We All Go A Little Crazy Sometimes

Guest post by Rivka Nehorai, AKA Mrs. Pop Chassid

Not everyone has as much guts as my husband to admit their deepest, darkest secrets, exposing their most embarrassing, reckless times for the masses.

And as I cheer him on from the sidelines, I am well aware that, in truth, I am just like his other readers that try to hide the the shame of their mental difficulties from the public eye, though he tries to convince me along with them that we needn’t feel ashamed.

What his most recent blog post brought out is the degree to which we humans are fragile creatures. Our brains can handle a lot, they are incredible machines. But stress and fear threaten its existence. We must be aware of the degree to which stress and anxiety are dangerous elements of our inner world. Too much stress, too much fear, and we go, literally, crazy.

I am reminded of this quote from Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace: “Gone mad is what they say, and sometimes run mad. As if mad is a different direction, like west; as if mad is a different house we can step into, or a separate country entirely. But when you go mad, you don’t go any other place. You stay where you are. And somebody else comes in. ”

Personally, I must admit that, in 2006, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In a fairly idiotic move, I moved at the tender age of 23 to the hectic world of NYC with no job, barely knowing anyone. The sheer number of options for what I could do on any given night immensely overwhelmed me. The stress started to get to me. At first, I wouldn’t be able to sleep for one night a week. Then two. Then three days in a row. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t function.

And this misfiring that was going on in my brain, this all consuming feeling of anxiety and confusion and stress, started triggering physical reactions in me that greatly disturbed me.  I started hitting myself. Full on smacking my face. Hard. To cope with the anxiety, the fear, to knock it away. I didn’t feel like I could control it. I would regret it the instant it happened. These new feelings and actions terrified me. I was my own worst nightmare and I couldn’t stop.

The final blow, when my brother who lived in NY dropped me off one night, and I, for some reason afraid to go back in my apartment, not knowing what to do with myself, started screaming and hitting myself in front of him, in the middle of the street. My parents were alerted, and swiftly, I was flown back to my hometown in Chicago and medicated. In a controlled, comfortable, familiar environment, I recovered, and eventually thrived.

But mental disorders, illnesses, or difficulties are very complex. For though in 2006 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I should also add in that in 2006, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. After years of being on medication, I got second opinions (many), which confirmed along with my own beliefs at that point, that I did not in fact have bipolar. What did I have? A helluva lotta stress and anxiety.

Our brains are not equipped for mass amounts of stress and pressure. Some people, especially sensitive people, especially people with family histories, trauma, or mental illnesses already, are especially predisposed to the effect that stress has on the brain. When stress hits a critical point, a breaking point, the person loses themselves. In effect, they become “possessed” to a certain extent. It is not really them. Anyone who has been to the breaking point  knows this level of “possession”. That someone else has taken over.

Stress, anxiety, depression, are all on a spectrum. The trick is to catch it, to be aware of it, when it is easily treatable. There are many things I do now that lower my anxiety substantially and even more, give me reason and power to exist. Art and learning Torah, exercise, therapy,  and connecting with people are all elements of that.

To an extent, Robing Williams did of course kill himself. But not the person that we feel grateful for, that we miss. We know, somehow, on an intuitive level, that his soul is much greater than the inner fear and hatred that consumed him, that took over his brain. Suicide is not normal. It means your brain is malfunctioning. It means your stress, anxiety, and depression has reached a critical, dangerous level.

We can have compassion on his soul trapped within a body that, at a breaking point of stress levels, acted unfairly, taking him away from this world. We can also feel anger at those negative voices, that caused him to take his life.   We are infinitely powerful, and we are unbelievably fragile. The scary, simple truth is that we are all susceptible. There is only so much a human being can take.

One concrete message that we can come away from this tragedy is to take care of ourselves, of both aspects of our beings. To be aware of our fragility so that we treat ourselves, our souls, and the souls and bodies of  others kindly when stress starts to build. And to be aware of our power,  to gain the courage to separate ourselves from that inner doubt that threatens to bring us down, so that we can attach to the real us, and to our real purpose in life.

  • ElizaRose

    Thank you so much, Rivka and Elad. Your brave honesty is sure to help make many of your readers feel less alone (certainly this reader).

    Thank you, again.

  • Rebecca K.

    It is so perfect to see Rivka’s post today. This summer, due to the political tumult and daily inundation of bad news, I have felt off-kilter. All it takes is a little personal or professional trouble to add to the mix, and I’ve felt unbalanced…not enough to send me running to my therapist, but enough to affect my quality of life. A couple of other people have mentioned in passing they feel the same. You articulated so well what I’ve been experiencing. Thank you!

  • Malka Hellinger Forshner

    Fabulous job, Mrs. Pop Chasid! Clear, heartfelt AND intelligent writing….brave, honest, and mindful. You know what they say, the man is the head of the household, but the wife is the neck! I see the Nehorai family has that happening beautifully. Thank you!

  • Agreed about the spectrum and the importance of catching things early. One can easily slide up and down the spectrum in a way that takes other people – or oneself – by surprise. People know that bipolar disorder involves mood changes, but can be surprised by how much mood can change in unipolar depression – “But he seemed fine yesterday!” (although that is also about masking emotions too).

    An example: I’ve been making good progress with my depression in recent months, but my therapist has been on holiday for a month. I was coping well, but the last few days have really got to me – ongoing situations that I was coping fine with three weeks ago now seem unbearable. I know I just have to be kind to myself and get through the next five days until the therapist is back, but it’s going to be hard – I’ve become used to being more functional and it’s hard to step back from that. It’s hard to keep hold of the perspective I’ve gained and to remember my coping strategies.

  • Katrina Bascom

    This was absolutely beautiful. I, too, was misdiagnosed with bipolar, but it turned out that it was just what I like to call ‘situational.’ You described it perfectly. I was in an environment I had very little control over and was very destructive, and as soon as I was removed from that environment, my life (and mind) rebalanced. This was when I was 13.

    Now when the stress and sleep deprivation threaten to overcome me, I have an impulse to run (and rebalance, again). The difference has been that I have children, now, so I cannot run. It has given me an opportunity to grow within myself, to find power I did not know I had, and to change. Even in absence of a formal diagnosis or any medication, therapy (among other things, most importantly, my faith) has been a big part of what has given me the ability to take back the steering wheel of my mind.

    That isn’t the answer for everyone, I know. I just wanted to heartily agree with you– stress and fatigue can hijack sanity, but they can be overcome!

  • Princess Lea

    In terms of Robin WIlliams (I can’t believe the funniest man on earth is dead): In the end, while we “know” bits and pieces about another’s life, we really don’t know what he was thinking when he killed himself.

    While social media exploded with words like “choice” or “illness,” now another snippet was revealed: He had Parkinson’s.

    Does this change the conversation about his true motivations? Was it mental illness, was it his fear of a physically debilitating, degenerative disease? Was this new illness the straw that broke the camel’s back?

    What else do we not know?

    With this new information, I think we must conclude that we don’t really know the why of his suicide. We can still mourn the “honorary Jew,” without debating his last thoughts.

    • I don’t think that’s true at all. In the statement where his wife revealed the fact about Parkinson’s she said this:

      “Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.

      It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”

      Holding our hands up and saying we don’t understand is not the best approach. In fact, there’s so many teachable lessons from this, and Robin Williams’s own family has clearly said they think this should be a chance for people to get treatment for their emotional troubles.

      We can honor a death in more than one way. One of those is learning the deep lessons that come out of these tragedies.

      • Princess Lea

        Who said anything about not getting treatment? Robin Williams obviously was getting treatment for years.

        People out there who know only of Robin’s persona, nothing of who he was on a personal level, are making statements and conclusions that they don’t have the information to make. Who knows, even, if the family is being truly honest? These things don’t occur in a vacuum, that everything was honky dory and then he killed himself in a brief moment of insanity. Chances are this wasn’t his first suicide attempt. Who knows what sort of pressure his family was living with.

        I am saying that not all situations are automatically comparable. On a smaller level, we really don’t know how supposedly mainstreamed people live their lives, in the confines of their own homes. To claim that the whole world “knew” Robin is not right to him or his family, I think.

        If people need treatment, then people need treatment. If a person is having suicidal thoughts, then he desperately needs treatment. People with mental illness have killed themselves before, and in the Jewish community, too. I had a relative who did. We don’t need Robin’s death as a reminder that mental illness exists, and that it should be dealt with.

        In the end, it is the living who have to make a choice to live their lives for the better, and it shouldn’t need something as extreme as the ultimate tragedy to convince us to move forward.

  • peachy

    This post makes me sad, because there are so many of us who need help, guidance, a correction in destructive thinking. How does one get truly effective help if there is no money to pay a therapist?

    • Rebecca K.

      For the milder mental health issues Rivka describes in the post, you can try support groups. I had a great one after some mild depression/anxiety/OCD issues post-partum & it was a lot cheaper (although I did spent several months seeing a therapist at the height of my distress). And there are some therapists who work at non-profits like JFS and charge a sliding scale. Most people don’t know, but JFS (Jewish Family Services) in most locations work people of all religious affiliations, not just Jews.

  • shoshana friedman

    I love this article. Thank you

  • jjdynomite

    Totally agree PopChassid (Mrs.). My psychiatrist draws it out like a pail — that has one layer of water in it, and then that amount doubles, and doubles again, and so on until it overflows (in one of the two extreme ends of the spectrum for BP, often ending in death).

    Those of us with BP and UP (unipolar depression) have much smaller “pails”. So even assuming Robin Williams stopped doing street drugs, and stopped drinking, and did not have an early diagnosis of Parkinson’s, and hadn’t gotten his show ended with Sarah Michelle Gellar — BP sufferers can’t stand having nothing on-the-go, nothing to look forward to — there would have been other life stressors: a fight with a wife, death of a friend, loss of a wallet, even, that could have set him spiraling up-or-down.

    That’s the reality of the illness. The mind-body physiology is quite fascinating — unless you’re living with it. In which case it sucks.