As World Mental Health Day lately observed its 26th anniversary, psychiatrists say mental illnesses are on a rise in Kashmir. Among them, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic and a long-lasting disorder. In Kashmir, both the political conflict and broken homes are breeding it.
The first impression makes it look like a perfect habit, until it gets repeated and attains a maniacal level. That’s how a Kashmiri man in his early thirties spends hours cleaning himself—washing hands after every 10 minutes, because he thinks everything around him is filthy.
He wasn’t always so cautious. But when he came to know that his loved one was cheating on him, something in him changed so much that he became mad for the world, and clueless for himself.
At his rental residence in Srinagar, Akash Bhat stares everything with suspicion.
He gets up to grab his soap from a wooden shelf and steps into his washroom. He takes time to come out and when he does, one can see how he even avoids wiping his hands with the towel. Besides him sits his cousin. Once done with his disturbing routine, Akash sits to narrate his story and a heartbreaking twist in it.
As a schoolboy in Central Kashmir’s Budgam, he had run into a girl who once brought a piece of sacrificial meat for his family on Eid uz Zuha. He instantly fell in love with her.
Days later as he approached the girl, she accepted his proposal. After some time, Akash spoke to his family and sent a marriage proposal to her home and they got married.
But his wife working as Asha worker started ‘creating issues about small things within the first seven days’ of their marriage, Akash says. “I was in love with her and I left home and my parents to live with her on rent in Jawahar Nagar.”
Away from their families, the couple was blessed with a daughter and a son. Life was good, says Akash, who worked as an office boy in a Polytechnic College. He would earn enough to send his kids to reputed schools. His time to leave and come back home would be fixed.
But one day when he came home early, he saw something which eventually derailed his mindset to the level of lunacy.
While moving to the entrance door, he heard his wife talking to someone. Someone was with her. It was a man.
“I peeped in through the window and saw them in a condition I prefer not to talk about. They had no clothes on,” he says and places his hands on his face that had turned red by now. “He was asking her to take a bath before I come home. They laughed and he abused me by taking my name. I froze.”
He instantly decided to record the sleaze moment involving his ‘better half’—as he knew no one would believe him, if he would raise fingers on her.
“I swear upon Allah! Till then, I never doubted her,” he recalls while looking at breadcrumbs lying at the floor. “But that incident shook me to the core.” As soon as the man got up from bed to leave, Akash hid himself.
With tearful eyes and a broken heart, he went to his relatives and made them hear the conversations. They hugged him and asked him to stay patient. It was a devastating moment for Akash, because his tormentor was the love of his life.
So, he says, along with his relatives, he came up with a plan.
“And next time, we caught them red-handed. The man was a 54-year-old man, a father of a 25-year-old. He worked with my wife. I now make sense of the times when she would talk on phone for hours. Since my love for her was beyond any doubt, I couldn’t act on time.”
Soon the police got involved and the case under RPC 294 was registered. But his wife’s paramour, Akash says, managed to bury the case by bribing the cops.
For the sake of his kids, Akash says, he called the wife home in 2017. “But she never mended her ways,” he rues. Their kids now tell him that she often swears upon his name. “She’s even threatening the kids to hide her sleazy ways,” he says. “The incident has already freaked me out.”
Since 2016, when the sleaze surfaced in his home, Akash has been grabbing soap, and washing his hands every 10 minutes. He shows all the symptoms of a person suffering from an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
“He would not be like that earlier,” says Shameema, his cousin. “Now, he takes hours to get out of the washroom. He keeps washing his hands and taking a bath. He uses 10 times the amount of water than earlier. We’re worried about him. It has started after his wife was caught cheating on him.”
But that’s not all.
Akash makes his kids pick up socks for him and keeps cleaning the door knobs or uses a handkerchief to hold it while entering. He gets mad if the order of things is changed. “A line had to be straight. There’s no scope for you to mess,” his cousin continues.
If it is verified that his wife has really cheated on him, says Dr Arif Maghribi, a well-known mental health specialist of Kashmir, then proper medications and counselling can help him out. “Otherwise, sometimes people with mental disorders also tend to suspect their partners,” the trained psychiatrist says.
A person with an OCD has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and behaviours, referred to as obsessions and compulsions that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over. People with first-degree relatives including a parent, sibling, or child who has an OCD are at a higher risk for developing OCD themselves.
“People living in a certain kind of negative or stressful environment also tend to develop it after prolonged exposure to such situations,” says Dr. Maghribi.
As far as Kashmir is concerned, he says, OCD may be a repercussion of everything in this conflict zone — from how people get treated at homes, in offices, or on the streets.
“In offices, OCD can happen when an employee is not treated with respect or is exploited,” he says. “In our homes, if there is a negative situation, or on streets when someone asks you for your Identity Card, it tends to hurt your self-esteem. The negativity ultimately takes a toll on one’s mental health.”
Fear of germs or contamination, taboo thoughts involving sex, religion and aggressive thoughts towards others or suicidal tendencies, or thinking about keeping things in perfect symmetry is all a part of OCD, the psychiatrist explains.
“It includes excessive cleaning and/or hand washing, keeping things in a particular arrangement, repeatedly checking on things like locks or the phone or a gas switch and compulsive counting,” Dr Maghribi says. “On an average, I treat around 15 patients with OCD per week. Among them, most of the patients are either Checkers or Washers.”
According to the World Health Organisation, half of the mental illness begins by age of 14. An example of this would be that of Faizan.
Growing up in an “extremist” religious family in Kashmir was not easy for him.
For not performing prayers 5 times a day, or not performing ablution the right way, he would repeatedly get a bashing at home.
“This is all that he had seen in his childhood. That is how he was conditioned and ultimately he developed OCD at the age of around 19,” narrates Dr Maghribi, who has been treating Faizan.
While in some cases, the patients or their families seek help from psychiatrists, but many times, the patients don’t know or care to seek help.
“Many people in Kashmir do consider it a taboo to visit a psychiatrist,” says Sibat Mir, an OCD patient from Srinagar. “In my case, I get anxious whenever I leave home. My friends often joke about me saying that I’ve an OCD but deep inside I know it’s serious. I feel myself being controlled by my brain which asks me to check things many times or clean everything everywhere, even at places where it is not required.”
Narrating her story, Sibat continues, “I am a very sensitive person. I won’t lie. CRPF men on the footpaths never said anything to me but the sight of them makes me sink. I feel like they’ll kill us all. I avoid going out on all costs, even when things are normal here.”
When she was in college, she had once gone to a restaurant in Lal Chowk. At that time, she had started obsessively cleaning around.
“We were normally talking and my friends pointed out that I was actively cleaning the table,” she says, thinking about the moment when her friends had to ask her to stop cleaning.
“My studies have suffered big time because of this. I feel helpless. The things they ask me to stop doing are the things that give me sanity. This place is drenched in blood. People probably cannot see it. It’s all supposed to be clean. Isn’t it?”
While thousands of Kashmiris have lost their lives in gunfights or protests in the valley, the ones left behind live in a fear that they would be killed too, like Sibat. This has lead to alarming increase of mental disorders in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, at his home, Akash returns from another cleaning session. His cousin says he would not have noticed the behaviour until one day, he heard people making fun of him.
“They say I am mad,” he resumes. “They laugh at me. It often happens that whenever they look for me in the office, I am off to wash my hands. I want to stop but I feel so dirty. I feel everything is too dirty for me to touch. I went to a psychiatrist Dr [Mushtaq] Margoob. He asked me to go for counselling sessions at the mental hospital. I didn’t feel like going there. But, I know, I need help. Yes, I need help!”
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