At a recent inclusion committee meeting, one topic of discussion was “invisible” disability, such as mental illness, in adults. The question was what, if anything, can the synagogue do to help these adults feel more included. How we even get them to identify themselves? There has always been such a stigma around mental illness. However, mental illness is as real as a physical disability. It is not “all in your head.”
I believe one way to help people is by telling my story. Many of you reading this may know that I have a son, Alex, now 12, with autism. Every person with autism manifests it differently. In Alex’s case, the autism leads to frequent verbal outbursts and aggression, which is usually directed towards me. Many of you also know that I am divorced. The point of my story is, that as I tried to figure out what was best for my child- staying in a tense marriage or not, I began to experience anxiety symptoms. In addition to seeing a therapist once or twice a month, I felt that I needed more help, and went for a psychiatric evaluation. I began taking Celexa for anxiety.
In October of 2014, I made a heartbreaking decision to send Alex, then 11, to a residential facility with 24/7 behavior support, including medication management. The aggression had gotten to the point of not being safe for either of us. About two months later, I began having nightmares involving one or more people attacking somebody. This affected my sleep, leading to more anxiety. My psychiatrist changed my diagnosis to post-traumatic stress disorder and minor depression, and prescribed additional medication.
One major support system helping me through that difficult time was Beth El. I pushed myself to attend evening minyans and Shabbat services. I needed to be surrounded by my religious community. Many congregants learned what was happening, either through the grapevine or because they wondered where Alex was. Because of that, I felt emotionally safe crying during the service, leading casual friends to offer me kind words or a hug. I was amazed every time I showed up at just how many people care about me and Alex.
Imagine, though, if I had felt uncomfortable speaking up. It would have been all too easy to say that I did not want to say where Alex was at the moment. I could have bottled up my feelings, putting on a fake smile like I had to do at work to keep my job. I was not at all ashamed to admit that I had a problem.
I wrote this article to welcome any congregant who needs help to feel free to approach me for a listening ear. You can reach me via email or, if you prefer, call the Beth El office at 412-561-1168 and leave a message for me to call you back. I may not understand your exact situation, but I do know that mental illness is hard to deal with.