There is a natural mysticism around Sukkot. The central theme of building the sukkah in our yards is that it is a temporary, rudimentary shelter or hut, reminiscent of the times of wandering in the desert. Forgive me (we’re can always seek atonement, despite Yom Kippur recently ending), but I can see a parallel of the Sukkot to living with a mental illness.
One of the frustrating aspects of being diagnosed with PTSD in my case, or truly any mental illness, is the unpredictability of symptoms and treatments. What happens some days may not occur on others, and you can just feel stuck in that desert with nothing around you. Here’s where having a sukkah can help: it shelters from the storm, but isn’t a permanent fix. Having a mental illness involves creativity, but still being exposed on one side. Like a sukkah, anti-depressants can shield from a lot of the elements, but they’re not going to fix everything, nor are they a forever solution.
People must build their mental health sukkah by knowing that they are going to co-exist in a world with people and situations that are going to trigger bad reactions. I have been in that wilderness only armed with Xanax and it was not ideal. Did I survive? Yes, but it wasn’t sustainable having addictive drugs as the only tool in my arsenal. Thankfully, the elements of Sukkot are so much more than just a protective structure.
Enter the lulav and etrog. The lulav is comprised a few more elements: the palm, the myrtle, and the willow. Separate, these elements don’t do too much, but tied together and paired with the fragrant etrog, they make up the essential ritual of prayer and gratitude to God. Treatment for a mental illness is similar—drugs alone can’t cure most cases. You need a supportive network of people (friends, family, colleagues, etc.), therapy, and accommodations. Maybe that accommodation is a coloring book, going for a run, meditation, or writing, but it must exist. The etrog is the mindful aromatic reminder that life can be tart but also fresh. It keeps you grounded, especially with its textures and scent.
The holiday of Sukkot is a week in duration, and is one of the more natural holidays. It is a mitzvah to spend it outside, and not amongst the pews of our conventional sanctuaries. Touch things, smell things, be with people. Sukkot is a reminder of the value of community, and to welcome strangers into our huts. While it is a common trope to welcome people with mental illness in our lives and smash the stigma around the disease, I argue that people with those diagnoses must also welcome themselves. We can be ushpizin, or strangers, to ourselves. So much of healing comes from loving yourself and gaining the best tools toward treatment, maintaining, and perhaps curing a mental illness.
Like a sukkah, one side of life will always be open and exposed, even if three are always protected. Asking for help and entering into a new place is scary. As I’ve learned over the years, you do have to take a chance to show the world what is really going on with you. Like the s’chach that makes up the roof, you won’t be totally covered, but life is better when you let the light in, or see the stars at night. It takes having the right elements to be ready, plus patience and a leap of faith. I hardly doubt there would be good WiFi in the desert these days, so I’m grateful my ancestors kept pushing into parts strange and unknown before they made it to the Land of Milk and Honey.