August 21, 2019

By Juliette Hirt


Was I disabled? Impaired? Inspired? Was the thing that lifted me off my feet and partway out of my mind neurological? Biochemical? Spiritual? 
It all started during Sukkot, the Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur. My daughter and I slept in the sukkah, a traditional outdoor shelter that we put up each year for the holiday. 
The problem was the moon. 
Every time I opened my eyes, it had moved along its trajectory another inch or two, creating a blazing arc across the sky. I must have awakened 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, lacking direction — until I recalled the saying that whatever your circumstances, you can always do mitzvot (good deeds) and contribute to tikkun olam (repairing the world). 
With a heart full of love, I filled my pockets with coins, candies and little gifts. I wore out my sneakers on the streets of San Francisco, looking for ways to help others. I was ebullient, fearless, uninhibited, excited and hopeful. The world felt full of meaning and promise. 
To friends and family, I seemed bizarre. They worried for my safety and sanity. But nothing could move me away from my mission to make the world a better place. 
As I held the hand of an elderly man 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. 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. It’s like somebody’s watching over me.” 
The firestorm of neural activity in my brain affected more than my mood. My sight, hearing, taste and smell grew stronger. I felt fully alive and flooded with sensory input. Even the way I perceived and processed information felt distorted. 
Mania is a challenging experience. 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 gorgeous flowers in someone’s yard and be overcome with the joyful desire to pick them. But the right-functioning part of my brain would say, “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 found a discreet signal my children could give me — catching my eye and pointing toward the ground — if I became too animated while talking with other parents. 
When I finally came under a 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.” 
My mania, of course, was uniquely my own, but bipolar disorder is not 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 health condition right now
Many people hide their illness, which 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 the sickness; the other must provide comfort. 
As a mental health advocate, I know how much courage it takes for someone to finally make that disclosure. I have also seen and felt the healing that comes when friends and family, colleagues and congregants meet that brave act with love, compassion and respect. By sharing our stories, we can help repair the world. 
Juliette Hirt lives in San Francisco, where she practices law, parenting and pottery. A longer version of this essay first appeared in Reform Judaism magazine. Read the full length article here.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Advocate.

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