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“There was a gaping hole in my heart that I thought could be filled by love or alcohol,” Pooja Bhatt pours her heart out

#99ShadesOfGrey The actor, who is a recovering alcohol addict, says her addiction was deeply connected to her depression

brunch Updated: Jun 29, 2018 23:08 IST
Pooja Bhatt
Pooja Bhatt
Hindustan Times
#99ShadesOfGrey,Pooja Bhatt,depression
(Jayesh Sheth)

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain brought back memories of the day Jiah Khan hanged herself. It was such shocking news. My father, Alia, Shaheen and I were sitting together and the conversation veered to suicide.

Shaheen and I talked about how we’d wanted to pull the plug on our lives on occasions. Alia couldn’t believe it. My father was also shocked, but he said, at least we can have this conversation as a family. I read somewhere that as long as you think about it, talk about it and air it, you won’t do it.

“People don’t choose to be low, to be depressed, to be addicts. I realise today that my relationship with alcohol was very similar to my dysfunctional relationship with men”

I find it really disturbing that whenever there is such a tragedy people sit in judgement and say how cowardly it is to take ones life. If you hadn’t been in someone’s shoes you are in no position to say such things...you don’t know what tremendous amount of pain a person must have gone through to take that drastic final decision. It is not easy to get into the mind of people and analyse how they are processing a particular event or incident. You can have the same window but never the same view. But then there are people who are deliberately mean and hurtful, who will not spare any opportunity to run you down even when you are going through your lowest low.

I faced similar reactions from people when I started talking about my struggle with alcohol. People don’t choose to be low, to be depressed, to be addicts. I realise today that my relationship with alcohol was very similar to my dysfunctional relationship with men (not counting my marriage, I think that’s the most functional relationship of my life because even now I am best friends with Munna. You can’t rewind the river. You can’t go back in that sense, at least I can’t and today we are both in a very different space in our relationship, but we are still there for each other).

When I look at my life squarely and harshly I realise that I used both, alcohol and love, to feel at home.There was a gaping hole in my heart that I thought either of the two could fill. It is only now that I realise instead of quenching my thirst to feel complete, those enhanced it and made it stronger. Just like soft drinks. They are not designed to quench your thirst but to make you thirstier. That is how they sell coca cola!

In India, it is now that people are talking about it. For the longest time it was considered as a rich man’s ailment. People would say ‘Oh you have the privilege to indulge in depression!’ I feel very strongly that depression has played a role in my life since I was a little girl. My way of coping with depression was initially by eating, and then I took to drinking; by the time I was on the other side of 30, I was an alcoholic. Before that I was just a vivacious and voracious social drinker. But food was an escape for me; it was a way to deal with pain. I was deeply impacted by the lows my parents were feeling when their marriage was breaking up. My young little mind didn’t know what depression was but whenever I felt sad or low I took refuge in food, I would eat. I was an emotional eater. So I would eat when I would feel high and when I would feel low I would eat more. My body went through a yo-yo syndrome. My weight would fluctuate drastically. Especially in my 20s. One day I was thin, one day I was fat, my weight was a direct reflection of my mental state at that point.

Food gave me comfort. When I got older it was alcohol and dysfunctional relationships where I sought that comfort. I would get involved with people who were as broken as me. Thinking that I can save this person. But the person who needed rescuing was me.

““I feel very strongly that depression has played a role in my life since I was a little girl. My way of coping with depression was initially by eating, and then I took to drinking; by the time I was on the other side of 30, I was an alcoholic”

Many people ask why I call myself an addict. I would still go to a party and walk out in a happy high. Our idea of an alcoholic is really skewed. We think it will be somebody lying in some gutter half-naked, but an alcoholic might be wearing pearls and diamonds and look perfectly functional to you. And people drink to escape depression; you don’t become an alcoholic because you are happy. Any addiction, whether it is love, power, sex, drugs or alcohol, these are means to escape when you can’t handle the realities of life.

As a child I had seen my father move out, and I had also known about my father’s relationship with Parveen Babi. My father was very open about everything, his life, his feelings. I saw his up close and personal relationship with her. Although I was a kid I understood some of it. I came to terms with the fact that he moved out. That he lived with her. But I also got to know of her mental condition from him. In those days most people were not aware of these kind of mental diseases. Mental health was hardly a topic of discussion. But I was aware of the terms as well as some of the signs. Maybe that somewhere helped me deal with the highs and lows a tad better coupled with my zeal to always bounce back.

I have seen the highs and lows in my acting career. But I think I managed that part of my life pretty well. I had told myself at the very beginning that I will not get too affected by a hit or a flop. I was prepared for this world. I was able to manoeuvre that part of my existence quite sanely. For me, being famous, being a celebrity, being a star, being an actor, didn’t matter that much. Now, some people call me a ‘has-been’ …but to be a ‘has-been’ you have to be the ‘been’ first! I don’t take such things to the heart. But I found the world around me in such disarray that I couldn’t deal with it. So much negativity, propaganda, filth everywhere. People who feel a lot and feel deeply are more prone to being depressed. And I am overly sensitive.

“I would rather stand away from the crowd that believes in suppressing and brushing such things under the carpet.... In fact, what has largely helped me cope was that I was always very vocal about my emotions and feelings”

But as I grew older I realised that these are things I can’t change, the only thing I can change is myself. And this happened after a text from my father in December 2016. I had sent him a simple text say ‘I love you, dad’, to which he responded: “if you love me, then love yourself, for I live in you”. It was that message and especially what I read in between those words that set me on my course of sobriety. That message hit me so much that I decided to become the best version of myself. And shout from the rooftop and celebrate each day of my recovery. People think now that I am sober for so long, what’s the big deal. But each day is still a challenge.

My father can put me on the course of sobriety; he can call ‘action’ and call the ‘cut’ but in-between that take I am on my own. Somebody can explain the scene to you, give you the dialogues, light you up beautifully, but once the director says action,YOU need to perform.

I had to take those steps myself but which each step towards sobriety I felt powerful--each step gave me strength to take the next. Sometimes the legs were shaky. There were more people who wanted me to fail than the ones who wanted me to succeed. Somewhere my not drinking was reminding them that they are not being able to deal with their issues. Some friendships fell apart, some grew stronger, but the greatest relationship I found was the one with myself. And that is the most important thing. You go on vacations you demons will travel with you; you eat your stomach will get full, you burn that and you are empty again; you drink the best malt you get high you pass out, then you wake up and you still have the same shit to deal with. But I was able to recognise that and hold my frailties into light. I would rather stand away from the crowd that believes in suppressing and brushing such things under the carpet. These are issues we really need to talk about. Put them in the open. In fact, what has largely helped me cope was that I was always very vocal about my emotions and feelings. Most people aren’t this lucky. Many can’t even articulate their feelings to themselves. Even if they do, they don’t have anybody in their life to share that with. That is why today every second person is going to a psychiatrist. I am lucky to have that family.

Feeling low is a part of our existence. There are people who seem happy all the time. It is a façade that we put up. It is better to sit down and acknowledge what you are actually feeling. It is alright if today I am not feeling fine, if I am feeling low, I am feeling unsure, I am feeling ugly, I am feeling fat, I am feeling vulnerable. It is amazing how much strength you get acknowledging that and saying it out loud. That burden of bottling up does the maximum harm. Internal bleeding is more dangerous. When you cut your head and you bleed it is far less serious than a concussion that might go unnoticed and damage you for life or lead you to a coma. So, whatever you are going through, talk about it. Don’t be ashamed to show your wounds.

(As told to Ananya Ghosh)

From HT Brunch, June 30, 2018

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First Published: Jun 28, 2018 21:49 IST