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I Know of What I Speak

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman

I would allow my mask to fall, my soul to be revealed

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

I

 

I

 received a call from Ohel to participate in a panel focusing on anxiety, but I wasn’t sure what my role on the panel would be. The other two members were well-known mental health practitioners. I have no degree in psychology and as I constantly remind my congregants, I am not a licensed therapist.

“Why me?” I asked.

“We want a rabbi’s perspective.”

I decided to do some research and present my findings.

I discovered that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 42 million adults 18 and older — or 18.1 percent of the population every year. And although anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only 36.9 percent of those suffering receive treatment. Despite its profound prevalence in the Jewish community, few feel free to talk about it.

As I drove to Brooklyn, I had my speech in hand: an unemotional talk about the preponderance of the condition and a plea to those who are suffering to get help. I had all the pertinent data and as a disconnected outsider, I would present my cerebral communication in a detached emotionless manner.

CEO David Mandel introduced me and I hesitantly stood up. I am not usually nervous at the podium, however, this time I was sweating.

I looked at the standing room-only crowd.

I could see anxiety written across far too many faces.

They were pining to hear from me sincere and meaningful words of solace, words that would help them heal. Their unspoken yearning for validation penetrated deep into my heart. They did not want a monotonic canned speech on anxiety containing numbers and statistics while simultaneously sounding pompous and condescending.

They were aching for relief and for understanding. For someone to tell them, “It’s okay to feel this way. You are not alone.”

From me, they needed and wanted empathy.

From me, they wanted to know that someone understands them besides their therapist.

As I looked at their anticipating faces, I made a clear decision right then and there: I would not hide behind the prophylactic pile of prepared words. No, I would allow my mask to fall and my soul to be revealed.

I closed my folder and opened my heart. I whispered a tefillah as the words began to emanate from within my heart.

“Anxiety should not be the hidden affliction that so many of us suffer from, yet few get treatment for. The lack of proper treatment impacts the entire Jewish family unit, especially if the one suffering is the father or mother. Our first step in helping individuals suffering in silence is to eradicate the stigma assigned to those who come forward to share the pain of anxiety.

“We must show them they are not alone and there is no shame in feeling anxious.

“I know a rav of a large shul who has completed Shas more than once, authored three books, runs support groups for survivors, speaks regularly in different cities, and is an adjunct professor of Judaic studies at Lander’s College for Women.

“Most people consider him successful and he continues to remain productive in spite of — or maybe because of — his struggles with anxiety.”

I paused. No one moved.

“You probably think I created a fictional character to help demystify the stigma of anxiety. Not so. I can assure you that every word I have said about this rav is one hundred percent true. Believe me, every word is emes.”

The room was silent, an eerie stillness in the air.

I looked at the audience and they looked at me.

“I know it’s true all too well.”

No more words were needed. We understood each other perfectly. Our pained souls bonded together as the loneliness dissipated from our hearts and Hashem’s healing Hand could be felt throughout the room.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 743)

 

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