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Lifting My Cloud of Depression

January 12, 2012 | by Tehilla Vanfossen

Medication only removed the pain; attaining happiness was up to me.

It runs in my family. But depression is a sneaky disease and it did its insidious work without anyone putting a name to it. As I was growing up, no one said that my father was depressed — instead, he was ‘moody.’ My grandmother, who couldn’t pull herself together long enough to make dinner, was described as ‘eccentric.'

But clinically depressed? Not in my family, thank you very much.

By the time I reached adulthood, I was forcing my way through most days in a blur of emotional pain. Negative thoughts constantly pounded me: I was worthless — lazy and stupid — with no redeeming qualities. I didn’t expect anyone to like me -- I didn’t even like myself. I never seriously considered suicide, but if I’d had a huge cosmic eraser, I would have used it on myself.

Following family protocol, I didn’t call it depression. Instead I said that I had an ‘artistic temperament.’

Following family protocol, I didn’t call it depression. Instead I said that I had an ‘artistic temperament’ — a phrase that put a creative spin on an extremely painful state of mind.

To make matters worse, I faced serious real-life issues. My husband was undergoing cancer treatment - -and it wasn’t working. He fought the disease for years, but our children were very young when he died.

For a while I blamed my moods on my life circumstances. I was a 34-year-old widow with three little kids —anyone would be depressed! But that excuse wore thin as the years passed.

One day I just stopped. I sat in a chair and cried for three days for no particular reason. My kids tried to hide their worry, but I saw what my depression was doing to them — and I did something I should have done much sooner: I went to my doctor.

He asked questions, ran tests, and then wrote a prescription for an antidepressant. I knew I needed help, but I was ashamed that I hadn’t been ‘strong enough’ to beat depression by myself.

He scolded me when I told him that. “Your depression probably stems from a chemical imbalance,” he said firmly. “It’s as real as a broken leg.”

So I grudgingly took the medicine each day, and a week or two later, my life began to change. The inner pain was gone, evaporating like dew, and suddenly I could take joy in simple things: being with my kids, making dinner, taking a walk.

It felt miraculous, but it wasn’t artificial. I’d been afraid that medication would control me, imposing a false and frenetic cheerfulness -- but it didn’t. The medication simply ended the on-going emotional pain and leveled my emotions. I was still me.

In fact, for the first time ever, I was free to truly be myself. Without the negative thoughts and mood swings, I was in control.

Medication & Spirituality

For a few years, everything went well. I got involved with an Orthodox congregation and slowly became more observant. Big parts of my life began to change. Eventually I became a kosher-eating, mitzvah-keeping Jewish woman — and I loved it.

I loved it so much, in fact, that I stopped taking my medication. I’d been on an even emotional keel for a couple of years, and I hoped that my depression was a thing of the past. Besides, I reasoned, now I had God in my life — what more did I need?

“What kind of Jew has to be medicated to be happy?”

Things were great for a while. But slowly my emotions began to fluctuate and eventually I ended up back in the doctor’s office. If I’d felt guilty the first time around, now I felt shame; not only was I weak, but I’d failed God, too.

I told my Rabbi of my failure. “What kind of Jew has to be medicated to be happy?”

He said something that closely mirrored my doctor’s advice. “If you had cancer, God forbid, would you get treatment?” When I nodded, he went on. “So what’s the difference? You have a physical problem. God expects you to take care of yourself. In fact, He commands it.”

I trusted my Rabbi, so I followed his advice. Besides, I’d begun to realize that, antidepressant or no antidepressant, I still had a lot to learn about happiness.

For instance: I’d never owned up to the idea that I was responsible for my own happiness. When the fog of depression had first lifted, I waited for happiness to just…happen. When it didn’t, I became frustrated and angry. I finally realized that the medication removed the pain, but that was all. The rest was up to me.

The first time I heard someone say that happiness was a choice, I was indignant — especially since the comment was directed at me. I’d been complaining to a friend: one of my kids was having problems, my salary was too low—and on top of everything else, my car had broken down!

I was in a terrible mood. I deserved to be in a bad mood. I was enjoying my bad mood. And then my friend wrecked it by saying, “But happiness doesn’t depend on circumstances. You could choose to be happy, you know.”

I rolled my eyes and dismissed her comment as New Age mumbo-jumbo. Me? Choose to be happy? I didn’t like the idea, not one little bit.

Then I met Bruria.

It happened at a Torah study session. The Rabbi explained that it was a mitzvah to be joyful — happy— on Shabbos. There it was again — the idea that you could choose to be happy, even if just for one day. And he told a story to illustrate his point:

Bruriah lived during the Talmudic age. Her husband, Rabbi Meir, was at shul one Shabbos when the couple’s two sons died suddenly. Because it was Shabbos, Bruriah refused to mourn. After nightfall, though, her husband returned from shul and she had to break the news to him.

She didn’t say that their sons were dead. Instead she asked Rabbi Meir what she should do if someone loaned her something and later asked for the item’s return.

Her husband gave the obvious answer. “You should return the item happily,” he told her.

Then she told him that God had required the return of their sons.

“Oh, come on!” I exclaimed to the Rabbi after the class. “Her sons died — and she didn’t shed a tear? Because it was Shabbos?”

My rabbi answered mildly, saying that most people aren’t on such a high spiritual level. “But this story teaches that we should be happy on Shabbos.”

Then he gave me an assignment. He told me to find out what Ethics of the Fathers had to say about happiness. When I got home, I flipped through my copy.

Here’s what I read: “Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has” (Avot 4:1).

If I waited till everything in my life was perfect, I’d never be happy.

Happy with what he has? Happy with a troubled kid and too many bills and not enough money? Was this some kind of a joke?

Then it hit me. If I waited till everything in my life was perfect, I’d never be happy. I had to choose happiness — even if it killed me.

Related Article: Happiness, etc

Choosing Happiness

I learned that the Torah commands us to be happy. That meant happiness was indeed within my control. God wouldn’t tell me to do the impossible. For that matter, the Torah recorded that the Jewish people were punished — not for sinning, but for not observing the commandments with joy.

So I made a decision: I would be happy.

I wasn’t happy about it, but you can’t have everything.

When I woke up in a bad mood — a common occurrence — I consciously chose to smile and act cheerful.

It took a little practice. I’d catch myself grumbling and remind myself: You’re HAPPY! The next thought was usually an indignant I am NOT! Often the matter ended there, and I spent the rest of the day in my usual emotional funk.

Slowly, though, I learned to insist on happiness. I bought a dry-erase pen and wrote quotes about happiness on my mirrors and windows. “Who is happy? One who is content with what he has,” my bedroom mirror told me each morning. When I stumbled, still groggy, into the living room, the sliding door chimed in with Tolstoy’s pithy “If you want to be happy, be.”

And it worked. Gradually my attitude changed. I became calmer and less prone to anger over little things. I felt happier.

There were still issues that sent me into an emotional tailspin, though. Most of them had to do with control. I liked control. I wanted to be in control. And when I wasn’t — when other people had the nerve to inconvenience me -- I got angry.

I swore at long red lights and said unlovely things about slow drivers. I sighed heavily — and often — when faced with a long line at the bank. I tapped my foot impatiently when a sales clerk didn’t ‘see’ me right away, and complained angrily about the service.

I wanted to be in control of more important issues, too. For instance, my daughter’s class was taking a trip to Israel — a trip that I’d supported at first. But there had been violence, and there were threats of even more trouble.

I didn’t want to be the mom who wouldn’t let my daughter go, but I was afraid. I’d lost my husband; I couldn’t imagine losing a child.

My daughter was patient. “Nothing will happen to me unless God allows it,” she told me.

I believed that -- when I was in shul with my prayer book open. But my daughter lived it, even at home. Even when facing a risky situation.

She went to Israel and had a wonderful time. And I started to work on my emunah — my faith and trust in God — because I was starting to realize that emunah might just be an important component of happiness.

I slowly understood that faith and trusting God was actually the secret to being happy.

And I slowly understood that faith and trusting God was actually the secret. If God was truly in control — and if He wanted the best for me — then everything that happened to me was perfect. Everything.

It was a mind-blowing idea, and the effect was freeing.

I was responsible to put in my reasonable effort – but beyond that, I could let go. As long as I was working to make a living, I didn’t have to worry about money. I had what God had allotted me, and my only responsibility was give tzedakah and use my resources responsibly. If I stayed close to Him, He would give me what I needed.

I didn’t have to worry about my children. If they were going through hard times, I could give good advice—and pray. Beyond that, they were in the hands of God who was dealing with them perfectly.

I realized that I had only three essential tasks in life:

  1. To do what I knew God wanted me to do. I could find this in Torah.
  2. To put forth my best effort for a life of financial security, family happiness and spiritual growth.
  3. To be content with what I had.

That was it!

Things went wrong that first week. I mean, lots of things went wrong. I had to keep reminding myself the same lessons in emunah over and over again.And I still don’t have it down pat. But that is part of the effort. No one said it's going to easy.

I’ve experienced tragedy and suffering, and I don’t know why. But I do know a few things:

God created the world and He controls everything.

Nothing is an accident.

Everything He does is for our good.

I like to think that by recognizing my depression, and treating it according to my doctor’s advice, I’ve strengthened myself. I’m still learning to genuinely trust the Almighty. It’s a lesson I’ll be working on for the rest of my life. I’m a slow learner.

It’s a good thing God is patient.

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