“Mental health is vital to everyone, even for those who may think it doesn’t matter”

“Mental health is vital to everyone, even for those who may think it doesn’t matter”

Prachi Raturi Misra

An accident doesn’t leave scars only on our bodies but also on our minds. And yet, we need to find the will to go on, fight back, accept and move on.

It was a foggy monsoon morning on 3 July 2008 when author Stephen Alter and his artist, sculptor wife Amita Alter were attacked by four intruders, stabbed, beaten and left for dead. What followed was a long healing journey inside and outside. His award winning book, Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime (Aleph 2014) was born post the attack.

Author of more than 20 books of fiction and non-fiction, Alter was born in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India and his writing shows his deep connect with the Himalayas.

He has written extensively on natural history, folklore and mountain culture, particularly in his travel memoir Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage to the Many Sources of the Ganga. Educated at Woodstock School and Wesleyan University,

Alter has taught at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he was director of the writing programme for seven years. Following this, he was writer-in- residence at MIT for 10 years, where he taught courses in creative writing. Among the honours he has received are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Program, the East West Centre in Hawaii, and the Banff Centre for Mountain Culture. Stephen Alter is founding director of the Mussoorie Mountain Festival.

In a candid interview with The Mind Diaries, Stephen Alter tells Prachi Raturi Misra why it is important to find a positive space and move on.

When you and your wife were attacked in Mussoorie, how did you deal with the sense of betrayal you might have felt, considering the incident happened in a quiet town that has been home, from generations?

he fact that we were violently assaulted in our home obviously led to an immediate sense of fear and alienation. If you can’t feel secure in your own house, where can you be safe? Our immediate reaction was disbelief and, of course, a sense of relief that we were still alive. After that, a feeling of anxiety took over. We thought about leaving Mussoorie to escape the experience but decided to stay here because if we ran away it probably would have made us feel worse.

What helped you cope?

Friends and neighbours in Mussoorie helped us enormously and the entire community was very supportive. Our family gave us strength too. Ultimately, the trauma of a physical attack leads to a sense of violation and vulnerability. Being surrounded by people who reached out to help us was very reassuring.

From finding the strength to get back on your feet to finally deciding to do an exhaustive climb, please share about your internal dialogue with yourself.

The physical injuries I suffered made it difficult for me to walk for several months and I decided, early on, that I would work towards regaining mobility and strength in my legs. Walking to a hill top near our home was the first goal I set and from there I stretched the distance further and further. Being in the Himalayas has always been a source of solace and inspiration and this helped me heal internally too.

What were some of the things that helped you in your journey of healing and getting back to yourself?

Attempting to climb Bandarpunch, a 6,000 metre peak in Garhwal, was an experience that taught me many things, particularly the lessons we gain from failure. I didn’t reach the summit but, in many ways, not climbing this mountain means more to me today than it probably would have, if I’d succeeded.

How do you look back at the entire incident after so many years?

For the most part, I’ve been able to put the attack behind me, though there are residual anxieties that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.

What do you have to say about the power of thoughts?

Thinking is, obviously, the way we process our experiences and it can be therapeutic but also, sometimes, harmful. If I had obsessed about the attack and not been able to move on, it might have paralysed me. More powerful than thoughts, however, are our actions and for me it was being with friends and family, walking, travelling and writing that helped most of all – doing all of the things that matter to me most.

Your book, Becoming a Mountain delves deeply into the attack, your healing, your treks, losing your father, finding hope and so much more. What did it mean to write a book of this stature, emotionally?

I don’t usually think of storytelling as a form of therapy but, in this case, it was important for me to recount, both verbally and in writing, the experience of being beaten and stabbed, as well as the aftermath of our attack. Becoming a Mountain is a book about healing and hope but it also tries to convey that life can be painful and deeply unsettling.

Lastly but most importantly, how important do you think is the issue of mental health?

Mental health is vital to everyone, even for those who may think it doesn’t matter. For example, depression is something that each of us experience in different ways and at difference levels. It’s important for people to understand how to cope with mental health issues not just for themselves but also to help others.

Excerpt 

As we walk forward, whether stepping on heels or toes, each of us sets off on journeys short or long. Our mobility is what keeps us alive. It is the verb in the sentence, the wick inside the flame, the pulse in the vein. When I walk regularly, I feel healthier and less hungry for the kind of food and drink that poisons my body. My mind expels the stress and anxiety that builds up during the day. On a walk, I seldom think in any constructive or methodical manner, allowing my brain to react to the sensory experiences along the way, rather than trying to solve a problem or compose a story. This helps ease the tension of work and frees my thoughts to dwell on happier things than debts or deadlines. Whenever I find myself depressed, pinned down by that terrible sense of immobility that makes everything seem hopeless, I force myself to go for a walk. Most times, this helps lift the oppressive burden of doubt and despair. At first, when I start walking to escape that relentless sadness, I feel like a creature with my feet turned backwards, not wanting to move, possessed by demonic forces. But gradually my footsteps straighten and I find myself proceeding in the same direction as my senses and my thoughts.