My brother-in-law, Dipu, had come to stay with us for a few days when I was Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Sambalpur. After he left for Cuttack, I along with my wife, Susmita, proceeded to Bolangir. We were staying in the residence of my friend Upendra Prasad Singh, the then Collector of the district. Early in the morning the next day on November 10, 1992, Upendra woke me up to tell that my brother urgently wanted to talk to me over telephone.
What my brother intimated, plunged me into a state of shock and despair. Dipu while taking the auspicious bath on the occasion of Kartik Purnima in river Mahanadi had drowned. I didn’t have the courage to disclose to my wife that her 21-year-old, only brother had passed away. All I could tell her was, that there had been a mishap and Dipu was under treatment and we should immediately rush to Cuttack. To keep my nerves calm, I decided to drive the jeep myself. It was an agonizing and seemingly unending 8-hour long drive. My wife was restive, anticipating something might be seriously wrong. In the course of the drive, I gradually unfolded the turn of events to her and just about an hour before arriving at Cuttack disclosed that Dipu was no more.
When we arrived, cremation was already over and the situation there needs no narration. On our arrival all the elders of the family repeatedly told my wife that she being the eldest child must keep herself composed and take care of her parents, who were inconsolable. Moreover, her younger sister was still in the hospital after delivery of her first child and was not in a position to comfort the parents. The situation was such that my wife didn’t even get time to grieve for her brother. Her misery and suffering from this painful environment continued for 15 days till we left for Sambalpur. I noticed she had become completely withdrawn and showed signs of depression. She started complaining of hallucinations and expressed that she was feeling extremely uneasy. In her despair, one day, she made an attempt to end her life. I immediately rushed her to Cuttack for psychiatric consultation. The doctor figured out that her acute depression is primarily due to her pent-up emotions which she couldn’t release. He prescribed some antidepressants, but those were of little help as her suicidal tendencies didn’t abate. She remained under acute surveillance, but still could manage to make two more attempts on her life. Now the doctor had to take some drastic decisions; he decided to go for Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT). It was very difficult to accept, but considering the gravity of the situation we had to agree. She was administered electrical stimulations on nine occasions. That was a very harrowing time, I perhaps could not have withstood it, but for my father standing like a rock besides me.
My talkative three-and-half-year-old daughter suddenly became very composed and behaved with the maturity of an adult. I remember how she used to give scornful looks when any one would make fun of her mother’s erratic behaviour during her delirium episodes. However, the ECT improved her conditions considerably but she had to remain under heavy medication.
The doctor advised that shifting to a different environment away from home would be immensely beneficial for her. I tried my best to go on deputation to Dehradun and succeeded. I joined in the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA) in April, 1993. People in those days, generally, were not very sympathetic towards those with psychiatric disorders. Therefore, we decided to keep the entire thing under wraps. In fact, during her treatment at Cuttack, to cover up her ailment I had to feign ‘heart problems’ for getting leave. Dehradun, particularly the Forest Research Institute (FRI) campus, brought in a sea change in her, my daughter also started getting back to her normal bubbly self. However, my wife was not comfortable taking so many medicines, mostly antidepressants, as those used to make her dull. However, what the doctor treating her had explained to me was very scary. I was made to understand; her initial apparent psychological problems had blown up to become psychiatric disorder. Therefore, counselling alone would not be enough, she had to be under strong medication for balancing flow of chemicals in the brain. He explained, normal person’s mood swings within a given range, say between +x to -x, whereas for her, the swing was between, say +5x to -5x, with a very strong desire to stay at the level of +5x all the time. Staying in an exalted state all the time would not be possible. Therefore, she would get into depression which could lead to the mood dipping down to -5x, where she would be so desperate that she would feel like ending her life. The medicines prescribed for her were to keep her mood swings confined to a very narrow band, say between +0.1x to -0.1x. Which meant she won’t be excited on getting good news and more or less be indifferent to bad news; thus lead a dull life preferring to sleep most of the time. What was still more disturbing was that supposedly there was no light at the end of the tunnel. We were doomed.
My wife was enjoying the ambience at Dehradun, we lived in a very closely-knit colony of very friendly people and relished the company of IFS probationers. The morning and evening walks in FRI campus were divine. But she just didn’t like to remain under the influence of the medicines. In a couple of months, she put her foot down that she must discontinue taking the medicines. I wondered what was in store for us; I was in the early years of my service; my wife was 27 years and my daughter was only four years. My wife kept on reassuring me that she would get over her problems through willpower and grit. I talked to the doctor; he didn’t agree. But on my insistence, he budged, but with a severe warning that I should hold myself responsible if things go out of control. Since there was a narrow ray of hope anyways, I thought the risk was worth taking. The doctor prescribed a protocol for tapering off the medicines, but he cautioned me that I should be extra careful and ensure that she didn’t slip into depression. She was determined to get out of the mess. I also decided to make all out efforts to keep her mood elevated all the time. “The best option is to keep her busy all the time,” the doctor prescribed.
We explored all possibilities of keeping her busy. She joined classical music classes, somewhere in Kalidas Road, about 12 km away from our residence. She took the responsibility of purchasing vegetables and groceries. She joined yoga and aerobics classes run by Mrs Agrawala, wife of a retired IFS officer. We purchased a moped, a Bajaj Sunny. Although she never ever rode a cycle, in her enthusiasm she learnt how to ride the moped very quickly. She also decided to drop our daughter in school when needed. We used to frequently visit officers in IGNFA Colony and in FRI campus. People in general were very friendly and warm. We loved spending time with the young probationers. We used to visit probationers’ hostels and my wife loved hosting dinner for them at our place. We preferred travelling with the probationers during their field trips. The officers in the campus and the probationers cannot fathom their contributions in bringing our lives back on track. We are indeed grateful to them; that’s why till date we cherish the memories of Dehradun.
However, it was not hunky-dory all the way. We did have hiccups; there were trying times, but somehow things remained under control. After completion of the five-year deputation tenure, we returned to Bhubaneswar in April, 1998. To keep herself busy and also to continue her rendezvous with yoga and aerobics she decided to open her own institution, “Mitu’s Health Club”, the only exclusive health club for ladies in Bhubaneswar at that point of time. Later on, she expanded it to make it a multi-purpose gym. Initially, she was the only instructor but later employed three girls as trainers. The health club is still running, but now she is not able to give time to it as she remains completely occupied with her passion for music. When my daughters grew up, my wife decided to become a professional singer. She had her first stage show at Bhubaneswar Club in 2005. Her first original music album, “Maya Darpan”, was released in Detroit, USA, in 2007. And she went to USA all by herself for the function. Thereafter, she has never looked back. She decided to focus only on producing mellifluous music, which is her strength, based on meaningful lyrics and on contemporary subjects. She has won lots of laurels; was appointed as a member of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and a member of jury for National Film Awards. She travels extensively for her stage shows and has performed almost in all the states in India and travelled to USA, UK, Middle East, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc.
So far, except a few close relatives and close friends no one is aware of the suffering she has undergone. She now feels, there is nothing to feel shy or guilty about anything. After all, psychiatric disorder is just an ailment. Therefore, we decided to go public with pride and to share our experience. Our objective is to dispel misinformation on psychiatric disorders, hope this column will help to destigmatize it and make people sensitive to those undergoing such ordeals.