by Urvashi Bahuguna
‘Why do I always hear you saying you’re tired?’ asks my mother. Trace the word tired back to its roots and you will discover it once meant to fail. I watch my grandmother’s body fail in her seventies. Her hands shake when she counts notes for household expenses or reaches for a glass of water with her medicine. She needs a walking stick, then she needs a walker. She stops climbing the sixteen stairs between her floor and the floor with my room on it. I know the body’s slow, inevitable failure. My body doesn’t fail like that. My body fails in my early twenties.
I have whole weeks where I sleep. I have days where I am tired by noon. All I want is the world’s deepest cup of tea to fill me awake. There is so much to do and so much to stay awake for. But there is no reasoning with my body. No pleading with my body to fit in one more activity before it needs to rest. I fight with my friends instead. I can’t make it. I know it is early, but I need to leave now. I know I promised, but I have to cancel. I know I’m walking slowly and making us late, I am trying. There is no other body. There will have to be other friends.
But some people I need to hold on to. Two memories scare me more than the rest. In 2014, I am crying in a hair salon. My sister and mother are getting their hair cut. My hair is pulled back into a sink and washed by a lady from the salon. I cry because I am that tired. I don’t want to be in this salon. We are on a holiday. My family doesn’t do anything else for the rest of the day. I have ruined it. In 2016, I am coming home from a concert on the London underground. There isn’t space to sit. I am too tired to hold up my own weight. My friend leans me against them for the entire train ride home.
When I turn twenty I fall really sick for the first time. In the next two and a half years, two more major depressive episodes follow. But the dissolution of an unhappy relationship and the discovery of a young, kind therapist allow me to recover. The severity of the episodes stops. I still have bad days sometimes. I still have to take care of my mind every day. I have to talk to the knots in my chest, talk them off the edge, help them unravel. My mind has been better for the last year and a half. But my body continues to be tired.
Doctors ask me to run blood tests to check for clues. The pulling of blood into a fat vial where I see a piece of me leaving my body makes me nauseated. Three times over, I keep coconut water and lemonade on hand to prevent myself from fainting. The tests come back clear. I ask psychiatrist after psychiatrist why I want a spoon, a bowl, a whole degchi of sleep. Exercise, they scold. Eat properly, they advise. I want to tell them about the green notebook on my desk filled with lists — foods that decrease energy, foods that replenish energy, foods to elevate mood and so on. But they are already scribbling a prescription for multivitamins. Should I tell them I have three kinds at home?
I finally find a psychiatrist who says ‘How much time do you spend thinking every day? Your mind goes at a hundred miles per hour trying to keep up with all the perceived dangers. Of course your body is tired. Your sick mind is trying to keep you sad and afraid, and your healthy mind is working overtime to keep you afloat.’ I don’t have a spike on a blood test. I don’t have a name for the doctor’s explanation. But it makes sense to me in my bones — that the mind drains the mothership, that thoughts can tire out flesh and blood. When I first fell sick, I didn’t know I could talk back to my anxiety and depression. The resisting, healthy part of myself learns to speak up. The sick part pushes back.
I have come to realise that recovery is a series of loose bolts clattering about inside me — some of whom I have not met yet. If I am to move on, I must make peace with my body. Have I not already borne my fair share of pain, I ask those closest to me. There is no fair share, I have the task of telling myself. I won’t be the young woman in her twenties that my teenage self had dreamed of. I won’t spend nights at the office outpacing my colleagues. I won’t dance at a friend’s party till the early hours of the morning.
Instead I get to celebrate how many good days there are. I get to say thank you for all the people who understand why I fall asleep halfway through their dinners. I get to figure out a life that doesn’t look like my parents’ or like my friends’. I work from home. I hold my energy close. I choose my friends carefully. I work hard even though I know my hard work doesn’t look other people’s hard work. I write. There were years (years) where the only words I wrote were I am tired. I forgive my body.
Note: The title is a response to a quote from a children’s book by Ruth Krauss called Open House for Butterflies that reads ‘If you’re very, very tired, just throw your tired away’.
Urvashi Bahuguna is a poet and an essayist. Her collection of mental health essays is out with Penguin in 2019.
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