mental health

I’m Not Who I Appear to Be

Sometimes, I think it is the disappointing people that’s the hardest.

I am a high achiever — or, at least, I used to be.  That was a big part of my identity growing up.  I did well in school and excelled at my chosen, geeky extracurricular activity, debate.  I was the valedictorian, I got into an Ivy League College; I was ready to succeed for all the world to see.  I graduated summa cum laude, made junior phi beta kappa, and learned all I could in rabbinical school.  My husband even began dating me, he told me at the time, because he was “attracted to women with higher standardized test scores than his.”  We married, I became a pulpit rabbi, and we had a wonderful baby.  I moved to my own, small, solo pulpit, and they loved me.  Success, success, success.

But, as with everyone, my story has an underside, the places where I have “failed,” where things went wrong.  That Ivy League school:  I left it for another college, also good, but closer to home, when it became apparent that my launching was going be slower and harder than my older sister’s. The baby: she was perfect in every way, but also, as I told her, “not one of those boring babies that slept all the time.”  She wept, I wept, and neither of us could find comfort.  The therapist I found then for postpartum depression, I still see today.  (The baby, however, has launched nicely and is entering law school in the fall.)  And almost 5 years into motherhood and work as a solo rabbi, I had a stroke, which changed my life.

While I recovered well, considering, the stroke put an end to my pulpit life, and much else. I was no longer going to be the primary wage earner in our family.  What can you do professionally when you need 12 hours of sleep most nights?  I felt like I was serving God as pulpit rabbi, using my brains to teach and preach, my heart and emotions to do pastoral care.  And now?  What commitments can I make, when my previously troubling depression has sprouted into bipolar disorder that seems to rule the few waking hours I am left with?  While I don’t believe God “sent me” the stroke, I often wonder what it is God had in mind.  My life, my sense of purpose, seemed so much clearer 18 years ago.  Sometimes I look around and count the people I have let down:  my husband, my child, friends, congregants, myself. 

It is hard to admit my limitations.  When I was younger and first in therapy, back in high school, I remember struggling with my therapist.  Sure, my dad loves me, I remember saying, but if I stopped hiding behind good grades, and told him how depressed I was, would he still be proud of me?  I still struggle with the same issues today.  If I tell my husband that we are in for another round of depression, will he love me, or just be resigned?  He is too good a man to leave me in this mess, I tell my therapist.  But surely I am a disappointment to him.  Instead of success in the pulpit rabbinate, I offer him the ups and down of mental illness made severe by stroke and complimented by physical ailments.  Who would chose that?  Who would chose me?

And yet. . . meaning, the search for meaning, persists, if slowly.  I teach a class here and there, and a student tells me I have changed her life.  I read my Daf Yomi, my daily page of Talmud, and my brain makes a connection with something I learned last year, or last decade.  Listening intently during a pastoral care session, I  feel trust growing between us.  I take my struggles with God and myself onto the bima, and speak of mental illness in the Jewish community and the importance of outreach, of steps small and large in welcoming those of us with mental health issues and our families.  And at the kiddush or the oneg, I am flocked by those who need an ear, who have a parent, a child, wrestling with mental illness.  Those with their own issues call me, and tell me how much it means for me to be open with my own journey — and I listen to the stories as well. I speak with chesed committees about first steps — and beyond — to make their communities more open and welcoming. 

Could it be that meaning lies not with the grand journey I pictured so long ago, but in just being myself, open, honest, as God created me?  My flaws, my weaknesses, my failures, it turns out, may be the most important parts of myself that I have to share.  I am not an icon to be worshipped.  I am fully human, letting down people left and right.  And in telling others that truth, I may yet find redemption.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts (Talmud, midrash, commentaries), offers pastoral care, and is venturing locally and nationally into the world of mental health outreach in the Jewish community.  She and her husband live in Denver, CO. 

6 replies on “I’m Not Who I Appear to Be”

Dear Sandra:
Yours is a moving and heart-wrenching story – and by sharing it, you have inspired me by your persistence, honest self-reflection, intelligence, continuing search for meaning and – I imagine – your widening empathy. Thank you.
John Rosove

Profoundly meaningful and I am grateful. As I am about to depart for an Institute for Jewish Spirituality retreat, I can’t help but think that your wisdom will accompany me and greatly enhance my much needed retreat experience. Thank you

What a remarkable posting. I cannot find the words to adequately compliment, validate, and praise her enough for her remarkable honesty, her sharing of pain, her humor, and a thousand other feelings that come from such a posting. In so many ways, her story, is our story…each of ours. She makes my battles seem a lot less dramatic, but has touched and taught me, and others, profoundly.

Dear Rabbi Cohen, I am saddened that you feel you are disappointing your family, friends and others. You are making an enormous contribution to so many by telling your story. The best anyone of can do is not give up, keep working with our doctors & caregivers, and keep in communication with our families.

And don’t forget, as your former congregant, you hold a special place in my family’s hearts.

I love this. I also understand what it feels like to feel like a disappointment. Yesterday I had a talk with Rabbi Mo about how to handle my bnai Mitzvah students when I simply can’t show up for them. He said “Debbie comes as a package” (like we all do!) and if I continue to be upfront with families at the beginning, people can choose if it’s something they want to take on or not. He said something to this effect: “As a rabbi, I have an obligation to my congregants to live by my values – what would it say to them if I stopped our relationship because it’s too hard or sometimes you can’t show up? I’m not willing to do that. You’ll always be welcome to teach here.” (Then we made a plan that if I can’t meet with my private students, I’ll call a sub in.).

When we acknowledge who we are and what we can and can’t do, there are always breakthroughs. My mantra is breakdowns always lead to breakthroughs. That’s where the learning happens.

Thank you for being open and brave. You rock.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.