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“Carrying Home In Myself”: On Recovering From Clinical Depression

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In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag wrote about how less understood diseases gave birth to myths and conspiracy theories about the disease, often attributed to the patient’s personal life. She said, “With the modern diseases (once TB, now cancer or AIDS), the romantic idea that the disease expresses the character is invariably extended to assert that the character causes the disease – because it has not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking and blighting the deepest cellular recesses.” This is evident in history when Jews were blamed for “poisoning wells” during the Black Death (plague) back in 14th century Europe aided by the general wave of anti-Semitism or the recent instance of Nizamuddin Markaz attendees being accused of spreading the coronavirus “intentionally” to kill Hindus. But the illness that has really been reduced to a metaphor today is depression.

The symptoms are subjective, the causes are obscure, the patients do not “appar” ill in most cases. There aren’t any confirmatory tests to run and not enough informed discussions to educate oneself. This is evident especially now, when the entire nation is unable to establish an actor’s suicide and is looking for ways to attribute the cause of his death to more relatable, easily comprehensible reasons because depression is so less understood that it seems like deception to the masses. Often it is conflated with substance abuse, emotional harassment, cowardice, low willpower etc. Mental trauma is invisible, and hence non existent for many. It doesn’t show up as a value on the blood glucose reports or the sphygmomanometers. It isn’t discovered on autopsy. It looks like a murder only to those who are unaware that sometimes, paradoxically, life is the disease and death is the remedy.

What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t always make you stronger. Sometimes, it actually makes you weaker. Like Matt Haig wrote, “What doesn’t kill you can leave you limping for the rest of your days. What doesn’t kill you can make you scared to leave your house, or even your bedroom, and have you trembling, or mumbling incoherently, or leaning with your head on a window pane, wishing you could return to the time before the thing that didn’t kill you.” Depression is loneliness and a lack of hope. It’s a consistent feeling of worthlessness and helplessness. A chronic fear of disconnection. The opposite of not happiness, but vitality.

Image provided by the author.

People don’t want to remember their deceased loved ones as “depressed” as if it’s a slur. As if any disease could be a slur and nullifies the greatness of the life lived by the person. As if the disease wasn’t a part of their journey or themselves, and it’s presence in their history must be distorted to make the memory of their death bearable to others rather than honest. By even making the demise of the depressive all about themselves, the people who are left behind reinforce their self-indulgence. No wonder, they never see the suicides coming.

I was depressed for seven years before I started medication and therapy since April last year. The difference has been stark and an experience of coming back to life. Sylvia Plath wrote in her book The Bell Jar, “It wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” While depressed, it did not feel like home anywhere. I felt out of place while sitting on the peak of some snow-capped mountain in the Himalayas. I felt out of place in the crowd of Old Delhi streets and in the deafening jingbang of Goa’s nightlife and on dates with a long term boyfriend, at family events and at my hostel room.

There was a perpetual urge to escape, to a place I assumed existed but had no maps to. Since recovery, I carry my home in myself. While boarding congested buses in the scorching heat of Indian summer, I am still at ease, humming songs to myself and aware that I am a part of this crowd. A “normal” crowd, one that doesn’t think of killing itself every evening after reaching home. It was a warm sense of belonging, a feeling of homecoming.

Depression manifests physically like any other disease. It is a state of perennial tiredness. You are always paradoxically sleep deprived though you never get up from your bed. You never return calls, you lose your temper at the smallest of things and the very act of living takes a toll on you. I had never appreciated sunsets till I started my medication. Depression changed the way I look at the world. I acknowledge the people who love me, a little more now. It’s not easy living with a person who has a mental illness, you become a caregiver by default. My definition of happiness has changed, it is not a pursuit anymore. It is the state of being. The lack of unhappiness. The monotony and order. The lack of tragedy and internal chaos.

Image provided by the author.

I remember how, on every birthday of mine, I would congratulate myself on dragging through another year again. As if the mundane act of living another year was still a milestone for me. Suicide felt like the calling of my soul, so just continuing to breathe was an act of resistance. I read Camus, I read Ernest Becker, I read Dostoevsky. And one takeaway really helped me move on with life: I resolved that the world might go to hell, but I must have my coffee. Curbing instincts, is what reminds us of being human so be it, even if the instinct was self destructive. In depression, you can literally feel the time passing. Your life seems slowed down, every passing day is a weight on your back. Time hurts.

Now half-recovered and half-alive, I have finally been able to love. I take good care of my pets, I want to be the therapy human to my therapy dog. I send books to people to make sure it helps them in difficult times. Watching the news does not break my heart anymore. Patience has become my middle name, and I am always ready to explain things. Never give up on people anymore. Never hate someone for being themselves. It’s a lovely feeling, like being a feather falling slowly to earth on a winter morning. Like a snowflake melting on a child’s face. Like dew drops on flowers and softly sung Christmas carols and first kisses. A bearable lightness of being. I have been cooking, making future plans, reading about the history of music, listening to jazz and haven’t touched a cigarette since eighteen months.

In the poem “Good Day”, Kait Rokowski writes very accurately about her struggle against depression. She says,

“This week, I paid my rent and my credit card bill, worked 60 hours between my two jobs, only saw the sun on my cigarette breaks and slept like a rock. Flossed in the morning, locked my door and remembered to buy eggs. My mother is proud of me. Its not the kind of pride she brags about at the golf course. She doesn’t combat topics like, “My daughter got into Yale” with, ”Oh yeah, my daughter remembered to buy eggs.”

But she is proud. See, she remembers what came before this. The weeks where I forgot how to use my muscles, how I would stay as silent as a thick fog for weeks. She thought each phone call from an unknown number was the notice of my suicide.

These were the bad days. My life was a gift that I wanted to return. My head was a house of leaking faucets and burnt-out lightbulbs.

I burned down a house of depression, I painted over murals of greyscale, and it was hard to rewrite my life into one I wanted to live. But today, I want to live.I didn’t salivate over sharp knives, or envy the boy who tossed himself off the Brooklyn bridge. I just cleaned my bathroom, did the laundry, called my brother. Told him, “It was a good day.”

I understand her definition of a good day, now that I know what the bad days were. In his book length poem “The Age of Anxiety”, W.H Auden wrote, “For the others, like me, there is only the flash of negative knowledge. The night when, drunk, one staggers to the bathroom and stares in the glass to meet one’s madness”. There isn’t a better way to define and capture the essence of depression. Anis Mojgani’s poem builds up on Auden’s writings. He writes, “Will it make me something? Will I be something? Am I something?And the answer comes, already am, always was, and I still have time to be.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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