As someone living with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I experience hypomania or mania when I forget about my need to stop, take a break and rest. I tend to take on more than I should (or can), with little need for sleep, and I run myself ragged until I crash into a state of depression. It is not until I experience depression that I become aware this has happened and something is wrong. This happens despite the fact that I am a mental health educator and “should” know better. While rare, these depressive episodes make living my life feel impossible, and the situation becomes dangerously close to being too late…
The last time it nearly became too late, I had been running on empty for weeks, not taking a single day off in three months. I had reduced my observation of Shabbat to Friday night services and neglected one of my favorite forms of self-care (going to the gym). Suddenly yet unsurprisingly, I found myself in the pit of depression without the leverage I needed to climb out. I found myself preoccupied with death to the point that, several times a day, I passively wondered what might happen if I were to die. These thoughts became insurmountable and uncontrollable, and soon they developed into active suicidal thoughts. Not only did I contemplate suicide; I had a plan, and I had acquired the means to execute that plan. As I sat in my bed, I began to cry. I felt inconsolable. While the pain of depression left me wanting to die, the part of me that wanted to live was so scared. Harnessing that desire to keep living and taking on a last-minute radical (to the moment) act of self-care, I began to make calls through my contact list of close friends, one by one, to see if they would pick up in the middle of the workday. It did not take long for two friends to call me back, one after the other, and I asked them both to meet me at the hospital. After being admitted to the emergency room, I was sectioned on an involuntary hold and would not be moved from that hold until after a week of psychiatric hospitalization.
There is nothing more frightening, painful or dangerous than one’s desire to die by suicide — both to the person contemplating it and to those who love them. I am so grateful for the two friends who met me in the hospital, for the work they did together to advocate on my behalf and for taking turns being with me until I felt ready to be alone in the hospital. I am also grateful to my entire circle of friends, who made sure to visit me for seven days — even when it brought them to tears — and helped me to coordinate my care after I was discharged. Like a hospitalization for physical illness, the recovery after a psychiatric hospitalization comes with its own challenges. People are most at risk for suicide three months following a hospitalization, and for one year out, they are more at risk for another hospitalization. Bearing that in mind, I waited to mark my one-year anniversary of discharge and asked my rabbi to let me recite Birkat HaGomel. For those who do not know, Birkat HaGomel is commonly said after recovering from serious illness but can also be recited in gratitude for completing a dangerous journey. I invited my friends to join me so they would be present for me when I recite Birkat HaGomel for my own path to recovery as well as for them, for bringing me back from that dangerous place. I recited the traditional Birkat HaGomel and shared my interpretive Birkat HaGomel:
Blessed are You, Holy Creator, who has created each one of us, intentionally, so that we
are not alone.
Blessed are You, Source of Rest, who has commanded us to keep Shabbat, to practice
self-care and healthy boundaries, while we care for one another.
Blessed are You, Source of Wisdom, guide us to seek help when we need it, assist
others to see us when we need holy, sacred chesed (loving-kindness).
Blessed are You, Divine Source of Life, whose love and mercy is with each one of us
always, especially when we walk through dark valleys and as we climb the
mountains of euphoria.
Blessed are You, Source of Peace, who helps us to choose life and remains present to
us when thoughts of death are insurmountable.
May we each know that, together with all of creation, you have called us unconditionally
May we each move from strength to strength, finding comfort in the company we keep,
to wake up renewed for each new day.
And, may the Holy One, who continues to bless us when we wake up and lie down,
continue to light the path of life for those who feel unsafe. Amen!
It is my hope that this Birkat HaGomel be shared widely with attribution. If you have any questions about how to use it in your own community, or if you are a clergy person wondering how to care for those living with mental health concerns in your congregation through prayer, please feel free to reach out. There is a vulnerability to doing this within your congregation, and there are ways to protect your mental health when doing so, both for the clergy person and for the person marking a moment in their recovery. We, at the Blue Dove Foundation, are here for your community, and you are not alone.
Devin Shmueli lives in Massachusetts and is a member of Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, where he serves as the Chesed/caring Committee Chair and sits on the Board of Directors. He has a passion for mental health education, suicide prevention and stigma reduction around mental illness and has experience as a chaplain. He is also the Education and Training Coordinator at the Blue Dove Foundation.