Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The power of prayer: is it time to come clean with the rabbi?

I wrote recently,
I had a dream the other night about having a meeting with my counselor and my rabbi and my husband and me. Sort of like a team approach to helping me cope when things are bad, and even when things are okay, or dare I say, good. But then I am back to what is appropriate to ask for.
I cannot stop thinking about this idea of a team approach. At the same time I know it cannot be done as I dreamt it, for logistical reasons. I began thinking about how I could achieve the same effect without us all in the same room.

Today I saw the psychiatrist's assistant for my monthly check-in. My meds continue to work at 30 mg/day. My anxiety is minimal and related to actual stressors. There is still no hint of mania, reinforcing their decision to scrap the bipolar diagnosis. My only problem is sleep disturbance. I continue to wake for 1-2 hours in the middle of the night. Lunesta is not working to keep me asleep and I risk morning panic attacks. She prescribed Ambien for me to see if it will help. I have been managing on about 5 hours of sleep a night for the past month.

I decided to ask her what she thought would be appropriate to ask the rabbi for. When he asks, what can we do, how should I answer? Especially knowing that October and the next major depression cycle is looming.

Ah, she said, pastoral care can be very important. She approved that I was asking now, before things got bad. She did say that the worse October/January depressions were almost certainly Seasonal Affective Disorder. She said exercise and being outside, getting even a little sunlight, would be extremely important for me. We might need to increase my meds during the winter, she said. I might have to wait until spring to try and get pregnant again, since she believes the increase in meds carries an increased risk of miscarriage.

She said what I should tell the rabbi is that I need his support. That I need him to understand what I'm going through, that the depression and anxiety may be lessened by medication but would likely never go away completely. That I may have to deal with this for the rest of my life. She said I should ask him for healing prayers, that I should not underestimate the power of prayer. I had to smile at that. She does not know about this blog.

I asked her if there were tangible, specific things I should ask him for and she said yes. Because shul is so important to me, because my depression and anxiety attack my Jewish identity, I should ask to meet with him regularly a few times a year, preferably before the anticipated depressive cycles. Just to check in. Just to see how things are going, how I am coping in shul, if there are things I feel I need while I am there.

Her answer helped but it scared me too. It scared me because it means I would have to be more honest with him. I'd have to be more open with him.

I might have to tell him about this blog.

I'd have to tell him that explaining my depression by using a 2000-year-old Talmudic theological world view makes more sense to me than any modern medical or psychiatric description.

I'd have to tell him that I have difficulty trusting him.

I'd have to tell him about the hurt that continues to accumulate.

I'd have to tell him about periodically feeling Unseen.

I'd have to tell him about how my illness affects my perceptions and social interactions with others at shul.

I'd have to tell him that I see quite plainly others' demands on his time, his energy, his attention. I'd have to tell him how my problems seem insignificant in comparison to others who need him, and how that leads me to not even ask in the first place. How I don't want to add to the demand.

I'd have to tell him that even telling him all this is risky because there is a precedent for lack of support within our shul, that even he does not always follow through.

I'd have to tell him that when we do meet and talk, it means the world to me, but it also raises my hopes and I can't always afford to do that.

I don't know if I can do it, tell him all that.

I'm afraid of hurting him. I'm afraid of criticizing him. I'm afraid of destroying whatever relationship we currently have.

I'm afraid of his reaction, that he'd be angry with me, whether it was for keeping all this from him all this time or for feeling it in the first place.

I'm afraid of being so vulnerable when I'm half-expecting that any meeting with him will result in my getting hurt, if the meeting even happens in the first place.

I don't know if I would be opening the door to more pain or opening the door to a more complete healing.

...for the sin which we have committed before Thee in speech; ...and for the sin which we have committed before Thee in presumption or in error...

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Good news better news best news

I am so tired tonight but I wanted to write about the good things that have happened or are happening here. It is a wonderful feeling to know that good things are going on, even as there are pockets of sadness and grief around me.

My neighbor's 16-year-old Akita, one of the gentlest dogs I've ever met, died today. We are sad for their family and ours--we'll miss him too--yet for the first time, I don't feel my own happiness over recent good tidings diminished.

The first bit of very good news is that we did receive the financial aid we asked for. This is an incredible relief. We try to make ends meet on one salary and my husband is certainly not a highly paid doctor or lawyer or similar professional. But I am so pleased that we can still provide a Jewish education for our children. It is so important to me that they have this strong start, this confident identity as they begin their school careers.

The second bit of good news is that I am gaining some perspective on the rabbi issue. I have not seen him in weeks and this is okay with me. I think that perhaps I need to be very, very, very direct with him. I think perhaps I was expecting him to have a greater sensitivity or a more perceptive sense of people than perhaps he really has.

I think I need to decide if I'm going to continue to fall through the cracks or not, and if not, then I have to make myself visible and heard. If he offers to give me a referral list of Jewish counselors, then I need to ask him exactly when he might have that for me. I think I need to pin him down, metaphorically speaking. I think I need to think in terms of tasks and deadlines with him.

I also think I need to figure out exactly what I need from him, from shul, from my shul community. October is coming fast and I need to prepare for the inevitable downturn that will accompany it. There is the possibility that it won't be so bad this year, but in 22 years it has been hard, so I expect the worst and hope for the best.

Meanwhile my painting art therapy is going well and almost complete. I will have a whole new room within a week or two. I love to go out there now and just enjoy the colors and looking out the windows. I think when it is finished, it would be a nice place to daven.

So this is maybe my homework. My rabbi often invites people to come see him before he is too overwhelmed preparing for the High Holy Days, to talk about the past year or what they envision for the coming one. If I can figure out exactly what I need from him and from the shul, what do I need when I walk into the building on Shabbat or a holiday or whenever, then I can meet with him and tell him. I might even take relevant parts of What would I want my rabbi to know Part I and bring them with me.

I see my counselor this week. Maybe this is a good thing to work on. And yes, my high expectations. Those aren't going away any time soon I don't think, so they will be there to talk about. Ayelet is right that those often come from not being or feeling good enough. I know that feeling well. I grew up with it.

B'ezrat Hashem, I will have more good news on my other anxieties soon.

Friday, July 20, 2007


Anxiety takes a lot of energy. I should be fixing lunch for my children right now, then getting challah started so it will be ready in time for dinner tonight. Instead I am sitting here feeling exhausted and anxious and wishing only for sleep and an end to my anxiety.

This time I think my anxiety is really caused by real things happening in my life. I don't think it's all chemical but I acknowledge my brain chemistry might make it less tolerable than it would be for others.

We are awaiting a decision on financial aid for our children to attend the only Jewish day school around. If we do not get it, they will have to go to public school.

We have to refinance our house because our current mortgage is an adjustable-rate one and it adjusts big time next month.

We are facing an unlikely but still possible 10% wage cut.

So I am anxious. And Shabbat is nearly here again and the rabbi is back and I just have so many conflicting feelings about going back.

I had a dream the other night about having a meeting with my counselor and my rabbi and my husband and me. Sort of like a team approach to helping me cope when things are bad, and even when things are okay, or dare I say, good. But then I am back to what is appropriate to ask for. Maybe all I can regularly expect is for him to announce page numbers.

Just thinking about this I feel tears coming. It hurts so much and I've been so disappointed though there have been good times as well, and leaving just isn't an option. There aren't really any alternatives that are better.

I'm just so tired thinking about all of this. So I will go make my children and me some lunch and maybe that will energize me so I can make challah. (There is no place to go buy challah here today.)

I will be in shul tomorrow. Wish me strength--I may need it. Gut shabbos.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Rasslin with the rabbi issue

I went to shul last Shabbat. I was horribly anxious but I knew I needed to go for me. As it turned out, the (shul) rabbi was not there and another rabbi who is usually a fellow congregant (and whom I like very much) was leading services. This helped a lot.

While I was there, I talked with another woman who knows the rabbi better than I do. While I did not go into detail about how I felt or my recent struggles, I did ask in a very roundabout way about the prominent member's comments regarding the rabbi's commitment to the individual's Jewish life.

She rolled her eyes at that and said something unrepeatable about shul politics. But the bottom line is that I should take what that member had to say with an entire jar of kosher salt. She then said that the (shul) rabbi is very understated in how he supports people. To him, a great deal is communicated through a handshake or a hand on one's shoulder or greeting someone with a smile rather than a scowl. He is not overt in his support, but that does not mean he is not supportive.

She also said that he shows his satisfaction or delight in what someone has learned or accomplished by asking them to do more of it or to take on a responsibility that would use their new knowledge. The fact that he has, on quite a few occasions, asked me to teach a class or lead a minyan or write something for the shul to distribute should be, she said, interpreted to mean he is quite pleased.

This helped me feel a lot better.

I talked to another friend about being visibly Jewish versus not, meaning something like when I wear my Magen David necklace versus when I don't. She laughed and said that I was always visibly Jewish and that even she (a non-Jew) could recognize Jewish values and ethics and my commitment to Jewish law in the words I chose and how I dress and how I raise my children and even the friends I choose. I didn't think it was that obvious. She thinks it is glaring but in a good way. When I told her about feeling like maybe I wasn't Jewish enough yet, she said that just wasn't possible.

My friend D called me after Shabbat and we talked for a while, too. D asked me how I was doing and how the medication was helping and about my anxiety, because that always shows up before the depression does. I told D about my anxiety around shul, around the rabbi, and D asked if any of the things I was afraid of had ever happened.

Once, I said. There is this woman at shul who, years ago, angrily told me that I'd never be truly Jewish because I'd converted. I was horrified then and a friend stepped in and defended me. But I never forgot it and that woman still glares at me when she sees me.

After saying this was clearly this woman's issues and not mine, D said if anyone at shul suggested something like that again, I should simply ask if they trust the rabbi, because if they do, accusing me is tantamount to questioning his judgment, since the rabbi is the one I learned with and he brought me before the beit din for my formal conversion. I felt not quite so alone then. I liked the idea of the rabbi's status backing up my claim to Jewishness.

D also suggested gently that much of my anxiety seemed to be as if others had very high expectations of me and I wasn't measuring up. When asked, I really couldn't point to anyone who has high expectations of me. Except me.

Might I be projecting my high expectations onto others, believing that's what they expect of me? Could this be a part of my anxiety? D knows this is certainly part of my history, my childhood. It is maybe a good topic to pick apart in therapy.

And then before I went to bed Saturday night, I picked up my book of Tehillim--Psalms--again. I thumbed through, skimming, and then stopped short. The words seemed to almost leap off the page at me.

Chapter 91:

4. With His wings He will cover you, and under His wings you will take refuge; His truth is an encompassing shield.
5. You will not fear the fright of night, the arrow that flies by day;
9. For you [said], "The Lord is my refuge"; the Most High you made your dwelling.
10. No harm will befall you, nor will a plague draw near to your tent.
11. For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.
12. On [their] hands they will bear you, lest your foot stumble on a stone.

I hold onto this, the words of my friends, and the support for this blog. And I hold tight to my belief and trust in G-d, because that is my center and my foundation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What would I want my rabbi to know? Part II

I wrote about this first six months ago in I cried at shul and then in Shul, and of course I wrote about it in What would I want my rabbi to know? Part 1.

I'm still dealing with it. And I still have no answers.

I'm not even sure I have questions and maybe that's part of the problem. Back in Part 1, I wrote
I wish I could just schedule an appointment and tell him all this. Tell him what I need. But I don't trust that what I want, what I think I need, what I wrote at the top of this post, is appropriate.
I know that I have to ask. I know that I need to voice what I need. I know that the more specific I can be, the better. But I'm stuck on the appropriateness.

Is what I want from my rabbi something that would fall in his job description, so to speak, or am I looking for what I need in the wrong place?

I want to trust him. I want to trust that when he says he'll do something, he does. Right now that doesn't exist. Sometimes he follows through and sometimes he doesn't, and I never know which it will be. Last winter, he offered to give me some referrals to Jewish counselors for the religious piece of my depression and I said yes that would be very nice, but then nothing happened. And I got worse before I got better and it seemed pointless to ask later.

Besides, I was afraid that asking again, or bringing up that he'd offered, would be taken as a criticism of him. I can see that happening all too well. I think it's realistic. And I know for a fact that he hates criticism.

I want to understand how to reconcile being Jewish and living with depression. I talked with a friend today who remarked how the Scandinavian trait of holding one's emotions in was so foreign to Jewish culture. Yet it's not okay to be open about depression in Jewish culture either. So which is it? How open can I be? Should I be? Can I be any more honest with other Jews than I can with everyone else?

I don't know if these are questions a rabbi can help me answer. I only know that I don't have the answer and am not qualified to answer them.

I want to feel like I matter to the shul, like I help make a difference, like I contribute in some way to the congregation.

I want to feel like he'd notice if I stopped coming to shul. I want to feel like he'd care whether I disappeared off the face of the earth or not. The last time I saw him was when I said Kaddish the first Shabbat after my baby daughter's burial at the end of May. I haven't been able to get up my courage to go to shul since. I miss it horribly but it is too hard to go. It is the one place where I am forced to confront myself, my pain, my anxieties, my resentments, my hopes, my fears.

When I talked with him after shul at the end of January (in I cried at shul), I told him that having this illness somehow makes me feel less Jewish. He rolled his eyes, clearly dismissing that as an absurd idea. I've also written in that same post that my depression makes me just feel less.

I want to feel like I've learned enough about Judaism in the past twelve years of off-and-on formal learning and twenty-three-plus years of informal learning to be considered--by him--as reasonably knowledgeable for a lay person. Like I finally qualify to really be called Jewish. Like I earned the trust he placed in me when he brought me before the beit din at my conversion.

I want to feel like I really belong, that I'm not still an outsider looking in. I want to feel like I can and should stop questioning my authenticity as a Jew. I want to feel like I'm good enough.

Two years ago I came up with an interpretation of the Four Children in the Passover haggadah that really excited me. I told my rabbi about it, explaining my interpretation. He said he'd never heard anything like it before, but he liked it a lot. He asked me to write up what I'd just explained to him and the shul would include it in the Pesach handouts they make available each year. But I didn't trust it would actually happen and I didn't want to deal with the letdown of submitting it only to have it left out, so I didn't send it in.

I want to hear these things from him and yet I am not sure I can always believe him. I know he means well but the many times there has been a lack of follow-through just hurts too much.

A prominent member of our congregation recently lost his mother, aleha hashalom. He wrote an article distributed to the congregation that read in part

what I have learned is how deeply [our rabbi] is committed to our congregants, particularly to their individual Jewish lives. [His] attention and consolation and advice was precious to me and my family.
I do not feel that I received much of anything in the way of attention and consolation and advice from my rabbi--the same man praised by this other congregant--when my father, alav hashalom, died three years ago. Or when my daughter died in May. Once my conversion was over and I had no reason to meet every two weeks with my rabbi, I am not at all sure that there is much of any commitment on his part to my individual Jewish life. If there is, how do I find it? How do I see it? Feel it?

All I can think of is, what does this prominent member have that I don't? Why does he get what I felt I needed, both when my father died and just recently when my baby died?

He is able to donate a generous amount of money to the shul.
He is born Jewish.
His brain chemistry is normal, not wacky.

I have none of these things, since the whole thing with my maternal great-grandmother still meant I needed a conversion. Is that why? Is that why I don't count as much? Does my individual Jewish life not matter as much?

I never say these things out loud, never tell anyone especially the rabbi for fear I would be labeled too needy. But these things are in my head anyway. I don't know if it's the depression talking or my history or reality.

And it's why I don't know what's appropriate for me to ask for. Or if the rabbi is even who I should be asking.

Monday, July 9, 2007

I had thought there were no words

I have not been on the blogs lately. I guess you can tell. I was inconsolable for many days after losing my baby, almost a week. I feel I did eventually make peace with it. I think maybe she left me with gifts, changes in both my attitude and my body. Changes for the better.

The universe was kind to me, overall. I had an appointment with my new psychiatrist and my counselor two days after I was discharged from the hospital. The psychiatrist immediately increased my meds. We talked longer than our alotted time and she was, I think, very supportive.

It turned out I had two side effects from the increase--a higher dose than I've ever been on, though it is considered a starting point for most people. My side effects were a loss of appetite and dry mouth. So I was eating less and drinking more water. So sad.

Seriously, if I could have picked any side effects those would be the ones I wanted.

I made a memory book of photographs we took at the delivery. I included our ultrasound photos and photos of the burial. Since her death, I am seeing (living) dragonflies everywhere. They fly to me and around my head. I wonder if they are a message from her. I picked an album with dragonflies and butterflies on the cover.

I thought I had done a quick recovery and was playing "it would have been worse if..." games with myself. it would have been worse if she'd been full term. It would have been worse if she'd been born and lived only a few days or weeks or months. It would have been worse if she'd been my first child. I'm quite good at those games, but they serve no purpose other than to keep me from feeling my grief.

So I turned to another better method. I am painting a (large) room in my house. It had been unusable before but I have fixed and repaired and sealed and am now painting. It will be a cheery yellow with white trim.

It occurred to me today after emailing a friend that painting this room is kind of like Jewish prayer. It is something for my body to do, moving and concentrating on something known and familiar. Just as reciting prayers is almost like a mantra, painting is something like a kata, repeating movements as in a martial art. Both free my creative and spiritual mind to contemplate Something Else.

I have thought of my daughter a great deal while painting. I almost feel as if this room will be one she and I will share. It is comforting.

I am still hopeful that we will have another baby. Meanwhile I work on getting healthy again.

Having mentioned healthy, I did have another depression, as my psychiatrist expected. It was much more mild and the worst lasted only one day. She increased my meds again a little bit to try and keep my depression cycles to a tolerable level. I have usually four a year: January, April, July, and October. The worst are always October and January and the psychiatrist thinks it may be related to SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. I am sure that the fact that there are many, many holidays in both months might play a part, too.

I am exercising, briskly walking two miles a day. My sleep is not so great. I wake at 4am and can't get back to sleep for a couple of hours. My psychiatrist prescribed Lunesta but both times when I took it I woke with panic attacks and acute anxiety that lasted for a couple of hours, so no more Lunesta for me. I have lost 18 pounds in the past five weeks, which makes me happy. My blood sugar remains normal.

I am slowly unraveling my issues with my shul. I will save it for another post because it's so involved.

It is still so hard to reach out, so hard not to isolate, so hard to feel. Thank G-d for medication. And good doctors. And good friends. And a place to share. And the words to begin to heal.