It started on my 35th birthday. I had a small episode, which I didn't think had anything to do with mental health at all at that point. It was a very defining moment. I had just moved back to India a year back. All my friends from all over Mumbai were coming to a restaurant to celebrate with me. Before the party even started, or about 15 minutes into it, I started to feel faint. A sinking feeling formed in the pit of my stomach. I thought I was going to pass out. So I was quickly rushed into a car. The minute I was at my cousin’s place close by, I was laughing and joking and at ease, but as soon as they said ‘okay you’re feeling better, should we go back to the party?’, I would get up and get that feeling again. It’s almost like a gnawing at your neck, you get a cold sweat, and that sinking feeling doesn’t go away. I brushed this first episode aside as a matter of wearing too-tight Spanx and bad air conditioning.
That same year, in December, I was going to a friend’s bachelorette in Goa. I was a bit nervous getting on the plane (I had a flying phobia pre-therapy and always made sure I had someone to fly with at any given point). I had never flown alone until that day. Again, I passed out on the plane, and again I brushed it off as low oxygen levels and heat—excuses that I knew weren’t true. This was a mild episode, but a big bout of panic came in Goa when we were at a restaurant, and it was as big as the one in February. It continued for three or four days even once I was back home in Mumbai. Every time I would try to get out of bed, or my house, it would take hold of me. I was lucky to have a friend who coincidentally was a therapist. After hearing me out, she said these were classic cases of a panic attack. She immediately made me an appointment with a psychiatrist.
The reason I really want to tell my story, is because sometimes we don’t even know what’s wrong with us, we don’t know who to ask, or what to ask. I want people to know the steps, how to identify what you have and what to do about it.
The next step at the psychiatrist’s was to do a Mensa test. Because it’s a mental health problem and not a physical problem that can be identified with a blood test, you do the Mensa test to check your brain. Once you get an analysis, you go to the psychiatrist, and in my case, he started me on medication. Simultaneously I started therapy. The claustrophobia, the fear of flying and general anxiety are genetic for me, it comes from my father and grandfather. My father had a panic attack at the age of 32 and he hasn’t flown since; it’s been 30 years. In those days, in the ’70s when it happened, nobody even knew what mental health was—‘there’s a mad house in Thane’, was the only conversation around mental health. If someone has it at the age of 30 or 32, parents play a big part in guidance, and my father wasn’t even guided towards getting any medical help. In my case, my father and mother both stepped in. They detected social anxiety, tying it back to the party—maybe that was it, that I don’t like big crowds. I’m usually more comfortable and happier with under 10 people. People tell me I talk a lot, but I’m mute at a big party!
Truth is, anxiety is in all of us, it’s actually good because it’s an inbuilt warning system, or an inbuilt fight-or-flight instinct. It’s like fear. Having fear is good, because if someone comes to attack you, your reflexes will be there to protect you. If the response wasn't there, you won’t be anxious if, for example, you have an examination in the morning and you won’t study. If you have a presentation, you won’t care. So a healthy amount of anxiety is good, and it won’t paralyse you in your day-to-day life. The minute you get paralysed, it’s a very easy marker—all you need to know is, ‘is this hampering my normal life?’.
The minute I got into the fashion industry and had to go to a lot of the parties, and I would actually get a fever on the day of the party. So you have to see when it’s paralysing you, if that starts, then you know something is wrong. For me, one of the things that my psychiatrist asks me to do, is what they call ‘flooding’. Flooding means you have to constantly do something again and again to get over it. So my psychiatrist made me fly four times in the next two months, and I flew to Goa, Hyderabad, and Delhi. I’m happy to report that I haven’t had a single panic attack since I started my therapy and medication seven years ago. That’s not to say I haven’t gotten anxious, or nervous, or depressed, or upset, but I haven’t reached a point where I’ve had consecutive panic attacks.
It’s very nerve-racking to think that you don’t have control over your body. I was very nervous for a few months after that to get into a meeting, or to go on a plane, or to go to a party, because I didn’t want to embarrass myself by passing out. When you realise that you don’t have control over your body, you realise you control your mind, and your mind controls your body. You have to learn to rewire the way you talk to yourself.
I was lucky enough to find a medicine that's worked for me from the start. They are different for different problems, which people don’t understand. Even today, some of my friends and family think I’m on antidepressants, but that’s very different from anti-anxiety pills. This is a question you can ask therapists and psychiatrists—medication has evolved so much, in just the last 20 years. Within the medication, there are various dosages and various brands, so sometimes, just like how you have to find the right birth control pill, or the right hormone pill, or the right vitamin, it’s the same process.
It is also important to know your triggers. I have been in the fashion industry for now over twenty years, and I have seen every shade, every angle, every side of it, and it’s not always a fun place. There is groupism, it’s very competitive and you have to kiss ass your way to the top! The fact of the matter is it is a very stressful industry. I still remember the days when fashion week would happen at NCPA and the next morning a review used to come out in Mid Day, and The Times, and you would be so stressed. It’s also not a unified industry, and that’s very sad because the designers get the raw end of the stick. You have to deal with egos of celebrities, stylists, editors, models, makeup artists—when does the designer get his or her say?
So my real call to action is for everyone to just be kind and humble. I find the young girls and the people I work with, far more sweet and empathetic than my generation. With a new generation coming in, the industry has also become more democratic. I love seeing talent from all across India prospering, people coming with original ideas. I do not believe that competition is bad, it’s good because it improves your business. As long as everyone’s doing their own thing, why should it be bad?
In the pandemic, I find my peace by practicing all the learnings and coping mechanisms I’ve learnt in seven years. Of course I worry (as any human being would)—about my business, about my family. But I think I am more positive and more optimistic, and in a way more excited about the new world because I actually didn’t like the old world all that much.
When it comes to mental health, it is stamina and endurance that will see you through. Just like you have to build stamina in swimming, running or walking, why can’t you do it for your brain? This can be through meditation. Build it everyday—start with two seconds, five seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds—if you can meditate for 10 minutes with a silent mind, you’re golden! We are, after all, works in progress.
—As told to Akanksha KamathAlso read:
7 things that happen to you when you're under stress
World, interrupted: How COVID-19 could boost mental-health care