I was on the verge of completing my journalism course at a prestigious college in Chennai in 2001 when the news that turned my world upside down came in from Thiruvananthapuram. My father had been admitted to hospital after suffering a stroke brought on by liver cirrhosis. I did not return home until the funeral.
My father’s passing left me feeling numb. I did not shed a tear for six months, but something felt deeply wrong inside me the whole time. I had earlier grieved over my mother’s death in 1996, but this felt worse. Soon the crying fits started, without warning, especially at night. I would wake up in the morning to a pillow soaked in my own tears.
I had previously been to a psychiatrist in my hometown and had been treated for depression. Now, I consulted a different one in Chennai. After a conversation about my symptoms, my doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.
‘Can you move to a job that would be less stressful?’ he asked towards the end.
This is a question that many psychiatrists have asked me over the years , but being a journalist is the only job I know how to do. I remain passionate about it to this day.
Little did I know back then how difficult the disease would be to deal with, especially at the workplace.
At this point, I was writing news bulletins for a leading South Indian channel. I often found myself crying in my office and, in order to hide my grief, I would pretend to watch TV. When the stress became unmanageable, I took days off. My medication was giving me trouble — I couldn’t sleep after taking it and couldn’t wake up in time for work the next morning.
I took these problems to my psychiatrist.
‘Tell them you are still getting over your father’s death. Your boss may not be supportive (if you talk about your mental health),’ he said.
I did not know enough to disagree.
I was profoundly isolated, and wanted to tell family and friends that I was living with a mental health condition, but felt like I could not. This made my experience at the workplace even more wearisome, especially as I felt I was always in danger of spilling the beans.
When I did share this information with a friend, it led to a shouting match. ‘Just grin and bear it. The world is too bad a place to trust people with this kind of information,’ my friend advised, after our argument ended. Eventually I told more and more friends and family about my condition and they seemed to be of the same opinion.
My friends and loved ones meant well. To disclose my mental health condition could affect my fledgling career, including important things such as raises and promotions. This was in addition to the regular stresses of being a rookie journalist and dealing with petty office politics.
Even so, my mind, body and soul were rebelling against the whole idea of hiding my mental illness from people. I am a frank, even brutally honest, person. I felt that my colleagues ought to be sympathetic, and that I could not be faulted for having bipolar disorder.
I underestimated the full range of problems associated with bipolar disorder, particularly because of its inane sounding name.
My mood swings were abrupt and sharp. I experienced psychotic episodes and often imagined that people were trying to kill me. I also became obsessed with certain minor events and my re-imagination of them often replaced the actual memories.
I woke up from nightmares, terrified, aghast and sweating profusely, often unable to tell the difference between dreams and reality. I kept myself secluded and insulated from everyone. I would be away from office for days, caught up in a state of inexplicable misery.
I was working at a leading newspaper in Chennai in 2004. One day, my deputy news editor, a man I adored and respected, pulled me up for a series of mistakes I had committed on my page.
‘And, he is a senior sub-editor,’ he said derisively.
I put my head down and fought back tears. I could not bring myself to explain that I had not slept for several days and was having trouble concentrating.
In 2007, I was practically running the day-to-day work at my office, after many people quit for better jobs. I found myself managing things alone and the stress became unbearable. When mistakes became rampant, I knew I had to do something drastic.
I strongly hinted to my editor about the problems I was facing and walked out of the office. I did not return for a month or so, knowing full well that this could get me fired.
When I returned, my editor demanded proof that I was living with a mental illness. Uncertain about showing my prescription at work, I tried to convince her that I did not have any proof. She was indifferent. Only after I showed her my doctor’s signature on a document did she restore my job. My provident fund was withheld for the days I ‘bunked’ work.
This incident left me feeling scarred. I promised myself that I would tell my next boss that I had bipolar and be done with the whole issue. So, when I switched jobs in 2008, I did exactly that: I told my boss.
I was not prepared for what came next. While I was relieved of the pressure of keeping an important issue a secret, the discrimination against me — both obvious and subtle — began.
Despite slogging at work for nearly five years, I was never promoted and barely managed to get increments. The initial euphoria that came with my declaring my illness did little to help me in the long run.
With time, I got sidelined at the office.
Colleagues would deem me unfit to make a page. ‘You are very good with headlines. But we don’t want you on Page 3. You do 4.’ Others questioned the days I had to take off. They demanded to know exactly how many leave days I had. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that I was on leave without pay for all the days I had been away.
My boss often told me not to ‘psyche myself out’. He meant that I was the one inflicting the disease on myself. To make matters worse, he thought this advice was actually helping me. It wasn’t, but I could not tell him this.
Though the situation has improved a bit over the last few years, the stigma against mental illness continues to prevail. It has affected every aspect of my life, my career most of all.
The fight against bipolar is a lonely, harrowing affair. There are millions of people in the world living with this condition, and disclosing it should not become a decision that harms people’s careers irrevocably. I hope I have done my bit to open up conversations around mental health and the need to reduce stigma around our struggles in all spaces.
Nandhu Sundaram has been in the media for more than for 15 years. He has worked in both print and television media. Now, he is a freelancer who contributes articles on film, his passion.
Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal