I was living a happy and fulfilling life as a busy wife and mom when out of nowhere darkness descended. I was diagnosed with clinical depression requiring medication. I’m in the midst of professional treatment and still struggling each day. My normally happy and meaningful avodas Hashem came to a sudden halt leaving me lost and confused.
My question is what is one afflicted with mental illness to do? The very tools needed to serve Hashem are logic and emotion. We use these faculties to focus on living a life of simchas hachaim and mitzvos, to daven and connect to Hashem, to choose to do acts of gemilas chasadim. Mental illness and specifically clinical depression attack these very tools. The mind is left scattered and confused and the heart turns to a rock with no feeling.
Conversely, someone afflicted with a physical illness uses their heart and mind to connect with Hashem and transcend their suffering. They can daven and learn sifrei bitachon… They can reframe their suffering and become closer to Hashem through it.
How is one emotionally afflicted able to daven, think thoughts of bitachon, and live the life Hashem wants us to when their brain and heart are trapped in the thick sludge of depression through no fault of their own. We want so badly to be the way we always were, but with our mind and heart “not working” properly we are at a loss. The guilt and feelings of disconnect to Hashem add so many layers to the suffering of a frum Jew. Perhaps the panelists can offer insight and guidance. Thank you.
My heart goes out to you. It seems as if you are suffering from both feelings of depression and a sense of guilt and confusion.
Unfortunately, as you mention, depression colors our normal perceptions. Although you may be perfectly capable of intellectually recognizing that depression is as much an illness as are physical illnesses, it is the depression itself that creates a distinction. It can cause us to feel—and thus believe—things that we would otherwise dismiss.
It is true that depression differs from physical illness in that it affects our minds. You state that the issue in this regard is the fact that you cannot, therefore, connect to Hashem in ways that you could if you were “only” physically ill. What can we say, however, to someone who loses their connection to Hashem due to feelings about a physical illness? Many people who deal with the serious illness of a family member (or their own) have their faith shaken. This can occur for reasons similar to those that you describe.
As much as we would like to, we cannot fully separate our thoughts and beliefs from our emotions. This is true whether or not we have a diagnosable mental illness. We all have “symptoms” of various disorders. Who among us can say that we have never felt “depressed” or “anxious,” or that we have never been obsessive or inattentive. Though this does not mean that we all have mental health diagnoses, it does mean that we all react emotionally to life stressors. Dealing with physical illness can cause us to have feelings that closely resemble mental illness. Certainly, as you mentioned, some people rise above it. Does that mean, however, that those of us who have trouble doing so should be vilified? If you believe that those dealing with physical illness should not be negatively judged for their struggle to maintain their prior level of faith, what makes you set a higher standard for yourself? In fact, as you discussed, to a large degree you were robbed of your very ability to do so.
You appear to be focused on actions that have always made you feel closer to Hashem…by doing what you believe He wants you to do. However, what is it that Hashem wants you to do differently while dealing with what sounds like moderate to severe depression? Does He expect you to do things in the ways that you always have? Does He want you to think and feel exactly the same way that you did prior to your depression? Does He want you to feel guilty about the fact that you cannot conjure up the feelings and thoughts that you so desperately desire? Or does He want you to follow treatment protocol, to do what you are capable of, and what is necessary to help you return to your normal self? Does Hashem want you to become mired in guilt (serving no purpose—other than perhaps impeding your recovery) or to focus on getting better so that you can once again live the life in which you so strongly believe?
Many things in life work in cycles—either negative or positive. In your case, your feelings of depression are making you feel guilty, leading to trouble doing the things that you want to—thus causing further feelings of depression. If you recognize that your job is now to focus on your mental health, hopefully this will mitigate your feelings of guilt and disconnection. In fact, letting go of your sense of guilt and shame can make it easier for you to daven, focus on your faith, and the like. This, in turn, can help you to feel less depressed. When you work on all aspects of the cycle, you are more likely to turn your negative cycle into a positive one.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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