Talking mental health

Dealing with Life during COVID-19: My Journey Through Depression

Mental Health Voices Your Stories

By Ishika Bansal

Trigger warning: This post includes passages to do with suicidal ideation. If this is distressing, please do stop reading and do seek out professional help.

Editor’s Note: If you are feeling distressed please know that you are not alone, and do reach out to a trained professional. Some India-based helplines are listed here. 

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of millions of people around the world. I am one of them. It felt terrible: I went deep into depression in August 2020. But I realised what I was going through and took help. I told my family, consulted a psychiatrist, went to therapy, changed my routine. It worked. I recovered in December, and here I am to share my story of how I fared through those crucial four months.

On 10 March 2020, just a month before I would finish the first year of undergrad, my university announced they were shutting down for 10 days as the coronavirus had started infecting Indians. I took the next available flight back to my home in Delhi. There was a sense of uncertainty and numbness in me. I did not understand the gravity of the situation. How big of a deal it was. For me, it was like a 5-10 day break from my university. Who knew the 10-day return would continue till 2021?!                       

I have been away from home since 2016. My parents sent me to a boarding school when I was 14, and now, I study at a university with a residential campus. So an extended stay at home during the pandemic was a major change. Add to that being locked inside the house and no contact with the outside world. You know what it’s like.              

I was scared of getting COVID-19. At times, almost paranoid about any family member leaving home. The lockdown was daunting. But everything seemed bearable as the family was around. From April to August 2020, I spent time learning new skills, bonding with old school friends, spending time with family and cooking new dishes every day. But sometime in August, things changed, gradually, to the point that everything became unbearable. Everything I enjoyed—watching movies, cooking, talking to friends, learning something new— did not bring me joy.

Every person I loved talking to seemed fake. I felt like a burden and a failure. I was just a disappointment. This is not who I was. I felt something was not right. I was flooded with questions: What was happening? Why was I drowning in negative emotions? Why did I have  low self-esteem? Why was I losing interest in the activities I liked? That’s when I decided to take an online self-assessment mental health test. The results were absurd: I was diagnosed as “Moderately Depressed”. Something must be wrong with the quiz because I am completely okay, I thought at the time. 

Those feelings did not go away in the next two weeks, and one night, suddenly, I broke down. I started crying. I felt shitty and useless. I had zero self-worth and zero respect for myself. For the first time in my life, I had an urge to somehow get hold of sleeping pills and fall asleep.

Since one of my close relatives had been going through depression for the past five years, I knew a bit about it. I had learned about the symptoms and necessary steps one needs to take if someone thinks they are depressed. I took another online assessment, and the results were the same. This time, however, I didn’t ignore it. One night, while talking to my brother, I told him what I was feeling and what the test was hinting at. He was not sure how reliable those tests were but suggested I should consult a therapist and talk it through. I did. 

Myths and Facts about Depression
The Health Collective

ALSO READ: UNDERSTANDING THERAPY

In September, I had my first session. At first, I felt weird and nervous about sharing my thoughts with a stranger. However, the therapist was good — she asked questions to learn about me and suggested I maintain a thought journal to figure out what was going on with me. A week later, in the second session, the therapist concluded that the assessment was right; I was, indeed, moderately depressed. And we needed to work on it.

(I want to state one caveat: the therapist told me that the online self-assessment tests are only indicative and not always reliable — sometimes they may be totally off the mark. It gave weird results when my brother tried it. So in case you ever try it, don’t trust it blindly!)

Depression is much deeper than just being sad. It directly impacts your mind and eats you up from the inside. You feel like a burden on the people you love and care about. You behave in a way you don’t want to, which further makes you feel bad. It’s so mentally and emotionally exhausting that it is hard for others to help you even if they want to.

At the time, I did try talking to many friends, but nobody really understood what I was going through. It was frustrating and painful. I wondered if I would lose my loved ones if this behaviour continued. I felt like a person who had no right to live. I was at a point where I thought life was not worth it. Not worth living. My life is synonymous with failure. No one likes me. So why not just end it. I got these thoughts every second day for many days. Some days, it was bearable and I could explain to myself — no, you can’t do that. However, some days it was too painful and I needed help to navigate these feelings.

(Editor’s Note: If you are feeling distressed please know that you are not alone, and do reach out to a trained professional. Some India-based helplines are listed here.)

The Journey in Detail

Once I was diagnosed, I discussed it with my brother, and for a start, I decided not to share this with my parents. I went for weekly therapy sessions. In one month, therapy did wonders. For instance, I felt like something was wrong with me in the start and that I suck. Therapy helped me realise that these are just symptoms of being depressed. I realised that it’s my mind which makes me believe all this when it is not valid in reality. I kept comparing myself to the old me. I frequently mentioned this to my therapist — “Earlier I never used to cry, what is happening now I cry every day?” or “I am so useless, and I am such a bad daughter…” The statement that impacted me the most was, “I used to be so productive earlier, but now look, I am just useless”. That’s when my therapist said, “Suppose you are an athlete and get a leg fracture. Will you give your leg rest so that it can heal properly? Or will you continue to go for runs?”

I said I would give it some rest. Then she said, “It’s the same here. You are going through an illness in your mind, and just like resting your leg, you need to rest your mind. Stop working for a few days. Give yourself a break. Give yourself some leverage. It’s okay if you are not productive, and it’s okay to not do anything. Give it some time to heal.”

This analogy helped me throughout my journey. In that one month, I stopped comparing myself to the old me. I became sensitive to myself. However, because it wasn’t a physical illness where I could counsel myself and say “Everything will be fine”, things got tough.

In mid-September, I desperately wanted to know that what I am feeling is normal. I wanted someone who themselves suffered through it to tell me how they felt and ended the pain. That’s when I Googled and came across a Deepika Padukone’s interview where she shared her experience. Surprisingly, I could relate to every word that she said. It was as if she understood me. I could relate to her. I could not get up from the bed, feeling lonely even in a group filled with friends, just randomly crying. Everything was accurate.

Not Alone
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Although in that one month, I improved in many ways, still my symptoms became worse. I lost my appetite, felt drowsy all the time and didn’t feel like waking up in the morning. After my five sessions, I thought this did help me initially, but now it’s not helpful. I had a conversation about this with my brother, and we decided to change my therapist.

Before switching to a new therapist, I thought it was important to tell my mother about it. Yes, that was one scenario I was anxious about. What will mom say? What if she gets tense? What if she says I am faking it? It was stressful. But whatever it was, she had to know that I was in pain. So, I told her. Her response, just like my brother, was extremely positive and supportive. She decided to become a part of my painful journey.

Switching to a New Therapist

As I mentioned earlier, my relative also went through depression. Currently, that person is in contact with a good psychiatrist and therapist whom we (my brother and I) trust. So we decided to connect with them.

In the first session, my psychiatrist told me that because I am moderately depressed, I might have to start taking medicines. I was reluctant. I was scared. I thought to myself that I am just a 19-year-old. I still have a lot to do in my life. I don’t want medications, what if I get addicted to them? What if they never stop? I shared these doubts with my psychiatrist. I told him that I would instead try and stick to therapy. He spent 30 minutes explaining and removing the sigma from my mind. 

Here is what he said: Depression is (caused by) three reasons: Biological/ Genetic reasons, Emotional reasons and chemical imbalance. Therapy can cure emotional reasons. However, chemical imbalance needs to be fixed using medicines. Let us say you try therapy, and do whatever the therapist suggested. But still, you have no motivation whatsoever. That’s where chemical imbalance would impact you and will restrict you from getting better. Thus, taking medication can be essential. 

He also explained that if I don’t make a decision soon, my condition might deteriorate. It is better to take medications than continue suffering from pain. He had a point, and I was convinced that it is okay to go for medications. But still, a voice inside me kept on saying that no, try therapy first. Finally, we mutually agreed to spend one month only with therapy and then look forward and decide if medications are required or not.

That one month went well due to multiple reasons. First, my therapist was very understanding and supportive. The mood journals kept track of my thoughts, and my therapist taught me how to deal with them. For instance: I started doing meditation, distress tolerance activities etc.

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The therapy was on. One night, I was laying down on my bed, watching something. Happy and relaxed. Suddenly, my depression had a physiological impact on my body. It was 1 am and I couldn’t sleep. I was too restless and a lot was going on in my mind. I started shivering. I wanted to end everything. “This depression is never going to end”, I felt, “and I can’t take it anymore.” 

I had suicidal thoughts. I knew deep down that this is not me—it’s my depression acting on me. But I couldn’t take it alone. I decided to wake my brother up. It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of courage. Telling your older brother who cares so much about you that you want to end everything is daunting. “How will he react? Will he freak out?” I thought. “I don’t want to put pressure on him.” That’s all I could think about. But it was necessary. It would be better to wake him up than do something stupid. He woke up, sat with me for two hours, and talked about the most random stuff. I felt better and went to sleep.

(Editor’s Note: If you are feeling distressed please know that you are not alone, and do reach out to a trained professional. Some India-based helplines are listed here.)

I was at a point in my life where just getting up from my bed was extremely difficult. I didn’t feel like facing another day. I just wanted to sleep and not talk to anyone, because everything was intimidating. That’s when my mom encouraged me and forced me into exercising. The first week was annoying. I didn’t want to exercise. Why should I exercise? Getting up and bathing is such a task, that now she expects me to do this too? Why did I even tell her? All sorts of thoughts jumped in my head. In retrospect, I can see that whatever she did helped me cope with my pain and helped me get over it. 

After one week, I started feeling slight changes. My mood became 5% better, and I was happy exercising. Then, I started indulging in new activities to keep myself busy. My mom enrolled me in cooking classes, so I started learning a new life skill. My therapist suggested doing meditation, and so I tried mandala art. Gradually, I realised whenever I was busy, I felt better, didn’t overthink and wasn’t sad all the time. It was helping me not think about the struggle I am going through. Slowly, I started listening to audio books too. Obviously doing stuff was difficult for me because all I wanted to do was sleep. However, I had to push myself to become better right?

Things were getting better. I stopped feeling sad; I stopped crying all the time. Whenever I did feel some negative emotion, I either did mandala art or talked to my mom about it.

Fast forward to December, my therapist, who monitored my mood for the past three weeks concluded that my depressive phase is almost over. Medication is not needed anymore. So, my monthly sessions with the psychiatrist ended, and weekly therapy sessions changed to therapy sessions every ten days (therapy can’t be stopped suddenly). Finally, in March 2021, gradually my therapy sessions too ended.

What Did I Learn From this Journey?                   

In my perspective, I always paid attention to mental health. I knew that it existed and was a severe issue. However, going through it myself changed me in so many ways. I now understand how important mental health is in our lives. I have stopped casually associating depression with my day to day problems. For instance, “Bro, I am so depressed, I didn’t score enough in my maths exam,” or “Yaar, mujeh depression ho Raha hai because Kal exam hai”

I stopped it because depression is not a synonym for sadness; it is much more than that.

I have stopped saying “don’t cry” to my sad friend. It is okay to feel and acknowledge your feelings, but it is essential to move past them and learn something from them.

I learnt the importance of friendship. Most of the times when I felt shitty, I gave my friends a call. Neither they had any advice for me, nor did I need them to. I just wanted them to be there for me without being judgmental. It was okay if they had nothing to say. That silence was comforting. After going through this journey, I decided to be this friend, this relative and this person. Be there for one another, especially during this difficult time. It is important.

In conclusion, it is not easy to think about a difficult time. To write this blog, I had to think about those nights and those feelings, which was disturbing. However, I did this because I believe it is crucial. People need to know that mental health issues are as regular as any other illness. And that asking for help is vital and completely normal.

I recovered from this journey just by taking therapy. However, it is not true for all cases. My therapist and my psychiatrist clearly mentioned that every case is different. You can’t compare your case to someone else’s. Some recover using therapy. Some recover only using medications. And some need both. So it depends on the person and their scenario. I was lucky in terms of my friends and my family’s perspective on depression and the therapists I got. I am thankful for that. It is also a matter of privilege: therapy does not come cheap and my family was able to afford it.

Image by The Health Collective

If you are suffering from depression, trust me even if you think the pain won’t end. Just have some patience and take help. Share your problems. It is okay to be exhausted. It is okay to be sad. However, it is not okay to hide it and continue suffering, because you don’t deserve it.

Depression eats you up in a way that even with loved ones surrounding you, you feel alone and like a burden. So please, if you know someone who is going through something like that, be expressive. Tell them again and again that you are there for them. That they can talk to you. Give them space, be patient. And if you are a person suffering from depression, know that it is okay to ask for help even if it is from a friend, a relative or a therapist. In my journey, all three helped in ways I could never explain.

About the Author in their own words: I am Ishika Bansal, a university student. I am studying economics and films. I want to raise awareness about mental health issues using my own journey. I am sharing my journey in a hope that someone else benefits from it. 

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