Work Therapy: Being comfortable with a mental health condition

“Telling your boss that you’re bipolar is not the easiest conversation,” says Aparna Piramal Raje. But “It is wonderful to be so comfortable in your skin that you reach the stage when it doesn’t matter.” An extract from her latest book, ‘Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked My Mental Health’

Founding Fuel

January 2013, Mumbai

I am at my desk in my bedroom in Mumbai and my mind is in a tailspin. Back from the ashram in Bihar, I am disappointing not one, not two, not three, but four editors at the Mint at the same time.

My most ambitious writing, a series of seven back-to- back, full-page stories on Indian urbanization, commissioned by Mint’s editor-in-chief R. Sukumar, is in jeopardy. One of the longest series by a single byline, it has even been pre- advertised in the paper. For months, I have travelled around the country, doing dozens of interviews.

But now I am filing stories late, painting my editors into a corner. I forget to take a photographer with me during my travels, which makes photoshoots more cumbersome. Even though I somehow manage to write my stories and the series is well-received, when I ask one of Mint’s senior editors, Anil, for feedback on the series (and another writing opportunity) he says: ‘We’ve decided not to give such a long series to a single reporter.’

A parallel interview with a senior urban thinker, visiting from New York, is also bungled. My editor Niranjan and I meet this academic at a hotel in south Mumbai. I am ready with my tape recorder, but for the first time in my journalistic career, I am not mindful enough to record it properly. I come home and am devastated to see that I have only eleven minutes recorded of an hour-long conversation. Of course, I am not coherent enough to recall what was said. When I recover a few weeks later, I email the academic some follow-up questions and he is kind enough to reply with detailed answers. But it is too late to print the story.

And I miss deadlines for my regular column, ‘Head Office’, letting down Seema Chowdhry, my immediate editor and boss, who is also based in Delhi. Between January and April 2013, the monthly column, which I am contractually obliged to file, is irregular, partly because I had been occupied with the urbanization series and partly because I am unwell for most of January and February. The column appears as a double-page centre spread at the time, so its absence is visible.

I feel like a total failure.

I failed at the family business—and was asked to leave it. I have failed at being a journalist—

doing a job I loved.

I am crushed; depressed for several months.

And now I have to tell my boss that I am bipolar.

A sense of awkwardness hovered over me in early 2013 when I called Seema Chowdhry to tell her that I was bipolar. Amit had already informed her that I needed some time off and asked her for her support, without specifying the nature of the problem. He conveyed that I remained very interested in what I do but that I wasn’t in a position to answer emails or phone calls. Seema says she didn’t inquire further and gave me the space I sought.

‘You were very sheepish. You said, “sometimes I have these episodes”. That’s when you told me you had bipolar disorder. I didn’t know what it was then, I looked it up. I remember thinking to myself, “but I’ve never experienced it”. I mean the way you presented yourself, I never thought that it existed with you. But then I also realized that most of my connection with you at that point in time was on the phone or email,’ Seema says.

Telling your boss that you’re bipolar is not the easiest conversation, especially when you’ve been behind on work, but it helped our relationship. ‘I don’t know if you felt it, but I think after that conversation my attitude towards your work, and towards you, also changed quite a bit. One of the things that I realized in that period was that if people are honest about their issue, or about the circumstances that they are in, then it’s easier for the person opposite to empathize and make an effort to understand. Maybe I didn’t know the details but at least I could change the way I behaved with you. Before I found out that this was a problem, I would get frustrated, I didn’t know what was happening. Once I came to know that this is an issue, when the next deadline was not met, I was prepared for it. I don’t think I suddenly became an empathetic person or I was making allowances out of the blue, I’m not trying to project that. But I did understand mental illness-related issues better than a lot of other people, because I’ve lived with a more severe form of it, with a mentally challenged sibling. So it was easier for me to accept it,’ Seema explains.

Over the course of a decade, Seema and I were able to create a niche in writing on business and design that didn’t previously exist, as the column gained popularity and established itself as a regular fixture in the paper. It evolved from being a column on CEOs’ workspaces and workstyles to a column on leadership, business and design, leading to a book, released by Penguin Random House India.

15 September 2015: The Four Seasons Hotel, Mumbai

I am conducting rapid-fire questions on design and business to a panel of CEOs, including N. Chandrasekaran, then the CEO of Tata Consultancy Services, Shikha Sharma, formerly of Axis Bank, my uncle Ajay Piramal of the Piramal Group and Amar Goel of PubMatic. We go back and forth, with shared rapport and repartee, and the audience laughs at our camaraderie. About 300 people are seated inside the banquet hall; there are over 100 mingling outside who couldn’t get into the room. The head of the Asia Society India Centre, our partner for the launch, asks us to untie ribbons as we unveil the book. A representative from Penguin introduces it. Seema delivers the closing remarks. My first book, Working Out of the Box: 40 Stories of Leading CEOs, is officially launched. It is a major professional milestone.

Seema and I became closer, and a few years later, she sent me a couple of handwritten notes, which I have preserved because they are so special to me:


Dear Aparna,

I don’t say this often and enough number of times but thank you for being a columnist with me, for believing in my vision and making it your own, then bringing so much amazing energy to it that now it’s all yours totally. Lots of love, Seema.

And another one, just before she left the Mint, for an opportunity in education:


Dear Aparna,

A decade together . . . well we went from being colleagues to becoming friends. Thank you for listening to me, thank you for being enthusiastic about your column and about Mint at large. Sometimes I shot down your ideas, sometimes I sensed your frustration, but as your editor I had to keep a view of the larger page in mind. Anyway, I am really going to miss working with you. I will always cherish our interactions. Lots of love, Seema.

I soon discovered that sharing my condition with my other colleagues was just as helpful in enhancing our working relationship. For example, I realized that Sukumar was prepared to overlook the messy processes of the 2012 urban series and grant me another opportunity—to interview a group of global thinkers who were gathering in Delhi for an urban conference in late 2014. Once again, back-to-back full- page stories. This time, when he handed me what seemed to be a tight deadline, I explained my condition and asked for an extension. It was given.

Sukumar says he thought my previous work was ‘authoritative and had expertise’ and warranted leeway. ‘If you are sure that someone has a condition and you are aware of it, you can make allowances for it. I always make allowances for good workers if someone’s work is going to be really top-notch. I was more than happy to give you the second job,’ he says. Although I did in fact take a bit longer than anticipated to file my stories, the urban thinker series ran in early 2015 and did well for the paper.

By 2017, bipolarity was part of my official resume. When higher education pioneer Pramath Raj Sinha asked me to teach as a visiting faculty member at the Anant National University in Ahmedabad, I issued the statutory warning: ‘I’m bipolar and there may be an incident which might disrupt my ability to teach or to adhere to the teaching schedule.’

‘Thanks for letting me know,’ he said. There was indeed an incident six months later, where I had taken on too many projects, was hypomanic and unable to teach but he was able to react with understanding, and I was taken off the teaching programme and subsequently reinstated with a suitable break.

It is wonderful to be so comfortable in your skin that you reach the stage when it doesn’t matter. When I asked my current features editors at the Mint, Delhi-based Shalini Umachandran and Pooja Singh, for an interview to discuss my upcoming book on mental health, they issued one-line replies:

‘To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know you had a mental health condition at all.’

‘Had you not told me, I wouldn’t have known.’

I had reached the point of stability where I had forgotten to mention it to them. I only hope it stays that way.

(This extract, from the book Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked My Mental Health, by Aparna Piramal Raje, is reproduced with permission from Ebury Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House India.)

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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