Modern Jewish Liturgy Related to Depression and Sadness

2 07 2016

I’m sorry that it’s been so long since I’ve written. I did not intend to go this long, but I haven’t had the energy to write the post(s) that I want to write, since I last posted in August 2014.

In the meantime, two recommended pieces by others:

  1. Alden Solovy, a Jewish liturgist, wrote “a prayer to be said by someone with depression” and other mental afflictions. I thought some of you might like it.

    Reading the post and prayer made me sad. I had met this author and heard the “neat” story he told of his wife’s death from falling down some stairs and hitting her head, so finding out how much she (and her family) suffered makes me sad.

    I could also relate to what he shared of her story, as someone who suffered through trauma and verbal abuse/emotional neglect as a child, and who often tries to escape through staying in bed and watching TV and eating ice cream. But for the grace of God go I–I think of that whenever I encounter the tales of those who suffered more than I did and who cope using drugs or alcohol. It feels wrong to feel grateful for the limitations of my affliction, but I do feel grateful. Grateful that I’m addicted to food and escapism and hiding from the world, and not drugs or alcohol.

    He also wrote a prayer to be said on behalf of a family member or friend facing mental illness.

  2. Trisha Arlin, another Jewish liturgist, wrote “Blessings For The Sad.” Amazing.

And, finally, a quote from Saul Bellow (from Augie March) that I adore:

…all the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It’s internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast.


Jewish texts that spark discussion about suffering in Judaism

9 09 2013

I co-taught a class recently at a private Jewish event, about Jewish life and suffering due to mental illness (broadly defined–not only depression). We did not really discuss theology. The purpose of the discussion was just that–to discuss mental health and suffering through a Jewish lens. In retrospect, we accomplished our goal of having a discussion, but perhaps it all could have been a bit more focused. Everyone has such different experiences with both Judaism and mental health that it’s really hard to pin down something specific to talk about, beyond sharing our own personal experiences and how we have been able to–or unable to–help others.

These were the texts that my co-facilitator and I shared with the group. We used these in various ways. I would love to hear any thoughts or reflections that you may have on these texts, or on the problem that I mentioned above (of narrowing the focus of the session).

The Biblical translations are based on the new JPS (1985).

Psalms 100:2

עִבְד֣וּ אֶת־הבְּשִׂמְחָ֑ה בֹּ֥אוּ לְ֝פָנָ֗יו בִּרְנָנָֽה׃

Worship the Lord in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy.

 Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15

הֱוֶי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת

Greet every person with a pleasant face.

Psalms 51

יח כִּי, לֹאתַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה; עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה.

18 You do not want me to bring sacrifices;
You do not desire burnt offerings.

יט זִבְחֵי אֱלֹקִים, רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵבנִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּהאֱלֹקִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.

19 True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.

Lamentations 1:16

עַלאֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם–כִּירָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם, מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי

For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears. Far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit…

ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשה ז:ב – Midrash Leviticus Rabba 7:2

וידבר האל משה לאמור: צו את אהרון ואת בניו לאמר זאת תורת העולה (ויקרא ו:אב)

[ב] זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה(תהלים נא, יט)

אמר רב אבא בר יודן: כל מה שפסל בבהמה הכשיר באדם. מה פסל בבהמה, עורת או שבור או חרוץ או יבלת אולא תקריבו אלה לה (ויקרא כב, כב), הכשיר באדם, זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה, לב נשבר ונדכה אלקים לא תבזה(תהלים נא, יט).

אמר רב אלכסנדרי: ההדיוט הזה, אם משתמש בכלי שבור גניי הוא לו, אבל הקבה כל כלי תשמישיו שבורין הן, דכתיב קרוב הלנשברי לב(תהלים לד, יט), הרופא לשבורי לב(תהלים קמז, ג), מרום וקדוש אשכון ואת דכא ושפל רוח להחיות רוח שפלים ולהחיות לב נדכאים(ישעיה נז, טו), לב נשבר ונדכה.

God spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons saying, ‘This shall be the law of the burnt offering…’ (Vayikra 6:1-2)
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise (Ps. 51:19).

R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit: Anything blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a wen, boil-scar, or scurvy – such you shall not offer to the Lord (Lev. 22, 22), whereas in man He declared fit A broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:19) [to be true sacrifice]. R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessel, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be He, are precisely broken ones, as it is said, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit He delivers (Ps. 34:19); He heals the broken hearts (Ps. 147:3); I dwell in the high and holy place; Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit – reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite (Isaiah 57: 15). A broken and contrite heart

Psalms 6

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינוֹת, עַלהַשְּׁמִינִית; מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the Leader; with instrumental music; on the sheminith. A psalm of David.

ב יְהוָה, אַלבְּאַפְּךָ תוֹכִיחֵנִי; וְאַלבַּחֲמָתְךָ תְיַסְּרֵנִי.

2 O LORD, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.

ג חָנֵּנִי ה‘, כִּי אֻמְלַלאָנִי: רְפָאֵנִי ה‘–כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי.

3 Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish; heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror.

ד וְנַפְשִׁי, נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד; ואת (וְאַתָּה) ה‘, עַדמָתָי.

4 My whole being is stricken with terror; while You, LORD—O, how long!

ה שׁוּבָה ה‘, חַלְּצָה נַפְשִׁי; הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי, לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ.

5 O LORD! rescue me! Deliver me as befits your faithfulness.

ו כִּי אֵין בַּמָּוֶת זִכְרֶךָ; בִּשְׁאוֹל, מִי יוֹדֶהלָּךְ.

6 For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

ז יָגַעְתִּי, בְּאַנְחָתִיאַשְׂחֶה בְכָללַיְלָה, מִטָּתִי; בְּדִמְעָתִי, עַרְשִׂי אַמְסֶה.

7 I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed; I melt my couch in tears.

ח עָשְׁשָׁה מִכַּעַס עֵינִי; עָתְקָה, בְּכָלצוֹרְרָי.

8 My eyes are wasted by vexation; worn out because of all my foes.

ט סוּרוּ מִמֶּנִּי, כָּלפֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן: כִּישָׁמַע ה‘, קוֹל בִּכְיִי.

9 Away from me, all you evildoers, for the LORD heeds the sound of weeping.

י שָׁמַע ה‘, תְּחִנָּתִי; ה‘, תְּפִלָּתִי יִקָּח.

10 The LORD heeds my plea, the LORD accepts my prayer.

יא יֵבֹשׁוּ, וְיִבָּהֲלוּ מְאֹדכָּלאֹיְבָי; יָשֻׁבוּ, יֵבֹשׁוּ רָגַע.

11 All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

Psalms 13

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the leader. A psalm of David.

ב עַדאָנָה ה‘, תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח; עַדאָנָה, תַּסְתִּיר אֶתפָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי.

2 How long, O LORD; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

ג עַדאָנָה אָשִׁית עֵצוֹת, בְּנַפְשִׁייָגוֹן בִּלְבָבִי יוֹמָם;

עַדאָנָה, יָרוּם אֹיְבִי עָלָי.

3 How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

ד הַבִּיטָה עֲנֵנִי, האֱלֹקָי; הָאִירָה עֵינַי, פֶּןאִישַׁן הַמָּוֶת.

4 Look at me, answer me, O LORD, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;

ה פֶּןיֹאמַר אֹיְבִי יְכָלְתִּיו; צָרַי יָגִילוּ, כִּי אֶמּוֹט.

5 Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him”; my foes exult when I totter.

ו וַאֲנִי, בְּחַסְדְּךָ בָטַחְתִּייָגֵל לִבִּי, בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ:

אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה, כִּי גָמַל עָלָי.

6 But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in your deliverance.
I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, excerpt from “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 17:2 (Spring 1978), p. 65 (I have shared this text on this blog before)

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence, which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum — I suffer, therefore I am — to paraphrase Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil knows suffering.

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs.”

Wishing all of my readers a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year!

Study about prayer and mental health seeking Jews

28 07 2013

I am sorry that it’s been so long since I last posted something here. As those of you who have friended me on Facebook know, life continues to be something of a struggle due to depression and anxiety. I am not in crisis, but have embarked (or continued) on a journey of learning how to love myself and create a self-validating environment for the first time in my life. The support that I have received from all of you has been invaluable.

I am only breaking radio silence at the moment to share this request, which I received from Refa’enu, a community/listserv about Judaism and mental health [Facebook; Yahoo listserv; Twitter]. I thought that some of you might want to participate.


I am collaborating with a laboratory at the University of Louisville, Kentucky on a novel study about prayer and well-being, and we are looking to recruit 200 Jewish participants. So far we only have 170, so we am looking for 30 more Jewish adults (18 years or older) from anywhere on planet earth to complete a 20-25 minute on-line survey.

What’s new about this research, you may ask? Well, previous studies have linked private prayer to mental health and wellbeing, however it remains unclear why this is the case – in other words, the mechanisms by which prayer may impact health (or vice versa) have not been adequately studied. A second limitation is that most research in this area has focused exclusively within the Christian faith, whereas this study is recruiting other religious groups as well.

Please consider participating in this study – it should take fewer than 20 minutes of your time. To access the survey, simply click here:

As well, please do pass this email along to others whom may be willing/able to participate. The success of this study is dependent on the worldwide Jewish community!

With appreciation,
David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D.

“Why did God give me mental illness?”

19 12 2010

This is’s answer to the difficult question of “Why did God give me mental illness?,” a subset of the age-old question of, “Why does God cause good people to suffer?” or the slightly easier, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”

If we think that this–“Why did God give me mental illness?”–is a good question to ask (see below for an alternative), then their answer isn’t bad. It boils down to:

1. God gives each of us both challenges and the means to overcome them. So God isn’t setting you up for failure any more than he sets anyone else up for failure. You may just have greater challenges than others, but that also means that God gave you better skills and talents for overcoming them. I found this thought very comforting when I was younger. I learned something similar about the Akeidah [binding of Isaac] when I was studying that in school–God tests those whom he is sure can pass the test. God only asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, his “only” son, Isaac, because he knew that Abraham wouldn’t.

2. God hopes that we’ll use these challenges and our talents at overcoming them to help not just ourselves, but also others. We may help others who don’t share our problems, as well as those who do. That was a huge motivation for me to start this blog and it also motivates each and every infrequent post. I need to take my pain and suffering and use it, as much as possible, to (a) show others that they aren’t alone and (b) show others that hope is possible, when I am feeling hope. (I only feel hope sometimes, but such is life.)

Of course, this answer is only good if we think that God gives us mental illnesses for a reason, as opposed to a more laissez-faire attitude towards theology, which is more like: God may be ultimately in charge, but he doesn’t make small decisions like deciding why I got depressed instead of my neighbor, Ms. Perfect. Good things happen and bad things happen and that’s how God wants the world to work, but he doesn’t muck around in the details. I have mental illness because of a combination of biological vulnerabilities and a crappy childhood, and it really sucks, but that’s just how it is. God lets bad things happen, but He doesn’t do them to us. (Likewise, God lets good things happen, but He doesn’t personally choose us to be the recipients of dumb luck.) Sometimes, it is easier to think this way. Certainly, when discussing the Holocaust or why innocent children die, it’s easier to think that God just kind of lets the cards fall where they may, based on human agency, in regards to the little details.

I am pretty sure that both attitudes towards God’s intervention in the world are defensible from a traditional Jewish perspective, but feel free to disagree.

Do you have other answers to “Why did God give me mental illness,” or think that’s answer is good, bad, or neutral? How do you deal with theology and your struggles in life?

Upcoming Conference: “A Beautiful Mind: Jewish Approaches to Mental Health”

26 10 2010

I’m sorry for the very long silence, and also for the late notice about this upcoming event.

It is taking place at Yeshiva University in New York City this coming Sunday, October 31.

I am very, very glad that this conference is taking place and that people are speaking about, among other things, depression, suicide, OCD, and eating disorders. With the exception of those issues, I think it’s not quite the issues that I would have focused on in such a conference, but they also know their audience better than I do. (The other things are also really important, but I tend to not think of them as mental health issues in quite the same way.)

Their blurb reads:

On Sunday, October 31, 2010, Yeshiva University’s Student Medical Ethics Society (MES) will be hosting its fifth annual conference, entitled A Beautiful Mind: Jewish Approaches to Mental Health. The conference will provide participants with a broad foundation for the medical background needed to understand mental health, as well as the advanced medical research and practices used today to prevent and manage mental health challenges. Topics covered include suicide, depression, eating disorders, addictions, substance abuse, and more. Participants will also be introduced to an overview of the fundamental ethical dilemmas surrounding mental health, as well as how the system of Halacha (Jewish law) approaches these complex issues.

In addition to gaining broad knowledge in medical, ethical, and Halachik issues of mental health, participants will be able to choose from a series of specialized tracks, each geared towards in-depth analysis of the most pressing issues in the field. These tracks include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bullying and Harassing, Living with A Mentally Ill Family Member, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Sexual Abuse. The individual sessions will be guided by leading rabbis, physicians, and mental health professionals all of whom are experts with ample experience in their fields of mental health, ethics, and Halacha. In addition, there will be a special track geared to Rabbis, in order that they will be able to ask their individual questions to the leaders in Halacha. Finally, exclusively for students, Dr. Pelcovitz and Rav Willig will lead a discussion pertaining to mental health as it applies to students.

The conference will be a wonderful opportunity to explore these complex and pressing issues, and to interact with leading rabbis, physicians, and lawyers in the area of medical ethics. Pre-registration is required and will be open to all those who have an interest in broadening their knowledge and understanding of ethics in mental health. Students, teachers, rabbis, mental health professionals, physicians, and laymen are welcome.

Please join us for a unique and fascinating conference exploring Mental Issues from a Halachik, Ethical and Scientific perspective.

I hope that good, productive action comes out of it!

“Sheh-asani kirtzono,” orchids, and neurotic monkeys

3 01 2010

ShehAsani Kirtzono

When we last left our struggling, prayer-commenting hero, she was writing about the Elohai Nishama prayer. It wasn’t so much that she did not want to get to “Sheh-asani Kirtzono” “who has made me according to His Will,” as that she had so much to say about it, that she couldn’t say anything, and, instead, resorted to writing about other things.

I have always loved this prayer. I know that many women (and some men) take issue with it, or, perhaps more accurately, it’s male counterpart, “Who has not made me a woman.” Personally, I always felt that everyone should just say “sheh-asani kirtzono,” “who has made me according to His will.” I’m sometimes not sure how men can resist saying it! I like that it is phrased in the positive; that we are thanking God for what we are rather than what we are not. I like that it is phrased in an inclusive way: However we are, God wanted us that way. God made us as He wished to make us.

I have taken great comfort and derived great strength from this prayer. During my better times, I (surprisingly?) feel grateful to God for afflicting me with depression, which I am certain makes me into a better person. Had I not become depressed, I might have turned out like some people I know: type A, aggressively competitive, perfectionist to a fault, judgmental of those I consider inferior to me, happily self-sufficient, and condescending to all. I am better off as I am: acknowledging my imperfections, understanding of the imperfections of others, kinder, gentler, more open to relationships of all kinds, and realizing that I cannot, under any circumstances, just “go it alone.” I honestly used to think, before I got depressed, that people were often more trouble than they were worth. I no longer feel that way. I used to think, before I got depressed, that if only others were more like me, the world would function better. Now, I know that if too many others were like me, the world would be very broken.

It took my own monumental failures to live up to my sky-high standards to really feel that it was okay to not be perfect. I always talked the good talk of tolerance and acceptance of others, but it took my own inability to fit into the A-hungry culture of the college I attended to really see differences from these cultural ideals as valuable, rather than unfortunate. I still struggle with many of these issues, but my life without these struggles and these nuanced appreciations and understandings of the world around me would be a paler, worse life.

There are other ways in which I sometimes think that my depression has given me a better life than I would otherwise have. I suspect that, when the mood is right, I experience intense gratitude for things that others sometimes take for granted. Things like rushing rivers, red leaves fluttering to the ground, a nine-year-old girl dancing in front of her reflection in a hotel door in a totally un-self-conscious way, babies’ and young children’s open-hearted acceptance of the world and the people in it, sunshine, weather warm enough to go out without a coat, fresh raspberries or figs…the list goes on. I don’t think I noticed these small pleasures before I got depressed.

So, God, I declare to you: Thank you for making me according to Your will! I did not ask to me made this way, and I certainly would be hard-pressed to say that I would choose it if given the choice to avoid it, but having been made this way, I find room in my heart, God, to be grateful. This illness, these struggles, have drawn so many wonderful people and so many satisfying relationships into my life. Back when I was “perfect” and didn’t think I needed anyone, I was worse off.

I don’t always feel this way. Sometimes, this blessing is a major thorn in my side. I don’t understand how anyone can thank God for creating her as a being who wishes to end her own life. I don’t understand how anyone can thank God for creating him as a being who sheds buckets of tears in the shower every morning, instead of being a productive member of society. I don’t understand how anyone can thank God for a condition that seems to thwart every attempt I make to be a productive member of society. It is unfathomable to me, at times, how anyone could ever think that God plays any role in this disaster that is full-blown depression, except perhaps as a punishment. And thinking of depression as a punishment from God for poor behavior goes against everything I believe about God and punishment and good and evil. (Also, I was such a good kid! With a few exceptions relating to my lack of desire to assist in household chores.)

If there was a God at all, I sometimes feel, depression would not exist. Sometimes, I am struck with a particular potent stream of the “What ifs”–thoughts I have about how successful and happy and professionally accomplished I would be had I never been struck with depression, or had I vanquished it for good back in 1998 or 2000 or 2003 or 2007. At those times, I really cannot understand a God who would consciously cripple and hinder His creations in this protractedly cruel way. God, do you know how much better of a Jew and a person I would be had this saga ended years ago?!

I hold both of these feelings simultaneously: I know, when I am well, that I am much better off, as a human being and a Jew, for having struggled with depression and won. I know, when I am unwell, that if these was a caring and compassionate God in this universe, that nobody would fight this hard to simply get through the day, to simply live. It’s ghastly. Just ghastly.

The December 2009 issue of The Atlantic has a fascinating article, called “The Science of Success,” by David Dobbs, that may shed some light on the two sides of this coin and on this blessing.

The abstract reads:

Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

I know, if I know anything at all, that I am an orchid. I am decidedly unable to take root and survive almost anywhere.

Although all four of us were raised by the same parents, two of my three siblings are fairly well established in life without too much trouble or angst. The third seems to be well on her way. As far as I know, they  have had no need for therapy or late-night conversations about whether ending their lives was a good idea or a bad idea, despite having been raised by the same parents and many of the same genes. This troubled me for a long time, and made me feel like my depression was somehow my fault. If they could thrive, why couldn’t I? This article explains all of that quite neatly. They are dandelions and I am an orchid. The parenting they received seems to have been sufficient for my three siblings, at least in their current states of adulthood. Although I wish with all my might to have been born a dandelion–life would have been so much easier, and probably better–none of us gets a choice in this matter.

The article also explains why God might choose to afflict someone–or, rather, a random segment of the population–with depression, anxiety, or any number of other afflictions that seem meaningless and simply cruel. It sort of turns on its head the very irritating comment that I used to get all the time, but thankfully no longer do, which was presumably meant to make me feel oodles better but never did: “You know, it’s only the most intelligent who get depressed.”

I cannot adequately summarize (or quote) the whole thing, so you should really read it yourself before going on.

The author begins by describing the “vulnerability hypothesis,” which considers “psychic and behavioral problems” to be “products not of nature or nurture but of complex ‘gene-environment interactions.’ Your genes don’t doom you to these disorders. But if you have ‘bad’ versions of certain genes and life treats you ill, you’re more prone to them.” He then goes on to describe the newer, alternate hypothesis, which is the main point of the article.

This new model suggests that it’s a mistake to understand these “risk” genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.

This theory was so consonant with my experiences that it nearly knocked the wind out of me. It also explained, in evolutionary terms, why my existence is not a ghastly mistake and waste of natural resources, as I sometimes feel sure that it is.

This orchid hypothesis also answers a fundamental evolutionary question that the vulnerability hypothesis cannot. If variants of certain genes create mainly dysfunction and trouble, how have they survived natural selection? Genes so maladaptive should have been selected out. Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. The vulnerability hypothesis can’t account for this. The orchid hypothesis can.

This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength. For more than a decade, proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation, cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.

I went on to identify strongly with his description of the “mercurial orchids” (metaphors) and “neurotic monkeys” (actual psych lab subjects). I was also moved by the author’s own struggle with the decision about whether to have his SERT (or 5-HTTLPR) gene analyzed to see if he carried the allele which came with a greatly magnified risk of major depression. I found reason to hope in this passage:

And even when they [orchids] lead troubled early lives, some of the resulting heightened responses to adversity that can be problematic in everyday life—increased novelty-seeking, restlessness of attention, elevated risk-taking, or aggression—can prove advantageous in certain challenging situations: wars, tribal or modern; social strife of many kinds; and migrations to new environments. Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone. Together, they open a path to otherwise unreachable individual and collective achievements.

At the end, the author discovered that he had a genetic vulnerability to depression. But rather than seeing it as a cause for despair, he saw it as a cause for hope:

The orchid hypothesis suggested that this particular allele, the rarest and riskiest of the serotonin-transporter gene’s three variants, made me not just more vulnerable but more plastic. And that new way of thinking changed things. I felt no sense that I carried a handicap that would render my efforts futile should I again face deep trouble. In fact, I felt a heightened sense of agency. Anything and everything I did to improve my own environment and experience—every intervention I ran on myself, as it were—would have a magnified effect. In that light, my short/short allele now seems to me less like a trapdoor through which I might fall than like a springboard—slippery and somewhat fragile, perhaps, but a springboard all the same.

I found that framing of the issue to be incredibly hopeful and uplifting.

I am still seeking that springboard part of depression, which so often feels like a deep well out of which I must climb, exhaustedly, over and over and over again. Despite that, I am pleased that science claims that this springboard exists, somehow, somewhere, if only I improve my own environment and experience enough to see  it.

The idea that the genetic predisposition to depression provides something positive, when I am doing okay, is not new to me.

The hard thing is to find the positive when I am not doing okay. To have faith in God and/or the allele that I surely carry that makes me wilt so much more easily than my siblings, despite having been raised with the same care. The hard thing is to stop wishing to become a dandelion and to begin making the most of this “orchidness” that I carry. The hard thing is to recognize that God could knowingly inflict me with the gene (plus some sub-optimal childhood experiences) that have made my life so scary and exhausting, and to say, despite it all:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשַׂנִי כִּרְצוֹנוֹ:

Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has made me according to Your will.

The beautiful thing about this bracha [blessing], I think, is that is gently encourages us to take a good, hard look at how we are–both how we were created and how we exist on this planet right now–and to find ways to deal with being that person.

To thank God for having made us dandelions or orchids, monkeys neurotic or calm, rather than bemoaning what we are not.

We are what we are. There are some propensities that we cannot change, but we can always change things about our environments or circumstances. That is what I do whenever I pop a pill that helps bathe my brain in extra serotonin; what I do whenever I sit down with my therapist; what I do whenever I make the conscious and very difficult effort to take a walk outside in the fresh air and bright sunshine; and what I do when I go to the gym to flood my brain with dopamine. It’s what I do when I struggle to create a community of caring friends, and it’s what I do when I try to maintain a relationship with my parents despite great geographic distance. Accepting what I am and trying to change what I can to make those things favorable parts of my personality rather than severe liabilities is the only way to move forward. That is what I shall try to think of the next morning that I utter this blessing.

Here is hoping that 2010 brings all of us springboards and the improved environments and experiences that shed light on them. Here is to honoring the neurotic monkey in each of us.


7 12 2009

A few weeks ago, I shared material from this blog, in person, with a group of people. Their reaction was underwhelming, leading me to wonder why I embarked on this project in the first place and whether I should continue. However, one person, at least, from that group seems to have “gotten” it, and told me–nay, commanded me–that I had to keep writing even when I felt terrible.

Here’s the thing that I was not able to articulate to her at the time, but that I have spent a lot of time thinking about since. When I started this project, I was in a very different place. I was, quite frankly, not depressed and had not been for some time. This is important for two reasons:

(1) The stakes were different. I wasn’t “outing” myself, to the extent that writing this is “outing” myself as someone currently somewhat incapacitated by depression. (So many qualifications! “Outing” in the sense that people will not hire, befriend, or date me if they know that I suffer from the nasty scourge of depression. “Somewhat incapacitated” because if I said “totally incapacitated,” which is honestly how I feel a lot of the time, I would be digging my own personal/professional/educational grave.)

(2) The experience was different. Writing about depression having come through it is disconcerting, but also empowering: “Wow! Look at how terrible I felt and look at how much better I feel now!” It reconfirms my belief in hope, change, and the potential for a less-depressing future for myself. Writing about depression while depressed feels extremely unhelpful. I will even go as far as to say that it feels destructive. In some ways, it makes the feelings more real and more intractable to see them written out as harsh black letters on a blindingly white background. Although any number of people will tell you that the alternative–bottling it all up–is much less helpful, it seems to me that talking about the feelings in therapy or with a sympathetic, human, flesh and blood listener maybe the best way to prevent the bottling effect. Writing about it actually makes me feel worse right now.

So, it’s not that I don’t have anything to say. Of course I have things to say. I am a spewing volcano at the moment, spewing mostly tears, but also rage and disappointment and regret and trembling fear.

It’s that I don’t have things to say that I want to say.

I want to say that
…my belief in God gives me hope that things will improve.
…my belief in God makes me think that there is a reason that things go bad, when they do. That there is some grand plan.
…my membership in the Jewish people makes me feel less alone in the world.
…my observance of Shabbat gives me a break, in time, from the unending grind of depression and anxiety.
…my dedication to a tefillah practice makes me feel heard and listened to, even when depression does bring me down or otherwise make me feel alone.
…my engagement in the study of Jewish texts reaffirms my belief that Judaism deals with, and accepts, both the good and the bad. Life is hard. Judaism sees that.

All of those things are sometimes true or were once true. In that sense, Judaism has been extremely life-affirming for me. It’s been a salvation of sorts, and I don’t use that term lightly.

But, really, at the moment, I’m feeling that
…if and when I believe in God, I rail against him for producing someone who scorns life and generally makes a mess of it. Really, God? This is your idea of tselem elohim, a being created in the Divine image?
…my membership in the Jewish people makes me feel utterly alone. Everyone else is out there, being all communal, and nobody is noticing my immense pain and suffering. Nobody cares. (Of course nobody cares! I am far too wrapped up in my own misery to notice anyone else’s pain; why should they notice mine?)
…my membership in the Jewish people makes me wonder why nobody says anything when I cry in shul. All the time. I guess they don’t want to get involved. I can’t say that I really blame them.
…Shabbat is the world’s loneliest day when all you feel is pain and your normal modes of tempering that pain–through the numbing and relatively non-destructive distractions of the television and internet are forbidden. On Shabbat, there is nothing to do but contemplate the misery of your existence and of life itself.
…it is inherently lonely to observe Shabbat alone when the rest of the world mostly celebrates it in family units or groups of friends.
…I am so done with tefillah. Not because I don’t think God is answering. I don’t know if that was ever a primary reason for me to pray. And maybe it would be good for me, just like exercise is good for me. But I mostly can’t bring myself to do it, except sometimes when I make it to shul on Shabbat. That’s been true for a very, very long time and not the sort of thing that you generally want to admit on a blog dedicated to the intersection between prayer and depression.
…my engagement in the study of Jewish texts reaffirms my belief that Judaism expends a lot of time and energy worrying about small, inconsequential minutiae, at the expense of ignoring real human suffering.

Wow. See, that is all very depressing and I don’t feel at all better, having written it. I imagine that you don’t, either.

Although a blog that’s going to make me and you both feel worse does not have much point, in my eyes, I also feel that there is some inherent value in shining a spotlight on the parts of Judaism that make life harder to bear, not easier to bear.

You few who are reading–do you want to read this kind of thing? Does it add anything positive or worthwhile to the world? Maybe it’s time to take a hiatus from this project until my brain is functioning better, which is probably going to be after I’m feeling less depressed.

At one time, I had a vision of fostering the creation of a warm and embracing Jewish community that wouldn’t let people like me–and all of you–feel through the cracks and feel so utterly uncared for. I no longer really think that vision is realistic. I think it’s probably up to each one of us to save ourselves and ask as little from others as possible. What a terribly depressing thought…

I promised you, last time, that I would tell you what I am doing instead of “waiting around for Christmas to dry up all my tears,” but since nothing I am actually able to get myself to do is making a difference, so far, I don’t think I’ll go into details about that. I’ll just share the advice that I gave to an acquaintance who came to ask me how to deal with depression, knowing that I’ve dealt with it. It’s the same advice that any website will give you: Therapy. Drugs. Exercise. Sunlight. Rinse and repeat. Over and over again. And try not to do too much permanent damage to yourself in the meantime.

I also wanted to leave you with these two things to read:

  • “Don’t Go,” a post on the Ask Moxie blog (read the comments, too). This blog is mostly a parenting blog, and I am not a parent, but I find Moxie and her readers’ attitudes refreshing.
  • “Among Rocks and Stones,” by Peter Bebergal from Tablet Magazine. I no longer remember exactly why I wanted to share this second piece, only that I had a strong desire to after I read it several months ago. Maybe it will do something for you.

I’m sorry, also, for the somewhat scattershot nature of this post, and perhaps some other recent posts, as well. This is my brain on depression. It does not function nearly as well.