Case File No.5: Kajal Pankhania
File under: #mentalheath #survivor #breakdown #bravery #blogging
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Even if you didn’t know that, chances are you’ll have heard the conversation about mental health getting louder, in no small part due to the royals, particularly Harry, chipping in to share his own personal demons as part of a campaign with Mind. And with lots of celebs like Fearne Cotton and Cara Delevigne also coming forward to admit their struggles, it has paved the way for bloggers and influencers to open up across social media too. One such voice is that of Kajal Pankhania, 32, from Berkshire. Taking to the blog she’d originally started to report on motherhood, she wrote a raw account of the circumstances that triggered her depression. Hema Marshall, a friend of Kajal’s, was blown away by the revelations. “I thought it was tremendously brave,” says Hema. “On the surface you have a smart, happy, attractive woman, but here she was telling friends, family and strangers how she had hit rock bottom and couldn’t cope. I really admired her honesty. Her courage will have helped countless others seek help.”
Let’s start on a positive note: how are you now Kajal?
I’m in a great place. I’m lucky to have a husband and little boy I love very much. I work in HR and have just been promoted to a job I’m enjoying: life is good.
But you’ve come a long way since the darkest points you described in your blog. How do you feel now about putting it all out there?
It’s been such a positive experience, I have no regrets. Being able to prove to myself and others I’m not weak – and I’ve come through it – helped my recovery.
Can you explain what lead to your ‘break down’?
My husband Nik had a more traditional Hindu upbringing than me, and when we got together some of his extended family, not his immediate family, I must emphasise, didn’t approve and disliked me because of it.
How did that make you feel?
I buried my head in the sand. I’d had a very loving but sheltered upbringing. Never experienced any negativity, nastiness or bullying. Naively, I assumed if I was nice to them I’d win them round.
And when you didn’t?
I started to dread going to family events. I’d panic and get worked up — I even developed eczema from the stress. But I couldn’t talk to Nik because he’d been raised to respect his elders — you don’t answer back, so it put a strain on our relationship. I was always taught to stick up for myself but when I moaned to him, and he did nothing, it was isolating and frustrating. Looking back now, I can see he didn’t know how to.
Can you give me an example of something that upset you?
Shortly after we were married in 2011, there was a family wedding on Nik’s side, so we all stayed at a hotel. After the wedding, we all went back to the hotel to get changed and Nik’s cousins arranged for us all to have a drink in the pub next door. They’d asked me to come to get to know me, which made me feel good, and I was having a great time, but then I got a call on my phone from Nik’s aunt who summoned me back to the hotel. Not thinking anything of it, I walked into her room and all the women from the extended family were there and I was asked to sit down on the bed. Nik’s aunt shouted that it was shameful I had gone to the pub and everyone looked on. Only Nik’s sister fought back saying: “she is someone’s daughter you know.” But I was crying inconsolably and ended up having a panic attack in front of everyone before running out the room as I thought I was going to be sick.
What happened after this?
Nik’s Aunt said she was sorry if ‘I’ felt she was wrong, but failed to apologise for her actions. This was when I first began to feel lonely, isolated and a failure to the family. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Last year when Nik’s dad, a wonderful man who I loved dearly, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Nik moved back into the family home for his final four weeks to be his care-giver. I decided me and my one-year-old should stay at our home to keep some routine. But of course, that was frowned upon. And when I went against the family’s wishes to not bring Virràe to the funeral, Nik’s aunt humiliated me in front of everyone, shouting ‘Where is he?’ over the open coffin. All I could say was ‘Nik said no,’ but she still tried to have a go at me while my poor husband was trying to say goodbye to his father.
That must have been excruciating.
It was. Nik saw what was going on and made me stand behind him – his way of defending me. It was the first time I felt protected by him but it was so incredibly sad he’d had to do it on that day.
When did you realise you couldn’t take any more?
A few days after the funeral there is a last rites ceremony to say goodbye to the soul. When it finished I was called upstairs and given a dressing down for my ‘behaviour’ during the funeral time. I had continued to tend to my young son who I was still breastfeeding, as well as deal with my own grief, but in doing this I had not fulfilled the expectations of a daughter-in-law. I had done everything whole-heartedly but it still wasn’t enough.
How did you react?
Seeing red, I confronted Nik’s aunt and told her exactly how she had made me feel for the past five years, how I was never good enough. I was crying but composed and said I knew about all the insults she’d aimed at me and my family. It felt good to stand up for myself in that moment, but the days after I crashed.
In what way?
All I could think was how I had let everyone down: Nik, Nik’s mum. I felt like a failure. That stand-off was going round and round constantly. These people had taken over my life. I was thinking about them constantly — in the shower, in bed. And I’d become withdrawn, stopped socialising and my whole personality had changed. That argument tipped me over the edge. It broke me. I was exhausted.
Couldn’t you talk to anyone?
I have a great set of friends but I knew I was past ‘a glass of wine and a chat’ to make it all better. So, in October last year I made an appointment to see the doctor.
How did that go?
I sobbed uncontrollably for the first twenty minutes saying nothing. But when it all came out she diagnosed me with depression and anxiety on the spot. It feels emotional recalling it now but she said ‘control’ had been taken from me and offered me the choice of taking medication, ‘to give me some control back’. In the end I opted for counselling because I had good awareness of my emotions: I knew why I was feeling the way I did, even if I couldn’t stop it.
Did counselling help?
In so many ways. I cried a lot in my first session but, after a block of six, plus an extra one to get me through my sister-in-law’s wedding, I finished it with the strength of an ox. It made me realise it’s okay not to be okay, and I learnt to stop blaming myself and realised these people’s opinions weren’t worth getting hung-up on. They were occupying way more brain cells than they deserved. Now I genuinely don’t think of them at all. Counselling gave me perspective.
Is free counselling available to anyone in the UK?
Yes, you don’t even need to see a doctor to get referred, there are practices in all boroughs so you just ring up. They give you a phone assessment first to check the severity of your situation, then you go on a waiting list, mine was five weeks but it was worth waiting for. I found myself talking about things that had only ever been thoughts — things too scary to say aloud, so I was discussing them for the very first time. It was such a weight off my shoulders. After every session I felt euphoric, how I imagine it would be to take drugs because you get this terrific high, then you come down. That’s why seeing the course out is so important. Saying that, halfway through I knew it was working, I was gaining confidence and had this real urge to share my experience. I wanted other people who might be going through similar to know there was hope. I’d already been blogging about parenting so it was a natural extension.
How did you know it worked?
I became better at communicating with my husband and started understanding and practicing what made me happy. Despite Nik continuing to battle his own grief, we have really come together as a team. I’m almost grateful for the experience in that there have been huge lessons learnt on both sides, we’re now tighter than ever.
Did he mind you blogging about it?
Nik was so supportive about me blogging about it, he gave it a read through before I posted it and said I was doing a great thing.
You don’t censor anything but names in your blog [Blonde Mummy]. Did you ever worry about backlash?
When it came to the moment of publish, I was desperate to post it and petrified at the same time. While I hadn’t named names it was clear who I was talking about to anyone who knew. I suppose I was worried someone would stir up trouble but in the end I just shut my eyes and went for it. In our culture there is a real pressure to be the person everyone else wants you to be and I wanted to highlight that. What I wanted to achieve outweighed any potential backlash, and I felt strong enough to take it if it did. While they broke me into a million pieces, I put myself back together again and I was proud of that.
What was the reaction online?
The response was amazing. I couldn’t keep up with the messages, mostly people saying thank you, and it made any doubt I had of publishing go away. I only encountered one contentious reaction because they didn’t feel I should have publicised some of the situations. But keeping quiet for so long partly caused my breakdown, and blogging about my experience has one hundred percent helped my recovery so I’m glad I paid it forward to inspire and support others. If I have prevented even one person from suffering in silence it’s been a success
What did your close friends and family say when they read your blog?
They couldn’t have been more proud of me for going public, although most were shocked I’d concealed it for long.
Was there ever a point, given you had a young child, where you considered it might be post natal depression?
I may have had some but this preceded pregnancy so I knew it was a separate thing.
Now you are in a good place, what coping mechanisms do you use to keep your anxiety and depression at bay?
I can see it coming now so I am better able to prepare. I listen to music before I go to sleep every night – songs with meaningful lyrics, which relax me and make me feel not alone. I talk more to Nik and, if I can’t verbalise something, I write it down or email. Writing is so cathartic, I’d recommend getting a diary if you don’t want to blog publicly.
And finally, do you have any advice for anyone who feels alone right now?
On Instagram, there are lots of hashtags that take you to people are talking about mental health issues, when you read up, it’s reassuring to know you aren’t alone. But don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t ever think you’re blowing anything out of proportion, see a doctor or a counsellor and find out what your triggers are. Always talk, don’t keep it bottled up because that’s when things spiral out of control.
Thanks for sharing this with me, I hope your courageous actions continue to benefit others.
The She Can & She Does Case Files are stories of ordinary women doing extraordinary things. Every fortnight a new one will be introduced to the She Can & She Does Facebook page. Please ‘Like’ the page to show your support and if you, or someone you know deserves to feature, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.