It is 8:00 on Saturday morning. I carefully button my wool jacket and pull on my skirt over my tights. At 9:00 I walk into the large elegant sanctuary of my shul (synagogue), and I can hear the murmurs of morning prayers. As I sit in my usual row in the back, I am greeted by familiar faces. I am asked about my week at school, and I smile and talk about the usual; classes, friends and USY. But behind my smile, there is a secret, a piece of me that feels so inconsistent with who I am within the walls of my synagogue. Walking into shul on Saturday mornings feels like a breath of fresh air. It is a place where I feel happy, a place where I choose to spend my time because it is truly important to me. But, for the rest of my week, happiness feels like a distant memory.
During my junior year of high school, I battled a paralyzing episode of depression. Each morning, waking up to get to school was a struggle, socializing was a chore, and I constantly questioned and doubted the meaning and value of my life. The dark cloud of shame haunted me. The jarring words of suicide and hospitalization were hideous gashes in the image of myself I projected, the involved Jewish leader that I was thought to be. As I sat in the familiar red chairs of my shul, I could feel the intense tension between the two conflicting identities I held. I was struggling to love and value my life, while at the same time I was supposed to be a leader in my community, a person that other Jewish teens looked up to. For me it was impossible to imagine the possibility of other people finding meaning in my leadership, while I could not even find meaning within myself.
My secret was something that weighed me down and made me question my true role in my Jewish community. I had the perception that everyone in my community was perfect, no one would understand my experiences, and that I was too broken for my high achieving congregation. But I realized that I was a part of this ‘perfect’ community and was one of the high achieving people within. If my mental illness is a secret that I carry, how many people in the sanctuary also have secrets? How many people struggle or have a piece of their identity that seems to conflict with my perception of them? I realize now that the image I projected to my congregation does not have to conflict with my personal struggle. I can be a person who excitedly arrives at shul on a Saturday morning and faces the challenge of mental illness. Mental illness does not have to counter Jewish identity, it can be a part of it. It is not something unfamiliar to our community, it is just something that is not publicly talked about enough. Our struggles and successes are all part of the fabric of who we are. It is important to recognize that the pain and failure that we experience is no less part of us than our achievements and triumphs. When synagogue communities talk about mental health publicly, more people will feel seen, and less will feel burdened by their secrets. More will understand that it is possible to be a role model and imperfect, and that many of these people in our lives are.
If you are reading this right now and are struggling, I want you to know that you are not alone. We really have no idea what our neighbor, classmate, or fellow shul goer is going through. While mental illness can be invisible, support and destigmatizing efforts should not be. I hope my story can work to uplift the fact that mental illness is real and prevalent in the Jewish community, and that if we talk about it and start important conversations, more people will feel seen, heard and valued. Our struggles do not conflict with who we are, they are part of who we are. It is okay to not be okay.