Coronoa and Mental Illness

During these trying times of uncertainty, fear and isolation, I cannot help but think of my son Ariel z”l, whom I just visited at the Kiryat Anavim Cemetery, after lying to a policeman that I would definitely be going home the minute I finished shopping.

I visit my son almost every week, but this visit was oddly different. Not only did the policeman question me as I Ieft the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood, his gun was drawn. The roads were eerily empty, and I was thankful to be free from my own isolation, having not left the house for three days. I wore my bike scarf that I use in cold weather, got into the car, shopped — and felt relieved to be free. Relieved, but at the same time, sad and angry.

I felt so sad for my son and so angry at myself for not recognizing the terrible isolation that he must have felt for so many years. His anxieties and depression, and his rage — against the world, his community of friends, his family and especially me — caused us all to take a step back. Even the term “mental illness” made me squeamish when we first realized, only two months after Ariel z”l had won the Israel national championship in judo in his age and weight class, that something was terribly wrong with his emotional state. I so wish that instead of sending him off to psychologists and psychiatrists – and allowing him to take meds at such an early age against my better judgement, I would have spoken to him more, tried to be in touch with his pain, his isolation, his loneliness.

I should have hugged him more.

By the time I was able to hear, hold and hug my son, it was too late. Because, he too, had moved away from his community, his family, me — and ultimately, himself. The professionals with whom he conferred implored him to go back to judo. He decided not to. They encouraged him to get back to driving a car. He chose not to. He closed out his Facebook account and his WhatsApp groups. My wife found him the best professional in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy, a therapy that had proven to be helpful to people suffering from OCD-related depression and anxiety. Ariel z”l read me the letter that he sent to the professional explaining why he would not participate. I felt so helpless. I couldn’t change his mind or reach him because Ariel z”l had put himself in self-quarantine and nobody could get him out. He was lonely, sad, frustrated and angry. There were no gloves, masks or vaccine for this type of virus.

And, that is what we (I) really need to remember – mental illness is a virus, or as one person wrote on Facebook, it’s cancer of the soul. Ariel z”l was permanently in isolation and we didn’t visit him enough, because we, like Ariel, had entered into our own self-quarantine.

And, concomitantly, he didn’t allow us to visit him. I guess that’s why the virus is so powerful. Society is frightened of people with mental illness, and people suffering from mental illness are frightened of our critical judgment, so they go deeper into their own self-imposed isolation. No wonder Ariel z”l stopped competing in judo, driving, and hanging out with his friends and family.

After we find the cure for the coronavirus, we need to try to find a cure for mental illness.

We need to hear, hold and hug more, even if the “virus” of mental illness is terribly scary and threatens our sense of well-being. We need to stop quarantining people suffering from mental illness. We need to breach their isolation.

I told Ariel z”l today that it’s really crazy out here. I believe I heard him say, I know what you mean.

About the Author
Meir Charash, originally from Fair Lawn New Jersey, made Aliyah to Israel 40 years ago. In 1979, Meir acquired a B.S. in Business Management, majoring in organizational management, from Boston University and a MSW in 1984 in Group and Community Work from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work (WSSW) at Yeshiva University. Meir worked as a community worker in Beit Shemesh and in Jerusalem, was the Director of the Israel Office of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for 19 years providing fiduciary oversight to donor funds and facilitating Israel – Diaspora relations. Meir’s expertise is in the area of community building, fundraising and organizational behavior. In addition to supervising Wurzweiler social students, Meir worked as Faculty Advisor and Coordinator of the Israel Block Program from 2010 to 2017. Meir is married with three children and resides in Armon HaNatziv, Jerusalem. He is a certified fitness trainer, Thai massage therapist and an avid mountain bike rider having participated for nine years in the Alyn Charity Bike Ride for the Children of the Alyn Rehabilitation Hospital and in two races, the “Epic,” and “Sovev Arava”. Meir served in the armored forces for a year and a half and 15 years in reserve duty.
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