I was manic when M and I broke up last year. Though the patterns of my psychosis are familiar – I block on my phone the numbers of friends and lovers who care for me deeply – M didn’t know that I had become impossible to contact because I was again, slowly, going mad. She braved the brutal Delta wave to come see me. I sat slumped in my work chair when she entered my room. Her presence, I told her, was an intrusion. As she held onto me, I didn’t hold back. Our months of togetherness had left me with enough cause to protest. That day, I accused M of infractions both big and small. Teary and somehow aware that I was too far gone, she left my side to sit on the bed. She pleaded with me, saying she’d do anything to help.
I asked her to leave my house.
I was diagnosed bipolar in 2007, and I have, for the last 15 years, had a somewhat complicated relationship with care. Even though I’ve tried to give it with all my heart, I have, in several moments, been reluctant to accept it.
While mania – or ‘madness’, as I still like to call it – leaves me impenetrable, my girlfriends, sisters, and mother find me equally stubborn when I am stable. I have refused their offers to help me fill my pill boxes. I have hidden behind stoicism when they have demanded honesty. I have lied and said I am doing great when they have asked me what is wrong.
Caregiving, I’ve often felt, traps women in traditional roles of domesticity, ridding them of hard-won agency. But this arguably ‘woke’ logic has made me refuse their affection in hours I needed it most. Not only have I wanted to be an island, I’ve also deliberately forgotten the import of a Hilda Doolittle quote I would repeat often when I was a student. “Every man,” she said, “is a haunted house.”
I grew up thinking men are beasts. Groomed since I was eight, I quickly found that care would help me survive the extremities of my abuse. Ten years older to me, my cousin’s late adolescence had made him prickly. If he saw me tend to his needs with a careful assiduousness, his temper would be delayed. By practising how to please him for four years, I learnt the wrong lesson: The happiness of the cared-for hinges on the fear and anxiety of the carer.
As an adult, I determined my childhood didn’t have to become a template for my life. But memories of childhood suffering don’t always come with a convenient expiry date. Mine, for instance, made me acutely aware of how easily care can be warped into inequity and exploitation. Growing up, I saw in the world around me that women bear the brunt of both.
It seems somehow ironic that my conflicts have made me play into the oldest stereotype of masculinity that perhaps exists: the self-sufficient man who doesn’t need anyone. “That isn’t me,” I want to protest, but facts tell me a very different story.
In the days and weeks after M left, I got worse before I got better. To become functional, I did what I always do – I pretended to be all right. In my experience, performing well-being eased pain, especially that of depression. The ‘fake it till you make it’ trick invariably worked.
Numbers are sometimes confusing. In 2018, for instance, it was estimated that 250 Indian men died by suicide every day. The number of women was said to be half that. When NIMHANS last conducted its National Mental Health Survey in 2015-2016, the institute found “that the overall prevalence of mental morbidity was higher among males (13.9%) than among females (7.5%).” In a country where one in seven persons is believed to suffer from a mental disorder, everyone, of course, has their demons. But more men, it seems, are anguished here. Patriarchy, arguably, comes with perks and pitfalls. Surprisingly, when the Government of India launched KIRAN, a mental health rehabilitation helpline, in September 2022, seven out of ten callers were men. The question we must ask is this: Was it again privilege that had allowed them to access health infrastructure? Or was it pain instead?
How best can a man live in this world? Some men, well, ‘man-up.’ I, on the other hand, use gender ethics to live in a fortress where the voice of Socrates plays on loop: “Know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves.” There can be no straight answers to this question, but either way, I have come to understand that it is a defence mechanism. The isolation, restriction and pain are all the same. An island is an island, after all, whether it’s made of society’s mores around masculinity or my own subversion of them.
In my earnest attempts to be my own and only caregiver, I have discounted the care that has broken through my recalcitrance – friends who make me laugh every day, parents who swap their concern for silliness, and a doctor who treats me like a person, not a problem. I can’t run away from my privileges.
David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” Reading those words, I have felt struck by how things like freedom and delight become impossible if we don’t stop to care for those around us, if we don’t acknowledge that we are nothing without the other. Care, as I somewhat belatedly see, is a two-way street. To give care, I must be able to receive it, too.
In the last year, I have often thought of M, of how she sat across from me, with her hands clasped in her lap, as if already mourning. I sometimes wish she would again ask me, “Tell me, what can I do?” If I could, I would tell her to be patient. I would ask her for a hug. I would say that the flames licking the insides of my mind need both Lithium and love to be extinguished. I never did have the courage then, and I doubt I have that courage now.
We never did see each other again, M and I.