Dealing with mental health issues

I guess it is a function of social media that of late, people talk openly about mental health issues. And that one knows that there is such a day as ‘World Mental Health Day.’ At least that’s how I got to know about it.

It also struck me that this year marks ten years (not to the day, but approximately the same time period) since I suffered a pretty bad manic episode.

It started in Bombay in July of 2009 amidst extreme feelings of elation due to my application of re-admission to the University of Connecticut, in America, which I was dismissed from in June of 2007 due to poor academic performance.

It ended in September of 2009 when I was admitted to a psychiatric ward in upstate New York. It was there that I spent two weeks feeling like I was literally hollow with absolutely nothing left in the tank. All I had were flashes of all the people who I recall being taken aback and creeped out by the sudden change in my demeanour. And also feeling like I had lost an ability to see how everything was ‘connected,’ something that increased the feeling of elation and made the subsequent crash all that harder.

When I think about it, the episode had been three years in the making, when it was first suspected that I had bipolar disorder in 2006. Prior to which since late 2005, I had first started to experience what people would normally call ‘feeling low.’

It was never confirmed at the time for two reasons. The first was my unwillingness to accept that I had such an ailment due to feeling like it meant that my mind was defective. The second was not wanting to open up about these problems to a psychiatrist. I mean, I didn’t want to talk about these problems with my family let alone with a psychiatrist.

As it is, I felt like my family, teachers and former schoolmates had a low opinion of me both due to my unwillingness to talk to anyone in general and the academic troubles I faced in school. I had to repeat class ninth and did very badly in both 11th and 12th standard too, failing my 12th boards.

It took a while for me to agree to getting back to academics but when I finally went through the routine of appearing for the S.A.T., giving my high school equivalency exam and applying to colleges, I was ready to start my undergraduate studies in January of 2004. At an age when my contemporaries in school would have been done with it and either started work or their masters’ degree.

I only mention all of this background information to let you know of some of the things I kept to myself. Feelings of inadequacy, anger at myself for being a ‘screw up’ and also feelings of resentment towards some family members that stemmed from by inability to talk to them, let alone articulate my feelings.

Admitting anything to be wrong with me was tantamount to failure for me. It came to the point, however, that I felt there was nothing to look forward to. Staying in bed for up to 15 hours in a day, barely sleeping, imagining what I would say to certain members of my family if I ever worked up the guts to speak to them took up the vast majority of my time. And led to my grades slipping to the point that the university informed me that I would be dismissed.

That finally led me to tell my family members about the problem, causing a panic as I had never told them how my grades had been slipping over time. I only told them of the good grades I got in my first year, thereby making them feel that investing money in my education was justified. Telling the same people that I was yet again falling short academically, something they felt was behind me, was a terrifyingly shameful proposition.

It was bad enough to be an academic straggler in a country where high marks are expected and are the be all, end all. But being so in an education system that put a greater emphasis on students gaining practical knowledge over just bookish knowledge seemed even worse to me. I mention this because gaining practical knowledge relevant to my field of study (journalism) through work played a role in me securing re-admission.

An appeal was made to the university, which agreed to let me continue on academic probation but my unwillingness to regularly seek help from the department of mental health led to the same pattern continuing and my grades not improving enough. The dismissal became final and due to my student visa being revoked, the university’s suggestion to do non-degree coursework and then apply for re-admission was not possible.

At that point I decided to take up a job opportunity in Bombay while doing my best to be regular with a mental health professional. I felt there was a difference in how mental health issues were dealt among the medical communities in the respective countries. There was a much stronger desire by the psychiatrists I met with in both Delhi and Bombay to interject a lot more while I spoke and to tell me how to deal with the problems. Whereas the psychiatrists I met with in university were a lot more open to let me talk and ask more questions. The reasoning being, I am assuming, was to gather as much information as possible, before suggesting a way forward or – if they felt it necessary – to prescribe medication.

Beyond this, I was fully immersed in my work, hoping to build up enough of a CV that showed the university that since my work was directly related to my field of study, I would be up to handling academics again. And also that I was seeking help from mental health specialists. Pushing myself to try and impress the boss to get a favourable letter of recommendation led to extended working hours and constantly obsessing over getting the chance to go back and finally finish what I started.

The news of my re-admission application being accepted had me feeling like a pressure cooker letting off steam and quickly feeling almost invincible. When the manic episode hit a high gear I recall feeling hot (not feverish) all over and my heart rate going through the roof. I became constantly restless, feeling the need to be doing something or the other, being somewhere or the other and getting a feeling of heightened awareness about the world and everything in it.

And more than that, the need to tell as many people as possible about it. My colleagues were stunned at the change in my demeanour and even my family members, while happy at the news of the re-admission, were also mystified at the change in my behaviour. I was normally an extremely reserved individual so to see me being so outspoken was hard to process for them.

But this came at the cost of me being unable to focus clearly on anything for long. My preparations to head back to university kept getting delayed due to my inability to focus and I ended up going back to college two weeks late for the start of the semester. I was unable to concentrate during lectures, was barely eating and even recall some visual and audio hallucinations too.

This led to increased frustration and the previous feeling of elation being replaced with the realization that something was horribly wrong. At this point came the ‘crash’ that I mentioned earlier. Barely being able to speak, feeling completely spent.

I had to bail on the semester and went to my relatives who stayed close by and asked them if it was possible to see someone about what I was experiencing. But seeing a doctor didn’t help as I kept telling him over and over that I was getting irritated by his questions until I just got up and walked out of the office and headed back to my relative’s house on foot.

I wasn’t entirely aware of how much my behaviour must have disturbed people until I saw a police car pull up in front of me, with the officer calling me by my family nickname, indicating to me that by this point my relatives were aware of what had happened at the doctor’s office, which had contacted them.

Seeing the officer move his hands from his stun gun to his gun made me realize how bad things had really gotten. At which point I got into the back of the car, which drove to my relative’s house where an ambulance was waiting. The officer was still trying to make conversation with me and even turned on the radio. I recall Billy Joel’s Piano Man coming on as the car pulled up next to the ambulance, at which point I broke down and cried, feeling that this was it.

Sitting here and writing all this ten years later, I am happy to report that that was not the end of any hopes I had to get better, get a degree and just work and live like a regular person. An aunt of mine, also residing in America, who was a doctor who dealt with people with mental health issues and my sister had both been in touch with the university and had managed to defer my re-admission to the first half of 2010.

I cannot stress to anyone who has bothered to read this how much it helps to have rational family members who can back you to right the ship, so to speak. Talking more closely to my aunt finally allowed me to realize that the mind is as susceptible to problems as any other part of the body. And therefore, also can be treated. Knowing that and realizing that I now had two years of work experience behind me and re-admission to the university secured.

All things considered, it was not a bad situation to be in provided I could use the two and a half months I had till the new semester to accept that my problem was treatable and it wasn’t the end of the world. Not to mention being in the psychiatric ward, I saw people who were visibly worse off than me and dealing with problems that were exacerbated by drug use, physical self-harm among others.

Not making a big deal of the mental health issues and thinking of them as something as treatable as a physical ailment led to me going about my business at the university like clockwork. Wake up, get ready, take the medication prescribed to me, go to lectures and meet with the psychiatrist at the university’s mental health department as planned. It soon came to a point when I started to forget my medication but everything still proceeded as normal. At that point the psychiatrist took into account my improved grades, regularity of visits and better health in general and suggested that I need not take the medication any longer.

I also made it a point to talk to fellow students in my classes and to the people who lived around me without expecting them to like me or understand what I was going through. Interacting with people doesn’t have to be that complicated, and if you are not overbearing, it is just one of the many things that helps one stay on an even keel.

The first semester back led to being taken off academic probation due to my grades improving sufficiently. And then the final semester saw the grades sky rocket and exceed my expectations as I wrapped up my degree and looked forward to head back to India. I was eager to start working in time for the first ever Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix, which was held in 2011.

Being hooked on to motorsport since around the age of five or six thanks to repeat viewings of ‘The Love Bug’ and then getting hooked on to the real thing, my anticipation and excitement for the first ever Indian GP were extremely hight. Even more so when I was assigned to cover it for Hindustan Times as an accredited journalist. The fact that it was happening barely 55km away from my hometown of New Delhi and that my F1 hero Michael Schumacher would be racing did get particularly overwhelming at one point. Even more so when I got to interview Schumacher in person.

And so it came to pass that on October 29, 2011 in the paddock of the Buddh International Circuit, I started to feel the same symptoms of the manic episode that I recall feeling around two years earlier in Bombay. Hot all over, jacked heart rate, but rather than get carried away with the elation, I put my head down and told myself…’oh no you don’t, not again.’

I don’t say this to make light of mental health issues, but (if anyone finds this helpful) to say that one can be self-aware of these problems and not let them run amok. Especially if one has previously faced them.

Mental health is indeed a serious issue but it need not define you as a person, regardless of what movies that deal with the subject would have you believe.

You are not going to get these problems overnight and neither will they get better that quickly either. But then, what is life but – to quote Superman’s famous tagline – a never ending battle? It’s better to go into it and give yourself a chance to come out of it on the other side.

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About Vinayak Pande

A motorsport journalist who has worked for autoX, Hindustan Times and Autocar India.
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