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From illness to awareness

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From illness to awareness

Celebrities have always been guarded about their personal lives, more so about their health. But of late, many have used their spotlight to raise awareness about lesser-known illnesses they suffer from or those with stigma attached to them. They have triggered a discussion and helped others be more accepting of their own ailments, says UMANG AGGARWAL

As children, we often fake and exaggerate illness or pain to get out of going to school or even to just get a little more attention from the busy grown-ups around us. However, as we start growing up, talking about being unwell (particularly in public) becomes a little more complicated as one does not want to be thought of as the weak one or the incompetent one. It isn’t easy to find the right balance between handling your illness gracefully and not taking it too casually.

It’s safe to assume that the process becomes all the more tricky when one is a celebrity suffering from something that is not even common or accepted enough for the public to be able to relate with it. There are celebrities who have gone through the process of withdrawing themselves from the public eye to some extent to understand the status of their health better. And then, having accepted the existence of the disease, they have shared the healing process with the public. The intention, they say, has been to help create awareness about the disease so that anybody who might still be struggling to understand theirs can benefit from it.

Deepika Padukone and Depression

It had been said before that mental health is not to be taken lightly. The general belief in society that equated sadness or even low self-esteem with depression had also been criticised. But it became ‘famous’ only after Deepika Padukone, an actor at the peak of her career, talked about a strange emptiness in her stomach owing to depression. It was then that a much larger number of people felt forced to find out more about the whats and hows of the illness.

The actor shared that had it not been for her mother’s awareness about this illness, she would have probably gone undiagnosed just like most others who suffer from depression. Losing the willingness to get out of bed in the morning, breaking down for no apparent reason, and not being able to fathom one’s own thoughts and feelings are some of the struggles related to the illness that she described. This opened up a discussion about the importance of being able to identify depression, seeking expert advice, and getting adequate support from friends and family when one is depressed.

Soon, celebrities like Anushka Sharma, Momina Mustehsan, Varun Dhawan, and Karan Johar also opened up about their struggle with depression. Shah Rukh Khan, Randeep Hooda, Johnny Depp, and Ellen DeGeneres are some of the other celebrities who have talked about dealing with the illness.

Ileana and Body Dysmorphic Disorder

A mental illness that makes one assume or exaggerate ‘flaws’ in their body can be quite debilitating to grow up with. Actor Ileana D’Cruz recently opened up about her struggle with the disorder over the past 15 years. She talked about feeling self-conscious, depressed, and even suicidal because of not being at peace with her body while growing up.

She said, “I was always a very self-conscious person and was picked on for my body type. I used to feel low and sad all the time but didn’t know I was suffering from depression and Body Dysmorphic Disorder till I got help. All I wanted to do was to be accepted by everyone. There was a period, approximately three years ago, when I had gone from being happy to being completely depressed and not knowing what it was. The most comforting thought for me was ‘what if I end things now?’ And I thankfully realised that this is not right. I never thought I’d be somebody dealing with anxiety or depression.”

Talking further about depression, she said, “It is a chemical imbalance in your brain and needs to be treated. Don’t sit back and think it will get okay. If you have depression, seek help. I am not saying that I had this miraculous recovery. Every day is a process; every day is a step towards healing yourself and getting better. You are a human being and are allowed to be imperfect, and you are allowed to be flawed. There is a lot of beauty in your imperfections, in your uniqueness.”

Abhishek Bachchan and Dyslexia

What opened up a discussion about dyslexia in a big way in this part of the world was Taare Zameen Par, the 2007 Aamir Khan movie about a misunderstood and under-appreciated dyslexic child. But when it comes to talking about real-life famous Indians who struggled with dyslexia as children, Abhishek Bachchan’s name comes up first. The aforementioned movie, too, makes a reference to Bachchan for which a special permission was sought by the makers of the movie.

In 2005, he was made the brand ambassador to spread national awareness about dyslexia. It was in collaboration with Prerna, a public trust based in Ahmedabad involved with the education of dyslexic children. Children with this neurological condition or learning disability are considered genius in their own right.

As Bachchan himself put it, “I was diagnosed with dyslexia at nine and sent to a European school, but only knew myself as a dyslexic after graduating... It’s important to recognise the problem in the field of education and this indifference shown to slow learners should be stemmed.”

Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves are two Hollywood actors who were dyslexic. Cruise said, “I graduated high school in 1980 but didn’t even go to my graduation. I was a functional illiterate. I loved learning, I wanted to learn, but I knew I had failed in the system. Like a lot of people, though, I had figured out how to get through it.” He decided to become an actor and started auditioning only to back out of a project because he thought he just couldn’t learn anything. But later, he said, “Once I started focusing on those problems, everything fell into place. I had a lot of catching up to do, but that was it. I had run the gamut, hiring specialists for myself privately, bringing in tutors and hearing why I would just have to “learn to deal” with being dyslexic. I realised I could absolutely learn anything that I wanted to learn. I’m now a founding board member of the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project (H.E.L.P.), which opened its doors in 1997.”

Albert Einstein, Beethoven, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, and Thomas Edison were also dyslexic.

Honey Singh and Bipolar Disorder

The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder as “a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks”. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives. It is also termed as manic-depressive illness.

Tamasha, a 2015 Bollywood movie which portrayed Ranbir Kapoor’s character as someone suffering from bipolar disorder, was the most recent trigger to a conversation about the mental illness. In real life, rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh and TV actor Shama Sikander are two Indian celebrities who have opened up about their difficult journey through the disorder and thus helped create awareness about it. It has helped a wider group of people understand that it is not mood swings or call for attention but a mental illness that needs to be taken seriously.

As Honey Singh put it, “Forget leaving the house, I couldn’t even leave my room. At one point, I thought I would live in this darkness forever. I had cut myself off from everyone. I didn’t come out of my room, forget stepping out of the house. I had a beard and I didn’t get a haircut for months. For someone who has performed in front of a crowd of 20,000, I was scared of facing four or five people. That’s what bipolar disorder does to you.”

As for TV actor Shama Sikander, the disorder made her attempt suicide at one instance as she wanted to “go and return as a new person”. Thankfully instead of doing that, she sought help and got better. She said, “Like many others, my parents too thought that I was possessed because they didn’t have any idea about bipolar disorder. If you know about it, you will not judge others. I have always been well-behaved and responsible, so I wouldn’t react in public. Only my family saw my extreme reactions. I would leave a party the moment I felt like snapping at someone. I didn’t want to lose self-control in public and the fact that I couldn’t check my emotions bothered me. My condition didn’t improve even after two years of medication, but when it did, I started looking at life with a new perspective. Now, I seek joy in small things and make a conscious effort to befriend people. I have become more open and receiving. I want to share my story so that people will know that it’s okay to be messed up.”

Catherine Zeta Jones, Mel Gibson, Marilyn Monroe, and the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain are some of the Hollywood celebrities who have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Selena Gomez and Lupus

Hollywood singer and actor Selena Gomez was diagnosed with lupus sometime around 2012. According to the National Resource Center, “Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs). ‘Chronic’ means that the signs and symptoms tend to last longer than six weeks and often for many years. In lupus, something goes wrong with the immune system, which fights off viruses, bacteria, and germs (foreign invaders like the flu). Normally, our immune system produces proteins called antibodies which protect the body from these invaders.

In a interview after her recent kidney transplant due to lupus, Gomez said, “I don’t think I ever accepted the position I had. It was me almost feeling guilty about fame, because people could see anyone in my position and say, ‘Wow, they’ve got it all figured out. They’ve got everything. They get to live this cool life’.” After the transplant, she said, “My arthritis went away. My lupus — there’s about a three to five per cent chance it’ll ever come back. My blood pressure is better. My energy, my life has been better. I just hope that this inspires people to feel good.”

In her 2017 speech at the Lupus Research Alliance’s Breaking Through Gala in New York City, she said, “I am really honoured to be here with all of you guys tonight, my lupus community. As many of you know or might not know, I was diagnosed with lupus about five or six years ago. I also want people to know why research is so important and why we must support the scientists who bring all the promise of new discovery.” Lady Gaga, Toni Braxton, and Trick Daddy also suffer from lupus. So did Michael Jackson.

Howie Mandel and OCD

According to the International Organisation for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, “OCD is a mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life, and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviours an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress. Most people have obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviours at some point in their lives, but that does not mean that we all have ‘some OCD’. In order for a diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder to be made, this cycle of obsessions and compulsions becomes so extreme that it consumes a lot of time and gets in the way of important activities that the person values.”

Howie Mandel said, “We take care of our dental health. We don’t take care of our mental health... I think the solution to making this world better is if we would just be healthy, mentally.”

Talking about how OCD is not something that should be taken casually, Megan Fox said that most of her intrusive thoughts come from a fear of germs and added, “This is a sickness, I have an illness — this is not OK anymore.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, Jessica Alba, David Beckham, and Justin Timberlake are some of the other celebrities who suffer from OCD.

There was a time when celebrities weren’t just silent about their personal lives, but often went out of their way to hide anything related to it from the public. Talking about one’s diseases — particularly anything to do with their mental health — was almost unimaginable. Inferences like “he/she is not fit for her job anymore” or “he/she is not bankable anymore” could be made about them if they allowed for such details to come out in the open. They could be written off. But today, it’s refreshing to see that talking about one’s health-related struggle is seen as courageous and noble. As public figures, when they talk about something so relevant, it helps society become a little more aware and accommodating.




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