Telling My Truth: Mental Illness in the Rabbinate

By Rabbi Sandra Cohen

(Originally published on September 28, 2018 on RavBlog.)

Sometimes it is hard to speak one’s truth.

There I was, at the bridge table, listening to my friend expound on how so many mental illnesses resolve on their own. She is a social worker and I have no doubt that she both encounters people with a variety of mental illnesses on a regular basis, and knows exactly what she was talking about. And yet, I felt so invisible.

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My mental illnesses have not resolved over time.

I have serious, diagnosable illnesses — bipolar disorder, with some generalized anxiety disorder — and they, especially the depression part, significantly impair me at times.

The arc of mental illness is often portrayed as a simple one: a person is suffering, she gets help from a therapist and a rabbi, and perhaps some medication, and then she gets better. A happy ending.

This is not my experience.

I was first diagnosed with major depression as a teenager. I went to therapy, took medication after medication in desperate hopes of finding one that would help and was even hospitalized. Since that time, I have continued to work with a therapist and a psychiatrist — and a rabbi. My last bout of deep depression lasted some eight months, as my treatment team and my family struggled to find something, anything, that might help.

There are many types of depression. There is situational depression, the painful response to difficult life events, such as a death, a divorce, a job crisis, a sick child. This might be a moderate dip of mood, or a horrid, deep trough, but one can see the cause, and, often, the way through. There is the psychological depression, the result of hurtful life history or problematic ways of responding to life. When we are experiencing this type of sadness, it is possible to picture ourselves, standing small, alone and sad. We can then bring our adult self, more competent and unafraid, to embrace that frightened child, telling ourselves that we will be okay.

Then there is biological depression. When I experience this, it is overwhelming and complete, a fog so deep that I cannot see out. A small part of my mind that knows that I am ill, but I can not remove myself sufficiently to make it go away. I drown in it.

Mental illness is complicated. For some, medication relieves suffering. For some, meds and therapy work. For some, medication, therapy, rabbinic support, and family love help us navigate an ongoing illness for which there is no cure. Mental illness is real illness:  curable for some, in remission for others, chronic for yet more.

As rabbis, we want to support people experiencing all kinds of illness. We do this through our presence, reaching out to those who are ill and to their families. We do this by noticing when faithful Shabbat attenders disappear from services — and calling to find out why. We do this by offering to pray with someone who is suffering. We do this by bringing God to those in pain.

We are not immune. There are many rabbis taking psychotropic medications, seeing therapists, praying for their children in pain, hoping spouses will recover soon.

And yet, we do not tell. It is still risky for a congregational rabbi to speak of his own mental illness. Who among us would want to risk judgmental glances or whispered conversations about our beloved spouse or children when they are already suffering?

Hiding the reality of mental illness from each other is isolating at best, dangerous at worst. If we cannot speak our truth to one another, to whom can we speak? Our presence in each other’s lives might be redemptive.

We have two partners in our struggles: other rabbis and the Holy One of Blessing.

What is the “אמת” of this verse from Psalm 145? God is close to all who call upon God in truth. The rabbis teach: there is no “Truth” but “Torah.” But when one is ill or in pain, it is not the Torah of hevruta learning to which we turn. Rather it is the Truth of the hevruta of ביקור חולים, of companionship in our illness, of prayers for healing and the shared silence of gentle friendship. By leaning on one another as rabbis, telling the truth of our stories, we can call out to the One Who Heals in truth, and find God’s answer in our community.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen offers pastoral care, works in mental health outreach, and teaches adult education in Denver, Colorado, where she lives with her family.

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