When I was 14, my school, probably with good intentions, began preparing us for the all-important SSLC (Class 10), a ‘make-or-break’ public examination held for students throughout the country. Our school system was a throwback to the industrial age, with the onus on producing results. It is drilled into the bone of every student that failure to score well spells disaster for your entire career.
In 1990/91, there was less awareness about the stress routinely faced by students. I was profoundly ill-equipped to navigate the landmine that was my up-and-coming academic career. Like a lot of my classmates, I crammed, only to forget most of what I learned during the exam. A part of me was never convinced that school, as I experienced it, was the only route to a successful career. I never felt I belonged in school, especially at Class 9.
There are valid reasons why I harboured such an unorthodox belief system at such a young age. I wasn’t simply raised like that. My father began and ended his role in my studies by enrolling me in a school. He was absent in all the parent-teacher meetings, a crime that my school never did forgive him or me for. At home, as long as I stayed out of sight in my upstairs refuge, I never go into any trouble.
When I came of age, school became a dreaded affair. I only attended because I didn’t have the nerve to bunk. I was busy discovering new facets to my hometown Nagercoil, all for the first time, now that I could go out unaccompanied. I would often stop at stores to buy candy or gum. The excitement over my aimless wanderings across town was not to be exchanged for the droll confines of my class. I now think that I was trying to mostly express my sexuality. And in small-town Nagercoil this simply isn’t possible.
It was in this situation that insomnia commenced its cruel attack on me. My parents never openly asked me to study, but it was clear that it was expected of me. There was nothing I was more scared of than the sound of the alarm clock set to ring at 6 a.m. I would wake up hours ahead of the bone-chilling sound, my heart pounding so hard that I could hear it. I trace the problem back to those days, when I would horrifyingly hear the clock even when its alarm was off. My shirt would be drenched with my own sweat and nightmares of having flunked the exam plagued me all year long. I now know that what I was facing extraordinary levels of crippling anxiety and palpitation, but back then I was more frightened because I did not know what I had. My father’s hands-off approach, frankly, did not help at all.
My mother had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that prevented her from running the household the way she would have wanted to. My father too had lately developed alcohol dependence.
My teachers, even the ones who were good with their subjects, were unsympathetic. With the appallingly poor student-to-teacher ratio in my class, personalised attention was impossible. We were 65 students each in two different sections (more were trying to qualify) in a school that didn’t care for anything except your academic performance. The way they assessed character was even more bizarre. I remember being pulled up for whispering in class more than once. It turned out that I had a rather loud whisper which all present could hear anyway.
The problems of mathematics, trigonometry, in particular, haunted me. Ill-informed about the applications of this branch of maths, I found the subject obscure and trivial. And, in a way, I was right. Never in my life after those years, did I find a need to apply the elusive equations of Sin, Cos and Tan.
Maths and sociology classes were ruined by the raucousness of my classmates. They got busy making fun of the teacher as they could always make up for it in their tuitions. I had made the bold and ‘wise’ decision of not going to tuitions for Class 9. That was probably the best thing to happen to me all year. I had a very good teacher for Biology. It was he who made me realise that I did not have a head for cutting up frogs. But options are limited for students who are neither good at maths nor science, at least in the Nagercoil of 1991.
My father, indulging in a moment of sympathy towards my brother and me, bought us a VCR on which one could play VHS tapes. Thus began my raiding of local video stores for movies. I wasn’t very particular about what I watched. I was a big relief to watch movies instead of watching the clock tick every night.
From yoga to breathing techniques, there are many ways an insomniac can combat his condition. You can stop drinking caffeine after 6 p.m. You can take out your frustrations in a gym. But it seems the most important thing is to not be scared when you can’t sleep, and to believe in yourself.
I found comfort in playing cricket and escaping to the darkness of movie theatres. I must have bicycled to most parts of Nagercoil and a good many surrounding villages. I had graduated to Agatha Christie and Perry Mason from Enid Blyton and I sought solace in these pages that I was hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Not that your average murder mystery solved all the weighty philosophical problems of life.
Deep inside my heart, I was wracked with guilt and this rather fuelled my anxiety about the future. Most people who exhibit depressive behaviour or have a mental disorder usually trace their problems to this bout of insomnia they had when they were still young. I still didn’t know what fate awaited me. The trait carried well into my adulthood. When I was a reporter in 2010, I could not sleep if I had to travel for a story the next day.
In India, insomnia is prevalent in 9% of the population; as many as 30% have sleeping disorders at one time or the other. At least 28% have trouble initiating and staying asleep, reports the Neurological Society of India. All of us hear stories from friends and family about how they just couldn’t sleep the other night. Most of us experience nights in which we toss and turn and just can’t switch off. But when you are 14, all of this is terrifying.
It seemed that in school there were two kinds of students: the ones who got the grades and were good at that, and the ones who flunked and cared little about it. Even among my closest friends, there was absolutely no conversation about how strenuous the process of not scoring was. Between all this, there was the odd student who was there because he was athletically inclined. Amid this group, I was isolated, alienated and alone, despite having a couple of very close, trustworthy friends.
In an all-male school, there is, as you may guess, a lot of talk about sex. We didn’t really talk about girls. I remember lunch hour being spent engaged in what now seems an absurd obsession about what was between our legs. Between shared omelettes and juicy tidbits, my friends endlessly regaled one another about pleasures they hadn’t known before. None of us even entertained the idea of having a girlfriend.
This is really not a healthy atmosphere to grow up in and I didn’t make the connection between my sleeplessness and the simple need to express myself. I did not know this problem was not unique to me. It constantly felt like that a huge part of me was locked inside myself, aching to go out and be free. I was plainly worried about a whole of lot of things I couldn’t figure out and taking them with me to bed definitely did not help. I had become an insomniac. I can even today easily pull all-nighters, but waking up early is still a problem.
The performance-anxiety over doing well in SSLC may have triggered my sleeplessness, but embedded itself into my adulthood as depression, fear of the unknown and sheer nervousness. I could not make my problems go away. Until my second year of BSc Physics, when Dad stopped drinking for a year, my problem continued to plague me. It would return in a devastating fashion after my mother’s death, but that is another story.
And so, unbeknownst to my family, I began smoking. It made me, at least for a few minutes, feel like an adult who could take on the challenges of the world. There are many harmful effects of smoking especially at a young age, one of them being that it affects your sleep pattern. It must have exacerbated mine.
From yoga to breathing techniques, there are many ways an insomniac can combat his condition. You can stop drinking caffeine after 6 p.m. You can take out your frustrations in a gym. But it seems the most important thing is to not be scared when you can’t sleep, and to believe in yourself. There are many websites which tell you how to alleviate your problem, so I will not go there. But, if you think there is a root cause behind why you are not sleeping well, you should aggressively address the issue.
In my case, I did not confront my problem at all. I did not know how to. I felt I was powerless. I was terrified and pushed myself into a corner. I am naturally someone who keeps things to myself, and continued that pattern in facing my insomnia. Obviously, this is not the right tactic. There is a taboo in society against approaching a doctor or psychiatrist for such issues. Even though my parents were supportive, they never thought to seek professional help. My father told me it would go away soon, but it never really did. My insomnia was attributed to my mother’s ill-health, but we never had a threadbare discussion about it at home, a conversation I secretly yearned for.
Even today, I don’t think I am from a broken home or that my childhood was insufferable. I believe Freudian analysis runs only so deep. I felt there were practical issues to be addressed, like, for instance, my problem in dealing with maths at school, the epicentre of my anxiety. I was taken to different tuition classes in SSLC, but never found one I was comfortable in.
But, out of my own experience, I know what should not be done. Primarily, we should not relinquish responsibility for having insomnia. There is no logic in blaming your family, friends or circumstances. Think of insomnia as your prey and yourself as pack of jackals. Hunt your affliction on as many sides as you can come up with. Even if you go to a doctor, never take prescribed drugs. I never did, not for insomnia anyway. So until you find medical advice that is really trustworthy, do not take that route. Light exercise and meditation helps to a certain extent.
Also, it’s important to be strong enough not to resort to hard drugs at this stage. I have not yet gotten rid of my smoking addiction. Just imagine what would have happened if I was doing crack cocaine. I realised the hard way that I have fixating tendencies. I obsess over stuff, like this article, for example. I realised my inclination to watch all cricket matches India played was an addiction too. It was a hard habit to get rid of, although the team’s terrible performance in the 1996 World Cup offset the addiction a bit).
And, if you have a friend who is depressed it is not your pity or empathy that they need. They need you to accept them, warts and all.
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