental health awareness week that begins from May 14, be curious. Learn about mental health like you would brush up your general knowledge on common colds or cancer, so you can treat it similarly.
Don’t call them pagal (mad). Don’t make them think what they’re going through is unrealistic. Tell them you are listening. Offer any help you can.
Refer your friends to psychiatric clinics and hospitals, be supportive of them. Don’t break their legs.
Know that if you have a broken leg and you are suffering, what you’re going through is not nonsense and untreatable. You should visit a doctor and we’re all here building a society that will support you. Things will get better, just seek help.
Share this, tell it like it’s your story. In fact, tell everyone your story. Make them hear their story in yours. If you know your friend won’t read this, then tell it to them. No, really. Grab their arm, sit them down and tell them you’re going to tell them a story.
Don’t make us live in a dystopian world.