An anonymous letter to my congregation:
I write to you today as one of the Unseen. It hurts to not be seen. It hurts even more to suffer alone and in silence.
I have a mental illness, depression in particular. I hide it well most of the time.
Today I did not hide it. I cried openly in shul. I trembled from the sheer pain of it, surrounded by some two hundred people, during the kiddush luncheon that followed, and still you did not see me. I stumbled out of the social hall, blinded by tears I could not control and sobs that left me unable to breathe, and still no one saw me.
I took refuge in the chapel and sobbed aloud. In the past I would hide in the bathroom, taking great pains to silence my tears when anyone came in. Today I did not. I sought solace, but I did not hide. People came into the chapel for various reasons: to look for a lost tallis, read the newspaper, find a book in the library. Even still, I remained Unseen.
When my sobs exhausted themselves and I found my peace in emotional numbness, I rose to leave the chapel, falling onto a chair in my weakened state. One man remained in the chapel, facing me. He did not even bother to look up. I left the chapel, Unseen.
I made my way to a class. At one point I was standing in the middle of a crowd. Two dozen or more people were close enough to me that accidental contact was inevitable. I was crying, wiping tears, choking through my breaths. I was in your midst, and still I remained Unseen.
Two women who already know me and know I’ve been struggling with this for the better part of a month did stop me on my way and expressed concern. After being surrounded by my congregation for four hours by then, I was finally seen. But only by those who already knew of my condition. And as a side note, every single of one of those are converts. What does that say?
My rabbi called after me. I was shaking and doing everything possible to hold back the tears. I was not successful. He said while hospitalization was not an attractive option, the results I could get were positive. He said a misheberach for me. He mis-remembered my Hebrew name, leaving off part of it. I didn’t know if that invalidated it, but I was too shaky to correct him.
I entered late to the class, which was populated by people I know. You know me. But you did not see me. The teacher asked my opinion on the topic, and I somehow managed to push my brain into something resembling coherent thought. My voice as I answered was clearly one that had been crying. My eyes were red; my hands still grasped a damp tissue just in case.
The teacher was quite pleased with my answer and the discussion continued. I didn’t trust my voice to contribute further. When the class ended, people left. No one said anything to me about my demeanor. You who were in the class with me have known me for a dozen years. You are part of the lay leadership of the shul. I respect you and your learning and your commitment to the congregation. Why did you not see me?
Perhaps all of you in the congregation had too much going on in your own lives today. Perhaps you saw only what you wanted to see. Perhaps you saw me and thought to yourself, it’s not my business.
On behalf of the Unseen, it is your business. If we are not sensitive to the pain and needs of each other in the congregation, what business do we have even being there? You may not be able to fix the problem. But you can show that you care. You can ask if I’m okay, if I need help, if I need to talk to someone, if I need to be alone.
But silence only tells me that you do not care. You do not see me. I am less than unimportant; I do not even exist.
My congregation, my Jewish community, my adopted family has let me down. That the only people who saw me other than my rabbi are all converts says nothing good about the Jewish community.
I do not understand why you will not see me. It hurts as much as my depression attacks my spirit. I am left only with the hope that you will hear me now. Do not assume that a fellow Jew in obvious pain is none of your business. Do not keep your blinders on in shul. If you cannot attend to someone yourself, find someone who can. Go get the rabbi if necessary. Do not walk away and assume someone else will come along.
Good questions to ask include: Do you need help? Are you safe? Do you need to be alone (if safety is not a concern)? Do you want to talk? Can I get someone for you?
Use your common sense. Depression kills. It kills the spirit, but it is also a leading cause of suicide, either intentional or by accident when someone with depression cuts himself or herself to relieve the pain, to be seen, and accidentally cuts too deep or the wrong thing and can’t get help in time.
Taking one small minute out of your day, out of your life, to see someone in obvious pain could literally save a life. And it is the only Jewish thing to do.