This week’s Shabbat Smile is by Rachel Kunstadt, a mental health advocate and self-advocate in NYC. Her presentation at our Empowerment Training for Jewish Women with Disabilities – entitled “Choosing Life!” – included a musical performance of a song she co-wrote, addressing her agoraphobia.
This past January, I became a Bat Mitzvah for the second time. Or maybe for the first time, depending on how you look at it.
Like every other 13-year-old at my conservative synagogue in Westchester County did that year, on January 11, 2003, I became a Bat Mitzvah. I chanted Torah and Haftorah and delivered a D’Var Torah, while my parents spent thousands of dollars on a party to keep up with the Steins.
I’m told it was a beautiful service, but I was so overcome with anxiety that it’s almost completely lost to me. I definitely don’t remember the party – because I didn’t go. I managed to stay about an hour before I had a massive panic attack.
I spent the majority of that Saturday night in the Youth Lounge of my synagogue while my friends and family dined and danced, wondering where I had vanished to and why I wasn’t at my own party.
As I understood it, a Bat Mitzvah is a marker of transition into Jewish womanhood. When I was 13, I was lost, nowhere near that transition, spiritually or psychologically. I had nothing to celebrate. I was living in utter fear of having frequent, debilitating panic attacks, which was yet to have a name or diagnosis. I had “things” which were scary and inexplicable. It wasn’t until later that words like “derealization” would come into my vocabulary and I would be diagnosed with panic disorder.
At my Bat Mitzvah party, due to what I have since processed as an intense fear of becoming an autonomous, healthy adult, I had a panic attack. It wasn’t my first. It wasn’t my last. It wasn’t even my worst. It was, however, the first time a panic attack caused, or allowed (according to my psychoanalyst) me to retreat from life.
The Torah portion I prepared was Bo, which tells of the last three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first born. The internal plague of my panic nearly cost me my life, but like all Jewish stories, I survived. I survived a decade of panic attacks. I survived severe depression. I survived a six-month battle with agoraphobia, when I was completely housebound at age 16. I survived, and I chose life.
In the sixteen years since The Great Bat Mitzvah Panic Attack of 2003, I have done quite a bit of soul searching, psychologically and spiritually. I have found my place in New York City, living a dual life as a theatre producer/writer and a Jewish non-profit professional. I see a lot of theatre, have an active social life, and have learned I’m a great caretaker, being the mother of a small dog.
Looking back at that fateful evening and its aftermath (imagine having to explain to the seventh grade why you didn’t attend your own Bat Mitzvah party), I decided it was time for a re-do. I worked with a rabbi to create a Re-Bat Mitzvah; we designed a service and reception that would be significant to my ongoing growth and that would feel right to me.
The week before my Re-Bat Mitzvah, I immersed in the mikveh. As I submerged in the water, I thought about that scared thirteen-year-old whom I’ve held onto all these years. As I emerged from the water, I let her go.
On January 12, 2019, I became a Re-Bat Mitzvah. I held an evening service where I gave a D’var Torah, chanted Torah, and led Havdalah. Although my original Bat Mitzvah parsha, Bo, was chanted that morning, at my Re-Bat Mitzvah, I chanted my new parsha, Beshalach, in which the Jews were freed from Egypt and wandered through the desert. Beshalach literally means “after [s]he had let go.” Following Havdalah (another transition of time), there was a musical performance of a handful of showtunes that have meant a lot to me throughout my life, plus a song I wrote the lyrics for from my in-the-works autobiographical musical about my experience with agoraphobia. It was a revelatory experience filled with symbolism of letting go, moving on, and choosing life.
I dined, danced, and celebrated. At my Re-Bat Mitzvah, with my friends and with G-d, I let go of that sick, little girl. I embraced being a Jewish woman. I was present, alive and well. L’Chaim!
In our Jewish Disability Perspectives newsletter, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Jewish Disability Perspectives contribution are those of the guest contributor.