January 2013, Mumbai
I am lying on a carpet on the floor in my sister’s guest bedroom, trying to sleep. I have given up on the bed; it has given me no respite. Radhika and Amanda come in to check on me at intervals. The next morning, I go down to my mother’s flat in the same family building, Piramal House, and spend my day cleaning and sorting piles of books. It keeps my body occupied without asking too much of my mind. When too many thoughts take over, I crouch in the guest bathroom and record them on my voice recorder, only to be deleted later. Mom, Radhika and Amit update each other on my progress through phone calls and taking turns to be with me.
Back home, my mother-in-law, Aai, father-in-law, Baba, and Amit are taking care of the kids and the home. We are very fortunate with our household staff — each one has been with us for years and has a vital role in keeping the household going, whatever the weather. My maternal, rustic nanny, Champabai, and my versatile cook-and-housekeeper Ramu, are particularly adept at managing the children in my absence and ensuring that their routine is not disturbed. Within a few days, I’ll be back.
There is no doubt that we are an unusual family! My parents Dilip and Gita are divorced. My father is remarried to Shalini and they have a young daughter, Priyadarshini. My sister Radhika is openly gay and has a wife, Amanda. And I am bipolar, married to Amit who, as I mentioned earlier, is from a different background.
But this is not what makes us unusual, in my opinion. What makes us — and our extended family — unusual is how we have embraced mental illness as a family. We have accepted it, evolved practices to negotiate it and learnt to not just live with it but to thrive with it, just like in the case of any other disease. This is what I call ‘love therapy’. To share how we got there, I would like to share perspectives from members of my immediate and extended family. It was not possible to interview everyone, especially the younger generation, but I have tried to include as many individuals as possible.
Amit is my best friend, philosopher and guide, as the expression goes. When we got married, our varied backgrounds led many to speculate that our marriage may not work. Living in a global city such as London for the first two years of our marriage, away from Mumbai’s social requirements, we found common ground, built a foundation for our marriage and really got to know each other.
Bipolarity has tested that partnership. Before our wedding, I described my mood swings to Amit in detail but it was not diagnosed as a disorder then. For the first few years, Amit associated my manic episodes with life circumstances rather than mental illness. He then realised, along with everyone else, that it was more than that.
He faced sleepless nights. Physical exhaustion. The irrationality of temporary insanity. Mood swings. Listening to your spouse tell you that she wants to break up with you. Managing young children with a demanding career. And he has been solid throughout. I am deeply grateful for his unconditional love and support. His innate stability and security ground me.
For Amit, ‘. . . the episodes for me initially were confusing because I didn’t know what suddenly changed you. There was sometimes anger because you had two little children and you were sometimes ignoring them. And I was worried because I felt you were interacting with the wrong people and you could have been taken for a ride. Also worried about what would be going through the kids’ minds. There was also sadness for you — you were just not the same person that I interacted with during normal times. There was tiredness; it’s not easy to keep this going for days together. I think there was a time once in 2018 when I didn’t sleep for a couple of days at a stretch . . .
‘First, I managed it by force. Taking away your phone, taking away your laptop, changing the passwords. But later when I realised that this was a disease, thanks to Dr Deshpande, I realised that all these are futile ways of dealing with the situation. At first, I was shocked but then I gravitated towards empathy and compassion,’ he says.
He relied on family support, especially Mom and Radhika, to help me get better. But as my spouse and primary caregiver, the mood swings have also left him with one important realisation: ‘I am alone and others can only guide me. The impact of actions and the related consequences are entirely on me and our kids. So every step is like stepping on an eggshell. I have never felt so alone as during the episodes . . . But I have rationalized the situation in my mind. The fact that I have to go through fire during these testing times is very much a part of my life.’
Bipolarity has often assumed centre stage in our relationship, which has been difficult for both of us. ‘It will be dishonest to say that there weren’t times when I was frustrated and was thinking, “where have I landed up with this person?”. I did mention to you in September 2018 that we can try to give the relationship a year and if you feel it is not working, we can separate. There was also a time when I felt that I should stay in the marriage only for the kids . . . otherwise there is nothing in it for me.’
But Aai persuaded him otherwise. ‘Aai constantly told me that this girl has stood with you at all times. She has sacrificed a lot for you. You should not make casual calls and you have to wrestle through these situations, make it work for her and for the kids. I think she rightfully did the things that no other person could have done. Not to say that I would have been swayed to take the wrong decision . . . but it is extremely important that one of your biggest influencers keeps you on the right track,’ he admits.
‘Each relationship nurtures a strength or a weakness within you. I think our relationship, during good and rocky times, has nurtured only strengths. It has made me a mentally strong person. Every relationship is fraught with compromise. I think both of us have made compromises to stay together. I don’t think I bring in all the virtues of a great husband that you would ideally like . . . Hopefully, we are two imperfect people . . . still enjoying being with each other. We have had some rough times but we did envelope ourselves with adequate affection immediately after the episodes,’ he reflects. He ends with a most authentic insight, ‘I strongly believe that a strong relationship is one when you still like the person when you are actually struggling to like the person.’ In other words, a strong relationship is one where you continue to love your partner despite the differences you may have with them at a particular point in time.
For me, ongoing vigilance by my spouse can feel detrimental to the quality of our relationship. No one wants to be viewed as a patient. Thankfully, Amit has stopped asking me whether I take my meds but he still monitors the duration and quality of my sleep, even when I have learnt to take the necessary precautions on my own if I find myself going off track.
I would like to think — and hope — that the worst episodes are behind us. As Amit says, ‘I never look backward. There is so much to look forward to. You can live life ONLY by looking forward.’ Like other middle-aged, busy working couples, we do our best to make time for each other and as a family. Our most special moments are as a family. I’m a cricket atheist but the boys are cricket-crazy and play regularly with Amit, a former competitive bowler. I can’t join them there but we do many other fun activities together — holidays and trips, watching movies, playing games at home or just mealtimes.
Book Excerpted from Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked My Mental Health by Aparna Piramal Raje, with permission from Penguin Random House India. Piramal Raje is a writer, columnist, public speaker, educator and adviser.