Wearing a Horcrux

Wearing a Horcrux

I’ve been having a hard time recently, so I took a few days off work to deal with that (which seems to have helped). During that time, I decided to watch some of the Harry Potter movies. When I got to The Deathly Hallows Part 1, I found a very tangible explanation of what’s been going on and of depression in general: the horcrux.

A brief recap: While trying to find a way to destroy it, Harry wears the horcrux necklace to avoid losing it. He becomes angry and constantly on edge, finally snapping at Hermoine. Realizing that this was caused by the necklace, Hermoine tells him to take it off and they all take turns wearing it. Ron has the hardest time wearing it and ultimately becomes the one to destroy the necklace.

There are a few ways I see this as depression.

First, it often feels situational when it starts. Harry thinks he’s just angry because he has an impossible mission and immense pressure (a perfectly good reason to be snappy!). The idea that the horcrux could be causing all of this doesn’t even cross his mind. When you have an episode of depression during a hard time in your life, it feels like that is what’s wrong. Only you try to make your life better and you don’t feel any better. Sometimes it takes someone else pointing that out for you to make the connection. After all, Harry doesn’t even think to take the necklace off until Hermoine tells him to.

Like the horcrux, there isn’t an easy solution to depression. They realize the horcrux is making them miserable, but they still can’t get rid of the thing. They have to keep hunting until the solution they need presents itself. If all it took to get rid of depression was realizing you’re depressed and wanting to get better, no one would have depression. It takes a lot of work to find the right blend of therapy and/or medication(s). You’re wandering through the world trying to find a sword to destroy the horcrux, all while you get more and more miserable with it around.

Most importantly to me, though, the horcrux captures what it feels like to be depressed. When people think of depression, they think of being really, really sad all the time. It’s the Death Eater approach to depression–something comes and sucks all of the happiness and life out of you. Except not always. Depression (especially in children and men) looks a lot like anger and irritability. Everything in your life puts you on edge. Everything that goes wrong is amplified by a thousand. You hate everyone and, most of all, yourself. You suspect people around you. They’re all having a good time without you and don’t want you around. Your mind tells you nothing but lies, only you can’t tell that they are. Oh, and all of the joy and happiness is gone. All you have is anger and depression. Absolutely miserable.

There’s some good in this analogy, though. Remember the deal about them sharing the responsibility of wearing the horcrux? That works with depression, too. No one can actually “wear” your depression for you, but I’ve found that a good conversation can be like that. Talking to someone honestly about depression while they listen and don’t try to solve things can lift an immense weight. The depression isn’t gone, but you got a breather during that conversation. Someone else wore the horcrux for a few minutes. You still have to put it back on when the conversation is done, but it’s easier to bear while you keep searching.

I’ve said it many times before and I’ll do it again- listening to someone in need is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. It’s not easy. It’s wearing the horcrux, even if it’s only for a few minutes. But it’s the key to helping someone’s depression end. I promise, meds on their own don’t do it. Talking is always part of the path forward, whether to a friend, family member, or therapist. If you see that someone is having a hard time, give them a break from wearing the horcrux alone. For those of you reading this going through your own hard times, I hope you find someone to do that for you.

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Nothing Lasts Forever

The main point was something else entirely, but the sermon last shabbat briefly talked about the idea that nothing lasts forever (except apparently for the anointing oil in the mishkan). It’s an idea that’s often talked about when good things come to their end in an attempt at consoling someone. Reminding oneself that nothing lasts forever can be a way of lessening the blow of disappointment when something we really loved comes to an end, whether it’s a relationship, a positive experience, or something else.

That’s not what I thought about when I heard this, though. I’ve been really struggling in a few different areas of my life lately. It’s really easy to see that as something that will last forever. I know I’m not alone in that. The idea of something ending isn’t easy to conceptualize, whether that thing is good or bad. For me, I am much more likely to think that bad things in my life will last forever than to think that good things will. I guess that makes me a pessimist. It definitely makes a hard time harder.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy sees this dynamic as one of the core mechanisms behind suffering. It’s basically a loss in perspective. You’re holding an idea or experience so closely that you can’t see beyond it. That in itself is damaging, but all the moreso because what you’re holding isn’t the eternal reality. Depression, for example, can feel endless when you’re in it. Yet one of the things we know about depression (from a clinical perspective) is that it is episodic. By definition, it will end (although there’s a good chance it’ll come back, too). Thinking it will last forever contributes heavily to the sense of hopelessness many experience in depression. Realizing it won’t can make it easier to bear.

I write this not because I have this figured out. I definitely don’t. I needed a direct reminder from my therapist this week that what I’m going through won’t last forever. I write this because I still need that reminder and I know others do, too. It’s sad that the good things in our life won’t last forever, but the consolation comes from understanding that the bad things won’t either. Whatever you are going through, it won’t last forever.

Giving Gifts Despite (or Because Of) Chronic Illness

Saturday’s parasha focused on the plans for the Mishkan/Tabernacle/God Tent, starting first with the various gifts the Israelites contributed for its construction. Some of the gifts were the same for everyone and mandatory while others were given based on their hearts’ desire. The Kli Yakar has some great analysis about all of that.

It’s got me thinking about gifts, especially related to chronic illness. I often write about the gifts you can give someone living with chronic illness (mostly listening). I don’t write about the gifts we or, more specifically, I offer. There’s a reason for that. When things aren’t going well with my health, I often feel like I don’t have many gifts to offer other people. Well, unless you’re the market for irritability, hopelessness, and depression. Those I have a plenty. Probably thinking that those are all I have to offer is why I feel those ways a lot.

Maybe it would be worth thinking through what gifts I do offer, either because of my chronic illness or despite it.

First, people often talk about disability and illness making someone “kinder”. I was reminded that people assume this while reading this article and, more specifically, that it’s not a given. When my pain and fatigue are bad, I am certainly not a kinder person, even though I try to be. What it has made me, though, is more aware of the needs of other people. Prior to this, I was probably a general well-meaning person that would gladly accommodate a need, but take little proactive action. Now, accessibility has become my main theological and communal interest. Being someone who needs accommodation (and doesn’t always receive it), has helped me see and prioritize accessibility for everyone. I hope to change things within the Jewish community for everyone and I wouldn’t have chosen that focus without this illness.

That’s the big picture, but what I find most valuable is the person to person connection of it. I understand my friends with disabilities better than I did before (even though I had other disabilities prior to this). I take “inconvenient” requests more seriously because I know that, for the person making the request, those are huge. I’m particularly grateful for the leadership of a friend in understanding food and other aversions. I also better know that supporting someone isn’t a passive act. It requires learning more about what’s going on with them, intentionally reaching out, and asking what you can do to support people.

The degree to which I choose to be visible with my illness can be a gift to others as well. There are people in my life, whether I know them or not, who live with chronic illness and may not talk about it. Even if we never talk about it, I hope seeing me can help them feel less alone. I know seeing others doing that has helped me feel less alone. Hopefully, too, it can help people who know both of us better understand their needs. Chronic illness, especially at a “young” age, is such a hard (and tiring) experience to explain. Maybe sharing it will help other people, even if it doesn’t have the immediate impact in my own life that I want.

I hope I have more gifts to offer, but that’s what I can think of right now. It’s more than I would have thought before I started thinking about it, though.

An Appetite for God

This week in shul it was taught that, since the Israelites reacted to God’s presence by eating, when we eat we must have experienced God sometime between meals. Both times this was taught, I found myself asking one thing: what does it mean that I’ve forgotten meals several times in the past couple of weeks and then delayed eating when I noticed, enjoying the hunger?
Those couple of weeks have been particularly difficult in an already difficult life. I can’t think of anything going well, but I can think of a lot of things that are distinctly going not well. Health issues, difficulty with my dog, conflict and pain in relationships, and on and on. I’ve wanted–and needed–comfort during this and have rarely found it.
I remember very clearly feeling like this when my health issues were first getting really bad. I would go to morning minyan, feeling like I needed to be there, and would wrap myself in my tallit, covering my face, and spend most of the service silently crying. I did the same on a particularly bad day. As I bowed my tallit-covered head and cried, I had the distinct sensatuon of a heavy, loving hand upon my head and another on my hand that was wrapped with tefillin. For the first time, I felt comforted and unalone. That wasn’t the literal physical presence of God, but it was God’s presence. I haven’t felt that this time, even when I’ve tried.
Maybe I’m missing meals because I don’t feel God’s presence.
What then of enjoying and prolonging the hunger when I do feel it?
Maybe in those moments I’m feeling God’s absence. Prolonging hunger is prolonging that absence. If I can’t feel God’s presence, I can at least feel God’s absence.
Absence is a way of knowing that you still have a relationship, even if the person isn’t present. I know a relationship is over not when the person is no longer present, but rather when I stop missing them. The relationships I’ve been able to maintain across distance have been ones in which, even if it’s not often, I find myself missing the person.
For whatever reason, I don’t have God’s presence in my life right now. Maybe God has hidden God’s face or maybe I’ve just hidden my face from God. I’ll try to change that, but for now I’m left with God’s absence. At least that means I still have a relationship with God.

Understanding Chronic Illness

In most issues of diversity, research shows that knowing someone with that identity is one of the biggest predictor of accepting attitudes, even if they didn’t always hold those attitudes. Most likely, it’s not just the simple act of knowing that person, but also having conversations with them about their experiences. I think that’s probably true of chronic illness, too. Many people in my life know that I have this experience, but there are very few I talk to about it. This is the start in an experiment to see if talking about it more will help people better understand.

The Background: Starting in October 2018, right around Sukkot, I started to feel tired all the time. I also started noticing that I would feel a lot of pain, especially in my hands, during stress. In February, that pain became constant. I went to my primary care doctor and my blood tests were normal, so my concerns were dismissed. I knew something was wrong, so I saw a rheumatologist in March. In April, after my condition worsened to the point of not being able to work a full day, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Since I didn’t have a positive blood result for that, it’s my doctor’s “best guess” and he acknowledged that, as things progress, it may turn out to be a different condition. Since then, I’ve been on several medications, all of which failed, and one of which weakened my immune system and led to frequent sinus infections.

Recent Updates: As of last week, that medication is out of my system. I started a new medication that works, similarly, by suppressing my immune system. I found out on Wednesday that I won’t know for 12-16 weeks if it’s even working. I also just got diagnosed with another sinus infection and started my 6th round of antibiotics, learning that I’m about 50% antibiotic resistant. My pain and fatigue vary, but are the worst they’ve been in several months. On Monday, my supervisor asked me to go on FMLA to accommodate my likely absences. I plan to ask my doctor in my next appointment for a re-evaluation to see if they’ve diagnosed the right autoimmune condition. The other options are worse, but maybe a more accurate diagnosis would lead to more effective treatment.

Those are the bare facts, but don’t say much about how I’m responding. If my pain and fatigue are managed, I handle things pretty well and don’t think about it most days. When they aren’t or I get the type of news I’ve been getting, I don’t. It often feels overwhelming and hopeless to know that I’ll be dealing with the rest of my life (autoimmune conditions have no cure). Failing–to use my doctor’s phrase–a lot of medications makes that hopelessness worse. I’m not confident that there is a treatment aside from pain management that will work for me. All autoimmune conditions cause damage to the body in different ways, with increased damage if the condition is not being effectively treated. The thought of being 29 and possibly not having a treatment is terrifying because (assuming an average life expectancy) that’s a lot of time for things to get worse. I try not to think about it, but I worry what this means for my rabbinical school plans and especially what this means for my ability to be a congregational rabbi, my ideal path. In short- unless things are going well, I deal with a lot of fear and hopelessness.

That’s not the worst of it, though. I’m writing this to try to help with the biggest problem- feeling isolated. I don’t know many people–certainly not my age–that are dealing with similar problems. Living with an autoimmune disorder is a unique experience that you can only really understand when you live it. More than that, though, some of the ways people react has kept me from talking about it. These reactions aren’t out of malice, but rather not knowing what to do. It’s included: people treating me like a hypochondriac, being told to just “be positive” and things will get better, wishes to get better soon without realizing that this won’t go away, avoiding the subject, and awkward apologies. I understand those reactions. It’s hard to know what to say or do and I’m not an easy person to understand.

Those are my experiences. There is plenty I’m not sharing here, but it’s a lot more than I’ve shared to this point. I hope knowing this can inspire more understanding so maybe I feel more comfortable talking about it to reduce those feelings of isolation. That’s not enough, though. Here are practical suggestions of what to do with that understanding:

  • Only ask me how I’m doing if you want an honest answer.
  • If you ask how I’m doing, ask how I’m doing that day. This really varies by the day and it’s helped when people ask how I’m doing that way.
  • Stay calm and express concern without becoming noticeably anxious. I’m trying not to, but it is always my instinct to take care of someone in those moments and I hope we can all agree that it’s not where my focus should be.
  • Instead of saying “I hope you get better soon”, say “I hope you feel better soon.” Saying something like “I hope you have less pain/fatigue soon” is actually really helpful. It acknowledges that being pain-free isn’t likely while still expressing your hope that I’ll be dealing with less of it.
  • Don’t encourage me to be positive. I’m handling this much better than I ever thought I would and I’m handling this better than many would. This is devastating news, especially since I don’t know exactly what’s wrong.
  • Unless you live with chronic pain/fatigue, are a medical professional, or have someone very close to you with chronic pain/fatigue whom you help manage their condition, don’t provide suggestions on what to do. I know you’re trying to be helpful, but it doesn’t work the way you’re hoping it would.
  • If you’re ever not sure of what to do, please just ask. I won’t always have a good answer, but I’ll try to give guidance.
  • Lastly, the greatest gift you can give me is just listening. Human connection and concern is the only thing I can’t get elsewhere.

 

Kashrut for Health

People often summarize Jewish holidays as: they tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat! I’m sure that makes for some interesting relationships to food. As someone that didn’t grow up Jewish, though, I can’t use that as an explanation for my fraught relationship with food. Instead, my relationship with food has a lot to do with being trans or, more specifically, being raised as an overweight girl child.

My mother is both overweight and mentally unwell. You may be unsurprised to learn that her food issues became mine. When my mom went on a diet, I was put on it, too. Her diets featured extreme restriction, lack of any kind of balance, and return to junk food as soon as they finished. Most notably, this featured me at age 10 joining her on the cabbage soup diet. For the lucky folks unfamiliar, this featured exclusively eating a broth-based cabbage soup for days/weeks at a time. It also included diets like the Atkins, based on removing food groups with little-to-no focus on adding things in (like vegetables!).

This impacted me in a couple of ways. First, these kinds of diets are fueled by self-hatred. Why else would you choose to eat nothing but cabbage soup (trust me, it’s not good soup)? Those diets are a punishment for being fat. It also kicks in when the diet inevitably fails. The failure isn’t because the diet was wrong- it’s your failure of will and being a bad person because you’re fat. It also made a healthy diet–especially one designed to lose weight–almost impossible, even as an adult. I get obsessive about calorie counting. I restrict too much, which leads to both a lot of sweets later and dropping the diet quickly. Like I did throughout childhood and adolescence, I skip meals. I avoid things like intermittent fasting, even though it has evidence, because all of my food baggage makes that ripe for an eating disorder.

How can I resolve this?

I don’t know yet if this is the answer, but I think some of the larger principles of kashrut can help with this. Keeping kosher, especially at home, requires a lot of self-control. Yesterday, for example, I ended up not making olive bread because I couldn’t find the right olives with a hekhsher. This most clearly impacts what processed foods I eat because most don’t carry a hekhsher. Homemade foods (almost always) have less calories than processed food and the extra work puts a time barrier between a feeling and satisfying it with food. Applying more of that discipline to how I eat outside of the home makes the idea of not eating out a kashrut issue. A practice I’m going to seriously consider is not eating out except for vegetarian and/or hekhshered restaurants (prior to that, was eating vegetarian in any restaurant). That cuts out all of my stress-eating- no more Domino’s, no more soups and mac from Bread Co., no more Jimmy John’s. Instead of becoming a restriction, it becomes a living out of values. If I wouldn’t eat it on my plates at home, should I really be eating it out? Maybe not.

Healthful eating can also be part of kashrut practice. In fact, the religious norms for rabbinical students at JTS explicitly define it as such: “A diet lacking in moderation is problematic, no matter what heksher appears on the wrapper.” I’m curious to see how this will work, but at least in concept it seems like a great way to remove self-hatred and punishment from the equation. It similarly makes the idea of self-love, often treated as essential for a healthy diet, irrelevant. Instead, it’s doing a mitzvah. That same document cites hazards to health as being a larger transgression than other prohibitions. That’s probably more about breaking Shabbat regulations to save a life than it is about eating more leafy greens, but I’ll take it.

Knowing what a healthy, balanced diet looks like has never been the problem, at least not as an adult. My challenges are doing things in moderation, maintaining them as a lifestyle, and not basing it all in self-hatred. Although, of course, I’m hoping for weight loss from these changes, making it about kashrut makes weight loss an added benefit, not the goal. It becomes doing this because God (to the limited extent we can understand what God wants of us) wants me to do this. We’ll see how it goes.

Isolation, Nature, and Not Being Busy

Isolation, Nature, and Not Being Busy

My favorite part of studying Torah is that there always seems to be something relevant in what I’m studying. Today, for example, I met with my rabbi and he decided on studying the Kli Yakar on Exodus 3:1 from this week’s parasha. I have no idea what made him choose that particular verse and that commentary on it, but it totally hit on something I’ve been dealing with lately.

The verse is simple: “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” The Kli Yakar asks why Moses drove the flock into wilderness and why it’s relevant that Moses is identified as a shepherd. On the first part, he quotes Rashi saying that Moses drove the flocks to the wilderness to avoid theft by grazing them in someone else’s field. The Kli Yakar answers that, since they weren’t Moses’ sheep, he wouldn’t be a thief anyway. The trip to the wilderness was more about prophecy- most of the prophets received their prophecy when they were in isolation, acting as shepherds. Why? They were alone, in the presence of God’s creation, and weren’t busying themselves with other things (shepherds are idle a lot of the time). Those, then, are the conditions needed for prophecy.

I relate to this in a couple of ways. First, I’ve found myself desperately seeking ways to stay busy lately. I’ve been seeking this busyness so much so that I keep signing myself up for new things, narrowly avoiding applying for a fellowship for which I have no time. On the surface, it’s about managing anxiety. Focusing intensely and creating plenty of opportunities to do so keeps my mind off my anxious thoughts. I can keep myself busy enough that I forget to eat. Forgetting to eat means I’m also forgetting anxiety. What does it mean, though, for my relationship to God and other insights? In those moments, I’m generally not thinking about bigger things. I’m just doing (and looking for more to do). What am I missing by keeping myself busy?

I’ve also been reluctant to be alone lately. Generally, I spend a lot of time alone and lonely. Since a lot of the people in my life are busy, I decided to combat this by getting a dog. Granted, he’s not the same as being around people, but there is less of a sense of aloneness, especially since he was like velcro the first couple of days. In some ways, that’s great. There is definitely such a thing as too much time alone and I think I met the criteria for that. At the same time, what could I be missing by bringing this other being into my life to be less alone? I openly welcome the opportunity to spend less time in my head because, again, less anxiety, but maybe there are some great ideas that I’m missing out on.

With those two elements, I’m pulling myself away from “prophecy” and maybe even God. Yet, when it comes to time in nature, I find myself with an opposite instinct. This is the second time this year in which St. Louis has felt suffocating. I have a pressing drive to just get out. I haven’t felt it in terms of going to parks or nature proper, but I feel a push to make the 6 hour drive to Chicago, more for the drive than for Chicago. The drive from St. Louis to Chicago is mostly wide spans of nothing but fields and sky. Some of that push is about the freedom of driving. But maybe some of it is about being in wide spans of nothing. I grew up in semi-rural Montana. I’m used to having “empty” space. I hated it growing up, but I’m growing more to appreciate that “emptiness” and regret the ways in which I missed out on nature by spending all of my time inside instead. St. Louis isn’t a really big city, but there isn’t much emptiness here. I think that’s why sometimes I feel the need to get out to, using the cliche, “clear my head.”

There’s conflict there: busy and around others versus driving alone through fields for hours. I think that’s a conflict we all have. I would say it’s pretty obvious that we all need time alone, in nature, without distractions. Probably none of us will see a burning bush when we do it, but it opens us in a way that our daily lives don’t. That’s wonderful and also terrifying. We don’t know what that openness will mean. What if our “prophecy” is that we drastically need to change our life in order to be more alive? What will we lose to do that? How much pain will we endure in our current lives and in striving to make them different? Something I’ve learned as a Jew by Choice, a queer person, and a trans person is that you can’t actually run from those realizations for very long. The new is usually better than the status quo. I don’t know about you, but maybe it’s time I spend some time alone, in nature, doing nothing.