Urvashi Bahuguna’s book, No Straight Thing Was Ever Made – a collection of ten personal essays on mental health issues – takes its name from a popular phrase by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In the Idea for a General History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective, Kant had written, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made’. The basic sentiment behind this statement was that human beings, although they aspire for perfection, are far from it, so it is only fitting for Bahuguna to use it as the title of her book, which makes a strong case for normalising mental health issues and shows why there is a desperate need to acknowledge the crippling effects of anxiety, and depression on people’s lives.
According to a survey published in 2020, almost 43 per cent of Indians suffer from depression, and it is very likely, that a year of COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the number. However, as Bahuguna’s book rightly points out, we often have the tendency to shun ‘the unfamiliar and the opaque’ feelings instead of acknowledging or dealing with them. Through her intensely personal essays, needle-sharp words, and brutally honest narrative, Bahuguna reconstructs the experience of living with depression, and often, the book is so hard-hitting that it genuinely gets challenging to read.
One of the most touching and difficult chapters in the book is about how mental health issues induce tiredness – the physical manifestation of a mind going on overdrive with millions of thoughts, wringing out every ounce of energy and making a person virtually non-functional. If you are one of those who have found himself on the precipice of this depression-induced tiredness, and inactivity which is often dismissed by family, friends and the society, you would personally know the sense of helplessness and vulnerability it comes with.
If you have not felt it, then you should definitely pick up Bahuguna’s book to learn how important it is to cultivate sustained kindness towards your loved ones who often struggle with those feelings.
Although Bahuguna claims that the book is not a memoir, she draws heavily from her personal mental health struggles. She reconstructs moments, events, and conversations from her past meticulously to depict how people around her and even situations contributed to aggravating her mental health struggles. In one chapter, she talks about how she has suffered through years of body image issues and her passive-aggressive relationship with food, which stemmed from the constant reminder of her weight by her relatives and family.
One of the most gut-wrenching passages in the book is when she recounts a simple text conversation between her and her mother, in which she confesses she is hanging by a thread at a difficult job. Still, her mother is too distracted to seriously acknowledge her feelings.
In the passage, she writes, “The TV show The Affair shows how different the same memory can be for two people. In my memory, I text my mother saying, I don’t know how I will last another three months at a stressful job, and she texts back: Think positively. We do not speak again for weeks. In her memory, the text conversation is a blur. She was busy, and she replied with the advice she had at hand. When I did not respond, she did not pursue. She did not notice that we did not speak because it is not unusual for me to be busy. In my memory, that night almost breaks me. In her memory, it is a one-sentence text message.”
It is an interesting passage because it effectively addresses the complacency many have while dealing with those living with depression. People with depression often seek out help in the most unassuming ways. Therefore, the onus often falls on family members, close friends, or partners to acknowledge their problems and reach out to them with support. However, that seldom happens.
The book aspires to take the shame away from mental illness and is quick to point out that it is not only the society that constantly trivialises mental health issues. Those struggling with mental health issues also have the tendency to downplay it because they are too afraid to acknowledge it. For instance, many suffering from depression would not accept that they have suicidal thoughts, even though they do.
The last chapter of the book focuses on healing and seeking help, and Bahuguna does the great service of telling you that therapy is no magic cure, but rather a tool to manage your mental health, get you out of your negative thought loop, and develop a strong sense of self-worth. The book touches upon all the essential issues about mental health struggles that we have to address as individuals as well as a society. It is as personal, as it is universal.