Finishing the Work – Mental Illness and Rabbi Tarfon

*This Article First Appeared on Tabletmag.org

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, and the work is plentiful; the laborers are lazy, and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. He used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. (Pirkei Avot 2:15-16)

For as long as I can remember, I have had a phrase running through my head: if I just tried harder.

If I just tried harder, I would get more done. I would still be working. I would have a career. I wouldn’t need so much sleep. I wouldn’t be depressed—or, if I was, I would power through it. If I just tried harder, I could have been a better mom, more available to my daughter. I could have walked the dog more often. I would have, I could have, I should have done all those things, if I had just been less selfish, less lazy. I should have tried harder.

I felt like this as a child and a teenager, in college and in rabbinical school. Sometimes, it worked: I powered through my depression and got A’s; I pretended I was fine, and became valedictorian. I smiled and wrote and interviewed, and received a prestigious graduate fellowship. I worked hard as a rabbi just out of school, until I went on bedrest during my pregnancy. Even then, I felt that somehow, I was at fault: Those contractions were something I was making happen, rather than an objective reality. I had severe post-partum depression, but worked my through it at my small, lovely pulpit. The place where my inner truth and my outer behavior met was with my daughter. My lovely, beautiful, perfect, fussy baby. She, I was sure, knew the truth: I was not cut out to be a mother. I was not good enough. I wasn’t trying hard enough. She cried and cried, and I could not soothe her. It was bad enough that I didn’t—couldn’t—nurse her. I couldn’t even comfort her.

Then came my stroke, at age 34. I was a young, apparently healthy woman, even if I was struggling with deep depression that no one could see. I was exercising, I was working, I was striving to mother. And suddenly, it all came crashing down. There were so many things I could no longer do, no matter how hard I tried. I was tired; I had a migraine; I was dizzy. My mental illnesses—depression, bipolar disorder—made everything so much worse. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t power through it. I became formally disabled: Both my disability insurance folks and the people at Social Security recognized it, and put me on disability. But internally, I knew better. I was just being lazy. I was pretending things were worse than they really were. I told myself, again, that I was just not trying hard enough.

How could I not see my disabilities? They were there, staring me in the face, wreaking havoc on my life. If I did too much one day, I was sick with migraines and dizziness and fatigue for the next two or three days. My body was crying out to me: “Settle down. Do less. Get rest.” But the insistent trope in my head made it hard for me to listen to that inner voice of wisdom. And, of course, the stroke made the mental illness worse as well, compounding my struggles. My depressions got deeper and longer, my manic moments more problematic. My suspicion of myself grew stronger in some ways. I had a long way to go to get to a place of trusting my experience.

Even now, 20 years later, there are mornings when I wake up and think: I just can’t. Sometimes, I have a headache and need to stay in bed; other times, I haven’t slept well the night before and need to rest. But sometimes, I use those things as an excuse, or so it seems to me. My headache isn’t that bad—get up and move!

The reality is, sometimes, I just can’t emotionally. It is not the fault of those around me, friends who love me and would accept my down mood as a matter of course. But there are times when I am so depressed that I can’t get up and go. It feels just too hard.

And I think that accepting that feeling, acknowledging the moment and giving myself a break might (in theory) actually lead to fewer of those days. If I could name it—depression, anxiety, despair—and confess it to my friend while I am canceling on them … well, perhaps I could learn to hold those feelings, those moments, as real. To assert that my feelings matter, to me, to my family and friends. That they will not abandon me if I cancel because of my mental illness, instead of just my physical one. That they will still love me.

Read the Rest of the Article on Tablet.org, Here

Rabbi Sandra Cohen works in mental health outreach in religious communities across North America, as well as teaching rabbinic texts in a variety of contexts from her home in Denver. 

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