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What does it mean to be bipolar?

Shreevatsa Nevatia tries to make sense of his condition. An excerpt from his memoir

illustration : Jayachandran/Mint
illustration : Jayachandran/Mint (Jayachandran/Mint)

In his slim but seminal book, Strictly Bipolar, British psychoanalyst and author Darian Leader writes that in the memoirs of many manic-depressive subjects, “pages of disappointment with mental health workers and medication will almost invariably be followed by a sentence such as: ‘Then I met the best doctor.’" More than the greatest doctor or the perfect drug, Leader suggests, what helps a bipolar subject is “the actual function of idealization itself". By idealizing our doctors and therapists, we safeguard their authority and make them parental substitutes, someone who embodies a “consistent and benevolent gaze". Resisting the temptation of such glorification has been impossible for me, but Dr Pushpa Misra and Dr C.S. Mukherji have both received punctured declarations of my immeasurable debt. “It’s because of you that I get my second chances, doctor," I once told Dr Misra. “You pick yourself up, Shreevatsa," she said, “but the trouble is that your slippers are quite slippery."

The efficacy of doctors is often measured by the frequency with which their patients fall ill. Manic-depressives often make that barometer unreliable. Notoriously non-compliant, they refuse their medicines when they are tired of their side-effects, and frustrated by its slow and incremental benefits, they reject therapy. I once told Dr Mukherji, “I think you like having me depressed. Isn’t it possible for me to be manic and control its damage too? I miss feeling alive."

A week later, I had written myself a tapered prescription, and even though I had begun to feel the effusion of hypomania, I kept my transgression secret. Tired of living in Calcutta, knocking its lack of professional and recreational opportunities, I interrupted Dr Misra’s therapy and moved city in 2013. Once away, I again turned to marijuana to cope with the stresses of employment and the paresis of depression. Predictably, mania did not take long to arrive.

Finding me unwilling to return, my doctors have had to acquiesce to my institutionalisation. “Confinement is something I don’t believe in," Dr Mukherji told me, “but your shenanigans sometimes leave me with little choice."


In July 2007, when I woke up with my hands tied to a hospital bed, I had no memory of having been brought there. My glasses had been taken off. Though everything in the room was a blur, the tiles, I saw, were a dirty green, and the tube light, I remember, flickered dolefully. I thought my male nurse’s white shirt and trousers were part of his police uniform. “Have I been arrested?" I asked him. My guilt precipitated my fear.

For six weeks, my actions had grown increasingly perilous and I was altogether indifferent to their consequence. Accusing my parents of neglect, I had left home in a huff. I had openly berated the State and its control. I had sidled up to an Australian woman in a bikini. There was something obviously blasphemous about my presumed possession of divinity. I had pretended to be Advaita Goswami, and worse, I’d littered the streets of Delhi with pages I had torn from Virginia Woolf’s diary. It was hard for me to tally my transgressions or measure their effect. I again asked the taciturn nurse, “Am I in jail?" Preparing a syringe, he finally replied, “You’re in a hospital. The doctor will be here to see you tomorrow." Minutes after he had jabbed my arm, my eyes grew heavy. The oblivion was welcome. I needed to escape my new reality.

How To Travel Light—My Memories Of Madness And Melancholia: By Shreevatsa Nevatia, Penguin Random House, 238 pages, Rs399.
How To Travel Light—My Memories Of Madness And Melancholia: By Shreevatsa Nevatia, Penguin Random House, 238 pages, Rs399.

The room was dark when I surfaced. I didn’t know what time it was. My watch had been removed with my restraints. Removing my blanket, I desperately searched for my phone. “It’s the first thing they take away." The nurse’s voice was a whisper. “Please, you must have a phone," I implored him. “I must have the right to make at least one phone call. I really need to call my sister." Tucking me back in, Madhu said, “You’re not meant to have any contact with the outside world, but you’re safe." I resisted the quilt and the warmth of his consolation. “You must understand that the doctors here have made a mistake of some sort. I’m not meant to be here. My girlfriend is waiting for me in England. We’re going to get married soon. My Master’s course starts in a few weeks. I need to be there, not here."

Madhu returned to his chair. “I’m in a long-distance relationship myself," he soon confessed. He had met his fiancée in a nursing college, and the decision to leave Kerala for Bombay, he shyly admitted, had been the hardest one he’d ever made. “Our phones keep us alive," he said.

Over the next hour, as we talked about his orthodox parents, the punishing cost of living in Bombay and the many hardships of love, I felt I had disarmed Madhu with my empathy. “I’m only asking that you give me your phone for a minute," I cajoled him. “My sister needs to know I am here. She really must be very worried about me." Tentatively, Madhu reached inside his pocket and said, “Only one call and then I’m taking this back." I thanked him profusely and dialled my sister’s number. I discovered a fantastic solace in her ‘hello’. “You won’t believe where Mum and Dad have left me. They’re treating me like a prisoner here. You have to get me out. Please." I could hear my sister panic. Sitting in the clinic of a psychiatrist who had ordered I be admitted to a Colaba hospital, she was filling out a bipolar questionnaire at the exact moment I called her. The checklist asked her if her thoughts raced ‘no more than usual’, ‘somewhat more than usual’ or ‘much more than usual’. She was asked how often she broke into song, and if she had ‘quite mystical experiences’. Already distressed by the news that I was bipolar, my sister’s anxiety doubled when she heard the affliction was genetic. She could, it’d follow, be bipolar too. “I know where you are, Shivvy. You needn’t worry about anything. It’ll all be all right," she said, hanging up abruptly. Rescue, I felt sure, was on its way.

The next morning, Madhu had been replaced by an orderly. He accompanied me to the washroom, and when I stood up to go for a walk, he quickly locked the door of my room. My mind, which until only a few days ago, was a flood of thought and colour, had now turned lumbering and bleak. Lying in bed, I tried to make sense of my confinement. I was being administered medicines around the clock. I was apparently ill, but strangely, this hospital had no visiting hours. No worried family and friends had flocked to my side. I knew I hadn’t been quarantined, and I soon grew certain I was being punished. Later that day, a portly and bespectacled doctor entered my room and introduced himself as my psychiatrist. “What’s wrong with me?" I asked Dr Aakash Joshi, sitting up, hopeful, alert. “You are bipolar," he said, “but that’s good news because you’ll win a Nobel Prize."

Smoothing his silver hair with his fingers, pulling up a chair, Dr Joshi rattled off a list of names, as if reading from a roll of honour. “Vincent van Gogh, Winston Churchill, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, they were all bipolar, all manic-depressives." Rolling the words ‘bipolar’, ‘manic’ and ‘depressive’ in my mind, I did not have the foresight to ask the doctor questions that would later come to confound me. “For every bipolar genius, aren’t there hundreds more who suffer a crippling paralysis? Didn’t Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh prosper only because they had never been diagnosed, because they had never been medicated? Doesn’t the mind need a modicum of turbulence to thrive?"

In that moment, though, my concerns were more fundamental. “What does ‘bipolar’ mean?" I asked. “It means you have a chemical imbalance in your brain, and this imbalance causes your moods to swing wildly from time to time. But there are a number of medicines that can manage this mood disorder. You’re already on some of them." Dr Joshi had already started checking his watch. “But these medicines make me so groggy. I want to sleep all the time," I complained. “You’ve been up for a very long time. It is time you got some rest."

Dr Joshi had little patience for my silence. Seeing him stand to leave, I said with some desperation, “I know I have alienated my parents, but I would really like to see them now." The psychiatrist held my hand in his. “They’re not going anywhere. Let’s get you all right first, and then there will be plenty of time for you to see them." I held on tightly to his palm. “And when will I be fine, doctor? When will I be cured?"

There was hardly any comfort in Dr Joshi’s smile. “Bipolarity is not a disease, it is a condition. We can’t cure it, but you can manage it. You’ll have a normal life. I can promise you that." I was disconsolate. “When will I get out of here?" Dr Joshi removed his hand from my clutch. “It’s only been a day. You have to learn to be more patient. I’ll be back tomorrow."

I had one last question to ask. “Where’s Madhu?" Dr Joshi frowned. “He doesn’t work here any more."

I lay pinned to my mattress for the next forty-eight hours, and as I continued staring at the cracks in the ceiling, my back began to hurt as much as my head. Though Dr Joshi had not employed the word, it didn’t take long for me to think of myself as ‘mad’. My madness, however, I consoled myself, defied stereotype. I had never spoken to myself. I’d only called friends in the middle of the night, hoping someone would listen. In the six weeks of my ‘mania’, I had never once been violent. I’d only wanted to be the life of the party, and it was this extraversion, extravagant and exceptional, which had made the bluster of my mind conspicuous. My crime was not my grandiosity. My error was I’d foolishly let my swagger show.

Having taken over from Madhu, the chubby Sister Rita soon brought to my room an affection that was decidedly maternal. She settled my pillows every few minutes, and insisted that I drink water—“With the number of medicines you’re taking, you need plenty of liquids to flush them out." The few times I woke up in a sweat, I found her holding my hand. “It was just a bad dream. It happens," she would say. Caressing her rosary, she would sit in her corner and pray for me. “I’m making sure that you have Mother Mary’s blessings. I want you to have her protection."

The Colaba hospital, I realized, was a popular destination for medical tourists from the Middle East. Taking me for little walks, Rita would leave me sitting by a window, a few inches away from burqa-clad Saudi women. When one of them glowered at my boxer shorts, Rita snapped, “He’s my son. He’ll wear what he likes."

Rita began to make sure that the television in my room was left on almost throughout the day. “If you just lie there, you’ll think of all the things you shouldn’t," she said.

Perhaps in an effort to limit the sources of my stimulation, hospital authorities had given me access to just three channels. I grew bored of Discovery documentaries. Hindi news programmes proved too shrill, and I had quickly memorized the lyrics of the few songs a music network played on loop. On one of his few visits, Dr Joshi said he had devised a solution for my weariness. “You like foreign movies, right? You’re in luck. I have a little pack of these DVDs at home. We’ll get a player installed in your room tonight."

I was ecstatic. In less than a day, I had devoured Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, the 2002 Turkish film Uzak and Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2.

The next day, Dr Joshi came to see me a little after ten at night. “I have a lot of time on my hands," he said. Together, we reviewed the films I had been watching. “You seem to be doing much better," he said, with a smile.

“It’s nice to have done something normal after so long," I said, relishing the buoyancy I had come to suddenly feel. “But I’m not normal, right?"

I had become familiar with Dr Joshi’s frown. “That’s precisely the mindset we want you to avoid. Besides, normal is such a subjective word. My normal would be very different from yours."

Excerpted from How To Travel Light: My Memories Of Madness And Melancholia, with permission from Penguin Random House.

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