In addition to medication and psychotherapy, various activities can help a person with a mental illness relieve their distress. Sanjay Patnaik from White Swan Foundation spoke to blogger Shailaja Vishwanath about how this release came in the form of penning her thoughts down.
Tell us about the period when you were diagnosed with your illness. How did your family and spouse deal with it?
Being diagnosed as depressive and manic-depressive was something that happened initially without my knowledge. By the time it was determined that I was suffering from deep-seated mental illness, I had already had a few episodes of extreme hallucinations, violent outbursts and bouts of crying that would last for well over two hours at a stretch. It was simultaneously crippling and frightening beyond belief.
It took some amount of convincing for me to see a therapist. Initially a person came home to consult with my parents, and by extension, me. I was in a space of mutiny, anger and a whole lot of resentment during this phase and there were moments when I almost tried to kill myself to stop the pain from overwhelming me any further.
Being diagnosed by a professional was the best thing possible for me at the time because a few things came to light. One was the fact that this was an actual physical illness which disrupts the chemical balance of hormones in the brain, thereby causing disturbance in physical activity. Two, although I did not understand it fully well, I do recall feeling comfortable in the confines of my parents’ care since anything else did not seem worthwhile at the time. Three, I knew that the medication helped control my extreme waves of harmful behavior and I actually started taking them under supervision, which assisted my recovery tremendously.
My family is the single reason that I am able to talk about this today or even that I am alive. My spouse deserves a special mention since it could not have been easy for a newly-married man to observe what his wife was going through and still stay sane amidst all the extreme anxiety attacks, the fits of weepiness or the paralyzing fear with which she clung to him daily. Any other man would have given up long ago and I consider myself blessed that he stuck by my side then.
Did you undergo psychiatric treatment and do you think it is essential? Do you still require medication or counseling?
Initially, for the first three months before the illness was detected, I underwent extreme pain- both physical and mental. Throw an emotional wreck into the mix and it’s a situation you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Loneliness, insomnia and manic behavior had all become part of my daily routine for almost three months. I wonder time and again how my husband ever managed to calmly sit through so many days of my outbursts or withdrawn shell of a being. Honestly, if it had been me in his position, I doubt I would have stuck around for so long.
Not understanding the way the mind works is an unfortunate part of the process. We are not qualified mental health professionals, so we have no way of actually knowing what people go through when they experience anxiety attacks or an unnamed sense of fear. My parents too, could not fathom what was going on and took it upon themselves to consult a psychiatrist. In my opinion, this was the best thing possible to have happened for me.
Having a psychiatrist evaluate my mental health was a crucial part of the healing process. His awareness of the situation coupled with his experience made him the best and most neutral party possible to help me deal with my situation.
To answer your question, yes, I did consult with a psychiatrist and yes, I was on medication for nine whole months. The medication was prescribed by the doctor and I was monitored for the entire period to ensure that it was taking effect. With time, the dosage was tapered off gradually and finally stopped after the nine-month period.
As of today, I have been medication-free for 13 years and do not require any further counselling. There are days when I watch myself and see the warning triggers and symptoms before they overwhelm me. Suffice to say that psychiatric treatment is both necessary and ideal if you are no longer in control of the things that you say or do.
How did you realize that writing was therapeutic for you?
Writing has always been therapeutic for me. Even before the soul-sucking mental illness that was depression and bipolar disorder consumed me, I found great relief in putting my thoughts on paper. I recall being asked to express myself through writing somewhere in the middle of my treatment, probably about a few months into therapy. However, I was too deeply entrenched in sadness to actually put pen to paper. Bear in mind that this was early 2002 and not everyone was really using computers to knock out the thoughts in their heads. So, writing had to be done the traditional way and picking up a pen and giving voice to my demons did not come naturally or easily to me back then, although it had always been an instinctive way for me to address my anger issues before that time.
It was a year after the birth of my daughter that I got into journaling and also set up a blog. While the initial attempts were all to do with basic diary entries on how parenting felt for me, the new mom, I slowly branched out into introspective and contemplative territory as a part of the writing process. By mid-2013, I found myself writing intense and personal ideas on my blog and surprisingly, I found that it resonated with many people.
But it was only in early 2015, when I actually decided to speak up publicly about my fight with depression and bipolar disorder that things really gathered momentum. Suddenly, I found more voices adding theirs to mine. Many people empathized and shared their own struggles with mental illness, either as survivors or caregivers.
Writing about my illness has helped me in two significant ways: by allowing myself to view the situation from the healthy perspective of a survivor who beat the odds and by letting me connect with many others who found it difficult to say what they have been through. Writing, I believe, is a two-way street: we write for ourselves and we write to be read. When both those things happen symbiotically, there is an incredible sense of fulfillment that presents itself to us.
What message would you want to convey to people who are suffering from illnesses similar to yours?
Oh, I have so much to say but I will try and keep it brief.
First and foremost, realize that you are not alone. We are never truly alone. Find a good support system to see you through the illness. An ideal scenario would be the presence of your family and loved ones. If that is not possible, find a few trusted friends who would be willing to help you through this time.
Second, you are not to blame. Nobody asks to be mentally ill, much like nobody asks to be diabetic or have cancer. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are imagining the situation or that you can just snap out of it with a click of your fingers. Find fellow survivors and share your story with them. Form a support group online or offline to help you through the dark phases.
Third, many people I know shy away from meeting a therapist because of the social stigma. They fear that they will be labeled ‘insane’ if they ever confessed to anyone that they met with a counselor or a mental health professional. To you I say, find a like-minded soul or family member who will come with you to a therapist. Yes, society will talk, irrespective of what you do. But the point is, you are enduring the anxiety attacks, the paralyzing fear, the debilitating scare that comes with this illness; you alone, and not society. So move away from the pointing fingers and move towards better health.
Finally, it’s important to stay informed about the various options available to those suffering from mental illness. Be updated on the doctors available, the medication given and feel free to get a second opinion from trusted sources, just the way you would if it were a life-threatening illness. Don’t ignore the warnings or the symptoms when they manifest. Trust me, you’re better off being treated for it earlier than when it is too late.
Shailaja Vishwanath is a freelance writer, full-time editor and passionate blogger. She counts parenting, reading, writing, swimming and social networking among her top passions.