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!

“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.

“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.

“The Medicine Cabinet”: Essay in June 2009 Sh’ma

8 07 2009

An anonymous essay of mine, titled “The Medicine Cabinet,” appears on page five of the June 2009 issue of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

If you’re coming here from there, welcome! I have not had time to write new, content-heavy posts for this blog for far too long, but I hope to get back to it at some point later this summer.

Neat little widget for online Sh’ma reader below:

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June 2009