A True Story of Hope: akhilvaani in Conversation with Young-Turk Tanvi Kale on How She Tamed Her Depression Beast

Welcome brave-heart Tanvi Kale to “akhilvaani”.

You are aware, ” akhilvaani” is a platform to Own-Up, Open-Up and Talk Mental Illness it is committed to spread “Hope, Love and Pride”  amongst Mentally Ill thereby  busting the stigma around it.

At the outset, my most sincere thanks for first owning-up and opening-up on twitter in response to my exhortations of Indians of all hues to talk about their Mental Illness.

As you know, Depression per-se, a condition with which you have identified yourself  largely strikes first rather early in life, more women than men suffer from Clinical Depression (unlike conditions like Bipolar disorder which strike men and women equally) and Depression is spreading its fangs so fast that the World Health Organization (WHO) has dedicated this year World Health Day (7th April), to “Depression” with the message:

“Depression: Let Us Talk”

So once again, welcome to this “Depression: Let Us Talk Session” at akhilvaani

At the outset, let me compliment you, because yours is the story of  a young-turk, which is going to give millions of mentally ill in India, what the need most– HOPE

I am certain your  story is also going to work as a definite stigma buster in a country where stigma around mental illness is eating in the societal fabric like termite.

Let us start:

Question 1:

akhilvaani: Tanvi Kale, welcome to this platform created to “Open-Up, Own-Up and Talk-Mental illness and to spread up “Hope, Love and Pride to Mentally Ill”

Answer

(TK): Thanks so much Akhileshwar. I am very excited, happy, and honored to be a part of this initiative. I think it’s wonderful and much needed.

Question 2:

akhilvaani: Before moving further, let as pause briefly, know from you what motivates you to open up, rather early in life when even accomplished people who have nothing to lose, keep the incidence of their mental illness bolted inside the tower of shame.

Answer:

(TK): What motivates me to open up is simple: Self acceptance, the positive impact my life has had post openly talking about mental illness, and a will to get rid of stigma attached to mental illness.

I honestly believe that imperfection is not a weakness but a tendency of laziness, and the lack of grit and courage, to overcome imperfection is. I personally work with a growth mindset, not a perfection mindset. I do not believe that I will ever be perfect, and I do not wish to be so. I wish to grow, constantly improve, and learn, and wish to make today’s perfection tomorrow’s mediocrity.

I have no shame about my mental illness, and think that other people who do judge it are either judgmental or ignorant. I can try to enlighten their ignorance by opening up.

Overcoming my mental illness has changed me tremendously as a person. I have become stronger, more empathetic, more self aware, and more mature. With my self-assurance I can easily tune out judgments of closed-minded people, and choose not to associate with them.

Question 3:

akhilvaani: Tell me first about you, your child hood, family, education and vocation. Looking back in hind sight can you relate your present day Depression to any early life stressor, specific event or general nurture triggers

Answer:

(TK): I am the only child of two extremely loving, supportive, and successful parents. My family is my biggest and best asset. I am currently 23 years old and have been born and brought up in Pune. Since childhood, I have been an independent thinker, a follower of my own rules, and a generally intense, inquisitive, and sensitive person.

The combination of sensitivity and critical thinking is a double-edged sword. I constantly used to see the pain and suffering in the outside world and used to think of why it exists. These things gave me answers that most pain was caused due to things that were beyond my control, like death, poverty, other people’s hatred, socio-economic inequalities, the unfair treatment of anyone etc. The lack of control mixed with powerful emotions that I felt got me overwhelmed since childhood.

There were a few events that happened when I was a child that made me feel even more powerless than general. The specifics are a personal experience that I do not wish to share, but they left me with the feeling of distrust, hatred, and fear. As I started growing older, as an adolescent, I started really hating the general/traditional Indian social norms, since I did not fit any of what it meant to be good, beautiful, “acceptable” as an Indian girl.

I would generally attract a lot of positive as well as negative comments from Indians around me, calling me “too loud”, “too inquisitive”, “too much of a rule-breaker”, “too boyish”, “too fat”, “too opinionated” or even “too bossy”. In my head, I knew I was different, but this constant criticism of my individuality got to me, and I resented society in general.

So the stressors were specific events in my childhood, deaths of very near and dear ones, and social pressures to fit in. The first event was when I was 7, the second was the death of my grandmother, and the third was the performance pressure of 11th and 12th grade. Then I went to the USA to study for 4 years. The first semester was great, but the second semester was a living hell.

The winter, being away from my family and everyone I knew, and lack of sunlight, got me Seasonal Affective Disorder. This was the fourth, final, and worst stressor, before I went to seek help from a professional and myself.

Question 4: 

akhilvaani: You are aged only 23, and Depression has been there as a part of your life for past few years. Tell me, when was the first episode. Rather tell me the story of the journey of depression itself from beginning to now. When it was clinically detected.

Answer:

(TK): As I mentioned before, I was an “angst-y” teenager who thought the world was against her. I was very close to my grandmother while growing up. Her unexpected death changed me as a person and I remember for a few months after that, I was pretty depressed.

Then time passed, and I went to 11th grade. Since I had some trust issues, I wanted to make friends but did not want to let anyone in. I was also not dealing with some events that happened in the past. So I alienated people but wanted friends. This misalignment started to get to me.

My parents are both very intelligent engineers and my skills and interests have always strayed away from the “successful Indian” engineer-doctor norm, and have been towards the liberal arts. I was enrolled in CBSE science. Since I was not good at sciences but needed to perform well, I got intensely stressed and felt like a failure. That’s when I got seriously depressed.

I remember periods when I was aimless, disinterested, and scared. As one might predict, I Then I took a gap year to apply for colleges in the states. After that, I started my undergrad there as I mentioned, I got heavily depressed in the winter. I barely could get out of bed and almost never found the energy or motivation to finish any assignments.

My GPA took a huge blow due to that. That got me more depressed. This went on till a point that I could not handle every day activities. So, I searched for a counselor and started going to appointments. She told me I was depressed and helped me deal with some of my demons.

Then one day, I stopped therapy and started working out. I used to run long distances and that got me endorphin rushes. Since then, I decided to try some self-therapy and positivity techniques that luckily worked very well for me.

I used to think happiness was an unachievable emotion that everyone faked and I used to feel guilty to feel happy. I also used to judge myself harshly, and barely share any aspect of my life with my parents.

In July 2013, it was raining heavily. I was at one of my best friend’s house before that. At his house, I opened up a lot about my mental health and also about who I was, and a lot of my experiences. That was the first time in years I had been completely truthful to anyone and I had let myself feel emotion against the usual numbness, and I cried.

When I was coming back from my friend’s house by bike and got drenched on the way and it felt amazing. When I got back home, I played around alone in the rain and just let myself feel happy, without any guilt. That day I accepted a lot of my demons, imperfections, and the day I came out to myself about being depressed, I decided to change.

It has been an incredible process since then.

I found some amazing people that helped me on my journey of recovery; I got closer to my parents and have told them about all the important things that happened in my life, including my depression; I have made friends that transcend any level of love and closeness that I have felt before, and I have gotten in tune with myself.

Through my journey, I have decided to choose happiness, choose to see the positives of life, fearlessly face the negatives of life, and always fight the good fight and surround myself with other people who do.

I resumed therapy after 3 years, recently when I moved back to India to work. I still have bouts of depression but I have really learnt well to handle them now.

Question 5:

akhilvaani: Depression has become a disease of young persons also Depression is often associated with suicidal ideation and attempt. Has in your young life been occasion when suicidal thoughts troubled you. If yes, how you have beaten suicidal ideation.

Answer:

(TK): There had been many times where I saw no point in living, but never felt a need to end my own life.

My inner living force and love from my family kept me going.

My biggest battle was to stop feeling insignificant.

Funnily enough, I realized that in the grand scheme of things, I am inherently insignificant, have always been insignificant, and will always be insignificant. But, although I am insignificant in the grand scheme of things, I am significant to the most important thing in my life: ME.

One of the biggest causes of my depression was also existential dread. So, with putting myself first, making a meaning for my own life, and taking charge of my existence, I beat the feeling of life being meaningless. Yes, life is inherently meaningless, but life is subjectively as meaningful as I choose to make it.

This realization has kept me fueled and going strong.

Question 6:

akhilvaani:  It transpires from your brief introduction that your Depression has been recurring in nature. Have in past or in present you have taken psychiatric assistance and have you been there on medication or are on medication. Do you think serious mental illnesses can be managed without expert psychiatric help

Answer:

(TK): I was told to get on anti depressants from my first counselor but I was aware of over-prescription in the USA and was cautious about side effects of medication so I chose to not go on medication.

However, that is a personal choice, and I think psychiatrists are extremely competent in our current society and if one chooses to get medicated, they should absolutely go for it.

In my opinion, serious mental illness is best treated using a combination of self-help, medication only if necessary, and counseling. Self-help is, again in my view, 70% of the battle won. Medication is the later 25% since mental illness can definitely be a result of physical imbalances.

The remaining 5% is the objective view that counseling provides.

You can only detach and observe yourself objectively to a certain point. Post that, counselors are very essential to make you see the small things that you did not.

Question 7:

akhilvaani: Apart from psychiatric help (if any) what other things including but limited to therapy, life style changes, exercise, meditation have helped you to manage your depression

Answer:

(TK): I cannot stress enough on the importance of working out.

Exercising releases an amazing endorphin rush, and plus it made me realize I had an internal locus of control over one more aspect of my life i.e. my physical health and appearances. Exercising has also given me immense grit.

The “Come on, you can do one more set, one more set!!!” habit that I built while working out quickly and beautifully made its way into me performing every day activities, and it made my mind stronger. “Mind over matter (in this case, matter is the dumbbell)” attitude helped me deal with depression.

Exercise gave me mental strength, grit, and self-assurance as well as belief in my power to improve myself. Apart from that, meditation and constant introspection, which is something I have always been inclined to do.

Writing helped me a lot to introspect. I have been keeping journals and also write short stories, poems, and make all different kinds of art, as a tool for self-expression, and then I introspect them at a later time.

But, I will be careful here and say introspection should be descriptive and not normative i.e. I introspect for facts, but do not pass judgment on the facts that I learn about myself. I gather the facts and observe the ones I would like to change to improve myself, and then act upon them.

Also… music is life giving. I indulge myself in stand-up comedy, TV shows, photography, and sleep when if and when I take time off due to feeling a bout of depression

Question 8:

akhilvaani: You are one brave young Indian you have refused to be defined by your mental illness. Rather it is your conviction that it has made you more resilient and given inner conviction to be better individual and better professional.

Answer:

(TK): Thank you, that means a lot coming from you.

I know that your journey has been far from easy, considering you come from a generation where stigma in general about the deviant is sickening.

Question 9:

akhilvaani: Tell me a little about your professional life. I am not interested in knowing which organization you work but what type of work you do. Young professionals find great difficulty in deciding whether to disclose or not about their mental illness to their colleagues and bosses, because of the extreme stigma associated with Mental illness in the country. What has been your experience.

Answer:

(TK): I work with my father in our amazing company, so I do not have much to contribute about this.

However, one thing that I might suggest is to talk to employers about all the things and qualities that you have learnt from your mental illness, rather than talk directly about the mental illness itself.

Question 10:

akhilvaani: In successfully managing any mental illness, role of the care givers is of paramount importance. You have been your principle care givers and what has been your experience. How has been the journey of change of perception of your family and friends about your Depression over a period of time.

Answer:

(TK): I cannot thank my parents, my other family members, and my close friends enough for all the love, support, and acceptance that they have shown towards me. Watching me struggle was most difficult for my parents, but it has been more joyous for them to see me get over my mental illness successfully.

At first, my family was scared for me, due to the misconceptions about mental illness.

They were only scared for my well being because they love me so much. From older generations, there is still a little bit of fear that comes through, but that is only because of misinformation or lack of knowledge.

My friends have been amazingly supportive, we support each other since a lot of my friends deal with demons of their own.

But our struggles make us empathetic towards the other. Even if some of my closest friends might not have gone through mental illness, they are understanding, supportive, and just amazing folks.

This comes from open-mindedness and love.

Question 11:

akhilvaani: Depression as a general rule (exceptions apart) strikes rather early in life. This is also the time when there is total ignorance about the nature of the illness. How you have tamed or managed its progression. This is instructive for other youngsters of the country  because you are a successful professional and who confidently follows the policy of openness about her illness.

Answer:

(TK): Honestly, the best thing I have done is understand my mind, understand myself, make my purpose, and stop giving a shit about opinions that stem from closed minded and irrational judgment of people.

The Internet is an amazing tool and I am my best teacher.

I relentlessly keep myself informed and keep reading clinical studies, academic papers, blogs, books, and everything else that help me understand the mind better.

I managed the progression as I grew older and my regard for opinions grew lesser.

I keep bringing up opinions because whether I like it or not, I used to get affected with what people thought to an extent that it stopped me from seeking help or even information about mental health!

When I stopped caring about the outside, I started caring about the inside and started seeking tools and things that would help me.

Question 12:

akhilvaani: When a friend, family member or colleague suffers from physical illness (simple or chronic), they get total societal sympathy. But when it comes to Mental Illness – one experiences stigma, discrimination and even profiling. What is the way to reduce stigma around mental illness prevalent in the society.

Answer:

(TK): We should have mental illness pride parades the same way the LGBT crowd has their pride parade hahaha.

But seriously, I think stigma will go down when people understand mental illness better, open up about their journeys, and stop treating it so “seriously”.

So sharing, talking, encouraging schools to start taking their school counselors seriously, and in my opinion having a laugh about it once in a while and not making mental illness so intense is a great way.

A lot of times, it feels heavy because factors around you and you yourself make it so heavy. Of course, I would never want to trivialize mental illness, but sometimes a light- hearted talk of mental illness goes a long way.

Question 13:

akhilvaani: Even in such people who suffer from severe mental illnesses like recurring depression,  bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other such conditions, there is a usual bravado that “I am not weak” or I can manage my illness without medication or therapy (first instinct is of denial)  and often people are hesitant to or even doggedly refuse to accept that they have a mental illness and often they refuse to take professional help. What is your message to such people.

Answer:

(TK): I salute your strength but also bow down to your stupidity.

If you have bronchitis, will you be brave and suffer in silence? I don’t think so.

Then why undermine the intensity of mental health and its implications on your existence?

Go see a doctor, dude.

Question 14:

akhilvaani:  Incidence and severity of Mental illness is spreading its tentacles in the country. Also Depression (clinical, bipolar, pre-natal, post-partum) makes for the biggest chunk of mentally ill- both male and female. WHO alarmed at growing incidence of depression has decided on “Depression” as the theme of this year World Health Day (7th April) with the motto – “Depression: Let us Talk”.  To me, you are a budding professional and “youth icon”  who has come out boldly- “Depression so what you can still be a winner in Life”. What is your central message to Indian youth whether they suffer or do not suffer from any Mental Illness

Answer:

(TK): From my experience, there are two ways to tackle depression.

Tactically, it is to say “Screw this stigma” and get help, from yourself or from a professional.

Do it for yourself. Do it because you deserve it.

Do it because you are the most important person on earth.

Do it because I beg you to.

I plead that you do not give up, and do not give in to societal pressures.

Strategically, it is to be yourself, love your perfections and love your imperfections equally. It is to accept yourself, both the light and the dark side of you. There is always a good side to things, as is there a bad side. I beg that you do not pity yourself, but instead look at a mirror, stare your reflection in the eyes, and take pride in the fact that you are here, you are breathing, and you have already won so much the battle you are fighting by choosing to be here.

Love yourself unconditionally, and accept every part of yourself.

Seek the good and never succumb to the overwhelming feeling of anchors dragging you down to the dark pits of an ocean. Cut off the anchors from your feet and just start moving towards the surface. Anchors can be dread, anxiety, chemical imbalances, society, or even your own fears.

The more and more you know yourself the more and more you give yourself the power to change yourself.

The most liberating feeling I have ever had was to take full charge of my life due to the power of choice that I have been given as a human being, and also facing the consequences of all my actions.

To those that are not going through any mental illness, I beg of you to be sympathetic to the ones that are. Never feel sorry for fighters of mental battles, but be proud of their strength to carry on with their battles, and be proud of the fact that they are winning their battles, one day at a time, by choosing to live, by choosing to breathe, and by choosing to go through another exhausting day.

In general, I plead that you thrive in your individuality, thrive because of what differentiates you from all the other people, and keep thriving by being you.

I wish all of you all the growth, happiness, improvement, and good that will come your way, and also wish upon all of you the strength that I know you have, to fight and win any battles that you are fighting currently or will fight in the future. I wish that you live in the gift of the present.

And lastly, I wish upon you peace, love, unity, and respect.

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