‘I’ve Never Been (Un) Happier‘ is Shaheen Bhatt’s first-person account of living with depression for almost twenty years. Shaheen Bhatt is a Mumbai-based screenwriter and was diagnosed with this mood disorder at the age of eighteen, five years after having already lived with it.
Apart from dedicating this book to her family and her caretakers, Bhatt also dedicates it to “sixteen-year-old me, who did not yet know that this suffering can be a gift” and “for anyone who has ever felt different.” At the very outset, she makes it clear that this book is as much about articulating her own journey as it is about speaking to others who might find themselves in its pages. However, she is careful enough to state that the experience of depression varies from person to person.
One of the most endearing aspects of this book is that the author is honest about the privileged circumstances she grew up in. Her father — Mahesh Bhatt — is an Indian film director, producer and screenwriter. Her mother — Soni Razdan — is a British actor and film director. Her sister — Alia Bhatt — is a film actor. Her half-sister — Pooja Bhatt — is also a film actor. Apart from these people, she also has uncles, aunts and cousins working in the Hindi film industry. The author does not gloat about her family but mentions it only to contextualise her story for the reader.
She writes, “Situationally speaking, I’ve never been subjected to or lived through anything truly horrific; nothing that is unique to just me, at any rate. The lifestyle I enjoy is not one I worked my way up to through hard labour, and a lot, (if not most) of the opportunity afforded to me comes from groundwork that was painstakingly laid by my parents. Along with the financial security my circumstances afford me, they also grant me the means to make demands for and exercise my rights to freedom and equality, which a lot of people in India, and the world over, can’t do.”
Her matter-of-fact approach establishes the socio-economic location she speaks from. This aspect of the book is noteworthy because the absence of financial security deprives many people living with depression from accessing the support they need and can benefit from greatly. Having a family that one can lean on — emotionally, socially and financially — is a source of tremendous strength while negotiating a mental health condition stigmatised by society.
That said, Bhatt did not have a childhood devoid of any discomfort. She reveals, “My father was too busy making a living and so he was hardly around when I was a child. Contrary to what people believe, film directors in the ‘90s didn’t exactly break the bank, and even if they did, my father — thanks to his own special brand of masochism — was supporting not one but two families; so while life was always comfortable, it was never lavish.”
Bhatt is candid about the clandestine courtship between her parents, which was complicated by the fact that her father was already married to another woman when he began dating her mother. Four years later, he got married to Razdan, and the author was born a year after that.
Bhatt does a brilliant job of showing that acknowledging one’s privilege does not have to involve beating oneself up about it and going on a guilt trip. It can come from a place where self-awareness meets empathy for others. While she could easily afford to take a day off work because there was no fear of losing a daily wage or not having food to eat, and she had the means to try out a few therapists before settling on one that worked for her, being from a ‘film family’ had its own set of pressures.
In her book, Bhatt shares, “I was surrounded by deeply ambitious, driven, successful, famous people. And here I was — with no more ambition than to leave my bedroom.”
The author’s vulnerability would strike a chord with many readers as she chronicles her struggle with weight gain, which took a heavy toll on her mental health. “I didn’t know what to do with the wave of new feelings that were washing over me, and so I fed them,” she says. Her obsession with her appearance intensified during her teenage years when she compared herself to her older half-sister who was working in films, and her younger sister who was effortlessly charming and got a lot of attention for the same. These comparisons had a harmful effect on her because she did not measure up, and therefore felt worthless.
“Believing that my appearance was the sole cause of all this uneasiness, I began to deprive myself of food to lose weight. I gave my snacks away to friends at school, secretly threw food away at home and went to bed with an empty stomach almost every night. I didn’t realize it then, but I had unwittingly kick-started an adverse relationship with food that persists to this day,” writes Bhatt, who spent hours crying because she felt ugly and clumsy around other girls her age. But to her dismay, losing weight did not alleviate the feelings of unease, sadness and discomfort gnawing at her.
Since this book is a survivor-centred narrative about depression, it feels real in a way that only lived experience can. The author does not romanticise or exaggerate. She does not ask for sympathy either. She focuses on telling her own story, peeling off layers about a mental health condition that is widely known by name but poorly understood in terms of what it means for the person going through it. She openly talks about her feelings of shame, her journey with suicidal ideation, her frustration with lack of sleep, and her coping mechanisms.
The feeling that Bhatt is intimately speaking to her readers is reinforced by the handwritten journal entries woven into the book. She writes, “Every time I’m in a darkened theatre or auditorium, I sit in an aisle seat so I can leave immediately if I need to. Before I get on a plane I make sure I have a goodbye letter written just in case. I also carry around a pouch of medication with me everywhere I go. It contains everything from anti-allergy and anti-anxiety medications to bronchodilators and medication to lower my heart rate. I’ve never had to use most of the contents in that pouch. But I have them all, just in case.” Unfortunately, she does not write much about her three cats Sheba, Pica and Edward though they find a mention in her biographical note at the end of the book!
It can be argued that, when celebrities speak openly about their struggles with depression, they help create awareness and clear misconceptions about mental health struggles among their large fan following. Various influential Hindi film industry actors like Deepika Padukone, Manisha Koirala, Anushka Sharma, Varun Dhawan, Ileana D’Cruz and Randeep Hooda have gone on record to talk about depression. Bhatt recognises that the popularity of her book owes much to people’s curiosity about her famous family. The downside, however, could be that readers imagine depression to be a ‘rich people’s problem’.
The most powerful aspect of the book is the author’s realisation that depression is not her identity. This epiphany helped her re-define herself in terms of her own resilience after many years of being told that she was lazy, ungrateful, and pessimistic. She shrugged off the labels that had been foisted on her because she found them limiting.
To conclude, Bhatt says, “The only reason I made it through so many of my darkest days was that I had hope, a sense of humour and a steadfast belief that my pain didn’t signal the end of my life.” She beautifully convinces the reader to believe that it is unhelpful to classify people as positive or negative and that fetishising happiness is dangerous because it makes us shut ourselves from seeing the impermanence that is at the very heart of existence.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who loves hugging trees, contemplating the teachings of the Buddha, and working towards a queer affirmative world sustained by poetry.