He seems to be on an upside. Sitting in his plush office on the 16th floor of an infrastructure services firm in Gurgaon's Cyber City, Akhileshwar Sahay looks far removed from a person who has suffered serious mental illness.
He shows HT an invitation to be part of a policy group comprising stakeholders, who would advise the government on improving the conditions of the mentally ill.
Sahay, 52, is in remission from Bipolar Depression, where the person's mood swings— between euphoria and depression — are extreme and unpredictable. "On the upside in a bipolar hyper-manic episode, one can be very, very productive. Normally, no one with bipolar disorder goes to a doctor when he is on the upside," he says.
Author-critic Virginia Woolf, former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and actor Catherine Zeta Jones are among some people diagnosed with bipolar illnesses. But it's anything but glamourous. "When there are lows, you are like a vegetable. You don't want to do anything, you are listless," he says.
Sahay suffered his first severe manic attack in the summer of 1997. "I had just joined Essar Steel as vice president, corporate finance. Before that, for six years, I worked in government, which included a stint in the Konkan Railways, where I worked with E. Sreedharan."
He lists the factors that triggered the attack: "First, the change itself was tough. I went from being a pampered government officer to a family-held company in the corporate sector. The stress was tremendous and the working hours long, which led to sleep-deprivation and anxiety. Perhaps the biggest trigger was the value incongruence between my personal set of values and what I perceived were corporate values."
Sahay is grateful that his employers stood by him. "It is very easy to chuck somebody out when that person is mentally ill. But they allowed me to go on study leave and pursue my MBA, which I did against the advice of my psychiatrist. But my wife was confident it was the right thing to do."
Support from his wife Sharmila helped Sahay bounce back. "She treated my condition like any other illness. She played exclusive care -giver and informed psychotherapist without having a degree," he says.
Fourteen years after his second major bipolar attack, Sahay has started the Whole Mind India Foundation to help others like him cope with mental illnesses. He is also putting the finishing touches to his autobiography, which he plans to call Of Madness and sadness: Life and times of an ordinary Indian.
In life-long maladies such as his, says Sahay, medical science can only manage the disease — not cure it. So, one has to play by the rules. "Medication conformity has to be 100%," says the genial executive, who has been on Lithium for close to 14 years now. "Plus, the patient and his family should be educated on the effects and side effects of psychotropic drugs."