Having depression doesn’t mean you lack emunah (belief in G-d)
(Disclaimer: I began writing this in 2012 and left it alone until continuing it today.)
I find this piece to be kind of timely since this past week it was Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, which is a mental health initiative where money is dedicated to mental health awareness for every text and tweet for every time the hashtag #BellLetsTalk is included. It’s a neat initiative I’ve been a fan of and I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts about said topic with a frum perspective.
I’ve often been told by rabbis that sadness and anger are signs that you disagree with the way G-d runs the world. You feel like this because you’ve developed a feeling within that you have to be compelled to have control in certain areas of life. And because you don’t – that is the cause of these emotions.
Some may say that even when dealt with a blow of health – this trigger can cause a roller coaster of emotions that fall under the realms of anger and sadness. With this understanding, it would seem that coming to terms with your illness and accepting that G-d is in charge and that the challenge he’s given you is not something beyond your ability to manage. By this, you can control and limit these emotions.
It takes a while to get healthy – I know this personally. Thank G-d I am proud to say, that I’ve made a strong recovery.
That’s all wonderful.
But my big question – is how does this apply with mental illness – particularly with depression?
I believe that people with clinical depression don’t choose to be depressed, neither do they want to be depressed. It isn’t some particular event or trigger that causes the depression – most of the time it just happens. Out of blue. Without prompting. It can happen anywhere and in any situation. It can come and go. The intensity of the episodes can vary.
And that is the reality of someone with this medical illness- Having depression doesn’t mean you have a lack of emunah. It’s the lot you’ve been dealt with. And as Pirkei Avos tells us “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.” This is your reality. It might suck big time but you have to accept it as part of your life. It’s a massive step to continue moving forward. Accepting it means being rich.
And I want to be rich.
When I began writing this I had just been in an argument on Facebook about depression and Judaism. I’ll admit I was very fired up (hey come on, its a Facebook comment war) and I was hoping to make a point that there is a distinction between your traditionally perceived “down in the dumps” depression and a chemical imbalance that free will seemingly has no power over (this being that the imbalance is a G-dly decision upon an individual as a challenge for their lives) and that it’s a person’s goal to overcome it as a reality of their life. The guy was talking about R’Nachman of Breslov and how he had depression and tried to combat this in his lifetime. I was by no means trying to discredit the trials and tribulations of R’Nachmam (G-d forbid) but rather show how perhaps things have changed since then and that new discoveries have made things (at least in my mind) a little clearer in how to distinguish between psychological anguish and built-in physical anguish. The guy wasn’t having any of it. He proceeded to call me names and that I should take whatever drugs to combat my illness and stop taking it out on the rabbi. I wasn’t offended. I wasn’t even trying to antagonize the guy or combat the points he was trying to make. Of course G-d had chemical imbalances in mind (even though those hadn’t existed yet) when parlaying his wisdom on R’Nachman.
I was disappointed. But not surprised.
My disappointment is with people like them who preach without knowing about problems firsthand. It’s people that stigmatize those with documented mental illnesses as those who lack emunah and the koach to “turn that frown upside down” because that’s all it really is to you. As someone who deals with this – and will probably have to do so for the rest of my life – I was offended and hurt by this insensitive point of view.
But you know what? You’ll still have supporters – they are your true friends. They’re the ones who understand that these are the challenges that Hashem has given you. And they want to be there for you because they love you and it’s the right thing to do.
And there’s those ones who are pushed away by your illness and your willingness to be open about it. It becomes the first thing people think about when your name comes to mind. It scares people away.
It becomes a harsh and universal reality that having mental illness is a weakness. People speak of it in demeaning tones. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ignorant and insensitive rabbis who would raise a flag on you because of your illness – or better yet the perception of it. Let’s be honest, having a mental illness doesn’t look that great on a shidduch resume… But everyone has their baggage and their imperfections.
And perhaps I’m being unfair in this assumption. Of course there are jerk rabbis and uneducated who dismiss the illnesses as ordinary emotions that any G-d fearing yid can (and must) overcome. It’s no difference than asking how do you overcome cancer? How do you manage diabetes or substance abuse? Mental illness is no difference than any of those things. It might be far-fetched but you have to take that kind of approach to these things.
Thankfully I’ve been blessed to have encountered and learned from people who deal with similar (if not the same issues) as myself. It gives me hope. And yes… Emunah.
I might be painting an ugly picture but there are ways to make things better. I’m probably being unfair about this as well. We’re taught to judge people favourably. And perhaps a great way to make things better is to create conversation. It shouldn’t be taboo any more. It might be uncomfortable at first – but what difficult thing in this world isn’t uncomfortable. Assumptions and perceptions are one of the worst things I can think of in this world. Let’s help change this.
I strongly recommend reading the following article written by Rabbi Korobkin from the BAYT, which was originally published in the Canadian Jewish News in 2012.