Happy new year everyone! Gosh its nearly the end of January and I havn’t written a blog for a while so thought I would share some things that have been happening here and talk a bit about mental health stuff too.
Firstly, my mental health is fairly stable at the moment, as has been the case for a number of years. I don’t get typical bipolar depressive or manic episodes on my medications and this year is my 9th year out of hospital , which is always a positive. However, I still suffer with anxiety and stress and get overwhelmed so have to pace myself! I have bad days too where things feel too much but thankfully they don’t escalate into a depression.
So for the positives- I have achieved some huge anxiety wins for me. Since November, I have been on the tube (first time in 3 years), I have gone up to the West End with Rob to the theatre using public transport, my panic attacks have been lessening, I have been able to see more people in person and I also passed my probation at work and have been made permanent (huge win!). I am someone who struggles with agarophobia when I feel more anxious and stressed and going out alone can still be a challenge.
I have been allowing myself to venture into previously anxiety provoking situations- for example, I get cabs alone home from work. I had to start doing this last year and it helped me get back into the world again. It wasn’t easy due to many fears I had but I have been able to do it, slowly. My job is also hybrid so I can work from home too- but getting back out into the world and having kind work colleagues at an office has been such a vital part of my recovery too. My therapist has been so helpful in dealing with the panic attacks and anxiety and I do still get triggered but at the moment on a lesser scale. I still find blood tests, hospitals and general health stuff scary because of what I have been through. I really recommend therapy.
I sometimes do have to cancel arrangements when things feel too much so am sorry to anyone I have had to postpone… its not easy and I hate doing it as I feel bad… but I am learning the balance of looking after me and socialising too. I don’t always get it right but I am trying.
Then, my friend in Bushey, Lee, texted me a few weeks back and asked if I would like to speak in my childhood community for the Jami (Jewish charity) Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. I hadn’t done public speaking about my story since before Covid in 2019, when I spoke with my Dad Mike at Limmud and at Chigwell shul (synagogue, my husbands community). I have had drama training so for me speaking publicly as someone else is OK, but when I have to stand up and share my own story, I get nervous as its so personal. The first time I was asked to speak in a shul at Belsize Square, I made it to the community but my Dad had to give the talk by himself as i was too panicked to attend the service. I managed in time to dip my toe in slowly, always with the support of my Dad and my therapist.
This talk in Bushey felt significant. It’s the Jewish community I grew up in and was a part of until I was 23. I felt like I was going home. The Bushey team told me they had two other speakers, but would I like to speak and share my story with bipolar disorder?
I thought to myself… I am ready, my panic attacks and social anxiety are more under control. To me being asked to come home to Bushey shul was a sign. My Grandpa Harry passed away in 2021 from Covid- and he and Grandma had lived in Bushey since the 1990s, when we were little. Our family lived in both Bushey and Bushey Heath and I studied at Immanuel College, across the road from our home and my grandparents. The area contains so many happy memories for me. I knew the new senior Rabbi and Rebbetzen, as he had officiated at my grandparents funerals and was so kind to our family. My Dad is also still a member of the shul and I still know a lot of people who live in the community too. Its a very special community and one I am proud to be from (and still feel.a small part of despite not being a local anymore).
So, I decided, with my Dad and Rob’s support on the day (and anxiety meds), that I could stand up in shul and speak with the other two speakers on the Shabbat (sabbath) morning. My Mum and step dad were supporting from afar and looking after our guineapigs.
The senior Rabbi and Rebbetzen hosted us for the Friday night which was wonderful as we got to meet lots of new couples and see the Ketts, the other Rabbi and Rebbetzen! For lunch after the service, we went to Lee’s house, which was very special as she was my batmitzvah teacher and is a good family friend.
I was initially told the talk was going to be in a break out room- but on the day it was decided that it would be from the pulpit. Last time I ventured to that pulpit and stood up there was when I was 12 years old, sharing my batmitzva portion of the Torah. The year my Dad was very ill and diagnosed with bipolar. I became ill just 3 years later.
Now, here I was back as a married woman of 34, revealing about the mental illness that had found its way into my family and caused a lot of devastation. However, the main reasons I wanted to stand up and talk about bipolar disorder are because I know that this illness runs in families, many Jewish families struggle with it. I wanted to give the message that you can live with this illness but you can have periods of remission, recovery, you can find hope.
And as I spoke to the audience of people – many of whom I had known since my childhood, who saw me grow up and saw my family eventually leave Bushey for Edgware, I felt humbled. I felt honoured to be asked to speak and I hoped that by sharing my own journey with bipolar (being diagnosed at 16, in hospital twice, the last time in 2014 for a very serious manic episode), that I could touch someone who needed to hear it. My Dad gave me permission to tell his story too.
When I grew up in. the early 2000s, talking about mental illness and particularly in Jewish spaces, was not the norm. I hope that through sharing my own journey and my Dads (he was undiagnosed for 9 years until he was 44), that I will have helped someone.
Most importantly, I felt I had come home. The kindness and warmth shown to me by the members of the Bushey community who I have known since I was a little girl was something so incredibly special and touching. People confided in me after the service about their own struggles. Others thanked me for sharing my story. I was hugely touched by the other two speakers who spoke after me about their own journeys with mental health and their children’s. I won’t name them here in case they want to be anonymous but I learnt so much from them and their experiences.
So I want to say a huge thank you to Lee, to the Rabbis and Rebbetzens and to everyone in Bushey who I have known for years and have loved- for hosting us, for inviting me to talk about something so personal in such a special community. It touched my heart. I really hope it helps.
I genuinely did not know how I stood up there to speak to 90 odd people- what kept me going is knowing I was doing this to help eradicate the stigma of mental illness but also I hope that the words I spoke gave comfort to anyone going through mental illness, that it does get better. It can improve. You won’t be ill forever.
When I was unwell in 2014, Jonny Benjamin MBE was speaking and sharing about mental illness. He taught me that sharing your story to help others is vital. So thanks Jonny for all your support too (whether you knew you gave me the courage or not :).
I also want to thank Jami charity, Laura Bahar and Rabbi Daniel Epstein. I was part of the volunteering team that helped set up the first mental health awareness shabbat. The project has blossomed and is now annual and it is truly wonderful to see.
What I want to clarify is that although I am currently a lot better with my anxiety, it is very much a grey area, day by day thing. That can be hard for people to understand- how one day you can be great with loads of energy and the next you have to stay home and recuperate- self care. But I think knowledge of mental health is increasing now, so do check in with your friends and family and offer a safe space without judgement- its so helpful.
Thank you again for reading this if you got this far. You can do whatever you put your mind too- reach for help from medical teams, medication, therapists and never give up.
With gratitude and love,