One of the issues I grappled with after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was being accepted, particularly in the Orthodox Jewish community. You see, I am an Orthodox woman â I keep my head covered, dress modestly, keep kosher, observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, and am readily identified as an observant Jewish woman. Community has always been very important to me, both as a Jewish woman, and as a woman in recovery.
Sadly, mental illness carries a lot of stigma in my community, primarily because of a lack of education and understanding. While the Orthodox Community is loving, nurturing and tight-knit, people with mental illness are sometimes treated as outsiders. Because of this bias, many Orthodox Jewish men and women are reluctant to âcome outâ as people living with mental illness, assuming that keeping quiet will keep them safe. But in reality, choosing not to disclose makes many of us feel even more isolated and alone within our very own communities.
For quite some time, I struggled to feel accepted within my own Orthodox community. I lived in a Jewish neighborhood, and was active in my synagogue. Like most women in my community, it was extremely important to me to get married and start a family, and I wanted to marry someone from my same background. But when I first started dating, I found that Orthodox men ran away from me the moment I told them I had bipolar disorder. They would ask questions like: Do you think you could handle having children? Would you be able to discipline a child? Would you be able to keep a job? I felt as if I was on trial for having a disability, and the questions became overwhelming. It might have been the way they were asked, but I had to wonder if they would use the same tone or seem as concerned if I had said I had cancer.
While these questions might seem inappropriate to someone just starting to date, they are key values and concerns within my community. And as I heard the same questions over and over, I soon realized that I needed to find support from people who knew about mental illness and would not penalize me for it, people who would help me get serious about my life in recovery, including finding a life partner, making friends, and getting a job. I wanted the same things other women in my community wanted, and I was determined to get them, even if I was âdifferent.â
I decided that if I couldnât find community within my own community, then I would go elsewhere. First, I joined NAMI and got involved with the Friendship Network. Through this network, I dated a few Jewish men with mental illnesses. But although these men were Jewish, they were not Orthodox and I was unlikely to find a life partner among them. Having faith in Hashem and Orthodox Judaism were still important to me, despite the challenges I faced in my community. So I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I realized that the first step would be to educate my own community. Through Havurat Yisrael, an Orthodox synagogue, I organized an awareness event entitled, âStigma towards the Mentally Ill.â I invited three speakers from Community Access to participate in a panel discussion. The editor of Jewish Week assigned a reporter and photographer to the event, to make sure that word got out. It was time for me, and for others living with mental illness in my community, to start talking about this topic openly.
Becoming an advocate in my community gave me the confidence I needed to have a fulfilling romantic relationship. I finally met someone I liked who also has a mental illness. Our mental health issues were not the only things we shared, though. He had a similar religious upbringing and family values, but more importantly, he was compassionate, and we understood one another in ways that I did not feel were possible with other men I had met. After a courtship, we married. Today, my husband continues to support me, no matter what I decide to do with my life.
But marriage wasnât my only goal, and community is bigger than a single relationship. With the help of the Womenâs League at my synagogue in Kew Gardens Hills, I worked to put together more Jewish events focused on mental illness. Then I realized that other Jews in my community felt the same as I did, so I formed a Peer Support Group called âJewish Adults with Mental Health Issues.â The group allows Orthodox Jews with mental illness to form a community of mutual support, and to learn together what it means to live a life in recovery.
Through all my endeavors, I have been able to not only raise awareness within the Orthodox community, but also help end the suffering of people who have been isolated because of their mental illness. At the same time, having a sense of purpose and knowing that I played a role in reducing stigma in my community has helped with my own recovery. As a result, I became an author of a book that was self-published over a year ago called, Surviving Mental Illness, My Story. It is available for purchase through my website: www.surviving-mental-illness.com. On the website, you will also see the many things I have done to teach others that recovery is possible and that the fear of stigma can be broken.
Linda Naomi Baron-Katz is a happily married Modern Orthodox woman, an author, a member of JBFCS and Yad Hachazakah and a Peer Advocate who stands up for mental health causes and educates the public on what it takes to become well again. She can be contacted by emailing: [email protected] or by calling: 718-261-3772.