My Jewish journey technically started when I was born into a Jewish family that sent me to Hebrew school, celebrated Jewish holidays, and encouraged me to have my bat mitzvah. It seemed I was living a Jewish life simply by existing. In reality, I never really felt connected to Judaism. I dabbled with prayer as a child but stopped once I realized that, despite my young attempts at helping myself and others through words to God, people were still cruel, sick, or hurting. Loved ones still died, and I continued to feel powerless in a world that felt increasingly lonely. While I still went to temple with my family, the only part of any service I listened to and felt connected to was the sermon. To me, sermons were not distinctly connected to Judaism; they were simply moments when one person would share their ideas, interpretations, and connections to human vulnerabilities.
While I’ve been moved by many sermons, the one that has stayed with me the longest is when Rabbi Judy Shanks talked about mental illness and laid bare the truth that, “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, people bring you lasagna. When you’re diagnosed with mental illness, no one brings you lasagna.” That comparison blew my mind. It made sense that I wouldn’t hide a physical illness, so why was I putting so much pressure on myself to hide a mental one? I left that service feeling inspired and encouraged to be more open about my actual lived experiences instead of hiding behind half-truths when asked the most basic get-to-know-you questions.
I was thirteen years old when I went to my first therapist. I was fifteen when I was put on my first medications. I was sixteen when I went to a psychiatric ward for the first time, and I was seventeen when my parents, on the advice of my doctors and mental health professionals, decided to send me to a residential treatment facility outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Oddly enough, Utah is where I feel like my Jewish journey began, or it was at least the part where I put my shoes on and grabbed my coat for the voyage ahead. Part of the residential treatment facility’s program included placing me on something called “Day Treatment,” where I had to live with a staff member and their family, supposedly to help me adjust to what life would be like after graduating from the program. The conditions for living with the family meant going anywhere they did, which is how I found myself attending the Church of Latter-Day Saints for four months. I enjoyed experiencing a different religion for an extended time, and the people who greeted me were exceptionally friendly, but my host family always introduced me the same way, “This is Michaela, someone who’s living with us for a little while, and she’s Jewish.” Nearly everyone I met this way had never met a Jew before, and I felt an internal pressure to be a positive representative of our entire religion while simultaneously biting my teenage tongue from saying, “That’s right. We do exist!”
My internal sarcasm was my mind’s way of helping me cope with my insecurities around faith and religion. There I was, listening to people talk with certainty about their faith and knowledge of God’s kindness, power, and perfection while I wasn’t really sure of anything about Judaism. I wasn’t kosher, didn’t speak Hebrew, and couldn’t quote Torah. My religious beliefs were full of curiosity and confusion. If we’re all made in God’s image, and we are, every one of us, flawed, then doesn’t that leave room for God to be flawed? I wasn’t even sure if I agreed there was just one God because if that were true, I wondered about how lonely God must feel. If we’re asked to seek and grant forgiveness on Yom Kippur, who forgives God?
My religious questioning was more of a High Holy Day experience than an everyday occurrence because my daily thoughts centered on navigating a world that stigmatized mental illness. For nearly ten years, my diagnosis shaped how I saw myself, and I created my identity around coping with it. This completely changed in my early twenties when it was discovered that my original diagnosis had been a false one.
The realization that I had been living with a false diagnosis was life changing and while I did (and do!) still require treatment to help me manage PTSD and depression, I was no longer taking the heavy-duty medications I had been on. It was scary to actually feel the full range of my emotions again, but after the initial shock of feeling, I was finally able to engage with life. I was no longer failing classes and eventually graduated from UC Davis. I became inspired by and involved with Values in Action, our synagogue’s social justice team, and I joined our sisterhood, Women of Isaiah. I’ve taken classes like Exploring Judaism, and I’ve begun practicing Mussar. My Jewish and mental health journeys have even joined forces in the form of my involvement in a revamped Mental Health and Wellness Taskforce at our synagogue which seeks to raise awareness and provide resources to anyone struggling with their mental health.
Because of what I now lovingly refer to as “the lasagna sermon,” I’ve felt empowered to be open about my mental illness. Physical and mental illness are equally deserving of healing, and we need to make it safer for people dealing with mental illness to come out from behind the shadows, the silence, and the shame and find the support and care they need. Every time I share my story, countless people reach out to me with a desire to share their own. I believe that if we can all strive to be open about our human vulnerabilities, then maybe one day, we will reach a point where no one will feel like they have to hide their lived experiences from their respective communities.