Rochel’s story: For years, I suffered from an illness I could not name and did not understand. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, I now live a healthy and rich life as a mother, wife and teacher.
Following Rabbi Dr. Yosef Shagalow‘s article on mental illness and shidduchim, Rochel*, shares her story with Anash.org readers.
As told to Blumie Abend / Anash.org
I was 18 years old the first time I checked myself into a psychiatric ward.
No one made me do it. No one took me there and forced me to check in. In fact, I called my own taxi, to the dismay of my family. They begged and pleaded with me to stay home; they did everything they could do to dissuade me and I knew why: they were terrified of the stigma this hospitalization would effectively hold over my life.
But as soon as that taxi came and I made a move to get into it, my mother saw I was serious, and did an about face. I held the door open and she climbed in after me. I knew then that I would always have my parents’ support.
Looking back, they probably could have seen this coming.
From the age of 12, I had been suffering with bouts of depression. It started off small- I would lose my appetite, have trouble getting out of bed. Some days I didn’t get dressed and could barely function. I missed weeks of school at a time.
It was a dark and bitter time. I was overcome with guilt as I wondered why I couldn’t just be happy- what was wrong with me? I had so much to be grateful for, yet I lived in a thick, oppressive darkness. The depression completely engulfed me, a heavy weight cloaking my existence until I felt I was not living at all, I was merely surviving.
I remember my father practically crying to me, willing to do anything to make me happy. “What can I get for you Rochel?” he would say, “Tell me what to buy you and I will!”
And I would say something like, “Get me a pack of gum.” Of course, it didn’t help; it was more than a pack of gum that I needed.
After a few months of living in a deep depression, I would suddenly snap out of it. A favorite song would come on, or something seemingly small and unimportant would happen and I would be instantly transformed. I would start feeling more like myself, and as the days progressed, the symptoms would disappear.
This cycle continued for a few years, until an incident in my mid-teens prompted my parents to take me for a formal evaluation. I went on a trip with my high school classmates, a fun-spirited, exciting adventure. It turned out to be a lot more exciting than I had anticipated.
During this trip I experienced what I now know is a manic episode of bipolar. I began talking very fast and could not finish my sentences; my friends could not make sense of what I was trying to say. I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t eat, and while I thought I was the only lucid one and everyone else was crazy, it was clear to others that something was very wrong.
Upon returning home, I was taken to a psychiatrist, and this time I was given an official diagnosis: I had Bipolar 1. In short, this means that I have both elements of bipolar- the dramatic highs of mania and the intense lows of depression.
When the manic episodes began, I realized that I needed to check myself into a safe place. Unlike the lows, which I can sometimes snap out of, the highs are terrifying: I go through periods when I feel out of control, and I don’t know what I am capable of.
It doesn’t happen often because with time, I learned how to manage bipolar. I am on the right medications, my family is supportive, and I lead a pretty regular lifestyle.
As I entered the shidduchim stage I wondered, what does my future hold? Will the stigma of having a mental health condition hold me back from finding my bashert? Will people hear about my condition and back away without giving me a chance? Will I face yet another challenge in my young life simply because I have a diagnosed medical condition?
Before I started going out, I spoke to my rav, who advised me not to disclose my diagnosis right away. He suggested I meet the person first to see if there was a connection before divulging that I had a mental illness.
This is exactly what I did. In time, with Hashem’s help, I met Ari. When I felt that things were starting to get serious, I opened up to him about my condition. I assured him that it was monitored closely by both myself and my doctors, and encouraged him to speak to his mashpia, to my psychiatrist and to anyone else he needed to. I was open and honest, while praying inwardly that this revelation would not deter him from pursuing our relationship further.
I was truly fortunate; Ari chose to look past the stigma and see me for who I am – a balanced, talented, capable individual who happens to live with a mental illness. He saw that on a day to day basis, my bipolar does not define me. What he had heard before meeting me lined up with what he saw in front of him, and once he spoke to whoever he needed to, he felt confident that we could create a beautiful home and raise a family together, despite the challenges presented by my condition.
I have tremendous Hakaras Hatov to Hashem for sending Ari into my life and allowing this hurdle to be so smoothly overcome- I know it’s not the same for everyone.
Since my first manic episode at 18, I have experienced two more. The third time was after the birth of my baby. Postpartum mothers are at higher risk of mental health challenges, and there were many factors that increased those risks for me. I had a history of mental illness, my baby was a preemie and spent time in the NICU, and I spent several sleepless nights right after giving birth – an explosive combination.
Soon after I returned home, I felt the mania creeping up on me. I was afraid of spiraling out of control, especially because Ari had never seen me manic and I didn’t want to be a burden on him. Looking back, the psychiatric hospital was not a good place for me in that situation, and it was probably unnecessary to put myself through that. However, I learned something from that experience that has been a source of healing and comfort.
I learned that it is brave to acknowledge that I need help, and that there are people in my life who can provide support and will do so with love. Learning to believe this is important for anyone who is struggling with mental illness, or any difficult circumstance.
I have been married for almost six years now and of course, it hasn’t always been a walk in the park. No marriage is; it takes effort and a willingness to accept another’s imperfections. But being in a healthy, supportive marriage provides the stability I need to manage my condition. I am in the best place I have ever been on my mental health journey, and I recognize that sharing my experience can help others.
Being diagnosed with a mental illness is not a life sentence – it is simply a part of life. My diagnosis and ongoing treatment enable me to live a healthy full and heavy life…
A life worth living.
When I married Rochel, I knew that our lives would not be centered around her condition. After extensive conversations with my mashpia, Rochel’s doctor and a frum professional whose advice we both trusted, I went ahead with the shidduch. Thanks to her courage in pursuing a diagnosis and treatment, I was confident we would enjoy a normal, rich and full life.
Our marriage is like any other – we navigate the typical challenges of juggling parenting, work and community obligations. We put effort into our sholom bayis, and help each other through life’s hardships. Being part of a loving family that accepts you for who you are, without judgement, is essential for anyone to thrive, and I am thankful that we are surrounded by this kind of support.
I want readers to understand that the best thing they can do for their marriage (or that a parent can do for their child’s future relationships) is acknowledge issues that exist and seek help for them. Don’t try to hide from your challenges; bring them into the sunlight and address them. It will change your life for the better.
And if you have the opportunity to meet someone whose values and personality complement your own, don’t let a mental health diagnosis scare you away! Do your research, ask the right questions, speak to people whose guidance you trust, and approach with an open mind.
Six years ago, I made this choice, and for that I am forever grateful.
*Names have been changed for the sake of privacy.