A minute before I was about to write this blog, I wrestled with an array of thoughts. Should I write about this? Should the world know? Is it necessary? Then I gave room to this thought: It might help somebody. And, that’s enough!
I just finished Jerry Pinto’s Em and The Big Hoom. As always, I want to use my favourite adjectives. The book’s poignant, beautiful, and highly recommended. Em — the young narrator’s mother — slips into Postpartum Depression, and to the family’s dismay, she never climbs out of the abyss. Em and The Big Hoom accurately paints the picture of the illness, and its dark, deep impact on the family. I am not employing the word accurately in a nonchalant manner. Em and The Big Hoom, in many ways, portrays my mother’s 13 years of battle with Schizophrenia.
I was 15. It was like any other evening when I left school. But, when I reached home, my aunt was crying, my neighbour was folding our clothes, and my mother was sitting in a corner, rocking herself, speaking in a voice that didn’t belong to her. I dropped my bag, and sat beside her. “Amma, look at me?” I said over and over again. But, she didn’t look at me. She spoke to people who were not in the room. She said they were threatening her. She pleaded with them. In a little while, she hurled abuses at them. She was angry, miserable, and her movements were stiff. “Amma, look at me?” She didn’t look at me. Her dialogues with people whom I couldn’t see continued. I wasn’t terrified. I felt helpless, and crestfallen for I couldn’t reach her.
My sister returned from college, and burst into tears when she found my mother pacing around all the rooms, yelling at people. She was shocked. She held my mother and shook her. “Amma, what happened? Stop this. Come, let’s make dinner.” My mother paid no heed to our pleas. Our neighbours said she was possessed. My aunt said she was faking it. My father, the strongest man I have ever met, was visibly shattered. One week after my mother started to show symptoms, a kind friend advised us to take our mother to a psychiatrist. She was hospitalised for 10 days. When she returned home, we were scared of our own mother. She had changed for good. But, in time, we began to love her for what she had become. After all, she’s our mother.
The last 13 years taught us enormous amount about mental illness. For the uninitiated, I live in India, where it’s difficult for us to open up about our battles with our minds. Because if we do, we would be mindlessly labelled mentals. When we learned about our mother’s diagnosis, we googled to understand what we could do to improve her quality of life. It’s hard to live with one whose moods are as capricious as weather. But, you would willingly endure it for your mother. We are no different. As a family, we filled our brains with some helpful knowledge on what haunted our mother. However, we realised that it was difficult to explain it to the society. I couldn’t tell my teachers that my mother kept visiting hospital because she slipped into bouts of depression. My father, who has got the gift of the gab, searched for words to explain his wife’s condition. My sister was in denial for a while. We were lonely in our struggle. But, we have always been wading through the tough phases, because we know how stormy my mother’s mind would be, and how much she trusted us to protect and restore her memories.
A month ago, when I was unusually busy at work, father called me on my office number. I could sense the fear in his voice. 15 minutes after he called, I was at home. As I pushed the gate, which was open, I could see mother, who was alone, standing in front of Gods’ photographs, and muttering under her breath, “Save everybody.” It was a heartbreaking image. I held her hand, made her sit on the divan, and told her that we were all safe. Looking into my eyes, she asked me, “Who are you?” Despite being a seasoned caretaker, I tried hard to swallow the lump in my throat. “Why are you here? I want to leave this place right away. I want to go to a place that is far away. I want to know if my husband is safe,” she commanded. All my efforts to pacify her turned futile, and she walked hither and thither to expend the disturbing energy that was bothering her. She agreed to sit only after father arrived. Three weeks of therapy ensued, and mother is now almost back to being her cheerful self.
I stay at home for a day or two when it happens to mother, and when I resume work, my colleagues inquire innocently, “So, it is not curable? Will she be like this forever? How many times a year does this happen? Do they give electric-shock treatment? When you come to work, do you lock her up?” The questions don’t irk me these days. I tell them all that I know about it. Because I don’t want another family to think that their loved one is possessed or faking it.
We have started discussing many a thing openly, but why is the talk on mental illness still considered a taboo? I wait for the time when one can visit a psychiatrist without the apprehension that one experiences while robbing a bank. I wait for the time when one learns to be more empathetic to those who battle their inner demons. I patiently wait for the time when the topic mental illness will be approached with more awareness and sensitivity.
My mother is still the best best mum on the planet. You have to taste her filter-coffee. You have to talk to her about her love for nature. You have to discuss silk saris and signature south Indian delicacies. You will not find a trace of that different person who surfaces once in a while. And, I believe that different person lies in all of us. For some, that personality is active. For many, it is dormant. To put it into perspective, I want to borrow the sagacity of the cat from Alice in Wonderland. “But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
Deepika Ramesh is a reader, blogger, animal-lover, aspiring cyclist, and a sucker for tiny, warm moments. She blogs at https://worncorners.wordpress.com/