akhilvaani in conversation with Sandeep Gautam, Life Coach and Bipolar Warrior

In the earlier blog, akhilvaani had a conversation with Shubhrata Prakash, IRS Additional Commissioner of Income Tax, and author of the latest best seller, The D-Word: A Survivors’s Guide to Depression.
akhilvaani is dedicated to “Own-up, Open-Up and Talk Mental illness and to spread “Hope, Love and Pride” to Mentally Ill.
Needless to say, Stigma and Discrimination  around mental illness in India is deep-rooted.
If is often depicted as weakness of the person, flaw in his/her character and understanding of the illness at familial , societal and organizational level leaves much to be desired. It is in this context that every disclosure, every case of Owning-Up, Opening-Up and talking Mental Illness becomes critical to stamp out stigma prevalent in a country where more than 10% suffer from Mental Illness and which has 16% of life-time prevalence of such illnesses. Worse the incidence and severity of the Mental Illness is spreading fast..
In the current blog, akhilvaani is  in conversation with,  Bipolar Warrior (Shubhrata’s case was one of prolonged battle with Major Depressive Disorder) bright and brilliant Sandeep Gautam, who by vocation is a Life Coach and Positive Psychology Blogger ( he blogs at Psychology Today and Times of India etc).
To the uninitiated, to introduce Sandeep, he . has more than sixteen years of cutting edge management and leadership experience, in which he has applied the strengths based approach for individual and organizational excellence. He loves to coach, groom, mentor, and shape people and to touch their lives to make a meaningful difference.
( Readers are encouraged to visit – http://flourishmentoring.com/ to know more about Sandeep Gautam, the person, professional and his work),
Sandeep has recently has made open confession of his decade and half long war with Bipolar Disorder. He is a shining example of people, who prove the maxim that Mental Illness is just an illness to be fixed. That the person is not defined by its Mental Illness but by what he/she achieves in life despite and often also due to the illness (Bipolar Disorder is also known to have some positives).
Here are the questions that “akhilvaani.blog” asked Sandeep Gautam. His answers are forthright and beacon of hope for other sufferers of severe Mental Disorders. They also prove conclusively that Mental illnesses, need not limit ability of individuals to succeed in personal and professional life.
 
Question 1:
akhilvaani: Sandeep Gautam (SG),  recently I was gratified to read  your  disclosure in your blog that you suffer from twin difficult illnesses one “Sleep Apnea” a debilitating physical ailment to live with and another “Bipolar disorder” one of the two most devastating mental disorders (second being Schizophrenia). Tell me what prompted the disclosure
Answer:
[SG] The disclosure was in the offing for quite some time. Its more than 15 years since my first brush with mental illness happened  (and I have been romancing it off and on since then:-)  and while initially I found it hard to accept and come to terms with my new-found love, over the years I had come not just to accept, but also to take justifiable pride in my scholastic and professional accomplishments and achievements due to and despite my ailments.
Moreover, I had come to realize the immense harm that happens when people do not talk openly about mental health issues and I for one wanted to not perpetuate the stigma by not talking about it or keeping it hidden.
Quite surreptitiously, multiple precipitating events happened; that encouraged me to opt for disclosure a reader of my blog asked if I myself have ever suffered from psychosis etc or my musings are purely theoretical; my mom casually mentioned one day that I might want to make a public disclosure (it was hard for my parents initially to accept that their ‘brilliant’ son was now somehow  ‘limited and unhinged’), I came across your tweet about your own disclosure that gave me a sense of strength and made me aware of duty we have towards other silent sufferers, and finally when I discussed with my wife (my primary caregiver) she was very open to the fact about public disclosure  and encouraged me and stood behind my decision.
The blog post I wrote on my blog (http://the-mouse-trap.com/2016/12/27/a-tale-of-two-diseases/) also gives insight into what made me disclose now and not earlier etc.
Question-2:
akhilvaani: Stepping back, tell me a about your self, your childhood, adulthood, your passions in life and vocation. Tell me about any particular traumatic early life stressors which in hind-sight might have triggered later day Bipolar Disorder
Answer: 
[SG] I hail from Kota and my entire childhood was spent there. I was drawn to computers early on and decided to become a computer engineer, the only hiccup being that we had a ‘small’ tenant problem going on while I was preparing for Indian Institute of Technology (IIT, Joint Entrance Exam (JEE). They were asking for money to vacate the portion of our house we had rented and on principle we (my parents and I and my sister) declined. They would create nuisance like playing loud music or threatening us etc and blackmail us that they wont allow me to study in peace; to cut a long story short, that provided me an extra motivation to crack JEE and I topped in Kota that year and got an All India Rank of 98 (more details about the incident here: https://www.quora.com/How-did-you-prepare-for-IIT-JEE-1/answer/Sandeep-Gautam ) .
I recall the incident because it partly shaped who I became- my top VIA strength being courage-more psychological and at that time physical too. There was some chronic stress and nuisance at that time, but I do not think it impacted my mental health in a negative way- rather it made me  stringer, stronger and more resilient.
I joined B.Tech. (Computer Science) course at IIT-Delhi where I experienced another tragic traumatic event.It turned quite a different story. I was on the other side of the ragging menace being falsely accused of ragging. I was the Cultural secretary of my hostel and also in the committee for prevention of ragging. When the new entrants joined we interacted with them first; as part of healthy interaction, I told the freshers that they had every right to refuse anything that their seniors asked them to do , but do so without pulling out excuses and with conviction and I will back them. The example I gave was if someone asks you to get your mustaches etc shaved , refuse if you don’t want but don’t give excuses that I don’t have razor etc. buy a razor from the market etc.
To cut long story short one of the students ended up shaving his mustaches and the lightening somehow fell on me; as the Dean literally dragged me down the stairs and gave me 24 hours to pack my bags and get out of the institute. Immediately due to my impeccable reputation and standing, the entire hostel confronted the dean and made him rescind his words. But the damage had been done, I had been humiliated and felt so. Next few days the entire IIT-D students community stood behind me and some faculty too. However, the press was not so kind with front page headline in of the dailies proclaiming ‘errant student let off after deal with authorities’. For a couple of weeks I could not muster the courage to go to class  ( In my mind, then, I was protesting) and it took months before I could normalize again (probably it was my only period of being sort of depressed) . The Dean eventually apologized in writing and in person but the emotional damage had been done.
Question 3:
akhilvaani: You have had an instructive, illuminating and worth emulating  past, in view of your strong academic journey at Indian Institute of Technology , Delhi and Indian Institute of Management Kolkata, tell me a bit about that part of journey and how it helped you  evolve as a professional in a totally new field
Answer:
[SG] This brings me to the  other life transforming event that happened in IIT-D . It was my accidentally reading a book that made me fall in love with Psychology and its methods  ‘The anatomy of Human Destructiveness’ by a neo-Freudian Eric Fromm. After that I got drawn into psychology more and more – starting with psychodynamic approaches, flirting with cognitive and personality psychology and finally settling onto positive psychology, although my interest in psychology and neuroscience is truly broad ranging. Psychology is my passion, my vocation and the air I breathe.
Despite discovering my passion for psychology early on, being from IIT,  I was expected to do justice to that education and so took up a career in telecom software development; however in parallel I was honing my knowledge of psychology and also providing it outlets for expression by say engaging in science blogging. I was leading a twin life- daytime and weekdays as a software professional and night times and weekends as a psychology enthusiast.
From IIT-D I have done a B Tech in computers and engineering while form IIM- Cal I have done a year long executive program in leadership and management recently.
Question 4:
akhilvaani: When and where  were  you detected to be suffering from Bipolar Disorder. How were your initial years with the illness. Did you or do you take medication for the illness. When did you accept the fact that Bipolar disorder is just an illness to be fixed.
 
Answer:
[SG] It was in January/February 2002 (when I was around 25 yrs)  that I had my first break with reality ; I was working in a multi-national-company (MNC) in Gurgaon at that time and had bad habits like skipping meals, sleep etc, working too much , drinking a lot of coffee etc. There were a lot of other factors also in play but I had a psychotic episode where I had delusions of significance as well as persecution. It was initially diagnosed as Acute Transient Psychotic Disorder and later as Schizoaffcetive , but finally after some more manic episodes diagnosis was finally changed to  Bipolar Disorder.
 
As I have mentioned earlier it was hard for me to come to terms with my diagnoses, it was hard to return to normality and I resisted medication for quite some time. My mom and wife had to grind the tablets and mix it in flour that would be used for making my rotis so that I would be taking the medication unknowingly, as otherwise I would refuse to take medication and become angry with them as to why they were insisting on that. (this was one way I found later that they used to give me medicines, I am sure there were other innovative means) . In hindsight I am glad that they did do that, because the more episodes you have the worse it is for everyone concerned.
 
I believed then mere willpower was enough or that I didn’t need help (at least not of the medical variety) and that the medicines do more harm than good, but finally when all this led to recurring episodes, sanity prevailed (pun intended) and I am now fully compliant with my medication and with amazing effects.
Question 5.
akhilvaani: It is said that bipolar disorder is biological in origin, its trigger is in environment and its impact is brutally psychological. Tell me what could have triggered your bipolar disorder in hind sight
Answer:
(SG) The triggers are pretty clear. In the MNC in which I worked we had a socially responsible group of people caller ReachOut group which was pretty active and working with NGO’s like KarmMarg etc .  I was deeply involved (I was an official Activity champion for that group and this group was officially endorsed by the MNC with COO etc interacting with us).
The year was 2001 and ReachOut was at its zenith, having just hosted an environmental week with multiple activities. Two of my colleagues were especially involved and leading the activities. They belonged to the same big work team and the boss there was sort of antagonistic to me (at least in my perception) . It was that time when IT industry first started facing slowdowns and while pink slips are common these days, it was not so and nobody thought their jobs could be insecure. the company announced layoffs and amongst the chosen few were these two of my comrades.  Maybe it had nothing to do with Raech-out involvement, maybe it had nothing to do with my antagonism with their boss, but to me it seemed very unfair, and I felt immense guilt and personal responsibility as well as uncontrollable rage (and I expressed that in as many words to HR head as well as that boss). I felt helpless , conspired upon and slowly that deteriorated in delusions of persecution and grandiosity.
The bad habits I had alluded to earlier, skipping sleep etc along with this very personally emotional moment unhinged me.
Later manic episodes have been triggered by various situational stressors, but I don’t think they would have been capable of leading to an episode if the first unhinging hadn’t happened or if after that I had continued taking medication religiously
Question 6:
akhilvaani: There is concurrence amongst scientists on one thing, incidence of suicidal ideation, suicide attempt and even completed suicide is substantially more in bipolar pro-band than normative population. Have you ever had suicidal tendencies and if yes how did you hold on to life.
Answer:
[SG] Fortunately I have not had severe depressive episodes and suicidal ideation but have deeply thought about the issue. As Camus says in Myth of Sisyphus, the only serious philosophical question worth contemplating is the question of suicide. One quotation I keep in mind is a Sanskrit verse to the effect that ‘a living person sees a hundred good things’ . My commitment is not just to remain alive as far as possible but to ensure that others felling suicidal etc are taken care of; as a matter of fact in the reach-out incident one thing I was very worried about was the possibility of suicidal ideation amongst my friends
Question 7:
akhilvaani: Partial or full medicinal non adherence is axiomatic truth for every second person suffering from bipolar disorder. In my case it led to full-blown psychotic manic attack. what is your message for young Indians who feel or say that they can conquer/ or have conquered their severe Mental illnesses like Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia without medication.
Answer:
[SG] I would say newer drugs have limited to no side effects and very safe to take so there should not be any hesitancy in complying with your doctor’s prescription.   Of course there is a misplaced sense of being Macho and not taking medicines or being able to get well without medication, I would only say that we all need help and it need not necessarily be medical (seek therapy) , but seek help when you need it, in whatever form works best for you. Lastly let there be no shame or stigma in taking help of either kind including but not limited to medication.
Question 8:
akhilvaani: Achieving full functionality during remission is a key challenge for persons suffering from Bipolar Disorder. Other than medication what else do you think has helped you and can help others fighting the similar battle.
Answer:
[SG] Family support and acceptance is paramount; medication has helped immensely and my knowledge of psychology has helped me build my own personal psychological immune system
Question 9:
akhilvaani: Caregivers suffering is often as severe and at times worse than suffering of the person afflicted with a Mental Illness. In your case who has been your principal care giver. How your family took your early diagnosis and how have they coped with your illness.
Answer:
[SG] My wife has been my primary caregiver and she has been very healing and supportive presence in this entire journey.
Question 10:
akhilvaani: Stigma surrounding Mental Illness is of extreme level in India society. What is your views on what are the steps needed to reduce the stigma even if it is going to be a long battle
Answer:
[SG] People need to speak more openly, candidly and compassionately about mental health. People need to come out and feel pride in their neuro-diversity and when such people come out they need to be accepted and supported .
Question 11:
What is one central  message you will like to give to those Indians whom Mental Illness has not yet reached- who either themselves or their family or friends have not yet suffered mental illness
Answer:
[SG] You haven’t seen the full range of human potentiality yet- humans are capable of immense forbearance as well as suffering and misfortune don’t add to that suffering by discriminating against people who are different from you – say no to stigma and discrimination you don’t need to suffer yourself or a near and dear one, to empathize and work towards an inclusive society for all.

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