From a distance, he appears to have it all. An apartment in Central London, a job at one of the top accounting firms in the world, a family that loves him and a long list of rishta wali aunties approaching his mother with decent prime prospects. When he first mentioned that he’s so depressed that he wants to commit suicide, I ignored his comment. I thought he was being ungrateful and over-dramatic.
He went on to argue his story: after graduating from university, he’s been supporting his family, particularly financing his brothers through their university education. As the rest of his friends raced ahead in terms of getting married, settling down and saving money, he prioritised taking care of his brothers. He says he has no money to show in the bank after six years of working 12-hour days in London. His mother criticises him for only providing financial but no emotional support to his brothers. He lost his group of friends early on in London because he wouldn’t drink or go out and party. Bored of his job routine, lonely on the weekends and stuck in a rut of why-do-bad-things-only-happen-to-me, this was a man who needed to walk back from the brink.
The second time he mentioned suicide, he went on to add: “If something does go wrong, I want someone to know the truth.” What I should have done at this stage was tell him to go see a therapist. But that’s not how two Pakistani guys talking at a sheesha cafe converse usually. So I gave him three classic ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions: I told him to get married, start praying regularly and get busy in a hobby or sport that he enjoyed. In hindsight, I feel silly for giving him such generic, overused advice right out of a Pakistani mother’s playbook but I did think there was merit in all three for him. He agreed with the advice but said he wanted an external, miracle solution to fix all his problems instantly. I told him no one else — but he himself — could solve his problems. He grew more morose. To lighten the mood, I joked that the best I could do was write an article breaking down his problems for him but no one can actually solve his problems for him. To my surprise, he argued that I should write an article on his problems. “Maybe someone out there has a solution for me,” he remarked.
I forgot about this conversation until the next week, when another friend, who was having trouble at work in Karachi, called and shared his story. “Everyone in my family thinks I have the perfect life,” he said. “They only see my six-figure salary but don’t understand the amount of stress I’m under because my company isn’t doing well. I could lose my job soon and everything will collapse.” He talked about the thought of suicide in passing and I didn’t react. When he mentioned suicide for the third time, I questioned whether you’re supposed to take casual references to suicide weaved into a conversation about depression seriously, even though you don’t assess actual danger because you believe the person is ‘normal’ (whatever normal means in this context). I tried to trace the source of my anxiety: in my fourth year in university, the LUMS student body went into deep shock over a student who committed suicide. There were many conversations about what close friends could or should have seen coming.
Three insights emerge from these conversations. First, we need to break the social taboo around seeking professional help for mental health challenges, especially between Pakistani men. If a friend would complain of physical injury, I would take them to the doctor and feel that that was the right thing to do. But when it comes to mental problems, I feel I’d be a bad friend if I referred him to a doctor instead of offering solutions myself. This is point-blank wrong. Second, we underestimate the power of routine and boredom to trigger a self-destructive cycle. Third, in creating the image of a ‘perfect’ life, we imprison ourselves within the boundaries of social expectations. It’s almost as if success proves to be our undoing because we’re afraid of losing ‘everything’ almost as soon as we achieve it.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2014.