“HOME HAS NEVER BEEN ONE DEFINED PHYSICAL SPACE; I’VE BEEN LUCKY TO FIND MANY DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THIS—IN THE ARMS OF MY LOVED ONES AROUND THE WORLD. FOR ME, HOME IS A SAFE SPACE, ONE WHERE I CAN EMOTIONALLY BE AT EASE.”
It’s all stress-related.
Even the vomiting?
And the diarrhoea?
What about the migraines?
But I’m not stressed. Not more than usual. Or at least, I don’t think I am. Are you sure?
I think you might be wrong. Are you sure it’s not dairy or gluten?
It’s unlikely but you can monitor that. Do you eat a lot of dairy?
No, just cheese.
You might have to cut that down.
So it’s stress, huh?
It’s very hard to tell that you’re in something, while you’re in it. I’m not sure why this happens. Why aren’t we able to be objective or rational in the moment? Why can’t we have hindsight in the present? Maybe fully realised human beings handle things differently, in a way they aren’t ashamed of later. Do these people even exist?
In December 2017; it had been around 7 months since I moved to Bombay. I spent a lot of time in my toilet by myself. At first, I was convinced it was food poisoning because my stomach has always been weak. Then I thought it was gluten or dairy because I would bloat right after every meal, meals which would almost always involve both. You could say that consuming gluten and dairy was a hobby of mine. A week later, I thought it had to be Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), maybe my body was done with all the rubbish I had eaten over the years. This was my gut’s way of cutting me off. I was stubborn though; it was a while before I actually listened to it because I couldn’t dream of a world without cheese.
By January 2018, I finally gave in and went to a renowned gastroenterologist in Bandra. He examined my stomach for less than ten seconds and then told me to sit on the chair. It was way too quick. I sat down on the unevenly cushioned chair and he began to ask me questions about my life.
Where are you from?
What do you do?
Where’s your accent from?
How long have you lived here?
Do you like it here?
Not a single one of those questions were about cheese. I was fully prepared to list out the different types that I loved and devoured on a regular basis. He wasn’t interested. After his interrogation, he told me that I’m experiencing issues because of stress. I was a bit dumbfounded and I didn’t know where to look. My eyes finally settled on the stethoscope around his neck, moving ever so slightly as he talked me through the diagnosis. I felt a bit foolish. He said, “Manage your stress and your stomach will take care of itself.” To placate me, he prescribed medication and ordered tests that would determine the “true” cause.
By this point in my life, I was aware of my anxiety but I never thought it would affect my bowels. I immediately disagreed with this doctor who had 20 years of experience. I thought he was a “quack”. He wasn’t, and his diagnosis stressed me out more than my actual condition. I was convinced that he had got it wrong.
The medication was effective for short periods of time which meant that I was still kneeling beside my commode for most of the day. The world looked different from down there, it even felt different but that might be from the pain of kneeling on the tiles. Luckily, my toilet was not as grim as some of the ones in other rented apartments. My bedroom and bathroom were blessed with sea-facing views, I really took watching sunsets for granted when I lived there. My bathroom didn’t have a full view like my bedroom but once in a while, I could catch a glimpse of the sinking sun. The louvres of the window would let in streams of light, which would blind me momentarily and allow me to soak in all that Vitamin D. I could never tell when this would happen and it would often catch me by surprise, lasting anywhere between two seconds and two minutes. The louvres weren’t spaced out evenly and one of them was a bit broken, so the light coming in would be slightly different every day. Narrow strands of smoke would dissipate into the air, it was coming from the kachua (mosquito coil). I always had a mosquito for company and the occasional bite.
The white tiles were a bold choice as any new mark or dirt was very noticeable. They weren’t extremely dirty when we first moved in, just the usual, bearable amount of dirt (It had been 9 months or so since I moved to India, I had new standards and tolerance levels when it came to cleanliness and Indian toilets). There would come a moment during the kneeling process where it wouldn’t hurt anymore like my knees had become accustomed to this new way of living. But if the rest of my body moved even a millimetre to the left or right, the pain would return with a vengeance.
I spent a lot of time sitting on that floor waiting for the next bout of diarrhoea or retching and in those moments, I would be at peace. I would stare at the water in the pot, it was bright blue because I had those toilet cleaners that you put into the water tank. It became a hobby of mine to stare at the aquamarine blue water and slowly watch the colour fade away. ‘How could I be stressed?’ I would wonder, and then my phone would go off, a stream of texts, followed by incessant calls from someone who genuinely “cared” about me. A person that I was in a situationship with. Before we start hating this person, the situationship was my idea. It wasn’t because I wanted to see other people but because I wasn’t ready to commit to this person. Something didn’t feel right, so I was taking it slow. As I picked myself off the floor and sat on the pot, I responded with a text, “In the toilet, will call you back.” Looking back on it, I subconsciously increased the time I spent in the toilet so that I wouldn’t have to deal with whatever was going on in the “real” world.
When I first moved here, I was so afraid of being lonely and broke. A few weeks in, I got a job as an assistant writer on a short film and moved into a flat with six cats and two flatmates. I managed to make really good friends from my job and slowly settled into my new surroundings. The job didn’t last long because they do things differently in India, the work culture is unlike anywhere else in the world. Tough love, low pay and lack of respect were just a few of the key features of working in India. Sometimes it felt like people were intrigued by me because I had an accent. I swear they thought I was smarter because of it. They found it adorable when I spoke Hindi and constantly asked me to repeat after them, like a parrot. I played along because I wanted to be liked, but it was tiring being “exotic” once again.
In July, I met someone through that job, but it was too soon after Dubai. He had made it clear that he didn’t want to just be friends and I was determined to be just friends. I was sure that my feelings for M had not gone away and that’s because M hadn’t completely gone away like I thought he would. We would talk on the phone occasionally and it was different but enough to keep me semi-latched on.
However, it was exciting to get attention from someone new who was kind, a bit stuck up, but overall just fun to hang out with. He liked the idea of me, “the worldly NRI”, and I liked the newness of him. It was refreshing to get to know someone who grew up in a completely different country to me. We had so many differences but just as many similarities. I had also been upfront about my truck, or like they say tempo load of baggage but he kept pushing me to be more than friends and I was afraid of losing another person. There had been too much change that year already. So, the more time we spent together, the more I got worn down. I made it clear that I couldn’t commit but the concept of “casual dating” didn’t really exist back then in India or the people I was around didn’t get it.
In September, M and I finally managed to end it in person, a month or two after I met this new guy. It was my mistake, you know. I fully recognise that I shouldn’t have done anything with the new guy, before or after, when I knew deep down I wasn’t ready. It was selfish. Naively perhaps, I believed I would be able to work through it. It was going to take some adjusting but if I could do it with Indian toilets, I could do it with anything. Over the next few months, my feelings for M were put on the back burner. I ignored them with all my might and tried to focus on work and this new person who just wanted me to be happy. I know now that we started off on the wrong foot and what followed was this person slowly spiralling into a world of insecurity, jealousy and toxicity. It happened so quickly. I don’t think I had time to process it. Neither did he. And then it was a part of our new normal. Accusations of having feelings for my bosses, friends and M became a part of his daily routine. Denying them became a part of mine. I still thought it was coming from a good place. There were happy moments, don’t get me wrong, but they only seemed to exist when all my time and attention was devoted to him.
In December, I went to Dubai to work for the film festival. Instead of being excited for me, his only concern was that I was going to be seeing M. I tried to reassure him by saying that I was only focusing on him but it was too late. Unfortunately, his insecurity had already blinded him, it was coursing through his veins and he couldn’t find a way to trust me. He ended up accusing me of being a whore even before I had a chance to meet M. He would call me round the clock and I never knew what emotion I was going to get, like a game of Russian roulette. It was either extreme anger or him crying his heart out. This emotional manipulation ended up pushing me further away. Meanwhile, my poor flatmate was forced into consoling him because I refused to indulge in his behaviour.
In my head this was the final straw, I snapped and when I got back, I just wanted to end it. However, it wouldn’t be the last time I tried. This went on for a couple of months, and there were lots of tears, screaming and apologies involved. I did what I could to survive. The accusations would come no matter what I said or did. According to him, I had been with every man in my life. I was at the end of my tether, so I resorted to lying about my whereabouts. He finally gave in and agreed that we could end it. I didn’t want to be found by him anymore. It drove me mad that I was essentially waiting for his permission. In January, we managed to schedule an end date for the situationship, one that would suit his work schedule. The 28th of January was meant to be the day, but it wasn’t until the middle of February that it actually ended.
Over time, my body felt different but everything else was almost the same. I had an upgrade in my living situation, I now had one flatmate and lived with 7 cats, four of them were new. The more controlling he became, the more M would be on my mind. I would fantasise about us living in our own little bubble. M and I barely spoke but when we did, all of a sudden my heart was an Olympic gymnast. It was capable of performing handsprings, aerial cartwheels and even scissor leaps. This would cause a rush of emotion to go straight to my head when I would hear his voice. He knew about the situationship and its difficulties. He didn’t think I should have been in it but it wasn’t his place to say. Besides, why would I talk to him about it when he was my ticket to escape for 20 minutes, every couple of weeks.
On January 25th, I went to work as usual, I was working as a director’s assistant (it wasn’t an ideal job but it was better than nothing) and my stomach wasn’t feeling right but I was used to working through it. When I got home, I went straight to the toilet, pulled my trousers down and let it rip, in the hopes that something would make its way through and thankfully, it did. But that wasn’t the only way it was going to make its presence known. I needed to finish one action before I could turn around and do the next. Holding in your vomit should be a skill that is mentioned in your CV. I think it shows patience, determination and a strong will.
At that moment, I would focus on my breathing and literally fixate my eyes on the lavender wall and try to count the number of indentations I could see. Each line and bump had a story to tell. I managed to hold on for a minute while I washed up and then I made the swap, right in the nick of time. I did not stop puking for several hours, I was going to die in this bathroom. My head was killing me but I wouldn’t stop retching, even though there was nothing left. I think I even ran out of bile if that’s possible. Then he showed up to take care of me. It’s ironic isn’t it, the person that was making me so ill was the same person that took the best care of me. However, I still didn’t allow him into my sacred space in the toilet. It was nice to be taken care of and it was in those moments that I used to think that I could deal with all the other stuff. But that’s how it gets you, right?
I remember that I had to keep the lights off in the room and the bathroom because I could barely keep my eyes open with the migraine. Normally, my bright yellow bulb would feel like it was scanning my body for an infection and was healing me with its aura. But that night, it was my worst enemy. He waited outside the toilet dutifully as I had my head over the toilet, occasionally passing me water through the door. I couldn’t even keep water down. This can’t be from stress, right? I was puking before he showed up, it couldn’t possibly be him. It has to be something I ate or didn’t eat. That’s how I would rationalise it, he wasn’t there when it started. But I think my body was in a permanent state of stress whether the stressor was around or not. That night, I ended up in the emergency room for a few hours for my “sort of” emergency. I was given an injection on my butt and left moments later with a desiccated throat.
The next day, I was back in the toilet but this time nothing was coming out because of the medication. I really wanted to go but just couldn’t. That’s a terribly uncomfortable feeling—constipation is my true nemesis. He had gone home and I found myself voice noting my flatmate and sister about how well he took care of me, trying to justify to them why he was still in my life. How was I supposed to tell them that he would start crying whenever I tried to leave? That he would bring up his sick grandmother or his family issues in order to get me to support him. That he threatened to come over even though I told him not to. How was I supposed to tell them that I don’t think there was any real way out? Instead, I kept trying to focus on the good aspects, hoping I would believe them. I was also hopeful that he would honour our agreement to end it a few days later and that it would be amicable and peaceful. I told you; I was naive.
Even though I ended it by mid-February, March was probably the last time I heard from him. It was difficult to cut him completely out of my life, emotionally draining and intense. I felt trapped when I had my phone next to me or if I was in my room. My toilet gave me more freedom than any other space in the house. My thoughts were being verbally abused and I couldn’t see the situation clearly anymore. I just wanted out, to the point where it sounded like I was throwing a tantrum like a toddler. Even that didn’t work because it just led to more tears.
I believed everything he ever said to me. I think I have been called every single bad word from the Oxford and Urban dictionary. After a few weeks of the torrential emotional abuse, I felt nothing anymore. I had checked out a long time ago and I was ready to move on. I made sure that he was in therapy and then I cut all forms of contact with him. It was only because of all the support I got from my friends, my flatmate, my sister and M.
I know I said that the situationship turned toxic very quickly but actually, I think the signs had always been there. You have to be on the lookout and it’s different for everyone, right? There’s no specific word or situation that can make you think that you need to get out of this right now because you want to believe that it was just a slip-up and that it would probably never happen again because, at the core of it, they’re nice people. For us, it was when he was unable to trust me in any situation which led to him disrespecting me which led me to disrespecting him and not trusting our situationship to be a safe space anymore. I used to wonder what would have happened had we met each other under different circumstances or handled situations more calmly. ‘Would we have had a chance? Would things have worked out better for us?’ Honestly, I don’t think so. I’m a firm believer that sometimes two people are just not meant to be because they bring out the worst in each other. I think that’s what happened with us. At least, I hope that’s what happened. And I think it wouldn’t have mattered how hard we tried because there would always be something in the way and we would’ve used that to tear each other apart.
Later that year, I moved out of that home and I made sure to flush that toxicity and emotional abuse down my sturdy toilet. I was not going to take it along with me. I can see it for what it was now, and I’m not upset about it anymore. My gut and I had to go and grow through this together. I’m sure if you were to ever ask him his side of the story, I would be his villain and that’s okay. We all have a right to tell our story and process it in any way that we want to. I’m grateful to that doctor for putting the idea into my head, and to my gut for always having my back.
It’s been more than five years and I am happy to say that I’m in a healthy relationship with my gut and also with the love of my life, M.
Illustrations by Anushka Advani
Kritika Arya received her master’s degree (MA) in Dramatic Writing from the University of the Arts London in 2015. While in London, she worked in theatre and on a documentary called India in a Day. In 2017, she moved to Mumbai to write. Since then, she has written for an award-winning international web series called Bhak, worked on Life in a Day 2020, and is currently working on a global documentary about mental health called I Hope This Helps.
Anushkha’s (the founder of Studio Paperheads) unique and funky illustrative style is brought to life with strokes of pencil on paper. The concepts for her artworks emerge out of line drawings inspired by the people she comes across from a variety of places around the world. The illustrations are usually black and white, recognising the impact of simple aesthetics and are complemented by an unexpectedly looney illustrative style.