For the first two and a half decades of my life, I did not realize the void I felt was the absence of any vocabulary around mental health. There was no depression, only sadness and anger. The brain was good for college and work, for academic accolades and jobs, but to be put aside in everyday life. How do you even start fixing a problem that is unnamed and thus non-existent?
For me the straw of hope came from an obscure source: a podcast. This was in 2010, a time when the concept of podcasts was non-existent in India. This is not surprising, given the cost of iPods that were necessary for listening to podcasts (this is not true any longer, podcast audio is accessible in many ways but it is still not accessible to many people, in the same way electricity and Internet is not — just because it exists in the 21st century doesn’t mean society or government think everyone deserves it).
This was the first, but hardly the last, time when technology would carry me from a dark period to a lighter place. I remember walking in the park, using the darkness to cry about a sadness I had not been able to name (for I feared the label so very much that I was ready to give up on life instead). I listened fervently to Krista Tippett’s podcast Speaking of Faith (now renamed On Being). I have never been a religious person, I am agnostic and only because nobody has given me a convincing scientific explanation of what happened before the Big Bang. But Krista spoke with poets and scientists and monks and environmentalist about their lives and while they spoke about religions and gods, they also spoke about questions and doubts. That weekly podcast let me look into all the ways in which people lived their lives, even if they had never intersected with me. It made hope possible.
At that point in my life, my fear obscured my need to find hope, to find someone or someplace that could accept my doubt, my struggle with childhood trauma. I did not move forward because I never knew how to walk through the darkness to the other side, instead I just carried it with me. I moved across the world for graduate studies, to distance myself from the burnout of five years of drowning myself in work (which kept me going when nothing else could). But most importantly I moved to separate myself from a family and society that layered my already insecure brain and body with the shame of not being married, servile and malleable. I would oscillate between the certainty that I did not want to fall into a life of marriage, meals and in-laws, a life in which I wouldn’t be an individual and the cruel voice that told me that I was undesirable, unlovable and worse selfish.
I did not know I was a feminist. I did not even know that I had mental health issues to manage. I lived in a world where I was wrong, a jigsaw puzzle piece that did not belong, and even the kindest of my friends believed I could snap out of my sadness. Even with work, few friends, lots of television and a family that tried to do the best they could by me, the loneliness and sadness was overwhelming.
Seek help when you need it and let everything else be a bonus gift.
Moving did not take away my loneliness, moving did not magically fix my mental health, it shape-shifted into something new, strange and still familiar. But my world had also changed, even though it took more than a year for my brain to catch up. I grappled through difficult times, even with all my resources and privilege (supportive family, financially secure, access to affordable healthcare), I was never quite sure how long life felt possible. This was punctuated by acts of kindness, small and big, and I wish I could tell you those alone are enough – they are not. Seek help when you need it and let everything else be a bonus gift.
I did make more friends, far more as an adult than I did as a child or teenager. These were friends in front of me and friends online, especially people I reconnected with over Facebook and met over Twitter. I often talk about my Twitter friends to people in real life and I can always see the skepticism in their faces. People don’t ask questions, they try to move on soon. In their minds, this is the equivalent of me having an imaginary friend. But I never fail to talk about the fantastic, feminist friends I have made in this online world and the freedom that comes from knowing authentic people who to quote Rilke ‘live in the questions’.
I know people who have talked to me (tweeted at me, sent me messages) during my worst times, who have offered to video call me, who have sent me poems and words and basically life rafts from all over the world. I say this to remind others, but also myself, that technology and mental health are not naturally at odds. It is the way we use technology that impacts our well-being, mental and physical.
I know people who have talked to me (tweeted at me, sent me messages) during my worst times, who have offered to video call me, who have sent me poems and words and basically life rafts from all over the world.
I am not naive, I see around me people tethered to their phones and tablets, unable to pay attention to the life in front of them, compelled and distracted a world that only exists online. It can be an alienating experience. As a society, a group, we are the point at which if we don’t exercise intentionality, technology will continue undo our social fabric and cleave our world into online versus offline.
But at the same time, I am convinced that as individuals technology can and will open doors to universes that we did not even know about a decade ago. For me, I would have never learned about the work being done at Feminism in India, far far away from Delhi. I wouldn’t have met so many fierce women, who fight the patriarchy every single day by being who they are – they come in many shapes and forms, not all of them acceptable to our society (unmarried, divorced, childless, vocal about gender rights, uninhibited about sex, confident in expressing their doubts, poets and lawyers and writers).
I have hope today which I did not imagine before, because I had not met anyone like me, online or in-person. I still have not met anyone exactly like me because that is not how the world works, but I now know people who like and enjoy who I am. Technology made a world possible for me that I did not know existed when I was in my early twenties. By itself, technology is not a solution (it is not even neutral, it is gendered in how it is thought through and implemented) – but I like to believe that we can make it our own in a way that alleviates the loneliness.
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