Getting personal about depression

Illustrative. Guilt, shame, headache, depression. (via iStock)
Illustrative. Guilt, shame, headache, depression. (via iStock)

What follows is a re-working of a sermon that I delivered in my synagogue — Forest Hills Jewish Center — last Shabbat morning. It was one of the most difficult sermons I’ve ever had to deliver, but undoubtedly, based on the volume and content of the responses, one of the most impactful. I am so grateful to my daughter Talya for her grace and courage in allowing me to share this…

For the better part of 10 years I was on the faculty of the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary. My charge during those years was to teach graduating seniors of both the rabbinical and cantorial schools — it was a joint seminar — an advanced course in what is termed “practical rabbinics.” What I tried to do, the way I defined the seminar, was to expose them to what they were likely to encounter when they went out into the field in real time. What were the issues that they would confront, and how would they deal with them? You learn lots of thing in clerical training, especially text, but real-life experience at critical moments is not always at the top of the list…

One of the realities that I tried hard to convey to them was the need to establish clearly delineated boundaries that would protect their families. When you’re in the rabbinate or the cantorate — I’m not breaking new ground by saying this — you’re living in what might fairly be defined as a fish bowl. There is an entire community looking at you, seeing what your kids are wearing and when they come to synagogue, if they come to synagogue, how they behave when they’re in synagogue, where are they eating, with whom they’re hanging out, and much more.

This relentless scrutiny represents an enormous intrusion on their privacy, and actually can create serious developmental issues. Mental health professionals often refer to it as “Preacher’s Kid syndrome.” Far too many children of clergy suffer long into adulthood for what was visited upon them when they were young, through no fault of their own. I taught these graduating rabbis and cantors to carefully erect serious boundaries that would shield their children from the worst of this. and not to make their children’s issues a subject of public discussion.

This past Shabbat morning, in our regular synagogue service, I violated my own rule in a seriously big way.

My wife Robin had spent Friday with our daughter Talya doing wedding-related errands — she’s getting married in late October — and Talya decided to stay with us for Shabbat dinner. At dinner, we talked, among other things, about the week that was: Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, suicide, and most of all depression. I said to Talya something that I’ve said very often here in my own synagogue — I’ve always thought that the church world has done a much better job of projecting church as a nurturing place to go when you’re broken than the synagogue world has. I suspect that it’s tied in to the theological imagery of Jesus on the cross. Jesus was broken, and Christians are encouraged to identify with his brokenness to achieve their own salvation. For whatever reason, everything from their hymns (Amazing Grace, for example) to their liturgy to their theology encourages Christians to understand church as a place to go to when you feel less than whole. I know that’s a broad generalization, and the church world is not without its fair share of alienated Christians. But the point remains valid. It’s not an accident that there are so many AA chapters in churches.

The synagogue world, by and large, has done a much less than adequate job of selling that idea within its ranks. A synagogue is more often a place to be avoided when you’re feeling broken, when you’re feeling in disrepair, when your family isn’t what you would like it to be and you don’t represent some paradigm of perfection. You walk in and people ask how are your kids are, how many children do they have, where are they at school, where are they working, and all of these kinds of probing questions. And if you can’t give the answers that represent the very model of a successful thriving family, people tend to come across as judgmental, even when they don’t mean to. Our self-image as a community is one where, to borrow Garrison Keillor’s famous sardonic comment on Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. It’s one of our big problems, among many.

The reason why this was a particularly sensitive subject — and here is where I’m violating my own rule, but I hasten to add that I’m doing it with my daughter’s permission — I would never do this if she hadn’t said it was OK — the reason is that Talya herself went through a period of very serious depression.

I’ve been a rabbi in Forest Hills for 37 years, and all of my four children were born into our same (wonderful) synagogue community, So often, people look at our family and say, “Wow, four kids, high end, high achieving, beautiful children, they’re getting married, you have grandchildren, they’re doing exciting things,” et cetera. Talya was right in that mode. She had excelled in high school, and went to Barnard like her sister before and her mother and her aunt; it’s almost like a family legacy. She was doing fine academic work at there, but in the middle of her last semester of her senior year — her last semester of her senior year — she just hit a wall. We had no idea really how to read the signs, except that she was drawing increasingly remote, and very hard to communicate with, to the point of really withdrawing. We noticed — she lived on the third floor of our house — that her room had become what I called the independent republic of Talyaland, where brave men and women dared not go. I’ve seen messy rooms before but I never saw anything remotely like what she had created on the third floor. She obviously didn’t care, and was sending a message to us to keep our distance.

We struggled hard to find Talya the right therapeutic care, the right medication, the right talk therapy, and to make sure that, despite the obstacles that she was putting up, there would always be a lot of love. It wasn’t easy, because she was hard to have around. Frankly, we were terrified that she would hurt herself. We were scared to leave her alone, and didn’t know quite what to do… but ultimately, she pulled through.

Somewhere along the line in this process, the switch of Talya’s connection to observant Judaism turned off, pretty much completely. She just really needed to reboot herself in some way that would work for her. and the rest of us would simply have to accommodate ourselves to her re-invention. But her re-invention has yielded some wonderful results.

She has, for the past three years, been very successfully employed at a wonderfully high level in Queens Borough President Melinda Katz’s office, as coordinator for Health and Human Services and in charge of women’s issues for the borough of Queens. She lacks no smarts. She’s very capable. But she lives with the legacy of having gone through this.

When we were talking at our Shabbat dinner table, she defined herself as a recovering depressive person, because everyone who suffers severe depression is always recovering, like people who suffer from substance abuse and alcoholism and whatever — they can always slip back. Thankfully, with all the help that’s she’s gotten, she’s able to more clearly see the early warning signs and know that she needs the help, and knows where to get it.

Somewhere in this magical mystery tour of hers that was all her own, God smiled on Talya. She found the nicest man, who loves her deeply, and has helped her feel that she’s okay, and that whatever it is that she’s doing, she’s doing it well… her fiance Adam has been a wonderful gift to her, and to all of us. Even if Talya had not gone through all of this, Adam’s becoming a part of our family would still be a gift.

I share this with you not because I’m anxious for you to say “I’m so sorry you were going through this.” I really don’t need that, and neither does my daughter. I share it with you because I want consciously to shatter the myth that everyone that you see represents some model of family or perfection or wellness or wholeness that you assume only because you know nothing about them and their lives except what you see in shul, or on the street, or in social contexts… you know nothing about them.

Most people who knew Kate Spade, except for her closest friends, didn’t know that she had been struggling with serious depression. Anthony Bourdain, with whom I would’ve loved to have a beer, who represented zest for life… who knew? We have people in our community that I know have estranged themselves from our synagogue because they’ve been reluctant to share the issues that they’re dealing with in their families. We have families where the partners are struggling, we have families whose children are struggling with every manner of every issue that you can name, whether it’s gender identity or trans or gender fluidity or autism, substance abuse, name it, we have it. People don’t walk into services wearing a sign saying “my child is really struggling.” They’re not necessarily comfortable walking into synagogue and trying to find the solace that might come from shedding a tear or opening their hearts to other people (or to God) and saying “love me as I am. Love my children as they are, embrace them and let them know that they’re part of a loving community.” It’s not that we don’t want to; it’s that we don’t know how to.

We’re so practiced in the art of denial that our very denial exacerbates the pain of people who are really struggling. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for good shrinks, good medicine, good loving. There are many days that go by where I wonder what can I possibly do to make our community more responsive to this. Robin and I never really hid it, but we didn’t talk about it except with a small circle of friends because, frankly, it wasn’t really anybody’s business and we didn’t want to compromise Talya. I feel now that sharing it, as opposed to compromising her, might use her experience to really open others up to the possibility of understanding what’s involved in being a more inclusive community. I hope that’s so…

There are many ways to interpret the catastrophic failure of the spies of whom we read in last week’s Torah portion. One is that they spoke lashon harah, slanderous gossip, about the land of Israel, and another that they disobeyed God’s will. But Rav Nahman of Bratzlav talked about their being m’husrei emunah –– they lacked faith. They saw the same objective reality that the other spies saw but they interpreted that reality incorrectly.

I think that sometimes, we lack faith in our own communities, and in their capacity to be better versions of what they need to be in order to be more inclusive, welcoming, and supportive. It’s something we all need to work on.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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