My friend reminded me that yesterday, October 10, was being observed as World Mental Health Day. It brought back memories of individuals I met whose situations struck me as impossible, had I not met them for real.
On a long flight some time back, the man on seat besides me and I began playing with a two year old baby sitting in front seat with his parents. The kid was playful. He would peep into our row of seats, duck down in his, stand up again, peep again and this would go on. Once in a while a tiny palm would make way through the gap in the seats, probing whats on the other side. The man would offer his palm and the kid grabbed it. From a person who got on board, wearing sunglasses in what looked like trying to avoid eye contact and intent upon snoozing through the journey, with a demeanor of someone who has to travel often, he almost transformed into a guy who would want to babysit that kid for as long as someone wants. We got talking and when we got off to change for a connection I saw a very appealing, elaborate and eye catching tattoo of a dragon-fly on his neck, starting a little below his left ear. This was gorgeous. Mentioning that to him, got him to speak of dragon-flies. Dragon-flies is how his son lives with him, he said. His son loved dragon-flies and would run after them all day. After he lost his son, the man got himself tattooed with his son’s favorite thing. ‘I struggle with his memory on most days man’, he said. He is on my mind all the time. His son was six years old. It felt that he continued to deal with the grief of losing his son. He wore his son’s picture as a tattoo on his arm. His son was on him, all over. He spoke of how difficult it is for him to come to terms with it. We walked to our gates. ‘One deals with it’, he said in a while. One goes on. This struck me. The matter-of-fact zone he stepped back into, immediately, from what seemed like a dream in which he went back playing with his son, and me watching the two. The instant deal-with-it tone was startling in its practicality. It suggested a kind of courage and ability to continue living, clutching grief in one hand. I couldn’t help think about it for long. The man was an impossibility for me. This was the witnessing of it!
A few years back, at the school where I worked, I had a student who dealt with serious mental health issues. So much that it came in the way of his education all along. Week after week, for two years I saw this student struggling. It incapacitated him. He knew it. As a teacher I could see it. But we felt helpless and on many days we sat in the classroom as though we ignored this person sitting besides us called mental health and went on acting normal, trying to talk economics and sociology. I didn’t know what to do. How to help someone get on with life that seems to be stuck at school and on the low condition of having a senior secondary certificate. It was frightening. It still is when I think of it. What makes me happy is that the student did go on to university and is finding his way through an undergraduate degree. It seems to be as difficult. And I know that this student, a young man now, shows extraordinary courage every day in dealing with this.
It always seemed like something others suffered from until last year when I went through a roller-coaster of low spirit and a state of purposelessness for a while. It wrecked me personally and professionally. Mental health now seems a personal matter. One doesn’t notice or care until it hits. At least, this is how it happens for some. I heard about people undergoing stress, depression, anxiety and variety of issues that affected their daily lives. I could nod. I could say those canned words, ‘I understand’. But, I never quite understood the impact, of what it does to a person. How it changed a person over time. And how people deal with it. Like many others, I join in believing that this needs to be spoken about. This needs to be acknowledged. The complexity of human relationships and expectations seem to have gone higher in my own lifetime. There is seemingly no end to what others expect from us, what we expect from ourselves and the bar seems to be going up all the time. Negotiating this can be overwhelming. I am worried that this modern life is stress-testing human ability to a limit that may cause a large scale breakdown. All aspects of life – education, work, social life, relationships, aging etc, are changing in ways that leaves little room for tolerance, forgiveness, failure and empathy for human condition. The societal expectation from an individual stands tall today. One must work like a tested machine, highly engineered for performance and certified for no failures.
This makes me take notice and learn from individuals who show remarkable strength in negotiating daily life despite the odds they face. The two individuals I recollect are a few and I think of them often. I also learnt that not everyone has the mental resilience to handle their mental health issues with ‘deal with it’ attitude. Failure, loss, grief and anxiety are experienced in different intensities by people, who may not have the ability to cope with the depression that is hitting them hard and often times repeatedly.
I am not sure about how one might find a reprieve from this mental health situation that we face. In these years of living, I can only hope for building mental resilience, to get up again and go on. To not try to end life. While a lot seems to be beyond our control, may be resilience can prepare us better. There might be others like me out there who do not find much meaning in quotes about silver lining and happiness at the end of it. They want to walk with their failures without hoping, because may be hope isn’t a condition for them. They want to just deal with it. How do we help that kind of resilience which is not conditional upon good times ahead but merely helps one get from one day to another working, creating and enjoying the life that they have got the opportunity to live? This is where I hope we get the mental health conversation to venture than promise hope and happiness.