Depression and Judaism

Black Dog #1: Jojo

Black Dog #1: Jojo

I have two black dogs. One makes me laugh, and one makes me cry.

This is Jojo. Sometimes we refer to her as Jojo the Clown, because she makes my entire family laugh. She has a dance that she does when she sees new people or favorite people, aka “the Jojo dance,” which consists of her front paws doing a waltz and her back paws doing the Charleston. Someday I need to stop laughing long enough to make a video.

Jojo is a rescue dog. She languished at her foster home, waiting for new people. The old people had gotten sick and had to give her up. After months of being passed over (something that often happens to black dogs) she became depressed. For comfort, she stole food from the other dogs, and her normally 9 pound body ballooned to 15. When Linda and I met her, she was a sad little depressed dog. She lay there, looking sad until I picked her up. Then she peed all over me.

I immediately identified with Jojo; we both had “black dogs.” That was what Winston Churchill called depression: his black dog. I have that kind of black dog, too, and from time to time it sticks to my heels like glue. Lately, I have been visited by Black Dog #2. (Jojo is Black Dog #1 – of course she is #1 – she makes me laugh.)

When Jojo got a home, and the right meds, she returned to the self she was meant to be. And I find her encouraging during my spells with Black Dog #2. If Jojo could learn to dance again, so can I.

Part of recovery is following doctor’s orders and taking my meds. And part of it is immersing myself in the home of my heart: Judaism. Judaism teaches me in my morning prayers, “The soul … within me is pure.” I’m not bad, even if I feel bad. Moreover, I can do good: I can do mitzvot. I can study texts, I can pray, I can give tzedakah, I can teach my students, and I can relieve suffering (in small ways). Like Jojo, I can rejoice in having a home, even if “rejoicing” consists of eating good things and staying in touch with loved ones until I feel like more strenuous rejoicing.

Judaism teaches me that when God finished Creation, God saw that it was “tov me’od,” – it is very good. All of it. Including a certain depressed rabbi.

I am writing about this because I know that some of my readers, some whom I don’t even know, also suffer from depression. You aren’t alone, just as I am not alone. There are lots of us. And with the right help, and doing mitzvot (eating right, following doctor’s orders, getting outside ourselves to do mitzvot for others) it will be OK.

It is the tough weeks when I am most grateful for being a Jew. I have a storehouse of wisdom saved up for me by the Jews of the past: the Torah, the Tanakh (Bible), the Mishnah and the Gemara, and wise words written by centuries of wise Jews. Even when I can’t get it together to study them, I can see them there on my shelves: centuries of faith, seeking to do good.

We’re all going to be OK.

18 Responses to Depression and Judaism

  1. Adam says:

    I really, really needed to read this today. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrew says:

    Thank you, Rabbi. I, too, have a black dog of the “stick to my heels” variety. I have fought depression, literally, for as long as I can remember, including my childhood before I had a name for it. I appreciate your speaking to this important topic, and you are so correct about stepping outside oneself as a curative! My shul has a vegetable garden, from which all the produce is donated to the local food bank. In a recent dark moment of my soul, I sought comfort by reaching out and asking to be added to the volunteer watering schedule. It’s astonishing how the small act of spending 30 minutes twice a week to help those less fortunate in some small way elevates my mood and my spirit, and makes me feel closer to the divine. Also, medication and other forms of self-care are frequently crucial tools. For what it’s worth, I feel so blessed to have stumbled upon your website, and I thank you for your daily wisdom and insight. You most definitely are performing mitzvot in my life, and I’m sure in many, many others. Todah rabah for your efforts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • rabbiadar says:

      Thank you, Andrew! I agree, doing something to help someone else is a big help. There’s also a curative aspect to gardening itself: I always feel better if I spend a little time in a garden, especially working there. I can watch the plants and learn a lot about “simply being” and the goodness of simple existence.

      I’m glad the blog is useful to you. Thank you for the good words.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Anne Ireland says:

    Dear Rabbi Ruth:

    Gardening is the answer. I have started a succulent garden, and every day I work with my plants to make sure they are safe and healthy.

    I noticed you have a lot of space on the porch of your house. You could set up a large raised bed garden and grow the vegetables you like back there.

    It would be very satisfying to work in your garden, and you would have a wonderful view of the South Bay.

    Anne (Ireland)

    Liked by 1 person

    • rabbiadar says:

      Hello, Anne! Yes, I have planted a whole garden of California natives and a few fruits and veggies back there. The bees and hummingbirds and I have a grand time gardening.

      Even the weeds have their uses. I just pulled up several young dandelion plants which will go into tonight’s salad.

      Gardening is good medicine, indeed!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for posting this. I also needed to hear it today.

    I “got my life back” through my psychiatrist, whom I’ve been blessed to know for at least the past six years. This year, it’s been hard to afford my meds, but some of the companies have patient assistant programs, which are a mitzvah. Even with meds, Bipolar and my other ‘disorders’ require a lot of adjustment of medication, as well as diligence in taking meds every day — especially during adjustment phases. Ensuing deep depressions can strike suddenly, seemingly without any reason except for the mystery that is our brain chemicals.

    I’ve been in such a deep depression for the past several months. I was actually going to try and seek you out online, because often it’s hard for the profoundly depressed to remember our soul is given to us by God and it is not ours to destroy. Last week, a dear friend’s brother jumped to his death, after suffering from long-term health problems and the sudden death of his wife two years ago. It left all of us devastated; while we understand why, it doesn’t make it any harder to bear.

    Often, things look hopeless, but it’s important we seek out someone who can remind us that life is worth living. As we look around us, it’s important we see the beauty of God’s bounty, in friends, small tasks, creatures great and small, and that we remember it’s okay to reach out. Asking someone to help us *walk* our “black dog” is the key.

    We’re not really as alone as we sometimes think we are. Help is often just a phone call or click away.

    Rabbi, thank you. Reading your post helped me hang in, and it reminded me I have a great deal of support online and offline — just as you do, too. <3

    Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      I am so very sorry to hear of your friend’s brother. I hope that the family, and people like yourself who care, find what comfort they and you can in the love of caring friends and family. I can only imagine that his pain was so great that he lost track of the pain he would cause; it is a tragedy.

      I am also sorry to hear that you have been struggling with depression. It sounds like you have the tools you need and are using them; alas, there are no “quick fixes” to these problems! But you are right, support is as near as our willingness to reach out and ask for it.

      I wish you steady improvement and continued awareness of all the people who care!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Meredith says:

    thank you for helping your readers to have a clue and to be sensitive to the people around us!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Alex says:

    Thank you….I have a sort if name for mine….more an image; Im a Trekkie, and there’s an episode in Next Generation where a black pool of all things horrible is encountered(it’s the episode in which Tasha is killed)…..the image if that, sticking to my heels, sneaking up behind me and dragging me in….that’s my version….

    Liked by 1 person

    • rabbiadar says:

      When you feel it sneaking up, what helps you to manage?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alex says:

        Oh my…..you know, I really don’t know; I think Ive always thought that I had to surrender to it….that it was more powerful than me….that’s got me thinking, thank you! There must be some wee things I can try to help…..shall put on my thinking cap and consider. Meantimes, any suggestions very vey welcome…..oooojust thought f something, though whether it would work, I don knw: imagining I have a Ghostbusters type backpack and ‘skoosher’, and skooshing at it, so that it slinks back into the deths from whence it came….hmmmm….

        Liked by 1 person

  7. […] am grateful for the friends who got in touch after reading my blog post on depression. I am doing OK, and all those caring friends are a part of […]

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  8. “I’m not bad, even if I feel bad”: very wise and important words. And Black Dog #1 is adorable!

    Like

  9. I am moved by all the people you have helped by “putting it out there” in the open…. Hooray! Depression out of the closet! I think two elements besides the ones mentioned can also contribute some relief: simply talking about it out loud with someone, preferably in person, and more crucially, feeling UNDERSTOOD.by them. The trick is to choose your listener well. -Chaplain Karen, of offbeatcompassion.com

    Like

  10. Clare says:

    Can you recommend some reading material for Judaism and depression?

    Like

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