Talking for the Jami Mental Health Awareness Shabbat 2020 by Eleanor

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As some of you will be aware, back in 2017-2018, I helped as a volunteer with fellow volunteers (Lisa Coffman and others) to found the Mental Health Awareness Shabbat (Jewish sabbath) in our communities across the country here in the UK. The initiative, led by the mental health charity Jami and conceived by Rabbi Daniel Epstein, now runs in 150 Jewish communities.

This year, my dad Mike and I were delighted to be asked to share our father and daughter journey with bipolar disorder to Chigwell and Hainault Synagogue.

I have social anxiety- which includes at times a fear of public speaking. In December, I had a breakthrough, where I spoke for a short time at a conference called Limmud alongside my Dad and read from my book Bring me to Light. So, when we were asked to do this talk at Chigwell, I felt it could be possible.

I armed myself with the fact that I knew kind people in the community including the Rabbi and his wife and friends of my husband Rob (its the community he grew up in). I also wanted to share my story to help other people.

So, we stayed with a lovely lady in the community and had friday night dinner with the Rabbi and his family. On Saturday morning, I woke up feeling a little nervous but took my trusted anxiety medication for when I need it- Propranolol, and walked to the synagogue with Dad.

I managed not to have a panic attack and the thought of speaking to help others got me through (as did distraction, deep breathing and drinking a glass of water).

So, at the end of the service, we were called up to speak. Dad went first and talked about his journey with bipolar disorder from when it started for him in 1991 to finding recovery. Then, it was my turn.

I stood up there in the pulpit speaking to a packed audience with a prepared speech. I felt scared but also empowered and began to relax into the talk. I knew that by sharing what happened to me, being sectioned and so ill and talking openly, that I could break stigma and touch others. I was also so proud of my Dad for speaking so openly.

It was only after, when talking to people after the service, that we realised that about 150 people came to listen to our talk! We had some important conversations with people after our talk including someone very newly diagnosed and someone else whose niece had bipolar and is currently very ill.

I couldn’t and still can’t believe I was able to do that. However, since I have been very tired so trying to de-stress and rest as much as I can!

We just want to thank everyone who came to hear our talk and supported us, to every person who thanked us for coming and shared their stories with us. We are so grateful for such a positive reception and thank Rabbi Davis and the Chigwell community for having us.

The Mental Health Awareness Shabbat has had events in communities all across the country. It runs yearly and you can find out more here 

Surviving mental illness while practising Judaism

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This post is being dedicated to my friend Helen Brown who wanted to know how being an Orthodox Jewish woman works and is compatible with having a mental illness. How supportive were the Jewish community when I was ill and what does Judaism mean to me?

So:

Let me start by saying that I was born into Judaism and raised Jewish, in a Modern Orthodox, United Synagogue Household- meaning I keep Kosher, rest on the Sabbath and observe all the festivals, learn and pray when I can. I also practise ‘tzniut’- dressing modestly and endeavour to live my life with the positive values of the Torah (Old Testament) bridging modern society .  I have a great love for and appreciation of Judaism and I have found that it has kept me going through many difficult times.

Prayer in particular has had a very important resonance in my story. When I was ill in hospital with a bipolar episode two years ago, my friend brought me a tehillim prayer book- the Book of Psalms. Another friend brought me a book of strengthening hopeful quotes from Rabbi Nachman. Every day, I prayed to God to release me from my illness, to give me strength and to give me a full and complete recovery. I prayed that the Doctors and nurses would support and help me, and they did. I found freedom through my religion, even if I couldn’t always understand why this particular test was in my life. My friends also lit candles on the Sabbath with a prayer that I would get better and prayed for me.

The support from the Jewish community during this time was incredible. Rabbis visited me with warm chicken soup, cakes, wisdom, advice and prayers. Friends and family rallied round to visit and bring me food, soft toys, cards and themselves. The kindness was immense and never will be forgotten.

However, there is still a stigma against mental illness in the Jewish community, as there is in most other communities.  When I first became ill at 16, I was ridiculed my many who did not understand the meaning of a bipolar manic episode. To this day, I believe there is a woeful misunderstanding and knowledge of psychosis- delusions or hallucinations. There is also a stigma when looking for a marriage partner, if using a matchmaker. I was taught by many to keep quiet about my illness and I still do not readily give the information unless it will help someone else.

Not everyone understands medication or psychotherapy and I am on a mission to educate everyone so the stigma can fall. I am a Modern Orthodox Jewish woman.  This means I love God and want to live by His laws, whilst enjoying the modern world of theatre, books, cinema and culture too.

I believe that I was ill for a reason, whether its brain chemistry, a test or both. What I do know is that the community now is changing- there is much more support and kindness.

We only have to look at the new Jami (Jewish Association of Mental Illness) Head Room Café (a social enterprise cafe raising money for the charity) to see that. The funding and support Jami is getting and its new prominence.

There is still more to do, but we as Jews (and non Jews) have a duty to support anyone who is ill- whether its in the mind or the body.