“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.


Missing Egypt

17 04 2009

Okay, I’ll admit it, although it is difficult, at first, to admit to such a perverse idea: Sometimes I miss Egypt.

There, I said it. At times I find myself wistfully wishing for slavery. I am apparently not the first to feel this way (Numbers 11:4-6):

ד וְהָאסַפְסֻף אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבּוֹ, הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה; וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ, גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר. 4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: ‘Would that we were given flesh to eat!
ה זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת-הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת-הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת-הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת-הַשּׁוּמִים. 5 We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;
ו וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל–בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ. 6 but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nought save this manna to look to.’

For years, I did not understand the complaining of the Israelites in the desert after Moses and God miraculously took them out of the iron furnace of Egypt. (This was not a solitary occurrence: see Exodus 16:1-3 and Numbers 14:1-4 in addition to the verses cited above.) These verses (Deuteronomy 4:32-34) pretty well sum up the uniquely miraculous feat of the Exodus from Egypt (you may think you recognize verse 34 from the haggadah but you are probably thinking of Deuteronomy 26:8):

לב כִּי שְׁאַל-נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ לְפָנֶיךָ, לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְעַד-קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם:  הֲנִהְיָה, כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, אוֹ, הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ. 32 For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
לג הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה–וַיֶּחִי. 33 Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
לד אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם–לְעֵינֶיךָ. 34 Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before thine eyes?

It was a miraculous, amazing, earth-shatteringly impossible feat! Why weren’t they grateful? How could anyone want to be a slave? It’s almost criminal to wish for such a thing, when all the enslaved peoples of the world must hungrily yearn for freedom. What is going on here? Why do I miss Egypt and what do I mean by “Egypt”?

We are each supposed to remember and feel the suffering we experienced in Egypt. As this one line states very succinctly (from the Haggadah and Mishna Pesachim 10:5):

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

In each generation, a person must look upon himself as if he had personally left Egypt.

Egypt means many things to many people. Some think of the actual experience of being an ancient Israelite in the land of Egypt. Others think of more modern versions of slavery or suffering, or of the Holocaust. For me, the first time I connected to the seder on a visceral level was after I had experienced both depression and redemption from depression.

One year, sitting at the seder, the salt water suddenly tasted just like the tears that I remembered shedding continuously for months, while in the deepest pit of despair. The dense, sticky charoset reminded me of the laborious process of emerging from bed every dusky morning and getting through the day. The tasteless cardboard-like matzah, caught in my throat, reminded me of countless meals eaten without tasting a thing, of numerous lectures plodded through uncomprehendingly. And then, finally, the sweet taste of freedom, redemption, and rebirth, first in the egg in salt water, which tastes scrumptious after the rounds of matzah and marror, and then–the chicken soup! Nothing says freedom quite like a rich bowl of my mother’s chicken soup. (The matzah kugel tastes a little bit less like freedom.) The freedom that I experienced that year, the first year that I connected the ancient Israelites’ Egypt with my Egpyt, was remarkable. I emerged transformed and with a new understanding of both slavery and freedom.

So why my newfound sympathy for the Israelites who complained in the desert, who took their freedom for granted and wished to revert to slavery?

Freedom is trickier than we usually admit at Passover time, when everyone is busy extoling its virtues. Freedom is not without its complications. That first spoonful of chicken soup is incomparably wonderful, but freedom wears thin after awhile. Freedom is scary. Depression is horrible, but it’s safe. I am only now beginning to understand that.  Depression, like slavery, limits one’s horizons. All you need to do is get through the day. Expectations of onself, and from others, are minimized. If you want to kill yourself, and you don’t, that’s enough to make the day a smashing success. If you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, and you do, that’s enough to make that day worthwhile, almost regardless of what you do once you get out of bed. A slave has to meet his quota of bricks, and while he may suffer tremendously under his taskmasters, he knows what they expect of him and it is in their best interest to keep him fed and sheltered from the harsh noonday sun. There is safety and security in that. Depression is not fun. It’s miserable to want to die, or to have your singular goal for the day to get out of bed (shower and tooth-brushing optional). It was incredibly frightening to put myself into a hospital when I was afraid that I would hurt myself, but also incredibly wonderful to have my basic needs met by someone else while I was there (“the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic”!). To be looked after, to feel cared for, even in misery, had something over this freedom that wearies my soul.

Freedom demands choices. Choices every day. All the time. One after another. Big choices and small, significant and entirely insignificant.

Freedom means expectations. Freedom means that getting up and making bricks every day isn’t enough–not nearly enough. And that is very scary.

I thought that once I left Egypt, which pretty much happened several years ago, things would be easy. The Promised Land glimmered hopefully in the not-too-distant distance. The Promised Land of being able to go to sleep at night, get up in the morning, and do something useful, fulfilling, and interesting with my day in between. The Promised Land of a husband, children, and a full professional and communal life. But it turns out that there is a vast desert between slavery and the Promised Land. I am traversing that desert right now.

Sometimes, I get a burst of energy and run a mile, quickly, towards the Promised Land. I see things–wonderful, exciting, gratifying things–that I could not have imagined while enslaved in Egypt. I picture a book-lined room and myself, sitting in a comfortable chair, writing eloquently and movingly about things that matter. I picture conversations with close friends and utter strangers about this crazy world we live in, and how we can make it more bearable for all of us. But then I get closer, and I see a lifetime of choices, including many difficult ones, before me. I see all of the responsibility of freedom, and I get scared. I run–literally run!–back towards Egypt. I crawl into bed for a few days. I yearn for confinement, for a world small enough to take in with a single sweeping glance. I yearn for reduced expectations, for a kindly nurse to take my temperature and bring me three square meals and give me something in the form of a small pill to help me sleep at night. I’ll make bricks, I think. I’ll curl up and sleep at odd hours of the day and night. I’ll contemplate death and feel worthless and small and insignificant. Just don’t make go out there and live my life as a free woman! Please! Anything but that!

These thoughts make me sad, and they don’t last forever. At first, I misunderstood the situation, and thought that those thoughts meant that I was back in Egypt. But I am not. I am out. I have been liberated. I walked out of Egypt years ago under the power of my own two feet and with the help of God’s mighty, outstretched hand and his perceptive psychotherapists, and I have not gone back since. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally look back, from my vantage point atop a hill in the desert, halfway between Egypt and the Promised Land, and wish to be back there.

One of the many things that I love about Judaism is that it allows me to say, “I don’t want to be free!” and even to throw a small temper-tantrum against the very freedom that I know saved me and makes my life worth living. Rather than being mortified at this thought, as I was when I began writing this post, I can open up the Tanakh and see that the Israelites had these ostensibly terrible thoughts as well. They weren’t saved by skilled psychotherapists and 20 mg/day of pharmaceuticals. They were saved by the almighty hand of God, by signs, wonders, and miracles galore. And if they could complain to cover up their fear, then I can be scared, too.

It is also no small comfort to know that it took the Israelites forty years to traverse the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. One popular interpretation of this lengthy punishment for the sin of the spies (see Numbers 13 and 14) is that the Israelites needed the time to transition from slavery to freedom. They could not have entered the Promised Land immediately after redemption from Egypt. I feel that I, too, would be ill-suited to transition immediately from slavery to freedom. It’s just too hard. So I am trying to let myself take this time–not that I have much of a choice, apparently–and let myself look forward with anticipation and then balance that with a wistful look back at the misery that I leave behind me, without being too harsh with myself for this journey.

Leaving Egypt was merely the first step. Becoming free is a process and a journey, not a week-long holiday.

In every generation, a person must see herself as if she, too, had come out of Egypt.

13 04 2009

Passover and the exodus from Egypt is the story of the Jewish people for a very important reason: Because this is how we learn to live our lives. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that this one story is the answer to all that ails humanity, but I think that it at least starts us off in a very good direction.

I. Suffering and Obligation

Deuteronomy 10:19:

יט ואהבתם, את-הגר: כי-גרים הייתם, בארץ מצרים. 19 You shall love therefore the stranger; because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Who among us has not been a “stranger in the land of Egypt”? Who among us has not felt enslaved, trapped, abused, despondent, neglected, stuck, addicted, bereft, or depressed?

Our intimate, personal knowledge of suffering from Egypt requires us to care not only for the stranger, but also for the fatherless and the widow (Deuteronomy 24:18-19):

יח וזכרת, כי עבד היית במצרים, ויפדך יקוק אלקיך, משם; על-כן אנכי מצוך, לעשות, את-הדבר, הזה. 18 But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you then; therefore I command thee to do this thing.
יט כי תקצר קצירך בשדך ושכחת עמר בשדה, לא תשוב לקחתו–לגר ליתום ולאלמנה, יהיה: למען יברכך יקוק אלהיך, בכל מעשה ידיך. 19 When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

II. Obligation Depends on Ability; Ability Depends on Knowledge

We are not obligated by God to do the impossible; we are only required to do the possible. We are not programmed for failure. What makes caring for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan possible?

Egypt makes it possible. Egypt means that you can and therefore must love the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.

An essential aspect of Pesach is that each of us must feel as if we were slaves in Egypt and then experience, through the seder, the moment of liberation. After liberation, in the Sinai desert, the Jewish people received the command to “love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” If we had not been “strangers in the land of Egypt,” we could not truly know the plight of the strangers who move among us and we could not be obligated to love them.

We who have suffered ourselves, and who have, whether through the strength given to us by God or by the power inherent in our beings, been freed from slavery or suffering, truly know how the ubiquitous “other” suffers and only we can truly help them.

I really do not want to say that we suffer in order to help others. Who would volunteer for that thankless task? I would be justifiably outraged if someone said that to me. However, once we see and know that suffering is for some unfathomable reason necessary in this world, we have no choice but to use our own personal suffering, and our own redemption, to help others.

III. My Religion

Religion, if it does anything at all, should make our lives better in some way. It makes our lives better not because it requires us to “love the stranger.” (That’s just a nice platitude–along the lines of “Have a nice day” or some other meaningless thing the grocery store clerk might mutter in your direction after you sign your receipt.)

No, Judaism makes our lives better because it insists that we–the ever-suffering, enslaved for 350 years, powerless Israelites, who were so deep in the mucky pit of despair that the Midrash tells us that they no longer wished for redemption–are particularly and specifically commanded to love the stranger, that utterly unknowable wayfarer, and the widow and orphan, who may not be strangers to a community but belong to no one and are therefore as alone as people can be.

There are other places in the Torah (writ large) where we are commanded to love our brothers, our friends, and our family. I do not think that such injunctions are unique to religion or to Judaism. Those are just common sense.

I am going to go out on a limb here and declare that reason given for the commandment to love the stranger is, alone, a good enough reason for me to engage deeply and honestly with Jewish texts. It was those, those who would otherwise be strangers, who came out in support of me during my times of deepest darkest alienation and unknowability, who made my life livable. When I felt most like an unloved and perhaps unlovable stranger, these people, my saviors, came out of nowhere to love me and make my life livable. If my life had not gradually become more and more livable since the Fall of 1998, I would, in a very real and tangible way, not be here today. I would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt, or, much worse, I would be dead.

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה. וְאִלּוּ לֹא הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם, הֲרֵי אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם. וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָנוּ חֲכָמִים, כֻּלָנוּ נְבוֹנִים, כֻּלָנוּ זְקֵנִים, כֻּלָנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם. וְכָל הַמַרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the L-rd, our G-d, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.

Given my understanding of the reason why the story of the Exodus plays such a central role in Judaism and in my life, it makes perfect sense that being wise, understanding, or knowing the Torah would not exempt us from telling this story. If anything, one who is considered wise, understanding, or knowing in Torah–one who sits in the ivory tower, as it were, far from the stranger, widow, and orphan–may need to tell it more. The goal of Pesach (and of Judaism) is to tell the story, to taste the salty tears of interminable bondage, and then, with a newfound knowledge of the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, to set out to ease their suffering. All who tell this story, all who consider themselves as part of this people, all who declare “עבדים היינו”–“We were slaves” every Pesach, are the inheritors of the Exodus and therefore of the injunction to love the stranger. All who taste the bitter marror join the fleeing Israelites as they cross the Sea of Reeds.

This–the centrality of Passover– is reason alone, for me, to belong to a chain of history and peoplehood stretching back to Egypt and stretching forward to redemption.

I hope that we can all journey, together, from the unmitigated suffering of Egypt to the bright, clear light of the Promised Land. I, and you, too, came out of Egypt.

Note: This piece is based on something that I wrote in 2006 and rewrote in 2008.