What my mother’s depression taught me

The illustration shows two seated women. The younger one is wearing a pink salwar kurta and the older one is wearing a peach and blue saree. The woman in the salwar kurta is reading a book to the other woman, who appears to be indifferent. The woman in the salwar kurta is sitting against a yellow backdrop resembling a rose while the older one is sitting against a dark, cloudy night sky with stars.

It was only when my mother was diagnosed with depression that I realised that my own perception of mental illness was completely skewed.

When people think about disability, they often limit their thinking to the physical body. Many people fail to realise that mental illnesses are also disabling, and that they prevent people from performing everyday tasks with ease.

There was a time that I couldn’t understand why people with depression couldn’t handle their jobs well, or even get out of bed in the morning. This is in spite of the fact that I had already suffered from depression. But it was only when my mother was diagnosed with the illness early last year that I finally realised that my own perception of mental illness was completely skewed.

Even before my mother was diagnosed, there were plenty of signs that she was depressed – she wasn’t smiling as much, she began to walk in her sleep, she felt pessimistic, and her whole body ached without a visible cause. She started speaking about wanting to self-harm. Our family doctor asked me to take her to a psychiatrist, but being the stubborn person that I am, I decided instead to try and motivate her myself.

In the next two weeks, I tried to talk to her to see what was on her mind. My intention was to resolve her problems, which I was convinced were imaginary. She wouldn’t open up to me, probably because she knew I wouldn’t be able to have an unbiased opinion. I would read articles about happy things to her, and she’d nod briefly before dismissing the conversation.

She wouldn’t eat, nor would she take her medicine on time. Once, she sleepwalked all the way to the hospital, where she complained about her high blood pressure. When it was checked, it turned out to be normal. Thankfully, the doctor she went to was our family doctor, who dropped her home. He called me the next day and asked me once again, quite seriously, to take her to the psychiatrist.

I was shocked by my mother’s behaviour, and scared for her safety. What if she had walked into oncoming traffic? Pushing aside my own obstinacy, I took her to see a psychiatrist. I left her alone there with the doctor. After an hour, she came out of the doctor’s chamber with tear-stained cheeks and a prescription. I went back to see the doctor, who told me that she had depression, and that the antidepressants he had prescribed for her would help her cope with it.

Although I had my reservations about this medication, I didn’t express them. Instead, I decided to wait for a month to see if they helped her – and found that they did. My mother was herself again – she was laughing and smiling more, cooking for and feeding herself, and taking her medication on time.

The sleepwalking stopped, and she opened up to me and told me everything she had wanted to share, but had been unable to tell me. The worrying talk about self-harm stopped. Her physical pain subsided. Now, she is taking care of herself.

Because of this journey, I understood that depression presents differently in different people – and that no matter what anyone says, mental illnesses are disabilities, which should be treated with the utmost seriousness.

Featured image credit: Alia Sinha

This is part two of a two-part series of personal essays on depression by Virali Modi. Read part one here