Speaking up is easy to preach, harder to practise
Trigger warning: This article contains descriptions of emotional upheaval, self-harm, and suicide. Read with care, fearless community.
A tragedy that sparked a revolution of sorts
On 14th June 2020, a much-loved philanthropist and Hindi movie star, Sushant Singh Rajput, was found hanging in his apartment.
Because he had been a part of several well-appreciated movies in the past, the news of his suicide took the entire nation by storm.
You see, Sushant was not someone born into a rich family. He grew up in a small village in India dreaming the same dreams as every Indian does — become an engineer, then try and find a job with the government, earn a stable income, and be happy “ever after”.
For twenty years of his life, he did exactly this — he prepared for the engineering entrance examinations (which have a selection ratio of 2% or less) and got into a reputed college. After that, he pursued his hobby of dancing and discovered that he nurtures a deep love for the performing arts. So, he quit his studies mid-way and went to Mumbai to pursue his dreams of making it big in the Indian film industry.
In a few years, Sushant was a household name owing to his carelessly handsome looks, his superb dance skills, and his brilliant acting.
Every child in India with dreams of being an actor saw themselves in Sushant. He was their beacon of hope, the assurance that if he can do it, so can they.
The social-media wave of “compassion”
At the pinnacle of his acting career, when Sushant decided to kill himself, the entire nation was gripped by shock. His death made people suddenly wake up to this stark reality: success and popularity do not guarantee happiness.
It also made a nation of 1.3 billion denial-loving Indians come to terms with the fact that depression is real. That the fight against mental health issues should be treated with the same seriousness as the fight against any terminal or debilitating physical illness.
All of a sudden, my social media feed was full of people sharing posts about how important it is to “open up” and how they will always be available to lend a non-judgmental ear if any of their friends wants to talk.
This is all well and good because our ultimate aim is to normalise mental health and to make sure that the people who suffer from it don’t suffer in silence.
But, is it so easy for a clinically depressed person who has been struggling with social stigma for years to suddenly “open up”?
What makes talking so difficult
There was a time in my life when going to sleep was impossible for me. I used to lay in bed all night, staring at the emptiness, with a lavender-scented candle burning by my bed-side, keeping count of the hours as they ticked by.
I would have gladly lain in bed all day long too, had my job not demanded of me to be present. I used to trudge through the day in a blur, barely able to speak, not eating anything, waiting for the work hours to end so I could run away from the “real world”.
In the evenings, I would lock myself in my room and cry. Some nights, I would lie on the floor, unable to pull myself up and go to bed, cradling a kitchen knife in my hands, wondering how easy it would be just to slash my wrists and get it over with.
The bottom line is: I don’t know if I was clinically depressed (because I never went to a therapist), but I was dealing with a dark phase. None of my friends knew about this.
I just didn’t know how I would tell them anything. For starters, they would ask me what’s wrong. But, how do I tell them what’s wrong when actually nothing is right?
You see, when you tell your friends (who have no understanding of mental health) that you are depressed, the people around you try to look for reasons, justifications as to why you would be sad.
And, when you can’t give them a reason, when you tell them you don’t know, they will start listing off all the good things in your life one by one. They would explain how things could have been much worse. That you are ungrateful of all the good fortune life has bestowed upon you.
Of course, I never talked to my friends about my mental state, but, I know this because I have heard my friends go on and on about depictions of depression in movies and popular culture. They look at the characters and say things like, “This person should not have got depressed” — as if suffering from a mental illness is their choice.
My friends don’t understand mental health. I don’t think many people in my country do. And that is why I can’t open up to them, no matter how hard I try.
Living with the shame
One of my closest friends (let’s call her Kajal) once saw the livid red marks on my wrist. She clapped a hand to her mouth, horrified because there was no other explanation of how my skin had those marks apart from the obvious.
I pulled my sleeves down instantly, but I was a second too late. I knew Kajal had seen what I was trying to hide.
She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me inside her house. “Please tell me what is wrong,” she implored. “Are you stressed about your studies, your work, your relationship?”
How could I tell her that I wasn’t stressed about anything in particular? That I was just — exhausted, empty, drained?
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to tell her. For days, I had been wishing there was someone I could share my pain with. And Kajal was the closest candidate. I wanted to tell her; I was on the verge of confessing.
But, something inside stopped me from reaching out.
I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be normal. I didn’t want to carry self-harm marks on my body like a sordid trophy.
In truth, I was ashamed.
I was ashamed that she wouldn’t be able to understand my problem. I was ashamed that she would make me feel small by telling me I was overthinking, that my issues weren’t issues at all. I was afraid I might turn her simple world upside down by burdening her with a truth she didn’t have to carry. But most all, I was afraid she would tell me all my problems were in my head. That nothing about what I was facing was real.
In my head, I was that special snowflake with unique problems no one else would understand. This alienated me from all my friends, no matter how forthcoming they were.
The bottom line
I know. I should have reached for help.
I should have sought a therapist if talking to friends made me feel self-conscious.
I shouldn’t have done a lot of things I did back then.
But, that dark phase of my life is over now. I don’t cut myself anymore, nor do I feel drained and overwhelmingly sad like I used to.
I wake up each morning with hope in my heart, and when I go to sleep each night, my head is full of plans for the next day.
I am in a better place. But, if Kajal asked me today what was wrong back then, I probably still wouldn’t be able to share.
Admitting that something is wrong with me is hard. There is the fear of judgment, the fear of being misunderstood.
And that is why, no matter how empathetic they are, I don’t think taking to friends is always an available option for clinically depressed people (unless that friend is emotionally equipped with handling their mood swings).
Yes, your friends might have your best interests in their hearts. But, they are normal people themselves. They will have their prejudices and preconceived notions. Burdening them with your trauma might not always be the right thing to do — both for them and for you.
I can’t talk about my mental health with my friends. And I don’t think you should too. It is always best to seek professional help.