Judaism saved me from myself during my manic episode

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?

My manic episode started during Sukkot of 2013. 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 gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness) 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 is a syndrome characterized by an abnormally elevated energy level, heightened mood, pressured speech and lack of need for sleep. It most commonly occurs in the context of bipolar disorder, but it also can be triggered by certain medications or substances. At its height, it can bleed over into delusion or psychosis.

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

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 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.)

Jewish community, too, harbored me as the illness played itself out over a period of several weeks. Congregation Beth Sholom continued to be a cornerstone in my life, and my love for the people in the congregation kept me moored. Even at the height of my illness, almost everyone in the kahal (community) treated me with human dignity, whether I was effusively sharing my ideas in Torah study, or dancing my heart out at Zumba class.

With their words and their actions, the members of my kahal let me know that I was loved, even though some were very worried about me. This was extraordinarily important to my healing process, especially as I have looked back and grappled with what happened to me.

Decisions were also made to limit my participation, or exclude me from activities. I was asked to step down from chairing the Education Committee, which I had served on for several years. Later, I was told I could no longer go into the Hebrew school, where I had spent countless hours as a parent and volunteer. At the time — and also in retrospect — I thought that some of these decisions were just, and others were not. Yet I never lost my respect and affection for the decision-makers, and I never doubted they were trying to do what they thought best for the community.

Obviously, my experience of mania was uniquely my own. But bipolar disorder is not at all uncommon. One in 25 people will be diagnosed with some form of it in their lifetime. And one in every five American adults has some kind of mental illness right now (tinyurl.com/nimh-bipolarstats).

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 he is sick; the other must provide comfort.

As a mental health advocate, I’ve started a mental health awareness group at work, organized events and activities to promote mental health and reduce stigma, and published essays about my experiences. I also try to speak up when mental illness is mentioned in a stigmatizing way. What I am most proud of, though, is the work I have done to help individuals come out of the closet and share their stories. Last May, as part of the Mental Health Awareness Month activities I organized at work, we filled a binder with stories, photographs and information about everything from suicide prevention to dysfunctional families. It changed lives.

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.

This post originally appeared on ReformJudaism.org. May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Juliette Hirt
Juliette Hirt

Juliette Hirt is a member of S.F. Congregation Beth Sholom, where she met her husband, Joel, and raised three children. She is the Assistant General Counsel of the Sierra Club and enjoys pottery and backpacking.