Categories
Personal

For 2015, I’m Trying To Give Up Antidepressants

It’s been a while since I have spoken about my mental health issues publicly. And I think it’s time to talk because I’m trying to stop taking antidepressants…and I don’t know yet whether I’ll succeed.

***

My last blister of antidepressants
My last blister of antidepressants

I stopped taking my antidepressants in the first week of December 2014. Not suddenly…I went on a proper action plan for slowly weaning myself off them.

My current bout of depression started in September 2012, which makes it just over two years now. For over a year, I had been on the highest dose of my antidepressant medication – citalapram, 40mg / day – as my course of treatment. Additionally, I am still currently on pregabalin – a drug more commonly used to treat nerve pain in chronic cases – to control my Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Seven months ago, I started feeling better…and that depression was no longer my problem. I felt a modicum of control in my life, through the consistent treatment that I was getting from my psychiatrist and my therapist. Sure, I still had “issues”…but the world didn’t feel permanently dull and dim, like it did in my earlier phases of full-blown depression. So, I told them that I was feeling better and would like to begin proceeding with ceasing antidepressants. I began this process in June 2014.

I had good reason to be worried about “doing this the right way” because antidepressant discontinuation syndrome is a very real thing. In the alphabet soup of mental health disorders, this one’s bad because sudden or quick cessation of SSRI antidepressants (like citalopram) can cause electric shocks in your brain (“brain zaps”; which I’ve had to deal with earlier), sensory disturbances, insomnia and a whole lot more. The cause for this, like many other mental health problems, remains unknown.

It’s the possibility of insomnia that I was most worried about. I knew that worsening insomnia would flare up my anxiety disorder, because it usually does. I wanted this badly. There was a part of me which wanted to know that I had won. And I wanted this from a medical professional because I worship objective feedback.

I desperately wanted closure on this chapter of my life that had gone on for the past two years.

I needed this.

The road to the end of the tunnel wasn’t easy. Technically, it’s possible to taper off in a couple of months. It dragged out to six months for me because dose adjustments sometimes took longer to get used to. I also had to pause on cutting back dosage during weeks when I had to readjust the dosage of my anti-anxiety medication upwards to counteract issues are they cropped up. But, by mid-November 2014, I was on the lowest “starter” dose of citalopram and I got the go-ahead from my psychiatrist to stop once I finished with my last batch.

At first, everything seemed to be going okay. I stopped taking citalopram and felt fine. While it was too early to celebrate, I was secretly doing victory laps on the inside.

And then, a few days after I stopped taking it, everything went spectacularly shit.

The worst part was the first week or so. I found myself hitting random brick walls of grief which came out of nowhere. I found myself crying uncontrollably, something which always wrecks me because I hate crying. What shook me to my core was that all of this was happening without any reason: not a bad day at work, not fights with people, not a sad song or a book or a film or a TV show. I always look for rational explanations for life events, and especially when it comes to emotional matters I find that I can’t deal when emotions come out of nowhere due to the loss of a sense of control that evokes.

It scared me because after six months of slow progress, I was suddenly facing what happened at the height of my depression. A sudden and unexpected regression that seemed like an unravelling of everything that I worked towards to make go away.

The answer, of course, was that I needed to stick to the path of staying off my medication a tad longer to see if the situation improved.

I always talk about the importance of seeking professional medical help. When I detect things going wrong, when I notice the early-warning signs, I make an active effort to set up an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. I exercise, practise meditation, eat right, ensure that I have an active social calendar so that I don’t stew in my own thoughts, stick to my medication religiously.

What bothered me is that I did everything right. What bothered me is that I have ended courses of antidepressant treatment in the past when my depression went away without any of these problems.

Faced with this supposed regression, I started questioning whether things really have gotten so bad that I need to stay on them longer. And how much longer I needed to stay on them. And whether there is any light at the end of the tunnel for me. Whether this will affect me for the rest of my life.

At this point, I found myself blaming one person: me. I was the one who thought that I was better. I was the one who asked to be taken off antidepressants. I have been the one pushing myself all these months saying “just a few more days / weeks / months until this is over”. I am the one who asked the training wheels to be taken off. Sure, my doctors agreed with me but they did so on my insistence. I did so because I genuinely thought that I was better off and by all indications things did seem to be going that way. Now, I was on the verge of being proven wrong.

I know better. I know that it’s not “my fault” that I have depression and the right way to go about it is to look at it like any other disease. But that’s not really true, is it?

It’s easy to find strength to fight depression when you know there’s an end. It might be a few months, a year, two years but if you believe this is something that you can get over then it makes it easier to handle the shit cards life has dealt you. That if you fall down, you just need to pick yourself up again and try again.

Maybe this was my depression-like symptoms talking, but through that week of hell I felt that if these symptoms weren’t a passing phenomenon, that if I needed to go back on antidepressants…I’d lost. I felt that I couldn’t pick myself up again – not even “just one more time”. I may have misjudged where the finish line was, but I felt that knowing that, I couldn’t find that last ounce of energy to push myself even a little longer. I felt like I’d reached my limit. As a friend said, I didn’t have the strength to let the loss gut me and carry on.

I had another scare during that period. I was still pushing myself to keep my social life active, and like anyone else, I enjoy drinks with company. Except…on one occasion I blacked out after four glasses of wine.

Now, the interaction between alcohol and antidepressants is a common one – albeit one I’ve never faced. It’s also an interaction with my anti-anxiety medication – pregabalin – but I’d never seriously considered this affected me until that point. I’ve had moments in the past six months when I’ve blacked out – which I discussed with my psychiatrist as well – but the consensus we both reached, and what I believed as well, was that was probably just due to the amount I’d drunk on those occasions (a lot) and the rate at which I had drunk (very quickly).

Blackout after four glasses of wine was new and worrying, because it’s well below my normal tolerance. So I looked into it, and discussed it, and what I found was worrying: it probably wasn’t just a “normal” drunken blackout, but central nervous system (CNS) depression (no relation to normal depression). CNS depression can result in decreased breathing, decreased heart rate, and loss of consciousness with very serious implications leading right up to coma or death. And I wouldn’t even know what was happening because I’d written it off as bog-standard drunkenness. Some people face this side-effect when taking my particular anti-anxiety pills and alcohol. Apparently I was one of those “some people”.

It also made me realise that through that period, I was drinking quite consistently. Never excessively, just a couple of bottles of beer every day and well within the recommended daily intake limit – but I was still doing it. Beer doesn’t affect me the same way wine does (I’ve entirely stayed away from spirits and liqueurs during the weaning-off period; and I don’t drink whiskey) and hasn’t caused CNS depression-like blackouts. I was swapping out juices, colas, milk for bottles of beer in my fridge. And while by no means what I was doing could be classified as alcoholism (I think; it’s not like I was polishing off bottles of wine daily), I still needed to – and did – put an end to it.

***

All of that was 3-4 weeks ago, which brings me to now, in 2015. During these weeks, I’ve continued to have major issues with insomnia. On most days, I find it unable to sleep until 4am, 5am, 6am, or 7am. My sleep cycle is completely disrupted, which obviously affects my general mood as well.

I’ve faced wildly oscillating moods: grief, euphoria, rage, calmness, happiness, anxiety – all which seem to come and go on their own without any external factors. I’m facing an increasing disconnect between my internal emotions and the brave face that I want to project outside. As I mentioned, what bothers me is the lack of control when I don’t know what’s causing these fluctuations.

Life goes on, work goes on. It’s helped that this happened over the holiday season, when I’ve had time off from work to deal with it. But during the weeks when I was at work, I found myself staving off panic attacks by rushing out of the building for fresh air or for a smoke or crying in toilets that I know are usually deserted. I’ve broken down many times – including during a hackathon event that I helped organise. And then back, as if nothing happened.

More worryingly, I’ve had recurring thoughts of self-harm. Like I’ve written about earlier, I’ve never been suicidal; pain, for me, has always been a way of dealing with distress, a sense of release. Not being able to sleep drives me up the wall. Even though I haven’t had thoughts of self-harm in the past months, I’ve worked with my therapist on coping strategies, just in case. For instance, I’ve thrown away bandages and antiseptic wash because knowing they would be there was an enabler for me in “safely” cutting myself. But I’ve found myself berating for being stupid when I’ve had thoughts of self-harm, because I would do it “just this once” and I shouldn’t have thrown those items away.

I’ve had the urge to binge eat then force vomit. Not that it matters, because I often feel nauseous anyway.

I’ve had the urge to burn myself with cigarette stubs; as I get more desperate, I’ve imagined doing in increasingly painful ways: moving on from my limbs to my face to inside my mouth. Or my eyes. Whatever makes this go away, even temporarily.

I’ve had hallucinations – or perhaps that’s the wrong word. Half-awake dreams? Visions? While I’ve still been able to distinguish between reality and imagination, I’ve felt strongly that as if my coffee machine or my phone or my desk are part of my body and oh god it’s itching so bad and that I need to scratch it until it bleeds. I’ve felt that my bedroom walls are actually just dirt that I can dig out through. I’ve found myself obsessively and laboriously cleaning every surface in my home with cleaning spray and single portions of toilet paper, just to keep myself occupied. Or watching myself into a Netflix coma of endlessly-loading TV shows. Or obsessively gnawing on headphone wires. Anything and everything to regain control.

My employer offers a 24-hour employee assistance hotline that’s operated by a third-party provider. Even though I’ve wanted to, and even though I’ve used it in the past when things were way better, I haven’t been able to bring myself to lean on this avenue for support. People on the outside, with no knowledge of who you are as a person necessarily err towards the side of caution – and they should – but rationally or irrationally I’ve stayed away from it, in case they call in the emergency services or tell my workplace. I don’t want that escalation, just someone to talk to in that mental state, and personally I’m not comfortable with telling them these thoughts when there’s even the slightest possibility of getting formally escalated. Because that would only worsen my sense of control over the situation.

“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.”

– Randy Paush, The Last Lecture

All of this sounds scary and bad and alarming, I know. I haven’t done any of things – no matter how strong the urge has been – because even in my worst moments I know that actually doing it would be a slippery slope that leads to much, much worse.

But I’m also trying to finally be honest, brutally so, because facing what I was going through publicly helped me the last time I was in such a bad place. I haven’t spoken this openly – not in its entirety – even to my friends, because in a way I must have realised that admitting to them would first involve admitting to myself that things were bad. Invoking one of my personal idols, Paul Carr, (once again) who decided to quit drinking publicly…

When I decided to stop, I wrote an open letter on my blog, explaining that I had a serious problem with alcohol and asking for the support of those around me. Posting on Facebook or Twitter for just your friends would work just as well. If you’re worried about your professional reputation if you “come out” as an addict, you might want to consider sending a group email to a dozen or so people you trust. Believe me, word will get around. The key is for people you encounter on a day-to-day basis to be aware that you have a problem and are trying to fix it. Those people are the ones who will be your greatest allies in quitting.

I’m scared shitless and I have been for the past month. I want to put an end to that by taking the step of writing about this because, once again, I’m tired of hiding. I feel the element of having to tell my friends that I lost was playing on my head. So I’m throwing that out of the window by telling everyone. I’ve come to terms with the fact that if do have to get back on antidepressants, I will be able to do it. That I’ll not see it as “losing”. That it will be the right thing to do. Or at least, that’s what I believe I can bring myself to do.

While it’s certainly unusual to get antidepressant discontinuation syndrome with a slow taper off (like the one I’ve gone through) and specifically with the medication I was on (citalopram), there is still a chance that it explains everything that I have been going over the past month. I’m hoping that is the answer.

Maybe it’s too early to declare victory…on my plan to ultimately get better. But I’ll take that. I’m resuming appointments with my psychiatrist and therapist, now that the holiday season is over and they’re back. I can’t call this a New Years’ “resolution” but I hope and wish that going off antidepressants this year will be first step towards a final resolution of my mental health issues. At least for this time.

***

The last time that I spoke publicly about my problems was in June 2013, when I found that I won’t be graduating with everyone else at university. Back then, I didn’t know what impact my ongoing and severe depression problems would have in my life. I didn’t know whether I would even have a degree by the end of 2013, let alone a job. I thought my life was quite fundamentally fucked and that I had no future to look forward to.

I did, ultimately, get a degree in September 2013 (without having an official graduation ceremony). Having a degree at hand and all my work experience would have been of little consolation if my terrible university results (a final degree classification of 2:2) precluded me from finding a permanent job. I’d been progressing with multiple conditional job offers at that point – conditional on my degree results, for which every employer needed a minimum of 2:1 – without a final contract in place.

My student visa in the UK expired last year October 14, the day I left the country. On October 16th the same week, I had a confirmed contract from Accenture on the table.

A lot happened between then and this year in February 2014, when I finally accepted that offer and joined Accenture – my current job. I had another job, took time off, got to meet friends I hadn’t seen for years…but coming back to the narrative I started with, I was still on the highest dose of antidepressants possible. By this point I was also battling with major anxiety disorder issues and insomnia.

Depression is a bastard that doesn’t particularly care about how well your life is going on paper, as it was for me. A consistent lack of sleep was affecting my anxiety issues was affecting my sleep was affecting my depression was affecting my depression. My biggest worry was that all jobs that I’d had so far were either at startups, universities, or small businesses. I didn’t know how or whether I’d be able to work in a large consulting company (Accenture is as close as it gets to how large a corporation can be) while still being able to deal with my personal issues effectively.

I’d never disclosed my mental health issues in a workplace context, ever. By nature all the teams that I had worked until that point were small and tightly-knit – 3-10 people – and even though I’d never told them my issues, the sense of bonding was enough to tide any issues over. How would it turn out when I was part of The Machine? (I say that in the nicest terms, because I was apprehensive about the workplace culture change.)

As hard as it was for me to do, I knew that I needed support…so I decided to “come out” to my company. Not to everyone, but at least to HR and my line managers so that I got the support that I needed with flexible working times and time-off while getting treatment. I got a little courage from the fact that Accenture seemed to have well-defined processes in place to handle these situations – and that there were protections that I had under UK’s Equality Act.

And I have to say, I’ve been completely blown away by the level of understanding and empathy that I’ve received. I’ve had occupational health counselling to determine what adjustments could be made, monthly catchups with my HR advisor on how I was doing, the ability to be a part of the company’s flexible working programme.

I attended a workshop for the launch of an initiative within the company called “Mental Health Allies” a couple of months ago, which is a step Accenture is taking for helping employees with mental health problems. There’s one comment that stood out to me, from someone within the leadership team: that 8-10 years ago, when companies talked about such issues, the question they were asking themselves is “Are we liable for this?”; now, the conversation has moved to “How can we help our people?”

I’m genuinely thankful that I’m part of the generation where social norms around depression and other disorders may finally be moving on from outright stigma. (Who know, even this might be too early to celebrate.) I also feel glad and comforted by the fact that at least at Accenture, I’m part of company that takes the wellbeing of its employees very seriously.

This support that I got at work was instrumental in helping me feel better. That I had support structures that I can count on, including taking time-off should I feel the need to.

Work…gives me a sense of purpose. It helped me battle my depression because it gives me a reason to get out of bed. It motivates me to get better by doing the best job I can.

***

10570424_10152200433046231_3441659502053392403_n

10411993_10152209436196231_1557535418808123390_n
Selfie time! It was this professor’s first selfie ever – he said he’d heard of this new thing, but never participated. Glad I helped him tick that one off his presumed bucket list, because I’m a millenial like that.

I wanted to end this blog post on a happy note. I did, finally, get to attend a graduation ceremony this year. Without my invites being pulled at the last-minute, or not getting the awards for exceptional performance that I got at university that I was supposed to get.

Graduation is obviously an emotional moment in every university student’s life. But the vindication that I felt from proving to myself, and proving to all those who said I was in too bad shape to graduate and maybe actually I should try again later, wrong.

Looking back, I now know that my university lecturers did try to do the right thing and weren’t just out to get me. And I can also finally acknowledge that I did find a lot of support through the exceptional people at Surrey University’s Centre for Wellbeing, all of which was critical in helping me get better. And of course, my friends, who in their own ways – even without directly talking about my problems – helped me get over my problems.

That was the moment that I finally felt that I’d gotten over my depression, because I could close the university chapter of my life, the time during which I was at the height of my depression. I’m not going to be in denial if I need to get help again, on this occasion. But it was also a reminder to myself that I want to get better…and I can.

I want to live. Bring on 2015.

Categories
Personal

Why I voted for Congress in Delhi Elections 2013

My newsfeed on Facebook and Twitter is filled today with millenials, like me, who voted in an Indian election for the first time posting pictures of their fingers marked with indelible ink. Without any concrete demographic information, but based on what I saw anecdotally, the eventual 66% voter turnout probably comprised a significant portion of millenials.

Delhi elections 2013 inked finger

For me, it feels weird that the first time I’ve ever voted in elections was in the UK, not these Delhi Elections. I’d have taken my phone along to take pictures, had I known it was allowed. I saw many people at my polling station with phones, although I’ve heard other reports that people had to leave their phones outside. (The Election Commission of India’s website, unfortunately, has no FAQ for voters. For some reason, they also keep two designs for the website live.)

The process was surprisingly painless. I only had to wait for fifteen minutes before I got my turn to vote, with the usual procedure of checking electoral rolls and inking of my finger. And it was at that point I headed to an electronic voting machine, behind a bewildered old couple who’d never seen the contraption, and cast my vote for Congress.

***

Ever since I’ve been back in Delhi, I’ve been trying to decide which party to vote for. I’m not particularly in touch with Indian politics these days (I don’t even read newspapers here) but it’s hard to escape the constant cacophony of various parties conducting rallies and advertisements everywhere.

Every day on my daily run, I would hear at least one ad on the radio from BJP, with an annoying jingle about how they will reduce prices of vegetables and remove corruption. There are hoardings at bus stops talking about prices of onions and the number of rapes in Delhi. While both are sad in their own right, I can’t see myself supporting a political party which bases its entire campaign on ad hominem attacks trying to play on the anti-incumbency factor. Reducing the debate to prices of vegetables is a joke, given that it’s a lot to do with inflation in the Indian and global economy at large, rather than a local factor. More importantly, it isn’t as if BJP is particularly spotless when it comes to a track record in combating corruption.

But perhaps my biggest reason for not supporting a Hindu fundamentalist, right-wing party like the BJP is because of its prime ministerial candidate for the general elections next year: Narendra Modi, who features prominently in their advertising campaigns across Delhi. I believe it’s a matter of national shame for India that a person who sat by and watched as one of the worst communal riots happened in India got off scot-free, and is in the running for the Prime Minister of India. For his face

Perhaps the same argument could be lobbed towards Congress politicians for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. My grandfather himself sheltered Sikh families in his house when those riots took place and risked his life to turn away mobs who were going house-to-house looking to murder people. Yet, as far as I know, none of those perpetrators are running for the post of running the entire country, even though they may or may not have been convicted.

I don’t care for argument that go along the lines of “Gujarat has advanced a lot under Narendra Modi”. That sounds just like the argument supported Adolf Hilter’s rise to power in Nazi Germany. I cannot support a politician who is so morally bankrupt and who has never apologised for the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Aam Aadmi Party

My second choice was the Aam Aadmi Party. Started by political activist Arvind Kejriwal, the party has built its credentials on an anti-corruption platform. When I first saw their logo (on a McDonald’s TV screen, no less), I actually thought “Aam Aadmi Party” was a tagline Congress was using, because of AAP’s use of tricolours in their logo.

AAP certainly has been loud and vocal about what they want to do, and because of the pedigree of their leader, I wanted to check out their manifesto (summary in English, entire manifesto in Hindi). They make quite a few lofty promises: reducing electricity bills, 700 litres of free water per day, schools and hospitals in every neighbourhood, et al. All very noble goals, but nowhere does their manifesto do they mention where they will find the money to do all of their stated goals. Higher taxes? Surely that’s not going to be better for the “common man”.

Water consumption per household in Indian cities

For instance, take their promise of providing 700 litres of free water per day, per household. According to a paper published in 2008, the average daily household consumption of water in most Indian cities is 400 litres, so 700 litres is vastly generous. But why should this be provided for free? Access to clean water is a right worth fighting for and there are many parts of Delhi which go without it, and eliminating a revenue source completely (because it’s unlikely most households would ever exceed their free quota) isn’t generate revenue to expand water coverage across Delhi households.

Total household electricity consumption in India projections
Total household electricity consumption in India, projections

Similarly, they claim to have 20% of Delhi’s power needs generated by solar energy in the next ten years. Projections from academic studies as well as the Central Electricity Authority show power demand in Delhi is expected to rise sharply. While it talks of solar energy in ten years’ time, taking the projected demand for next year – 8500 MW – 20% of that figure is 1700 MW, more than the entire capacity generated by Delhi’s current gas-powered power plants. Another policy from the Indian government aims for 20 GW of power generation through solar means by 2020, but that’s a) across India b) energy needs will be at 2x of current levels by then.

Another major point with respect to electricity is the AAP’s skepticism about electric meters, yet electronic meters – of the kind currently in use and future generations of smarter meters – have been shown to help cut down electricity theft, a big problem before the privatisation of Delhi’s electricity supply.

Other parts of their manifesto ring alarm bells too. Although not mentioned in the summary, the main manifesto document say they aim to increase CCTV usage to “cut down on corruption”. Another part of the document aims to make alcohol licenses harder to get, as well as vigilante-justice type local committees to cut down on alcohol consumption. This aversion to alcohol sound very similar to Anand Kejriwal’s former political partner Anna Hazare’s tack of publicly flogging anyone who drank in his “model” village.

Overall, the impression that I get is that while Aam Aadmi Party certainly has many moralistic individuals, they’re either making lofty claims as a sort of checklist, or are dangerously naïve about the economics of what their policies are going to cost. They also are verging on the side of setting up a nanny state that’s always watching, always judging what its citizens are doing. And that, frankly, isn’t the direction India should be heading towards.

Which brings me to Congress. Their manifesto list out achievements they’ve accomplished during their 15 years in power in Delhi; solid facts and figures on how they have changed life for Delhi citizens for the better. I remember a time when we had power cuts stretching to hours, having to fetch water from tankers, smog from pollution that used to blanket this city – which changed after they introduced the world’s largest fleet of CNG-based public transport, the Delhi Metro…the list of achievements go on. It’s for this proven track record, rather than hot air that only surfaces during elections, for which I’ve voted for the Congress. I will support them in the general elections next year, and I supported them in these Delhi elections.

Categories
Personal

Saying goodbye to gyaan.in

gyaan-placeholder
Placeholder landing page when gyaan.in’s domain was first registered

Back in 2009 when I was on a gap year, I had a conversation with two friends from the quizzing circuit: Rishav Dey and Prateek Vijayavargia. We all felt that, at the time, while there were many resources in the form of quizzing blogs run by university quiz clubs, there wasn’t much in the form of discussion going on. This was back when Orkut, and not Facebook, was popular in India so there wasn’t even a pervasive social forum where these discussions could be held. Through this brainstorming, primarily driven by Rishav, the idea of starting a quizzing forum came about and we decided to call it “gyaan.in“. I registered the domain name on 26th January 2009 (it felt symbolic making the purchase on Republic Day), put up a joke landing page proclaiming “Never tickle a sleeping quizmaster” and that was that.

gyaan final
The logo, designed by Vishesh Kumar, that won popular approval to be chosen as the gyaan.in logo

But there was something about the idea that kept drawing us back to it. Behind-the-scenes, more people came on board as they found this idea fascinating too. A crucial role was played by Vishesh Kumar, who came up with the gyaan.in logo through a process of iteration. With the branding in place, it took many more months to bash out what gyaan.in would be about. This is what the team came up with when we launched gyaan.in on 20th July 2009:

Nothing Official About It At gyaan.in we intend to extend informal interactions between members. For too long in the quizzing circle people have considered each other in a mildly to overtly hostile manner. Informal interactions – members getting to know each other as real people – instead of simply ‘competitors to defeat’ should make a nicer quizzing world.

Don’t Be Evil An extension of point 1, at gyaan.in we intend to ensure that no sort of politicking kicks in. To maintain sanity (actually, to combat spam) we will have moderators on the forum but we do not intend to have any sort of ‘positions’. You – the user – have your say in matters and the community decides collectively on its future. What we will have, instead, are evangelists / moderators within the community to spread the word. If you’re interested in being more actively involved in organizational matters then please get in touch with us at contact [at] gyaan [dot] in.

Quizzing, But Not For Points We do not intend to have a league table to keep track of who’s getting how many questions right on the gyaan.in forum or events. Partly this is intended to ensure that members who arrive late to the scene aren’t disadvantaged by early adopters who have had a head-start in answering questions. The main reason, however, is that we don’t want it to become Yet Another Place To Look At Other People As Competitors.

IRL Once members get acquainted with each other on the Web, we would like to extend the interaction by holding ‘offline’ meets where you can get to converse with members IRL (‘in real life‘). Some of these meets could be where a small quiz is conducted, others could be simply informal meets.

Quality Content Providing regular, quality content quizzes, articles, news, archives. Giving you a platform where you can share such resources easily – with our dedicated team of gyaan.in moderators providing editorial support. Content would cover oft-ignored topics in quizzing circles too such as technology and contemporary music.

Promote Quizzing In Delhi, Especially In Schools Compared to other cities like Bangalore, Kolkata, Pune, Chennai, Mumbai etc Delhi is often considered to be ‘lagging behind’. While that isn’t entirely true, we do feel that a lot more can be done in encouraging schoolkids to take up quizzing. Our first focus would be to make significant progress on this front in Delhi.

The only equivalent around at the time for discussions were quizzing groups on Yahoo! Groups, many of which are still around (but perhaps not that visited – I haven’t checked for a while). Anyway, the point being that Yahoo! Groups was a clunky forum software, and the communities involved more often than not had a competitive bent to them. The gyaan.in team wanted to avoid that: the idea was to have a “safe place” where quizzers could congregate online and share knowledge just for the fun of it, rather than for competitive reasons. There was palpable excitement in the air, driving even usually stoic Karmanya to claim a revolution had begun.

***

Although the idea was to be a forum for any kind of quizzing, perhaps because of the fact that most of the moderators on the website were my friends from high school who’d only recently left school or were still at school, the discussions tended to focus around school quizzes. Over time, gyaan.in became the de facto forum for any kind of school quizzing related discussion in India. I’m not exaggerating here. Take a look at the visitor charts (split over StatCounter and Google Analytics)…

gyaan.in traffic from July 2009 to December 2010
gyaan.in traffic from July 2009 to December 2010
gyaan.in traffic from January 2011 to October 2013
gyaan.in traffic from January 2011 to October 2013

Over its lifetime, gyaan.in had 0ver 100,000 unique visitors and over a one million pageviews from a community of just slightly over 1000 users. I’m not rounding out those figures for the sake of it, but that’s what it has actually worked out to! Since its very inception, gyaan.in’s community was highly engaged with more than a quarter of the community spending five minutes to more than an hour per day (at least 10% of the visitors) – stats any website would die for. So even though the number of registered users was tiny, the number of people who visited the forum was 100x larger and resulted in pageviews far out of proportion to the number of visitors we had.

gyaan tshirts

Over time, gyaan.in held its first (and till date, only) real-life quiz at IIT Delhi, multiple online quizzes conducted on Google Wave and Twitter, an email newsletter, an SMS update channel, official t-shirts, a Facebook fan page…and even an appearance in Antarctica. We never shied away from being available on multiple channels and engaging with the community to spread our name. The upshot was that from 2009 to 2012, any school quiz announcements or archives in India were almost always done on gyaan.in.

Sadly, the party didn’t go on forever. Starting in 2012, gyaan.in started losing traction as Facebook became more popular in India. Social graphs moved on to Facebook, and around the same time they started heavily promoting their groups feature on the website. A lot of quizzing societies and clubs now started their own fan pages and / or Facebook groups, thus giving another outlet for making event announcements, and conducting online quiz discussions.

My initial reaction was to try and jumpstart the community again through more outreach through moderators, but earlier this year I realised that the problem was that most of the moderators on the gyaan.in team had moved on to university – and didn’t have much time to look at the site. Indeed, even I had the same problem! Still, I was convinced by some the existing moderators to give it one last shot.

This was back in early 2013. I then mostly forgot to check on gyaan.in, until Pulkit pinged me and pointed out that it was overrun by spammers selling NFL jerseys and more unsavoury stuff. I took a decision then, along with the gyaan.in team, to finally put the website to a rest after cleaning it up. gyaan.in was officially shut down on 24th September, 2013.

The plan, going forward, is to keep the website alive in an archived state. New sign ups have been disabled and write permissions on discussions have been removed to ensure spammers don’t overrun the forum again.

***

Part of what set gyaan.in apart was the technology we used. I built the website that gyaan.in ran on, and since the beginning I felt that to really make it a pleasure to use it would need to feel unlike the “normal” forums built on phpBB. I went with a less-known option called Vanilla Forums, which had an email inbox feel to it in how the forum ran. It also had feature expansion made possible through the use of extensions. More importantly, a lot of the traffic was in spikes, especially close to events when discussions were heavily commented on with question archives from 100s of KBs to dozens of MBs being downloaded. At its peak, gyaan.in would consume around 50 GB of data transfer every month – made possible by GoDaddy’s generous hosting plan limits.

I haven’t been involved with the website design for a long time now and I know it looks quite bad now. We just ran out of capable administrators who had free time to spend developing on the website. Besides that, the Vanilla open source community died down quite a bit ever since they shifted focus to hosted Vanilla Forums. Extension lingered in stasis, updates took ages, and questions went unanswered on community forums. If I were to make the decision today on what forum software to use, I’d probably go for Discourse (from the makers of StackExchange).

In general, gyaan.in was also quite innovative in adopting various online mediums; the moderators on our team were quite tech-savvy. This allowed the team to not hesitate in trying out new ideas, such as shared calendars for events and quizzes conducted in real-time online on Google Wave. Technological innovation in the form of Facebook did ultimately lead to gyaan.in’s death, but at least for a while we were at the forefront.

***

None of gyaan.in’s journey would have been possible without the community that sprung up around it, participated in it, and contributed to it. And even more importantly, none of that would have been possible without the moderators who volunteered to be stewards of the community. On that note, I’d like to thank all these people below for making gyaan.in – the “nothing official about it” – Indian quizzing forum a reality…

***

On a more personal note, gyaan.in was my first taste of managing communities online. It’s especially hard to do when there are so many volunteers in different timezones with varied commitments which manage the community. I’ll be the first one to admit that beyond its first year, I went hands-off. Yet, what really touched me is how people stepped up to fill in the void left by old community moderators and took on the day-to-day running of the site. I’m still passionate about online communities, in particular working as a community moderator for StackExchange’s Travel question-and-answer website.

gyaan.in’s influence also helped me with 6by9media, an idea that started out as a joke (“What do you get when you multiply six by nine?”) but then evolved into a loose umbrella between me and some other gyaan.in members that went on to conduct city, regional, and national events in quizzing.

Two weeks ago, I went to a quiz at IIT Delhi. Many people I knew there were members of gyaan.in, and I think one of the biggest achievements of the community that we started was that people started to get know their “competitors” from other schools socially. For me, it brought the fun back into quizzing when I got to know and hang out with all of these people I’d only get to meet fleetingly, to actually find out who they were.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I certainly made some really good friends through gyaan.in. Here’s hoping the same spirit lives on through other venues.

Categories
Personal

2013 Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix

I went with Aditya – his dad had “procured” tickets – to watch the 2013 India Grand Prix yesterday. His dad had good contacts with the organiser’s company, and our seats in the main grandstand right in front of the podium were possibly one of the best seats in the house. Aditya wasn’t particularly interested in attending in person even though he’s a Kimi Raikkonen fan, but was convinced by his dad to go along and see it in real life.

This was my third Formula 1 race; the first two I attended were the Singapore and Malaysian Grand Prix. So I was somewhat aware what the experience is like, except it felt different this time because I was sitting in the grandstand. On both occasions earlier I had been in free seating grass areas or had walkabout passes. Viewing it from comfortable seats, with the starting grid right at the front, felt more sanitised but I actually got to see much more of the race than merely cars whizzing past obscured by some tall guy’s head – my default view on previous occasions.

The impression that I got at the circuit was that most people who were in attendance had come with comped tickets. Perhaps the fact that Formula 1 as a sport doesn’t have much of a following in India, coupled with how far away the circuit is from Delhi – it took us approximately two hours to drive to Buddh International Circuit – makes it a tough sell. The overwhelming sentiment is “This is my first time here, and I only came for the experience…and I won’t pay to come here again.” Doesn’t sound like this race venue will survive for long, which is a shame because the race venue looks nice.

Categories
Personal

So, I guess I’m not graduating with everyone else

I can’t believe this is happening.

My university released its results for this academic year and I’ve just found out that I’m not graduating this year. I need to resit two modules in August as part of the late summer resits the university offers, which means that the exam board will not be able to ratify my results in time for the graduation ceremony in July.

In June, I was called by the department to discuss “my case”. I was told in that meeting that I had the following options:

  • Take a leave of absence from university on medical grounds, take exams later, and defer my graduation until next year.
  • Sit for the June exams as normal, but in doing so acknowledge that I was going against the department’s advice.

I do accept my personal responsibility for why this is happening. I chose the latter option, and the gamble didn’t pay off.

***

It’s not hard to pinpoint where my academic career went off the rails. Earlier this year, I talked at length about the mental health issues that I have been facing for a considerable period. That was back in April, at the beginning of Easter break. I was still struggling to get back on my feet when I wrote that piece, as I was ramping up my dose of prescribed antidepressants at the time. By mid-May, I finally felt better, felt that the situation was under control.

The problem I faced was that I’d gone into a freefall for the period from February to May. I had a pile of work to chew through and not enough time.

I felt paralysed. I felt claustrophobic. My primary concern was my dissertation. I’d sunk a lot of effort into it at the start of the academic year, and it was a project that I was proud to be doing because it was innovative, it was an idea that I came up with myself, and something that I felt passionate about. I planned to use the Easter break to catch up on my project, and I emailed my dissertation supervisor for guidance at the time. I never heard back.

I looked up to my dissertation supervisor as role model in academic research, almost as a father-figure for how he guided me through the year. (And my counsellor was someone that I looked up to as a mother-figure too.) It wasn’t until that blog post I published on depression that I felt comfortable to talk to him about what I was going through. I was ashamed to admit it, and I was scared whether he’d consider me less capable for it. In fact, he was quite understanding and supportive. It reassured me the tiniest bit to know that he had my back.

So when I didn’t get an email response back during Easter break from him, paranoia kicked in. I thought my supervisor was mad or disappointed with me, for letting him down. I felt shame and guilt for not performing to what I thought was the best of my abilities. Faced with technical challenges, I just plain gave up on working on the project for weeks.

The truth was for more mundane: the email that I sent simply got buried in the flood of emails that academics usually get. I could have resolved the situation simply by pinging him again. When I finally felt stable, I tried to get on track with getting in touch with people in my department. I’d been regularly attending counselling sessions and having medical reviews of my case, and I went with this evidence to them.

The university does have procedures in place for considering extenuating circumstances. Unfortunately, the process of applying for one and the evidence being considered is a long-winded process, and decisions can take weeks – if not months – to be reached. By the time I applied I started getting decisions back on coursework and dissertation deadline extensions, it was already a week to go for my exams. It literally came down to the wire. I remember frantically panicking in the library because I’d supplied all the evidence, and yet only found out half an hour before the normal dissertation deadline whether my circumstances would be considered. I almost had a panic attack.

And then…I just got a week extra, when I was finally getting back on track but felt I needed more time to catch up during all those lost weeks. I didn’t realistically think I’d get an extra three months, but what I wanted was to have my dissertation deadline stretch into the summer before the exam board met so that I could focus on preparing for my exams. That, apparently, wasn’t possible because of logistical reasons.

I could have appealed the decision my department took directly with the university. However, due to the procedure laid down for this, it would have meant waiting for 3-4 months before I found out the outcome. And if I lost the appeal, well, I’d be up shit creek without a paddle for having failed my dissertation. So I decided not to, and rushed through with wrapping up my project.

I redirected all my efforts into getting the project, and did have a working demo in time. My project was to create a real-time gaze tracking system that worked with standard webcam video on mobile phones. (Kinda like what the Samsung Galaxy S4 has, but more advanced because they aren’t doing “true” gaze tracking.) Admittedly, partly due to the time schedule I was on I didn’t have time to sort out bugs in upstream open source projects that I was using, so I didn’t hit all of the targets that I set out to achieve…but it was at least the best of a worst case effort.

During the same time, I was asked to attend a review by the department. Based on the evidence that I had provided so far to them, all of the mental health concerns that were raised during my medical reviews, their recommendation was I take a leave of absence. It was quite a frank and friendly chat, actually. I remember sitting in that room and my overpowering urge was that I just wanted this whole episode of university to be done and over with. Taking deferred assessment would mean I would be paying tuition fees for another year where I would have jack to do except for kick tyres until (possibly) June 2014, as I would have to wait until then to take exams. And most of all, I just wanted to graduate with my friends. I decided to take the decision to plunge ahead with exams this year. Honestly, I didn’t even care what degree classification I would get. I just wanted to get this done with.

In retrospect, it’s easy to say that I should have taken the “out” when it was offered to me. It’s also easy to be bitter and start blaming external factors. Yes, I wish there was better communication between different arms of the university. Yes, I would have fucking loved it if they made an exception to the rules to suit my schedule. Yes, I wish some of the communication and the decision-making process was quicker, so that I could make informed decisions faster without needing to go through long spells of anxiety.

But the truth is that, at the end of the day, it was my decision to ignore the advice and go ahead. I may not have been in the best state of mind when I made the decision, but it is something that I need to live with. Similarly, I was the one who let go and effectively went AWOL from my course. I can’t “take responsibility” for my depression because I didn’t choose to be this way, but ultimately that’s what happened and affected my performance.

I’m actually quite impressed and glad with all the support that I have received from my university. Throughout the process, the people whom I have spoken to have been understanding; constrained by what they could do according to the rules, but understanding nonetheless – and to me, while I was going through a hard time, that meant a lot. I also have to thank the Students’ Union for excellent advice and support throughout the process. Every step of the way when I faltered, it was reassuring to know that it just wasn’t my friends but the university too which had my back.

As things stand now, I’m taking resits in August. Resits are capped at pass-mark cutoff under our university’s regulations, which means my overall degree classification will probably suffer in the process since it’s weighted heavily towards performance in the final year. I will have a transcript by September, when the final exam board meets to ratify results, but I won’t be awarded a degree scroll until next year’s graduation ceremony in June.

***

What next? Honestly, I have no idea. I guess I need to focus on the resits for now. I probably need to do a second degree to make up for what I know will be shit result on this one, whenever I find that out three months later. Which will be made harder by the fact that I have a shit result, so my options may be limited, unless my extenuating circumstances are taken into consideration. And the PhD offer that I could have had is definitely off the cards now.

A big confidence boost in the recent weeks has been that I have been making good progress with job applications. I have made it to the final round for every single application I have made, with only two of them giving a final decision so far; rejecting my application, but with valuable feedback nonetheless. And I’m currently awaiting outcomes from multiple companies, with more confirmed interviews lined up in the future. The first thing that I did after I finally felt I was in control of things was to get on with the job hunt, and finding approval from such external agencies feels good. I have my fingers crossed that through the interview process and/or in case I get offer, my extenuating circumstances would be something they are willing to consider – and that I can move on from higher education.

Failing which…I have no idea what degree to study next or where to study it. It kinda excites and scares me.

***

Academic stress has not been my only concern over the past few months. I’ve had my own problems to deal with, with getting better and more often than not it has felt like gasping for breath. Times when I feel better, times when I feel worse. Besides that, I’ve had friends going through personal problems too during the period which I was helping them deal with. I won’t go into details because it concerns the private lives of other people, but it was something that added to the stress and anxiety nevertheless. I absolutely don’t regret it though; I would be there for them if I had to do it again. What I have realised this year is that I’ve finally learnt not be a selfish little piece of shit and sometimes put others’ concerns before my own, because that’s just what friends do. And in return, I’ve had friends who’ve stuck with me through some pretty dark times. I’m glad for that.

Throughout the months when I battled worsening depression, I never wanted my friends to know the true extent of how shit I was feeling on a day-to-day basis. I’d tell them what was bothering me, but almost in a flippant, nonchalant way. I like to present an image of “yes, I’ve got my shit together” because the alternative of actually showing how bad I was a rabbit hole that I didn’t want to go down. Despite their best intentions and what people say, the truth is that nobody likes being around a depressive at their worst – especially if they have never been through anything like it. Like I said in my earlier blog post on depression, healing is a long-term process and if you don’t make efforts to achieve that goal, you’re well and truly fucked. I like to think “I’m not bothered by what’s happening, I’ll just focus on the moment” because if I do think it should bother me, then it does actually bother me and I feel worse. It’s a vicious feedback loop.

Looking back at the past few months, I’d say that the support that I’ve had from friends has massively helped me recover. Because I’ve seen other people dealing with similar issues, I’m glad I was able to push myself to remain socially active and not give up on daily life. It’s given me something to wake up to every day.

***

University of Surrey graduation ceremony

I recently acted as an extra in a film shot by the university’s alumni department about the university’s graduation ceremony. I got to wear a robe and a hat, and I made a mental note to amend my robe hire order because I found out through that shoot that I got my hat measurements wrong. I’d only just made my graduation ceremony bookings earlier this week. And now, I won’t have to bother with that at least until next year.

This is a video that is intended to be played at every graduation ceremony for the next two years.

Irony, thou art a cruel bitch.

***

“Life was so much simpler ten years ago when I knew everything.” – Paul Carr