The post-2020 phenomena the world is going through includes mental health fatigue and burnout. In my case, being queer in a toxic Bengali middle-class family setup and juggling career anxieties in the midst of pandemic exhaustion pushed me into a depressive spiral.
In early 2021, I realised that my days were getting increasingly darker after an already dark 2020. The year revolved around me completing a postgraduate degree, navigating stop-gap jobs and balancing household responsibilities with my single parent, punctuated by weeks of crying, emotional lethargy and summoning the last reserves of willpower to complete the smallest chores.
It was also in early 2021 that I realised that the therapy that had gotten me through 2020 was not working. My therapist and I did not click and I was not being able to use her advice. I consulted a new therapist, someone trained in the queer affirmative practice, only to realise that her idea for me to come out of the closet and vociferously declare #OutAndProud was not at pace and sync with my journey of negotiating queerness and the lived experience of coming out.
It was a hot summer day in May 2021, and my room was a dark, frozen iceberg. It was 1 pm, and I wasn’t being able to start the day, and was still in bed. Startlingly, I realised that despite texting my childhood friends, and a host of friends from college and university who had been my support system till then, their motivation fell short. Their one-liners – “Stay positive!” and “Don’t worry! You got this” – couldn’t capture the depths of my despair. In the middle of feeling like I was drowning in an ocean, I put out an Instagram ‘close friends’ story to stay afloat.
An old friend from school, let’s call him ‘J’, reached out with words of support almost instantaneously. Although J and I had been mere acquaintances in those 12 long school years and had lost touch in the five years post-school, his reaching out felt like a rescue sailboat and lighthouse in the churning ocean. He talked me through my depressive episode till I felt functional.
In the second darkest moment of the year, on a cold December evening this time, a panic attack struck. J reached out with his encouraging, “Hey, I’m here”, and reminded me to breathe, and stayed until the anxiety episode had passed. In the months in between, he had kept checking in with how I was feeling.
It was his sheer kindness and generosity of spirit towards me – an old friend he didn’t know very well – that pulled me through and kept me going. I realised then that friendship is indeed therapeutic.
His first act of reaching out without hesitance, of not expecting reciprocation, was the revelation of compassion that reinforced the core importance of friendship; of a force of selflessness.
The way he told me that I was not alone in my mental health journey and that my struggles did not define me, made me feel visible and heard amidst a volley of texts which had simply asked me to ‘stay positive’.
I came out to J. His unrelenting optimism and acceptance of my queerness healed areas of my lived trauma of queerphobia that had prevented me from reaching out to friends and forging meaningful friendships at school.
His words of solid advice — to schedule my life and take note of the power of habits — are something that I return to on a daily basis. My panic attacks and bad mental health days still recur, yet the fact that I know that he is a text or call away helps me to calm myself. We don’t talk every day and meet infrequently despite living in the same city. But his way of reaching out keeps me going.
J and I are a testament to the fact that platonic love keeps a rekindled friendship thriving – in this case, between two old school friends who at select instances are as different as chalk and cheese, and at other moments as similar as two peas in a pod.
A few months after the events of the essay, after I reaffirmed that he had been ‘a therapist friend’, he found the moniker too daunting a cross to bear.
“I can’t be your therapist friend. Conflict of interest,” he said, concluding summarily, with an earnest expression.
I smiled back diligently, accepting his terms. “Little does he know, that simply the existence of his friendship has already served as therapy,” I thought.
Unbeknownst to him, his kindness had already served its purpose.
Aryaman Chatterjee loves reading and writing about gender, culture, and society.