This is the first in a series of articles intended to lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness and to increase our support and empathy for all those who are affected by it. The pieces will be on a variety of topics that I feel are relevant to our community. I will share personal experiences in the hope that others can relate to them and, as a result, feel less isolated and ostracized.
We in Baltimore have created a magnificent infrastructure of chessed that meets almost all the needs of our community. Yet there is a large, gaping hole. And that is providing support and resources for those who suffer from mental illness. It is past time for us to own this problem and to take responsibility for ourselves, our families and our neighbors.
I am writing anonymously not because I am ashamed but so that the personal details of my story don’t distract from the important message. My goal is to create a safe space where others from our community will feel supported and comfortable sharing their own stories and experiences.
Every single year. Right after the end of the high holidays. Daylight savings time. Colder weather. Shorter days and longer nights.
Some call it “The most wonderful time of the year!” Apple picking and cozy sweaters. I start to fill my days with pumpkin-flavored everything and cups of steaming hot coffee. I look forward to the crunch of leaves on the ground and the delicious smell of a crackling fire. I wait all year to attend every holiday-themed light show possible with a hot mug warming my hands. Taking countless pictures of changing colors, pom-pom hats in the snow, bright smiles and laughter…
And then I come home and I take off my warm boots.
I crawl into my bed piled high with quilts and fluffy pillows.
I turn off my phone.
I turn off the light.
And I feel empty.
I feel like the darkness is so vast that no matter how many tears I shed, the night won’t wash away. I feel like I’m falling down a dark bottomless well and I can’t get grip.
I feel. I feel and I feel and I feel to the point where I don’t know how much longer I will be able to feel. And then, sometimes, I don’t feel…
My smiles become less frequent and more forced. I dread the ticking of the clock, knowing that 4:00 pm is way too close and that my nights are far too long. I frantically search for ways to ward the night away. To keep far away from the darkness that stretches and spreads and seems to seep into my very bones, penetrating my heart. The depression. The anxiety
So I take comfort in drinking my spiced lattes and wearing my knitted hats and gloves. I find temporary relief in curling up with a good book by the fire.
And then, right when the darkness becomes so thick, just when winter seems endless and my life hopeless, the world becomes filled with twinkling lights and holiday music that appear so magical. Huge sales on unnecessary luxuries promise, if not joy, then happiness – or at least distraction. I look to draw solace from everything the “holiday season” has to offer. I take even more smiling pictures and share them with the world.
I search for anything to distract me from my thoughts. To fill that dark hole inside me that threatens to swallow me alive.
And then, just when the nights are at their longest,
Just at the point when I feel like I can’t see,
G-d sends us the Holiday of Lights.
Of small, flickering flames burning in the windows.
Illuminating the darkness – the literal and metaphorical dark, dark, darkness.
As I light the first Chanukah candle, I feel a familiar warmth wash over me. Watching the small flames dance this way and that, I’m reminded of my meaningful High Holiday davening, the last time I felt so close to G-d. Singing the songs celebrating an impossible victory, I’m reminded that I am stronger than I believe. And when I thank G-d for the great miracle He performed for us, I remember that He is always with me.
We have eight nights. Eight nights to sit by these flames flickering in the darkness, flames that remind us that we have a small flame within, no matter how hopeless we may feel. We sit and watch the menorah. Twenty minutes, no distractions. No obligatory festive meal to prepare; no housework allowed.
To focus on the flames.
To focus on the flame within each of us.
We light the menorah to remember the physical battle the Maccabees fought against the worlds’ greatest super power. All to protect our relationship with G-d. Perhaps this year, we can also remember the emotional battles some of us fight every day. Battles that take place in our own heads and hearts.
The Chanukah lights can be used as our personal weapon. By looking at the small flames shining in the dark we can remember the powerful flame we each have within us, a spark from G-d. The lights remind us that, just like the Maccabees, our courage and inner strength can prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds. Instead of dressing up our emotions in glittering lights to distract the world – and ourselves – from the raging emotions within us, we can use the light of Torah to help make our inner flame burn brighter and radiate. To bring light into our lives.
I pray that this Chanukah brings to us all warmth and illumination, introspection, comfort and meaning. I pray that the flames bring us clarity and recognize the strength we have inside us. And I pray that everyone knows that despite the darkness that may be lurking just outside your window, we are never truly alone; there are others who struggle, others to listen and understand, and always someone to hold your hand.
If you have a story to share, need someone to listen, or if you need help and don’t know where to turn, please email firstname.lastname@example.org