Erev Shabbat–May 11, 2018
It is a tremendous privilege to speak from the bimah tonight as Congregation Emanu El marks its fifth year in a row observing Mental Health Awareness Month.
I don’t have to ask you to stand up right now if mental illness touches you or someone you love, because if I did–all of you would stand.
We wear lime green awareness ribbons to draw attention to the growing, widespread incidence of mental illness and to call out the societal stigma that keeps people from getting the help they need.
The stigma of mental illness affects each one of us directly or indirectly.
In very recent years we have seen the painful stigma being called out by admired celebrities and famous professional athletes. They do this by publicizing their intimate stories of mental health struggle.
Each of us, not just celebrities, is composed of stories that make up our lives…some we repeatedly tell, some we have never spoken aloud. Many of the unspoken ones are withheld because of fear of societal driven shame.
Many of you know my story of having my native kidneys irreparably damaged by years of taking lithium a common prescription for the treatment of bipolar disorder. My doctor told me nearly two years ago that I needed a kidney transplant and to ask everyone I knew to donate a kidney to me. My kidney transplant was necessary because I have mental illness.
The support I asked for and received in finding a matching living donor was overwhelming good and strong from all walks of my life. Especially from you and you and you and this entire congregation. Amazingly a circle of people, many from our congregation, gathered around me to offer their kidney.
I allowed many people into my story by keeping them informed of my effort-filled journey back to health. They liked being included in the story and gave back much needed support and love.
I ultimately found a near perfect match in my brother John. Three months ago John and I were forever uniquely joined when he donated his left kidney to me. Today my kidney function has been restored and I have energy not known to me in years.
There is no stigma surrounding kidney disease!
The great American poet Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I have lived that statement!
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder twenty-seven years ago I bore the confusion and shame of my diagnosis silently. It took me years to really believe that I did not cause myself to have manic depression. Many more years passed before I revealed my diagnosis and my story to a few good friends.
In recent years, I acquired the confidence to tell my story publically for the purpose of fighting the ignorant stigma that mental illness is to be born alone in shame.
Trusting the universe in sharing my true-life story has brought to me only concern and commradery and most importantly has allowed me to finally live my whole self out loud.
The response to sharing my mental health diagnosis and my journey to kidney transplant—assures me that many, maybe most, people respond to difficult, honest, true stories by being kind and helpful.
So especially in this month of May—a month of mental health awareness, let’s consider the value of sharing aloud our untold, agonizing stories of mental, physical or spiritual distress so that we might receive all the goodness that this Jewish community can offer.
And as importantly, when we are trusted with another’s difficult story let us each listen carefully so that we might fulfill the intent Judaism expresses in the beautiful Mi Shebeirach prayer.
It is our powerful prayer for friends or loved ones who are struggling with physical, mental or spiritual challenges.
I believe this prayer speaks not just to our desire for their healing, but is a call for us to determine our role in their healing.
May YOU be well!!