"ARE YOU STRESSED?" ASKED THE PHYSICIAN ...
...in his monotonous voice. I was visiting him for weeks of severe back pain and insomnia. This was the first time that I was hearing this question in the six years that he had been my physician, a family friend who I often interacted with at social gatherings, the man I respectfully called “Uncle”. As usual his eyes fastened to his computer, click click click he typed away, noting my yes’s and no’s. I sat there mulling his words in my head. “Stressed?” I uttered.
Imagine the classic South Asian immigrant family, placing high values on education and success in the land of opportunities. That was my family. I too pushed myself with AP courses, extra-curriculars, community activities; plate always full, even overflowing at times. When I felt overwhelmed in high school, I too would say “I’m stressed.” My dad, the man who grew up youngest of five in poverty, who had courage to move to America in his forties, who had worked days and nights to make ends meet, undoubtedly my hero, would say that I didn’t know what stress was and that my troubles in life would never amount to “stress. Permission to feel overwhelmed, stressed, was rejected time and again. Not to consciously demoralize me, but I believe rather to prepare me for adversities.
From then on, I suppressed it all. The stress, struggles in class, self-worth, self-image, bulimia, trust issues, heartbreaks, all of it. Having witnessed multiple accounts of domestic violence, I knew from a young age that I wanted to become someone who didn’t let men take advantage of her needs in life, someone who was going to be educated, independent, respected, and loved. Seeing how hard my parents worked to give such opportunity that many girls in India didn’t have, I felt obligated to succeed. I was willing to work as hard as I had to, even if it meant gluing self-care onto that back burner. The more I suppressed, the harder I worked, the harder I worked, the more stressed and doubtful I became, feeding into a vicious cycle.
And then one day in third year of college, I broke. Having performed poorly on MCAT for a second time broke the straw bent from recent heartbreak, poor class performance, hold on research project, along with myriad of other events. The monstrous cycle had won and I felt defeated despite my efforts. I became a disappointment to myself.
I didn’t know what to do, who to turn to, and even if I did turn to someone, where would I start? From childhood, high school, college, classes, looks, from where? I couldn’t tell my family that I had failed on my dream after all their support. I felt I had no control over my life’s direction. So I decided to end it all. I decided I was going to walk into middle of the street and let the first car take my life. Fortunately, as I started walking towards the road, an acquaintance ran into me. Seeing me weep, he insisted that I talk to him. I refused, but he was adamant about giving me company. In his attempts to crack a few corny jokes, I found someone who cared that I was feeling overwhelmed. I thought to myself, maybe today‘s not the day to end it all. Later that week, when I had recurrent thoughts to end my life, I asked to meet up with him. I told him about some of the things going through my head. That was the first time that I had ever spoken with someone from the desi community, in fact any community, about issues with my mental health. He listened, he sympathized.
So, “stressed?” I felt overwhelmed in the clinic, wanted to cry, tell the physician how I really felt about life, how I was failing in every aspect of my life, like tomorrow isn’t going to be better, that I almost took my own life a week earlier. But I knew I couldn’t. After all, the physician was a family friend. He would be disappointed and the gossip would start. Holding my tears back, I managed a “No, I don’t think so.” That was about the length of our conversation. He prescribed anti-depressants, steroids, and sleeping pills, along with eight other pills. He didn’t even tell me I was being prescribed anti-depressants. He said it was medication for my back pain. No explanation, no redirection to a counselor. For the next 4 weeks, I took those pills and lived like a machine. The sleeping pills stopped working after a week, I was in more pain than ever before, my tinnitus was getting louder, my hair kept on thinning, and I was feeling more depressed and disappointed in myself than ever before. My parents spent their resources getting me appointments to specialists, MRIs, labs, etc. Summer ended and senior year of college began. I stopped seeing my friends as often, went to fewer and fewer events, until one day I decided that I needed guidance.
It took multiple sessions to trust the psychologist, but slowly and surely I unwrapped bits and pieces of myself. She suggested I speak to my parents. I tried meditation, work-outs, pills, etc., but with no resolve, I caved-in. On our way to Wal-Mart, I asked my dad to stop the car. It took all the courage in me to say “I need to talk.” One after other, every thing spilled out. We sat in that car for 2 hours. He didn’t say a word. I wept and he listened. At the end, he said “Success is not in our hands, but trying is. We will be happy as long as you give your best efforts.” And that was it. That night when I went home, I actually slept! My back pain, hair thinning, and many other symptoms slowly faded away in the weeks to follow. I wish I had told him earlier. I wish I had reached out earlier.
Mental health affects both emotional and physical health. It may be difficult for our loved ones to understand or sympathize, but not impossible. When it comes to your care, your health, and your life, do NOT ever feel guilty or helpless to speak up and get help. You are too precious of a gift to this world to be suppressed and lost. Even though we have not met, know that you are precious to me and your presence matters to me.