I disappeared from public view last November. It has been frightening to contemplate sharing where I went, why, and how I have made my way through. If you are reading this, it is because you know me; perhaps as your rabbi, perhaps as your colleague, perhaps as your friend. These relationships are sacred to me. But my most important relationship, to myself, was in jeopardy, and I had to stop everything in order to save myself. What follows is a journal entry, written two weeks into my mental health medical leave. I hope to share more of the past few months' journey here, but at the very least, there is this.
(Written on 12/18/2021)
Wintering… is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, side-lined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider… Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. (Katherine May, Wintering)
I do feel as though I have fallen between two worlds, but it has been a gradual descent. Falling in slow motion, holding onto a public semblance of functionality, of “normal,” and “ok.” The solitude of the pandemic brought so many truths to the surface, revealed so many ways in which I have been living a performance; all fallen away when there is no audience.
Days before the first Stay at Home orders came down, when “Coronavirus,” was only a word overheard in snippets of conversation, I remember thinking to myself, “I wish I could take another maternity leave.” Those few months, in the cozy nest of sleep deprivation and singular focus throughout the winter, were life-giving. All edifice fell away. No makeup. No worrying about what comments my day-to-day attire might draw. Only comfy clothes, minimal social interaction, privacy… I wanted that again and to a very large extent, with the arrival of Covid, that’s what I got.
Except we kept grinding.
Work was hard, but mostly rewarding, the safety of my own home a catalyst for my most thoughtful teaching and preaching. I spoke and wrote about the opportunities for personal growth that the pandemic brought; the chance to be still, to take stock and make course corrections. A sobering time, in which I learned how to be. By myself.
But then the pressures returned. “Back to normal,” became a premature assignment and I found myself digging my heels in, resisting. Daily, I felt the threat of the Delta variant to my 3 year old child - as well as a sense that to return to “normal” would be a devastating loss. We, as a society and as a staff, talked about how Covid had been an opportunity to re-evaluate, to re-consider how we function. All of that fell away as a manic need for a return to the way-things-were rose like an unstoppable tide.
After months of holding out hope for change, advocating for it to the benefit of all, I began to physically feel the futility of my efforts. I stopped trying to be the voice of change and fell back from the battlefield to fortify my boundaries, repeatedly speaking up for myself and repeatedly being rebuked for it. Each onslaught depleted my energy and infused me with shame and doubt and fear.
And so I let go, into freefall. Released the daily mask of Ok-ness. I fell deeply into my not-ok, the incessant noise in my head from the thoughts telling me I was wrong about my boundaries, the frantic calculating how to do what was being asked of me while also doing what was right for my family. My flavor of not-ok is generally a mix of depression and anxiety which lead to panic and despair. A full-blown panic attack on November 1st left me exhausted and afraid, hyperventilating on the kitchen floor (where I do all of my Big Feeling). Friends and colleagues told me to get help. So I did.
I needed stillness. Quiet. Inspired by Simone Biles, who removed herself from the 2021 Olympics when her mental health threatened her physical well-being, I turned to those I trusted and asked for help. Told my doctor and therapist about my not-ok-ness. They witnessed it, validated it, and stepped in to help. I stopped clinging to the vision of a changed world, a world that I could not will into existence, and let myself free fall into the unknown.
So here I am. Two weeks into medical leave. A time to heal, to pause, to learn how to feel safe again. To retreat and regroup and reemerge truer and more whole. Unwilling to let myself down in order to avoid letting others down. I am learning to listen to my body. To discern and honor its “no,” and its “yes.”
This will all take practice. It is utterly foreign to me.
My life depends on it.