‘My mother had been addicted to painkillers for many years’



I LEFT India when I was a few days short of 22. Like most of my friends, I sought utopia in the US. Unlike my friends, however, my version of the promised land did not include buckets of money, the suburban house with two cars and children who went to private schools. Unlike the other students who packed their bags to fly to JFK, I was seeking a Mecca of mental health and spiritual well-being. It seems deluded to go to the West to seek a haven, but my plan was well-researched and, 25 years later, my decision has proved to be a sound one. I have found all that I was looking for and more — and I welcome questions from sceptics.

I grew up with a mentally ill parent whose cries for help were loud, insistent, and unceasing. The psychiatric profession in India was neanderthal in comparison to the work being done in the US, and she was ignored, shamed and misdiagnosed, her symptoms barely treated and consequently unbearable for her family. All my life, I lived in constant fear, rage and shame. Our neighbours suffered us, our friends pitied us, her doctors probably dreaded the sight of her, and our relatives did everything in their power to simply keep us all going.

Five years ago, I finally convinced my mother to see a psychiatrist again. Terrified by her stay — many years ago — in a psychiatric facility in Bengaluru, she needed years of convincing to give it another try. The psychiatrist, as predicted, prescribed an antidepressant — one of those new medications that could have saved her sanity and our souls if it had been available in the 1960s and ’70s. However, there was a glitch. It turned out that my mother, for many years, had become an addict. Not to alcohol, cocaine, or any of the other dangers we see in the US, but to the ubiquitous Calmpose, Valium and several other painkillers. We got to know that she was dosing herself at will. No doctor would prescribe anti-depressants to someone on so many tranquilisers.

My stupid NRI mind, of course, couldn’t fathom it. How did you get all that with nobody knowing, I asked. Simple, really. In India, you can go to a pharmacy and ask for whatever you want, and you will receive it. Those generous pharmacists let no regulations stop them from doling out the manna. Turned out, my mother, at a pretty advanced age and with no professional support whatsoever, had to figure out a way to ‘get clean’ before she could take medication that could make her feel sane. ‘Getting clean’ meant going cold turkey; meant taking away the buffers against her age-old pain; meant confronting her wish to die; meant breathing in and breathing out, every second of every day, her deep and abiding fear; clawing through the darkness of feeling ‘no-good’, drowning in confusion and insecurity. I know very few people who could succeed at this without professional support. She didn’t, although there were times when she came close.

My mother died a year ago. To say that I miss her is to exaggerate, because she was a burden that I wilfully didn’t take on for fear of being destroyed by it. My regret is that I can’t change the past, can’t turn back the clock, can’t give her what she couldn’t have had, given that time and place. Behind the regret hides gratitude that I was allowed to leave, to escape the terrible lack of understanding of mental illness, so that I could heal and recover. It hurts to think that I have what my mother could not have and needed so badly, and so I hope that the believers of reincarnation are right, and that she will get her fair share of health, sanity and understanding at some other time, in some other place.

Illustration: Samia Singh


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