BY Vani IN Book Reviews

How to Travel ‘Light’: An Author Pens a Journey Through Depression

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July 2007, a young man opens his eyes to find himself tied to a hospital bed. “You are bipolar,” he is told a little later – a revelation that will change the course of the rest of his life.

How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia is journalist-editor Shreevatsa Nevatia’s roller coaster journey through depression and mania to find lucidity and perhaps, a sense of closure to his painful past. “The only thing that I pursue and seek now is a whole lot of fun,” he tells me over an email – doesn’t sound like much of a problem to me, except, happiness seems to have eluded him, at least till now.

Describing his experience of writing his memoir as cathartic, Shreevatsa doesn’t mince words in telling me how light and better it makes him feel to let it all out of his system. This, among other things, includes stories of sexual abuse that left him feeling angry, and served to further aggravate his bipolar tendencies. “Under warm blankets and hot showers, I started admonishing a world that had wronged me. My adolescence came to be subsumed by a single, stubborn question – why me?” he says of his initiation to sex at a tender age of eight.

Poignant, yet fascinating, Shreevatsa’s story is one of resilience and perseverance in the face of inner demons – he has been fighting them for over a decade now. “I walk the line and keep my nose clean. I feel I can better understand my mind now, and that helps me better manage my condition,” he tells me. However, it is not always as easy as it sounds. “Every once in a while when there is an imbalance of chemicals in my brain, my mood swings wildly. I find myself euphoric. This euphoria or mania worsens until treated, and is followed by a crash.”

A crash? – As in a mood swing?

“A crash as I now understand it is a debilitating depression,” he answers, and adds how one needs a proper diagnosis to understand that terms such as sadness, depression, mania, elation, fear and paranoia are all different things. “At any given point in time, it would be hard for us laymen to distinguish biological distress from everyday emotional upheaval (or what we call mood swings). That’s where the therapist, psychoanalyst or psychiatrist comes in.”

These phases of “crash” or “debilitating depression” have seen Shreevatsa do strange things – break up with his girlfriends, disrupt office meetings, fall out with his colleagues, smoke cannabis, and, almost always – hurl abuses at his parents. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“My mania followed a defined pattern. In the days of its early onset, I would invariably have long, funny and winding conversations with my mother at five in the morning. I would sneak up on my father and hug him from behind. This affection, though, would soon be punctured by sudden flares of an unforgiving rage. I would accuse my parents of apathy, neglect and even malice. I would demand that we separate, and I would insist I never wanted to see them again. Choosing exile over dependence, I would leave home. I would hit where it hurt.”

Of his affliction, he quotes a friend as saying: “…the trouble with your mania is that we see another Shreevatsa we never knew existed, and the trouble with the depressed Shreevatsa is that he is nothing like the affable Shreevatsa we loved.”

And yet, it is his support system of friends, family and colleagues who have all come forward to help him time and again – that, when they probably don’t even understand what he is going through. “When I suffered mania for the first time, my friends and family did not know what had come over me,” he says. “Everything I said was exaggerated and some of what I did was even dangerous. Once enough alarm bells had rung, they took me to the doctors who were able to tell me what was wrong. Since then, they have grown more familiar to my reason, and its sudden lack is now easy for my support system to detect.’

For one whose version cannot be completely relied upon (a psychotic subject is an unreliable narrator, he says in the book!), Shreevatsa’s narration is lucid, straightforward and barenaked honest. The book is episodic with a non-linear narrative, and I wonder if that was how he chose to write it. “Themes, I felt, explained my life better than chronology,” he tells me, “and that’s why I chose to forsake linearity.”

As I end the book, I only wonder if years of therapy and rehab have done him any good. Have they improved his connection with the outer world, for instance? “Mania does a strange thing,” he tells me. “On the one hand, your attention sharpens, and you feel like you have come to possess an impossible alacrity. On the other, however, it becomes impossible for you to hold that grand, new attention. My manic flirtations with social media are proof of that fact. My expansiveness also costs me my relationships. I cannot sometimes concentrate hard enough. Now that I feel I have been able to arrive at a semblance of stability, I like moderation in all my worlds, those virtual and real.” Need we ask anything more?

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