In sickness and in health…
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In sickness and in health…

On World Mental Health Day (October 10), Tathagata Sen writes about what it is to live with a person with schizophrenia.

In sickness and in health…

"Yes? How can I help you?"

"Hello, Mr Sharma. I live in the flat above yours. My name is Subir Sengupta. This might seem awkward but my wife might come to your flat, asking for something to eat. If she does, please give her this. I will be giving you some every day. Just give it to my wife if she asks for it."

Mr Sharma stared at the plate of rice and fish curry the man was holding in his hands, but didn’t take it from him. How could he? This was out of the blue. It hadn’t even been a week since he had moved in with his family and he didn’t know the man standing at his door.

He gave Mr Sengupta a once over. He looked like a respectable gentleman, probably in his sixties. "Why will your wife be knocking on our door for food?" he managed to ask.

"My wife is suffering from schizophrenia," Mr Sengupta said. "She doesn't trust me. She has voices in her head telling her that I'm trying to poison her. She is under medication. And she’s harmless. She is usually alright but some days it gets really bad. Please. I know I am asking you for a favour, but I will be ever grateful if you help me."

This wasn't the only house Mr Sengupta had gone to that morning. Every day, he would cook enough rice and fish curry to give a plateful to all the five households in his three-storey building. And he had been doing it for months.


                                                                                                                                                   Photo: Newyorkmagazine

Mrs Jaya Sengupta's condition started deteriorating around the time their daughter joined school. Their son, Dev, then 8, took on the responsibility to prepare breakfast and lunch for the family and get his sister ready for school, while their father took care of their mother.

Mr Sengupta was an electrical engineer working with a Fortune 500 petroleum giant. He had joined as a promising graduate engineer 37 years ago. His seniors and colleagues at work had no doubt that he would be promoted every year. And why shouldn’t he be? After all, he was the best electrical engineer the company had seen in a long time.

The bosses loved him. His impish sense of humour and hearty laughter had made him the life of every office party. His pad was the perfect place for after-office adda, which always meant good food and guffaws at his unending jokes. Jaya, his self-effacing better half, usually just sat there, looking at him with starry-eyed admiration as when they had first fallen in love.

Here was a man destined to rise through the ranks and a woman who would be the friend, companion and guide he would need on the journey. And rise he did — in the first few years of his career.

But life had other plans. Within 15 years of their marriage, Jaya Sengupta was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The couple’s life was turned upside down. There were countless visits to the psychiatrist and even more medicines. Juggling home and office was only possible with the kids chipping in. They were forced to grow up before their teens. Mr Sengupta had to skip office for weeks on end, running from one hospital to the other, trying to get the best treatment for his wife. There were several nights when neither he, nor the kids could get a wink of sleep. On nights when he did manage some, he would wake up to find himself lying alone in bed. He would jump up, search through the house and finally find her crouching in a corner of the drawing room, trembling in fear that the very man who swore to protect her was out to hurt her. Henceforth, he would keep the main door under lock and key. The medical bills kept mounting and the kids’ education suffered. Some kids might consider themselves lucky to get an opportunity to skip homework, but Dev’s case was different. Dinner was his department. As were groceries.


                                                                                                                                     Photo: Biomedcentralblognetwork

On some days, Mrs Sengupta would feel better and be the loving mother and wife she was. On other days, in her head, she would be a prisoner trapped with people who were out for her blood. It would be a war zone inside her head. There were times when she would run away from home and hide with the neighbours, claiming that her husband was trying to hurt her. Mr Sengupta would feel the neighbours’ suspicious eyes on him as he brought her back.

And thus it had been for the past 37 years.

Mr Sengupta is 60 now. Both his son and daughter are working. Despite the hardships, they have both grown up to be happy people.

Mr Sengupta has not changed his job and has been fortunate enough to have his firm stand by him in all these years. He will be retiring in a month’s time, with a tenth of the promotions he deserved. His bottomless pit of jokes has dried up and he is no longer the man he used to be. But on days when Jaya is better, he still flashes her his wide smile — especially when she looks at him with the same starry-eyed admiration as when they had first fallen in love.


Schizophrenia is a disorder of the mind and the brain that affects roughly 4.3 to 8.7 million people in India. Schizophrenia, long considered the most chronic, debilitating and costly mental illness, now consumes a total of about $63 billion a year for direct treatment, societal and family costs. The greatest cost of schizophrenia , however, is the non-economic costs to those who have it and their families.