By Rimli Bhattacharya
The decision to “lockdown” India to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus has an important impact on people suffering from mental afflictions. The longer the catastrophe lasts and the more people are compelled to isolate themselves, it is bound to affect the mental health across society.
Let me focus on myself. I have been forced to confine myself within the four walls since the day of the Janata curfew on 22 March, 2020. I am not an extremely extroverted individual who cannot sustain without socializing. I love staying indoors and is content with my own reading and writing. But how long can people like me endure such quarantine?
I suffer from a neurotic ailment called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). By neurotic I mean I am a victim of neurosis, a term that has come into effect since the 1700s to delineate psychic, emotional and physical responses that are drastic and illogical. Neurotic behavior is involuntary and the person afflicted with the same tries his/her best to manage deep rooted anxieties. The psychiatrists often categorize the symptoms in the bracket of anxiety disorder. In simple words neurosis falls under the umbrella term consternation. If an individual can manage the constant feeling of apprehension and stress, it may help curbing the neurotic behaviors. Self-treatment works if the anxiety is mild and fleeting but not for patients like me who are dependent on psychotic medicines to manage even the minor daily routines.
Typically people suffering from mental illnesses are mostly on their own because of the health problem. In other words, it is not that people are on their own as they suffer from mental maladies. Rather, they are forced to feel unwell as they are always on their own. It’s like falling out with everyone in their social network. The constant isolation creates certain negative emotions which threaten mental health. Once isolated, people like us cannot deftly check to identify things that are salient to them. For example we tend to think what others may be thinking of us, their feelings and doings. If you are always on your own, you also tend to feel defenseless. The feeling of paranoia engulfs us and we really cannot make out if we are in real danger or not. It’s like creating our own world of emotional fantasy. Without communication, life for people like us is unavoidably a guesswork, as we tend to assume that a pandemic like coronavirus will be attacking us. This feeling is scary.
One is in dark. Seclusion is equal to susceptibility and precariousness. One tends to endlessly theorize either in hope or in constant fear about what is going on. The current scenario of lockdown is psychologically challenging for a neurotic person as s/he keeps searching for answers constantly. Certain chemical imbalances in the brain further activate such thought patterns which are not only outlandish but also illogical.
I cannot talk on other people’s behalf but for me dealing with the lockdown is emotionally taxing. As we watch TV and use the internet, we are in mediated contact with each other. But there too lies a challenge. As I said earlier, a constant fear engulfs that our loved ones may get affected with the virus and may die. I have a little daughter and an octogenarian father and I fear for their safety more than mine. To remain sane I tune on the TV to watch the news, to stay in touch, to know what is happening. I listen to the opinions of the infectious disease specialists discussing with journalists and assuring us that we are equipped enough to fight the virus. They also suggest scientific preventive measures. But the next moment we get to see the number of casualties and army trucks carrying quarantined bodies to the crematorium. And that adds to my anxiety. Similar is the case with social media. It’s flooded with news of people getting infected, hospitals lacking staff, shortage of masks and medicines, the pathetic stories of the daily wage earners, migrant workers and last but not the least death due to hunger. So dealing with isolation with these facts around us is emotionally very tough.
To be precise a neurotically affected person (like me) gets affected by powerful emotions as we are always on our own, busy dealing with our thoughts of the ghastly consequences of this pandemic. We are swept across by the notion that the worst might happen, which is triggered by an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
Let me cite an example. I own a cell phone where people keep calling me to find out if I am okay. Fair enough. The next question which follows: “Maharashtra has been deeply affected by this cataclysm, how are you dealing with it? We know you are alone, so who is helping you buy groceries, medicines and running the daily errands?” For a sane individual this question will not trigger any negative reasoning but for me answering these questions adds to my anxiety. The other day I discovered my psychotic pills won’t last till 15 April. I called up my psychiatrist. She said she is unable to come to her clinic as the local trains have stopped working but she has advised her local psychologist to open the clinic once a day so that people like us can get those medicines. Psychotropic drugs are hardly available with the local chemists and one needs to buy them from the professionals themselves as per the prescription. That day I suffered anxiety pangs from dawn to dusk. I cannot reach her clinic either as even I travel in local trains. Other modes of transport are also unavailable in our locality. Ultimately I resigned to the idea that I might have to stay without my medicines for couple of days, knowing fully well that it could turn fatal for me. The psychotic medicines are responsible for counterbalancing the chemical deficiencies in the brain and missing dosages is like adding fuel to an already ignited fire.
For people like us these situations are actually a life crisis. Multiple dimensions of life are crumbling and we need to deal with all the changes together at the same time. Multi-tasking ultimately leads to chaos, creates profound insecurity and emotional turbulence. This distressing mental and emotional state of mind then turns out to be a part of a huge problem. I suffer from symptoms like irritation, anger, sadness, etc.
As a mental health survivor, I would like to say a few things which I have learnt from my experiences. We know we cannot avoid the lockdown, we need to accept it as we know we alone cannot change the world. This is a good time to develop our hobbies though I know how testing that can be. Nevertheless we must still try painting, reading, crafts, origami, exercising or whatever else we like to do. We need to create a deflection for ourselves. I have plunged myself in reading, writing and singing to combat my feeling of helplessness. Though I am without medicines I hope I can sustain this difficult phase with the help of these diversions. Oh yes, I still watch TV and also get updates on social media. It’s taxing for me but that is the only way I can remain sane.
A note of caution. If your anxieties still persist, do reach out to the psychiatrists, counselors and psychologists. You can always talk to them on phone. Regarding the pills, if you have run out of the same like me, approach a government health center. They may have a substitute for the same, though I haven’t tried yet. It’s like giving an unsolicited advice but do we have any other choice? I got this idea from my local chemist and I am passing on the information to you.
For patients like us, these are really trying times as isolation and loneliness provoke mental illness. Let us cling to our hopes by remembering the phrase, “This too shall pass!”
Rimli Bhattacharya is a first class gold medalist in Mechanical Engineering from NIT, Agartala with a MBA in supply chain management from University of Mumbai. Having worked in the corporate sector for twenty years, she realized writing was her true calling. She left her high profile job as a General Manager at a multinational in 2017 to pursue her passion. She has contributed to two anthologies – A Book of light under a pseudo name, Leela Chakraborty, edited by Jerry Pinto and published by Speaking Tigers and Muffled Moans, edited by Dr Santosh Bakaya and Lopamudra Banerjee and published by Authorspress. Her works have appeared in twenty six literary magazines & E – Zines: The Education Post, Café Dissensus, Feminism in India & Women’s Web. As a little girl she wrote short fictions and poems for The Times of India. She is also an Indian Classical dancer of Kathak and Odissi genres. Twitter: @rimli76
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