Between the Pages: Surviving the Shifting Seasons of Life
a long form essay on navigating my messy middle while paddling through the sea of change with hope.
TW: There are parts of this essay that might be triggering as I share deeply personal experiences on surviving through change while struggling with depression.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," - Joan Didion.
This is the story that I want to tell myself. These are the wounds and joys of transitions, choices and finding oneself. I know someday I will read this, and the dots will connect.
This is scary for me as this is the first time in my life I share deep and uncomfortable truths out here. This is an attempt to create a bridge between myself and the fragmented parts of my existence.
From the towering high-rise nestled in Canary Wharf, the crimson-soaked sun setting on the horizon was the perfect way to end a long and tiring day. The cityscape bathed in the warm glow, a picturesque scene to behold.
Everyone was scurrying to get home. I was to attend a work dinner to celebrate the final submission of an important deal. These overseas trips that brought us to different geographies outside of Bangalore were badges of honour held in high esteem, the perfect brownie point to climb the leadership ladder.
It was January 20th, 2017. Canary Wharf looked surreal; the twinkling lights lit up by the winter lights festival transformed it into a fairyland. I was walking by the riverside to join my colleagues for dinner. The mind sure doesn’t leave a chance to keep quiet. The internal monologue train, back on the platform, rolled ahead.
I muttered to myself in my head,
“Woman, you sure are ticking all the boxes meant for this stage of life. You bloom, wither, and renew yourself with the changing seasons. The ground you sprouted from has been fertile, with occasional visits from the slugs and weather storms. The winds of yearning and purpose have been blowing in your life since the summer of 2015. Yes, you’ve had creepers of anxiety, panic, and fear growing all over you. Stop right here. Hold on. Look at the bright side; the anxiety dementors seem to be away for the last few weeks. You’ve had a wonderful trip. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Maybe there is a door out of your worries. "
Sometimes, conversations with the self shine a light on answers that often lie in front of us. I wondered if my subconscious mind was dropping hints.
An abundance of greenery and an active, healthy lifestyle could help drive the anxiety away. My panic attacks had become more frequent since 2016 after experiencing a few roadside accidents. When faced with these attacks, my breathing would be unstable, my sweaty palms, and my heart felt like a rollercoaster. Tears of anxiety and fear held me, hostage. A dash to the nearest clinic became a routine.
All the signs felt like a heart attack. I would raise my hands and try to smile, a common check to rule it out. At the clinic, the key indicators for an attack would be normal. Medication to relax seemed to help me in such situations.
While in London, there weren’t any attacks. Will a change of location help me heal? The thought started running through my mind.
The anxiety peaked because of sudden sensitivity around mortality and unprocessed grief. Nobody knew about this except my husband, who came to my rescue during these attacks.
We had been discussing a change of place. There were no plans or efforts made towards the change.
I wondered if the organisation will help with the move if I decide to move someday. I glanced at my phone to check on the destination. The dinner place was still ten minutes away. As I strolled beside the river, my mind jogged towards the house of memory.
After eleven years in this organisation, I’ve come a long way. I had my share of highs and lows while working. It had been a great ride. Things were getting stale. The organisation and my team were anchors during a depressive and difficult period in life.
They played a crucial role in saving me when I hit rock bottom in 2009. My earlier managers supported me immensely during my divorce in 2009. I got separated while I was still grieving my mother’s bereavement. She passed away on the sixteenth of April,2008. I got divorced on the nineteenth of April,2009. April has been notorious and kind for the life-changing events. Post the divorce; it felt like someone had thrown me into the wild forest to forage and survive. As I came to terms with the losses, my earlier managers held space for me. Everyone including my team supported me with care and generosity. They played a significant role in rebuilding my life. Those years were life-giving and nourishing as I learnt to start again. I will always be grateful to them for pulling me out of the dungeons of grief.
I had literally grown up here in the workplace. It’s been a long and strong association. Despite it, my mind often meandered on ways of finding joy and purpose back at work. The enthusiasm and energy surge as I rebuilt my life while enjoying my work had been missing since late 2014.
The quantum of change over the last decade felt like I was forever passing through revolving doors. As I understood more about myself, different doors kept unlocking. The past two years felt as if I was stuck amid these different doors of change.
Was this a midlife crisis?
The yearning for more meaning at work started gaining voice by 2015. I stumbled upon a renewed enthusiasm for learning and innovation when I heard a new leader speak at the Townhall. Inspired by a zest to restore myself, I started reaching out to different people.
In 2015, the startup diaspora was growing in Bengaluru. Every visit to the local Starbucks got me curious about the groups of people who frequented there. Product market fit, funding, and ideas were some common words making the rounds. It fascinated me and left me wondering if I should pursue a different path.
With great enthusiasm, I came across an ad for Stanford’s Ignite Program for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I applied, knowing there was no chance of getting through. Life had other plans. The news of my selection came through on Dec’15. I completed the program in the summer of 2016. I met a vibrant group of young folks with dreams of solving unique problems.
Surrounding yourself with people with a curiosity and drive to build is infectious. It ignited a tiny spark of hope in me. My essay about upskilling textiles to reduce textile waste was an idea that a friend and I wanted to start. I lacked the courage to start alone after my friend moved abroad. The story of a failed entrepreneurship attempt in the family kept me wary and risk-averse.
The plan was to look for entrepreneurial opportunities in-house. I wrote to a few leaders, offering to volunteer in opportunities that would solidify my learning and give me an opportunity to restart a new phase in my career. The mechanics of change in giant behemoths is a topic for another essay. They seek a guaranteed return in matters related to such investment. The role I was in was getting into the drudgery zone. I was hungry for a change.
Would a change of location help address all the challenges?
While ruminating over this potpourri of thoughts, I reached the dinner place. The warm, red interiors and hanging lanterns with the laughing Buddha welcoming me at the entrance calmed my overworked mind. After a tiring few weeks in London, the dinner with the team was the perfect way to end the trip.
I left London the next day, hoping to visit again.
Life started drumming to the same beat again, the rhythm of routine. After the Stanford course, I had got together with two of my batch mates to explore and solve an idea. We worked on it for about six months while working full-time. We had the name and the landing site ready for a pilot. Life got in the way. The idea got pushed into the frigid vault of dormancy. Entrepreneurship is a hard path. All of us were trying to sail on two boats with regular work, along with the idea. It isn't successful all the time. I knew I wasn’t ready for the big jump. I kept thinking about what would be a good problem to solve. A problem that would fit into the sweet spot of desirability, feasibility and viability peripherals. The hunt was on and time kept flying away.
Do you remember my conversation while walking to dinner in London? It looked like the universe had plugged into my thoughts on the relocation. Funnily enough, my husband got an offer to move to London. He didn’t actively pursue a change. It happened by sheer luck. I got the news on a toasty June afternoon in 2018.
It was a joyous occasion laced with a string of questions.
What happens to my work? Is this the break that I wished for? Will the company help me find a role? Should I quit and start afresh?
As a couple who got a second chance at life after difficult marriages, no long-distance relationship was a cardinal rule. The change meant a life-altering shift. Humans like us aren’t like the migratory birds that move from coast to coast with the changing seasons. The longing for fresh adventures comes with trade-offs and losses.
We decided it was time to leave the shores of our homeland.
It was time for a new story.
Our lives are mini-ecosystems. The move meant I needed to find alternatives to keep this going amid the change. A large part of the move meant addressing the uncertainty around work in the newly developed situation.
How do you recalibrate to a new life?
The future looked grey despite the new colours of change. The fog around my career was showing up. I had been working for over sixteen years. Like it or not, work had become a central identity. If one slotted my career timeline on the bell curve graph, the current trajectory was approaching its peak. There were doors I could unlock to climb onto the vertical ladder of growth. I had buried my head in the sand and worked hard to reach my current level. I was doing well managing large insurance clients who brought in millions of dollars of revenue. A shy and quiet leader like me functioning as a Senior Operations Leader leading a large portfolio isn’t a common sight.
With great expectations, I requested a move to London with a timeline of January’19. The organisation finding me a role based on historical evidence of international moves seemed plausible. My experience of working with large London market clients would be the sweetener for the business case. I was prepared for a short stint until the functions sorted out the long-term returns around this investment. I assured my partner that I had faith in my company to help me transfer to London.
He moved in Aug’18. I was to join him by Jan’19.
I had confidence in the system that spoke about equal opportunities. I understood how relocations worked. The irony of such changes is that one has to jump across a series of hoops to be successful. The first hoop is finding leaders who can root for you. I kept hoping that fairness would triumph. The perception and bias loops that work overtime with gender are uncomfortable truths. The glass ceiling is thicker for introverts like me without the hand of organisational elders. I swam in my lane all the years without trying to find the elders or tribes. After attending countless leadership development programs, I joked at home that I was now enlightened with management wisdom. I completed a year-long company-sponsored executive management program at one of the marquee management schools in India. I had been a part of many women's leadership development initiatives.
I put together the business case for my move with all the past achievements, my strengths and the future growth expected, that would pay off this bet. The business case was being socialised among the decision-makers. Through the grapevine, I learned that the primary decision-makers drew comparisons on the effectiveness of introverted quiet vs aggressive extroverted leaders. Dilemmas often blind the decision-makers. The case for quiet leaders had few takers in a perceived cutthroat London market.
I mentally checked out of the company when I heard about the comment. There are downfalls of being too idealistic like me. To expect fairness as an unequivocal rule of thumb in life doesn’t play out well in all situations.
A sudden sadness engulfed me. Throughout my career, I’ve never relinquished my value system. The lobbying behavioural trait was missing in me. I chose not to do that. The belief that quality and results will drive the desired outcomes didn’t come to my aid. I was foolishly confident, thinking that the best is yet to come. With that thought, I resigned a few days before my birthday on September 15th,2018.
While serving my notice period, there were two attempts made by my manager to find interim opportunities. I had a retention call with the women's diversity retention lead. The call started with a statement - we are sorry to see you go. The idealistic “bubble on goodness “around fairness at work popped as I parted ways. My quiet demeanour, which had worked all my life, felt like a heavy chain shackling my move. I was brokenhearted with the way the working relationship ended. I was leaving with a lot of knowledge and felt grateful for it.
The feelings were intense, like being let down by someone you cherished. Let me call out my hypocrisy for not expressing what I felt while leaving. The golden rule of not burning bridges was successful as I left without any hue or cry.
The anxiety issues I’d been facing proliferated during this time. Mental health wasn’t taboo, but I never dared to share what was happening with the managers. The fear of judgement had prevented me from sharing the details with them.
Something was breaking within me. At that point, the counsellor helping me navigate my anxiety thought the change would do me good. The family didn’t read too much into this either. They were happy with the move.
Little did I know that the career break would leave a deeper wound. Had the environment been more tender, I might have shared the details of the storm brewing within me.
Why did I leave with the feeling that nobody put enough effort into retaining me? Wasn’t I good enough?
A storm of questions brewed in my head. I found self-doubts regaining entry into my mind. As someone introverted and shy, I had worked hard to develop and drive away my imposter syndrome. The fear of not being good enough hovered around my mind.
My self-constructed altar of work values failed me, but gentleness won. What I planted with care were my teams and future leaders. They were blooming. I got showered with heartfelt wishes and handwritten farewell notes. I left with a feeling of accomplishment, knowing I had given it all.
A chapter ended that winter evening as I bid my last goodbye to the workplace that shaped a large part of my life.
How do you wrap up your current existence in the baggage limit imposed by airlines? Perhaps the weight limit makes moving feel more manageable, a physical veil of illusion to rationalise the act of moving. I Marie Kondo’ed my move, trying to fit everything I treasure in the boxes filled with memories and dreams. There were tears of sadness and joy. Saying goodbye to the country, friends, family, spaces, and plots of my story unfolded was excruciatingly difficult.
Was this the start of my Odyssey, or was I in for the Sysiphean treat?
London welcomed me in its classical style - a gloomy, cold evening in Dec’18. When my flight touched down, the force of reality pounded upon me. I entered the country, now home, as a dependent resident. The word dependent suddenly felt a tad heavier. I decided that evening to unclaim this newly given status.
The fog had deepened. It scared me.
The baggage that we carry, un-oblivious to us, starts becoming heavy at the sight of uncertainty. The remnants of the last marriage had pushed me to develop a trait of hyper-independence in terms of material security. It was unfair to my current partner, but we both knew the roots ran deep. I’d been working on it.
Who was I? I had no job. I had entered as my spouse’s dependent partner. How could I take such a risk of quitting without a job at hand? Did I need to start from ground zero?
I needed a break to think and gather myself again. I planned to take it easy for a few months and find a new role.
People threw a barrage of questions after learning about my break. How did I keep myself busy all day? Had I learnt to cook after all these years? Was I taking care of the provider of the house, my husband? There were helpful suggestions sent my way on how to adapt to this new role of homemaker. I came from a family where I had seen my mother and grandmother working all their lives. The idea of pigeonholing a woman who doesn’t work solely into a homemaker role was repelling.
I had seen women forgetting themselves as they got swallowed in their designated identity. I was determined to ensure that while I decided on my career, I will not allow “housewife” to be my singular identity.
Amid the whirlpool of questions and doubts, my anxiety grew. Even when drowning in the sea of oblivion, I can be the most optimistic person. I used the calendar and time blocked to exercise, cook, read and look for jobs. I had to learn to build a ritual to welcome this new way of life.
I realised I had fallen off the bandwagon of journaling for the past few years. This was a time to make anew. On a wintry afternoon, I marched to the nearest stationery store to get the magical diary to help me cope with the change.
The first page of the diary got filled with shiny new goals for 2019. Like Mary Oliver's famous quote, I was trying to keep space in my heart for the unimaginable.
Hello, Jan 2019. Is this break my messy middle?
Mind the gap; the tube announcement echoed back through the wormhole of time. The gap between what I set out to achieve vs the current reality was glaring at me. Darling, you aren’t in your twenties, is what I realised as soon as the siren song of middle age kept whistling around me. The good, bad, and ugly were all locking horns with me.
I felt that my life froze at that moment in time. Everything around me changed rapidly as I tried to make sense of this new beginning. It felt like I stood in an unknown station feeling confused, scared and disoriented as everyone around knew where they were going and hurried to get home.
My vision around my existence became blurry. There was one question: what was I doing here? It felt like a perpetual record playing on the gramophone.
The fog had blocked out all visibility. It felt eerie.
I wasn’t working anymore. My day no longer started at the mercy of the alarm. There was no morning rush. Calls with family became a routine affair. Food is a serious affair in Indian households. I wasn’t used to this way of life. I had never spent this amount of time in the kitchen. My family humoured me about my inability to cook. I grew up in a liberal household where the traditional gender role wasn’t imposed upon me.
My career played a crucial role in shaping my identity. I learnt the ways of the world when I started to work. My family was from a middle-class background. I watched my parents work hard to raise our living standards. Seeing them struggle with finances, my experience of starting again after the divorce, and losing my mother as a young adult grew my insecurities around financial independence.
My earlier marriage had a turbulent history of physical abuse and financial mismanagement. I had married young into a different culture where wealth accumulation was a way of life. There were years of trying to make it work until one day, it fell apart after I found out my ex had fallen in love with his online friend. All those years, I lived under his shelter and control. I left the marriage with no bearing of my own. I had to start over. Thankfully, I was working. This was in 2008-2009. The added trauma of losing my mother and my failure to do enough to save her added to the fears that I harboured within me.
Writing about it today isn’t as painful as it used to be; I have forgiven my ex. He was young, and so was I. I want to write about that part of life some other time. It robbed me of my twenties. I healed over the years. I got lucky when I met my current partner; the story of us will need another essay.
I had recovered a part of that loss as I rebuilt my life. I bought a home. My job enabled me to cover the first few bases of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The moment of truth is that there was no job now. This thought was spiralling in my mind on an infinite loop. When the thought came to the surface, I would console myself that I could last for a few years on my savings. My partner encouraged me to consider this a break to explore things I love.
I had never taken a career break. I didn’t know how to convince myself of the decision.
Anxiety and fear started gaining strength ever since I landed here. I spoke to my therapist. It was hardly a month. I had to give it time was everyone’s advice on settling.
One summer afternoon, I stood near the gas stove, looking dazed. I didn’t realise I had put the hot pot on the kitchen counter. The grey shiny counter now had a mark of my anxiety. The area looked badly burnt. Thankfully, the fire alarms did not go off, as I lacked the mental alertness to take action. The counter burnt a bigger hole in the pocket.
I dedicated my mornings to sending in my job applications. I used to bet on the efficiency of the applicant-tracking hellhole. Within a few hours, the rejection emails would trickle down. Those felt like personal refusal emails.
I felt like a snail. The outer world wanted me to recoil into the shell. I knew it wasn’t a good sign. I presumed these were the initial jitters of moving to a new country.
A few months passed with no luck. The panic button in my head was blaring out loud. Being in the workforce for long enough, I interviewed women returning to work. I used to wonder why these smart women felt so intimidated and powerless only because they took a break. Skills never rust. A little polish and encouragement. They will be back at the top of their game. Here was me after five months, doubting my very foundation and skills. I felt like I was back in the early 2000s, unsure of myself while looking for work.
I joined online groups to understand the local nuances. I studied alternative courses that would help me. While I didn’t have a nine-to-five job, the courses kept me busy. I spoke to recruiters. The visa situation confused many of them. I had a valid work visa, yet there was hesitancy. I was unpeeling the different layers of complexity associated with such transitions.
I attended a few interviews. On one such occasion, the interviewer asked me a simple question about resource management. My mind was blank. It felt like someone switched off my brain. The question was simple, how would you optimise utilisation? I fumbled, and the interviewer lost interest. I had lost the chance.
Another time, I went to meet a partner at a consulting firm. The discussion was great. We even drew up the associate agreement. I got cold feet. Consulting in a services organisation was easier. The rules of the business were the same, but there was comfort. It was a new world, and what if I failed? My imposter syndrome came down upon me like a wrecking ball. I didn’t act on that opportunity like a foolish person. I never signed the agreement nor followed up on it.
I felt someone had taken me and put me back to the time when I had started my career, scared and full of fear as I landed in the city for the first time. Confession, I am a small-town girl at heart, even to this day. Life is much simpler back home.
The ride down the hill of darkness had just begun. With this avalanche of displacement, everything was different. The reductive prying eyes labelled me as a housewife. Little do they know that building a home is not child’s play. A housewife or not, the responsibility and effort are immense.
There were traces of happiness in the first few months while exploring the new way of life. I did things I never did earlier. I wrote a lot, cooked and also baked on the good days. The cooking stove continued to trigger me. The inner voices mocked me. Was I to play the role of a supportive wife? Where did the dreams of building a career disappear?
The fog blinding my life had metamorphosed into a shapeless, dark, loud-mouthed creature trying to cut off every light source.
We were settling into the new city. Sure enough, people move, life changes and then falls back into place.
The social, professional, and emotional thrusters need to jumpstart while trying to start again. There was no checklist available to fire up and get the engine moving. It felt like my incredibly supportive partner was a spot of sunshine in this land, yet sometimes he couldn’t fathom why I was falling into the anxiety sinkhole.
I was stuck in the immigrant’s labyrinth, and so was he trying to find his place in the new workplace. Fun fact - the maze gets complicated based on the entry age. The voices in my head started getting louder with each passing day. They would mock, critique, terrify, push, comfort, and even love me on good days. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath felt like a friend to me as the time zones and distances played hide and seek with my loved ones.
I was ricocheting between the highs and edges of life.
Opportunities were trickling in, but I kept batting them off, wanting a migrant and anxiety-friendly workplace. The new life was tiring me down. Changes crept in with each passing day.
It started with sleeping late, skipping meals, and not stepping out of the house for days. Everything felt hostile and cold. Like a slow poison ivy, it was bringing me down.
I felt frustrated, useless and sad all the time. The drip of melancholia was working its way into my day-to-day existence. I became numb to all the blessings surrounding my life. Where did all the gratefulness disappear? A grumpy, bitter, and cynical version of me started to emerge.
The pain physically manifested through health issues like constant fever, cold and fatigue. Why was I hurting at something that was practically solvable? Was this situation a float to bring up all the insecurities that live within me? Why was I such an oddball? Why was everything so messed up?
The memories of my struggles with depression and a failed suicide attempt during my earlier marriage sprung to the surface. In the summer of 2006, I attempted to take my life by popping all the various pills available at home. My office team saved me that day, for which I will always be grateful. This is my first time writing about it with much hesitation and courage. My office team found out and took me to the nearest hospital. The face of the doctor and nurses at the hospital judging me is still fresh on my mind. They refused to admit me. They wheeled me to another obscure clinic that helped me flush out the poison with an uncomfortable procedure that washes your stomach. Those years of dealing with depression and marriage going south without help taught me a lot in life. I sailed through those difficult times with the support of my younger brother, cousins, and a handful of friends. History repeats itself, is a common saying. I didn’t want the thoughts of giving up to create bigger problems in life.
Grief feels like a non-stop spinning wheel, slowing down and picking up speed as one goes through life. The yarns of grief were here again. Summer was over. The paradox of time was dawning upon me. Everything was slow and fast. It felt like living inside an eternal conundrum. To be or not to be was no longer a philosophical enquiry. I was getting sucked into the void of no return.
The funny part is that depression and anxiety are still grey areas in my family and friends. We all have issues, but we go on like nothing is wrong. Everyone around me was busy with their lives. The thought of opening up was scary. I was the eldest and was supposed to have figured it all out by now. The two friends I heavily relied on also couldn’t relate to my helplessness. My husband is a great man, my best friend, and the jester in my life, but everyone cannot fill the holes that lie deep within.
I shuddered to think that the spiral of decay and change had begun again. I feared that the demons had changed masks. A broken marriage triggered my earlier phase of the downturn.
Were the goblins of depression masking themselves under the disguise of relocation?
The mind likes to magnify the darkness. I cannot deny the periods of light in my life. By the end of 2019, I found a part-time role with a startup. I knew the founders. A perfect interim position that could shape something permanent if the idea took off. I started working. It was a fleet management tech product. I was still anxious and wanted stability.
Darkness was like the hairy spider crawling all over me. There was light, but the obscurity still troubled me. Little did I know that these life transitions weren’t tidal waves of change; they were tsunamis disrupting every part of my existence. The ruminations on the plan to exit the grand play had begun. There were desperate pleas to the self to snap out and return to reality. The move had exorcised all my confidence, talents, and meaning for life.
My mind was a colossal vacuum.
By the end of 2019, the grip of depression had strengthened. The pandemic came forth as the harbinger of dismay. Along with the pandemic, the war within me was escalating. The time spent in the head trying to figure out the battle plan for this existential war was at an all-time high. It was time to get real.
All chaos is a meaning-making accelerator.
Could it be the portal to the inner self that fate had designed? Could I breathe? Sure, I could; each breath felt like a weighted pull-up as I tried to return to the surface.
I am blessed with tiny sparks of hope and grit that keep burning in me. Like the rising sun, the spark of “rebellious hope” arises every morning.
To fight the ghosts of the mind, one needs to be kind and hopeful. I knew I had to hold on to this reluctant optimism. The good days required me to use them best. I tried to ensure that I was productive on the days when I felt like myself.
I love September. It’s my birthday month. Since childhood, I’ve considered the month a new opportunity to start fresh. I travelled for two days on my own to reboot myself. Walking through the forests and trails of Brockenhurst, I was searching for hope while being lost.
There were questions hovering over my mind. Who was I? What have I lost? How was I showing up in all this chaos?
I promised myself on my birthday to hit reboot and give it my best.
Uncertainty, fear, lack of self-confidence, and the absence of a predictable path cast shadows on my feeble mind. An eclipse of darkness was on the horizon.
I kept applying for jobs. The interim project kept me busy for a few days in the week.
Could I find myself again? I had to surrender and become a cartographer to map and find ways to expand and ‘mine’ the strength of my inner self. I surely was more than someone who once worked full-time.
A trip back home was what I needed. I travelled to meet my family. Thank God I travelled, as none of us had an inkling of what was to come.
On the flight back, I was reading Annie Dillard’s book of essays. It is one of my favourite books. I keep going back to this quote often. It read,
“Go up into the gaps. If you can find them, they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a maple—universe.”
It felt like a message from the universe. It was high time to stalk these wide, dark gorges and leap into the unknown. I needed to keep my heart open like the skies. I wanted to feel the tender love for life again.
As the clock struck twelve on midnight of Dec 31st 2019, I prayed for a better year.
Hello, 2020. Summoning the spirits of renewal, I welcomed the year, hoping for change.
This would be the year of revival. I wanted to feel alive again. I pulled out my old, trusted, pick-me-up poem. The Spotify list’s first song was “Fightsong” by Rachel Platten. This year would be my fight song.
Poetry and music have been lifelong companions. I’ve clung to poetry and writing poems as a coping mechanism to deal with life’s warfare. As I was getting tossed around by the winds of change, a poem kept whispering from the abyss. It’s an excerpt from a poem by Hafiz,
“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”
The poem offered me solace and comfort.
Transitions are a lonely affair. Being an introvert during life changes can be tricky when one needs to build a social circle. There were some sunny days socially when I got to spend time with a friend and his wife who stayed nearby. Unfortunately, they were leaving London.
A new twist engulfed all our worlds. Mar ‘20 arrived with paranoia, fear and stress. All plans around the revival were resting on shaky ground. By May ‘20, the project that I was working on got stalled. The startup had to put its product on hold.
Uncertainty was back in the game. The world had changed. Staying away from family added to the stress barometer. For an overthinker like me, the constant inflow of information was a bane. Losing a parent as a young adult leads you to the same place of grief now and then. I had never learned to master the art of losing. I knew I couldn’t get sucked into the whirlpool of fear. As the world learned to become familiar with the virus, I wanted to find the raft of change that would help me from sinking.
In a random conversation with my partner, I shared stories about the kindness that I experienced. My parents were the epitome of kindness, with strong socialist values. I donated to a few charities but wanted to do something more than that. While I had my failures of kindness while growing up during my teenage rebellion years, it had changed with adulthood. I bore witness to acts of kindness and always felt the need for active dialogue around humanism and kindness in the workplace and communities. I was brave and stepped out of my comfort zone.
The Gentle Project podcast got launched in July 2020. It was an emergency raft that I boarded to save myself. With a tiny budget, I couldn’t afford to hire any specialists. I learnt the basics of podcasting and managed everything on my own. I worked hard in the following months on production, content writing and reaching out to guests. Everyone had a unique story. They were kind to accommodate an inexperienced podcaster like me. With sweaty hands and a trembling voice, I kept learning with each episode. I produced 30 episodes across five seasons that ran up to mid-2021.
The podcast offered me a renewed sense of purpose. The podcast was a starting point for nurturing a dream of helping more people through the podcast. I started looking for more avenues to make social contact. Zoom had opened up a new world of possibilities.
On a summer evening during the lockdown, I attended a salon around mental health. I met my first community online community, Interintellect, that evening. The group had individuals who had conversations with open, curious and non-judgemental minds, a rarity in these times. I started attending more conversations on selfhood, healing, and philosophy. I unlocked my cabinet of curiosities after a long time. That summer, I enrolled in a course about meditation and Eastern philosophy. I picked up the pen again and started writing regularly.
I started meditating. The practice was helping. I was trying to live in the here and now.
The storm within seemed to simmer down, even as darkness lurked in the background. The pandemic worsened as we lived through lockdowns and no social contact. Thank heavens that the daily walks were like invisible lifelines, the ones we often take for granted.
By Oct ‘20, a cherished friend sensed my despair and advised me to try the solo-consulting route. It was imposter syndrome or the break; I had no faith in myself. The thought dwelled within me while I took no action. I often wondered if they would perceive me as someone on a career break, even as I kept myself busy with different projects.
2020 got over with no casualties. Did the transition finally break even?
Ambiguous hope, well, that was the theme of 2021.
How does one bow down at the altar of ambiguity? Will the dark tunnel of the pandemic open into a world like before? There were no answers. One had to wait for time to unravel the mystery.
During that time, I was reading a book by Pema Chodron called When Things Fall Apart. I wanted to escape the existential mode. The book was full of helpful wisdom. Many parts resonated; I underlined this,
“Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.”
Like a lonely tree amid the fields, I stood waiting for my spring. In a few weeks, my friend wanted to make an introduction to a potential client. After a lot of self-motivation, I agreed to meet them.
I taped my room with positive affirmations, reinforcing my resolve to get past this phase. There were good days and bad days. There were days when I didn’t have the energy to go about the day. I wasn’t in great shape physically and had gained a lot of weight. I felt conscious of my appearance.
It felt like I was tiptoeing between blocks of light and darkness. I consumed all kinds of information related to healing. The Insta motivation posts on healing and reading about people who have overcome these challenges were strangely beneficial. It gave a sense of camaraderie with people. Reading the comments and experiences felt like being a part of group therapy.
I was reading more about psychology and healing. I was reading books that could hold some answers to help me out of this restlessness.
The narrative around suffering as a gift is what I have heard most of my life. That’s what I mostly heard in the Sunday sermons at church. I reaped the benefits of unfurling parts of myself that I never knew existed during my last dark phase. When does this evolution of the self stop? I am drawn to the scenes from The Good Place when Chidi and Eleanor exit the eternity loop. Where was my exit?
I was trying to understand the storm within me. A quote from Michael Singer’s book, The Untethered Soul, got me thinking.
“The first step is to deal with that part of you. This involves a change from “outer solution consciousness” to “inner solution consciousness.” You have to break the habit of thinking that the solution to your problems is to rearrange things outside. The only permanent solution to your problems is to go inside and let go of the part of you that seems to have so many problems with reality.”
There is a chapter titled, who are you? That jolted me to show my flawed perception of my identity. I was trying to rearrange and sort the outside things, ignoring the deeper parts that were inhibiting my ability to move on.
I’ve been always curious about spirituality. The book made a great impact. It stopped me in my tracks and made me question myself. The Eastern philosophy classes gave me a new perspective on dealing with suffering and attachment.
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” - Tao Te Ching
I was learning to be patient with the storms. I was untangling the knots one by one. By Apr’21, I had signed the contract with the client. I started working on something new. I had never worked on building a new product. It kept me busy. There were challenges on the way. To learn a new domain, maintaining my ability to keep things simple, and working with a family-oriented business culture felt like wading through choppy seas. I was learning.
Healing isn’t a one-night affair. It doesn’t end the day when happiness shows up at your door. There were days I would brood over why fate took such a different turn. I sometimes imagine myself leading a normal, quiet life without an overactive mind.
Therapy and all the groundwork were going on in the background. I wanted to end the endless loop of what-ifs and regrets running through my mind. The definition of good days while going through difficult phase changes. In my life, it meant eating three times a day, cooking something nice, conversing with my friends, or even sprucing up the home. There were days when I would get into a cleaning spree or rearrange the room. These mundane tasks provided a strange sense of relief. I did whatever spoke to me and helped me calm down on tough days. The world was slowly getting back to the new normal.
I was still attending salons at Interintellect. The warm and kind founder of Interintellect encouraged me to host a salon. The thought was intimidating for someone shy like me. I went on to co-host a philosophy salon that ran for almost a year. It was daunting, exhausting, and rewarding. I learnt a lot in those eleven months. My partner was ever encouraging. Marrying someone who is a friend and the biggest cheerleader of my life helped me step out of my comfort zone and pursue my curiosities.
On July ‘21, one of my loved ones was in a distressing situation. The news broke me. I felt I had failed her. I didn’t listen enough while being consumed by my crisis, which looked trivial to me at that point. We were praying for a miracle. She survived the ordeal. It reminded me of my mother. Her ability to offer presence despite her challenges was inspiring. I wanted to see and be present for people who matter to me.
Seasons were changing, and I felt a little iffy about the onset of winter. I spoke to the therapist a few times. I was on the right path.
With autumn’s reappearance, I was excited to visit India in Oct ‘21. This time, I was landing in a city that wasn’t home. After working remotely, I had to meet my client in Mumbai for the first time. When the airplane landed on the runway, it was early am. I was in my country, but why did it feel so distant? There was no family to receive me at the airport. After the past two years, I wanted to experience the joy of meeting family at the airport.
I stayed at a hotel near the airport. My school-time friend had asked me to come home directly. I wanted to but wanted to sit out for a mini quarantine, which in hindsight was a foolish decision. That night, I couldn’t hold back and went to meet her. The feeling is indescribable. Meeting friends after a long time in such a situation was a blessing.
I finished work and flew to Bengaluru, overjoyed to see my family come to receive me at the airport. My nephew was a little over a year old when I left India. He was going to be four in a month. I watched him grow up on video calls. That hug was like Midas’s touch of healing. The little man brought so much joy to my life. As someone who experienced health challenges right after marriage, as much as I loved children, it wasn’t in my destiny to experience the joys of motherhood. I have no regrets. My nephews and nieces fill that hole in my heart with immense love. The hugs felt like therapy.
I travelled to meet my extended family and friends. I hugged my loved one, who triumphed over the Everest of her life. She survived and was recovering well. It felt like time was a metal clock from Dali’s painting, each moment folding into its own like a story for times to come.
I was back in London in Nov ‘21. Something was amiss; my mind kept defaulting back to the error mode. The trip reminded me of my inability to escape the tyranny of societal labels. Why was I inflicting myself with these thoughts? There were tiny details that flooded back into my mind. While in India, seeing everyone entrenched deep in their work and making great strides made me question my decision. Was I in the wrong place?
There were many positives to moving here. My way of life was healthier. The entire perspective around what one needs to live a good life was being redefined. I wasn’t a compulsive shopper anymore. There was much more thought on our choices and time spent. My needs had gone through a makeover.
Comparison is the thief of joy. Knowing well, I was unconsciously comparing myself with my peers again. The inner judge started mocking me for my choices. I had turned forty with no worldly achievements. Where did my aspiration for professional success vanish? Why was there a collapse of ambition? Was I trying to shy away from the fact that if I had put my heart and soul, I wouldn’t be stuck in the pity party mode? The voices got louder. Was I becoming too wishy-washy in trying to find myself in this foreign land?
I knew I was transforming with each passing day. But who was I? My meltdowns were back. The tiniest of things triggered me. I had fallouts with people who were my shorelines of strength. My panic attacks were back. It felt like I was eternally in the sea of tribulations.
On one occasion, I felt like I was having a heart attack in the middle of my morning walk. I was in the woods. It offered refuge in times of sorrow. Today, the trees looked like figures howling back at me. I stopped and called my partner. Listening to his voice calmed me down. I was speaking aloud that everything was fine. The meditation music came to the rescue. I found the strength to get back home. These were times when travelling in the underground tube felt suffocating. I felt breathless, which seemed unusual in winter.
I was stuck on the fault lines between hope and despair. The shadows had reappeared.
I welcomed 2022 in a languishing mode as described by Adam Grant in his NY Times article. He describes languishing as a sense of stagnation and emptiness. The world had gone through a sea of change. It feels like you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.
The fog was a permanent fixture in life now :)
It felt as if I was dragging myself through this wonderful thing called life. It felt like being locked in a space where people could see me but couldn’t listen to me. My sensitivity antenna was at an all-time high. I started tearing up on the most inconsequential things. My partner had been supportive all this while. I started feeling like a burden that he shouldn’t be carrying around. I hesitated to share with him.
I was bingeing on food. I had to restart the sleeping pills. My therapist should have all the answers. I reached out to her. It didn’t help this time.
There is a poem by Portia Nelson often referred to in mindfulness discourses.
“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.”
I was falling down too, and it felt like forever to find a way out. The poem ends on a bright note when she finally sees the hole and takes a different street. The poem is about being present and seeing. I was not seeing the hole. I had not yet reached that stage.
What snapped? Was I too weak or not resilient enough?
I had spent hours and days meditating, understanding life, and realising what was going on with me, and here I was, throwing it all away. Is this my red sea crossing?
On a bright morning, I called a close friend, wailing about wanting to give up the fight. I walked endlessly in the nearby woods, hoping that I would find a miracle cure for my despair. Should I cross over the ledge or go back home? Should I journal again about this tasteless plight? Or should I ground myself and meditate? Nothing seemed to provide relief, even when surrounded by trees springing back to life. Nobody seemed to relate to the blanket of emotions I had wrapped myself with; even the therapist referred me back to the checklist of the mind.
I joined the group session to find people who would understand the unspeakable. During these days, all days looked different. The only consistent thing was my trying to crawl out of this space. What were the shadows telling me?
Carl Jung wrote about the shadows and their meaning, “It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the dreamwork, and, of course, the construction of neurotic symptoms and most of that is of a negative character, and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations. . . . It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organisation, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.”
Being a curious empath, I got attuned to tiny movements and changes around me. I was discovering parts of myself during these difficult times. I found tranquillity in books. It reminded me of my growing-up years when I used to look for opportunities to sit and read. Many authors helped me in my hard days. I read one of my favourite books, A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I was grieving the loss of a known identity, a way of life. How can I learn from my author, who carried on with grace and perseverance while suffering the biggest losses of life? The sticker on cars displaying objects in the rear-view mirror, appearing closer than they were, suddenly flashed in my mind. Was I making my struggles appear larger than life?
There was an evening in Mar ‘22 when I went whimpering to my partner, telling him I needed help to stop the feeling of being on edge. I shared my fears of me becoming a liability in his life and my sadness settling within me for eternity. I knew my outburst would haunt him more. He was worried and carried me through the roughest of days.
That night, he held me in his warm embrace as I wailed for hours. One day at a time is what we decided. We both were alone, trying to figure it out. Deep down, I knew I had to return to Singer's lesson. The inner storms had to be cleared.
If someone were to record me, they would know that I am full of surprises and contain multitudes. The unwavering commitment was a promise to myself before sleeping that tomorrow will be a better day. I put on little notes to cheer myself up.
A recent gift I discovered was my ability to notice and find awe in the tiniest moments. The birds, clouds, and trees had established a bond with me. I realised the movement was a saviour. Walking through the woods was a mood brightener. I was finding the invincible summer during a difficult winter like Albert Camus.
During the pandemic lockdown, I had ordered a painting-by-numbers set from Amazon. It was a tree with many parts that looked daunting at first sight, which I finished before I left for India. I believe it was the beginning of a new love affair. I found myself tinkering on the tablet. I started to draw and paint on the tab. Anybody could decipher my paintings. It was a representation of what was running through my mind. Most of the initial drawings were endless circles. I knew I had been running one in my mind by ruminating over life for the last few years.
I spent hours sketching like a mad woman. I found myself in a flow state. I bought paints and started watching YouTube to learn the basics of painting. The countless hours spent with art felt like meditation. I was calmer and happier. It felt like I got teleported to a different realm. The lessons around letting your thoughts come and go during meditation made sense. I let everything wash up on my shore.
My developing interest in art intrigued me. My limited engagement with drawing was during my school and later college years. Being a zoology graduate, I spent a lot of time drawing the skeletal frameworks and figures of the animal kingdom. I liked art but never imagined myself connecting with it at this level. This time around, it was like a cleansing of the soul. Each interaction opened the doors to noticing more and more. My observational reality lens widened with each day.
There were still challenges that I was facing. I am very accommodating, always looking out for people around me. The last few years of the move made me cynical and non-tolerant. For a change, I wanted my friends to take care of me. Distance and time zones felt like significant barriers hindering my friends and me.
I didn’t share my struggles with my family yet again. Why is it so difficult to ask for help? This time, I wanted to build my scaffolding to help survive during seasons of repair.
Art played a strange role in paving the way to self-love and acceptance. The change in my life didn’t stigmatise me. It was challenging. There was a force of resistance as I tried to restore a sense of balance within myself. The warring factions within me were coming to terms with the crisis—the signs of harmony were on the horizon.
I joined a summer art course followed by another drawing course. I met new and experienced artists. While attending the course, I made a friend. Her warmth and generosity in information sharing led me to the Foster course and this essay. I peek through the fog of yesteryears to reconcile with the past. In 2022, I was lucky to find a few kind souls who offered their presence and held me in troubled times. They were people whom I met by sheer chance in different communities. New friendships were blossoming in my life.
Art was my shelter and refuge. It was a safe place to express and process my emotions. It became a fortress guarding me as I travelled through the planes of indecision. I am still getting used to this new identity in life.
I went on a mini-India tour towards the end of Nov’22. I felt a sense of accomplishment when the client’s project went live. This time, I did share with my friends what I had been feeling. I spent a week with my friend in Goa. That week felt like a space and portal that helped me process and reflect on my challenges. I could see places where I had failed. I realised my life differed slightly from the friends of my age. There were streams of regret on the what-ifs that I was unconsciously harbouring. While being tormented by my anguish, I realised I didn’t show up for the people I loved. I could see, yet I didn’t want to accept that I can go wrong. I don’t want to minimise the pain experienced as I wandered in the land of obscurity. But when the fog clears, you see the failings of the self.
By the end of December’22, a wave of tenderness washed over me. How I return back from obscurity is something I am learning again.
My inner critic is learning to calm down. The daily walks and observing the patterns of little birds, streams and forests were working their magic around me—the crooked branch hanging in a delicate balance. The robins, sparrows and herons adjust their way of life as seasons change. The trees go through the cycle of life. The clouds pass by my window, sharing stories of their journey.
My doors of perception got cleansed as I emerged from the shadow. William Blake’s wisdom on the doors of perception made sense. He wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every, thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
I am learning to live in the new territories of self-love and compassion. I am learning to sit with the darkness and soothe the inner voices like a child when things got difficult. I am listening to myself more, observing the patterns of change. The conversation of hope needs to be kept alive. During this tryst with change, I realised that there isn’t one absolute path to help overcome such transitions. One needs to walk many tiny routes until the light of healing becomes visible. The rational and emotional parts of myself are slowly inching towards each other.
As I walked through these few years, many visible and invisible trunks held me together. Some of the people who lifted me up were strangers, who offered words of encouragement and kept me going when I felt like giving up. My family, whose presence was a strength, I knew I had to try my best to bloom again. Sometimes I found light in uplifting tweets, videos and stories that I found online. My houseplants also brought me comfort and reminded me of the beauty of growth and life. And in the embrace of nature, I found a sense of warmth and peace that helped me get through even the toughest of times. Some days, I learnt to make my sunshine.
My life felt like a beautiful mosaic filled with joy, grief, fear, ambiguity, doubts, love, awe, happiness, and many other emotions. As I write this, there are many lessons I have learnt about myself and the world. Sometimes it’s ok to yield to the squalls and let them pass through you. The misaligned parts of life become invitations to find inner harmony.
The roots of the past can become bridges to the future if one allows them to grow on their own instead of viewing them as thorns. Nurturing your solitude and doing things you love is essential. Allow space for fluidity to flow through your life to make way for changes and create new experiences. To love the world, offer your presence and attention and allow “the winds of distance” between the world and you. To go to places and seek new experiences, even if it’s scary. To be grateful and offer the same generosity to others whenever life gives you a chance. To allow space for healing and retreat into your shell when it feels too overwhelming. The present is in the here and now, filled with choices and actions. The phantoms of ambiguity will reappear throughout your life. You must learn to live with them. Never second guess your worth. There is something uniquely different in each of us. Sit with the questions like Rilke advised and allow the answers to unveil themselves. See, with your heart, there is magic and mystery all around you. Allow your inner child to be wildly free. Cherish the good and accept the bad as much as you can. The world is mostly a kind place. You see more of what you want to see.
You are the missing piece you seek.
If I don’t stop here, this will be a long memoir. I am learning each day to embrace myself after this mid-life profound change. I am giving myself permission to acknowledge that everything I went through was difficult for someone like me. I am in a better space, becoming more of myself, and doing everything I need to do to heal myself. My love affair with art keeps growing. I am connecting the tiny parts of the past years like a photo film from the past. The fog is clearing.
“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” - Annie Dillard.
I am learning to put myself in the path of light. I am learning to dawn in these moments of clarity and confusion as I transition through the phases of life.
I want to write more about the healing journey in a separate essay.
But, if you are someone like me going through multiple transitions, I want to tell you to hang in there, hold on to yourself, love all the good and messy parts of yourself, ask for help, build your circle of healing, don’t let the tyranny of societal labels pull you down, breathe, one moment at a time. There is no absolute path to healing. Pay attention to the story that you are telling yourself as you experience joys and despair. Keep moving, tiny steps at a time even if it feels like crawling through time. You are arriving amid the fading light as David Whyte wrote in one of his greatest poems.
Maybe, the messy middles of life are all doorways of opportunities. The door reveals itself once one is ready to reimagine a different reality. I am learning to look for light, and find that unwritten line as I walk through this journey. I leave you with one of my favourite poems by David Whyte. If you have reached the end of my essay, I am genuinely grateful that you took the time to read this. It means the world to me.
THE JOURNEY Above the mountains the geese turn into the light again Painting their black silhouettes on an open sky. Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you. Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that first, bright and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart. Sometimes with the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out someone has written something new in the ashes of your life. You are not leaving. Even as the light fades quickly now, you are arriving.
This essay wouldn’t have been possible without the fantastic team of Foster AOMW Season 2 facilitators whose workshops helped me find the courage to express my story. My coach from Foster, Sara Campbell, for the guidance and nudge to go deeper. Foster’s brilliant editors brought so much coherence to my ramblings: Sarah, Danver, Daniel, Alice, Sara, Benjamin and Caryn. Thanks to my family and dear friends who have been there for me and my therapist who held space for me.