Jeff Spears Speaks on Mental Health Awareness In Action

Good Shabbes.

It is my distinct honor and privilege to stand before you and share some of my story regarding mental illness. I do this with the firm belief that is through the sharing of our experiences, our journeys, that we can put an end to the debilitating stigma that is associated with mental illness.

My story comes from the perspective of a family member living with one who has been diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder.

In 1991, my incredibly gifted, loving, and invincible wife was hospitalized while in the throes of a full manic episode. My darling had lost touch with reality in a big way.

So there I was with 7 year-old Neil and 3 year-old Sarah and my soul mate in the locked-down portion of the hospital. What happened to her? What is mania? Can one ever recover or is she lost forever? Will she get back to normal – to how she was? What caused it? Why didn’t I see it coming and do something to prevent it? How will I care for the kids? What will I tell the kids? How will I be able to work and also care for the kids? Talk about scared. Talk about lost.

Four things happened rather quickly that quelled my fear. Really many many things happened, but it is these four things that stick out in my mind as milestones in the early days of our journey.

A strong belief that I could play a role in Heidi’s Recovery

Unwavering love & support from my brother and sister-in-law, Greg and Donna Spears

Support from Rabbi Hillel Cohn

Support from friends

I felt very strongly that Heidi would have a better chance of recovering and of recovering quicker if I were there to help her. Call it conceited, call it self righteous, call it naive, call it faith, call it love, call it what you will, but I felt it in the depths of my being that I needed to be with her to help her. So I visited her every day in the locked-down part of the hospital. The hospital was a strange and scary place in the beginning. But like most things unknown, it was not as bad as one conjures up in your mind before experiencing the real thing. Truth be known, I think the visits helped me as much as they did Heidi.

There is no way in the world I could have visited Heidi without the support of my brother and sister-in-law to care for Neil and Sarah and the household while I was away. The loving care of Aunt Donna and Uncle Greg relieved all fears of how my precious children were doing while I was with Heidi. My gratitude for the gift of their support cannot ever be adequately expressed.

I honestly do not know how, but somehow Rabbi Hillel Cohn found out almost immediately what had happened. I’m not sure if I called him or he called me, but we talked and thus things began to come into focus and fears were replaced with knowledge. Rabbi asked if he could send over a mental health professional to talk with me about Heidi and what she was experiencing.

Dr. Kovitz arrived at my home and I’ll never forget it. We talked in the back yard as I felt the house was too confining. I had to move as we talked so we walked back and forth in the yard. I learned a lot about mania and bipolar disease, none of which I remembered after he left. What I did remember is that he told me Heidi would get better. He told me she would get better! He also told me that it was possible, maybe even likely that she’d experience mania again. But he told me she’d get better. That’s all I needed to hear. Bye-bye most of the fear.

A couple of dear friends did so much as well. Betsy MacCarthy and Jane Lazar helped to make sure the kids and I were doing well. I will forever be grateful for their love and support.

A special temple friend of mine learned of Heidi’s hospitalization and came right over. He shared with me his experiences, his story with mental illness in his immediate family. He stressed that he was there for me and that Heidi would get better. A now familiar message, but one I so deeply appreciated hearing.

Yes indeed Heidi did get better. Heidi is better and she works hard at staying better.

My bride spent two weeks in the hospital before returning home to start the next part of our journey. The journey from 1991 to now has not been without its ups and downs and I do mean that literally. There have been new medications necessitated by the side effects of the old medications. There have been changes in body chemistry which then required medication changes and adjustments. You should know that adjustments or changes in mental health medications is a long and tedious process requiring slowly ramping up on a medication and then if the medication proves to be ineffective, slowly ramping down before trying the next med. As well, many mental illnesses are treated with a cocktail of several medications which makes finding the correct mix even more challenging. It takes time, lots of it, months and sometimes more, and when you are suffering time passes so very slowly. There have been periods, some long, some not so long, of blissful calm and periods, some long, some not so long, of struggle. Throughout our journey we have come to recognize warning signs that tell us to make some adjustments in our lives. We have made and continue to make changes in our lifestyle to promote better mental health. These changes are not losses in our lives, no they are changes that greatly enhance our lives. Through it all, we work at it as a team. Heidi does the hard work and I run support. Both jobs require honesty, trust and love.

So that’s some of my/our story with mental illness. I encourage all of us to tell our stories. Do not be afraid – Do not be afraid to share your experiences, your journeys as it is in this manner that we can best put an end to the ugly stigma that is associated with mental illness. Once we end the stigma, and I know we will, more of us will seek and receive the help we deserve and need to live fuller and richer lives.


Kol ha-o-lam ku-lo gesher tzar me’od
V’ha-i-kar lo l’fached klal

The entire world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to be afraid.

Shabbat Shalom.