Why are you depressed?” Nothing can irritate a self-absorbed depressed soul more than this question. For, where does one start? As someone who has been battling depression as long as one can remember, I find the question not just annoying but highly patronising. What does one say? I have been depressed because my girlfriend left me? I am depressed because I did badly in school? Or I am depressed because I don’t know what to write in my columns every fortnight? Asking a depressive such a question is like asking an astrophysicist, ‘How did the universe begin? What twist of fate started it all?’
I had no intention of writing on depression (though it is my favourite topic of conversation) but reading the papers this week and reading about the suicides of the famous and the not so famous due to depression I could not think of anything better to write about.
Every time I read about a suicide due to depression, a word flashes in my mind: relief. I believe people kill themselves when their emotional pain exceeds their power to deal with the pain. The emotional pain could be caused by extraneous factors — financial debt, trauma or incessant torture by family for delivering a baby girl — but once we take these factors aside and focus only on the internal emotional mess, we cannot help but confront a simple truth: for the victim it is an end to suffering no matter what the humanist discourse all around us would like us to believe.
In June this year, a friend of mine committed suicide by hanging. His maid who had a key to his apartment came in to work in the morning as usual and found his body hanging from the ceiling fan. I was in Delhi when I heard the news and could not attend the prayer service for him. The news scared me because the thought of ending my life has crossed my mind millions of times and every time I find myself lacking in courage or motivation and eventually the thought passes over. The evening I heard about my friend’s death, I wondered if someday someone would come to my place and find me dead with a note declaring I chose my fate independently. I remember calming myself by saying that my friend — to the best of my knowledge — was not doing anything to deal with his depression.
Unlike India, there is serious scepticism about psychiatry in the west. There are studies in medical journals that claim that psychiatry — where diagnosis is extremely difficult and often vague — doesn’t do much other than find different names for common human anxieties and prescribe drugs that in the long run often do more damage than good. Depression, according to the sceptics, is one of the most easily diagnosed psychiatric ailments, which is why it is often called the common cold of psychiatry.
I see a different psychiatry-related scepticism in India. Recently, a friend came over for a drink and complained he has been depressed for a long time now. When I suggested he should go ahead and seek help, he refused saying that given the kind of background he comes from, visiting a shrink comes with a lot of emotional baggage and visiting one may cause more harm to him than good.
I am not too sure which side of the debate I stand. In my 20s, I maintained a disciplined distance from pharmaceutical drugs that kept one away from depression but experimented with other drugs to keep my mind from negative thoughts. I also regularly consulted a psychotherapist to ‘talk my issues out’, but barring a string of insightful moments I think I mostly left the couch feeling more depressed. In those moments I wished my therapist would open a drawer and take out a pill and say ‘here take this and feel better again’ but the only medical advice my therapist ever gave me was that if I did not quit smoking the substances I was addicted to, I would find myself more and more depressed as time went on.
The therapist was right. Today my medicine cabinet is full of anti depressants, mood stabilisers, anti-anxiety drugs and multi-vitamin pills (to fight the ill effects of medication). All of the medication is prescribed by doctors who know what they are doing though every time I visit my psychiatrist in Delhi I wish he spent a little more time with me in his chamber and talk to me about my issues.
Perhaps I am getting better with time and my will to live a longer and more meaningful life is stronger than before. Yet, I sometimes wonder if I have plainly given in to the pressure and would rather have medicines than give my parents and my girlfriend a tough time dealing with a depressive. I don’t know if medicines is the answer or therapy because neither of them can cure depression (all they do is make one get more comfortable with their suffering and create possibilities of a life with more hope and less harm) but I am sure that keeping one’s depression in the closet is more self destructive than slashing one’s wrist or blowing one’s brains out.
Mayank Tewari is a writer