Groups using Next to Normal to bring mental illness to light

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Carol Irwin had been a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on and off since 1978 — her daughter, Sasha, had even had her wedding there in 1993.

But six weeks after the simcha, Sasha had an acute psychotic episode. Irwin was upset that she didn’t get the support she needed, and left the congregation.

Rabbi Eric Weiss

Now Irwin co-facilitates (with Jane Marcus) Beit R’fuah, a 4-year-old mental health support group sponsored by Beth Am Women but open to all. This past summer, Irwin rejoined the synagogue.

For years, Irwin has reached out to other families, not only through Beit R’fuah  (House of Healing) but also as an officer of the Santa Clara County Mental Health Board and an activist with NAMI Santa Clara County, affiliated with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Now she’s part of a coalition reaching out to the broader community via a performance of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway musical “Next to Normal,” which dramatizes the effects of mental illness on a family. Organizers at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center want people to join them for the Jan. 30 matinee at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, and then stick  around for a special post-performance discussion in the theater. Co-sponsoring synagogues include Temple Isaiah and congregations Beth Am, Beth Sholom, Beth Jacob and Rodef Sholom.

“The American theater tradition has always brought critical social issues to the stage,” says Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the  Healing Center. The “Next to Normal” event will be “an opportunity to come together as a community, to gain awareness about this important issue in our own community, to spend time with friends, and to support ongoing efforts to bring down the wall of stigma that surrounds mental illness.”

In the healing circle at Beit R’fuah’s monthly meetings, “I prayed that one day Sasha would walk through the door,” Irwin said, describing a saga of alternating hospitalizations and homelessness, during which Irwin was advised to call the county coroner’s office to see if her daughter’s body had been brought in.

Fortunately, Irwin’s prayers were answered. Since August, after a period of hospitalization, Sasha’s condition, described as schizoaffective disorder, has become stabilized with medication. Sasha, 40, is now living in a San Jose residence and is well enough to attend the support group with her mother. On the final night of Chanukah, Dec. 8, she and Irwin celebrated with the Beit R’fuah group.

“My daughter is back in my life and recovering, accepting her illness,” said Irwin, who lives in San Jose. Sasha has also reunited with her own 16-year-old daughter.

But the story remains bittersweet. Irwin’s family fractured and she was “forced into retirement” from her career as a chiropractor to devote herself to her daughter. “You can’t let a child go,” she said.

Said Sasha: “I’m proud of my mother.” She’s also proud of her own progress and her connection to Judaism.

Pamela Reitman, the mother of an adult son who is hospitalized, calls mental illness “the secret in the family.”

“People are forced into a lonely silence … and social isolation,” she added.

When Reitman sought out a support group in San Francisco, she approached the Healing Center, found out about the conference at Beth Am and got “in on the ground floor” when Beit R’fuah was launched in 2006. For three years, she attended meetings in Los Altos Hills before starting a group at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom. During that time, she and Irwin supported one another when their children went missing.

These support groups “invite both people living with mental illness and friends and family, and I didn’t think it could work,” Reitman said. “What happened here was completely amazing. This was not a therapy group, and [participants] were able to talk with ease because this was taking place in a spiritual context. They weren’t in a hospital environment. This is a social setting supported by Jewish tradition. It turned out to be a very beautiful, workable arrangement.”

But the Jewish community has to do more outreach to people in mental hospitals and residences, as well as to their families, Irwin and Reitman say, particularly as Christian organizations have made that their mission.

“There’s always a handful of Jews and they’re always lost within that mix,” Irwin noted.

“Most of the help my son has received has been from Christian communities,” Reitman said. The myth is “we don’t have mental illness, we don’t have drug addiction, we don’t have developmental disorders. The angel does not pass over us in that way.

“We parents are going to die and leave our mentally ill children in the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could leave them in the care of the Jewish community, with special housing? I would like to see that happen.”

The Bay Area Jewish Healing Center will attend “Next to Normal” at 2 p.m.  Jan. 30 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., S.F. $50, $65, $100. Order by Jan. 10 at Information: (415) 750-3436 or [email protected].

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].