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Chanukah in the Locked Ward

December 26, 2011 | by Shani Silverstein

Lighting the menorah after my nervous breakdown.

“Merry Christmas, Shani!”' Paul flashed a wide smile at me and bobbed his head up and down, making his dirty blonde dreadlocks bounce enthusiastically.

"I don't celebrate that holiday,” I said tightly, nervously fingering the top button of my buttoned-up oxford shirt .

There were two things wrong with this little scenario, far as I was concerned. One, he mentioned that holiday that was part of a foreign religion. Two, he was a guy, I was a girl and we shouldn't have been talking. About anything. Period.

Paul looked puzzled. He wrinkled his nose and peered at me quizzically,

"Why not?”

I had enough of the conversation and just walked away. You could get away with doing things like that in psychiatric units.

I had enough of the conversation and just walked away. You could get away with doing things like that in psychiatric units.

Just as soon as I'd walked off, I sneaked a quick peek backwards, taking in Paul's retreating figure, Grateful Dead T-shirt, faded, ripped jeans and all. He was a rather nice looking fellow. That is if you looked. I jerked my head forward, reminding myself for the thousandth time who I was. The part that I was sure of, that is. Most of who I was was quite the mystery to me.

But I did know that I was a good Chassidic girl from Boro Park and good Chassidic girls did not talk to boys nor talk about Christmas.

Glad to have gotten that conversation out of the way, I studiously continued walking down the corridors, and around the main section of the unit, towards nowhere. Having completed a circle, I began again. For the dozenth time. I was homesick and sad. I missed my bed and my privacy. I missed parents and my 11 brothers and sisters. And I missed Chanukah.

It's not that the unit staff hadn't tried. Some effort had been put in. There were cheap paper banners with the words “Happy Hanukkah” and a thin blue Star of David at either end, strewn across the unit. On the other side of the large, plastic, green Christmas tree with the tinsel decorations in red, green and silvery purple, there was a small table with the remainders of the oily donuts we had been treated to after dinner that day. And in the nurses' station, there was a stout, white plastic menorah with wide branches and electric flame shaped bulbs on top of each one.

Maybe it was Hanukkah. But it certainly wasn't Chanukah...

I tried not to let the tears fall from my eyes as I thought about the beautiful silver menorah, with the carved birds, lions and flowers in the background and on each gracefully formed branch. I was intensely private and didn't like public displays of emotion. I tried not to think about the lilting melodies my father sang with such unbridled enthusiasm after the real flames were lit, or of the lively games of dreidel, with the real wooden sevivonim from our Saba in Israel, that our family played year after year. And when the tears did fall, I buried my face in my sleeve and stiffened my body as the sobs began. It wasn't anyone's business. But it hurt. I shuffled towards my room.

"Hey, Shani! Can you bring me some Christmas donuts? Interesting, we never had donuts on Christmas before. Hmmm. Guess they couldn't find cookies that were cheap and mass produced.”

"What makes you think those are donuts for your holiday?” I asked my rather manic roommate irritably.

Laura stopped practicing pirouettes and side leaps and the floor boards stopped their screeching protests. She was a former ballet dancer, who wasn't going to stop practicing just because she was now 356 pounds, and the last time she had performed was 30 years past.

"'What do you mean?!” she yelled. Laura always yelled. “Don't you know it's Christmas?”

Suddenly, she looked worried, and lowered her yelling by a few decibels. “Jeez, you might be worse off than I thought. Don't even know it's Christmas. Maybe you should see the doc.”

Once again, I had enough.

What was the point of remembering Chanukah anyways? It only made everything hurt more.

I crawled into my metal framed bed and curled up, covering myself with the thin green and white blanket with the words “Harris Hospital Inpatient Psychiatric Ward” printed over and over across the front. Maybe I should have let her think those donuts were for her blasted holiday. What was the point of remembering Chanukah anyways? It only made everything hurt more. Too miserable to cry, too drained to remember anymore, I closed my eyes and drifted off into a troubled sleep.

It was cold and then it was warm and then it was very warm. We had all come in from a heavy winter snowstorm, to the warm heated house, and gathered around to watch my father light the Menorah.

”Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech Haólam Sheasah Nissim La'Ovoseinu Bayamim Haham Bazman Hazeh.”

“Blessed are you, Our God, the King of the World, Who Performed Miracles for our Forefathers in those days, in these times.”

The blessing was a beautiful song, chanted to the traditional melody, in his rich melodic voice. He carefully lit each wick, and the small flames lent a wonderful glow to the golden olive oil that kept them alight.

In my dream, I felt uplifted and at peace. The green and sparkling lights dimmed and went out. The Christmas tree toppled and fell over. Fresh donuts were bought for everyone on the ward. Donuts that had the word “Chanukah” printed clearly on them, in Hebrew and English, in blue and white frosting. That'll teach Laura not to mix up my donuts with her donuts. Even if she had just converted to Judaism.

Brrring! Brring! Brring!

I awoke with a start, feeling like a heavy stone had just landed in my chest, and instantly realized that I had been dreaming.

Brring! Brring! Brring! Someone had rung the alarm bell. Something bad was happening.

It was Ron, the graying, potbellied, middle aged man who chattered constantly to himself and screamed whenever anyone came near. He had tried to commit suicide.

Suicide alerts had happened before. After all, I was in an inpatient psychiatric unit. But this time, I felt like someone had just poured ice water all over me, and the warm lingering feeling from my dream left in a hurry. As my heart sank further, I instinctively reflected on my harsh reality.

Related Article: Murmurs in the Dark

I was 17 years old. I had had a major nervous breakdown. The doctors called it a manic attack and said it was because I had a disorder named Bipolar, but that was all meaningless jargon to me. All I knew was that I wanted, more than anything, to be like any other Chassidic teenager and enjoy high school, my friends, my stylish, new winter clothes that had no place in the hospital, and excited, whispered conversations about shidduchim, marriage prospects, which would be relevant to us all as soon as we turned 18.

I did not want to be in a ward full of strange people with even stranger behaviors on the fifth night of Chanukah. But more than anything, I did not want to be strange myself. Being mentally ill was so embarrassing and distressing that I often found myself bargaining with God, asking for any physical illness, so long as he would take this terrifying, perplexing one away.

The mania had worn off several days before, and I was beginning to feel depressed. The doctors had an explanation for that too, but what I knew was for the first time in my life, everything seemed hopeless. It was like the lights went out. In a paradoxical way, that is very hard to describe, I wanted desperately to die, and even more desperately to live.

Or so I thought. But Ron's attempted suicide at this particular juncture, affected me deep within my soul. I was suddenly scared. Could I end up like Ron one day? Actually attempting suicide? Or worse - could I end up dead by my own hands?

Mental illness typically comes along with a diagnosis once a person goes for treatment. And that diagnosis most often comes along with a suggested treatment protocol usually including some type of medication and psychotherapy. But I have learned that there is a certain something beyond the reach of all this.

In the innermost recesses of the soul is will to fight for life. That special something stirred and awoke in me now, with unexpected vigor.

Something beyond the various labels for what was wrong with the mind, beyond endless prescription slips. Beyond odd behaviors and scary thought patterns. Beyond hours spent pacing long yellowed corridors. Something that can't be touched, or easily described or treated. A force, a power, a desire. Something deep and eternal that rests in the innermost recesses of the soul.

And that something is willpower. The will to fight for life and for health, the desire to live.

That special something stirred and awoke in me now, with unexpected vigor.

I sat up in bed, took out my trusty journal, turned a new page and began to write. I wrote for a long time. The words just poured out. And by the end of it, I had written 20 life affirming statements , such as “I will get well one day” and “God is watching over me” and ten ideas of how I could help advance my recovery. My therapist had suggested this as an exercise, but I thought I had forgotten what she said just as soon as she said it.

The first idea on the list was to go ahead, light the menorah and try to bring the spirit of Chanukah to where I was at this time. I would focus on the positive and try to better accept the way things were. I would effect change where I could. I would make this much happen.

I smoothed out my clothes and washed my face, looking carefully in the mirror to make sure nobody could tell how hard I'd cried earlier. Then I straightened my habitually hunched shoulders, and made my way to the nurses' station.

"Can I light the menorah?” I asked hesitantly, looking pointedly at the white plastic structure facing the main patient lounge.

"Sure, honey,” a large, friendly nurse named Debra, said warmly. “That's a great idea. A real pity to have all those pretty lights, and none of them turned on.”

So one by one, I carefully twisted five bulbs, for this fifth night of Chanukah, until each one was suffused with a glowing, red light.

And then I sang the blessing, quietly but clearly, to my father's traditional melody:

“Blessed are you, Our God, the King of the World, Who Performed Miracles for our Forefathers in those days, in these times.”

“Amen! Those flames sure do look nice. Merry Hannuka, Shani!”

Who said that? I turned. Paul had just entered the station and gave me his most charming smile.

This time I smiled back.

I had to agree. The menorah did look rather nice all lit up.

No, it wasn’t home. But, suddenly, it was Chanukah.

A spontaneous prayer filled my soul, adding fuel to that ember of determination that had been lit within, the inspiration behind the outer lights.

May it be His will that I too, along with all of the other suffering patients on this ward and everywhere, merit the miracle of mental and physical health and the gift of peace of mind.


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