To Myself & To You.

It is 5:25 in the morning.

I have woken up from a nightmare, and between a racing heart and anxious thoughts, it appears that I have been taken back to a time when mornings had acquired this quality, of bringing torment, triggering anxiety, driving panic, and creating delusion. But this time, on this morning, things have changed—at least that I have the necessary strategy to rouse myself out of bed, reach for a glass of water, and begin controlled breathing. It takes a while to descend, to inhabit my body in the joy and comfort of its girth, its vitality but it happens; slowly, the heart comes to rest and the panic subsides. It is almost as if I have become accustomed to the escalation and the descent, timing it every now and then just so I could rely on this moment from the vantage of another.

Next comes the practice of carefully viewing the thoughts that have taken home in the space of the subconscious mind, the thoughts that created the nightmare that if I do not heed to them immediately will result in another such morning. I know I don’t want that. So, the first question, What is happening now? then the next few, What are the thoughts that are creating this emotion? Have I experienced this before? What are these thoughts trying to tell me? And, I know this bit in the act is scarier because the chances are, one of these questions will trigger the earlier state, sometimes for the worse. But on this morning, I have the answer, I have had the answer at the time when I went to bed the night before, I have had the answer five years back when this first started.

For two years, between August 2012 and August 2015, I stopped writing except for brief intervals, which were increasingly sparse, and with more uncreative days amidst them. This was a period of, if I could rely on my memory of those days, acute depression, disorientation, physical and emotional suffering, anxiety and suicidal ideations, to say the least. On the other end, it was a period of a coagulated state of mind, disoriented self-esteem, and more importantly, housing a sliced-up identity, as if the only way I was capable of existence was one identity at a time. I was a daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, student, a young woman, agnostic, feminist, liberal, etc, in separate dimensions, each wanting to be independent of the other, but affecting the other in proportions either leading to their complete annihilation or temporary disbandment. Put together, this state is a state that I would not want for anyone; however, even as I write it, I know of many who suffer as I did.

The thing about creative pursuits, be it writing or any other art form, is that they are the easiest to give up. An unhealthy state of mind, lack of will or desire, pressing demands on one’s being, limited resources and opportunities, low self-esteem, surrounding toxicity, and certitude are only some of the reasons that this can happen. I have to admit, I have been guilty of some of these, at different points in time, and each of them has contributed to suffering, one that is acutely personal, prolonged, and utterly disastrous. Although in the present openness of the world, it appears to be that creative pursuits are easy, lucrative, quick to come, and often immediately well-received, the segment of the population for which this is true, is small. The rest of us, the ones riding the belly of the curve, the suffering from not pursuing creativity outdoes the proposed benefits of having pursued it. And, this imbalance in the equation, albeit unfair, is the way things are, perhaps so in order to inspire commitment, dedication, and discipline.

This is where I come to the inevitability of having to accept the answer that is staring at me, imploring me to pay attention to it. That I have been unfaithful, to my own creative pursuit, and of late been undisciplined, nonchalant, and deeply disrespectful of the pursuit, has played an important role in creating these nightmares and bouts of anxiety. At this moment of writing, I am also aware of how I have been trying to inspire (read push) someone (you know who you are) to pursue dedication when I have been precisely lacking it in my own life. Perhaps it is the weight of the days, on which I have been able to bring a satisfying excuse to delay by another day the commitment, discipline and pursuit that I needed to initiate immediately. But I know for sure that there is a disappointment (in myself) and shame of having done little to do so.

It is 6:50 in the morning.

A new day is beginning and the off-grid essayist, poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s words come to mind, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” And, I too, come up with a prayer, “Give me the courage to understand the necessity of my existence even if it is only for myself. That on days, if (when) I lose the stirring in my soul, forget that I have survived only because of these bits of magical intervention, lose direction, I may find benevolent people (like this person) to correct my course before I lose too much. That I may have the sense to choose kindness over force, respect over denigration and a well-picked vocabulary over its poverty. That I may remember this each day.”

It is 7:14 in the morning; almost two hours since I woke up.

To myself: I will choose kindness over force, respect over denigration and a well-picked vocabulary over its poverty.

To you (you know who you are): I am sorry.


The Value in Depression

Last evening, I was watching the talk given by Andrew Solomon at TEDxMet called Depression, the secret we share; and I was brought fresh, memories of a time when depression was my immediate reality. This was a time when I was younger, was expected to have more energy, expected to utilize resources and make something for myself in the world, expected to show a zest for life, gratitude for what had been given to me, and importantly, keep a pleasant and appealing disposition. I tried, at least whenever I had energy reserves to do so but on most days, and for many years, I lived miserably, without meeting any expectations—internal or external. The people who watched me during those years, mostly my family members, saw a tardy, lethargic, weak-willed, self-centred, and irresponsible individual. What they saw was a person deep in the throes of depression, having suicidal ideations, managing herself how she could best. There was no vocabulary in my household that could extrapolate the symptoms to a medical condition, at least not one that involved mental health. And so, I continued to suffer, without the ability to ask for or access help, like many in low middle-class families do.

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It is difficult to write this piece—I have stopped midcourse enough times—particularly because that early reality is not my present reality. I am not depressed anymore and I do not have suicidal ideations. But there is always the possibility of a relapse, the possibility of falling back into that familiar place where indifference seems like an affordable perspective, coming without any efforts, and that gradual letting go of resistance and resilience. I fear it because that place is comfortable; it is comfortable enough to stay, it is comfortable enough to justify indifference, and it is comfortable enough to close one’s eyes and relax in the nothingness. Solomon is accurate in describing his state of mind and body in depression. He says,

“You know it’s ridiculous while you’re experiencing it. You know that most people manage to listen to their messages and eat lunch and organize themselves to take a shower and go out the front door and that it’s not a big deal, and yet you are nonetheless in its grip and you are unable to figure out any way around it. And so I began to feel myself doing less and thinking less and feeling less. It was a kind of nullity.”

Then I extracted a piece called Does Depression Have an Evolutionary Purpose? by Matthew Huston that I had saved in my Pocket app to read, a while back. Huston is asking an important question that needs some exploration—could it be possible that depression is a part of the evolutionary design, not a dysfunction or a malfunction, but a strategic and planned evolutionary necessity. Huston’s search for an answer leads him to two schools of thought—inclusive fitness model and the bargaining model—the results of both are inconclusive and therefore, the reader is free to choose where she finds value.

The inclusive fitness model propounds the gene as the basic unit of reproduction, thereby limiting the importance of an individual organism in the survival of the species. This explains why we may have curls of a great-grandmother and the hairline of one of our parents. When the same gene exists in more than one individual organism, it has a greater chance of being reproduced, and hence of existence in the gene pool. The inclusive fitness model also explains why we are genetically and then socially programmed to take care of our immediate family and kin, to take care of their physical health and fitness. The anthropologist Edward Hagen believes that cultures can look at depression-induced suicide either as a selfish and burdensome deed or as a cry for help. The cry for help model, aptly called as the bargaining model, explains depression as a strategy to find help even at the cost of putting oneself at risk.

It does not come as a surprise that cultures (including families), which choose either of the models, will respond to depression and suicide differently. In one, depression is seen as different from sadness or even grief and therefore, is responded with immediate help, care, and support. Huston, however, intercedes to argue, “if depression evolved as a useful tool over the eons, that doesn’t make it useful today. We’ve evolved to crave sugar and fat, but that adaptation is mismatched with our modern environment of caloric abundance, leading to an epidemic of obesity. Depression could be a mismatched condition.” If both Huston and Hagen are right, then what depression could have accomplished in close-knit communities is no longer possible. However, in the present scenario, where there is increasing alienation and isolation, depression appears to be a foghorn, imploring someone to keep an eye out for those wielding the storm.

One of the things that I remember from that phase was my desire to be acknowledged—to be seen in that segmented reality where I had access to no alternatives but the ones that my mind was creating, to be held and assured that this need not continue any longer than it already has. Mostly, I wanted someone to know that I was suffering, which could have increased my chances of finding help; this was important because I was unable to help myself. Unfortunately, in the absence of a supporting system, it appeared that the attempt to take my life, if it failed, would lead to a more insensitive living environment, more suffering (this time to my family and friends), and the shame and prejudice that I would have to live with. So, I didn’t attempt suicide, yet I was dead.

Whether we see depression from the inclusive fitness or from the bargaining model—both being evolutionary models—there is still a long way to go in ensuring good mental health for all. This is particularly so because depression is still seen as a clinical condition with cures and treatments—developed and still developing; a problem that concerns an individual or at the most, a family. Seeing depression, not as a medical condition but as a social problem would turn the tables and hold accountable many players who, at the moment, escape penalization. Thomas Joiner from the Florida State University writes, “I’m basically telling colleagues they’re medicating people when they shouldn’t be. That’s not going to be welcome news.” And, indeed it isn’t, at least not for governments and corporations. But in this rigmarole, individuals, families, and communities continue to suffer.

After those difficult years, when I write this piece, I acknowledge the seriousness of not taking depression, especially during the early to mid-twenties, a period, which is troubled with the pressure to find oneself, the availability of unhealthy coping mechanisms, and poor psychosocial support, as a social crisis. To witness young people at least as much vulnerable as I had been is a cause of concern because it indicates one thing—things have not changed much. It is scarier because the political reality of the world—locally and internationally—seems to introduce more (young) people to fear, misery, violence, exploitation, social injustice, and trauma. So I am no longer convinced that depression can remain within the psychiatry community or within therapy rooms.

Some theorists like P J Watson and P W Andrews believe, “it may be best to let depression work its miserable yet potentially adaptive magic on the social network under protective supervision” and perhaps rightly so. Others believe in doing the best one can as a community to cure depression, even if it means prescribing medications or hour-long therapy sessions or other alternative treatments. And, this is where we can borrow lessons from different traditions and cultures and how they have responded to a crisis of this nature, allowing the best practices to flourish and be replicated while removing those which do not treat individuals as living, breathing cognizant beings. I certainly, would have liked to be treated that way, not as a burden, a sad or negative person, but as an individual who is affected by something that you have not been affected with. And, this is why it is important to interpret depression for oneself.

What is the purpose that I associated with depression and overcoming it? Answer: Nothing. Of course, this is not entirely true even though this is what I believe in at the moment. Earlier, I believed depression to be an integral part of my identity—I have depression and am depressed—and it helped me turn in the direction of people who were sensitive and who understood but mostly to steer away from those who could not. But once that was accomplished, depression as part of my identity has ceased to be a central element. That does not mean I am not ever cautious, careful about triggering events/people, or that I no longer have periods of nothingness. Instead, depression has given me a chance to see myself as a vulnerable, sensitive individual who affects and is affected by her environment. In addition, it has helped me be kind to myself and hopefully so, with others because I would not have survived without them.

It often takes me by surprise that that person who could not get herself out of her bed, who could not form complete sentences, who could not keep herself groomed, and who could not feel is able to do most things today even when she doesn’t want to. Perhaps this is the reason why I am not haunted by depression because if there is one thing you learn, it is this: you learn to open the larger picture and point to the location where you currently stand while also knowing in that very limited locale how far you have come, the distance you have already travelled. And both these moments count and make life and without knowing them both, it is difficult to see the value in each moment, each minute, and each step.

Supplement this with Depression, the secret we share and Does Depression Have an Evolutionary Purpose. Also read Toward a revised evolutionary adaptationist analysis of depression: the social navigation hypothesis published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Be Near Me: A Prayer

Had someone told me a few years back that one day that I would be at the end of an unrequited love, I would have rather dismissed than disbelieved them. I would have defended myself, quite aware of my predisposition that I do not linger on love; if at all I do, the certainty of its expiration is something I look before anything else. But, as days entomb me in their dervish-like spin, I sit unaccustomed to the rituals and tribulations expected of me now that I am experiencing this; this mutative yet new identity of a lover unrequited. So, I have been reading, inspired by the evergreen Mr Keating from Dead Poets Society (1989), poems and prose that heart-stricken women and men have written before me.

In Letters to Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, known for her existentialism and her inspiring works on feminism longs for her union with Jean-Paul Sartre. Referring to Sartre as her ‘little one’, de Beauvoir often complains lovingly of her pain in being separated from him, how her letters to him and his to hers are her only source of comfort, even if only for a moment. To witness de Beauvoir in this fragile and vulnerable manner must contradict the strong-willed, smiling woman of class as her pictures often depict her. But in her letters, de Beauvoir is that strong-willed woman of class and more. She is torn, quite often as lovers are torn, when distance and external forces come to stand as a wall does. She delivers her yearnings to Sartre,

“I’ve become quite weepy again since yesterday, with a little blur of emotion continually rimming my eyelids. My little one, I no longer think of anything but your little living silhouette that I’m going to see again. How I long to know what’s going on in your little head! How I hope it’s not too gloomy!”

In another letter, just as she is bidding farewell to Sartre, she closes by saying,

“I love you so much, my dear little one – I’m beginning to have a feverish longing to see you again. You stand at the end of these weeks like a warm little light towards which I’m running as hard as I can. But what a disappointment, if it’s further away than I was hoping. My dear love, if it were only possible for me to kiss you in three weeks’ time! I love you so passionately, I need you so much, my dear little one.”

The American poet Jack Gilbert composed Married for his companion/wife after her death, a short poem of four lines, broken by commas as if Gilbert had to pause before he could write any further. His longing for Michiko Nogami is unlike de Beauvoir’s, which a quick union can reduce; Gilbert has lost Michiko to death and only in his own can he be with her again. Gilbert writes,

“I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.”

The eccentric and inimitable Mexican painter Frieda Kahlo delves into a multitude of emotions in her letters to Diego Rivera. Her letters written in ink, leak through one leaf after another, creating a palimpsest while her language creates an impression of her lost patience. Kahlo’s passion, which is seen in her paintings and her choice of colours and figures, exudes through her hand in her letters. She writes,


Nada comparable a tus manos ni nada igual al oro-verde de tus ojos. Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. You are the mirror of the night. The violent flash of lightning. The dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. My fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.”

At last, I turn to Mr Keating himself, who in his tender, lover-like manner explains to the boys of his class the purpose of poetry.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?’”

The task before me is to survive, if possible, even as I participate in this process (at times, unwillingly) of ex-change, where I am giving and receiving. The pain is physical, one that feels like a gash ever increasing its dimensions, and refusing to heal. At other times, there is solace derived from, I do not know where, but it does appear. There are memories that frolic, like little girls picking up their skirts and playing hopscotch with their friends. There is a joy that knows no bounds; it vibrates like metal drums, dropped from a vantage coming to a standstill, ring in one’s ears. And, I do not understand whether love, experiencing it or losing it, inspires poetry or poetry creates the condition for the presence or absence of love. I also do not understand whether love necessitates requital, without which, only longing and heartbreak replace the experience of love itself.

The Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in Be Near Me (Pas Raho) implores his lover to stay near him, to not abandon him, not now, not when he has given everything for his love. He writes,

“tum mire paas raho
mire qātil, mire dildār mire paas raho
jis ghaḌī raat chale,
āsmānoñ kā lahū pī ke siyah raat chale
marham-e-mushk liye, nashtar-e-almās liye
bain kartī huī hañstī huī gaatī nikle
dard ke kāsnī pāzeb bajātī nikle
jis ghaḌī sīnoñ meñ Duube hue dil
āstīnoñ meñ nihāñ hāthoñ kī rah takne lage
aas liye
aur bachchoñ ke bilakne kī tarah qulaul-e-mai
bahr-e-nā-sūdgī machle to manā.e na mane
jab koī baat banā.e na bane
jab na koī baat chale
jab ghaḌī raat chale
jis ghaḌī mātamī sunsān siyah raat chale
paas raho
mire qātil, mire dildār mire paas raho”

The task is difficult and rightly so, because love is difficult, especially when half of the equation is incomplete, yet. But there is a certain quality about love like a boat that enters the water—no one knows of its fate—it can cross over and it can sink. Love, like that boat, is uncertain and certain. To cross the river, one must climb aboard laying our trust on the stars that were shining at the time of one’s birth and yet keep ready, one’s fare for Kharon, if it comes to it. So I tell myself, ‘be ready for it all but lose the struggle’, chanting it like a mantra at intervals during the course of the day. There are times when the pain refuses to cease and I am inconsolable; and there are times when it works, when the struggle ceases and I am staring at the river ahead, in peace.

Read Be Near Me translated by Naomi Lazard.