Her work didn’t satisfy her but the pressure of failing at the thing she made her life’s priority kept her from taking the big step to quit.
She was late to meet Smriti. For the past year, she had not missed a single weekend meeting with her best friend. But today was different. A lot had happened in the week gone by.
She had missed an important deadline at work, had missed a crucial doctor’s appointment in order to meet said deadline. Then, she had fought with her parents over one of their never-ending marriage discussions. At 32 years, she was in a job that paid her well but tired her out mentally and physically. She was single, overweight and terrified.
The other day, she had almost had a breakdown in the office bathroom which hadn’t gone unnoticed by her colleagues. And now she just felt drained.
What was worse, she didn’t know how she could turn things around. Her work didn’t satisfy her but the pressure of failing at the one thing she had made her life’s priority kept her from making the life-changing decision to quit.
She felt like she was disappointing her parents and the thing that would bring them some peace, she felt unable to do. No, she could not marry. She hated what she saw in the mirror every day and was scared of anyone else noticing her flaws the way she did. So, life continued the way it did.
And now she was late. As she picked up her keys from their place above the fridge, she was drawn to a photograph on the wall opposite. It was her in her graduation robe, holding hands with a girl who looked just like her, same height, same long hair, same broad grin. Both looked happy and joyful, ready to take on the world. It was her favourite photograph with Smriti.
How times changed, she couldn’t help but think with a sigh. She rushed downstairs to the car parking, mentally counting the minutes, stuffed her dry-cleaning in the backseat. As she sat in the front seat, looked at the dashboard clock -7:00 a.m., muttered a curse and quickly typed a message – ‘Will not be able to make it today. Have been called to work.’
As she put the keys in the ignition, she felt a familiar sensation in her chest. It was a fast, unnatural beating which increased every second, followed by sweating in her palms. She had been experiencing these panic attacks for a couple of weeks now.
Initially, she dismissed them as a temporary result of the stress at work. But she had been forced to admit that something serious was amiss last week. She had lost control of her car during one such attack and almost crashed into a tree right outside her office. So she promptly made a doctor’s appointment. But as luck would have it she missed it due to an altercation with her boss that had taken hours to sort out.
She felt tears prickling her eyes. The mood swings had become just as regular an occurrence as the attacks. She tried to breathe slowly, chanting to herself that she was a strong, confident, independent woman who could handle everything. Lately, though, the chants rang hollow – she just felt alone.
Every time she even thought of consulting a psychiatrist she could hear her father’s voice in her ears mocking her. She remembered how he had reacted a few years back, after learning about a neighbour’s teenage daughter who was receiving counselling. The girl had undergone a vicious ragging incident at university
She recalled his reaction clearly, all these years later. “Why do children these days whine so much about mood swing, depression? It is all nonsense! One should just work hard and not think so much, friends and all fight, I don’t know what all this ragging business is. Her parents should just tell her to toughen up, no one in our time ever got counselling, we are all fine.”
She had been irritated with her father’s know-it-all tone then but had dismissed him as being a product of his time. Now though, faced with his invisible pull stopping her from getting the help, she thought she needed, she felt frustrated. And was blaming him for never understanding, never trying.
Her father had always been proud of her achievements. However, in the last couple of years, he had begun vociferously voicing his disappointment with her decision to not get married. Her statements regarding feminism, making her own life decisions had been met with cruel ridicule. And his reiteration that she was being stupid and would regret it one day when she was too old to find someone, still cut into her heart.
She felt herself getting agitated as she recalled his words. It was not enough that she berated herself every night looking at the reflection of her body, the tell-tale signs of the swift march of time all too apparent. But now she had to contend with her own family, her loved ones rubbing it in her face.
Her mother had just listened, not bothering to interfere. She hated her for being so subservient to her father and she hated herself for letting them both affect her life. The life that she had built with backbreaking hard work and grit. All for what, she wondered not for the first time. She banged the wheel hard and thought about skipping work, going back to bed.
Tomorrow, she told herself sternly. She was nothing if not strong. Smriti was like that too – tough, a survivor. As college mates, they had competed intensely but fairly for every exam, every co-curricular activity. Both were constantly overloaded their schedule with diplomas and summer school programmes.
They had pushed each other, supported each other and had been the first of their batchmates to score a pre-placement offer in their final years. Their families had been jubilant.
Smriti, like her, had devoted herself to her work, dismissed the idea of marriage entirely and focused on excelling at her job. But that was then, things had changed and so much, Smriti had changed too.
As painful memories flooded her brain, she forced herself to come back to the present, started the car and was soon on the main road. Despite it being a Saturday, the road was crowded with cars. That was Gurgaon for you. Even on a weekend, there was no respite.
She was glad she had decided to leave even earlier than her usual time – the drive to Noida was always unpredictable. Of all the day, today she couldn’t risk getting late – especially after the disaster that had been the week before. She didn’t want her boss to find another fault with her.
That’s when she realised suddenly she had forgotten to pack breakfast. She cursed. Dammit. The office canteen would be closed for the weekend. Only her team would be there. She had not had dinner the night before, too upset by the day at work to have an appetite for food and her stomach felt as if it would cave in any second.
Hoping to distract herself with music, she turned on the radio. There was a discussion going underway on her favourite channel. The name that was announced rung a bell. Krishna Tewari was a well-known psychologist, TED speaker and woman’s right activist.
She decided to keep listening instead of searching for a music show, catching the topic – Acceptance & Change: Remove the stigma. The panellist asked a question-“What do you make of the recent college suicides of children in colleges, in schools? Do you think we are not teaching our children to be strong? What is the problem?”
Krishna Tewari answered-“I think the problem is not that we are not teaching our children to be strong but that we are not allowing them to be weak. Facing and accepting your weakness and asking for help is just as important, if not more as facing challenges head-on.”
The panellist continued- “These days there are talks about removing the stigma from depression. Do you agree that depression should be taken just as seriously as other physical ailments like…” The rest of the line went unheard as a loud screech of tires caught her attention.
She barely saw the vision of a red car flash in front of her eyes before she swerved hard, missing the car by an inch and pushed the break with shaking legs. Her heart was in her mouth, and she felt herself trembling with belated fear.
The fear was followed by anger when she noticed the other car, moving unnaturally, crashing the pavement with a loud crack and then coming to a stop. She got out, anger overtaking any other reasonable thought in her mind. Instinctively, she knew the driver was a man, she was alone on the road, this was Haryana. But she felt rage build inside her at the thought of this man’s reckless driving.
She quickly memorized the number on the license plate and made her way purposefully to the driver’s side. As she opened the door, she saw a well-dressed man, wearing a suit, lying slouched on the seat, with his eyes glazed.
“What do you think you’re doing!” she all but screamed. The driver seemed only able to half-open his eyes and slurred something incomprehensible. Ten noticing that she wasn’t going to leave without an answer, finally sat upright and mumbled -“I am sorry! So sorry, so sorry.”
She looked at him in bewilderment, unsure how to proceed – this was her first time dealing with a drunk person. Her first instinct was to get back to her car and drive away. But as she noticed the driver starting the car again, something clicked in her brain, a memory.
Finally, she found her voice, opened the car door and put her hand on the key. “Stop!” she said, shocked at her own boldness. She could not let this man drive away and risk the lives of others on the road, she thought frantically. Her conscience wouldn’t let her.
Just then she also noticed a small, cowering girl, four or five years old, lying on the back seat, her eyes shut tight, mute, her hands shivering. “Is that your daughter?” she asked loudly and slowly, trying to get through to the seemingly unconscious stranger. He seemed too out of it to respond and just nodded.
She looked at the little girl and asked gently, “What is your name beta?” The girl shook her head, ignoring her outstretched hand. She sighed and decided to make some quick decisions “Look, sir, you have a little daughter. I think you realize that you are not in your senses. You could have crushed my car just back then. Do not risk her life and the lives of others on the road. I’ll call a cab for you and make arrangements for someone to pick up your car. Go home.”
She expected the man to lash out as men are wont to do, tell her to mind her own business and was thus surprised when the man started sobbing. “I am soo sorry, I was late to get to work, I am not drunk, I just haven’t slept in months. And I had to drop my daughter off to playschool, I was just late, I was not watching the road!” Saying this, he put his head in his hands, the words lost in his tears.
She just stood there, unsure of how to proceed – awkward at this intimate sharing of facts by a stranger. Somewhere, in her heart though she knew exactly where the man was coming from and could sympathize. She understood this need to share your deepest darkest fears with a stranger. All because you are too scared to share your weakness with those closest, for fear of judgment.
She understood this desperate need to keep moving forward even when your body is screeching No. And she understood how your own body could start failing you, how your mind follows. Mostly, she understood the fear of failure.
She felt sorry for the man. “Its all right sir,” she spoke finally.
“It’s not your fault. Believe me, work can be hard,” she laughed, attempting to lighten the mood. “Please wait here a second-I’ll get my phone. You’ve had a big shock, I’ll get some water too. Let me take care of you.” The man looked at her, gratitude written all over his face-gratitude for someone else making a decision. This was a temporary respite from the responsibilities of life, someone else with the answers.
She could only imagine but somewhere, somehow she knew she had read him right. He nodded. As she walked back to her car she felt a strange sense of relief, whether it was relief at being alive. Or whether it was relief at the strange sense of clarity she had experienced as she had spoken to the tired man – that it could have easily been her in that car, she didn’t know. And it didn’t matter.
She was alive but most importantly she was awake. Almost an hour later, after bidding the driver goodbye, she sat in her car knowing that she was not going to be going to work after all.
She was going to visit Smriti. So she started the car for the second time. The radio was still on and the discussion with the psychologist was almost ending.
The panellist asked the final question, “Are you saying ambition is ugly, striving for excellence a bad life goal?”
Krishana Tewari answered, “I would never suggest anyone curb their ambition, work, earning an honest living, reaching for the stars are all lofty goals. But when they are at the cost of personal happiness, I say what is the point. If the money you earn doesn’t satisfy you, if your family is not happy, if the quality of your life is suffering, the success is hollow. People need to learn to slow down, ask for help, better safe than sorry, better now than never.”
She smiled, switched off the radio and repeated to herself – better safe than sorry, better now than never.
Finally, she had reached. She parked her car in the crowded parking lot, walked inside the glass doors and made her way to Smriti’s room. Opening the door, she was struck again by the peacefulness of the space. She was excited she had not missed meeting her best friend.
Kushal, Smriti’s fiancee, would arrive in a while too. Smriti’s doctor was waiting by her bed on one side, a nurse adjusting an IV bag on another. “We got your message. I thought you would not be able to make it today,” he smiled. “So glad that you came anyway.”
“How is she doing today, Doctor,” she asked?
“Just the same but not worse,” he smiled sympathetically, taking her hand in his. “Take care.” She sat down by the bed. Smriti lay on the bed, her eyes closed as they had been for the past year. She looked more peaceful than she had ever been when she was conscious – stressed, overworked.
Tears pricked her eyes but she would not cry. Exactly a year go, Smriti had been driving to a meeting. A meeting had it been successful would have secured her position as vice president of operations with the company she was working.
Smriti had gotten engaged to her college sweetheart, her parents had been pressurizing for a quick marriage. She had been working without a break, hoping to complete all work deadlines before the marriage festivities took over. Smriti had been driving fast.
Her friend, the consummate professional, the logical, practical, hardworking topper of the batch had been suffering from insomnia. It started during the many weeks in the line up to the biggest day of her professional career. She had taken pills for the first time in her life when the lack of sleep of many weeks had piled up and at 3 in the morning she was still awake.
So she had been disoriented while driving. She had hit a car and was now she was in a coma. Her perfect friend, her inspiration had let her down. She had disappeared.
As she looked at her, lying on the bed, as if just asleep, she decided to make a confession. “I have decided to make a change, Smriti. I have decided to slow down. We did too much, we did it all alone. And we were scared to get help. We were wrong. There is more to life than work. Somewhere along the way of reaching the top, we lost ourselves. I am taking a break and I need this. We need this. I love you, I will not let you down.”
That very day she sent a resignation letter to her boss, sent her father a message explaining the circumstances, not prepared to speak to him just yet. And booked an appointment with Krishna Tewari. She also booked an appointment with a sleep doctor who had recommended several tests. The results of which had been delivered. She was diagnosed with diabetes and the sleep tests had revealed her as suffering from narcolepsy-a chronic and incurable sleep disorder.
lThe diagnosis had shaken her but she was glad that now she knew and could take steps to change her life. Better now than never, safe than sorry, she repeated her counsellor’s mantra. She had begun going for weekly sessions. Now she felt lighter than she had been in years, at peace.
Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. She had finally accepted that. But like every exam, life provides multiple lessons, opportunities to correct past mistakes, do better next time.
She had not failed Smriti. Maybe, she might have made her friend’s struggles worth it. She would get help and start over. And she would succeed. She was taking a pause, making a change. And she would be just fine.
Picture credits: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
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Shriya Pandey is a qualified lawyer with specific work experience in the area of intellectual
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