Ayyappan Raj
Guest Article

Self-care and other secrets of adult life... a personal account

Our guest author writes about the importance of mental health in an anxiety ridden, deadline crazed industry, fast paced industry.

There’s this interesting episode of Modern Love titled Take Me As I am, Whoever I am. The story is about Lexi (Anne Hathaway) who is on medication for mental health and is trying to find love, handle workplace issues and also deal with her condition. It’s a beautiful story of the initial suffering, coming to terms, and the eventual overcoming.

We all, at some point or the other, go through mental health issues. For some it may be a chronic condition, some it could be mild and sporadic, and for some it may not be a condition at all. And it’s very difficult to identify what is clinical depression and what is feeling a bit down, what is bipolar and what is mood-swings... no one really knows.

A few years back I had an incident. Was working in Bombay and had gone to Bangalore for a meeting. It was about eleven in the morning and I was coming back to our Bangalore office after the meeting at Whitefield. All of a sudden, I felt a sense of restlessness and difficulty in breathing. Asked Anjanappa (office driver) to pull over at a petty shop nearby. Having not eaten anything since morning I thought it could be some kind of a hunger-dizziness. Got Parle-G and one small pack of Tropicana and had them standing there itself. But when I started walking back, the restlessness feeling got worse. I sat inside the car and it started getting more difficult. I was sure that I am going to be unable to breathe soon, and maybe I am getting a cardiac arrest. Asked Anjanappa to take me to Lakeside Hospital which was close by.

The OP Doctor checked my pulse, blood pressure and said everything seems to be alright. I have no knowledge on medical-related stuff but insisted that he does ECG, and he checked and that too was fine. Then he advised me to lie down on one of the beds for fifteen-twenty minutes. Lying in that hospital bed I started feeling a little better - mainly because of the fact that I am already inside a hospital and if anything goes wrong, I will be taken care of. The doctor came back and said there’s no need for any medication or any worry, and it looks like I am having a mild anxiety attack. He said it could be because of mental stress and worrying too much about things. It was partly true, as at that time there was a lot going on in both personal and professional life, and I tend to overthink a lot. He advised that I take rest, and everything should be alright and maybe I can do one general health check-up once I go back to Bombay, just to reassure myself.

Feeling better I left the hospital and was supposed to take the evening flight back. When I was on the way to airport the same tingling feeling started happening and I was getting more and more anxious - what will I do if I feel breathless inside the aircraft, and how do I even tell someone that ‘I am actually not having difficulty breathing but I am very very scared that I might’…. this whole thing seems to be happening inside my head. I felt like I want to go back to the hospital and just stay in the comfort of that place for that night. Somehow managed to handle it and went ahead with the flight, and due to the exhaustion and fatigue of the day once I sat in the aircraft I just slept off. Later told my wife and also did the medical checkup, and everything was alright. The doctor said if this feeling repeats again then I should consult, otherwise nothing to worry about.

I started reading up about anxiety attacks and figured that it’s like a spiral - anxiety about oncoming anxiety leads to more anxiety, and the key is to break the loop. There were self-help theories like you should rub your hands against five different surfaces and it stops the spiral. A few weeks later when I had a mild experience like that, I did try out the five-surface thing and it somewhat helped. Later I started doing meditation and resumed my morning walks, workouts and it kind of stopped completely.

The fundamental thing about mental health is it’s not a visible thing. So, there’s no special seating in buses, no ramps in malls, and no designated parking either. You don’t even know if the person next to you is going through something, even a friend or a colleague, even close family. At times you don’t even know if YOU’RE going through it. It could be something that you can deal with or it could be something that you need external help, and the key thing is to be open about it.

While that’s on the clinical/serious side of mental health the other part is the OTC type of issues - as in those which are not clinical conditions but do affect one’s wellbeing. Take stress for instance. Which has a huge impact on the person’s state of mind, happiness, performance and overall outlook towards life.

It’s a fact that how you feel inside has a huge influence on the outside - the way you look at things. Big issues might feel small if you’re feeling on top of the world, and small issues might seem big if you’re feeling down. It’s a massively fundamental thing but not something that most of us consciously do much about.

And today’s world is more punishing than ever. Workplaces can be more taxing, relationships can be more demanding, society and media put an extraordinary amount of pressure, and creating the right amount of wealth is a lifelong slog. But it’s also like ‘the best of the times and worst of the times.’ As in there are more opportunities, more exposure, more avenues, more connections, more possibilities, and so on.

A friend once said that it’s a choice that people make - embracing complexity for an enriching life experience. We all, at some level or the other, are making choices that would help us make the most of our life. And we should be prepared to face the outcome.

And these choices may not necessarily be life-defining. It could be something that you said eagerly in a meeting that wasn’t understood and you blame yourself extensively for not articulating it correctly… It could be that you did a lot of research and bought a pair of expensive sports shoes and they turn out to be bad… It could be that you told yourself many times that you will say no to something, but you ended up saying yes... self-criticism, is a contract killer, wholesale stress supplier, and is easily the biggest suffering of adulthood.

The fundamental issue with self-criticism is that it keeps the individual at the center and assumes all outcomes are derivatives of his/her actions. Not really true. The best way to deal with it is to slowly develop an understanding that you have but only a limited control over any situation. And almost no control over the outcome. There is a multitude of other variables at play. Timing is a big thing. People and things come together beautifully at times. Sometimes how much ever one tries, things simply don’t work out. And there’s this thing called luck, which a logical and self-critical mind might be unwilling to accept but it’s there in some form or the other. Orthodox people call it divine intervention, cool people say happenstance.

A friend used to have this funny and Zen-like WhatsApp status, ‘Relax. Nothing is in control.’ We have to, at some level, give in. Admit and surrender to some kind of a workable logic. Either philosophy/science or spirituality/faith. Either have a clear understanding that you are living on the pale-blue-dot or walk up the steps of a church/temple/masjid. It really helps to hold on to one of the concepts, even a mix of both would do. Anything that would help place less weight on the self and avoid putting the individual at the center.

The other thing which causes a lot of distress is the ‘self-image and reality mismatch’. Most people have a deep sense, belief that they’re more able, more qualified, more intelligent than what others think of them. This gap between self-image and reality can cause pain, anguish, often resulting in some kind of resentment - severity depending on the individual, situation. And resentment is a terrible thing, it creates more harm the more time it’s allowed to stay. Unfortunately, it’s also a normal feeling that many of us go through. It’s kind of common at workplaces where there’s often comparison and reference points.

Simply put, self-image is founded on the perception of self and reality by second-guessing others. This self-perception cannot be always accurate. It’s natural to feel more able than what you are, technically human potential can achieve anything. And reality may not always by second-guessing what others think of you, at times it could be stated too - promotions for instance. And once people get into this self-image/reality matching-matching game there’s no end. Sometimes you might feel more valued at the workplace and less valued in a relationship, and sometimes it could be the reverse. I don’t think there’s a definitive point/age where it matches and stays that way forever. One could be going through this even at the age of sixty or seventy (standing in the vegetable shop in your shorts & t-shirt and some lady calling you bhaiyya ek kg pyaaz dedo-na, is a funny version of this self-image/reality problem).

Many of these self-things are quite tough, not easy to deal with. And I am making all these observations about mental health, stress, and all that, as if I have dealt with and overcome all of them, not at all! Easier said than done. Like many of us, I still go through self-criticism, anxiety, fear of future and many other things every day.

A few years back I had this intellectual debate with a couple of friends that extended late into the night. About who we are, why are we tossed on to this planet, is there life after death and so on. And then the conversation moved to this ultimate question ‘what’s the purpose of life’. There were answers like meaningful life, self-actualization, giving back to society, realizing potential, achieving nirvana and so on… And since I was sleepy and wanting to end this midnight meaningless drunken debate, I gave what I thought was a funny and silly answer - the purpose of life is to live. In retrospect, don’t think I could’ve come up with a better, clearer one.

The purpose of life IS to live. To go through good days, go through bad days, enjoy success, deal with failure, make mistakes, say sorry, feel bad, feel good, crack jokes, be the joke, read, watch, listen, play video games, travel, get healthy, get wasted, learn new things, take the right path, take the wrong path, feel great, feel worthless, binge watch, binge eat, work hard, be lazy, find love, feel loss, shout, scream, laugh, cry, earn, save, spend, be calm, go crazy, feel young, grow old………… they say that life is an experience, so the best thing to do is to experience it fully and embrace it with lots and lots of love and undying hope.

The author is co-founder, The Script Room, a TV commercial/feature film script writing hub, and former adman (Lowe, McCann, Ogilvy).