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Flying over the cuckoo’s nest

A fiery red button, panic, fear. Tears, a big black hole, abyss, depression, suicide? The end. Foul mood, swinging mood. Rage, frustration, stress. Stop. Here are stories of three people who conquered the demons in their minds, with a little help

brunch Updated: Jun 30, 2012 18:30 IST
Saudamini Jain

A fiery red button, panic, fear. Tears, a big black hole, abyss, depression, suicide? The end. Foul mood, swinging mood. Rage, frustration, stress. Stop.



This isn’t a critically-acclaimed book, an award-winning film, the gothic "troubled" teenager in your daughter’s class, your 52-year-old bachelor uncle in Lucknow who is "not quite all right." Here’s a reality check: One in five people in the country suffer from a mental disorder, according to a 2010 study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.



It could be stress, a traumatic experience in your childhood or vulnerable genes, there’s no knowing why and how but there is a what-now. The silver lining is that many mental illnesses – depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias and various personality disorders – are manageable. "With many kinds of illnesses, a person can lead a normal, functional life – with medication and a strong support system," says Dr Pulkit Sharma, consultant clinical psychologist and psychoanalytical therapist at the Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences (VIMHANS), New Delhi. "You may not even need medication. Many illnesses can be managed with something as simple as counselling."



It’s not a reason for secret despair. There is nothing more dignified than fighting a mental disorder. That’s what people in this story did. A grown man complete with a fancy corporate job, a boy when he was just a teenager and a girl, barely an adult. It could be us.

health





Akhileshwar Sahay, 53

Bipolar disorder


Characterised by radical, unpredictable mood swings marked by periods of elation (manic high) and depression.

The year was 1997. Sahay had quit a government job with Konkan Railways and joined the Essar Group as vice-president, finance. Suddenly, there was a lot of stress, he was working painfully long hours and the tough corporate value system of the private sector took its toll. That, he says, triggered his bipolar disorder.



He was diagnosed within the year (it can sometime take years for people to be correctly diagnosed). "You’re a different person when you’re on a high, nothing seems impossible. You become delusional, too talkative and splurge indiscriminately," he says. When you’re low, you’re depressed, tired, listless.



For his family, it was just an illness to be treated. Friends and colleagues were apprised. "They were told that it’s like high blood pressure, and I’m able to manage it with medication." Plus, there were regular visits to the doctor, a healthier and more disciplined lifestyle and some adjustments (considering the nature of his illness). On a bad day, he could spend millions. So, he gave his wife complete control over his finances. "For daily expenses, I take R100 from my family, every morning."



He is now the president of a consultancy company and strategic advisor to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. Work has only improved after his illness, courtesy a disciplined lifestyle. He’s been married for 26 years, and has two sons – one preparing for an MBA and the other a student in IIT Kanpur. Life, as they say, is good.

Karan Bopanna*, 22
Borderline manic anxiety disorder

Characterised by overwhelming fear, paranoia, panic attacks, insomnia and severe mood swings.
In 2005, Bopanna was a moody 15-year-old. He was chatty one moment, an introvert the next. It could’ve been teenage angst. Just three years ago, he had found out he was dyslexic. In school, he made the 40 per cent promotion cut every year only because his teachers at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Delhi, were kept in the loop. But the mood swings got worse. Insomnia, paranoia and panic attacks kicked in.

Bopanna’s diagnosis: Borderline manic anxiety disorder that could lead to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia if left untreated. The side-effects of the medicines kicked in first. He grew irritable and put on weight, “obese,” he clarifies. His head was heavy most of the time. But, “you get used to the side effects,” he says matter-of-factly. He started exercising – basketball, weight-lifting, anything that would physically exhaust him into slumber at night. Class 10 was a dark, dreary year.

And then came the board results: 86 per cent. Victory. “It marked the upward curve of my life,” he says. He was suddenly confident. He made new friends. School life had begun. When the mind is occupied, he says, you think only of that moment. You can block all your demons out. Bopanna knew he had to keep busy. He partied a lot, learnt Spanish, Italian, the drums. “I also tried dancing. But, er, that didn’t work out,” he laughs. This was seamlessly followed by a History Honours at Hindu College, Delhi University. By the end of which he was off medication.

Last year, he joined an NGO that requires him to work in a congested, poor neighbourhood infested with petty crime. The paranoia and panic attacks have returned. He’s back on the meds for now, till he finishes his work at the NGO, something he doesn’t wish to heave halfway.

Has the journey been difficult? “Sometimes you need to make extra effort, but it was nothing out of the ordinary,” he states simply.
* Name changed on request

Tanvi Vij, 20
Clinical depression

Characterised by low self-esteem, lack of appetite along with persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
“I don’t think I’m completely fine, even today,” says Vij. She still gets mild anxiety attacks when she talks to complete strangers. So this interview was first conducted via email. But, the worst is behind her. This student of Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur, has been off counselling for a year now, and manages without any medication.

There had been an abusive incident when she was a child. But she bottled it up. It still makes her jittery. She had no real friends to speak of, to talk to. Two years ago, in Class 12, the pressure of the board exams did her in. She was an average student and like in most Indian househeholds, there was a sense of disappointment. “Nobody should judge you on marks and stuff,” she says softly, “I always judged myself on these things.”

By the time she was in an architecture college, she was spiralling down. She would cry and scream. She didn’t want to face people, she could not eat more than once in two weeks. “I couldn’t enter my hostel mess because there were people in it.” She stopped bathing. She dropped out of college. She was diagnosed with clinical depression. Her family refused to accept “that such a ‘disease’ existed and that a ‘complete stranger’ (read: psychologist) could help me with my personal life,” she says. Exercise, they’d say. “But a when you’re contemplating jumping off a building every two minutes, exercise is out of question,” she explains. The medication kicked in. But it was counselling that helped the most. Suicide is something she now knows she will never attempt. “I still have a long way to go,” she admits. But she tries. Driving lessons, guitar classes, calligraphy, painting... “I’ve also made some new friends,” she says smiling.

Are you...Sleeping too little or too much?
Becoming withdrawn or talking too much without thinking?
Not eating or eating a lot?
Losing concentration?
Have relationship problems?
If you tick more than three boxes, something may be wrong

What to do for a healthy mind
1. Eat wholesome meals at regular intervals. There’s a strong link between junk food and depression.
2. Pursue a hobby but without targets. If you go to the gym to unwind, stop thinking about burning calories.
3. Get a support system, someone you can talk to openly and honestly
4. Pay attention to yourself. Compromising your own goals for others will only lead to frustration.
5. If you feel something is wrong, get intervention. Just counselling can help at an early stage.
Dr Pulkit Sharma, psychologist

‘Oh man! that movie is crazy!’



Crazy films



* Girl Interrupted: Based on author Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, it is about her stay at a mental institution

* Black Swan: A ballerina’s mental distress in the competitive world of professional ballet

* Woh Lamhe: Love story of a director and a schizophrenic actress, allegedly modelled on Parveen Babi

* 15 Park Avenue: The story of a young girl’s progression into schizophrenia and its impact on her family

* A Beautiful Mind: A true story of Nobel-prize winning mathematician John Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia

* Mr. Jones: The story of a man with bipolar disorder and a female psychiatrist who falls in love with him

The biblio files
Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami: A story of Japanese students through love, loss and mental illness
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath: A writer’s descent into mental illness parallelling Plath’s own experiences
Em and The Big Hoom - Jerry
Pinto: A boy’s account of life with a mentally unstable mother

From HT Brunch, July 1

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