My Jewish Manic Episode

February 25, 2019Juliette Hirt

I don’t even know how to characterize it. Was I disabled? Impaired? Inspired? Was the thing that lifted me off my feet and part way out of my mind neurological? Biochemical? Spiritual?

It all started during Sukkot. My daughter and I slept in the sukkah, excitedly anticipating her upcoming bat mitzvah.

The problem was the moon.

I couldn’t sleep. Every time I opened my eyes, it had moved along its trajectory another inch or two, like time-lapse photography, until I could trace its arc across the sky as a single blaze. It was achingly beautiful. I must have woken up 20 times that night.

The circadian rhythm is often the first thing to go.

As the illness progressed, I sped up. A friend at work told me I was typing so fast she thought my hands might start smoking. I developed repetitive stress injury and was placed on medical leave.

I was wildly energetic, indefinitely disabled, lacking direction – until I remembered the teaching that no matter your circumstances, no matter how broken you may be, you can always do mitzvot (good deeds, sacred obligations) and contribute to tikkun olam (repairing the world).

With a heart full of love, I filled my pockets with coins and candies and little gifts. I quickly wore out my sneakers traipsing up and down the streets of San Francisco, day and night, looking for ways to help. I was ebullient, gregarious, fearless, uninhibited, exceedingly happy, excited, and hopeful. The world felt full of meaning and promise.

To my friends and family, I had become bizarre. They worried for my safety as well as my sanity. But nothing could stop me from doing everything in my power to make the world a better place. And although I was not functioning like my normal self, I did help many, many people in ways large and small.

As I held the hand of an elderly widower grieving for his wife, he looked at me in wonder, saying, “I think you’ve saved my life. Nobody has touched me since my wife died two years ago. Nobody. I didn’t realize how badly I needed to be touched.”

An addicted runaway, desperately prostituting herself in a dangerous neighborhood, said, “I just don’t get it. Every time I hit rock bottom, someone like you comes along. Every single time. It’s like somebody’s watching over me.”

The firestorm of neural activity in my brain affected more than my mood: My senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell became acute. I constantly felt fully alive and flooded with sensory inputs. Even the way I perceived and processed information was distorted in strange ways. Jewish teachings and symbols figured prominently in my experiences.

Mania can be a very challenging experience to negotiate. In normal times, it’s usually fairly easy to act properly and lawfully. But when much of your brain is malfunctioning, it can be difficult, if not impossible.

In my case, the part of my brain advocating right action was distinctly Jewish. I might see some gorgeous flowers in someone’s yard and be overcome with anticipation of the joy I knew I would experience if I picked them. But from the right-functioning part of my brain would come, “Thou shalt not steal!”

When my behavior risked embarrassing my children, I reminded myself that Jewish law forbids embarrassing another person, considering it tantamount to murder. I designed a discreet sign my children could give me – catching my eye and pointing toward the ground – if I became too animated while talking with the other parents at their middle school.

When I finally came under a competent psychiatrist’s care, she observed my full-blown mania and said, “It’s a wonder you didn’t end up in a hospital. It’s a testament to your character.”

Embarrassed by her praise, I said, “Actually, Jewish law probably had something to do with it.” (I imagine she would have been quite surprised to learn that this was actually a true statement!)

Obviously, my experience of mania was uniquely my own. But bipolar disorder is not at all uncommon. One in 25 people will have some form of it in their lifetime. And one in every five American adults has some kind of mental illness right now.

Many people keep their illness secret. This is understandable: Stigma and discrimination are real. But in a healthy community, we support one another when someone is ill. Bikur cholim (the mitzvah to visit the sick) requires two participants: One must disclose that they are sick; the other must provide comfort.

As a mental health advocate, I have seen how much courage it can take for someone who has kept an illness secret to finally make that disclosure. I have also seen (and experienced) the healing and relief that come when friends and family, colleagues and congregants step forward to meet that brave act with love, compassion, and respect.

This process promotes understanding, reduces stigma, and helps close the rift that too often separates people with mental illness from the rest of the community.

By sharing our stories, we can help repair the world.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud of its Presidential Initiative on Disabilities Inclusion, an ongoing effort to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in every area and in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.

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