At the worst time of my life, I found the warm embrace of an open book

Ever had moments in the past that, when you revisit today, make your muscles tighten and your heart race? Ones that feel heavy and overpowering even years later?

Three years have passed since the time my family first found out that their ‘over-sensitive’ child was, in fact, depressed. I still remember the day the sound of my wailing was so loud that my mother heard it from the other end of the house and came running to find me sitting on the bed with my head buried in my hands. I kept repeating, ‘It hurts too much. It feels like the veins in my head will burst!’ while restlessly pulling at my hair with clenched fists.

My life has been a horrid mix of insecure attachments to people I love, marked by debilitating abandonment anxiety. Add to it boundary and self-image issues and there you have the recipe for a highly toxic and intractable life. It was only a matter of time before I landed so far down the spiral that there was no coming back in one piece. I have always had some extremely low moments but I could get back up from them, mostly because there was somebody to hold me up. But I would only find myself shoved back down later.

The year 2015 was when my mental health was at its lowest and on most days, I thought about nothing but killing myself. Even then, a friend shouldered the burden to get me out of it and, to a great extent, did manage to do that. However, reality hit me hard in the face at the beginning of the year 2017 when I found myself isolated (once again) by people I looked up to for support because they were either too busy with their lives or just too fed up of my recurrent breakdowns.

This was the time when I was trying to step out of and recover from an emotionally abusive relationship and was also facing a tough time at work. And in all the other areas of my life, really! Because I have always been too unsure of myself, I relied on people other than myself for validation, love and support. And whenever that external support ran out (which it did, always!), I would hit a wall, literally and figuratively.

I started having panic attacks every two days and my suicidal thoughts were at their ugliest. This time, however, I discovered newer (and perhaps healthier) ways of recovery. I took to my Twitter account to voice all my anxieties and fears and, even though I wasn’t expecting or hoping for any kind of support, it felt oddly relieving to tuck all of that away in a place where I could be heard. On some days, constant self-doubt and the fear of being seen as an attention-seeker made me anxiously go back to my timeline in the middle of the night and delete some of the tweets I had posted throughout the day.

However, to my surprise, I felt accepted and heard by people who I didn’t know anything about except their Twitter profiles and handles. Sometimes some of them echoed my darkest thoughts and fears, whereas at other times they just sent warm hugs and cuddles even without knowing my situation. Eventually, I found myself amidst an empathetic and loving online community of friends from different parts of the country.

The first step that Twitter friends helped me take toward recovery was that of seeking professional help from a psychotherapist. From reading about various people’s own experiences and their willingness to answer my doubts about the same, I found the courage to schedule a session and to keep showing up for successive sessions despite wanting to give up on some days.

The initial few months in therapy were especially trying and actually increased my suicidal urges manifold. One of those nights, I tweeted about feeling extremely hollow and on the verge of attempting suicide. I was constantly crying on the bathroom floor when I typed that and was too weak to see if anyone responded to it. However, my phone lit up from a text message notification from a Twitter friend. She had seen my tweet and written a warm and comforting message, reminding me to keep breathing.

Her words gave me something to cling on to, for another night. And it is from her that I learnt that words have immense healing power, if you give them a chance. She started sending me book recommendations and it was through her that I was first introduced to the idea that books can be extremely life-affirming.

Until that moment, I had an ambivalent relationship to books. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t like hoarding them, touching them and smelling their pages, but I still felt inadequate to offer them the kind of focus and dedication they demanded.

I have always blamed it solely on my reading speed and lack of concentration, but it is only in retrospect that I believe it had more to do with my inability to shut off the world and make space for myself. I never thought that I had the right to just hold up a book in front of me and refuse to be bothered about what people said, felt, or expected me to be doing. In short, I thought it to be rude, because how could I possibly do something that was so private?

I smile as I type this now. It is probably one of my favourite things about reading a book that I get to have a tangible filter between me and the world; a filter that makes the world a bit more bearable and a lot more beautiful. I feel extremely envious of the people who got this filter early on in their lives, but I am now happily catching up!

I have devoured several books since the last year, but some of them helped me stay afloat unlike many others. All the three I am going to talk about below were recommendations from the same friend I mentioned above.

Description: The cover of Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ It features a grainy photograph of a young child wearing a swimming costume and holding a colourful inflatable ball. Credit: Vintage.

Learning to sit with grief

Book: Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal

When my friend sent me this book, initially I found it difficult to ease my fears and anxieties about not being able to finish it but as I started reading it, the words taught me to be patient and believe in myself along the way.

Every page resonated with me. I saw that I was not alone in my insecurities and experiences. The thing about pain is, we don’t always allow it to consume us like it wants to. Because who would like that? But with every page, Winterson showed me a way to let my pain flourish, to let it consume me and slowly feel it getting washed off when I wasn’t looking.

‘It takes much longer to leave the psychic place than the physical place.’

I always knew this. I knew it like the back of my hand, because I felt it every passing minute of my life; the inability to look past traumatic situations and embrace what’s in the moment. But reading it in the pages of a book, without an unwelcome voice constantly lurking around saying ‘Oh but you need to suck it up!’ led me to finally look at my mourning self in the eye and embrace it like never before.

This was when I realised holding a book in your hand is an experience of mutual vulnerability. When a book is lying in front of you, in all its unapologetic openness, you can’t stay walled up for long.

Description: The cover of William Styron’s ‘Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness’, in shades of grey. Credit: Random House.

Learning to listen to my body

Book: William Styron’s Darkness Visible

When I picked up Why be Happy,’ I didn’t know what I was signing up for because neither the title nor the book cover were particularly revealing of the theme. However, when I picked up Darkness Visible,’ there was already an air of doom because of its title and almost bland, grey-ish cover.

Among the many things that this book has done for me, it has helped me to believe in what my body has to say to me and respect it. The portion where he talks about the connection between melancholia and hypochondria, I encountered something that had been an enigma for me (and my family) all these years.

‘It is easy to see how this {depression} condition is part of the psyche’s apparatus of defence: unwilling to accept its own gathering deterioration, the mind announces to its indwelling consciousness that it is the body with its perhaps correctable defects — not the precious and irreplaceable mind — that is going haywire.’

Since childhood, I have never known what it is like to feel ‘well.’ ‘Get well soon’ has always been an alien wish to me because when had I ever felt well, anyway? It has been normal for me to feel achy, weak and low on energy for as long as I can remember.

Numerous tests and scans seldom revealed anything grave, while I always kept feeling that I was in so much pain I would die. People (including doctors) did what they do best; gaslighted the hell out of me: ‘Oh you have just been tense! Don’t think too much,’ ‘You think you have a stomach ache, but actually you don’t.’ All of it just fed into the shame and hatred that had accumulated in my body. Why couldn’t it just behave like everybody wanted it to?

When I stopped at that particular paragraph in the book, I froze and only snapped out of it when I saw my teardrops creasing the page. Crying has never been unusual for me, but the moments I pause to cry while reading are the ones I fear and love the most. It broke my heart to realise that my mind was trying to communicate so much through my body, which no lab report could ever gauge — it was just symptoms of chronic depression spilling over to my body. When my psychotherapist first asked me about my ‘medical history,’ I told her that for as long as I could remember, I have always felt something at the pit of my stomach (which I used to refer to as ‘stomach ache’). And suddenly, the pieces fit and everything started to make sense.

Description: The cover of Anne Lamott’s ‘Stitches: A handbook on meaning, hope and repair’. Credit: Riverhead Books.

Learning to find my way back into relationships

Book: Anne Lamott’s Stitches

Before my mental health hit its lowest, I was always the person holding space for others to grieve or vent whenever they needed it. However, I often felt the absence of a similar, non-judgemental space for myself. This left me feeling frustrated and isolated when I had nothing left to give to people but my sadness, and just did not know how to ask for help. Through Lamott, I found words for the exhaustion I was feeling from all the work I had been doing for others and also got a reminder of why I need to take care of myself first.

‘I have always given everyone in the world lots of help and hope and my own supplies of life force, but the sober people taught me it was okay to ask for help, even a lot of help. This was stunning. And it turned out that there was always someone around who could help me with almost everything that came up, and that some people seem to have been assigned to me, as I had been assigned to other people.’

This also led me to confront the excessive disillusionment and cynicism I had come to attach with people, even the ones who were affectionate, because of the many heartbreaks that came before them. From one extreme of obsessively longing for people’s company, I found myself on the other extreme of hating them so much that I ended up isolating myself completely. I had to learn to find a balance, most of all, for the sake of my mental health.

All the love and affection I got from my Twitter friends was initially extremely difficult for me to make sense of and come to terms with because I had convinced myself I didn’t deserve any of it in the first place and that people were incapable of giving it to me. However, my therapist made me realise that I have been carrying a lot of unresolved trauma and grief, which was making it extremely difficult for me to form and stay in healthy relationships with people. It is through books that I learnt to accept and be kind to the various ways in which my body experiences and responds to grief.

In just a year’s time, I have grown so fond of books that now I make it a point to always carry at least one book in my bag whenever I step out and that makes me feel extremely safe and protected. I sometimes go over the same books multiple times and marvel at the ways in which they continue to act as constant sources of warmth in a tumultuous life.

In retrospect, books have been the best thing to have happened to me in a year that was otherwise so difficult to get through. Now that I find myself in the warm embrace of an open book, I know that irrespective of how bad it gets, I will have company that is patient, kind and non-judgemental. I could not be more grateful for this.

Adishi is almost done with Masters in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi and is often seen swooning over furballs, flowers, skies, books and poetry.

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