(Five out of ten leading causes of disability around the world are mental health issues. As part of a series of articles leading up to World Health Day on 7 April, The Quint is focusing on raising awareness and mobilising support.)
On 18 November 1998, I got a call on my house landline. The voice on the other end was hoarse, and in a scratchy whisper, I need help it said, please help me. Strangely familiar but still unrecognisable, it was a voice I’d heard before, but couldn’t place.
Sure. I can help. I’m sorry the line is bad. Who’s this? I ask. Don’t you recognise my voice? said the sound from the other side.
Rahul*! Sorry, of course I recognise your voice, why wouldn’t I? I lied, not wanting to admit that what I heard that evening, was not the voice that belonged to my best friend from school.
What happened? How can I help?
I’m in a bad state, feeling down, I need to talk to somebody, you had mentioned NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences), can we go there? Yes Rahul, for sure, I’d said, but they have their OPD open only on Saturdays. I’ve called and fixed an appointment. I’ll pick you up buddy, and we can go, I said.
Two days later, all of 23-years-old, Rahul was dead. He had hung himself. I’d found out later that his voice was hoarse because he had tried calling me after a failed suicide attempt. He succeeded in hanging himself the second time around.
Watching his body being sent into the incinerator, with my lungs filled with the smell of burning flesh, and a heart that had collapsed to the bottom of my stomach, I felt choked from an acrid gurgling of guilt, regret, impotent anger and frustration.
My best friend had reached out to me, and I had failed him.
The Popular Kid in School
I’d first met Rahul in high school. I was an average student, didn’t play any sport, couldn’t sing, hadn’t touched an instrument, and didn’t take part in any extracurricular activities.
Rahul, on the other hand, was the football team captain, was one of the most popular guys in school, good-looking, was blessed with irreverent sense of humour, had a goofy smile, sang and played the guitar, and was part of the ‘Mad Ads’ team.
We became close after I gave him advice on how to approach a girl we both knew. Why he would take my advice I wouldn’t know because I’d never had a girlfriend.
We attended all-night rock shows in big open venues, and smaller ones in pub basements, smoked marijuana, and laughed till our stomachs hurt holding our sides on the floor (I’ve never laughed as much after), and took trips to Kerala, where he showed me his ancestral home of his grandparents.
When we joined college, it was supposed to be an extension of school, but way cooler, with more freedom.
But then Rahul dropped out of college and went to Dubai to pursue a big Dirham dream.
Sliding Into the Hole of Drugs and Alcohol
I saw him less, but a new dimension of our friendship emerged in his letters, peppered with his black-ink scrawl, and cartoons meant to represent his current state of mind.
He was slowly becoming a becoming a different person. Smoking and drinking too much, with no joy at work. He hated Dubai, and finally, disillusioned by the purely materialistic pursuits of Dubai, he came back to study animation and graphic design.
That’s when the heavy drugs, drinking binges and bizarre behaviour began. I’d quit drinking, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, and found myself a 9 to 5 job doing sales.
The drugs seemed to have brought on an early onset of schizophrenia that ran in his family. And while he was never diagnosed, I would later realise that he exhibited a classic case of bipolar disorder.
In his manic phases, he would play the drums, illustrate feverishly, and get on a bus and disappear on a whim. When he was down, he would sink into a hole, and not communicate at all.
The things with hard drugs and alcohol abuse is that there are dangerous consequences, sooner or later. Drinking and riding his bike under the influence had lead to two bike accidents, including injuries to the head, a rod in his shoulder, and nuts and bolts in his right knee.
The head injuries caused doubling of vision, and he had to wear thick spectacles.
The Stark Transformation of My Friend
While we had slowly drifted apart, and never spent the same amount of time we did when we were in school and college together, I stayed in touch, met him when I could, wished him on his birthday, and bought him tapes of the latest releases.
Things changed after the two accidents, but he was now the shell of the person who he once was. He was physically weak, mentally frazzled, emotionally spent, socially inept and psychologically battered.
He had undergone a noticeable physical transformation. The strong tree trunk legs that could whip in powerful corners and cross-field passes on the football field had been shrivelled, his rosy cheeks were shrunken, the broad shoulders were droopy, the wit and laughter had gone silent, and his voice was unsure.
Due to the doubling of vision, he couldn’t see too well, the schizophrenia meant that when he stepped out, he heard voices calling him a loser, the metal in his knee and shoulder caused him constant pain, and he limped, and his clothes hung loosely on his frame.
How After My Friend’s Death I Started Writing About Mental Health
Rahul found God, became sober, and was trying to piece his life together. He wanted to work hard and turn his life around. I observed this, and in between my busy schedule at work, I tried to help in whatever way I could.
I had taken him to Dr Agarwal Eye Clinic after the doubling of vision. And we had spoken about going to NIMHANS so that he could get help with his depression. Sadly, the darkness pulled him in, before he saw the light.
For a few days after Rahul’s suicide, my mother was scared, thinking that I’d follow suit and kill myself. I had no such plans. Long before I became a journalist, Rahul had a premonition that someday I will write for a living. And then he said, you will write about me – both have come true.
After a break-up, I needed counselling as I was unable to focus on work, and was distraught. The counselling worked, and I felt that I might make a good counsellor.
I did an interpersonal communication course, and followed up with a one year course in counselling. I wasn’t certified though as I didn’t fulfil some requirements in the allotted time.
Since India is a country that doesn’t have certification for counsellors and psychologists, I could still practice if I wanted to. But instead, I decided on using my journalism background to write on mental health.
There are many Rahuls around, and as research points out, if they are diagnosed early enough, they can be saved. I’m hoping that with my writing on mental health, an awareness will be created, and more Rahuls can seek help before it is too late.
In the process, I hope to redeem myself as well.
(*Name of best friend changed to maintain anonymity.)
(Nelson Vinod Moses is a independent journalist and Writing Fellow at YourDOST.)