Please spare me the bromides about “Clergy are people, too” or “Being a rabbi would make anyone crazy.” This rabbi nearly committed suicide, emotionally abused his wife, berated his congregants in his sermons, sent ugly and grandiose emails, left his congregation in shambles, and departed his pulpit and his spiritual calling in disgrace.
The progression took decades, then sped up to the point of a near-fatality. It began in increasingly protracted episodes of depression. Periods of elation felt like respites of normalcy. Talk-therapy did not help. Patience of family did not help. Turning to God did not help. Antidepressants helped for a while, then lost their efficacy.
My mood swings became so radical, so detached from reality, that I became harmful to myself and to my beloved wife, Linda. Peaks and valleys oscillated higher and lower, and cycled so quickly that my personality vacillated without a moment’s notice.
Was I aware what was going on? Not at first. But I was so sick. Outbursts directed toward a loving wife were full of language the likes of which I had never uttered. Every day was riddled with suicidal thoughts that even the birth of grandchildren could not assuage. After all, they would be better off never knowing someone so miserable, I thought.
All this was punctuated by grandiosity and obsessiveness — with eBay. I created a fantasy of building a collection of cuff links. Over a period of several months, I spent hundreds of dollars amassing sets of cuff links, disregarding that I owned nary a French-cuff shirt.
This was also precisely when the relationship with my congregation spun out of control: elation, depression, anger, unrealistic expectations, vituperative outbursts in meetings, acting out from the pulpit. Finally, depression interrupted by grandiosity pushed me to the rash decision to resign, a decision accompanied by both seeming aplomb and my flamboyance.
Now, almost 16 years have passed, and I’m still unemployed as a rabbi. The synagogue world is small. The news gets out. Who would hire a rabbi who is a loose cannon, even from the pulpit, no less?
I was beloved to my congregation. The only fault I attribute to my well-heeled, upper middle-class congregation was in its leadership not saying to Linda, “Your husband is a sick man. Take the time. Get him help. We’ll wait.”
Instead, the delegation said to Linda, “We need him pronto. We have important events coming up. We can’t afford to lose him. Now you tell him to get back on the horse!” An interesting commentary on what people in general know and don’t know about bipolarity.
Finally, Linda’s ultimatum for me to get help or do whatever it took to protect herself pushed me to the right psychiatrist. Indeed, I owe him my life. Here was someone who understood the neuro-chemical basis of bipolarity. Antidepressants alone would not solve the problem—the additional anti-seizure meds now seem to be working remarkably well.
Angry outbursts have ceased, as have the morbid thoughts. I have deleted eBay from my “favorite places.” The medication certainly enables me to manage life’s typical highs, lows, and even disappointments without self-destructive tailspins.
Am I scared? You bet. How much I would like to believe that bipolarity is simply a state of mind. I fear that one day the meds will lose their efficacy. And at 68, I fear that my father’s descent into Alzheimer’s at age 70 bodes ominously for me.
I also fear that my grandfather’s radical mood swings (then called “fits of whimsy”) might loom on my own horizon if my meds no longer help me.
Certainly, I am grateful for all that I have, especially Linda, my blessed partner in life, and for what an astute psychiatrist has helped me to uncover. I still have much grand-parental (all 14 of them) delight to savor. I still have many Holy Days to celebrate. I still have many festive dinners to serve. I still have so many acts of kindness waiting for me to perform.
I realize that three years — after which I will have arrived at my father’s time of decline — may not be long enough. But I accept this as a challenge, not a cause for despair.
So, who wants a pair of hideous cuff links anyways? I have a shoe-box full of them, and still not one French-cuff shirt.
WILUDI (Marc Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC. Contact him at marcwilson1216.com.