Mental Health Warriors: I am Strong and Vulnerable

Two years back, I was preparing for a pitching event. I had to present my work on stage in just 60 seconds and win INR 25 lakhs of funding. In the last practice session, I was sweating, fumbling, shivering and everyone including me thought was normal.

“Don’t be scared; you just have to say what you have done!”

“There is no need to be nervous; it will all be done in a minute.”

These were the words that my friends kept telling me. I remember a distinct moment where I looked at one of my friends and said, “I don’t understand why this is happening to me. I think I have a phobia of public speaking.”Another friend sitting next to me replied to what she had overheard, “Bilkul nahi yaar. It is normal; everyone has these type of phobias.” I gave it a thought and decided that he was right and left for the final pitch. I still remember the moment when I finished my speech. Everyone in the hall was clapping and cheering. But all I could hear was the palpitation of my heart and the voice inside my head – that seemed to be going over all the reasons why I would not win. All I could see was the darkness around my eyes – instead of those two-hundred faces looking at me. But I was still not bothered; this was so routine, so familiar. That’s how I had always spoken in public; with a beep sound in my ears, palpitation in my heart and black spots dancing in front of my eyes. Amidst all of the chaos, I managed to get down from the stage and reached for my seat amongst the audience. What happened next was something that changed my life for the next few months to come. With my hands shaking in disbelief, I read a message about the passing away of my very close and dear friend. At that moment, it seemed like everything was meaningless. The pitch that mattered to me so much, that speech that broke me into a sweat – I did not care about it anymore. I was devastated and felt breathless. I felt severe pain right in the middle of my stomach, and yet somehow, I got to the airport. I was shocked, and so was my body, and I found myself puking. The air hostess was kind and helped me. She served me my meal and politely pushed me to eat something, but I threw up again. Finally, I reached Pune and for the next 24 hours, while attending the funeral, I was normal, I was ‘me’ – but I really wasn’t and I could not eat anything.

As my last tribute, I went to the place where we both loved to eat egg bhurji and paranthas. I had a little bit of that and started my trip back. At the airport, the same sequence happened. I had no idea that this same sequence of things was going to haunt me for a longer time. In just a week I had lost more than 6 kgs. With time, I did allow my grief to come to me. Yet, it was the beginning of a very dark phase. Someone asked me recently to recount the feelings during this lowest point of my life. And what I recall is not feeling anything at all – just the numbness. I drew a blank every time I had to work, perform and achieve. I had to push myself to do everything. The smallest of concerns would trigger my anxiety and I would retreat into my darkness. I think I understood then – that THIS was not normal.

I remember when I felt differently. I was rummaging through my almirah, looking for one thing but I found something more precious – my certificate of participation in National Debate at Aligarh Muslim University, back in 2003. What? Right. Somehow, all of these memories had magically evaporated. With some effort, I took a trip down the memory lane and was bombarded through the whole cumbersome process of practising, articulations, voice modulations and speaking through several rounds of screening. I could see a fearless and confident Archana standing on the podium who was a tough competition for all the boys in the college – where girls were literally countable on fingertips. And here I was today,  thinking that I had a phobia of public speaking! I could not believe that this was also me. I could also not believe – that there were three trophies in my almirah that I had won for best actor for mono-play. How did I end up having stage phobia? More than that, how did I end up here, amidst all this darkness.

That was the moment, when I decided that I want that bold, beautiful and confident Archana back. I want her peace of mind, her happiness. I cannot undo what has happened in my life, but somehow, my inner child, my twenty-year-old version was calling me back. And the best decision I made was, to respond to that calling. And how did I do that? I sat with my fear of public speaking, of opening up, and I talked about it.

TALKED to my friend who worked in a mental health space to guide me how to go ahead and what to do next.

TALKED to my friends about what was happening to me.

TALKED to my family about what was wrong with me.

TALKED to my teachers and asked for support.

TALKED to my colleagues and tried to make them understand what impacts mental health.

But all this talking didn’t do much good to me back then, because most of them didn’t understand the unseen struggle I was going through. Most of them were unaware of the pain I was hiding behind my smiles and posts on social media. Most of them thought anxiety is normal and depression is a part of life. Most of them were busy facing their own fears.

But now, somehow those conversations have done enough good and made my efforts successful because now a young friend of mine came to me and said, “I saw you overcoming your challenges, can you help me too?”

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