On Astronomy, Mental Illness and Bad Metaphors

Disclaimer: The opinions and experiences expressed in this article are the author’s own and are not necessarily representative of The LACAS Chronicles.

When I was a kid, I’d go out for long walks with my brother for no other reason than to just look at the stars. We’d buy cheap mango juice and sit in the soggy grass of the park near my home (that we’d sneak into, because what is life without breaking some minor laws?). He would point out the brightest stars in the sky to me and we would make a map of them in our heads. We were amateur astronomers; our facts were half searched on Google and half our own stories. We would argue about which star was the North Star, which was Orion, and which ones we were going to name after ourselves.

Depression for me is a bit like the stars going out, one by one, or having a thick dark cloud cover them so I can’t see them. It’s a common mistake to assume it’s only a feeling of perpetual sadness. It’s more akin to hibernation. Your body strips itself down to the bare minimum; it needs to survive. You operationalize living and define yourself in basic tasks. You shower once a week if you’re lucky. You brush your teeth once every few days and do the laundry three weeks after it’s been sitting in the dirty clothes basket. You just can’t do things. You can’t work like a normal Human being. No matter what you try to do, your body refuses to cooperate and function.

My first depressive breakdown happened as soon as my O Level began — At the time I didn’t even understand what I was going through. I stopped going out to stargaze, stopped eating, studying, or existing in any meaningful way, really. It took me two and a half years to claw my way out of that hole.

A particularly memorable instance of dysfunction happened just this last December after my World History exam. After which I lay in bed from two in the afternoon till three in the night. I was still in my uniform, not sleeping, head throbbing, body feeling disgusting and sweaty and utterly detached from my brain, which had been screaming at it to get up and move. I forced myself up and had what I call a ‘depression shower’, which is really just a regular shower but with loud electronic music playing in the background while absurdly cold water pours over me and I sit and stare at my fingernails. I’ve become intimately acquainted with the feeling of cold water over my head. It feels like two fingers stuck in the space between your skull and the skin in your head, pulling your head backwards with the same sort of blunt force you feel when you pull on a heavy object that refuses to move and your fingers become numb. And then when you’ve sat there long enough, a sharp pain emerges and you’re forced to jerk your head backwards.

I sat down and told my mother about my pain. Honestly, it didn’t surprise me when she just lit agarbatti in my room, fed me fennel seeds, told me to recite Ayat-ul-Kursi, and promised me I would be fine. None of this mental health nonsense, she said. Out of desperation, I tried praying my sickness away. It didn’t work. 

I can’t see the night sky as clearly as I used to anymore because of the high amount of pollution: smog, cars, cigarettes, bad poetry from pretentious Lahori teens. There’s a metaphor here about the loss of childhood innocence in the big bad world, but metaphors are not my kind of thing.

My story doesn’t stop in a cold bed in a house next to my city’s filthy canal. It goes on: to the days I get myself out of bed, fold my blankets and put way too much pepper on my eggs (with the yolk broken, because runny eggs are disgusting and I’m not a heathen). It rolls onward to the day an internationally well-established artist told me he loved my work, when I brought home a trophy after I won a University-level debating tournament, to the day I opened my O Level result and shrieked in joy because I got the highest grades in my school — despite my illness. 

Sisyphus was a Greek king punished by the gods and forced to push a rock up a hill, only to find himself and the rock at the bottom the next morning. I wake up every morning with a rock to push (teeth to brush, bed to make, studying to finish, existing to do). On my worst days, I think I too am Sisyphus, my boulder all the way at the bottom of a tall mountain, cursed to failure. But failure is not imminent. I don’t wake up at rock bottom every morning because, though like Sisyphus, my rock rolls down, I make sure it never actually reaches the bottom. That makes all the difference to me. 

The stars still exist. I can still see them, fainter than ever but still there. My brother and I sit on the roof, our feet perched on the railing while we look up at the stars and listen to cars passing by in the distance. It’s not the same: I’m not an overly energetic kid, and he’s not an impulsive teenager. Still though, even today, the first thing both of us do is look for the brightest star and then for Mars. The air’s dirtier and the sky’s darker, but these moments will always be precious. 

So here is my badly written metaphor wrapped up in my eighteen-year old naivete; this world is cruel. It has been crueler to me than it has ever had any right to be. I have lost my North Star, my direction, and the softness to my world that my friends still have — but I will not be put out. I will thrive, because my people are from Kashmir and we do not bow down to mountains or governments. I will thrive, because of the teenagers who tell me I inspired them to be themselves. I will thrive, because there is a rot in my brain and body that convinced me I’d never have anything but an empty existence, but I’m going to continue proving it wrong. I’m painting the ceiling of my room a midnight blue with lovely bright constellations next week. I will make my own meaning, paint my own North Star, and then continue to roll my rock uphill.

It’s not just me, either. I know several other people in school who deal with similar mental health issues. Students who deal with panic attacks in the middle of important meetings; breath pooling, heart racing, they stutter but still pull through. Others deal with chronic insomnia as a manifestation of their depression, but still choose to show up to classes (with much coffee and a few dark circles). These are people who, like me, have made the conscious decision to keep rolling their rock, to be their own North Star. If this is you, then know that what you are going through is real, and that you don’t need to justify your pain. If this is not you, then be kinder. You don’t understand the feeling of your body not being yours, and that is fine. Listen to us and empower us where you can, but let us take control of our own narrative. There’s a reason why so many people think twice before sharing their stories of their suffering.

Minal Qureshi
TLC Writer

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