It’s been exactly a year since I woke up to the devastating news of a bright 18-year old girl passing away by suicide. We had been neighbours once, she had been my son’s school bus mate and I knew her mother briefly. Thereafter, we had gone our separate ways and I lost touch with them. About four years back I met the lady again, this time in the digital universe. They were now settled in Delhi and both the parents and their two children appeared to be doing very well in their chosen fields. The lady was extremely social media savvy and her Facebook and Instagram stories were stuff upmarket glossies are made of. In fact, I remember involuntarily letting out a wistful sigh when I saw Facebook images of their grand and glitzy New Year 2020 celebrations in scintillating Sydney. And in a week’s time, the youngest member of their family decided to call it quits. I conveyed my heartfelt condolences to the lady. The reason behind this episode was not made known, nor did I find it necessary to probe. The damage was done – a smiling, living, beating heart was irrevocably lost, way too soon. I was shocked, shattered (being a mother myself and an acquaintance) but mostly, flummoxed. When did things start getting awry? Did the family not notice the tell-tale signs or were they living in denial? It just didn’t make sense. Later in the year, we saw more such cases of self-harm committed by both well known and lesser-known people. There were way too many questions and hardly any answers – the larger picture looked like a giant jigsaw puzzle where the pieces did not add up. And it got me thinking…
These days the increased reports of depression, self-harm and inner malaise bring into sharp focus the validity of the belief “all is well”. The advocates for positivity and wellness often insist that we show up well-groomed, hair coiffured and chin up at all times, wearing our brightest smile, even when we are feeling low inside. “The show must go on”…. “Smile so wide that others get jealous” ….and a barrage of similar quotes and wishes greets us as soon as our phone blinks to life every morning. Suddenly there’s an overwhelming urgency to think, look, feel, and act positive – a compulsive desire to exhibit to the whole world our exceptional resilience and coping mechanism. And what better way of doing it than posting the supporting messages and images on social media! So we have a battery of friends and acquaintances whose profiles look like a carefully curated slideshow of picture-perfect moods and moments. Ivy-league qualifications, a privileged job, a tiny house, exotic vacations, an attractive partner, a close-knit group of BFFs and a buzzing social life – a heady concoction of effort, lady luck and success that is bound to turn the greatest stoic green with envy! Browsing through their social media handles, lesser mortals like us are left in awe and wonder and maybe an occasional tinge of longing, too. Why can’t we have the same fancy lifestyle, what can we do to stake a claim to that Utopian world…..these are the questions that plague us. Therefore, when something goes wrong in these high heavens of success, like an accident, an unnatural or self-inflicted death or some such vicissitude, it badly bursts the bubble of perceived happiness and we are left wondering at the hows and whys.
All these unfortunate incidents reiterate my belief that the compelling need to project ourselves as completely and perpetually happy is, in itself, a quirk. We all have our bad days and low moments, it is not humanly possible to stay unruffled, satisfied and in a zen-like state all the time. The happy and the sad, the good and the bad, the generous and the jealous, are all inextricably embedded in our mind’s DNA. So why do we shy away from owning them? Is it so difficult to admit that things are amiss, that one is feeling under the weather and needs help? The unreal depiction of self-content, confidence and equanimity in both the virtual and real worlds sends out a wrong signal and even one’s closest family and friends are coerced into believing that all, indeed, is well. This is often the case when after an incident of self-harm such as this, family and friends invariably claim that the victim always looked very upbeat and positive, throbbing with plans for the future, and how no one saw it coming. It is perfectly natural to have occasional turbulence in the long and nebulous stream of life. But to pass it off as a mere ripple or dismiss it as a mirage is certainly not advisable. When left unattended, it soon assumes alarming proportions and threatens to brew into a storm.
Another indirect pitfall of this delusional exposition is that it sends so many people into a tizzy when they compare it with their own mundane lives. The irresistible lure and promise of these unreal visual bytes suddenly dull the sheen of their otherwise regular, simple but happy existence. Also, those who are already battling stress, low self-esteem or despondency are worse hit as they wonder why they are losing out on the fairy tale elements they saw on a friend’s Insta page. And the inability or failure to achieve a similar lifestyle sends them into a deeper abyss of self-mortification. It is a strange predicament where every day we need to shout ourselves hoarse from rooftops to express and overtly prove our happiness. Only, new-age social media has now replaced the old world rooftops! Anything less is considered ‘uncool’…as someone who’s not yet arrived. And thus starts a mad scramble for feigned felicity, for a struggle to brush aside inner turmoil and portray a composed and content facade.
Why do we always seek validation for our actions, reactions and relations from others, from outsiders? I know of couples who do not see eye to eye at home but in public, they make for the cutest, happiest pairs ever! Acknowledgement, appreciation and applause are all fine, provided they are garnered for a genuine reason. When used as a mask to veil real emotions, they ring hollow. With time, it becomes almost impossible to peel off this masquerade. And even before we realise it, this mask unwittingly becomes a choking device, a shield or a wall that stymies all chances to retrace our steps, to reach out and seek help. This well may have been the case with this particular family.
It’s time we junked our outmoded, vice-like obsession with looking happy, being in control and at peace. Fortunately for us, more and more people are coming out these days with their mental health conditions. They are working extensively to build an effective virtual and real dialogue around emotional disturbance and make such discussions the ‘new normal’. Several celebrities around the world are candidly speaking about their inner demons and their battle with depression, anxiety and the like. The biggest hurdle, however, lies in convincing one’s own self that sometimes it’s okay not to be okay and that, one need not always bask in the afterglow of adulation. Our chequered lives along with our frailties and insecurities are what make us special and unique – let us learn to embrace them with pride. Let us have the courage to face a reality that is not morphed or manufactured. Because, in our honesty lies our strength; in our fortitude, our deliverance.
This piece was published in The Times of India on 20 January, 2021.