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Anxiety had been an issue all her life, but it was dating a controlling man that finally pushed her over the brink, and only a clean break helped. A personal account.
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I can’t get that Carpenter’s song out of my head: rainy days and Mondays always get me down. I am enveloped by a special type of sadness that appears to have no specific trigger, but a general feeling of being suffocated by various elements of my life.
Depression is a rather recent phenomenon for me – I have only struggled with it since 2016, while anxiety and I have had a lifelong relationship. I mark depression by the feeling of hopelessness that weighs me down, and a feeling that things will never get better, while anxiety makes me too hyperactive to do anything effectively and renders my functioning in normal everyday life at a significantly less than optimal level.
My first panic attack happened in a coffee shop on Montreal’s Rue Sherbrooke while I was a student at McGill University. Physically, I was sitting there studying with my college boyfriend, but mentally I was engulfed by an existential crisis about what I was going to do for the rest of my life. The future seemed like a hollow chasm in which I might float directionless for an eternity.
I remember feeling like I wanted to rip my skin off, a strange sort of claustrophobia overtook me, and so I rather hastily packed my bags and ran out. My boyfriend was not too impressed, and the fact that I wasn’t capable of explaining what happened after did not help matters much.
I then sought help from the university counselling centre. There I met a very strange man, who I was to do a few sessions with before giving up. The first session was very good as it was mostly me getting a lot of stuff off my chest, and him listening. However, things soon took a turn south, when he decided that my only cure lay in his field of specialization: he was a trained sex therapist.
All my anxieties about the future were only compounded when I went to my sessions just to hear him wax eloquently about thrusting, positions, and textured spermicidal condoms. After some sessions I gave up, because unless he was advocating a career in prostitution, or pornographic film and writing, I really did not see how I could benefit from them.
I then went to a clinical psychologist, a tiny mousy woman that let me talk for 45 minutes at a stretch while making copious notes in a book, but never saying a word. She would gaze at me with a queer expression in her eyes, and I could never tell what exactly she was thinking.
But through these sessions with their lack of smut-inspired advice, I was able to piece together a strategy for coping on my own. The single piece of advice she gave me was to start keeping a journal, a habit I maintain until present day. I figured out my next steps and life got better.
When I got my first job, I got a taste of the old anxiety back – it was a company called Dozing Off Apparel, located somewhere close to Rue Chabanel in Montreal’s garment district. My boss had a rather belligerent right-hand man named Gary who was notorious for making mistakes and blaming others for these.
It wasn’t long before he found his new target: me. Teaming up with a new manager, he made my life a living hell, and I got to the point where I would wake up every morning feeling as if I might vomit. This scenario was to be repeated a little over a decade later with my Swedish boss at H&M, Filippa, who vehemently disliked me for reasons only known to her. The anxiety returned, and I had to struggle to get through it.
I am lucky in that my anxiety has always had a cause, but once it starts, it spreads like a virus to other parts of my life. If I’m anxious about work, I will inevitably start becoming anxious in my personal life: with my friends, the men I’m dating, and my health. I return to my apartment ten times to check that nothing is plugged in and have waking nightmares about my building burning down because the stove is on, or I left an iron plugged in. It starts slowly but ends up crippling every part of me.
The depression started two years ago, in 2016. I had been back in India for a few years and was dating a man with an inflated opinion of himself and his opinions. I realized much later that the reason for my depression is I rather disliked who I discovered he was.
Besides the enormous ego (which is the one thing in others I have difficulty tolerating), and a strange approach to discussions about money, he had a fairly common health condition that I wasn’t allowed to talk about, but I had to be conscientious of it at all times.
If I had a cold I was not allowed near him because him getting sick would be disastrous. He declared one day that he had to be in bed by 11:30pm every night so we had to finish hanging out by 10:30 or 11pm maximum. That deadline got shifted up to 10:30 pm, so I could only hang out with him till 9:30 (he only got home from work at 8:30-9pm).
He considered himself an expert on health matters and told me that he knew a fitness routine of five minutes that could replace all the hours people spend at the gym. I’m no doctor, but I think the point of exercise is to move your body, rather than try and find a short cut to fat burn, but that is a debate for another day. He had also gone gluten-free and was planning to go dairy-free as well because of this “research” he had done towards his specific condition.
If we were out with friends I had to be the one to enforce the early sleeping rule, and make sure I was the one who ended the night, even though I might not want to, and it was for his condition I was doing it.
His health became a huge source of stress for me, because I was ill-equipped to deal with any of it. I hated the regiment of our relationship, and I hated the fact that he was condescending and kind of a know it all. I hated that he got upset at me for not worrying enough about his health.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a practice run for a workshop he was planning on time management. The exercise he designed didn’t work for me because I don’t operate in the same way he does – but he scolded me for not doing it properly. He acted strange for a few days and then the next time he saw me, told me he didn’t feel that our relationship would be long term (complete opposite to what he had said a few months earlier) but he did not break up. I eventually ended things a week later.
I realized when I came out of that that I had been down for as long as I had been with him. I had felt alone, and like things were never going to get better. I had felt trapped. Over the weeks after our break up, I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but for all this time I hadn’t been able to figure out what was wrong with me. Since then the depression has popped up here and there, but fortunately usually dissipates in some weeks or months.
I am lucky in that there has always been some general trigger for my depression and anxiety, but in many cases, people struggle with these things for no apparent reason – and that struggle is legitimate. We often do not understand it but it is not for us to do so. If someone is grappling with these phenomena, we have to accept that it may not make sense, but that does not make it any less valid.
In both my experiences with depression and anxiety, I learned first-hand the level and understanding of acceptance in our society. With one man I dated, when I spoke about my anxiety, he told me simply that I shouldn’t worry so much, that I needed to be able to handle stress. Others have told me to “cheer up,” when I talk about depression.
Telling people with anxiety not to worry and telling people with depression to lighten up and be thankful is akin to telling someone with a broken leg to buy themselves a surgical kit and set their bones themselves. If it were that easy to cheer up or not to worry, don’t you think people would already be doing that?
I was told by one person not to talk about my temptations towards self-harm, which for those of you who are not aware is unrelated to suicidal tendencies, but more related to the fact that physical pain can be a remarkable “off” switch for emotional and mental angst. If I ever have a serious romantic partner, I should never discuss such things with him because it will freak him out. Even though it is a part of who I am, and a part of who I have been, it’s a part of me that would be unacceptable to a husband or boyfriend.
I’ve known people with suicidal tendencies who have gone to psychiatrists at leading hospitals who demand to know why they are suicidal – how can they think of hurting their families like this? Don’t these doctors know that’s all a suicidal person needs to hear to push them over the edge?
Making them feel worse about something they clearly cannot help and have no control over, does not accomplish anything except bestow upon the giver of such ridiculous wisdom, a grandiose smug sense of superiority that they gave great advice.
You need to accept that they may have a lot of great things in their life, but they can still be depressed or anxious. These things do not follow reason, and reminding someone that there is no logical reason for them to feel the way they do is not helpful. They already know that. It’s superficial and, pardon me for saying so: quite idiotic.
Anxiety, self-harm, depression, and suicidal thoughts all come with a sense of shame. We are ashamed to be among the few that feel these things and we are ashamed that we can’t just turn off these very crippling impulses. If you tell us that we’re being silly it compounds that feeling and makes us worse off. If that’s all you got, it is better just to remain silent.
If you want to help those around you with anxiety and depression, you have to first validate that what they feel is okay – help them forgive themselves for feeling this way – because trust me, we end up beating ourselves up about it.
Help them and encourage them to speak to someone professionally, but don’t begrudge them if they’re not ready. Let them feel safe with you and let them know that while you may not be able to help them fix it, that you’re there.
I found one psychologist in the course of my years of dealing with these issues who really helped me. We spoke largely over the phone, because we were not in the same city. What worked for me with her was the fact that I could speak freely and without judgement. She accepted my issues as they were, and equipped me with the tools I needed to sort through them.
But barring this, often compassion is more than enough to help, and definitely better than ill-informed advice. This is one place where that poor guidance can have horribly detrimental effects. Communicate responsibly – and from a place that will help them rather make yourself feel important. You may not be able to help them fix it, and truth be told, that curing process is rather individual, but you will give them the support and courage they need to help themselves. And that is more valuable than anything else you can offer.
If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, here are some of the helplines available in India. Please call.
Aasra, Mumbai: 022-27546669
Sneha, Chennai: 044-2464 0050
Lifeline, Kolkata: 033-2474 4704
Sahai, Bangalore: 080–25497777
Roshni, Hyderabad: 040-66202000, 040-66202001
Image source: shutterstock
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Mira Saraf was born in Canada, grew up in New Delhi, and went to a
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