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When Alienation Kills

When Alienation Kills

May 07, 2011

If you feel alienated or isolated, you may want to end the business of living without belonging.

If you are an avid news reader, the latest tragedy in Delhi/NCR might have caught your attention and left you shell-shocked. On the face of it, it’s a heart-wrenching story of two sisters who had shut the door on the world, confined themselves at home for more than six months and literally starved themselves before they could be finally rescued from their Noida apartment by police and neighbours. Anuradha and Sonali Behl, both in their 40’s and holding doctorate degrees, were found in a severely malnourished and dehydrated state, and were rushed to Kailash Hospital where Anuradha died of multiple-organ failure. Sonali is now quite stable but seems to be suffering from depression and delusion. Anuradha and Sonali had apparently become disturbed after their parents died in the 90s and their younger brother Vipin left home a few years ago. This gradually led to an extreme state of depression and the subsequent attempt at self-annihilation.

This isn’t a new story even in a somewhat laid-back city like Kolkata, where neighbours do make an effort to keep in touch. A similar tragedy took place in 2009 in an overcrowded North Kolkata neighbourhood, where my family has lived for more than 40 years and people are generally on first-name terms. Yet none seemed to taken notice when Shrabana (not her real name), a woman in her early 30s, and her ailing mother suddenly locked themselves in and failed to connect to their friends and family for more than a week. Finally, an alert went up and police were summoned to the address where they had to break down the door of the ground floor flat to gain entry. But by then, the mother had died while the daughter sat in a kind of stupor, refusing to part with the body.

If you want to dismiss these cases as bizarre events where the victims lost touch with reality, then let me relay another such incident, equally tragic. But this time, it’s a West Delhi-based finance guy in his early 30s who suddenly decided to throw it all in and steadfastly sat at home. He didn’t take calls, shunned friends and drowned himself in alcohol till his family forced him to visit a therapist and admitted him to a rehab centre. Kunal (not his real name) seemed to have lost a substantial amount in the volatile stock market and became a nervous wreck who had abandoned all hopes of recovery.

It’s quite a different story with Deep Saxena (not his real name), a senior manager with an IT MNC. Saxena has a dazzling track record but once outside the office, he turns into a party animal till the next workday dawns. And a fair dose of benzodiazepines (mostly used for anxiety control) helps him stay focused while he slogs it out in office. Ask any expert and he will tell you that Saxena’s work-life balance is seriously flawed and he may soon succumb to the emotional void, created by a disquieting sense of detachment and insecurity.

Unfortunately, such events leading to personal tragedies seem to follow a specific pattern. According to Dr Ahilya Bhakuni, a Bangalore-based clinical psychologist, feeling of insecurity and isolation may overcome you at any point of time – whether you are a new kid on the professional block, a successful veteran or a stay-at-home person. “You might be worrying about your job or business or family. And before you actually realise it, the stress and the tension can traumatise you beyond recovery,” explains Dr Bhakuni. “The fear of failure can be extremely acute, especially if you belong to an urban, upwardly mobile society where a person is mostly judged by the feats he has achieved.”

“We live in a volatile society where nothing is stable – whether it’s finance or your personal vision,” says Ritika Gulati, a Mumbai-based E&S analyst. Pink slips are now an everyday affair and the pressure to perform takes its toll.

This may lead to unnecessary aggression, followed by bouts of depression. You feel low because you are aware that failure is a painful reality in today’s world. Even the best companies can go bankrupt within an instant. Or a long-term relationship can end because the couple’s priorities have changed. In a fast-track, volatile world, we may have to let go, compromise and change – not because we have failed but because we need to grow with time and make the best of every situation. However, we are rarely ready to admit this. Unless it is a change for the better, in terms of materialistic and monetary gains, all changes seem to be a fall from grace. In other words, a change is never viewed as a social, psychological or spiritual evolution that will help mature an individual. For us, it’s merely a fight-or-flight situation where we are either over-aggressive or simply crumble under stress, and deny ourselves that meaningful life experience called GROWTH.

But if you think that such stressful situations are more common at workplace, you are totally wrong. Domestic havens can generate more pressure cooker situations than the most dysfunctional corporate houses, says Dr Bhakuni. “In our country, women, as a rule, fail to hold out against social pressure for fear of social isolation. Even when you are independent and well-off, you will rarely consider going off the beaten track and living life on your own terms.”

“Indian society still follows the stereotypes, instead of self-assertive individuals,” says Shubhra Mukherjee, a corporate lawyer in her 40s and single by choice. “Even at my workplace, people shoot personal questions like: Are you single? Divorcee? Have kids and so on… They still find it hard to swallow that someone can be single or childless by choice.”

“We live in an imperfect world and must cope with shams, setbacks and violence,” says Pallavi Munshi, a Pune-based counsellor. “Of course, it’s more difficult to cope when your personal life goes haywire. I have often counselled people post break-up and found them totally withdrawn in some kind of shell. They call it defence mechanism – a potential safeguard against all emotional bankruptcy. But in reality, it leads to an unhealthy disconnect from the life around you. And you end up in an emotional void from where it’s difficult to exit.”

Were the Behl sisters in a similar trap?

“It’s difficult to comment at this stage. But after their parents’ death and brother’s marriage, they may have felt a loss of social identity. People need to repurpose their life if such changes happen. You must make yourself useful the way you like it. For some, it can be professional excellence; for others it can be some cherished hobby or creative passion. And most essentially, mingle more with friends, relatives and social acquaintances. Don’t give yourself the time and space to feel lonely or wallow in self-pity. And don’t shut that door on life,” Munshi emphasises.

But doesn’t one get tired of an artificially stimulated super-active life? It may remind you of Deep Saxena – the work-hard-party-harder kind – who would do almost anything to ward off that sinking feeling of loneliness.

“You should be able to strike a balance between personal and social space,” explains Dr Bhakuni. “Learn to spend time with yourself and do something meaningful – outside office and your domestic routine. That will make you feel more valued as an individual. However, there’s no harm if you chill out at times. We don’t suggest that you go pubbing and dancing every weekday and weekend. But an occasional ‘evening out’ can help you de-stress.”

“Overcoming this sense of isolation is not so simple,” says Gulati who required medication and counselling to overcome a severe attack of depression. “I got engaged twice and it didn’t work out because we came from totally different background. Expectations and priorities differed, and I couldn’t bridge a chasm like that. I was not at fault, but I couldn’t help feeling inadequate. I fought the negative vibe till I felt nothing would be right again and I would never belong. You feel alienated, isolated, detached… and you suddenly want to end it all – this business of living without belonging…”

Does it sound familiar? Maybe the Behl sisters felt the same and most of us FEEL it now and again. It arises out of a mismatched life where dreams don’t meet reality and roots are easily trashed. It arises out of a disjointed communication culture across a global village where family and friends ‘ping’ instead of talking and ‘post’ humdrum trivialities instead of discussing real-life traumas. But finally, it’s up to us to fight the self-destruction that might be eating our core.

Get real; get talking; get all the help you can – from family, friends, colleagues, therapists. Don’t put on that mask of normalcy when you are feeling futile and worthless. Try and understand what has triggered the feeling of panic, trauma and sense of isolation. Mood swings don’t come out of the blue – they are always started by an event, a memory, a dream. And once you know why it has happened, give way to your feelings. One cannot bottle up anger and grief for an eternity – it is bound to explode. Let go in the first place, have a good cry, and you may soon feel better.

Think positive. In his book, Undoing Depression, author Richard O’Connor asks you to challenge depressed thinking. People with depression remember and blame themselves for bad events, while they forget about and give others credit for good events. Their low expectations mean they often don’t prepare adequately and give up too easily. Worst, they think they are essentially different — damaged somehow — from other people. But these are all habits of thought that can be unlearnt. Give LIFE a chance today – you can usher in a better tomorrow.


  • Amit B
    Amit B
    12.07.11 11:57 PM
    good research study and equally good understanding of the subject.keep up the good work
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    18.05.11 08:17 PM
    As someone who spends a lot of his time alone, I can understand how people get into negative thought cycles, especially living high-pressure high-stress inner-city lives. While the causes and symptoms of depression can never be trivialised, the best combat tool is surely a positive attitude comprising healthy self-awareness.

    This was a really good piece and contributed something of value to society. Congratulations.
  • Anonymous
    13.05.11 11:10 PM
    Thank you! Your final words in this piece is just the thing I needed to hear
  • anon
    09.05.11 09:59 PM
    This article has been an eye opener!

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