On the one hand, a book dealing with this topic from an orthodox Jewish perspective sounded right up my street – but only if it was really going to be a spiritual treatment of the subject, and not just a ‘take these pills, the Rabbi says its OK’ pseudo-frum cop-out. (You see, I told you I have strong views on the subject…)
The long and short of it is that I bought the book, and the first story seemed to underline that I’d made a mistake: the book seemed to be pushing drugs as the way to go. My heart sank. But I kept reading and boy, am I glad I did.
What I hadn’t realized is that the book is actually an anthology of different people’s experiences of and beliefs about, anxiety and depression. The book’s editor, Tehilla Edelman, has skillfully woven together a tapestry of different voices, stories and outlooks to create a thought-provoking, inspiring and broad-based spiritual reflection of an authentic Jewish response to anxiety and depression.
Yes, some of the participants are very ‘pro’ drugs, (and a couple of the professional contributions on the subject made me want to gag), but other people were just telling their stories of how drugs had genuinely helped them get out of the spiritual pit they were in. For someone with an opposing view, it gave me a very healthy and valuable insight into why people opt for medications, and why in some instances it may actually be the correct approach.
No 'one size fits all' approach
But part of the book’s great beauty is that it isn’t partisan about approaches to depression and anxiety. Together with the standard 'take anti-depressants' approach, there was also a wealth of essays by individuals and professionals describing radically alternative approaches to mental health, too.
Writers described the energy psychology approach; the ‘Innate Health’ approach; the CBT approach; the talk to God approach, the ‘completely fall apart on the inside and let God pick up the pieces approach’ to dealing with anxiety and depression. So many people shared how their struggles with anxiety and depression had forced them to dig deep, and work much harder on their connection to God.
Some contributed a poem to the anthology; others an interview, still others a searingly-honest account of what was going on internally as the depression took hold, while the outside was still busy wearing it’s smiley face and pretending everything was fine.
Probably my favourite piece was the one entitled ‘Soulful Mania’ by Chana, where the writer described a nervous breakdown she’d had as a young, secular adult in university, and how that ultimately prompted her to search for a much more meaningful, God-aware reality.
She writes: “What I’ve come to learn is that the states of altered consciousness that I experienced were not at all mental or delusional. Somehow, through my sleep deprivation, I had broken through the mechitzah (some call it ‘filter’) that usually seperates our seemingly mundane, this-worldly existence from a higher realm of conscious awareness where all is really unified and interconnected.
“I’ve learned through using hisbodedus how to return to and ‘touch’ those previous states of heightened awareness and what I’ve come to call God-consciousness, but in a balanced, healthy and… resourceful way.”
Chana’s words spoke to me in such a profound way, and one of the biggest presents of reading the anthology is that I came to appreciate just how many amazing, wonderful Jews over the past few years have been struggling with profound spiritual matters, and having to deal with a secular approach to their mental health that views matters of the soul as a symptom of psychopathology.
'Delusional' for believing in Moshiach
In case you think I’m exaggerating, one dear friend of mine was given a formal diagnosis of delusional disorder for admitting that she often thought about Moshiach coming. And yes, the psychiatrist who made the ‘diagnosis’ professed to be an orthodox Jew. My friend is extremely spiritual, and has been struggling for years to deal with the fallout of being a very sensitive, spiritual soul in a harsh, materialistic world.
As Jews, I think we probably experience that dichotomy more profoundly and more painfully than any other people in the world, and I welcomed the essays that pointed out that so many of humanity’s ‘mental issues’ are actually rooted in the soul’s spiritual struggles to come to terms with the world, and its place in it.
A book about achdus
I highly recommend this book on just about every level.
The personal stories and poems were often inspired prose, but the opportunity to read real people’s accounts of their real struggles with depression and anxiety – without the simplistic explanations or overdone religious moralizing that all-too-frequently accompany these types of stories in other formats – was a tremendous experience.
As someone who’s interested in mental and health issues professionally, I also found the varied input from others in the field to be very eye-opening and useful. I had no idea there were so many religious Jews trying to find different approaches to finding solutions to the problems of depression and anxiety that involved God.
When I finished reading, I realized that even the contributions that I’d found tainted by the medical establishment’s arrogance and over-reliance on drugs had been a very necessary part of the mix, just as the foul-smelling galbanum was needed to complete the ketoret, or incense that was burned in the Temple.
This book is many things: compendium of experiences; repository of practical advice; but perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a book of achdus and unity. It brings together some wildly different, and at times even contradictory, ideas about the correct, authentic Jewish approach to anxiety and depression into one superbly-written volume – and that more than anything is its greatest strength and contribution.