Clinical depression isn’t something that many would be comfortable talking about. The stigma and public ignorance associated with the condition makes it all the more difficult to be open about it.
Aman (name changed), an IIT graduate who also holds a masters degree from USA, opens up and shares all the highs and lows of his academic and professional life as he battled depression and emerged victorious. We hope his journey helps others who are silently suffering and encourages them to take professional help.
It is also a reminder for everyone else to look beyond the degrees and designations, and not forget who you are doing all this for – yourself and your family. So, take a break and read on. It may be the most important article you read today.
My journey from IIT to USA and back
Story of a depression survivor by Aman
Before I begin, let’s solve a little puzzle. Here’s a situation with the following conditions:
1. I am unable to work.
2. But, I clearly want to work.
3. And, I also do not suffer from any physical disability to prevent me from doing my work.
What do you think is wrong with me? – You might say either I am lazy or crazy. Not your fault in thinking so. A person capable and willing to do something, and yet not able to do the same must be one of the two. Right? However, he is not. This is where clinical depression comes into the picture. It is that grey area (in the above situation), which we are not able to explain. Please read on.
Born and raised in a typical middle-class family, both parents being government servants and wanting their kid to become either a doctor or an engineer – the gold standard in terms of career aspirations in post-1991 India. Since I can’t stand the sight of blood, destiny – and my dad – made the choice easy for me: “Beta IIT nikal lo, life set hai phir.”
Being the obedient child, I followed suit, joining one of the better known IIT coaching factories in town. On top of it, I had to double it up with my school – a real one at that, not one of those Kota dungeons. Two years of pure torture yielded an IIT admit in first crack; albeit, a lesser known. Back in the day, there used to be only 7 IITs, so even the least known had some recognition. Unlike the present times when you are not sure if it is the name of an IIT or a sabzi mandi.
Over the course of the next 4 years in college, I figured the two most probable career paths after engineering– coding if you are from CS (computer science)or ‘call-it-whatever-because-nobody-cares’ profile for the non-CS crowd hoping to culminate into an MBA. Preferably from one of those holy IIMs. (Note – the Indian Startup juggernaut was yet to arrive on the scene, so non-CS profiles were limited.)
Unfortunately, I wasn’t interested in either of the two. One by choice and other due to lack of it. In fact,I happened to achieve the impossible at IIT – develop an interest in my own engineering subject. And that too in a non-CS branch. I am pretty sure my dad skipped a beat when he learned his son is not going to be an MBA. Not in the foreseeable future at least.
Instead, I applied for an MS degree in a novel field dealing with how to make our infrastructure more resilient and safe using wireless sensors (technical term – Structural Health Monitoring). With a solid internship in the US already, a healthy GRE score and decent recommendation letters, I managed to secure multiple admits in top-10 universities, ultimately choosing the one which matched my aspirations the best.
I am sure you must be thinking – where is he going with all this life story? Where’s the depression part? Here it comes!
Anyone who’s studied in a foreign university – and more so if it is in the US – would know how freaking expensive it is. Burdened with a huge loan, I decided to take up some research work with a professor working in my area. At best, it helped in paying my living expenses.
Secondly, to further cut down on tuition fee (the main culprit), I stacked up my course load touching levels of insanity; I aimed to finish the entire MS in a single year to avoid additional tuition cost.
Burning the midnight oil, few packs of Marlboro (quit now, you should too), and a bottle of Jack Daniels mixed with Red Bull every week, I did finish my MS in one year, but deferred graduation by a semester to find the stairway to heaven, the garden of Eden – a job!
If you’ve actually been reading this article – and not just scrolling to look for the juicy bits – you’d remember I wrote above how my MS was in a novel field. Well, it was not just novel, it was restricted, too. Simply put – the field being a sensitive one, security-wise, there was a snowfall’s chance in Dubai that an international student could be hired into it. Given the whole H1B issue, clearances and all of that. On a quick side-note, let me give you some free ka gyan – practicality trumps passion, in most cases. Specially, for middle-class people.
What I mean to say is, while it was brave of me to explore uncharted waters, I should have done my homework thoroughly. More so when the homework costs INR 30 lakhs. By homework I mean, reading up on the job prospects, visa processes, talking to the alumni etc. Instead, I was too much passion-driven and maybe – in hindsight – the IIT degree had lulled me into not checking out the job prospects, expecting them to be served on a platter like in India.
Upon realizing the futility of all my hardwork – which included a fully-paid research internship in Switzerland, couple of international publications and a genuine desire to work in my chosen field – I slipped into depression.
Though, I didn’t realize it at that point in time. I understood it as a normal post-rejection sadness. But, it wasn’t. One by one, I withdrew myself from different activities. Actually, I only had one – job applications. Since, I had already finished my coursework.
An air of hopelessness started wrapping around me. I felt aimless, listless and purposeless all at the same time. I opened up to my professor. Having seen me beat up my ass all year round, he helped me land a run-of-the-mill structural engineer’s job within a day or two. Contacts (read Jugaad) work in America, just as much they do here in India.
The idea was to start with something at least and keep looking for the right profile. He had also offered a PhD position, but given the huge loan and a ‘disturbed’ mind, I chose not to pursue it right off the bat. Maybe a wrong call? God knows!
So, after taking a 15 day trip to India (post graduation), meeting up with family, friends and relatives, I returned and joined on my new job, immediately. However, things again went downhill pretty fast. Within a month, I could see my heart wasn’t in the job. I could barely muster up any enthusiasm towards my work. I was fatigued all the time even after guzzling coffee like water in a Delhi summer.
Only later during my diagnosis (for clinical depression), I would realize that the symptoms had almost nothing to do with the then job. I was more or less under the grip of depression by now.
Note – The word depression was nowhere in my mind until this time. According to me, I was simply dejected. Imagine a break up. This was a professional break up. Or more like a one-sided love affair gone horribly wrong,ending up in a Mumbai Thana with your ass on the ice slab.
But, thank God for making us desis as resilient as cockroaches. With the help of Jack Daniels (the whiskey), my then girlfriend and friends (strictly in that order), I picked up myself and began re-applying for the job profiles I wanted in the first place. 5 months, 100+ applications, 30+ rejections later, I was a spent force. The depression had reached its peak. I was barely functional in my office. My manager even started doubting my qualifications.
JD, Red/Blue/Black Label, Marlboro, Camel, Dunhill, everything had stopped working. Not that they were actually doing anything in the first place. I am a fairly clean person otherwise, but I was drinking heavily and smoking the crap out of my lungs in search of some peace and comfort, which wasn’t to be found.
During the same time, I committed a blunder in one my structural design projects, jeopardizing the safety of many. It jolted me inside out and despite all the financial constraints, I knew it was time to take a step back and get a hold of myself first. I came clean to my boss who was supportive if nothing more. I quit immediately. Zero notice period. Who’d want a drunken mess in their office, after all?
Some journey from being one of the class toppers at IIT to becoming a borderline drunkard in a foreign land!
Since I quit under a year, I had a lot of time left on my EAD Card (pre-H1B document that allows STEM graduates to work upto 29 months). But first I had to fix up myself before I could even think of working again. I asked around and setup a diagnostic test with a psychiatrist. I thought, if anyone, it has to be an expert who can figure out what’s wrong with me – the panic attacks, perpetual negativity and a sense of inevitable doom.
But, life has a funny way of screwing you over even when you want to do all the right things. Read on…
The Game Changer
To say medical treatment in the US is expensive is to say Sachin Tendulkar was a good batsman. It is a criminal understatement. Shit hit the fan when I was told psychiatric issues are not covered in my health insurance plan. I had been paying $150 per month for over two years, but the only time I actually needed the insurance, it went Kambli on me – useless.
Out of job, with hardly any savings (all going into paying my loan), I could see no way of continuing my treatment in the US. To give you some perspective – a single visit to a doctor cost ~$100. Plus the medications, and therapy sessions in my case costing a limb every time.
Upon discussing with my psychiatrist and parents (had told them by now), I thought going back to India would be the best option under the circumstances. I had been diagnosed with moderate-to-severe depression, general anxiety disorder with early stage bipolar tendencies. I was told in no uncertain terms by the doctor that health should be my first priority. I had no reason to doubt her and duly booked a flight back home.
For all the misery my over-ambitious middle-class parents had piled on me over the years, they went into an overdrive in ensuring I get the best treatment. Maybe they partly blamed themselves for my situation. That’s the thing with Indian parents: they first beat you up, and then buy you a candy to even out. Ha!
Anyway. I was booked with one of the top psychiatrists in Delhi, and she swiftly started me on anti-depressants among other things.
So here’s the thing with clinical depression, and mental illness in general. It is not so black-and-white like other illnesses. Depression manifests differently in everyone. For some it might lean more towards suicidal tendencies (how most people imagine depression), for others it might be a continued loss of energy and interest in daily activities or even cognitive impairment in severe cases. You may check out the complete list of symptoms here.
Consequently, the same anti-depressants may not work for everyone. Each combination takes 4-to-6 weeks to kick in. And there’s no objective way to tell which one will work for you. You’ll simply have to bite the bullet and remain patient. For instance, in my case, the first 2 combination of anti-depressants didn’t do much. I changed my doctor to get a fresh perspective. More than 6 months into the treatment, we ultimately found the cocktail (medication) that worked well for me. Within 8 weeks, I could see perceptible improvement in myself.
Subsequently, I also began with my therapy sessions – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), it is called. I am told it is the go-to therapy for treating depression; however, it is not the only one. One needs to work with his/her psychiatrist to figure out what’s best for them. Also, not all cases of depression require therapy. Lastly, the entire treatment for a depressive episode lasts from 8 months at the very least to the time you feel better.
Fast forward to the present day, it has been close to 2 years since I returned to India. I recently got off my medication for depression. Completely.
What I did during Depression
Though I had given myself a year for this entire thing, however, I didn’t want to take any chances. Hence, I gradually eased myself into work only in the second year. To keep busy and in the thick of things professionally, I started taking up small, independent projects (related to my prior area of work experience), and started working from home.
The earnings were modest, but made a positive impact on my depleted self-confidence, worth a million bucks. I also began to write in the meantime, and found out I ain’t all that bad at it. As in people are willing to pay me. for it. Not a lot. But that’s not the point.
During the home-stay period (initial months of the treatment), I also finished the entire coursework of an MA degree in Sociology (purely out of interest in Indian social problems). I am now thinking of writing its exams through an open school for validation. After all, those landscaped A4 sheets of bonded paper still matter, else no one buys your story. Also, I am mid-way through a crude attempt at writing a book tentatively based on Indian Society.
The idea was to occupy myself with positive and enriching activities. Because, after a point, it becomes a chore to kill time itself. Secondly, it has a cathartic effect vis-à-vis the depression.
Real life is not a Bollywood movie. Therefore, I’ll be honest to admit this entire experience did come with heavy costs. And not just financial. I had to suffer in my career. I lost my girlfriend of 3 years, who I was supposed to get engaged to at the end of that year.
I am behind most of my peers today. My original career aspirations (smart, safe infrastructure, remember?) are more or less dead, mainly due to lack of opportunities in India in the said field.
So in addition to being already behind my peers, I have to chalk out a fresh career path for myself. Regardless of it all, I am not bogged down. On the brighter side, I regained myself. With the worst behind me, hopefully things will only get better.
Having covered the whole 9 yards of clinical depression, and reading up a lot on the subject on my way, I wish to share a few parting thoughts which may help you or anyone you know who might be suffering:
- If it doesn’t feel normal, it most likely isn’t. Talk to people. Consult an expert.
- Depression is as real as climate change. And it is a legitimate illness, where the delicate hormonal balance in your brain goes awry.You’d be surprised to know more people die of depression related suicides than lung cancer in India.
- Thus, depression is not something you can just shake off – like a bad day at work. An outing to a bar won’t treat it. Trust me.
- Treatment for depression is costly in India, too. It is a cold fact. However, if diagnosed at mild levels, the treatment will be that much shorterlesser and cheaper. So, the more you delay, the more costly it is going to be.
- If you know someone who is clinically depressed, lend a patient ear, but nothing more. As much as you wish the best for him/her, don’t try to be the enforcer. Saying “come on, cheer up, don’t be a wuss” will only make it worse. Let a therapist handle that for you.
There’s no bravery in suffering silently. Career is important, but so is health, if not more. Seek help. And drop the stigma around mental illness. There are far too many people – especially in poor countries like India – who are unable to receive the right treatment. Either because of the social stigma or lack of resources.
I am just lucky that I was born to such parents who could afford it all and gave a damn about the so-called stigma. I also had a great support system in my friends and met some wonderful people during this tiring journey.
I have to point out one such person – Sameer Kamat. A few months back I had emailed him for an entirely different purpose, but somehow ended up narrating him this entire story on phone, which you are reading now. It must have taken nearly 2 hours of his prime consultancy time.
As I mentioned above, rightly so, he only lent a patient ear, and was honest to admit he knew not a lot about clinical depression. Without giving any fundas, he simply enquired if I was doing fine, days later. That’s it. A depressed person only needs that much.
In fact, he is the one who encouraged me to pen down my journey, for it might help someone, he thought. The point is not to tell you all how great Sameer is. But to say that talk to people, lend someone a comforting hand. Without doing a profit and loss analysis. For once. There’s an inherent goodness within humanity which we have almost forgotten.
Okay! I really should wrap up now. Thank you for making it thus far. I promise I didn’t intend it to be this long. But, I’ll be glad if you could take even a single thing from my story. And please do not email Sameer for depression related issues. He is not a doctor. I just accidentally bumped into him.
One of his quotes that has stuck with me:
Sometimes the nice guys are dealt the bad cards, you just need to hang in there.
– Story of an MBA dropout – An IITian goes Beyond The MBA Hype
And on the other end of the spectrum, here’s an article about getting into a top MBA program without a top brand engineering degree – Top MBA with an average engineering degree? and Life before and after IIT Bombay, INSEAD and McKinsey
– Depression in Corporate India: Statistics, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Image credit: thedudestory.in