SPOTLIGHT: THE DEMONS WITHIN

12 Jul 2020

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Illustration by Samiah Bilal
Illustration by Samiah Bilal

Ushna Shah is one of Pakistan’s brightest, most promising young stars. This doesn’t mean that she’s always happy. She’s experienced rave reviews and the love of fans but she’s also seen the flipside to fame: online trolls judging actors on everything from the way they perform to the way they dress, often using religion or morality as a tool to bash her. And that’s not even considering the malice and competition that simmers just beneath the surface of entertainment’s glamorous veneer.

“It’s a high anxiety job,” Ushna observes. “It isn’t natural to have one’s personal life displayed and open for public judgment, but people don’t realise this. The world forgets to differentiate between person and personality, and tends to discuss you without realising that you’re an actual human being with feelings.

“One consequence of this is that it makes you second guess yourself and fear your own success. Obviously, one wants to work and do well but there’s always this fear that if you do well, you will be thrust even more into the limelight, people’s fascination with you will grow during this popular phase, and you will end up becoming a target once again. The constant fear of being misquoted, having something you say exaggerated, some scandal or the other being printed and becoming the topic of the latest gossip, can be emotionally exhausting. Imagine high school, multiplied by 10,000.”

Ushna continues, “Fearing happiness and being afraid to celebrate is not a fun way to live. You have to constantly keep your mental state in check, develop an extremely thick skin and keep a guarded circle of trusted people around you, who will love you and protect you, and are able to see beyond the personality to the person that you are.”

A life constantly in the limelight, perpetually open for public dissection, constantly sidestepping a minefield of political partisanship and competition, can trigger emotional distress and even depression. Showbiz stars share their personal battles with mental health...

In a similar vein, Saba Qamar’s recent YouTube video, Kab Samjho Gay? flits through a series of disturbing visuals and comments: Saba laughing, curled up and crying in a fetal position, glaring at the camera while she talks about how trolling and societal pressures can kill people with ‘more sensitive hearts’. “How many more lives will we take?” she asks. “A single sentence, a single phrase, a single troll can ruin someone’s life … why do you play God? … You see everything else so clearly but you are unable to see someone’s pain.”

The video came soon after Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput committed suicide, a death that sparked off commentaries on both sides of the border about how an artist’s life may appear glamorous but can be wrought with anxiety, fears, politics and extreme pressures. Of course, anxiety and its associated emotion, depression, are hardly restricted to the celebrity life.

In fact, Hania Aamir, a celebrity who has especially been very vocal about discussing mental health and her personal struggle with it, once said to me that anxiety is an ailment as common as the flu, and needs to be treated accordingly. However, there is no denying that a life constantly in the limelight, perpetually open for public dissection, constantly sidestepping a minefield of political partisanship and competition, can trigger emotional distress.

All that glitters…

“As performers, we also tend to be very sensitive, and that makes us more susceptible towards feeling anxious,” observes RJ Anoushey Ashraf. “We’re just always in the public eye and, while we are on the receiving end of a lot of love, we also have to bear with a lot of flak. People will judge us on what we’re wearing, what we’re saying, anything and everything and over time, we have to learn to ignore it all.

“There is also the pressure of putting up a façade. I hosted a morning show for five years — two years for Dawn News and before that, three years for Health TV — and just getting up every morning, five days a week and putting on a constant cheerful face took its toll on me. I could have cried all night and my eyes would be puffy in the morning, or someone at home could be ill but I would have no choice. It was emotionally draining and, ultimately, I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Thinking back, she continues, “But even when I was younger, I do think that I experienced panic attacks. My family and I just never really recognised them for what they were. I would throw up before any major exam and would feel sick to my stomach. We always thought that it was just tension, although perhaps it was an indication of a more deeply-rooted underlying problem. Generally speaking, a lot of times, parents don’t realise that, when they think that they are encouraging their children, they are actually putting unwarranted pressure on them. It can have some very serious long-term consequences.

“It’s important to take steps that counter anxiety. Some people seek help with a therapist, others meditate. In my case, I have recently realised that going on a social media detox really works for me. For a few months, I just switched off and it was very calming. I also refuse to check up on social media first thing in the morning. I don’t want to read a disturbing piece of news as soon as I wake up. I prefer to get done with my work for the day before I go online.”

Actress Hania Aamir can similarly trace her anxiety back to her teenage years when she would sometimes ‘cry for no reason’. “Things got worse once I started working because I initially overcommitted. I would constantly be rushing from one project to the other, and it took a toll on me mentally. There were also these constant feelings of self-doubt, every time someone criticised me online: what was wrong with me? Did people not like me?

“I went through a difficult patch when I didn’t want to wake up in the morning and see the sunlight. I would get overwhelmed by even the smallest things, and I ended up coming late for work or cancelling out on a shoot. People termed me as difficult. They assumed that I was throwing tantrums, but I was just battling my personal demons.”

Eventually, Hania realised that she had to help herself. “The people around me may be there for me but they can’t understand what I’m going through all the time. I decided that I had to help myself. I didn’t want to waste my life by feeling miserable all the time. I pushed myself to go to work and fight off my apprehensions. I try not to cry for too long because that means that I’m prolonging my pain. I really believe in the power of prayer. I try to do things that make me feel better so that I don’t succumb to the anxiety.

“There are still times when I find it hard to cope. I’ll be celebrating with my friends, having a great time and suddenly, I won’t be able to deal with all the emotions around me. There are days when just choosing what to wear seems like the most difficult thing in the world,” says Hania.

Actor Yasir Hussain observes that depression can also settle in because of bad career choices. “Actors sometimes overwork themselves with shifts that start early in the morning and go on till late in the night. At other times, they just take any and every role that is offered to them. This may have its temporary lucrative benefits but, in the long run, they end up being slotted as second leads and being offered forgettable roles. This can lead to career stress and depression.”

Negative shades

Many other actors have talked about their struggles with anxiety and how it heightened as a consequence of their work. Adnan Malik recalls how his first stint as an actor, in the 2014 drama Sadqay Tumharay, would keep him up at night, worrying about his performance. In a post on his Instagram page, he confessed that the character that he played took a toll on him and ever since having acted in the drama, he has been going to therapy, on and off. He elaborated, “Now the thing that I didn’t know about acting was that, when the director calls cut, I should leave the character there as well. But I didn’t. I took Khalil [my character] home with me. I slowly became Khalil. I didn’t know where I started and he ended.

“I remember there were times when I had to do 30 retakes because I would sabotage my own performance, thinking it wasn’t good enough. I was constantly battling my own demons on the inside … When I had to be angry, I didn’t know how to access authentic anger, so I dug deep into my childhood to find it. Places in my subconscious that I had buried … I triggered them … I began to resent my parents, disconnected myself from all my friends and relationships and it all became too overwhelming … I needed help.”

When bullying gets out of hand

Another by-product of fame that can act as a trigger is a grueling, nerve-racking social media experience. There have been so many in recent times: Momina Mustehsan and Ahad Raza Mir relentlessly bashed for their Coke Studio rendition of Ko Ko Korina, Mahira Khan in the midst of controversy due to leaked pictures with Indian actor Ranbir Kapoor, and Sadaf Kanwal and Shehroz Sabzwari enduring a very tough time when they announced their marriage, a few months following Shehroz’s divorce from first wife Syra.

A few weeks following the release of Ko Ko Korina — and the cyber bullying that ensued — Momina Mustehsan put up an image on her social media of a note where she had repetitively scrawled, ‘I am okay, I am okay’. It was possibly an indication of how disturbed she was. For a year following the song’s release, Momina went off the radar, only returning to the limelight at last year’s Lux Style Awards, where she opened the show with a performance focusing on women empowerment.

Power of prayer

But while social media may have made life more difficult for today’s stars, greater awareness about mental health can also help them recognise and cope with anxiety. Actor Zahid Ahmed points out, “No one’s forcing you to be an actor. You have to realise that. There will be times when you will be ignored or suddenly replaced in a project, but you can’t obsess over it. It really helps if you look at the bigger picture and seek solace in prayer.”

Similarly, actor and producer Sheheryar Munawar recounts how he recovered from a panic attack earlier this year, when life came to a halt due to the coronavirus. “I couldn’t focus, couldn’t move and I was losing my consciousness. As actors, we are perpetually on a high-octane schedule, constantly traveling, shuffling from one project to the other. Now, suddenly, everything had slowed down. I had never really had the time to listen to my own voice and emotions and now that I did, it scared me.”

Prayer, family and a healthy routine helped Sheheryar calm down. “It’s important to have a coping mechanism. I realised that I needed to ground myself and do things that made me feel positively about myself,” he says.

Ayesha Omar, who has often discussed the mental stress of being a target for online trolling, also places importance on a healthy lifestyle. “If I’m having a panic attack, I try to counteract it by upping my vitamin intake. I have friends who are not from the industry and talking to them is very therapeutic. I listen to the Holy Quran. I eat healthy and herbs that release mental stress, such as holy basil and ashwagandha, are a regular part of my diet. Knowing how to deal with a panic attack — or recognising the signs that can help stop it — really helps.”

“Faith is very important,” says actor Shaan Shahid. “My career spans over three decades now and I have seen highs and lows. In 2014, when I spoke against Bollywood at the ARY Film Awards and Ali Zafar argued with me, I felt anxious. Would people stop working with me now? Would they unite against me? But then, I got over it. I have faith in what I do and I leave everything else to God. And through good times and bad times, I have always thanked God.”

He adds, “If you need an example, you can just try nurturing a plant. Watch it bloom, then watch its leaves wither away, only to bloom again. Good times come and so do the bad. As long as we remember that, we won’t lose hope.”

For a person battling clinical depression, this is easier said than done. But perhaps, when the going gets tough and the pressures are high, remembering that one plant, shriveling before reviving again, could be a first step towards better mental health.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 12th, 2020