As she sits eating butterscotch ice cream in her hospital bed, it's hard to believe that she was brought here near-dead along with her sister Anuradha Behl, 48, a little less than two weeks ago. Anuradha died of dehydration-induced multi-organ failure the next day.
Shonali Behl, 44, survived, but bears the scars of their ordeal induced by depression, which made them shut out the world and live holed up inside their sector-28 Noida home for almost six months. Shonali is shrunken, weighing a little more than 30 kg – the weight of a healthy 10-year-old — and looks a decade older than her 44 years.
"I'm happy here," says Shonali listlessly. The fact that she is talking at all is an improvement from a week ago. "When she was brought here, she barely spoke and when she did, her speech was incoherent," says the nurse looking after her in the medical ICU of Kailash Hospital, Noida.
The nurse can't understand how an apparently intelligent woman buckled under depression. "It's
unbelievable that she just sat there waiting to die. She has sharp questions about the treatment being given to her," she said.
Shonali's diagnosis is psychosis triggered by acute depression. "This was a classic example of folieaduex, a condition in which two people share a psychosis. Being older, Anuradha took charge after their parents died and Shonali followed her, leading to induced psychosis," says GR Golechha, the psychiatrist treating her.
The trigger was their being sacked when the company they worked for downsized in 1996, right after the deaths of their father in 1992 and mother in 1995. "Within a few years, Anuradha had started scribbling notes that were mostly abstract. Three years ago, the two started hearing threatening female voices asking them not to step out of the house," says Dr Golechha. "The quick succession of tragedies were just a trigger, not the cause. The problem was already there," he says.
Anuradha had a congenitally disfigured face. "She couldn't get married because of her defect. The bond between the two was so great that the younger one also decided not to marry," he says.
The final straw was their brother Vipin Behl, 41, moving out of home after he got married in 2007. They started ordering groceries on the phone and avoided people, including their brother. "They thought I wanted the house and refused to let me in," he says. The death of their dog Choti in July broke their will to live. "After that, they stopped answering the phone," says Vipin, who last saw them in October 2010.
Gradually, the imaginary voices became so strong the two stopped ordering groceries on the phone. Shonali, though, still had a tenuous link with reality. "Before the police came, I wanted to call a doctor because Anuradha had been bleeding heavily, she didn't let me," Shonali told her psychiatrist. Ice-cream over, she begins physiotherapy sessions. She closely follows the therapist's directions: bend, straight, bend, straight, relax. Suddenly, she turns and asks her brother: "Has Anuradha died?" She gets no answer.