Q: Hi Mamata, a while back, you were on a one-way path to becoming a doctor (your family is full of medical professionals), but that didn’t happen. It was a canceled plan.
MS: Yeah, that’s been my biggest canceled plan, because for so long that was the one-way trajectory I was on. Everyone thought I was going to be a doctor. I thought I was going to be a doctor, even though I didn’t want to be one. Halfway through college, I wasn’t doing well in pre-med classes, and it was not because I didn’t have the interest or the intelligence to do well. My own mental health issues plus not being naturally good at those subjects was a combination for disaster.
I’m grateful to my mom, who saw me struggling and saw that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. She said, “Okay, maybe you should try something different.” There were a lot of disappointed people, including me, as it was who I thought I was supposed to be for a long time. That vision was molded by so many people, and it was all I knew as my identity. I still struggle, because it derailed everything.
Q: That couldn’t have been easy. How did you navigate that decision? You said you were struggling with mental health back then.
MS: As a child raised in the U.S. with immigrant parents, there is a part of me that is built to become my parents' dreams. That is not at all a knock against immigrant parents in the U.S. with dreams, but it’s a lot of pressure on them and their kids. We’re finally getting to a place where society has language for it. Back then, I was so compliant, and even the idea of stepping out of that shell was terrifying, because it had been an unsafe comfort zone for so long.
I’ve dealt with anxiety for most of my life. I now know that a lot of that anxiety has to do with the people pleasing mentality I have, whether because of things that happened to me as a child or because of my own inherent nature. If I don’t do what I think others want me to do, I feel myself internally collapsing, and that causes my anxiety levels to go through the roof. On top of that, I didn’t know a world outside of medicine. Even though I stepped into a degree I really loved, I didn’t know which direction to go, or who I was.
Q: Thanks for sharing that so honestly with vulnerability. It is taken for granted how easily that comes out, but it’s hard to say when people are listening. You have clearly done a lot of inner work, because it shows in the kind of self-awareness you have when you speak.
What has been your journey to make mental health a priority and take care of yourself? And how did meditation come into your life?
MS: I started to really consider my mental health when I moved to New York in 2015. I didn’t have words for the intense panic attacks I had at work. There were a lot of things going on in my personal life, and it was reflecting at work. I went on big emotional rants to my friends about the feelings I was having. I really didn’t understand until recently that the reason I vented so much to my corner of trust was because I thought it would heal me. They would give me a solution, or this person or that relationship (no matter how toxic) would heal me.
I didn’t realize what I know now, which is that even when someone else does the damage, the power was always mine to begin with. The light was always within me. Even though it is unfair that someone else or circumstances damaged me, there is something empowering about owning the responsibility to take back and strengthen the light. First it shines inwardly, then it can shine elsewhere. It’s actually taken me until this year, until marriage, to realize that.
When someone breaks an arm, hits their head, or cuts themselves, it is okay for them to talk about it over and over again. But if you say, “I feel anxious,” or “I’m dealing with depression,” everybody cringes. They can listen for a few minutes, but then it’s too much.
After getting myself out of some really unhealthy spaces, I knew I had the tool of meditation, which I’d taken for granted. I was born and raised in the Heartfulness meditation tradition, and I always knew it was going to be a cornerstone in my life, but I didn’t use it the way I could have.
Once I hit rock bottom, though, I knew that to take care of myself I had to practice what I was preaching. I needed to apply the meditation practice to myself before teaching it to others (I became a trainer in 2015). So, taking care of my mental health in combination with meditation became critical to me.
So many people have said to me, “You talk too much about your anxiety,” “You talk too much about your mental health.” It affected me so much that I almost stopped talking about it. But if I stop talking about something that needs to be talked about, that’s one less person to advocate. I sound annoying and sometimes I’m on a soapbox, but it’s something that needs to be advocated for.
I recognize the privilege of all of this; of being in a position to potentially be a doctor, having the support of my parents, etc. But, despite the privilege, I’ve learned that it’s okay to struggle and be figuring myself out, especially if what’s going on in my head isn’t aligning with what needs to be.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who is struggling with mental health, with anxiety, with being in the world?
MS: Something that drives me nuts is when a friend, a loved one, or anybody says, “Oh, it’ll all work out,” or “It’ll just be fine,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” when I express how I feel. Those things might be true, but it doesn’t stop the stress, the frustration, or the loneliness in the moment. While your experiences with breakdowns and rock bottoms may be different from someone else’s, your feelings are valid. It is terrifying and lonely, and very few people really understand what you are going through.
But one person is always going to understand, and that’s you! The best lesson I’ve learned this last year is to show up for myself. You are your own friend. The same way you show up for anyone else, you must show up for yourself. The beauty in that is you return back to your own light that has always been there; you just have to remind yourself of that.
Help for everyone looks different. I did therapy for a long time and it really made a difference, and journaling, going for walks, and meditation have helped me, but they might not be for everyone. So, find the things that you like. Be willing to do the work. Be willing to set promises for yourself and keep them, because the only person who’s going to suffer otherwise is yourself.
There are many days that are hard; it can be hard even to get out of bed and function. Those things are valid, too. On those days, keep at least one small promise to yourself, whether it’s making a cup of tea, writing in your journal, or going for a walk. Find a way every day to stay connected to yourself.
Q: That’s great advice, thank you. It’s going to help a lot of people understand what their options are, and the little things they can do to get started.
To listen to the full episode, visit https://open.spotify.com/episode/772Ab2SsGdM2nWR2BFbZis?si=c7d8b4d0ec564050