Those were the crunch times. Crunchier than breadsticks. Harder than arecanut. The story from those days are familiar to many, having been there and borne that, like me.
The colour from the pink slip bled, stained and spread melancholy in our lives. I was already on a shrink's prescription at that time for a different reason, and the joblessness in a prolonged period of pandemic only added to the depressive disorder. It was as if the brain just needed another nudge to keel over and fall into a cesspool of dark thoughts and abysmal pessimism. Those who know it will vouch it is a battle you are fighting against an undefined enemy. It is hard to see a foe in front of you. It is nebulous like a ghost in a diaphanous dream. The enemy is sometimes you. It is sometimes the circumstances. It is sometimes the Universe, which you think is so maliciously indifferent to your fate that it will win every sadism trophy in existence.
Actually, there is a pattern to my panic and anxiety spirals. It knocks me off the kerb first, right into the middle of the road, making me imagine I will be under the next bus and become flat meat. Then when I see the buses didn’t crush me after all, I pick myself up, sit by the wayside a bit and drag myself home. The panic inspired by the initial fits of fear will eventually become the new normal, and I will learn to tolerate it like a hostile neighbour who cooks food that you abhor. I impose a sense of stability on myself.
Then suddenly, in a renewed wave of vindictive rage a dormant turmoil tosses me up again and I spin so many times mid-air that I don’t know if I will land face down, headlong or on my vertebral column. Depending on how I fall, the graph of life will go into another tailspin. I will have confusion for breakfast, chaos for lunch and concussions for dinner.
That’s how I lived those catatonic days, like how I watched Ponniyin Selvan 1, clueless and bored, struggling to connect the dots, many of which were imaginary.
“What is really bothering you?” my therapist asked over a long-distance call. She asked me to enumerate the things that scurried in the quagmire of my brain and caused a logjam there. Almost like mid-day traffic at a city intersection in Chennai. An old friend whom I knew from her Psychology days in the University, I had sought her out only to untie the knots before they became permanent in my health resume. I didn’t want my mind to be a hideout for fossilised fears and fretting.
It was the peak of summer when I first fixed a call with her, and the weather notification panel on my pc read, “43 degrees. Feels like 49 degrees” or some such feral reading that the desert air was pressing down on us. Such climes are not new to us, yet, year after year, we hyperventilate whenever the mercury soars to levels that test human endurance, and we waste no time to declare that the apocalypse is here. We look at the real temperature, 43, and then at the feels like 49, and take the latter as the real measure of tepidness outside our airconditioned cocoons.
“What it feels like is what matters to the skin. Your body perspires based on the apparent effect and not on the latent temperature. The humidity is worse than the heat. It kills.” These are myths we have woven to help us wallow in self-pity and elicit empathy from the world. There is a preposterous delight in making our miseries hyperbolic by fixing pom poms to them and attract public sympathy.
“So, of all the things you just mentioned which one bothers you the most?” the therapist friend asked. I revised the ranking a few times, like how hurricanes and cyclones are ranked based on their intensity. I was unsure. They all felt equally grave and worthy of taking the top laurels. No first among equals.
“They are all deadly and intimidating,” I declared, but my therapist friend insisted I rank them. She said I could take my time to assess each item on the list, and there was no need to hurry. She could wait for me to navigate through the maze.
As I subjected the deranged list to an MRI scan, one of the demons put its hand up and claimed primacy. “It’s me. I have been festering in you for years, gnawing at your heart, but you have brushed me aside with slight. I deserve to be addressed first,” it said, giving me a mental whiplash with its pointy tail.
It was true. I hadn’t been honest even to myself by evading the issue for decades, and I mentioned it to my therapist friend. She asked me to elaborate on it. Chunks of old, mouldering emotions tumbled out emitting a rancid smell that I had been secretly sniffing for years inside. But the past has no panacea. They are only signposts of what we are today. So, the things I spoke remained histories that I purged just to wipe the fog off my mind.
One by one, I spoke about each item on the list, enunciating them all as elaborately as I could, impressing upon her that life had become a bundle of soiled linen now and I could not bear it on my back any longer. Some old wounds were opened for examination, some new griping were dissected, some instances of deprivations and longings were given due deliberation, some passing encumbrances were glossed over. What surprised me was I did not break down even once like I had feared I would while spreading my multi-course grouse meal in front of her. It was time to harvest my griefs. But where had all the tears I had collected for my meltdown moments gone?
After each cathartic session, she would ask, in a voice that can spread a salve on any tortured heart, “How bad do you think this situation is?” and I would blink. “How bad?” It was true that I was hurting from inside for a number of reasons, sometimes to the point of foolishly contemplating self-annihilation, but were things that insanely bad?
I looked out the large French window in my room and gauged the summer blaze. It felt as if the city was caught in a firestorm. It felt as if stepping out would turn me into a barbequed piece of meat or if my body fat was to instantly melt, a shawarma on a skewer. It felt as if I would perspire blood if I walked on the road. It felt as if I would be singed like a bug-zapper singes flying termites on a sultry evening. It felt like the summer would sap the life out of me should I venture out of home. Felt. Felt. Felt.
In the distance, I saw workers laying new asphalt on an old road, their heads and faces wrapped in shawls to keep the heat from seeping in through their skin. “How bad is it out there?” I wondered. It was sweltering hot, and that was not pleasant. But it still was not bad enough for them to give up work and go home. They still endured it even though with unspoken demurs, for they can’t call it a day until the assigned job was done.
“It is bad,” I whispered to my therapist friend. “But not bad enough to call it quits and shut the business of life,” I sum up, feeling a sting in my eye for the first time.
Even now, very often, life pokes holes into the heart and causes panic, but it doesn’t stop beating. The mind goes off-kilter and spins sinister tales, but it cannot make me succumb to its diabolic intents. The summer turns up the heat and makes me sough and sigh. It’s a seasonal tyranny one cannot avoid. But I now realise, the temperature is only 41 degrees. What it feels like – 48, 50 or 55 – doesn’t matter. I hype up my summers and make them insufferable. It is a lot of fiction than facts. Like the workers out there, I must carry on. There are many worn roads in my life that could do with a new layer of asphalt.