MY MOTHER'S WAS A...
...nuclear, dynamic household. Her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—they were all temporary occupants of a bustling, two-room apartment in Bombay. When my mother wanted to talk—because she felt sad, or happy, or confused, or angry—she had an endless stream of permanent and temporary housemates to confide in.
So, when I told her that I had started seeing a counselor because I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing with myself and needed someone to talk to, her confusion was understandable, because she didn’t know what it felt like to have no one to talk to. Her anger was justifiable, because she felt like she didn’t want our family problems to become public—even to someone sworn to secrecy. Her sadness was reasonable, because she felt like she had failed me, because I had tacitly admitted that I didn’t feel like I could always talk to her.
It was hard for me to deal with many things then. The job offer I had always dreamed of as a child, the acceptance letter I waited on so nervously, the projects I devoted so many hours to—they all seemed temporary, like little balls of light that grew dimmer with time. But the worst part of all of it was dealing with my parents, steeped as they were in the Indian tradition of keeping it to yourself, or at best within the family.
How could I keep it to myself, when every positive, self-affirming thought I had felt so meaningless against a crushing wall of self-doubt? How could I divulge these secrets to my family, who would either tell me to “just get over it,” or worse, blame themselves? Conversations with my family about the feeling of ennui that hounded me always ended up feebly attempting to explain the unexplainable.
So, I saw a counselor. Against the advice of my parents, who had otherwise been constant, valuable advisors to me, I sat down in a strange man’s office while I let him ask me probing questions about my life. I told myself that I would tell him as much as I felt comfortable saying, which seemed like a good enough balance with my parents’ wishes—except I found myself comfortable with saying far more than I had ever admitted to them. Or maybe even to myself. And perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned from mental health is that merely talking about how you feel can be therapeutic. Six sessions later, I felt like a new man.
Our community has its great merits and its great flaws, but perhaps its greatest weakness is that we treat mental health as a non-issue. Even after someone is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a condition that literally eats away at the brain, their close ones often treat their memory lapses as their fault, cajoling them to remember the name of a close friend or family member. That’s for a diagnosed condition; our community tends to treat seeking mental healthcare as a confirmation that you are, in fact, crazy, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Recognizing this weakness can be an unbearably difficult step. Indians are, after all, taught from birth to take pride in their heritage. We learn the Mahabharata before we learn Shakespeare, Gandhi before Washington. But it is unquestionably a weakness—one that explains why far fewer than the one in five Indians with a mental disorder are willing to admit it, let alone seek help. But mental health is too important to ignore because of the stigma we face as Indians. Even if you just feel like you need someone to talk to, even if you don’t know why you’re feeling what you’re feeling—seek the help you need. Seeking help does not mean you are crazy, no matter what others may have you believe.
No one is worth so little that they don’t deserve to be taken care of. Start by taking care of yourself.