For the benefit of those who may not know it, I am passionate about mental health awareness! AND I am passionate about eliminating the horrible stigma that keeps people from seeking help for acute depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and debilitating anxiety disorders.
I wear a lime green awareness ribbon so I will be asked what it stands for. It means I will talk honestly about mental illnesses. In doing this I can help end the mystery and stigma that goes with being incorrectly and hurtfully labeled as a loony, a nut case or worse.
I have been a victim of stigma. It has been 26 years since I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. In the years after this my family and I bore the pain and confusion of my diagnosis nearly entirely alone because almost no one talked openly with me about my mental illness.
When I experienced a two-year siege of severe depression 12 years ago, the stigma was yet firmly in place. While undertaking many medication trials I could not manage more than a vacant-ness about me. When I attended Shabbat services during that time I wished the Jewish prayer for healing, the Mi Shebeirach, was prayed with me in mind too. For, though physically sound, I was seriously unwell and desperately in need of healing and caring and validation.
In spite of stigma, with a mixture of medications, coupled with the love and support of Jeff, my kids and a few dear ones, I recovered. Like me, many people can manage chronic mental illness with today’s medications and with supportive understanding. Tragically, many of those afflicted wait years to seek help or never reach out for help because societal judgment and general lack of knowledge about mental disorders is so fierce.
I am standing before you today with deep gratitude to Larry and Allie Mink and Nancy Sidhu and Barb Smith and Jeff for establishing with me four years ago our congregational social action movement to address and end the stigma of mental illness in our synagogue. I knew intimately the pain of stigma, but didn’t know when we founded the program if I had the strength to share my personal story of mental illness. Obviously, I do have that strength and I am so much healthier and happier for it.
Every day I take medications to keep my mind stable. I also practice stress management techniques, keep to a daily routine, prioritize sleep AND I receive the support of a now huge cadre of friends. I’m mentally healthy for the moment. So why, you may ask, is my name on today’s Mi Shebeirach list???
Lithium, the first medication I took for bipolar disorder damaged my kidneys irreparably. Though I stopped taking lithium in 2005, my kidney function has declined to the point that I now need a kidney transplant.
I have received phenomenal support in all areas of my life in my pursuit of a transplant, but I find myself needing to remind people that the reason I need a kidney is because of my mental illness. My mental illness has brought about physical illness.
I am very hopeful that the days of silent struggle for members of our community who deal with mental illness are over–that their names have a place in our prayers for healing. A step toward this is that for the past year we have sung our Mi Shebeirach prayer not just for the healing of body and spirit, but intentionally for the healing of MIND as well.
So, I not only hope you will openly talk about mental illness, I implore you to do so. In doing this, you validate perhaps your own suffering and certainly that of others who suffer. Together, all of us can offer those afflicted with mental illness a loving, caring environment in which to heal.
WHAT COULD BE MORE JEWISH!
BE WELL—Shabbat Shalom!