Saturday, August 26, 2006

More from the media

Recently I received this e-mail:

Dear "Ayelet,"

I'm a reporter for the Justice, the newspaper at Brandeis. I am writing about Sarah Adelman's tragic suicide. She graduated from Brandeis in 2004 and committed suicide last month. I just read your "open letter to the community" on your struggle with depression. I would love to speak with you for my article. I know that you didn't know Sarah, but your perspective on the community would be very useful. I will not print your name in the newspaper. It will be totally anonymous.

I wrote back:

Rachel, I'd be happy to communicate with you, but I'd prefer to do it anonymously. Please e-mail me a list of questions. I'll answer them as best I can, and if you have further questions, I can elaborate.

She sent me a list of questions, and I responded as honestly as I could:

1. What do you think your blog does for people? Judging by some of the comments, it seems like you're not alone in feeling a pressure to obtain a "normal life."

I hope that my blog will be a place where people can find information (through the links on the right) about different mental illnesses, about places like the Albert Ellis Institute where they can get low-cost therapy, about preventing suicide in a loved one, and about support groups they can attend so they won't feel so alone.

I also hope that by posting about my struggles, I'll help them see that these are issues many people struggle with, so that maybe they won't feel so different and damaged. As you noted, I am not alone. A lot of people struggle with mood disorders, and I want to be honest about what I go through.

Finally, I want to educate the "normals" -- a term used by Dr. Fred Frese, an eminent psychologist who has schizophrenia, to describe people without mental illness -- about how hard I work to keep up a stable life.

2. Can you tell me a little about the pressure you've encountered as an orthodox woman to find a mate? Where does that pressure come from? Do you find that it's the same for men?

The pressure to find a husband for me has been entirely internal. It's something I wanted all my life, even before I became orthodox. I know that others in my community feel pressure from their families, which I've luckily been spared, more or less. My grandmother used to ask me about my dating life, and my nieces are very eager to see me get married -- "I want more cousins!" "Why aren't you married already!"

There's also a near-constant stream of engagements among the lucky ones in the community. Every time I hear about one of these lucky ones, I feel tremendous envy -- why couldn't it happen to me?

It's hard to be orthodox and single, because Judaism is a very family-oriented religion. If you don't have a spouse, you're always scrambling to find a place to have shabbos meals or you're stuck at home alone. If you're married, you can have a cozy tete-a-tete for both meals and feel like nothing's missing. (That is, until you want to add children to the mix.)

Children are another factor. As I get older, I worry that I won't find a husband while I'm still fertile. Friends of mine who married later in life are having trouble conceiving. But it's not impossible, so I try not to focus on it too much.

I think a lot of orthodox men are looking to get married, but I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about their state of mind. If I understood them, I might be married by now.

3. What, if anything, do you think the orthodox community could have done to prevent Sarah's suicide?

Quite honestly, I don't think there's anything the community could have done to prevent Sarah Adelman's suicide. I don't think that the pressure to get married was the sole factor in her death; if it were, there would be a lot more suicides on the Upper West Side. Sarah had close friends and a terrible disease, and the disease proved more powerful.

When I was depressed, there were times that I had trouble walking over bridges or on subway platforms because the urge to jump was so strong. But my actual suicide attempt, an overdose, was not premeditated; it was impulsive, and that's what probably saved my life. I was found, given a ton of intensive medical treatment, and I survived.

I wasn't that set on dying. If I were, I would have jumped. That's why I say that there's not much the orthodox community could have done to save Sarah's life.

However, I do think that we can make the West Side a more welcoming, inclusive and supportive place, and I'm going to be working with local synagogues on some program ideas. Since we haven't had an initial meeting I can't tell you much more about it, but after Sarah's death, the community rallied, holding "Safe Spaces" discussion groups led by mental health professionals so that people could speak out in a safe environment and generate ideas to strengthen the community. These ideas, and I have one of my own, are the first step. Please check my blog from time to time, since I plan to chart the growth of these developments.

4. Describe the shame associated with seeking psychiatric help in the orthodox community. Is it at all particular to the orthodox community? How should the community address mental health?

There's a general stigma attached to seeking psychiatric help in American society, but I do think it's a little worse in the orthodox world. Of course, it depends which slice of the orthodox world you're considering. The more black-hat/chassidish/yeshivish Jews tend not to be very educated about mental illness, and such a diagnosis is more likely to kill a person's shidduch chances there than in the more modern orthodox world.

But even in the modern orthodox community, a label of mental illness can certainly diminish the number of people interested in marrying a person. I am extremely cautious about whom I tell that I have this disease; only my closest, closest friends know. I don't want this diagnosis to be the first thing people know about me.

Ideally, the community should view mental health as they would any other chronic illness -- diabetes, epilepsy, Crohn's Disease. It's something you take medication to manage, and seek therapy to deal with. It's not any different from any of those.

I wish I could speak openly about my illness and how I manage it. I'm not ashamed of having it, and I'm extremely proud of how I cope. But as I said earlier, I don't want it to be the first thing a prospective husband learns about me.

If I get married, I want to "come out" as a person with bipolar disorder. I've already gotten into graduate school, so I wouldn't have to worry about jeopardizing my chances at that.

5. When and why did you start blogging?

I started my blog on August 2, right after Sarah's death. As I wrote,

I always thought blogging was the ultimate in narcissism unless you really had something to say. I didn't think that my life qualified as unique or interesting enough.

That changed a little over a week ago, when a beautiful, vibrant young woman from our community took her life. I was luckier than she was -- when I overdosed on the medication I take for manic depression, I was in a coma for a week but ultimately survived. That's why I feel I have to share my experience now. Because she didn't need to die.


6. Where are you from? What type of orthodoxy do you practice?

I'm an "out-of-towner" -- i.e., I didn't grow up in NYC or the tri-state area. I identify as modern orthodox. I watch TV and movies, but I dress with a reasonable level of modesty (i.e., no tank tops or short shorts).
Copyright (c) 2006 "Ayelet Survivor"

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