Losing Prayer

8 06 2014

I don’t remember finding prayer. I think it was always there.

I started learning how to pray when I was three or four, when I started going to school. At first, it was something that I did only in school when required, and a little on Shabbat, when I went to synagogue with my father. There was some point when I prayed the morning service every day, when at home, but that waned throughout elementary school. At some point in high school, I returned to it. Perhaps it was out of a newfound sense of religious obligation, but it wasn’t religious obligation that drew me to pray seriously while in school, as my peers did their darnedest to avoid, skip, talk-through, or space out during our two-to-three times daily prayers.

I think that prayer may have been the glue that kept me together for some years. At the very least, it kept incipient depression at bay. I think that it did that by giving me a place where I was free to feel and express emotions. There was no other place in my life like that, and there wouldn’t be until I was eighteen and started going to therapy in the middle of my second episode of major depression.

And even that place was inferior to prayer. When I started going to therapy, I could answer the question, “How are you feeling?” only 5% of the time, and the rest of the time, I didn’t know how I was feeling. But God knew! God knew. I am so glad that I had access to a modality for expressing emotions starting at such a young age.

I don’t remember finding prayer, but I can trace how I lost it, step by step, until I could hardly pray at all.

When I started college and was very depressed, I managed to get myself to morning and evening minyan on campus. I moved a little further away from the minyan my sophomore year, and I struggled to get there for morning services and quickly gave up. I made some feeble attempts to continue praying on my own, outside of that communal structure, but couldn’t get myself to do it. I got a little bit into meditation and tried to do that instead, but no dice. I did manage to exercise every morning for a bit during my junior year of college, and that became my “prayer,” but it was fueled by body-hatred and self-loathing, and it was the polar opposite of prayer.

After college, I tried, on and off, to pray. I made commitments to myself. I broke them. I tried to pray just during the annual Selichot season, so that at least I wouldn’t miss out on those holy and wholly confounding liturgical wonders. I made it for a day, a week. I decided to forgo daily prayer but listen to songs from the morning shacharit service during my daily commute. It lasted a week or two, and then I couldn’t stand to listen to them anymore. I started this blog. I couldn’t work on it as I had hoped. I was regularly attending Shabbat services and at least managing to pray weekly that way, but that has waned considerably in the past few years. When I go, and stand in silence before God, whispering the Amida, I cry violent, unending tears.

I don’t think it should feel so hard to pray, so hard to open a siddur and say the words that my mind, at least, believes will bring comfort and/or stability and/or an inner, validating presence to my chaotic inner life. I don’t want to cry in synagogue, so I don’t go. Or, rather, I go for kiddush and skip the davening part entirely.

I really miss the daily comfort of ritual, of routine, of prayer that I started when I was three or four.


כִּי לֹא תַֽמּוּ חֲסָדֶֽיךָ: “For your kindnesses never cease.”

17 11 2013

From Lamentations (Eicha) 3:22:

כב  חַסְדֵי יְקוָק כִּי לֹא-תָמְנוּ, כִּי לֹא-כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו  22 Surely the LORD’S mercies are not consumed, surely His compassions fail not.

And from the Modim blessing from the daily Amida prayer, based on that verse:

הַטּוֹב כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמֶֽיךָ

You are good, for Your compassion is never-ending.

וְהַמְֿרַחֵם כִּי לֹא תַֽמּוּ חֲסָדֶֽיךָ

You are compassionate, for Your kindnesses never cease.

מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּֽינוּ לָךְ

Our hope has always been in You.

[Translation by Rabbi Debra Orenstein.]

A friend called me up today. He was about to go grocery shopping with his kids and he asked if I need anything, since he knows that I’ve been down for the count, at least was down for the count on Friday and Saturday, with a migraine. (I didn’t go to a Shabbat dinner on Friday night that I had helped organize nor to Shabbat services on Saturday.) I thanked him for the offer and told him that I was all set for groceries.

His kindness made me cry, though. I feel like no one has ever been this kind to me in my entire life. And that makes me sad. Either it’s true, which is sad, or it’s not but I’ve forgotten the various kindnesses that people have shown to me during my life, which is a different kind of sad.

Even when God’s mercy and compassion on His creations seem very limited to me (here, I’m thinking specifically of young children who lose their parents and parents who lose their young children, rather than my own suffering), the mercy, compassion, and kindness of so many human beings never ceases to amaze me.

My prayer today is that one day, may I, too, merit to show such kindness, mercy, and compassion to myself and to others! Amen.

Hope and self-loathing

28 10 2013

I’ve posted some of my visual artwork here, but not too much. It’s time to post more. I’ve gotten back into drawing and painting in a major way recently, and it’s mostly a good thing. Maybe entirely a good thing.

There are water marks on these because I don’t want anyone to steal them. They’re also not incredibly in focus. I hope that doesn’t detract from your viewing too much. Thumbnails are below; click on each to see a full-size image.

This was one of my first (recent) efforts. It’s how I’ve been feeling about feelings/emotions lately.



The next two go together.

The first is how I feel so often, but I also feel like I need to put on a cheery, rainbow face and pretend that everything is just fine. I mean, really, why wouldn’t it be? The colors start out and end up straight, but bend into a rainbow in the middle on purpose. The straight, harsh lines of my life and mind often have to contort themselves into a rainbow to make myself presentable to the world.

The second is what I hear other people telling me about my life or their own, but it’s behind a thick screen of greenish, brownish, greyish gunk and I can’t access or feel it.

Life is Too...

Life is Too…

Ain't Life Grand?

Ain’t Life Grand?

Sometimes, I feel like this (piece not finished yet; maybe I’ll re-post when I’m done with it):




But, often, I feel full of this:



I adore this last one! I thought I might feel worse putting my thoughts down on paper in living color this way, but I actually feel better having drawn out those little furry monsters of self-loathing. It helps to externalize it. It is this thing that I feel; not something inherently a part of me that can’t be put down on paper because it’s so essential to my self. I was also able to hear the actual voices of various people in the little speaking bubbles that I put in there. Some are voices that seem to come from inside my own head, but others are things that I’ve heard others say about me or others and that (apparently) made a deep impression.

Future pieces may include:

  • “Desperation” (that’s what I wanted to do right after I finished “Hope,” but “Self-Loathing” reared its ugly head instead!)
  • “Anger”
  • “Failure”

I would also love to do some with explicitly Jewish content. The phrase “אִם אָמַרְתִּי מָטָה רַגְלִי חַסְדְּךָ ה’ יִסְעָדֵנִי” from Psalms 94:18 has been going through my head for some months now. (My translation: “If I say, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your mercy, God, will support me.”)

“The Gates For Tears Never Close”: Crying and God

24 09 2013

As we end this Jewish Elul-and-Tishrei season of intense prayer and God hearing us, I wanted to share this text from the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzi’a 59a and Berachot 32b):

א”ר אלעזר מיום שנחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפלה שנאמר (איכה ג) גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפלתי ואע”פ ששערי תפלה ננעלו שערי דמעות לא ננעלו שנאמר (תהילים לט) שמעה תפלתי ה’ ושועתי האזינה אל דמעתי אל תחרש

R. Eleazar said: Since the destruction of the Temple, the gates of prayer are locked, for it is written, “Also when I cry out, He shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8). Yet, though the gates for prayer are locked, the gates for tears are not, for it is written, “Hear my prayer, God, and listen to my cry; do not be silent in the face of my tears” (Psalms 39:13).

I love Jewish texts on tears and crying. I cry a lot and don’t pray formally as much as I once did, so I think about this contrast sometimes. I also sometimes find myself crying while praying, and I hope that no one sees me. Except God. I want God to see my tears.

There were a few such texts about God hearing our tears over the High Holidays, in the prayer liturgy. One of my favorites appears in the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur. In a piyyut, or liturgical poem, called אזכרה אלהים ואהמיה (written in the 8th c. in southern Italy, according to piyyut.org.il) that is said towards the closing of the day, Ashkenazim say:

תָּמַכְתִּי יְתֵדוֹתַי בִּשְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה תֵבוֹת
וּבְשַׁעֲרֵי דְמָעוֹת כִּי לֹא נִשְׁלָבוֹת
לָכֵן שָׁפַכְתִּי שִׂיחַ פְּנֵי בוֹחֵן לִבּוֹת
בָּטוּחַ אֲנִי בָּאֵלֶּה וּבִזְכוּת שְׁלֹשֶׁת אָבוֹת

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שׁוֹמֵעַ קוֹל בְּכִיוֹת
שֶׁתָּשִׂים דִּמְעוֹתֵינוּ בְּנֹאדְךָ לִהְיוֹת
וְתַצִּילֵנוּ מִכָּל גְּזֵרוֹת אַכְזָרִיּוֹת
כִּי לְךָ לְבַד עֵינֵינוּ תְלוּיוֹת

The Artscroll translation reads:

I have placed my reliance on the Thirteen Attributes,
and on the gates of tears for they are never closed;
therefore I have poured out my prayer to Him Who tests hearts.
I trust in these and in the merit of the three patriarchs.

May it be Your will, You who hears the sound of weeping,
that You place our tears in Your flask permanently,
and that You rescue us from all cruel decrees,
for on You alone are our eyes fixed.

What is this flask of tears that God holds onto? Good question. Check out Psalms 56:9:

ט נֹדִי, סָפַרְתָּה-אָתָּה: שִׂימָה דִמְעָתִי בְנֹאדֶךָ; הֲלֹא, בְּסִפְרָתֶךָ

You have counted my wanderings; You have put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book?

Finally, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a story about the Vorker Rebbe and the Kotzker Rebbe, two hasidic rabbis. It’s called The Sea of Tears and is stunningly beautiful. You can read it here, among other places.

May the God who never closes the gates of tears hear and heal all of our tears.

“And God Will Gather Me In”: Thoughts on Elul

31 08 2011

Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul, the first day of the month of Elul, the month traditionally reserved for introspection leading up to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when our fate is signed, and Yom Kippur, when our fate is sealed.

Like so many other things Jewish (and not), I find it difficult.

I recently saw a blog post by a new blogger, Heshbon Hanefesh (welcome!), that resonated with me, and reminded me of Psalm 27, which has gotten me through some tough times in the past. This Psalm is traditionally recited, at least by Ashkenazi Jews, after Shacharit and Ma’ariv throughout the month of Elul. (I think that in Nusah Sefard, it’s recited after Minchah, instead.)

For those who have never seen it or need a refresher, here it is:

א לְדָוִד: ה’, אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי–מִמִּי אִירָא;
יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי, מִמִּי אֶפְחָד.
1 [A Psalm] of David. The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
ב בִּקְרֹב עָלַי, מְרֵעִים– לֶאֱכֹל אֶת-בְּשָׂרִי:
צָרַי וְאֹיְבַי לִי; הֵמָּה כָשְׁלוּ וְנָפָלוּ.
2 When evil-doers came upon me to eat up my flesh,
even mine adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell.
ג אִם-תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי, מַחֲנֶה– לֹא-יִירָא לִבִּי:
אִם-תָּקוּם עָלַי, מִלְחָמָה– בְּזֹאת, אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ.
3 Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war should rise up against me, even then will I be confident.
ד אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-ה’– אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ.
4 One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.
ה כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי, בְּסֻכֹּה– בְּיוֹם רָעָה:
יַסְתִּרֵנִי, בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ; בְּצוּר, יְרוֹמְמֵנִי.
5 For He concealeth me in His pavilion in the day of evil;
He hideth me in the covert of His tent; He lifteth me up upon a rock.
ו וְעַתָּה יָרוּם רֹאשִׁי, עַל אֹיְבַי סְבִיבוֹתַי, וְאֶזְבְּחָה בְאָהֳלוֹ, זִבְחֵי תְרוּעָה;
אָשִׁירָה וַאֲזַמְּרָה, לַיהוָה.
6 And now shall my head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me; and I will offer in His tabernacle sacrifices with trumpet-sound;
I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the LORD.
ז שְׁמַע-יְהוָה קוֹלִי אֶקְרָא; וְחָנֵּנִי וַעֲנֵנִי. 7 Hear, O LORD, when I call with my voice, and be gracious unto me, and answer me.
ח לְךָ, אָמַר לִבִּי–בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי; אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ ה’ אֲבַקֵּשׁ. 8 In Thy behalf my heart hath said: ‘Seek ye My face’; Thy face, LORD, will I seek.
ט אַל-תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ, מִמֶּנִּי– אַל תַּט-בְּאַף, עַבְדֶּךָ:
עֶזְרָתִי הָיִיתָ; אַל-תִּטְּשֵׁנִי וְאַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי.
9 Hide not Thy face from me; put not Thy servant away in anger;
Thou hast been my help; cast me not off, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.
י כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי; וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי. 10 For though my father and my mother have forsaken me, the LORD will take me up.
יא הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דַּרְכֶּךָ: וּנְחֵנִי, בְּאֹרַח מִישׁוֹר–לְמַעַן, שׁוֹרְרָי. 11 Teach me Thy way, O LORD; and lead me in an even path, because of them that lie in wait for me.
יב אַל-תִּתְּנֵנִי, בְּנֶפֶשׁ צָרָי: כִּי קָמוּ-בִי עֵדֵי-שֶׁקֶר, וִיפֵחַ חָמָס. 12 Deliver me not over unto the will of mine adversaries; for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out violence.
יג לוּלֵא–הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-ה’: בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים. 13 If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!–
יד קַוֵּה, אֶל-ה’: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-ה.’ 14 Wait on the LORD; be strong, and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the LORD.

The verse that always grabbed me was verse 10: “כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי; וַה’ יַאַסְפֵנִי”
/ For though my father and my mother have forsaken me, the LORD will take me up.

Except that, instead of “take me up,” I would say “gather me in.” As I commented on Heshbon Hanefesh’s post, all I want is for God to gather me in. Please, God, gather in all of my scattered bits. Sometimes, it feels as though bits of my life are flying off in their own directions, leaving a diminished “me” behind.

As an adolescent, I felt very abandoned by my parents, and that’s when this verse began to speak to me.

Writing now, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, I am very fearful. Not of God’s judgment, but of the process of Elul. Of it failing me, or me failing it. Of God slipping further and further away from me, beyond my grasp. I have lately had a much more difficult time connecting to Judaism, Jewish community, and Torah than I would like. I don’t really know why, or what’s going on exactly, but the severe depression of this past fall/winter has probably taken its toll on my spiritual life, which feels empty and depleted. I am often left wondering why I do all of the Jewish things that I do, in addition to what I am doing here on this earth.

I am also fearful of the shortening of the days, as Heshbon Hanefesh is. Fearful is too weak a word. Terrified is closer. I think that I have gotten progressively more and more depressed each of the past three autumns. Or maybe 1 (2008) and 3 (2010) were the worst. In any case, my psychiatrist said that seasonal affective disorder can start as early as August and that I’d better start using my light box. The bulb burned out at the end of last season and I finally ordered a new one today. But, hell. I can’t get depressed again. I can’t. I’m starting graduate school and will have a more structured environment, which should help, but also considerably more stress (both academic and financial), which may not. I’m not sure I ever really recovered from this past fall and winter’s bout.

Back to the Psalm–another verse, verse 4, has also long spoken to me, and I actually had it written on a shtender* that I bought in Jerusalem when I was eighteen: “אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה– אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ.”
“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.”

I want God in my life, but I’m angry at God. I am having misgivings about organized religion. It feels like too much for me a lot of the time. I am not sure that one can have God, at least not the God I want and in the way that I want, without organized religion. I am also not sure that one can have community, or at least not the community that I want, without organized religion. Even though “community” often disappoints or infuriates or bores me, I don’t know what I would do without it.

I am hoping that I can put some thought/effort/writing into all of this, in one form or another, throughout Elul and arrive at a more satisfactory place than I find myself now.

What’s your Elul going to be about? How do you feel about Psalm 27?

[Here are some thoughts about teshuva from 2003/2009. This post wasn’t really about teshuva, interestingly enough. I’ll have to think about that some more!]

* Shtender is the Yiddish word for lectern. The one that I bought looked something like this.

“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.