, Guest post from Rabbi David Burstein,
A man went to see his physician because he wasn’t feeling well. “Doctor,” he said, “I am suffering from a dark and unshakable depression. Nothing I do gives me any relief. I am overwhelmed with pain and most days, I can’t even make it out of bed. “Doctor, what should I do?” The doctor thought for a moment then offered the following treatment plan. “This is what you need to do. Tonight, go to the theatre where the Great Carlini is performing. He is the funniest man in the world and everybody who sees him finds him hysterical. By all means, go see Carlini. He is guaranteed to make you laugh and drive away your depression.” Upon hearing these words, the man burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. “But doctor,” he said, “I am Carlini.”
“But doctor, I am Carlini.”
3 years ago on January 19th I turned 50.
I had a beautiful party with 80 plus people. I looked around and saw my wife Elizabeth my three children my dear friends from my congregation I had just left after 14 years in Dayton, my friends from Cincinnati and well wishes from across the country. A video of 50 different people in my life played on a loop on our TV
We ate we drank we laughed and I went to bed that night feeling like the luckiest man on earth.
The next morning I woke up and something felt off. A twinge in the pit of my stomach maybe I had eaten too much but it was sharper and deeper. As the day went on there came a sense of cloudiness, fuzziness around the edges the world seemed
a bit off,
out of sync
out of focus,
darker more shadowed.
Strange I thought and went into my day trying to shake it off But the shadow the darkness stayed and started to grow into the week.
I stopped sleeping well and then at all, I had a harder and harder time getting up and when I did I felt off disconnected and then I began having trouble feeling – feeling anything.
Joy, pleasure, laughter, all seemed fleeting memories…
by February I had begun to stay in bed, work emails piling up phone calls unanswered
by March I had stopped reaching out to friends sitting in my living room on the couch for hour after hour staring at the wall
by April I had stopped engaging with my own wife and children
I would sit for hours in our closet back pressed against the wall trying to ground myself against the wood paneling to feel something- anything.
I still was working barely – coming in late and missing deadlines muscling through on little sleep and much anxiety.
My reality became as fuzzy as my brain I began to lose time…
And on May 26th 2016, the day of my 20th wedding anniversary I found myself in the intake room at Lindner Center of hope, a psychiatric facility just 15 minutes north from where you are sitting now.
Barely hearing as a nurse read into a recorder, 50-year-old male patient severe depressive episode to be admitted for a 72-hour observation.
They took all my possessions and as the doors locked behind me, I could see my wife Elizabeth standing there in the hallway – looking so small and far away. I wouldn’t step outside those doors for 5 weeks… I don’t remember much of that lost June, just glimpses of memories, friends visiting, some of whom are sitting here today, slivers of summer sunrises over my bed, the constant work we did to learn how to function again, the 5 minutes we got on our phones when I was moved from the acute wing where everything was bolted down and made safe- from me.
Group after group after group – and always open doors to rooms where nurses sat on chairs watching us sleep.
My memory is fleeting still but I do remember kindness – kindness of staff, of nurses and doctors and most of all the kindness of the other patients. We were bound together by our struggle and our understanding of each other’s pain.
10 days ago I talked to you about fierce kindness – and today I am asking you to commit to using it in action.
I am sharing my story to help us as a congregation reach out to those who are struggling and support them and their families.
I am sharing my story because it is a human story.
Mental illness is not an easy topic to discuss, but discuss it we must, with open eyes and an open heart.
Mental illness can affect anybody; it does not discriminate.
And I know as I look around this sanctuary today, that it touches so many of us and our loved ones. One in four Americans – one out of every four of us in this room – will be affected by some form of mental illness during our lifetime.
That can include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Substance abuse aggravates all of these conditions.
So pervasive is mental illness that it is the leading cause of disability in America. It is an epidemic with limited funding and advertising and acceptance. But this year depression alone will affect 121 million people worldwide. 121 million people. Because of them, because of the people sitting by our sides, we cannot keep silent.
Yom Kippur is a day when we “make the invisible visible, when we reveal the hidden, because our community is meant to be a safe harbor in life’s turbulent seas, a place where secrets can be shared and where compassion and acceptance are found”.
Depression is not about being sad, or down, or blue, though these may be symptoms. The opposite of depression is not happiness — it is “human vitality.” It can have purely physiological origins. It may be triggered by old sadnesses grown unbearable or anger turned inward. But it becomes a way of being in, and moving through, the world. A grayscale lens, a black and white movie – by which one views and interprets everything else around them.
My doctor at Lindner Center of Hope told me that depression is a liar and a thief. It lies about what is true and steals the things that matter most. It is all-consuming and exhausting, and prevalent in almost every family system yet mental illness is often hidden in the dark recesses of our family stories.
Sad aunts, grandparents who would go to the sanitarium for years to “get well”, cousins, brothers, sisters, parents who sit in dark rooms shades drawn.
It wasn’t so long ago that people only spoke in whispers about cancer. And while today we can speak about cancer and other diseases of the body freely, mental illness still carries with it a stigma and prejudice that prevents so many from seeking the help they need.
We need to make it safer for more people to come out from behind the shadows and find the support and care they need to continue to go on with their lives, both those living with mental illness and those who help to care for them.
Judaism has always understood that physical and mental illness are equally deserving of healing, and we are all a key to that healing. Jews were instrumental in establishing the field of psychology. Freud, Bettelheim, Adler, Fromm and Maslow were Jewish forefathers who had a penchant for expressing and analyzing emotions.
For centuries, Judaism has understood depression to be a part of life. From Moses, who cried out to God, “I can no longer bear the burden of this people alone…it is too heavy for me…Please kill me, let me no longer see my wretchedness,” to King Saul who was overcome by a ruach ra-ah, an “bad spirit” or what we may see as bipolar illness today, our biblical ancestors faced horrific darkness.
What the biblical stories teach us is that mental distress is a natural part of human life and a part of every society.
There is the story of Rabbi Eleazar who is ill,suffering from deep despair. When his friend, Rabbi Yochanan, visits him, he finds Eleazar alone in a darkened room, facing the wall.
He cannot bear to see the light; even the light from Yochanan’s arm is too bright for his eyes and his soul. When Yochanan sees that his friend crying he asks, “Why are you crying?” Then Eleazar finally answers, “I weep because all light fades into darkness, because all beauty eventually rots.” Yochanan, sitting beside his friend replies, “Yes, ultimately everything does die. So perhaps you have reason to weep.” Then Yochanan sat down with his friend and wept alongside him. After a while Yochanan asked, “Does darkness comfort you? Do you want these sufferings?” “No,” Yochanan says. “Then give me your hand,” replies Yochanan, and he lifts Rabbi Eleazar up from his bed and out of his darkened room.
Sometimes, Judaism teaches us, the best way to help people who suffer is not to try and talk them out of their pain or tell them they will get better soon; it is to just be present with them and accompany them in their darkness and into the light of day..
For depression can affect anybody; it does not discriminate.
And I know as I look around this sanctuary today, that it touched so many of us and our loved ones. Because of this, we cannot keep silent.
I was lucky. I was blessed with a loving family, a wife and friends who understood mental illness and severe depression. I was fortunate to have the finances to afford intensive treatment. But even after I came out of the hospital I came face to face the reality of just how hard recovery was going to be. I had basically disappeared from the world I had known and been known in.
I needed to learn how to function with everyday stressors.
I had to relearn everyday activities – I was tentative and scared.
People I had known prior walked on eggshells as if they feared one wrong word could lead to another breakdown. Others told me, “I can’t believe it happened to you – you had everything.”
Five years ago Robin Williams lost his battle with depression. Two years ago it was celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade. Since this time numerous celebrities from Dwayne Johnson to Selena Gomez have come out about their own struggles.
There have been hundreds of videos posted talking about how you are not alone and that people should get help.
Yet despite all of this, people who live with mental illness often continue to feel ostracized, marginalized, and certainly, misunderstood. patronized, ignored and ridiculed…but rarely appreciated or respected.
As Robin Williams’ character said in “Good Will Hunting,” “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not! The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.”
Why is it that we can laud cancer survivors for how hard they’ve fought, but we don’t think about mental illness the same way?”
We have made progress over the years. People talk more openly about therapy. There is greater understanding about the nature of mental illness, though misperceptions still exist. We all need to be clear, mental illness is not a moral failing, it is not a weakness or a character flaw.
In fact, a national mental health organization reinforced this fact when they affixed a very large sign to an Upper West Side building in Manhattan that read, “Depression is a failure of chemistry, not character.” They could have written a long list of mental illnesses, but due to lack of space, couldn’t include them all! A local psychologist would direct her patients to read the sign every time they left her office.
And self-acceptance and community acceptance go hand in hand.
“Our strength is in knowing one another, not hiding from one another. We now have deeper understanding of how brains function. We want to get to where there is communal ease about engaging issues, not in hushed tones, but in a full voice about what’s at the depth of our souls”
We as a society – as a community, must also examine our own views and prejudices about mental illness.
What words do we use? How might we perpetuate harmful stigmas when we loosely use words like “psycho” or say that someone is acting “crazy?” And what might it sound like when we casually say, “That was so bad I wanted to shoot myself,” or “I wanted to jump off the bridge?” What must it feel like to people for whom the bridge has become a nightmare, all too realistic an option to consider?
We can do better we must do better.
And often it’s because we ourselves don’t know how to have the conversation.
People don’t know what to say or what to do. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. They don’t want to upset you, trigger another episode, so they skirt the elephant in the room.
Just know, your questions and concern. Your words of love and support. Your acknowledgment.
Can’t hurt us
Can’t make us sick
What it can do is make us feel just a bit more normal
A bit more understood
A bit more accepted in our broken places
A bit less alone
To those who have a family member or loved one who is suffering, know this; you are not alone either. Your loved one’s disease is not a personal or parental failure, it is biochemistry and genetics. You do not have to hide their affliction. You do not have to be embarrassed or scared to share the suffering and pain that you feel. You are a part of a community that is ready, willing, and able to embrace you and your entire family. This is a community that shows kindness, chesed to all those who are suffering, no matter the nature of their affliction.
I want to speak directly for a moment to those of you who struggle with mental illness of one form or another.
I want you to know that even if I can never fully understand the depths of your pain or the complexities of your life, that you are not alone. We, your clergy and your community, are here for you.
We see you in your wholeness and your brokenness,
Your brokenness is welcome here
The rabbis tell us that in the Ark of the Covenant that travelled with the Israelites through the desert there were two sets of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The first broken tables thrown down in anger by Moses were placed in the ark beneath the two new tables. And these two sets of tablets, both broken and whole, traveled with the people into the Promised Land.
Let’s pause to imagine those collected shards, being placed into the ark.
They must have been heavy. They must have evoked feelings of shame and embarrassment. Yet those broken pieces were given the highest seat of honor. Some commentators even say that they served as the very foundation for the whole tablets, there was a sacredness in their brokenness.
We all vulnerable and fragile at times and this is what makes human.
The rabbis taught us: Do not bury your broken shards. Do not cover them up or discard them. Place these broken pieces in the ark inside you, in a seat of honor. Our broken places are part of us – cherish them and hold them with tenderness. Honor them as real, authentic, and integral to who we are. The ark becomes an embodiment of our own hearts – that are whole in their brokenness.
One of our modern Jewish sages, singer and poet Leonard Cohen, sang,
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.”
When I was at Lindner a friend sent me a card which I placed by my bed.
It was of a beautiful Japanese Pot with gold lines wrapping its body. It told of the Kintsukuroi (“golden mend”), the Japanese art of mending broken pottery using resin laced with gold or silver.
As well as a form of repair, kintsukuroi has a deeper philosophical significance. The mended flaws become part of the object’s design, and people believe the pottery to be even more beautiful having gone through the process of being broken and repaired.
Through kintsukuroi, the cracks and seams are merely a symbol of an event that happened in the life of the object, rather than the cause of its destruction.
Because we in this community will honor and find beauty in the cracks in your lives.
We will sit with you in your darkness, and we will take your hand and lead you to the light of day when you feel ready. And we can also help you find the resources you need.
Continue to be brave and strong, and may this year, help you to find compassion and contentment. And for those of you whose loved ones suffer from mental illness – mothers and fathers and children and siblings and partners – your heart is so full with of both love and pain. Today as I stand before you, I stand in awe of you and all that you carry every day.
A psychologist was walking along a Hawaiian beach when he kicked a bottle poking up through the sand. Opening it, he was astonished to see a cloud of smoke and a genie smiling at him.
“For your kindness,” the genie said, “I will grant you one wish!” The psychologist paused, laughed, and replied, “I have always wanted a road from Hawaii to California.”
The genie grimaced, thought for a few minutes and said, “Listen, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that! Think of all the pilings needed to hold up the highway and how long they’d have to be to reach the bottom of the ocean. Think of all the pavement. That’s too much to ask.”
“OK,” the psychologist said, not wanting to be unreasonable. “I’m a psychologist. Make me understand my patients. What makes them laugh and cry, why are they sad, why is it life is so difficult for them what do they really want? Basically, teach me to understand what makes them tick!”
The genie paused, and then sighed, “Did you want two lanes or four?
Laughter feels good and it can help.
It did for me.
It showed me I could feel joy again.
Because recovery happens one day at a time.
Elie Wiesel said, “We must turn our suffering into a bridge so that others might suffer less”
So today I share my story because it is a human story, shared by many others. Those who live with mental illness. And for all of you who have loved someone whose life has been darkened by it. My hand is always outstretched to you, my ear always there to listen, my heart there to sit with you. You are not alone. We are your community and we will accept you for all that you are no judgement.