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Alia and Shaheen Bhatt’s candid conversation with Barkha Dutt throws light on how depression is a family’s battle; not just an individual’s.
Speaking to Barkha Dutt about Shaheen Bhatt’s book, I Have Never Been (Un)Happier, the Bhatt sisters spoke about Shaheen’s journey with depression and Alia’s efforts to support her sister. There are lessons here for all of us.
Three years ago, Shaheen Bhatt, in an open and honest Instagram post, shared about her life with depression. “I’ve lived with depression on and off since I was about 13 years old. This is not a revelation or a confession. Those who know me know this about me. It’s not something I take any pains to hide, I’m not ashamed of it or particularly troubled by it. It’s just a part of who I am,” she wrote.
The overwhelmingly positive response to that post led her to write a book, I Have Never Been (Un)Happier, a deeply personal memoir of living with depression in which she shares journal entries and personal anecdotes.
The book was released on World Mental Health Day in October this year. It was this book, that Shaheen and Alia spoke about with Barkha Dutt, during the grand finale of the We The Women festival. The conversation they had though, often veered outside the book and gave us a glimpse of what life really is like for those who have depression and their loved ones.
From Shaheen’s point of view, the intricacies of depression are difficult to know and understand, unless one has gone through it oneself. She explained how Alia has been the one who understood her and acted as a bridge between her and their mother, who struggled with it at first.
She spoke candidly about feeling suicidal, saying that she felt those feelings even a few months back, and that she had actually attempted suicide when she was a teenager. For Shaheen, feeling suicidal is her normal. It is a part of her life, even though she may not act on those feelings.
She also revealed that sometimes she feels like she doesn’t fit into her family. She feels left out and a part of her wonders, “what could I have been had this (depression) not happened to me?” even though she is largely okay with it now. “You wonder – if everyone in my family is outgoing then why am I not outgoing? If everyone in my family is so comfortable in front of the camera, why am I not comfortable? What is wrong with me? Because that becomes your benchmark for normalcy.”
She feels that it is very important to understand how mental health affects women, specifically in India. Depression is an illness, and there is a chemical reason for it, but the society that we live in, does not help either. “It has to be tackled at every level. It has it be tackled at basic human respect and human rights have to be valued in order to eradicate it. It’s not just going to go away –you can’t just pop a pill and get rid of it.”
As Shaheen says in this interview, “living with depression is hard, but loving someone with depression is equally hard. It’s not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of patience, it takes a lot of understanding, but it’s also one of the kindest things you can do in your life.” Alia Bhatt’s experiences are a testament to that truth.
A visibly emotional Alia spoke about the guilt she experiences for not completely understanding what Shaheen went through. “I feel really proud, heartbroken, and overjoyed all at the same time. Even though I have lived with my sister for my whole life, 26 years. I only understood what she was going through after reading her book. That makes me feel, on so many levels, so terrible as a sister. I feel like I didn’t put myself out there enough to understand her, to think about what she was going through,” she said. “I’ve always believed that she (Shaheen) is the most brilliant person in my family, and somehow she’s never believed in her own self, and that always broke my heart,” she added.
Speaking about how depression becomes a family’s battle to fight, Alia spoke about the difficulties she has sometimes in encouraging Shaheen to do things. “I don’t know how much to push,” she said, illustrating the point with a few incidents in their life. She added that sometimes she would get irritated with Shaheen, and she feels guilty for that.
“When a person who you love with all your heart goes through depression, it’s impossible to not get emotional,” Alia said, breaking down into tears as Shaheen spoke about feeling suicidal.
For families, it is also difficult to reconcile with the fact that their loved one isn’t the same person they used to be. Alia told the audience about an old home video, in which which Shaheen, who is introverted and insecure now, was even more happy and outgoing than Alia.
Speaking about what she has learnt from Shaheen’s experience, Alia shared that now she is also very open about how she talks about her own mental health. So for example, if she is feeling emotionally low on a day, she will say that she is feeling low, and not pretend that she is physically unwell.
Shaheen and Alia both attest that their family is emotionally transparent and that in their house crying is encouraged. Knowing that she has a wonderful support system in her family, helps Shaheen, because she opens up and talks about it to them whenever she feels low or suicidal. She actively seeks help by going to a therapist, when needed.
Alia too emphasizes the importance of speaking about what one is going through, because one can never talk about it enough. What a loved one can do to help is to truly listen and encourage them to speak. Often, just the act of listening is powerful, even if one is not able to something to ease the suffering.
Another thing Alia adds is that if someone is telling you their experience, then saying “you’re okay, everything is fine,” doesn’t help because the person is not feeling fine. It only irritates them and shuts down communication. It is better to let the person express what they are experiencing openly. Just like we let people stay happy when they are happy, we should also let them cry if they need to.
Responding to someone sharing their experience with anxiety, or stress also doesn’t help, according to Shaheen, because that then makes them feel guilty about making you feel bad. So it is important to be able to contain what they have to say, stay calm, ask the person what they need and help them the way they want to be helped. While this is not easy, it is something that can be learnt through practice.
Talking about treatment and therapy, Shaheen shared that what works for her keeps changing, and so she keeps tweaking her therapy accordingly. One cannot assume that what worked this month will also work the next month.
For Alia, as a family member of the depressed person, it helps her to feel less guilty and helpless when Shaheen tells her that she is here and that she is okay.
For Shaheen, it was her father’s advice that she should “not let her pain go to waste,” that inspired her to speak to openly about her experiences, and help others going through the same. Depression, isolating and unfathomable as it is, does not have to be a lonely journey.
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