By Ridhima Bhasin, Founder Just Another Illness
It all started in Jan 2019. I had just returned from India after witnessing one of my closest loved ones recovering from a mental illness episode. When I left India, my close loved one was recovering and feeling better but I could sense that I was not able to overcome the sadness of seeing them unwell. I was replaying the scenes from their illness in my head over and over again. One fine morning, I was taking the tube to work. I had been teary eyed, low on confidence and very sad for many months prior to this morning. But this morning I had the strong urge to jump in front of the tube and end this pain I was going through. It was hard to articulate myself, to myself, on what I was feeling. I remember I felt a hollowness in my stomach which I was filling with a disturbing amount of junk food. I felt a lot of pain in my abdomen. I saw so many doctors, did several MRIs and ultrasounds yet no one could explain what was causing the pain. I felt alone and hopeless. I wanted to embrace death and bring an end to all of this emotional pain manifesting into physical pain or vice versa, I am not sure. But then my mother's face flashed before my eyes and I thought I can’t do this to her. How will she ever move forward from the fact her younger daughter chose to end her life. Anyway, I boarded that tube and went to work.
That day I was constantly going back and forth from my seat to the toilet to cry my eyes out and then gather the courage to come back to work. After a few hours I decided to speak to a doctor at my workplace. He sensed what the issue was, asked me if I had suicidal thoughts and thoughts of self harm. I said yes and that one yes saved me. I was advised to take time off work and speak to a psychiatrist. It was 8th January 2019, I still remember that day very clearly. I went to see the psychiatrist, he listened to what I felt, what happened and what was going on. He gave a name to the madness going inside me. I was diagnosed with severe depression and PTSD. He mentioned that I should check myself in a psychiatric hospital and take some medication to recover. My fiancé and I outrightly refused to both. Apparently it is easier to take numerous antibiotics for a physical illness but no way was I going to take medicine and seek medical help for the most important organ in my body, my brain! Funny, isn’t it?
After 10 days of suffering alone at home, off work, fighting the urge to self harm and some episodes of psychosis, I finally got an approval from my insurer. I checked into a private psychiatric hospital and started with therapy and medication. The world of therapy was new to me. Being in a hospital for something as trivial as I had was pointless in my head. I felt I was taking up space in group therapy sessions. After several weeks of doing CBT therapy, psycho-education classes, drama and art therapy, I was still hopeless, waiting for death to come. It is painful to live each day when you are not optimistic about the future. Everything in my life at that point was perfect but I was depressed. I was sad, I thought my loved ones would be better off without me. I was pushing my fiancé, my sister, my friends and everyone who loved me away. I had given up hope on life and on myself. I somehow convinced myself to get back to work only to get my first panic attack in a team meeting.
Panic attacks are strange. They make you feel like you are dying. I remember I held onto one of my colleagues hand in the meeting when I was having my panic attack. My mind was constantly telling me that time, “don’t let go of this hand, just don’t!” And I obliged. My psychiatrist was called and I was asked to go back to the psychiatric hospital. But something was different this time. I was more accepting of my mental illness. I believed there was a way out. I was more open to receiving therapy, taking up time in group therapy sessions and actively working on making myself better.
I went to perform on stage for the first time from the hospital. Despite panic attacks just before the performance, I am glad I was able to perform on a stage in Stratford in front of 50+ people. I had learnt to cope with my emotions. I had learnt to challenge my thoughts. I had learnt what depression was and how I needed to face the flashbacks which continued to haunt me. I even learned to survive panic attacks without a human touch.
In June 2019, I went to India again and saw my close loved one doing well. That was a turning point in my life as it helped me to bring closure to my rumination of sadness. I gradually returned to work and started to work full-time from October 2019. When I look back now, I am so glad I checked into the psychiatric hospital, took that medication and attended all the therapy sessions. Self work is bloody hard but if it makes you stay alive, it is worth it.
In January 2020, I finally said to myself I feel like myself again. After almost a year I felt like I knew this Ridhima. I realised it is a journey with no destination. I have a mental condition called depression. I cannot get rid of it, I don’t have anything to fix, I need to learn to manage it and own it rather than it owning me.
In May 2019, I decided to sign up with Time to Change as a Champion. It was a campaign run by Rethink and Mind doing advocacy work for ending discrimination against mental illnesses. Being a Champion involved sharing your journey with strangers. In my first talk I spoke to an audience of more than 50 people with senior partners from various law firms. It was challenging yet empowering. When I got off the stage, people approached me to tell me how my story resonated with them. Some people hugged me and thanked me for being open and honest about my journey. That's when I realised my depression is a blessing in disguise. I had always been someone who loved to talk, loved to be the centre of attention and always wanted to do something to give back. Little did I know all of the struggle I faced had a purpose. It was a ‘been there, done that’ situation and it made me empathetic. I realised this was my calling, my passion and my Seva (a Hindi word which means selfless charity work).
In May 2020 in the middle of the pandemic I found my own mental health awareness campaign called Just Another Illness. Just Another Illness is my passion, my focus and my way of looking back to see how far I have come. It keeps me grounded, it makes me empowered, it gives me a purpose in life and it reminds me that my illness is just a part of me and not the whole me.
This is my story and I hope it has helped you to find hope. There is always light at the end of the tunnel but to get to the light you will have to pass through the tunnel first. Therapy is hard but it is worth it. Medication is harder but trust and question your psychiatrist. Your loved ones want to help you, they just don’t know how. Forgive them and teach them how to help you. Your mind is not your friend. Don’t believe everything it tells you. Believe it or not, you are never alone. Volunteering with Mind, Time to Change and Just Another Illness has made me find my tribe. Find your tribe. Extend that hand for help, show a bit of your vulnerability and you will find several others like you suffering in silence.