Eight months have passed since the beginning of my experience with the criminal justice system. (I was arrested in June and accused of impersonating a police officer and was ultimately charged with non-criminal violations.) My involvement in that system is now well settled and gratefully behind me. These eight months have also given me the respite to reflect deeply on what took place, the challenge of being bipolar, and how to use this difficult and painful experience, and my diagnosis, to derive something positive.
First, I want to acknowledge the pain and stress my actions and their consequences, albeit in the throes of a psychiatric episode, caused my family, my friends, my congregation and others who came to be on the receiving end of my symptoms.
Now that the legal part of my crisis has been resolved I am able, for the first time, to share my experiences openly. In breaking my silence, I hope to be able to help those who suffer in silence from mental illness to be properly diagnosed and treated, early on, so that they can continue to lead productive lives, without having to experience the crisis I had. I hope as well, as I continue to progress in the treatment of and recovery from my illness, under the supervision of thoughtful and caring general physicians and psychiatrists, to highlight that individuals with bipolar disease, treated properly, can continue to contribute their talents and expertise as productive members of society.
I am still shaken by the events that happened to me back in June. Who would have anticipated that a rabbi of a wonderful congregation and executive director of a prominent Jewish educational program would, in the span of two days, be confronted by the legal system, experience self-destructive thoughts and be admitted to a psychiatric unit of a major hospital? But, in fact, as unbelievable as that may seem, the signs had actually been present for months.
The higher doses of antidepressant medications that had been prescribed for me at the time actually brought me from a state of depressed despair back to my habitual high energy, then to what became an extended period of bipolar mania. In those three months of mania I actually accomplished some amazing things. I completed writing a book, started another one, read voraciously and extended the activities of the center that I directed — all with half my usual amount of sleep. Yet something was seriously “off.”
The energy and creativity was accompanied by a tremendous degree of grandiosity and self-importance, also common symptoms of bipolar disorder. Convinced I could accomplish just about anything, I also became irritable and argumentative. This inflated sense of self manifested itself, among other behaviors, in my seeking to make order in the world by confronting drivers on the road, ultimately leading to my arrest. While mania often generates high energy and high productivity, it cannot continue to be a positive state, and, as in my situation, it is bound to end negatively.
This began my downward spiral into acute depression, which ended on a psychiatric unit of a major metropolitan medical center. There I learned my proper diagnosis, bipolar disorder. In the days to come, I was faced with the embarrassment of the public aftermath of my untreated symptoms and resultant behaviors.
But there was also hope. That came from my beloved congregation, Sulam Yaakov, built from scratch a few years ago with no big building, name or cache. The congregation became the counterbalance of compassion and Torah I needed to survive. My return to the bima at Sulam Yaakov back in August was the greatest therapy I could have had. Standing side-by-side with my family, the congregants sent an unmistakable and loudly spoken message: We know this man and we know who he really is.
In that moment and beyond I came once again to know how lucky and how blessed I am.
Today I am left with my mental health condition exposed to the community: What do I do now? I’m attempting to transform my difficult and challenging experience into a blessing. In the psychiatric unit, I was introduced to a new community in search of a voice — a community still hiding behind closed doors, feeling rejected, stigmatized, discarded and scared to be discovered.
Many conversations I have had about my crisis end with the other person sharing that a relative or friend has a mental illness. People also say how difficult is to be open about and confront mental illness issues. If just one individual is inspired and encouraged to say, “Wow, the rabbi, one who leads a community and is a public persona, is not afraid or ashamed of being bipolar, then neither do I need to be ashamed and remain hidden,” then a great part of this very challenging illness I carry will be justified.
Finally, I came to learn there are wonderful programs that train individuals in key positions to detect mental illness and to assist those at risk and their loved ones to avert situations like the one that happened to me. To be trained in these techniques and to train others has become part of my mission. With training, rabbis, Hillel directors and other religious and community leaders can literally save lives.
Coming through my experience has brought a deep wisdom and gratitude to my life. I’m very thankful to my family, friends, community and health professionals for my treatment and teaching me that bipolar mania can be treated, stabilized and recovered from with insight, cooperation and compliance. As an “out of the closet” person with bipolar illness, now being properly treated and stabilized, I serve as a test case for the community that must choose between opening or closing its doors to me and the many others with mental illness silently standing by my side.