“The Season of Our Joy” and Seasonal Affective Disorder

27 10 2009

Often, in this blog, I try to share the hope and comfort that Judaism provides for me. Today, though, there will be none of that. I am writing about Sukkot, which is just behind us, because, for me, it is the harbinger of a season of despair.

I dread Sukkot during most years. In addition to whatever else might cause my depression, it has a strong seasonal component. Like clockwork, the darkness inevitably falls during Sukkot. I stand up to daven Maariv on that first night, declaring that Sukkot is “זמן שמחתינו,” the season of our joy, and it’s like a slap in the face, a direct taunt from God or our tradition: “It’s supposed to be the time of happiness, but you can feel none of it!” [Insert evil throaty laugh here.]

Year in and year out, as the days shorten and my life seems to crumble around me in a heap, I force my lips to bitterly spit out “זמן שמחתינו.” I cringe whenever I hear a well-meaning person, citing Deuteronomy 16:14, declare the important mitzvah, or commandment, to be happy during the holiday of Sukkot:

יג חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים:  בְּאָסְפְּךָ–מִגָּרְנְךָ, וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ. 13 Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress.
יד וְשָׂמַחְתָּ, בְּחַגֶּךָ:  אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ. 14 And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates.

Most years, the Sukkot liturgy is like salt in my wounds. It feels like Judaism is making my depression worse, not better. It’s kicking me when I’m already down, not lending an arm to help me back up.

The culmination of Sukkot with Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, where we dance with the Torah, is possibly the worst part of it. It’s still the season of our joy, but we’re supposed to not only intone it during services, but dance about it, and about the Torah, which tells us to be happy. There are many divrei Torah floating about questioning how we can be commanded to feel something: to be happy, to love, etc. Perhaps I will write something about that, one day. Today, though, is about how the contrast between Jewish tradition and my real life is sometimes incredibly painful. There is something simply soul-rending about declaring happiness while being embraced by overshadowing darkness.

I didn’t actually feel depressed during Sukkot this year. I thought that I might have, somehow, escaped Seasonal Affective Disorder this year. Silly me! It hit a week later. And, oh boy, did it hit hard. It knocked the wind right out of me and I’m still very much on the floor, desperately gasping for breath.

It’s much easier, in so many ways, to use this blog as a vehicle to write about hope when I am actually feeling some or to write about the darkness when it’s past. (It’s a little hard to imagine it when it’s past, but luckily, I have written enough things from the well of sadness that I can refer to them when I’ve forgotten just how bad it can be.) The hardest thing, I think, is to write about the soul-deadening depression when it’s actually wrapped around my head, muffling the world around me, sapping me of energy, desire, motivation, and any smidgen of belief in myself.

When it’s not shut down completely, my mind races around in circles, trying to find a way out, trying to distinguish truth from lie, fact from fiction.

I can’t do this. I just can’t live my life. I wasn’t made for this world. Maybe if I die, I can get a do-ever. With a new personality or a different life or some of each. I screw up everything I attempt to do. Nobody likes me. I have no friends. I will never be able to just get up in the morning and go about my day. It will be a struggle forever, every morning anew. God, I can’t believe how I mess everything up. Why can’t I move? Why can’t I go to bed? Why am I watching television? Why don’t I just turn out the light? Why can’t I fall asleep? Why can’t I just cook meals for the week on Sunday, like everyone says I should? Why did I buy and eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s? I don’t understand anything. I hate my life. I miss myself–the self that doesn’t have these thoughts. Everybody thinks I’m lazy. Lazy and a failure. Who’s going to want to date a psycho like me? I’ll be alone forever. I need to like myself first. I hate myself! How can I like myself when I can’t do anything? I just can’t do it. Not at all. Not even a tiny bit. If I could just get up on time tomorrow morning, everything would be alright. If I could just get some exercise, everything would be alright. If I could just make myself some dinner, everything would be alright. I can’t move. I want to die. I want to lie here until something, until anything, in my life changes. Now. Change now! If I was a better person, it wouldn’t be this way. I’ll be like this forever. Or maybe just every October-December. That’s not acceptable. I can’t be this way every fall. It will kill me. Or I will kill myself. It amounts to the same thing. Well, if I can just wait it out until December, it will get better. How much damage can I do between now and late December? Oh, God. I can do so much damage.

I don’t know if writing these things out will help me, or you, or some other person that you forward this to. I’ve been through this enough times, and I know myself well enough, to know that this is at least 95% depression and no more than 5% me. I know this because, thank God, there have been many times, especially over the past five years, when I have not been depressed at all, and the internal monologue has been different. There were days–heck, there were days in September–when I woke up, hit snooze once, got out of bed, took a shower, and set about my day, excited and happy and sure that I was doing what made me most fulfilled in the world. I wish I could have bottled that and sprinkled some onto my pillow this month. I never like the mornings. I probably never will. But there are times when I just do stuff and don’t have to have an internal battle to get things done. There are days–months, seasons–when I don’t think, “Fuck it, another day. מודה אני, my foot!”

Unfortunately, knowing that isn’t enough to stop feeling depressed, though. Would that it were! And I don’t really want to wait until late December for the fog to lift.

Aside: It’s a little odd that my depression always seems to lift in late December. That is when the days start lengthening, but they are awfully short then! It might be that the superficial commercial cheer of Christmas helps me, somehow. (I’ve missed it when I’ve been in Israel then, although when I’m in the US, I miss the cheer of all of the Jewish holidays that permeate the malls in Israel.)

When I was thinking of the confluence of “זמן שמחתינו” and soul-deadening SAD, I was wondering if this is what depressed Christians feel around Christmas time. JOY! abounds on the airwaves then. Even if I’m depressed, I don’t feel bad hearing that, the way I do intoning “זמן שמחתינו.” I sort of feel happier hearing all the Christmas cheer if I want to let it affect me and neutral towards it if I don’t want to. I would think that if I felt any connection to Christmas at all, that I would feel worse feeling sad, if I already felt sad. [Wow. That is not a great sentence. Depression brain, anyone?] Somehow, it’s my very deep connection to Sukkot, and my desire for it to be what God declares it to be, that makes me feel so terrible about feeling depressed over Sukkot. Does that make any sense at all?

I hope to write more soon about what I’m going to do instead of simply waiting for Christmas to come and dry up all my tears.


“Under a Fragile Thatched Roof,” by Rabbi Simcha Raphael, Ph.D.

5 10 2009

I saw this posted online, and received permission from the author, Rabbi Simcha Raphael, PhD, to repost here. I thought it was a strikingly beautiful tribute to the holiday of Sukkot. Well done!

Under a Fragile Thatched Roof

Full-breasted mother moon
And a subtle glitter band
Of twinkling stars
Transparently peek through
From the heavenly spheres
To this temporary
Transient human realm
Naked, undefended against the elements
I sit in silent contemplation
In this sukkah of peace
Unprotected and vulnerable
In the face of life’s ever-changing transitions
Knowing one turn of the cosmic clock
One subtle stopped heartbeat
An unanticipated wind of change
Death, divorce, destruction
Hurricane, shadow eruptions of hell
Fire, flood, fatality or fanaticism
Or any one of a million other maybes
Can wipe away this moment
This life
This most fragile sukkah
This life story I call my own
And bring in its wake
Who knows what
Or why not.
And all I can do
Is live with the unfolding
Of the blessing and the curse
And choose life
As well as I am able to.

So in this temporary
Sukkah of peace
I am reminded
To harvest in holy humility
A sacred sense
Of how good it is
To be alive
How good it is
For sisters and brothers
To sit, sing and pray
Together as one.

It is, indeed, wonderful to be alive! Chag sameyach!

Teshuva and Psychotherapy

3 10 2009

I can write about teshuva through Hoshanah Rabbah, right? I sure hope so.

I used to struggle with the concept of teshuva, or repentance. All of the chest-beating, liturgical prostration, and communal wailing—what did it have to do with me? I believed that I was supposed to consider myself as an essentially good person. Convincing myself to feel guilty about things I might or might not have done since last Rosh Hashanah made me wonder if I had “self-esteem issues.” The fleeting moments of guilt, when I transgressed a minor law or even a few major ones throughout the year, never seemed to get me anywhere. Even trying to collect all of those little moral and ethical slips, as I religiously tried to do every Elul, didn’t seem to improve my moral fiber. The promises I made never stuck: to remember to enumerate daily the things for which I was grateful, to say all brachot in recognition of the good that God bestowed upon me, to avoid speaking lashon hara, to stop thinking I was smarter than everyone else, and to try to understand other people’s perspectives on life. I felt like I was pretty much the same person, year in and year out, and I was mostly happy that way. A friend told me that if I wasn’t improving, I was deteriorating, but that never resonated with me. “I am who I am,” I concluded, “and while it’s important to strive for self-improvement, yearly chest-beating and sin-listing won’t get me there.”

Over the past ten years, as I have learned so much about myself through psychotherapy, my feelings about teshuva have shifted dramatically. The thoughts that I am about to share consitute the deepest and truest knowledge that I possess. Of all of the things that I know in this world, this is surely the most important. It is at the core of my being.

Teshuva is therapy; therapy is teshuva. Teshuva literally means “return.” In my experience, therapy is also a return, although to the self, rather than to God. But they are interdependent paths: one cannot return to God without having first returned to oneself, and a return to the self is often accompanied by a return to God.

The steps through teshuva and through psychotherapy are identical:

  1. First comes a deep-seated inner desire to change.
  2. Then, a recognition of specific things that are going wrong in one’s life.
  3. Third, taking responsibility for whatever is wrong.
  4. Fourth, an honest evaluation of how one can prevent what went wrong from happening again.
  5. Fifth, actively preventing the wrong thing from happening again.
  6. Finally, recognizing and appreciating–and celebrating!–the changes that one has made.

The deep-seated inner desire to change is no simple matter. It cannot come from guilt, from outside disapproval of one’s life or actions, from a book, a lecture, or a teshuva drasha [sermon]. It can only come from the deepest part of one’s soul, from a feeling at the pit of one’s stomach that one wants to be different than one currently is. Many things can cause these feelings to bubble to the surface: a particularly difficult emotional experience, months or years of depression, not being the person you want to be in a relationship with someone else, or something as simple as seeing someone older who reminds you of yourself and whom you don’t want to end up as. It builds up and suddenly hits: “My life isn’t working. I do not have the life I wish to have. I want to change. I want things to be better.”

The next step is to keep one’s eyes and ears open to the elements that make up this dissatisfaction, whether it is a general sense that “Bad things keep happening to me,” “My life is full of the mundane; I do not aspire to greater things,” or “I’m always so angry,” or things as concrete as “I do not relate well to others,” “I never daven anymore,” or “I am always late to work.” Even after accepting the fact that something is wrong, it sometimes takes some time to determine what that is—it’s not always what your first instinct tells you. I have spent a lot of time breaking down “generally wrong” feelings into specific reactions and emotions.

That realization and commitment to change and recognizing what is wrong are hard enough, but they are only the beginning, and the next step is infinitely more difficult. Contrary to my earlier feelings about teshuva, teshuva isn’t about guilt at all. It is about responsibility. Guilt is stultifying, mucky, and backward-looking. Responsibility is more difficult, yet somehow liberating and forward-looking. The realization that I needed to take responsibility for situations that were not my fault–and maybe no one’s fault–was among the most powerful in my life. I accept that while I may not have created the circumstances that led to something being wrong, only I can create better circumstances for myself. I, and only I, am responsible for getting myself to a better place. That’s what being an adult is about, and while it sounds both trite and obvious, but at the time of the realization, it felt like a bitter pill to swallow. The difference between hearing it, accepting it, and living it is infinite.

An important corollary to taking responsibility for my own life is understanding that only other people can take responsibility for their own lives; only they can change themselves. I cannot shoulder that responsibility for anyone else, just as they cannot shoulder it for me. This is sometimes difficult and hurtful, but it is really the way things seem to work in this world.

Once I realized what was wrong, and that only I could change it, I began to undergo the arduous process of change. I wanted to try to illustrate this arduous process of change, but I’m not sure there’s an example that I feel comfortable sharing that still feels true to who I am. I will try, anyway.

Say I realize that things that I come to recognize that comments that I intend to be received as helpful and well-meaning (“I think there should be a comma there” or “I think you’re thinking of the word ‘circumnavigate'”) are regarded by their recipients as nitpicky and terribly condescending. I am actually hurting people. I don’t want to hurt people anymore. So I come to recognize this as a problem in my life. Through introspection and therapy, I realize that I tend to make more of these corrective, detail-oriented comments about others’ speech and writing when I am feeling threatened in some way. So even though I don’t consciously want to put others down, my subconscious (or whatever, I am no psychoanalyst) is spouting this condescending tone to put others in “their place” before they can attack me. These are all steps 1-3 above. Now, the change. How?

The consciousness that I become this annoying verbal copy-editor when I am feeling threatened, and that this harms my relationships with others and outweighs the (grammatical or syntactic or lexical) benefits I derive from righting these wrongs, leads me to greater awareness of different things I might say, that might hurt others less, when I am feeling threatened. Now, to change, I pay more attention to how I am feeling, and when I feel threatened—which I sometimes sense or I sometimes only discern by my immense desire to make sure others know that they are wrong—I pay careful attention to what comes out of my mouth. And this is hard. I want to show people how smart I am. I don’t know why. But I can want to do that, and I can feel threatened, and through this hard work of teshuva and psychotherapy and change, I can feel things without acting on them in ways that hurt others’ feelings.

I can think about why I feel threatened and either say, “Why are you threatening me?” (or some more polite modification thereof) when a boss is questioning my ability to do my job, or handle the actual feelings of being under threat in some other way. Perhaps, I may realize that I am overreacting because something someone is doing is triggering an old memory or experience for me. Perhaps, I may see that I am reacting to something this person (or someone else!) said to me when we were eight years old together, and not what she or he is actually saying now. I can handle the feeling, now that I’ve identified it, in some other way, rather than being supercilious and condescending towards others, which I have decided is undesirable. I can’t change how others act towards me in any real way, nor can I change how I feel about them when they act that way. What I can do it change how I respond both towards their actions and my resulting feelings. Learning to sometimes bear feelings—not to repress them, not to express them, just to feel them—constitutes a major part of my life’s work.

And suddenly, I’ve changed. Not completely. There is no instant link between taking responsibility for things and being able to do them differently. But it happens, or at least it has for me, if I keep these things in both my mind (that analytical part of my inner being) and my heart (the part that starts these arguments). I never would have believed it, but it turns out that you can cultivate patience, wonder, gratitude, and sensitivity towards others. It takes time and effort and some disappointment, but I fully believe in the human capacity to change. This is the greatest gift of both the Jewish tradition of teshuva and the modern practice of psychotherapy.

As I suspected as an adolescent, it makes no sense to limit the teshuva (or therapy) process to one month of the year or to a physical, breast-beating ritual undertaken at morning services. Therapy, like teshuva, happens all year long. But Elul is a time for meta-teshuva, or meta-therapy. It is a time for stepping outside the therapist’s cozy office, out of the place of constant inner analysis, to ask the big questions: Is this process working for me? What am I putting into this process? What am I getting out of it? Am I in a better place, spiritually or psychologically, than I was a year ago? How is my relationship with my therapist? How is my relationship with God? And most importantly, how is my relationship with myself?

If we did this constantly, change would not be possible. If Elul happened all year, we would spend all our time in the meta-space, leaving no room for mucking about with jealousy, disappointment, joy, anger, gratitude, or resentment, leaving no room for making the mistakes that enable reflection and prompt growth. Luckily for us, the Jewish calendar is set up to give us eleven months for teshuva and one month to think about how we can do it better.

I think it is significant that in anticipation of our New Year, we are required to effect change, while anticipation of the secular New Year brings a flurry of promises, or resolutions, to change. My original, adolescent understanding of teshuva, which was guilt over past sins and promises never to repeat them, was more akin to New Years resolutions than to the dynamic, participatory process that I now understand to be the essence of teshuva.

Finally, contrary to my friend’s earnest assumption, it’s not true that if you aren’t improving, you’re deteriorating. That is an attitude designed to stimulate guilt without understanding. The truth is, if you aren’t improving, you’re staying the same. And staying the same, in response to a vibrant, confusing, joyful, tragic, colorful, discordant, laughing, and crying world is worse than deteriorating. Deteriorating is at least a response, an acknowledgement that we are affected by the world around us. If we aren’t motivated by the world around us, if we don’t change in response to events, people, and emotions, then we aren’t really living, we are stagnant and stubborn. The teshuva season, heralded by the shofar’s daily siren throughout the month of Elul and drawing to a close over the coming holiday of Sukkot, shocks us out of that stagnant and stubborn place and shows us a better way.

Note: This piece was originally written in 2003, greatly revised in 2006, and revised again in 2009.