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For the first decade after I graduated from IIT, I led a charmed life.- I got married, had a kid, and steadily built my career and outside pursuits.
My biggest mental health setback happened when I was working on a startup idea in my early 30s. I was working 16 hour days and waking up at odd hours of the night. I was excited and filled with energy. As I worked longer and longer hours, I started spending less and less time with friends and family and skipped meals (I lost 8 kilos in 3 weeks).
As time went on, I became delusional and started believing I had a business idea which was going to change the world overnight. I believed that I had invented a machine learning algorithm that was completely novel, and would out-perform all other similar algorithms in existence. I also thought I could patent this work which would mean that I would slowly go about acquiring every business dependent on machine learning. In reality, the idea was not at all novel and had been known for over 100 years. Intellectually, I knew that before the episode, but the illness had taken over and I could no longer use my critical judgment.
I used to think that strangers were doing things to ensure I would be successful in my pursuits and that I was going to be the world’s first trillionaire. I would think that people on the street were my bodyguards or sending me signals. The delusions escalated from there. One day I thought I was Einstein, the next day I thought I was Ganesha. When I say I thought I was Einstein, I don’t mean I thought I was intelligent. When I was Einstein, I genuinely thought each of my thoughts was truly original and Nobel Prize worthy. When I was Ganesha, I genuinely thought I was a God on earth.
Luckily, I was quickly diagnosed as having gone through a manic episode and was diagnosed as bipolar. It took a lot of support from friends and family and some time away from the workforce for my delusions to subside. When I re-entered the workforce, my confidence was at an all-time low. This was primarily because I felt that my mind, which was my greatest asset, could no longer be trusted.
After my episode, I also experienced the debilitating effects of depression for the first time in my life. Not wanting to leave the house because it just felt too hard and I wanted to wrap myself up in a cocoon. Not wanting to interact with friends and loved ones. Hating it when people told me things like, “Why don’t you just look on the bright side of life? Life is beautiful.”. I used to think they were trivializing what I was going through and didn’t realize that I couldn’t just focus on the positive. My frustration was despite the fact that I had used a version of those words to friends who were struggling in the past.
Through the support of my family and friends, I was able to regain my confidence and re-discover my career trajectory. My family stood by me throughout, dropping things at a moment’s notice and coming to be with me. My brother took a week out of his busy job to come and spend time with me when he could least afford it. My friends who I shared my experience with were understanding and supportive of me and my family. My wife was my rock throughout. Her entire life had changed overnight. The man she had married may have never been the same again. But she took it with equanimity and poise. Looking back, I got to see what an amazing decision I had made by marrying her.
A therapist who I was introduced to also made a huge difference to me. She encouraged me to write out my thoughts which made me understand my experience better. She also gave me a number of books and articles to read, which gave me a deeper understanding of what I was going through. As an engineer, it was important for me to understand the science behind my experience and that really helped me come to terms with my new reality. I also worked with executive coaches at work, who helped give me frameworks to make progress in my professional career. They particularly helped me regain my confidence and faith in myself as a leader.
The experience helped me mature and respect my limits. I also truly appreciated the support my family gave me through this experience. While it is hard to get on medication and accept the side effects, I never miss a day of medication. I know that being on medication and regular therapy gives me (and my family) the best chance of not going through an experience like that ever again.
Moreover, I now truly understand the importance of health. I try to eat well, sleep well and exercise as much as I can. I added short triathlons and open water swimming to my tennis obsession. Personally, I also really benefit from a brief 10 minute guided meditation, particularly when I feel anxious. I discovered a love for cooking which enables me to eat healthier.
Finally, I choose to share my experience with close colleagues and friends so that those going through similar situations can benefit from knowing that they are not alone. In the first few months, I felt wary about sharing as I didn’t know how it would be perceived and whether I would be judged. The outpouring of support and the number of people who had personal experience, made me more and more comfortable sharing my experience. I also learned that talking about my experience in my community helped reduce the stigma about mental illness.
Take care of your health, know that you are not alone, help those who reach out and reach out for help yourself when you need to.
The author is an alumnus of IIT Bombay who went through a mental health setback and came through it stronger. He is happy to connect with anyone who wants to at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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