Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Way Back To Happiness

 I recently read an article on Ricardo Munoz ‘s (former chief psychologist at San Francisco General Hospital and now distinguished professor of psychology at Pal Alto University) mission to prevent depression.  He began in the nineteen eighties when very little was known about this subject and depression was largely thought to be unpreventable.  

Munoz used simple techniques based on the premise that if people resumed pleasurable activities even though they didn’t feel like doing them, they felt better and were able to do more activities.  This significantly helped to cure people suffering from depression and led to Munoz wondering if it could actually prevent the onset of depression.  Years of work with a large number of patients (many from a low-income group, who didn’t speak any English) proved that it could.

Munoz then utilized the internet to reach out to many more people in different ways- he ran a very effective smoking cessation programme in the nineties and later founded a company to provide self help mental health information that he admits “won’t work for everybody, but nothing does.”  It has helped a large enough number of people though, especially during the pandemic when the number of U.S. adults who had symptoms of a depressive disorder or anxiety disorder rose from 11% to 40%.

Munoz recommends simple methods like calling a friend, getting enough sleep, being with nature, listening to music or having a special event to look forward to, to prevent people from spiralling down into anxiety or depression.

This simple commonsense approach that has apparently worked wonders struck a chord in me.  I had never given much thought to how troubling these problems can be until recently.  My study of Ayurveda had just informed me that health is the state of equilibrium between the mind, body and spirit.  I had read all about what happens when this equilibrium is shifted but never thought to apply it to myself.

I have been suffering from migraines for many years and sought various forms of remedies for these.  Nothing seemed to work very well, the triggers (largely hormonal) were too strong and were getting more frequent over time.  So last July I visited a few doctors.  One of them recommended a medicine called Sibelium that was very commonly taken to prevent the onset of migraines.  When I asked about side effects, he said, “Oh it will make you a bit sleepy and hungry.  But you are thin and can afford to eat.. Ha! Ha!”  It was said lightheartedly.  And so, in the same spirit it was that I began this medicine.

The first day that I began the medicine, everything seemed strange.  I could hardly keep awake and I was continuously eating whatever I could find.  This seemed dreadful.  I should have stopped right there.  Instead, I told the doctor and, on his recommendation, went on a lower dose that reduced these symptoms and kept me away from the pain killers I had been using.  I was able to function (and I really needed to function, with the pandemic lockdowns and my little son’s online school and assignments to be dealt with.  My husband was, and since, has been busy making Covid and other vaccines - he was in his lab right through this period).

A few months later I noticed something startling.  (My husband said that he had started noticing changes much earlier on- he felt I had lost my lightness of spirit- but he thought it might just be a small change with the medication and was probably reversible).  I began to get sudden panic attacks for no reason.  Fortunately, I connected it to the medicine (and when I read the list of possible side effects, this was one of the innumerable side effects listed as affecting a miniscule number of people).  I got in touch with another doctor, who knew me and who I trusted, and his words were, “Get off the medicine immediately.”

I did just that, but the panic didn’t subside.  It went on – a fierce churning in my abdomen and a terrible cloud of worry and gloom covering my mind, day, and night.  I couldn’t enjoy even a single moment.  I couldn’t sleep.  I somehow had to still stay functional, to deal with my family life and also, unfortunately, the very large tangle of paperwork and other responsibilities that my father’s death had left on my shoulders.  (My father passed away just at the onset of the pandemic quite suddenly, even before I had time to say goodbye to him, and this had also left me emotionally weak).  It all seemed overwhelming.  

Normally I would have dealt with everything one step at a time, but I was not functioning like my old self and, worse still, I didn’t know if I would get better.  When I asked people, there seemed to be no answer other than, “Hopefully, the effects of the medicine will pass.”

Quite serendipitously, the day I went off the medicine was the day I was to meet an Ayurvedic doctor.  I had set up the appointment some weeks ago, hoping to ease off the allopathic medicine.  When I went, I gave him my medical history.  He noted it down but said he just wanted to balance my elements from within and then gradually get me off all forms of medicine.  He didn’t mention the migraines, the panic or anything.  

I had not much hope but since I started the medicine, my migraines are very much under control.  So, I am keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t get any other kinds of side effects with this medicine, though the doctor has told me that it is quite a mild kind of medication that he has given.

This blog is not about my troubled times.  It is really about how I pulled myself through all this and how love and faith are really what can guide us in times of trouble.  

I made an effort to listen to my inner voice which seemed shaky and weak, but which pointed me in a certain direction.  I learnt that the direction which makes me feel better from inside is always the direction to take, no matter what anyone says.  I learnt not to ignore those little bits of contentment or peace which came unbidden.  And that peace leads to a trickle of joy sometimes, which may be easily forgotten.  But then another trickle of joy comes along and slowly, very slowly, I realized that there are many tiny trickles of joy to be found in my world.

People helped a lot too; I was lucky enough to find the right kind of people.  Too much talking does not help.  Some people are embarrassed or don’t seem to want to hear about your misfortunes.  Some give weird and wild advice which just unsettles you even more.  Some will just shrug it off or say, “Snap out of it,” which is exactly what you want to do but don’t know how to.

I was very fortunate that my husband stood firmly beside me at every step.  I woke him up a million times at night, called him endlessly at all hours while he was in lab and just repeated the same thing over and over, “I don’t feel good.  I want to be back to what I was.”

He always heard me out, always encouraged me, always stood firm in his belief that I was gradually getting better, and everything would be fine.

My sister-in-law Tanu supplied me with virtual hugs and physical lavender sachets, both of which I clung to at night.  Another sister-in-law, Kaveri, provided kind words over the phone.  My friend Nora who is a Five Element acupuncturist, sent me diagrams of points that I could press or needle to get back into equilibrium.

My music teacher, Soumitro, served as a great source of strength and focused my energy in the direction of music, which I found very therapeutic.  Though I began learning music less than a year ago (to help my son practice), never having learnt it before, I found myself drawn greatly to the sounds and notes that were introduced to me.  My head felt better, my mind felt soothed and I discovered that I enjoyed singing.  I called my teacher many times when I was low, and he always responded positively and joyfully, talking me through my troubles with examples of his views on how to feel good about life and reminding me that all was well in my world.  He introduced me to peaceful and happy ragas that I could hear and sometimes hum or just replay in my mind.  From being a music teacher, he moved onto being a friend to my son and myself.

And so, gradually, began the shift to positivity.  I began ignoring the pangs and they gradually receded.  I did not know how to actually feel happy again but my husband encouraged me to take time to do the things I had always enjoyed.  Swimming, cooking and music filled the hours when my son went back to physical school.  I stopped dwelling on all the paperwork that was piled up related to my father’s work.  I timidly began asking people for advice or help when I found there were financial and other tasks beyond me, and I discovered how much goodwill there was for me.  I may not have achieved any high-flying targets in recent years, but I care about people and people seem to remember and appreciate it.  I sensed that and it made me feel grateful.  This is how, gradually, the transition occurred.  

Initially, in the swimming pool, my mind would be full of troubled thoughts, “I’m just wasting my time here when I should be doing bank work.”  Now I enjoy the tranquility of the pool, the pale turquoise water with the glimmering sun beans slanting through.  I enjoy the feel of the water and the way my body feels at the end of the swim.  I enjoy the warm shower I take after that.

Earlier I would quake at the thought of making anything more complicated than rice, dal and a curry.  Now I’m back to khow suey, stir fried crabs, homemade pizza and more.  

Earlier, a walk outside would just be a short respite before I returned to my old worries.  Now, I feel the breeze, smell the damp earth, reach out to the ancient trees and the young, springy grass that grows alongside.  I thank Nature for showing me all its beauty each time I step outside.  

I make it a point now to stay in touch with people I care about.  Earlier I wondered what I could say to them as nothing much was happening in my life.  Now I realize it doesn’t matter.  Somehow, we connect, words flow, and people appreciate my gesture of reaching out to them.

Not that I no longer sense those clouds gathering.  They do come once in a while, but they don’t stay for long.  I try to remember the peaceful or happy moments of my days and remind myself that each day will be filled with some of these special times, which will stretch out for longer and longer periods.  And I will get back to my yoga and my writing soon.  

I no longer take natural beauty, bursts of joy, periods of peace and different forms of love or compassion for granted.  Each such moment has become very special for me- a gift to be grateful for and to be cherished.  I find that acknowledging and appreciating each beautiful moment inevitably leads to other moments of great positivity.

And as for banks and other impersonal institutions that I need to keep dealing with?  They can all wait.  My happiness can’t.

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