How I killed my depression before it killed me
I am a 21 year old college student at one of the most liberal universities of India. In my school days, I was described as a good student with “lots of untapped potential” by teachers and elders close to me. However all this seemed like complete BS when I entered college. Unable to make sense of anything and due to a host of other personal issues, I changed my major four times (not a typo) over a period of two years.
What happens when a good student becomes a failure?
INTO THE DARKNESS
I was finally diagnosed with severe clinical depression last October after being in denial about it since high school. Being under high risk of suicide, I had to take a semester drop from my university and went back to stay with my parents. This put a lot of pressure on my kid sister who was in 12th standard (high school senior year) at the time and the environment at home was tense enough just because of that. Back home I used to find it tough to even do simple tasks such as drinking water when thirsty or getting up to switch the fan on.
Depression does that to you, it sucks the energy out. I used to sleep at least sixteen hours a day and my waking hours were filled with screwed up thinking and despondency; seeing her elder brother in such a state was horrible for my sister. As it happened my condition hurt most of the people close to me- friends and family.
The thing I later realised about depression is that its not a single “condition”. Some depressive states, such as melancholia, are diseases; and some states such as being depressed after death of a loved one is a normal reaction to a tragedy. Awareness and importance of mental health (at least in India) is incredibly underestimated.
This January I decided that I wanted my medications to stop in six months. Although still struggling with suicidal tendencies, I made a list of experiences that would make me feel alive. The top two things were :
1. Understanding what “real” suffering looks like and
2. Just packing my bags and going somewhere far all alone.
Around April I found an NGO under the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime that needed volunteers to help local hill tribes of Northern Thailand. I applied and managed to get in. I finally had an opportunity to fulfil my “Into the Wild” fantasy!
The next big task was convincing my family to let me go 3000 kms away in a foreign culture for 35 days. It was natural for them to be worried because even under medication I was often unable to take basic self care and was prone to psychotic outbursts. I convinced them that I needed such an adventure as this would rebuild my self confidence and luckily my psychiatrist agreed!
I was all set to go by mid June.
OUT OF THE DARKNESS
Immersing yourself in a foreign culture is an overwhelming experience and is in itself a medicine to the soul. I find it suffice to say that there are riches in travel that all the money in the world cannot match!
I began my work as a community development volunteer on June 20 in the Thailand’s Chiang Rai province. Interacting with volunteers from so many different cultures was delightful. I happened to be the only Indian there, automatically becoming an “authority” on Hinduism, spirituality, Bollywood and kamasutra! HAHAHA!
During my second workweek, we the volunteers stayed in an “Akha” hill tribe village. The village was without electricity, proper roads and other basic infrastructure. We slept in the villagers’ home, cooked meals with them, played with the children and helped the village by cleaning and painting their primary school. It was a brutal shock to my overdeveloped cynicism to see people living so harmoniously and happily even in abject poverty.
Did they not have problems in their life? A lot!! They had it a lot worse than I could comprehend: many of them had been persecuted by the government because of their religious beliefs. No one in the village was granted Thai citizenship which was one of the main reasons for their misery. But they still found time to be happy: singing every night around the bonfire, enjoying the brightest, most beautiful night sky ever and staying in touch with the nature. Even in the extreme June heat among mosquitoes and in pitch black darkness, nothing could break their spirit! This zest for life was infectious!
Why did my education not teach me this?
Comically, I arrived at the realisation that made me give up the idea of suicide once and for all. It dawned on me that I had zero evidence that my death would improve things. At least here, in this life, in this universe, I have a choice to change things. Things could be a million times worse in the “afterlife”, Who knows?
On my last day at the village, I went to the pastor (one of the few villagers who could speak English) and had conversations about power to the people and the sufferings of the hill tribes. I let him know that even though my suffering was minute if compared to what he may have witnessed over his lifetime, I felt that I had wasted lots of time and hurt lots of people. How could I deal with this huge guilt and regret?
He said something I will never forget:
“Anshul, it is never too late to start. You can never be too old to mend yourself. If you were not happy with yesterday, try something new today. Life has a special flavor for those who continually seek to improve themselves.”
With this gem, I left the village and realised how lucky I was to be born in a loving family getting access to a good education at a good university. I could not stop smiling for the next half an hour!
In words of Pink Floyd:
“I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life!”
Even though I volunteered for 2 more weeks, the homestay with the Akha hill tribe remains my favorite workweek.
P.S: If you struggle with depression or any other mental health disease, please remember its not your fault however you feel. And its completely okay to seek help from others. Whenever anxious, check if you have your diet, sleep and exercise in order.