A letter to the reader

For three years it was as if I stood in a dark room, in a building located in a place where no one lived or ever came.

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~By Prashant Bhatia

Dear Reader,

Welcome. I am writing this letter to you because I want you to know that whatever it is you are going through right now: personally, professionally, emotionally or spiritually, you can, and you will, go through it and move ahead in your life. The reason I say this upfront is because I do not want you to wait till the end of this letter to know this. It is also my wish for you. I wish for you to know that things might seem difficult right now, but you can move ahead if you try.

You are probably thinking who am I to tell you this? And your suspicion is justified. You and I are complete strangers. Yet, I am alive like you are and I am going through many difficulties just like you are.

In fact, nearly seven months ago, I was in a place I wish no one would ever be in. A time when the dark monster of fear, doubt and negativity held me in its firm grip and wouldn’t let me go. Shook to my core, I felt a sense of emptiness and distress, that made me cry every few minutes. If I wasn’t crying, I wanted to sleep; live in my world of dreams. But, after a point, the body gives up and you cannot sleep any more. That’s when I lay lifeless and asked people around me, my parents, to talk softly while I would close my eyes, breathe deeply and let out a gentle hum with every exhalation. I lost weight and things that made me feel good: yoga, morning walks and music lost their appeal. Irritable and anxious, I argued with my folks often, blamed them for things they were clearly not responsible for. Anger for life, how unfair it had been to me, took control of my consciousness. Negative thoughts about the future scurried through my mind at a breathtaking pace. I did not know where was I headed? I could have harmed myself or worse someone else, even my parents; who were already going through hell witnessing me, their child, behave in such strange ways. I cannot begin to imagine how painful that must have been.

As grim as things seemed then, I had little idea that destiny had other plans for me. As the old adage goes, one has to hit rock bottom before they can resurrect. Coincidentally, my resurrection began on October 10, 2016: World Mental Health Day when the beautiful and talented Deepika Padukone courageously shared with the world her battle with depression and how she overcame it, at a press event organised for the Live-Love-Laugh-Foundation. I remember seeing her picture in the newspaper, standing pretty in a grey outfit, her hair done up in a quiff, holding back tears as she narrated her story. I can never thank Ms Padukone enough, for it was her courage that inspired me to seek help.

Dr Shyam Bhat, the psychiatrist responsible for her successful recovery, happened to be one of the speakers at the event. He told the press something that needs to be heard by more people in our society. “If people have diabetes, they go to their doctor and seek help without any hesitation. Then why don’t we do the same for mental illness?” he said. A very relevant question, considering depression and anxiety are rapidly becoming serious health concerns in modern India. The most recent United Nations and WHO assessments labelled India as one of the top 3 countries most affected by mental health disorders.

To be honest, I was hesitant at first too. The stigma around mental health is so profound that it creates a psychological barrier to seek help. But, I had nothing more to lose. I had been suffering silently in a silo and it was time for me to reach out to those who could help. I was very fortunate to have my parents’ support. My mother asked my father to find out where Dr. Bhat practiced which is when my father found out about Seraniti in Bangalore. Through detailed emails, my father narrated my state and Ms. Geetha Simon who handles all administrative matters at Seraniti arranged two appointments for us at short notice.

On October 19, 2016 my father and I boarded a flight to Bangalore to visit Seraniti. I always wanted to see Bangalore, my mother too wanted me to go and visit. But, neither of us knew that one day, I will be going there for treatment. It is very different when you see a city for the first time not as a tourist but as a prospective patient. You do not feel like going sight-seeing or shopping or doing any of the usual tourist activities because you have a ‘purpose’ and that consumes your energy.

On Thursday October 21, 2016 we visited Seraniti for the first time and met Mr. Krishna Sharma, a psychotherapist who works there. In a brief conversation, a moment I still remember was when I asked him, whether I can be honest about my problems and expect him to be non-judgemental. He smiled reassuringly, looked at me and said, “Of course, that is what I have been trained for in the profession of psychology.”  I came out of the clinic feeling like I had found the place and the people who could help me get well.

The next day, I met Dr. Annie Jayanth Mathew, a psychiatrist and generally a wonderful person who listened patiently to my story, watched me cry, and offered me water when I got too emotional to even speak. I asked her, “Can professionals here help me get well?” and she replied, “Yes. I think so.”

It took another meeting and a therapy session with Mr. Krishna for my treatment plan to be finalised. Depression and anxiety was the reason behind my feelings of hopelessness, fear and low-self-esteem, among other things. I could relate to Dr. Annie instantly when she explained the diagnosis based on my symptoms. I felt relieved and disappointed at the same time, for I had received a correct diagnosis after being misdiagnosed in the past.

During my initial sessions, I shared details about how feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and fear stopped me from accepting some great opportunities. How my internal struggle with my sexuality made things even harder for me because I could not find love and a partner. It was a relief to share all these thoughts and feelings that I had bottled up for more than a decade.

On 2 November 2016, I started online therapy sessions with Mr. Krishna. By then I was already a few days into taking medicines for controlling symptoms of depression and anxiety (daily). Back then and now, my sole motivation to commit to the treatment plan was to get well. I want to know what happiness feels like, I want to experience love and be loved, be productive and independent, see my parents happy; for they deserve it.

In therapy, I learnt that negative thoughts of sadness, helplessness, past or future anxiety and worry are nothing but creations of my mind. These thoughts have NOTHING to do with my present reality. Mindfulness, cognitive behaviour therapy and art therapy are some of the ways, taught to me by Mr Krishna that helped me realise this.

I longed to be on the path of recovery and end the cycle of hopelessness. For three years, I lived in social isolation, staying at home all day, not doing anything and seeing life through the lens of depression and anxiety. I wanted to change, but cautiously because in the past, I began projects, only to give them up mid-way. I did not want this to happen to my treatment. So, I took small steps and slowly followed everything I was asked to do: get regular exercise and adequate sleep, eat a balanced diet, express gratitude for the good things in my life like my relationship with my parents and spend a few hours doing something constructive each day. I started spending four to five hours going to the American Centre Library in Delhi. I attended their events: public talks by inspirational people who were pushing themselves and conquering new peaks in life. One such event was a seminar by the first female African-American Navy Admiral of the U. S as well as one by Ms. Barkha Dutt, two phenomenally inspiring people. Every Friday, I tried to watch a free movie or a stand-up comedy show there. I credit this place as being important in my journey. By spent time in their library where I read books about people who had overcome difficulties, like Men in the Boat, about the relentless struggle of American rowers who won the 1936 Olympic Gold. It taught me to tell myself, “mind in the boat” as a reminder to stay in the present moment, whenever my mind created negative thoughts.

Although a good start, this was clearly not a sustainable solution. There is a lot more to life and in order to be on the path of true wellness I need to experience the beauty of living a wholesome life. With my parents support, Dr Annie’s and Mr Krishna’s treatment, I accepted an offer to study Master of Global Media Communication at the University of Melbourne in Australia. I will always be grateful, as the university awarded me a partial-scholarship based on my previous academic achievements. I, with my father, arrived in Melbourne on February 5, 2017.

The months leading up to my departure were full of very anxious moments. Self-doubt and low self-esteem plagued me. I wondered if I would have the stamina and mental strength to concentrate and study well. I felt guilty about using my parents’ money to live in Australia because the scholarship would only reduce my tuition fee. I felt at 31, I was too old to do a Masters. But, most of all I feared that I would not be able to handle the pressure and drop out of the course, something I had done on many occasions in the past. At every milestone: when finalising accommodation, shopping for supplies or booking tickets, I felt a strong sense of fear. At times, I fought with it using techniques I learnt in therapy, other times I surrendered and let life take its course.

The city of Melbourne is not new to me. But, my past experiences here have been traumatic and deprived me of self-confidence. I faced racism and discrimination both personally and professionally, been ignored, ridiculed and treated with contempt. Yet, I am here because of the opportunity the course and scholarship present. I want to respect both and use them to lead a more meaningful life. It’s been four months now. I finished the first semester of my Masters a few days ago, while battling depression and anxiety. Attending classes, participating in them regularly, completing all assignments to the best of my ability while meeting every challenge that they posed: interviewing people or applying theory to practical examples or researching and writing 2000 word essays, I have enjoyed learning how to do these things.

Life is still very challenging. Barely a month after arriving in Melbourne, I was injured in a car accident that left me shaken, physically and mentally. I had 5 stitches to cover up the wound on the back of my head. It took me at least a month to recover from it mentally, with the help of regular therapy sessions with Mr Krishna and consultations with Dr Annie. I decided giving up and going home to Delhi was not the right option.

My classes begin in a few days and I know that there is a long road ahead for me. I still have to find work that will make me financially independent, give me a sense of achievement and contribution. I have limited funds which restrict the avenues I can explore. It is too soon for me to apply for an internship, but I can and will apply for a Graduate Ambassador Program at the University, something I had wanted to do since day one. Although I am living in Australia where homosexuality is legal and gay men or women are able to live openly, they can have successful careers, fulfilling long term relationships and even adopt kids, but, I am all alone. Because, I am often judged for my skin colour or ethnicity or the fact that I have no grounding here (no home no career or money).

But, I like the fact that I am progressing. I am conscious of the present and grateful for it. I implement the techniques I have learnt in therapy whenever I get anxious or depressed. I practice mindfulness, cook for myself and am back to doing yoga every day. Music gives me immense pleasure as does reading and taking a long walk on the beach or watching a movie. I am taking medicines as Dr. Annie prescribed and have therapy sessions with Mr Krishna once or twice a week. I am here all alone, but I talk to parents very often. These are the people whom I credit for my progress.

I would like to make an analogy to sum up my journey of recovery so far. For three years it was as if I stood in a dark room, in a building located in a place where no one lived or ever came. It is a lonely and frightening place to be in. Through the treatment plan and my parents’ unconditional support, I have been able to muster up the courage to switch on the light in that dark room, find a key to the door and unlock it to step out of the building. This is as far as I have reached till now. I still have to find a way to travel away from this building, to a place where people live and where I can be happy and at peace.

I shared my story with you because during the past eight months of treatment, I have realised that it is possible to treat depression and anxiety. You are not alone, you just have to reach out and ask for help from someone you trust, your parents, a relative, friend, teacher, neighbour or doctor. Even the Prime Minister of our country, Shri Narendra Modi, has talked about depression and how it is not helpful to suppress it in his radio show ‘Mann ki baat’.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLgfqDmELgo)

Thank you for reading my story. I hope I have been able to let you know that if you, or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, then please take help. Talk to someone about it. There is no shame in accepting it; your mental health is in your hands just like your career or your personal life is.

I wish you all good health, peace and happiness.

– Prashant Bhatia

Illustrated by Sambita Modak

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