Psychiatry chose me
22 October, 2019
Students often ask me why I chose psychiatry. The truth is I did not choose psychiatry. Psychiatry chose me.
I was 13 years old when a letter arrived written by my grandmother addressed to my parents. It informed them with some pride that my uncle – who, until recently, had been a junior clerk in a sugar factory and had suffered two episodes of depression – had allegedly been offered employment by the INTERPOL.
A curious visit
Two weeks after the letter, my uncle arrived himself. He was dressed in saffron robes, covered in multiple religious amulets and garlands and was talking non-stop. His speech was a combination of the Old Testament, Hindu scriptures and pornography.
He was impossible to interrupt and did not sleep the entire night. He carried with him half his bank savings and, to my great delight, was distributing money to all his nieces and nephews. He had brought with him a leather suitcase which, he informed my parents, contained a python which he had purchased for the entertainment of the kids. In North India in the 1980s, this was a distinct possibility.
Initially I thought he was drunk, but later realised that there was something else afoot.
The next morning, he absconded. We spent hours searching for him but to no avail. Hours turned to days, days to weeks and weeks to months. Our search increased both in terms of geography and desperation. The family initially prayed for his safe return,
then just a return – and finally, that we would find his body to give him a decent burial. The stress of looking for him tore our family apart. My nieces and nephews are still paying the price.
My role at that time was to go around on my push bike distributing pamphlets with his photograph and our telephone number. It is also during that time that I came face to face with the stigma of mental illnesses. His suffering was attributed to the sins of his previous life, and our suffering just ignored.
My uncle was found three months later– starving and emaciated. His back was scalded and there was an open wound on his left arm from where we removed maggots. After a prolonged admission, he recovered, but his family didn’t.
Of course, part of the reason I chose psychiatry is altruism – the suffering of my uncle and my family drives me to help others in a similar situation.
But also, I chose psychiatry because patients are so much more than their illness. When I saw my uncle dancing to Pink Floyd in the middle of the room with a bottle of rum in one hand and a cigarette in the other, I thought that was awesome. Twenty five years later it still is.