I have known my friend S for a long number of years. She was one of the people who helped me really settle down when I moved to Bangalore. A couple of years ago, she went through a messy separation and eventual divorce during which time I helped around by playing babysitter to her wonderful daughter N. Like most friendships strengthened by a calamitous event, we eventually drifted apart once the event was over.
Sometime during later part of the last year, I was out shopping when in the cavernous walkway of the mall, I heard a familiar voice call out my name. It was S. We caught up over coffee that afternoon and then eventually over more coffees and beers, we told each other our stories. A common thread running through both of them.
This is her story.
“I’ll ask again. Why?”, S asks with a voice barely audible over the hissing, steaming pressure cooker in the kitchen.
“Because I am a selfish storyteller. Because I want to somewhere during our conversations try and find something that I can connect to. Something that I can hear and say, ‘Aha, it was like that for me too’”.
“So, you want to be validated?”
“Don’t we all?”
“Ok, if I cry too much, you buy me ice-cream?”
“At first, I didn’t know what it was you know? It came on suddenly as well over a few months. Building and building and then bam! like some bus hitting a tree or something. You know how it feels no?”
I nod in agreement. This is the part that always has me in knots and confusion and teary. That for each of so different in every way imaginable, this is the way it begins for everyone.
S is a strong woman, capable of withstanding great emotional turmoil, but the last year and half of her marriage had changed her in ways I hadn’t imagined.
“At first, I thought it was just a phase. The grief of having something ended. The endless back and forth in the head about the what-ifs and whys, but then that was replaced by something that felt more primordial, something deeper than I thought existed. Maybe felt is the wrong word, but I can’t communicate this well.”
“Do you want to try?”, I ask.
“One day I took N to her classmate’s birthday party. On the way there, the radio played that song from Swades, the one on the boat?”
“I love that song, you know that. But that afternoon, it was just blank. I could hear the tune, but couldn’t feel it. The one song that made my laugh, cry and feel with goosebumps did nothing to me that day. It felt like it was the end of the world for me. The crazy beatings, the separation, the broken back all never came to feeling this way.
I stopped the car on the main road and started crying. N became hysterical the sight of me in tears and all the traffic honking and cursing. I had no idea what was happening to me. I felt alone. My baby, my love was right next to me saying, ‘Mama, stop. Mama, it’s ok, I love you, mama’ and yet my head was exploding with a blankness that I didn’t know possible.”
There’s a deep sigh. Her mind racing back to recall that day, that afternoon. She’s nervous and shifts every few seconds on the divan.
“I am sorry to put you through this. I’ll stop. I am sorry.”
“No, no. Let it be. Give me some time, I want to talk to you. Please?”
I head to the kitchen, turn off the cooker and make a couple of cups of coffee. We then sit and talk. Slowly and surely, she talks about the last days of her marriage – the incessant verbal abuse, the occasional physical throw down, the always present threat of his hunching figure.
“It was difficult, no doubt, but once I made up my mind to walk, I thought it would all be over. Here I was, free from a monster, free from all the tension and fuckedupness that it brought about. But no.”
“At first it was ok. I was simply too busy with work and endless meetings with lawyers and family to get it over with, but then once I grew confident it was all turning out to be ok, it began. I would lie in the room and not sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning. N would get up every few hours, ask me why I wasn’t sleeping then go back to sleep herself. This went on for close to three weeks. You should have seen me, Bharath, I was like a zombie slut, walking around at home with red eyes and a tank top and nothing else.
Then the car thing happened. For the first time in life, I was scared. Truly scared. Not the beatings, not the abuse. Nothing.”
“Listen, don’t dredge all this up too fast, ok? In fact, I am not sure I want you to dredge them up at all.”
I suddenly feel guilty of exploiting someone like this to help me understand my own troubles. I feel even more troubled by the fact I set out to do this not as an act of empathy and compassion, but to get a story out of it. I rationalize it by thinking that more stories like S’s and mine might make people understand the true nature of the disease that is depression and seek help, but at that moment, nothing dominates me more than guilt.
More than a week and a half later, I call S again. I suggest that we meet at a popular coffee shop both of us know well. I can sense some hesitation in her voice, so I offer another place to which she agrees.
When we meet the next day, I ask her why she didn’t want to meet at a coffee shop.
“I can’t stand them anymore. They are the most fucked up places in the city.” S always been somewhat more inclined to displays of anger, but this level of vehemence is new to me. She tells me that it started when she was walking back home after shopping for groceries. A couple looking romantically at each other across a table in a coffee shop triggered it. She tells me that it was such a fierce reaction that she started breaking down even before reaching home.
“I came running back and went straight to my bedroom while throwing the groceries in the hall. I shut myself up, shivering and started to cry. Only that I couldn’t hear my voice. I wanted to cry loud, but nothing came out. I was terrified. In complete, utter panic.”
“I know how that feels”, I say, “that moment when there are terror waves in your body, you want to run away, but your feet feel like they are set in concrete.”
She nods. Her eyes show fear and recognition. No doubt mine do too.
“Thankfully, N wasn’t home that evening. I don’t how she would have reacted and how I would have deal with it. I sat and hugged my pillows for three hours, crying and rocking and not feeling anything but utter terror.
“Until this time, I hadn’t told my parents of the issue, but when my father called to ask if he could drop N home, I couldn’t even speak on the phone properly. At first he thought I was simply grieving and let it be and that it would be for N to stay a few days longer. But after a day of me being shut down in my home, he grew concerned. At this point of time, I had taken three days off of from work and had to get back, but I couldn’t. I hadn’t taken a bath in two days, hadn’t eaten more than a slice of bread and I could smell the stench of curdled milk in the hall. I hadn’t even cleaned up spilled groceries.”
“Then what happened?”, I ask like an eager wolf waiting for a catch. In an instant I feel ashamed. I shouldn’t be leading the conversation. I knew exactly how difficult it is talk about it. I knew of my own reluctance at that time to spill my guts out. Why am I goading this beautiful person to do it? Selfish bastard. Selfish bastard.
“My father then took me to our local doctor, who had almost no clue as what was happening to me. The anxiety had reduced, but I could still feel it. I tried to explain to him, but he just didn’t get it.
I somehow knew I was in trouble and I knew I needed help but the one doctor who knew me best was the doctor I hated. But I put it aside for now. The wounds were still raw and dad accompanied me to the park where I met him. He suggested that I meet someone at NIMHANS. At this dad was completely taken aback. ‘My daughter is not a mental case’, he screamed. I remember this well. Despite his protests, I went one day and met the doctor. He was nice and gentle and patient and he listened carefully. Then he told me what might be wrong with me. The first time you hear the D word earnestly from a doctor, it hits you badly. No?”
“Yes”, I agree.
The idlis we are eating have turned cold and taste like chalk.
“The Tranax he prescribed started working after a while, but getting to work was still a bitch. I still struggled to take a shower or eat some food. Things at home were sliding. My parents couldn’t understand what was happening to me. My father still thought I was simply play acting to stay at their place for longer than expected. And N, what to say about how this was affecting N?”
“What about her?”
“At first, I think she was ok, lost in her own world, but as the days wore on, I think she realised her mom was feeling well. She never did ask me anything other the usual stuff, but I think she knew that I was really, really unwell. I mean, how can a child not get disturbed to find her mother not respond to hugs and cuddles? She used to jump in delight at the sight of me entering the house and try and give me a hug, but I simply couldn’t respond. I would just stand there and not extend my arms. ‘What happened, amma? Don’t you love me anymore? Why are you sad, amma?’. I was a frozen statue, my arms trying to extend, but my brain refusing to send any signals. Only the tears came, for hours and hours after that.
“This was my baby and I couldn’t comfort her, hold her, feed her, kiss her, nothing. I would go to the bathroom and sit on the floor crying, shrivelling. I tried not doing it when she was around, but on some days, she was at home when I broke down and she would knock on the bathroom door for an hour waiting for me to respond. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I felt like I was dying in front of my child, Bharath, withering, dying.”
This is the most upset I’ve seen S since we began telling our stories to each other. The restaurant is almost empty and all eyes are on us. I feel uncomfortable and my anxiety is starting to build.
“Let’s get out of here”, I tell S and we walk out into bright sunshine. The rest of the evening we spend walking around the beautiful Sankey Tank watching water birds splashing and kites making swoops. N and her grandfather join us after a while. Everyone’s mood perks up at the sight of the little girl trying to pluck flowers from the trees.
“Very often I used to think about cliffs and ceilings and edges?”, S says as N is finally asleep and we both pour ourselves small drinks. I hadn’t talked to S about her struggles after the painful recollection at the restaurant. Instead, we just began to spend time as normal friends – grabbing an occasional dinner, trading interesting reading links via email and discussing both our professional lives. So, this came as a surprise.
“At the edge, man. I used to think about standing at the edge all the time. Sometimes I could see the vast sea from the edge, all blue and calm, sometimes I would look below and see the beach, all the way down. Sometimes, I would stare at the fan and ceiling.
“I wanted to, you know. I really wanted to. Even with N beside me on the bed, there were so many nights where I just wanted the nightmare to end. The kitchen and the knife were too far. The fan was just above me. I was wrapped up in sheets. Once, her soft breath hit my cheek and I broke down. I wanted it to stop. I took a pillow and cried into it, pressing it harder and harder into my face until I started to gag. Just at that time, N shuffled in her bed and her arm just brushed mine. That was the moment I let the pillow go. This was my baby, I can’t die. Where will she go? What will she do?
“I then wrapped my arms around her and slept for hours. Peacefully. First time in months I think I did that.”
“Jesus, S, wow. I had no idea”, I am slurring and blurting. I had often thought about these things when I was in the deepest of depression, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when someone else tells of their own thoughts on it, but it did. I was sobbing.
Soon after this evening, I went away on several outstation trips for close to a month and half and don’t meet S. We only keep in touch occasionally via phone calls.
On my return, we decide to meet as soon as possible.
“Let’s meet at the coffee shop you suggested a while ago”, she says.
“Are you sure?”, The last time I suggested the place, it didn’t turn out well, so I make doubly sure.
“Yes, yes, lots has happened since I’ve seen you!”, there’s perk in her voice.
I had noticed some of that in a few previous phone conversations, so I head to the coffee shop with much enthusiasm.
N is there too and she gives me a wide, beaming smile and bar of chocolate.
“Amma says I shouldn’t eat the whole thing myself, so you also take some”
“Your amma is correct!”, I say.
S seems relaxed, her eyes seem like they finally have some clarity, she is wearing a nice, flowery dress and her face has a smile that can’t be forced.
“So, what’s up, S?”
“I feel alive, Bharath. Alive, after a long time.”
The last few months S has made great progress in her struggles. She is on regular medications, no longer crippled by panic and anxiety and her low points are far and few in between. She has switched jobs and regularly cooks at home for her and her daughter. She wants everyone who reads this to know that help can be had, needs to be sought and that depression can be beaten into submission.