I am very good at knee-jerk reactions. I am such a centred human being that my poise can be upset in a moment. A sceptical twitch of your eyebrow, a tentative ‘but,’ a counter comment – are all it takes to unsettle my rock-steady sense of balance. You confront me, however unknowingly, with something about me I do not want to hear, and I will huff and puff and say things to make you feel bad. I recently got mad at a friend for pointing out an inconvenient truth. I have this pattern of reacting from a place of anger and hurt and then catching up with the truth just moments later. If only I step back, pause, consider and then respond! The distinction that most self-help literature makes between reaction and response sounds simplistic. But it does make a lot of sense in many life situations. While working with the LGBT peer counsellor training program, the subject of reacting Vs. responding came up and made for some really insightful discussions. More on that later. Now to the specifics of this particular blog.
I am indebted to my friend for directing my attention to some important things about my depression. I am not using the word “friend” here lightly, as it is often used by many of us – to refer to anyone one even casually knows. He is a true friend who really cares for me and often helps me with his brutally honest comments on matters I share with him. This time he urged me not to get smug about the fact that I suffer from clinical depression and only got biological factors influencing how I feel. He asked me to consider if my “lifestyle” actively contributes to these cycles of depression. I immediately went on the defensive and accused him of not allowing me the space to rant, and offering advice instead. But I almost instantly knew I was fooling myself. He was offering me something important to consider. Of course, his comment about lifestyles influencing mental health is not a staggeringly new perspective. It is almost a truism. Its significance for me lay in the fact that I now feel I needed to hear it at that moment.
It is, indeed, true that I must reconsider certain things about the way I live. And I think it is about the rate at which I live and not about what I do or what I am. I have to slow down. Also, I am now able to see better where I had come from when I reacted vehemently to his observation. People often talk about a “gay lifestyle” in a very condescending and moralistic way. It irks me when people, often those who have no clue about it, refer to being gay as a lifestyle choice. Perhaps they are influenced by the ubiquitous American sitcoms, several of which have gay characters that come with their shallowness wrapped in designer clothing, accessorized with Prada and Louis Vuitton, and scented with Gucci. I think my subconsciodus mind connected my friend’s reference to my lifestyle to these flippant references to “gay lifestyle,” whatever that means. As someone who knows me well and understands my life and work, he was clearly referring to something else. He was talking about my intense living, my vulnerabilities, and my desire and attempts to do a million things. I also know he has a persistent concern about my life as an activist in Chennai and the particular concerns of doing work related to LGBT issues. Well, so much for knowing about how much he cares for me! I read him wrong and snapped at him.
Of course, there were points where I definitely disagree with him. For instance, I do not share the belief that clinical depression or depressive disorder is an invention of Western medicine and that there is nothing that yoga cannot cure. As much as I take responsibility for how I feel, I do not want to continue to incriminate myself for feeling terribly depressed and lacking in will when I have no apparent reason to be so. I accept the fact that there are biological/ hormonal reasons for some people experience debilitating cycles of depression. In a sense, I was revolting against my friend’s comment because I felt it failed to acknowledge the fact that after years of feeling frustrated with myself for not knowing why I felt the way I did sometimes, I have come to understand the issues better and was relinquishing this added burden of guilt. Now that I know that my body is throwing up issues that unsettle the activities of my mind, I can choose to take charge and see what I can do about it. I am also aware of this bizarre domino effect where once I feel out of control and do not know what is wrong, I do things that go wrong and reinforce the preying sense of ennui. So there is definitely that space where I actively contribute to my depressions.
It may not have been intentional, but what my friend basically did was to remind me that I cannot shift the blame on to a clinical situation and go without examining the ways in which I add to this situation by my mode of being in the world. And I am now very thankful to him for that.
It is very difficult for me to think about my emotional health without thinking about what has unfortunately become a dirty S word – spirituality. I know many of us guard our true thoughts on this subject from entering public discourse for various reasons. Primarily, we do not really have a vocabulary to talk about matters of the spirit or the self in a way that can align with the political/ rational and does not degenerate either into New Agey mushiness or fundamentalist essentialisms. But I want to end this blog with something I will take up for a longer discussion in the next one. Two other friends of mine recently used the word “core” in very conscious ways while talking about emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Among its other possible meanings, for me, the word signifies basic premises, those on which one’s living is premised. In that sense, I am definitely interested in attending to my “core.”