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Mental Health in the Days of Awe

Nicole Olarsch smiling headshot

Nicole Olarsch

Every year on Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holiday, “sin” and “repentance” are the key words stuck in my head. But for someone who is already experiencing depression and/or other mental illness, these themes can be extremely upsetting and even harmful to think about. For people like me who live with depression, especially when their thoughts are spiraling negatively, thinking about the things that one has done and how they may have harmed others creates even further self-doubt. It can also lead one down a rabbit hole of negative and anxious thoughts.

I can tell you from experience that finding a good mood is hard for me. That’s what depression does. And when I find myself happy and enjoying the world around me, the last thing I should be doing is reflecting upon minor things that my anxiety can spin into something major. It’s not that I don’t care about my Judaism. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. However, I know I need to prioritize my mental health first. That’s why I sit with my prayers and reflect in bits and pieces on Yom Kippur, as to not let things become irrationally overwhelming.

I’m quite sure that I am not the only one who struggles when this time of year comes around. Aside from reflection, I struggle with the guilt associated with not being able to fast with my family. My manager, Matan Koch, RespectAbility’s Vice President for Workforce, Leadership, and Faith Programs, wrote some years ago:

When my depression is in a bad place, my general self-esteem craters, and, much more importantly, my sense of myself as a likable individual plummets. Simply put, I become reluctant in my practice of seeking out how I have wronged others because my mind is awash in my many shortcomings, and God forbid someone should suggest something additional, I have no doubt that I will blow it all out of proportion.

Mental illness can be tricky like that. Intellectually, the very fact that I can write the prior paragraph means that I am aware of the phenomenon, can name it, and see it, and yet, should it happen, I would be powerless to stop it. And so, I learned that these times not to seek a catalog of my wrongs, mostly for self-preservation. At that time, I would offer to the world the idea, “ If I have wronged you, I cannot reach out at this moment because the Jewish calendar says that this is the day for it, but as soon as I am in a stronger place, I will invite you to let me know so that I can do better.”

Depression is not the only mental illness troubling at this time of year.. It was many years before my anxiety disorder would allow me to listen to the unetanatokev prayer without being absolutely floored by the horrible fate that I was sure awaited. I still have to remind myself strongly that I do not believe in determinism, [the notion that all is predetermined] just to sit through the prayer.

As we approach Yom Kippur, the important thing to remember is that all of the liturgy and rituals are designed to prepare us for a strong year ahead. Don’t put yourself in a worse place by not acknowledging your own needs. Instead, I strongly encourage you to practice self-care in whatever form that occurs for you. I like to go for late night walks, play with my dogs, and sing the soundtrack to Hamilton – while no one can hear me, of course. If you are medically unable to fast, don’t fast. If focusing on sin will be bad for your mental health, then don’t let the religious imagery of “closing gates” make you feel that you must. Calendar notwithstanding, the opportunity to repent and make peace lasts as long as we draw breath, so it is okay if you need to put it off for a while. The ultimate goal for us all is a good year, and a healing experience, where we make our peace with each other and with God. Disregarding your own needs is never the pathway to peace. First make peace with yourself, in whatever way you can, and then worry about everyone else.

Meet the Author

Nicole Olarsch
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