By Kriti Toshniwal
Last year was one of the darkest times in my life. Darker than the moody greys of a cloudy day or the melancholic blues of nostalgia. It was pitch-black misery. Utter hopelessness, complete desolation, and a dizzying flow of thoughts made me feel like I was suffocating inside: What is the point of life? Of anything? Why am I here? I was hurtling down a never-ending spiral of meaninglessness. Is it any wonder that the D-word is such a conversation dampener?
As a 32-year-old Indian living in Amsterdam amid the liberated people of the developed world, I’ve often been told I’m as lucky as they come. My husband earns enough for me to be able to quit the field of economics in which I was trained, and explore careers I’ve always dreamed of—writing, design and visual communication. I do as I please, eat what I want and wear what I like, without interference from over-involved parents or parents-in-law. My life on the whole is really rather good. So then, why the depression?
In the midst of my dark days last year, I reached out to a few people I hold closest to my heart. And while I know their responses carried the best of intentions, I was still taken aback at the way they seemed to define my life and the emotions I was experiencing.
“Is eh… everything all right with your marriage?”
“Have you thought about having kids?”
“Is it something to do with your health?”
“Try to take control of yourself, beta.”
When I replied that it was none of these things, but something perhaps deeper, they were often stumped. Depression, apparently, is not for the happily married, healthy and intelligent woman – unless, of course, it concerns the emptiness of my life without children. If all these things were as they should be, then it really wasn’t all that bad. Sooner or later it would pass, was their message to me.
Depression isn’t a new phenomenon, as Sylvia Plath so tragically illustrated. A month after her book The Bell Jar, a revered classic of feminist literature, was published in 1963, she ended her life by sticking her head in the oven. Plath had been suffering from severe depression for a long while. I read The Bell Jar recently, just as we crossed the 54-year mark since its publication, and since Plath’s death by suicide. Perhaps I was looking for some answers myself, or perhaps simply seeking Plath’s companionship in my desolate feelings and thoughts.
It’s more than half-a-century since Sylvia Plath used a bell jar as a metaphor to describe the seclusion experienced by her young protagonist, Esther Greenwood, suffering from clinical depression in a society and an age where women’s aspirations could only extend to being a homemaker and baby-bearer.
The Bell Jar reflects an era when women were struggling against societal expectations to find their own individual identity, with little respect or appreciation for this display of independence. We’ve come a long way since then.
My grandmother, for example, or even my mother, could not even dream of the life I have led so far. The choices I have made would not only have been unimaginable to them in their time, but also non-existent: a live-in relationship in my 20s, sex before marriage, doing soft drugs, buying a vibrator. Still, the well-meaning responses of my friends and family made me wonder: How far have we really come?
In addition to running a household and having babies and looking fit and pretty even as age wears you down, women are now also expected to have a successful career. It seems to me that apart from that addition to the role of the ideal woman, little has changed in essence. I continue to be disappointed in fellow-women who simply accept that their men can never cook. I hate it that while I preach to the world that beauty comes from within, I also stand in front of my mirror every day and lament about my stretch marks and the inclination towards chubbiness that my flesh is now starting to take. I will not even begin expressing the thoughts that go through my mind when I read ‘inspirational’ stories about female achievers, especially when they fall in the category of ‘Top 30 Under 30’.
And there’s more where those thoughts stem from. There’s a scene in The Bell Jar, when Esther ducks under the window to hide from Dodo Conway, who is a mother of six. Dodo, like some women, was born to be a mother. Esther wasn’t. I totally get Esther. I see myself in Esther when she expresses how babies make her sick. I too feel the dread deep in my belly when my newly-turned-mother friends lovingly place their tiny ones in my arms and begin to take pictures of the endearing moment. The truth is that I don’t really care for babies. In fact, babies make me terribly uncomfortable. I don’t fancy talking about them, I hate doing the baby talk, and I don’t like the pressure I feel I’m under to magically develop a maternal instinct as a woman in her 30s. I would rather, at any time, be in a room full of men smoking a cigar, or the healthier option—puffing up weed through my vape, and appreciating fine deep-gold scotch from the highlands.
Disconnection, that is what I feel. Not only with the people around me, but also with womanhood in general. Disconnection is the biggest emotion I’ve had to face in my depression. Perhaps my loved ones were trying in their own way to help me feel connected again by bringing up the topic of marriage, kids and jobs. Once we could locate my problem, we could locate a solution. Once my marriage was on track, I had kids, I had a secure and well-paying job, and I was healthy, I would be well on my way to happiness (normally considered as the opposite of depression).
A few months have passed since. Urged by others who have been through similar experiences, I started going to a therapist. I’ve never really known what to make of psychologists, but I’d reached a point where I knew my depression wouldn’t just vanish one day with the change in season or circumstance. It was a difficult move to make, because I’ve been raised with the notion that depression is a state of mind that can be altered at will, and also because the deeper you slip into depression, the more inertia you develop to want to do anything about it. My therapist hasn’t changed my life or shown me the light so far; that isn’t her task, I realise. I admit I’m still not entirely certain what her task is and what I expect of her. So far she has simply been asking me questions that I’ve asked myself numerous times already, and know the answers to myself. I guess it’s just good to hear them out loud once, and have someone appreciate them and reaffirm that I’m allowed to feel what I’m feeling.
I mostly experience the greys and blues these days, but once every couple of days I still wake up to a day of incurable blackness. Despite the fact that I have a happy marriage, a recently secured job of status, money to buy a house or a car or a Chanel bag, fertility to have kids when I choose—I haven’t entirely done away with my ‘bell jar’.
I still feel disconnected and cut off from people, breathing my own humid air of desolation, even as I pretend to be free of it and part of the world once more. But while reading Plath, it dawned on me that there’s yet another bell jar I’m living under that is keeping me down – a societal bell jar placed over my own individual one. This second bell jar has me trapped as a female specimen of society, my defining features being my marriage, my work, and my potential to birth babies.
Plath and her protagonist Esther’s depression was a clinical disease as much as it was a deep discontentment with herself and with societal demands; so is mine. Resorting to the conventional triggers of marriage, work life and babies to try and define it, not only strips it of its intellectual complexity, but also shows a lack of understanding of both depression and womanhood. What my experience in the last year has shown me is that we still have giant strides to make before we leave behind the society that failed to understand Esther Greenwood, and Sylvia Plath. Right now, we’re all still living under a bell jar.