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‘If only we could all talk about our fears, our hopes, our aspirations and, most importantly, our imperfections without worrying about being tagged, stigmatised, and ostracised…’
Unfortunately, at present that seems like a far-fetched dream.
The Alia Bhatt starrer Dear Zindagi made a huge difference to how we perceive mental health, the glaring issues with it notwithstanding. Before her, superstar Deepika Padukone had bravely opened up about her struggle with depression. While these are commendable efforts, and slowly we are becoming more aware about mental health issues, the truth is that the stigma and stereotypes associated with it are still very much prevalent today.
A book like Side Effects of Living is then easily one of those reads that everyone must read. Not just because it helps one understand the world of mental health survivors, but also since it works towards spreading awareness and destigmatizing these issues – something we certainly need to consciously work towards.
The book is not just a bunch of real stories of real life people, though at first glance they may appear just that. The book is a collection of voices, each one as unique as the writer they belong to – that attempt to share their extremely personal stories and experiences through words – prose, poetry, first person accounts of survivors, confessions of family members, and illustrations. It is an insight into their worst days, their fears, dreams, hopes, expectations, but mostly, it is an honest chat with a friend who opens up with their heart-felt emotions with the belief that someone will listen, understand, empathize, hold their hands.
The stories, poems, illustrations, are all honest, searing accounts of survivors dealing with various mental illnesses. While they talk about their own lives, it is also an attempt to reach out to someone willing to listen, to spread awareness about something that plagues a staggering number of people across the world, and make it normal for one surviving with these issues to talk about it. And, while I do not understand what it means to be diagnosed with any of the mental health diseases, it made me feel less alone in my battles against my own traumatic past or uncertain future.
Often, I wonder how people can be so insensitive so as to criticize, humiliate, mock, and stereotype others, and sometimes, cruelly pass comments or expect others to conform to certain standards of society, with complete disregard to how unreasonable and ridiculous these expectations and standards may be.
I found the answer to this question within the first few pages of the book.
‘We don’t have all the answers. But the one thing we do know is that the world can be a cruel and hostile place, and perhaps certain people are more sensitive than the rest. Rather than labelling, locking up, stigmatising, isn’t it up to us to make the world a kinder, more empathetic, inclusive space?’
Even if one may not be suffering from depression or the other mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the struggles and trauma brought on by overthinking, self-doubt, etc are not unfamiliar to any of us. There is a voice (or voices) that keep telling us how we are not good enough, how we don’t deserve the good things coming our way, or sometimes, how we are nobodies.
I found these lines from ‘Monologue’ by Garima Plawat so apt for what I often experience.
It’s such a luxury.
I search for it desperately in the crevices of my confused mind. I seek a lonely corner where my being doesn’t get tripped apart by the war raging inside me. The tears dried up a while back. I preferred their company over this bleak wasteland of my numbness.
There was something in each story that I could either relate to or that which helped me understand the life and struggles of those suffering from mental health issues and their families and care-givers.
More often than not, the family members of such patients are not provided any additional support either. It is alarming to realize that often no attempt is made to provide adequate information and counselling to both patients and their families.
This apathy within the medical profession towards mental health patients is also reiterated in Bharti Manoj’s story, An Anaesthetised Life: ‘I think I became a guinea pig for them – they constantly experimented with my medication.’
The stories also spread awareness as I discovered through Jayashree Kalathil’s Learning to Live In a Non-Consensual Reality. Malini Bhattacharya’s Father brought tears to my eyes while Huzaifa Pandit’s Pyaar Ka Punchnama: A Memoir gripped my heart in fear and horror at what he went through. (While it is a conclusion one can draw in general, this was the first account I’ve read about the impact on a person due to the violence in Kashmir.)
Flashbacks of VIMHANS by Jhilmil Breckenridge, however, broke my heart. To read how her family broke her trust and confidence, and even conspired to have her committed, and how a reputed mental health institution openly flouted basic rules of decency and patient care was heart-wrenching.
Namarita Kathait’s account of her mother’s schizophrenia chronicled in The Wildflower of Tehri was another extremely difficult account to read.
It’s All In Your Mind by Zahra Mousavi and Coming Out of The Closet by Amit Kathpalia, and poems like What does Depression Look Like by Adishi Gupta, Dark Room by Jonaki Ray, Underneath by Aishwarya Manjunath about her mother’s story, The Seven Vows by Poornima Laxmeshwar, An Exercise in Hope by Usri Basistha, and many others made me want to reach out to them to offer support and strength, and to tell them there was someone listening, understanding, empathising.
But there was one particular account, by Richa Sharma, which left a far deeper impact on me for the searing account that it is. Not just because of how relatable and heartbreakingly honest the narrative was, but also because of how it looks at the social apathy towards mental health issues and points out exactly what we are doing wrong even today. Richa makes some valid points about the dismal situation around the understanding of mental health issues.
‘We were quite clueless and there was no help at hand. No school counsellor to hear what was happening at home, no support at the workplace where my mother could talk. No NCERT textbook ever mentioned that there are illnesses other than those like TB or AIDS, that there are illnesses of the mind too, that can cause irreversible damage, if not outright kill.’
These stories tear your heart into a million pieces but then join them back together too, as each ‘story’ ends on a note of hope and positivity, even if seemingly temporary or outwardly poignant. But more than the heart-break, what these stories do is make it normal to talk about mental health issues.
To talk about depression, anxiety, and other illnesses.
To make sure that those suffering from such illnesses no longer have to hear ‘presumptive rejoinders like “it’s all in your mind” or “ssh… don’t tell everyone you are depressed”.’
To be able to give and seek the support we need – not just to those who suffer from mental health, but also their family and friends, including those who live in denial and say ‘we are fine, you go’.
To be able to tell them they are not alone, that we listen, understand, empathise, and hold their hands.
To make the line from Bipolar Sunshine – ‘Someday, I won’t have explain in hushed tones who I am.’ – a reality.
Hope we get to that point soon. For ‘The time to change is now. The time to be human is now.’
We can only hope. Hope, and dream. Because (as Bharti Manoj says) ‘Dreaming is easy. Dreaming doesn’t cost anything.’
If you’d like to pick up Side Effects of Living edited by Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.
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Image source: a still from the movie Dear Zindagi, and book cover via Amazon
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Piyusha is a sometime sane reader, part-time crazy writer and full-time wacky alien.
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