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.
39 thoughts on “Depression and Judaism”
I really, really needed to read this today. Thank you.
I’m so glad I published it, then, Adam! Thank you for the good words.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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!
thank you for helping your readers to have a clue and to be sensitive to the people around us!!
And thank you for your kind words, Meredith!
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….
When you feel it sneaking up, what helps you to manage?
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….
Alex, I wonder if you could also picture any Trekkie characters from the episodes to help you “skoosh” it away?
“I’m not bad, even if I feel bad”: very wise and important words. And Black Dog #1 is adorable!
Thank you, Dayanhadassah! Jojo is even cuter in person, when she dances.
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
Can you recommend some reading material for Judaism and depression?
“Caring for the Soul: Refuat HaNefesh” by Richard Address is very good, Clare.
Just re-reading this….had forgotten I commented(poor memory/age/stroke/other stuff)…..and am struck by the beautiful phrase…..
The home of my heart: Judaism
Im a huge Leonard Cohen fan, and he helps me in so any ways…..one of which is the way he says or sings the word ‘heart’
And again, thank you….my cats are my comfort: sending cuddles to Jojo.
Shalom from Scotland
Sometimes people ask me why I became a Jew, and that is the phrase that seems like the truest answer: it is the home of my heart.
Warm scritches to your cats!
I wish you shalom in all its senses: peace, wholeness, greeting, and blessing!
Just wrote a reply which got eaten in the ether…just to say how nice to cross paths in ‘real time’….things are sore, right now….was widowed in May(34 years married, my bashert, shared his birthday with Leonard Cohen, who was 80 on September21st: my beloved Would have been 81)….he was the only one ho truly kew and understood my background nd family problems. And November 19th is the third anniversary of my mother being burned to death, along with her wee rescue cat, Sunny Boy, in a house fire. Just to add to it, my psychiatrist, who has been with me for years, through all this, told me right at the end of last weeks session that he was retiring and I would not be seeing him again( I had a bit if a meltdown at that….it feels, emotionally, that “everyone is leaving me”. I know that that isnt so, but nevertheless, that’s how it feels….just after 5am here. Thanks fir being there…Alex
Oh, Alex, I am so sorry to hear all that you are going through! So much awful loss, and with an anniversary so close!
Your bashert sounds wonderful – 34 years together! And I cannot know the pain of such a loss as your mother. And now the psychiatrist, another source of support. I can certainly see how you would feel abandoned by everyone.
Do you have close friends or family nearby? Can you bring yourself to tell them what’s going on with you and how you are feeling?
The Jewish ritual phrase to say to mourners is “May you be comforted among the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem.” It is a hope that you will find some comfort, understanding that some losses are profound. But it is also a reminder that even when we feel most alone, we are accompanied by all the others in the world (and in history) who have suffered similar losses.
I wish you comfort and peace, Alex. Thank you for reading, and for sharing your situation.
Thank you for your kindness….I’ve no family(other than the cats) and a couple of good friends. I get a lot of online support …..I have agoraphobia, among the other things, and I struggle greatly with not giving myself a hard time – ie “I *ought* to be able to…..I *should* be able to….”…..well meaning folk often say go out, walk, etc…but it doesn’t help. I didnt understand what it was like to ave agoraphobia until I discovered I had it – and it’s well nigh impossible to describe. Im an ‘unaffiliated Jew’…..just began my Jewish journey three years ago, a month or so before my Mum died: I had a moment of clarity….happy to say more if you’re interested….I don’t want to clog up your blog with me-ness! I was born Jewish, but no religious upbringings any kind(Im from Glasgow: the usual thing there is Protestant/Catholic. My family were first generation Scots….just there by chance, when my grandfather was posted to Glasgow at the end of WW 2, and they just stayed. Im a mix of English(my Dad), Irish,(grandfather), Mum born in Malta when her parents were stationed there. And her Mum was Jewish….so that’s my root. Could say a lot more up as I say, I don’t want to be a blog hogger. Would you be ok to email? Right, daylight here, cats are suspiciously quiet…..better see what they are up to…..Alex
Online support and a few good friends are excellent, Alex! I have to limit my computer time, so I shall have to regretfully decline to email.
Agoraphobia can be quite disabling. I’m glad you have the cats, and friends, and I hope that you are able to find good online resources for Jewish growth. Facebook has a number of Jewish groups.
I hope that the cats were not up to something bad; I know that when my dog is very quiet, it’s either “very good” or “very bad” news!
No worries….Thank you for your kindness
Alex, I hope you are well. Take care.
Thank you for your kind thoughts….life is very….painful, right now.
Alex, if you want to talk to me, I’m good. I have isolation problems, myself, because my husband is disabled. I, too, have a good friend, Sheri, who will come over tomorrow and help with cooking, or other household deeds. Such friends do wonders for my frame of mind.
You can reach me at: email@example.com
I hope you have found a better, less insensitive therapist. Even a file clerk is required to give two weeks notice.
Good point, Anne, about the notice!
Rabbi, thank you for this warm, direct, and helpful blog. It is comforting to know one is not alone.
Mahela, I am glad it is a comfort. I wish you healing and a full recovery
Thnx for a beautiful post again! It helps in a time of diagnosis and ‘surrender’ to go on meds. Shalom!
Danielle, I wish you the very best with your journey. I hope that you and your doc find the best possible prescription for you as soon as possible.