“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!