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Break The Silence Around Mental Health Struggles

Creating a world where women can openly discuss their mental health struggles and seek help is crucial

Artwork by Kaviya Ilango titled ‘Woke Up Like This’
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When I sat down to write this story, I kept thinking for a few hours about the start—should I begin at the very beginning of my life’s journey, or with the present? The memories and incidents that flooded my mind seemed both important for the story and overwhelming for readers to comprehend. So, let me give you a glimpse of my life, a reference point for the whirlwind that has been my existence.

I grew up in the small town of Haridwar, the youngest in a family of five, filled with love. With two elder brothers, I was pretty much a princess. Both my parents were working, and I find myself very lucky to have a family with a feminist father and a financially independent mother. Trust me, it was rare at that time. But then, one fateful day, my world was shattered when I lost my father in a tragic accident. I was only fifteen then.

I suddenly became the ‘man of the family’. I had to set aside my own vulnerability and pain to collect the shattered pieces of the people around me. I trained myself well on that. So much so that I forgot what it was like to be vulnerable, broken, and in need of healing because I was too busy tending to everyone else’s wounds.

Fast forward to my life in Delhi after completing my 12th grade. I decided to start working instead of studying, my dynamics became complicated with my mother after she got remarried without telling any of us. Independence beckoned, and I embarked on a journey of various jobs, earning decent money and making strides in my career. I created a fairytale about my life and convinced everyone about it.

Then came marriage. It began as a beautiful chapter, but soon unravelled as I grappled with a massive bout of depression after my abortion. My body felt erratic, foreign and out of sync. I did try to remain the strong woman, but it slipped through my fingers once I was alone.

My husband had an affair during this tumultuous time, and we decided to part ways. I had started my film company by then and was managing a few independent artists, surrounded by an intellectual circle in South Delhi. These rich, supposedly high-society individuals, though accomplished, shook my confidence. They ridiculed my English, my attire, my lack of literary knowledge. It was as if my small-town roots were on display, and I felt increasingly isolated.

Vitiligo patches started to spread all over my body and my confidence felt shaky. Being a woman working in show biz, I was made to feel conscious and I started wearing clothes that covered every inch of my body. I also tried to cover my facial marks with make-up and made up for my receding confidence with fake over-enthusiasm.

I have learnt to ask for help. I know that asking for help doesn’t make me weak. My friends and family have taught themselves to be supportive and to be there for me and those who need a safe space.

I had built an image of a strong, independent woman who didn’t show vulnerability or struggle. Strong women, I thought, didn’t cry or admit to their flaws. But deep down, I longed for a space where I could be my true self, free from societal expectations.

I found solace in a friendship that seemed more profound than any other. We considered ourselves best friends, though I knew he wasn’t the one I wanted romantically. Still, he became my refuge, the one person I thought may be that space where I could be a mess. This is when I was diagnosed with bipolar depression. He couldn’t handle my manic episodes or the lows. He left but not without a scar. I shaped his career for five years. And before leaving, he said some things about my family and me that I won’t want to forget because I didn’t want to forgive him. I had another abortion at that time. It only made my depression physical. My body cried out for care, and I believed he was the one to provide it. I pleaded for his return, enduring hurtful words and insults. It was the lowest point in my life, and I contemplated suicide.

That’s also the time I hated being a woman. Questions were raised about my character. How was that fair? Was it because I am a woman that I could be targeted so easily? A man only needed to say something and everyone believed him.

Life felt dark and meaningless. I saw no purpose to get up and go through the day. I wanted to end my life, and I tried. Multiple times. But my friends and family protected me. They refused to let me succumb to despair. I share this story not to gain any sympathy but to shed light on the importance of acknowledging mental health struggles, especially for ‘strong and independent’ women like me.

My family, despite their initial lack of understanding about mental health, stood by my side. They learnt, adapted and supported me the best way they could. My brother, in particular, became my rock, even though he once believed mental illness was nothing but a lifestyle issue.

After this, I promised myself that I would talk about it. As much as I can. I was surprised by the number of people who reached out to me on my social media platforms, sharing that they were also dealing with something similar. I was putting together all my broken pieces, finally. And, in my possible capacity, I became that space for a few, which I didn’t know existed.

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I was fortunate to have a family that embraced my journey towards healing. Today, after so many years, I can say I’m glad to be alive. I’m thankful for those who cared for me, the professionals who guided me and my friends who simply sat by my side, offering their presence when words failed.

It’s not as if I have stopped having those episodes, but I now know how to manage these well. I have learnt to ask for help. I know that asking for help doesn’t make me weak. My friends and especially my family have taught themselves to be supportive and to be there for me and others who need a safe space.

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I lost someone close recently, someone who was a dear piece of my heart. My young friend became my family in a short time. I saw his suffering, but despite my efforts, I couldn’t save him. It wasn’t enough. He needed the entire support system. Which he didn’t get. And the world lost a very bright, creative guy. And I realised that things have changed for me, not for the world. We are far from being a place where mental health is taken as seriously as physical health.

Now, I am happily married to a wonderful man and doing great. I have come a long way. All I want to say is that even if you don’t fully understand mental health issues, it’s okay, just don’t dismiss them. Be there for your loved ones, and help them find the support they need. Let’s create a world where people can openly discuss their struggles, seek help and find hope on their journey to healing.

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I am happy to be this woman who knows how to be vulnerable and still be strong and independent.

(Views expressed are personal)

Vernita Verma is the founder and director of Varnan films and creative director of EZ, a global start-up

(This appeared in the print as 'Break The Silence')

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