Finding the Silver Lining
From a patient of depression to a therapist-the story of a young woman who's not afraid to speak up
THE AUTUMN OF 2002 was unlike any other. Instead of preparing for my new academic year, I was packing up my life in the US to move back to India. I was 12 then and Philadelphia was my world-with my school, friends, and all the other anchors of childhood.Although I was uncertain about the decision, a part of me was looking forward to the move.
My parents had promised me that we would be happy in India. The seventh grade, however, proved to be the beginning of my tumultuous school life. The sultry Pathanamthitta weather and the overall culture shock aside, language was a problem as, back then, not many children in Kerala spoke English. My accent didn't help either and was a constant subject of mockery.Coming from an interactive model of learning, I found little scope for communication. By the end of the academic year, I had changed three schools and switched from an ICSE syllabus to the state board curriculum and then finally to CBSE.
Still unsettled, I would often refuse to go to school and weep bitterly until my parents gave in and let me stay at home for the day. With not one friend to help me sail through it all, I tried hard to shut school out of my life and began to miss many classes. Finally, the teachers suggested that I seek psychological counselling, which didn't seem like a good idea to me. My parents were also hesitant because of the stigma attached to it. They didn't want their little girl to get labelled, and waited for time to set things right.
But when school continued to make me as miserable as ever, my parents decided that it was indeed time I saw a psychologist. I didn't disagree. After all, here was my chance to miss another day of school.
The psychologist was a young lady in her late twenties. She welcomed me with a pleasant smile and asked, "How are you feeling today?" I looked away and said nothing. The psychologist was inexperienced and didn't know how to handle a difficult case like mine either. She tried to establish a rapport with me, but I remained defensive throughout. After about half an hour, I was starting to lose my patience. Since my reluctance to go to school was the theme of the session, the only words I uttered at the clinic were, "I am ready to go to school," just so she would let me go. I never saw her again.
Years went by and my life was now beset with despondency. I knew I was different from other people and it was getting difficult to have me around at home too. My parents still thought it was a phase I'd grow out of, but I was deeply wounded. I kept to myself and spent nights crying into my pillow. Things only got worse after I completed my graduation. I was always a bright student, but I had grown aimless. My parents' patience had begun to wear thin and one day, after my results were out, things came to a head. They told me to get a job, or share once and for all what my plan for the future was, or, leave the house. A bachelor's degree in philosophy didn't prove to be very helpful professionally, so that only added to my confusion. This seemed like the last straw and I slashed my wrist. It was a desperate cry for help. I couldn't go on any longer.
When good sense prevailed, I told my parents I needed help and they were happy to take me to a psychiatrist. I remember bursting into tears in the doctor's office. This was very different from my first experience with a therapist. The psychiatrist was an elderly man with silver-grey hair. He looked at me patiently, waiting for me to start talking. For the first time in my life, I opened up to someone, and it felt good. I was diagnosed with depression-and later with bipolar disorder-and prescribed medication.
Things started to change dramatically for the better. I had never felt this alive or so close to my true self. What had been brushed aside all these years as mood swings, stubbornness and a difficult personality, began to fall into place. Nothing was irreparable, after all. The medicines were working miracles and I wondered why I had been holding myself back.
With a fresh perspective on life, I had to decide what to do with it. Nothing felt more right than studying psychology. At first, it was just an attempt to understand myself better. But later I realized that there are a lot of people, like me, who needed help. I was determined to know more about my illness.
I completed my masters with a university rank. Soon, I started working with a psychotherapist myself. It felt different sitting on the other side of the table. I would see a part of myself in every patient I interacted with. Once, a girl who had moved to Kerala from Dubai, came to see me, when I briefly worked as a counsellor at an architecture college in Thiruvananthapuram. She was finding it difficult to adjust to the new environment. So when I comforted her saying that things do get better and gave her my example, we both knew that it was not an empty promise.
What I considered a curse is indeed a blessing. It helped shape my choice of career, and, more importantly, empathize with my patients. My new-found self renewed my zest for life. And now that I knew my calling, I couldn't waste another moment. I cleared the National Eligibility Test two years ago, and at 24, became an assistant professor of psychology at Farook College, under the University of Calicut. Teaching was wonderful, but I realized I wasn't done with learning. So now I am back in Thiruvananthapuram, preparing for the entrance exam for MPhil in clinical psychology at the renowned NIMHANS in Bengaluru.
It's been a long journey from being a patient to a therapist. My parents have been on this roller coaster with me and nothing makes them happier than seeing their daughter's independence and achievements. Bouts of depression remain a part of my life, and at times, slacken its pace. But today, I know how to manage them without letting them eclipse what's good. I've learnt that there is always hope, even when you can't see the silver lining.
As told to Snigdha Hasan