Accepting the Darkness

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Rabbi Boris, November/December 2012

As the weather cools and we head into our homes for extended periods of time, we often feel a sense of comfort and safety. Separated from the chill outside, we find sanctuary in the coziness of home, and the familiar pleasures of the winter months. Yet this dark season can also be a time of changing moods, of separation, of loneliness and sometimes, painful emotional suffering. For many in our community, it is nearly impossible to feel a sense of safety and comfort. For those who suffer from severe depression and mental illness, the darkness of winter can often hide or bring about some of the most difficult feelings. This is an issue that affects all of us. Yet bringing to light this reality of community life can bring us to a greater understanding of our own sense of self, and lead us to even greater ways of supporting and bringing healing to others in our community.

In the Jewish world, we are open about so much, and can discuss honestly the important health issues which people encounter in their lives and in those of their families and friends. Food and eating issues, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and even death are painful and traumatic issues dealt with by members of our community, and we can talk about them even through the suffering they create in our lives. Yet the shame attached to mental illness, the fear of labeling ourselves or those we care about, often prevents open discussion about this important issue. We Jews love to talk, but we don’t talk enough about the suffering that can be found in the mind.

A quick look at the statistics should help us realize that these issues affect nearly everyone in our community and our society. As Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen writes in his article “Judaism and Mental Illness,” one in four families has someone who has experienced a serious mental illness. One in ten people has suffered from mental illness themselves, most often severe depression. And interestingly, he also points out that unlike the general community, mental illness in Jewish communities seems to be equally spread among both men and women. Mental illness knows no bounds. With this in mind, when we sit at a Shabbat service or chat with people in the hallways of our synagogue, more than likely the person next to us has personal or family experiences with mental illness.

Being affected by mental illness, whether yourself or someone in your family, can be one of the most isolating of experiences. There is such a stigma that we have as a society with mental illness, and there is often shame and fear in discussing it with others. Unlike physical ailments, problems with the mind are still so much less researched and far more mysterious. We are still figuring out not only how to cope with them, but also how to discuss them with others. It is much easier to say a family member is physically sick, then to say that you don’t know what is going on in their mind. Even the Talmud recognized the suffering that many people with mental illness feel, of the sense of being blocked and deeply isolated from others: “All the gates are locked except for the gates of an ona’ah [a person crying out in emotional pain]”
(Baba Metziah 59B).

My sister dealt with mental illness for much of her life. She was diagnosed with manic depression in college and went through years of mania, psychotic episodes and severe depression. Even after intensive therapy and medication, the demons of her mental illness eventually caught up with her and she ended her life right as I was heading off to graduate school. This is an experience that has changed the entire course of my spiritual path, and led me to the choice to help others through the challenges they experience in their lives. Yet I know that my experience is not entirely unique, and I share this familiarity of mental illness in my family with so many others in our community.

The first step in community healing is to recognize that each person we encounter has a story, and most likely a story with some amount of pain. We can understand that we all live with imperfect minds, that we are all broken. Yet when we come together as a community, to both recognize the brokenness in others and also be brave enough to share our own experiences, then we come to a place of true community understanding and connection.

Rabbi James Simon wrote a beautiful blessing that I hope we can all take to heart during these dark winter months:

May we open our ears so that we can hear the pain in the voice of those who are mentally ill. May we open our eyes so that we can see what is going on in front of us and truly see the suffering in the eyes of another. May we open our hands to act on what we see and offer help to those in need. May we open our mouths to respond to the emotional pain in those who suffer, and may we offer healing words of love and comfort.

May this deep recognition bring healing and comfort to all in our community.