Although I am only 24 years old, I see myself as having achieved more than most young adults. A college graduate with a 3.94 GPA who balanced school, extracurricular activities and other life responsibilities, I never could have predicted that I would one day be subject to a shidduch crisis of a different caliber. I never imagined that I would be seen as incapable, damaged and unworthy of the same life experiences as anyone else.
Although I may have spent six months in treatment for an eating disorder during my early college years, and three months in treatment for anxiety and depression post-college, I always believed that my experiences have made me stronger and more capable of coping with the challenges of life. To me, recovery means the ability to live a meaningful life, a life that I would fill with passion, joy and hobbies, most of which were lost in the throes of mental illness. As part of my meaningful life, I’ve always looked forward to the day every little girl dreams of. I looked forward to the day of my wedding—the day I would walk down the aisle in my white dress, walking around my chasan seven times, the day I would begin building my home on the foundation of Torah.
Little did I know what I would face when I would enter the dating turf of Orthodox Jews. While in treatment, I was empowered to be open and honest about my struggles, and I was taught the importance of owning my past. However, upon my return home, mentor after mentor, friend after friend, family member after family member encouraged me to keep these experiences a secret. After all, how would I get a job? How would I get a shidduch? Besides one public-speaking stint, I listened to these recommendations. It was only as I worked my way through my first job that I began to understand the implications of my struggles on my life as an Orthodox Jew.
As a teacher, the way I represent myself is of utmost importance to my being a role model. When it came out that I had struggled from mental health issues, a member of the administration politely told me that no student should ever find out. Professionally, I understood this. Personally, as someone who serves as a role model to vulnerable teenagers, I questioned if this was the correct approach. Shouldn’t we be teaching our youth that it’s okay to struggle? Shouldn’t we be showing them living proof that it is possible to overcome one’s obstacles? What better role model than one whom they can potentially relate to and be empowered by? While it is not easy to feel judged due to my past, I am grateful for the opportunity to break the stigma and prove to my colleagues that individuals who have suffered from mental illness can often be just as valuable and successful as anyone else.
Research done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness shows that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year. In fact, approximately 1 in 25 adults in the US—10 million, or 4.2%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. You might be surprised, but these statistics don’t discount Orthodox Jews. Yes, you heard me correctly: approximately 1 in 5 adults in the Orthodox Jewish community also suffers from some form of mental illness.
Unfortunately, the general population is still fairly skeptical of those who suffer or have overcome mental illness, not realizing how complex it is. People associate mental illness with homeless people walking the streets of New York City, psychiatric institutions and a host of pills that may or may not help. What we as a community have to come to understand is that not all forms of mental illness are the same. Yes, some sufferers may need to be hospitalized. Others may need to take medication to maintain their recovery. That does not mean that individuals who suffer from mental illness do not deserve to live the same enjoyable, fulfilling lives as anyone else. What many don’t realize is that mental illness can also affect people who have high-ranking jobs, loving families and gratifying social lives. Chances are you know someone who suffers from mental illness on some level. It’s just not spoken about.
That is why people like me, whether recovered from mental illness, or suffering from just some anxiety, have a shidduch crisis of our own. I have unfortunately been privy to the ups and downs of the “dating world” for the past four years and it has truly been a roller coaster.
Let us start with the first “serious” guy I dated. He seemed slightly nervous when I told him about my history, but told me we would get through it and that everything would be okay. The next thing I knew, his mother was calling individuals in my community to find out about me—individuals who had no idea about any of my struggles and now knew way more about my personal life than I was comfortable with. His mother even went through the grapevine to find out who my therapist was and called her! Don’t you think that’s taking things a little too far? If her son is old enough to be getting married, shouldn’t he be making these phone calls himself? His mother ended our relationship on account of not being comfortable with my history.
Enter a few other guys I dated within the next few years. There were obviously the guys with whom things just didn’t work out. I am okay with that. Everyone experiences that. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t tell every guy I dated about my struggles. I only revealed the information when the relationships got to the point where I was halachically obligated and felt comfortable doing so. Then entered the guys who claimed they were okay with my past, but proceeded to end the relationship the date after they found out. At this point I knew I had hit a roadblock. These guys were not comfortable with my past but felt too uncomfortable to tell me that. I can understand that. It must be awkward for them. I always took these “rejections” in stride, believing that one day I would meet someone who would accept me.
Enter a serious marriage prospect: This guy was different from the others. Being that we knew each other since the age of 19, he was no stranger to my history and had always been a supportive friend throughout my struggles. Everyone who heard we were dating encouraged me to “make it work” because he already accepted me for all I had been through. We had the same values, enjoyed each other’s company, and as the phrase goes, “we clicked.” As the months went by and we continued to spend time together, he opened up to his parents about our next step: his plans to marry me. After watching us date for five months, his parents were happy for him and completely supported our plan to build a home and spend the rest of our lives together—that is, until they asked the magic question: Does she take any medication?
I do not believe in lying. I told him he had to tell his parents, especially since my recovery was such a large part of my past and made me who I am today. I feared holding back this information would lead to issues in the future, if his parents found out about my past later on in our lives. Upon hearing my struggles, his parents made a complete 180. They were no longer supportive. They wanted to do research and find out everything about anything I had ever struggled with. I sat on a chair while they asked me question after question about both my past and my present, listening for any red flags that may come up. I offered to let them speak to my therapist and psychiatrist, but they had no interest. They believed my therapist would only be trying to “sell” me and would have no concern for the well-being of their son.
They took a different approach. They Googled my medications, printing out the side effects and showing them to the man I thought I would marry, making it seem like every side effect must affect me. They estimated the cost of therapy for a year, telling him I was very expensive and that he wouldn’t have to worry about these costs with another girl. Wow. I am now an object. I am expensive. What if my taste in clothing was expensive? They blamed my excellent organization and time management skills on my anxiety, while those are truly just basic elements of my temperament that some people struggle with their whole lives!
We spoke with rabbis, mentors, and even psychologists in the field. Nothing seemed to help. His parents would return to the same arguments over and over, as to why my condition was concerning, despite the fact that no professional deemed it so. The guy I was seeing tried his hardest to defend me, yet also knew at the end of the day that he would have to respect his parents’ wishes.
After two and a half weeks of waiting for his parents to make their decision, I began to question some of their behaviors. Why was all this research necessary? Why did they have to read article after article when these articles were prototypes, barely applicable to my experiences? Why couldn’t they just look at me without my diagnostic label, and appreciate me for what I have to offer? Why can’t they see that I am a successful teacher devoted to a life of Torah, family and tikun olam? Why can’t they look at the fact that I love their son and he loves me? Why can’t they trust him that he knows what he’s “getting himself into,” that despite the challenges I’ve been through, he wants me to be his wife? Why couldn’t they let him make the most important decision of his life?
After everything I had been through in life, I couldn’t allow myself to be treated like damaged goods. I could not stick around and continue to be insulted, viewed as an object for sale, with each and every flaw being scrutinized. I do not suffer from severe mental illness that affects my daily living. So while I have occasional bouts of depression and generalized anxiety, I also hold down a job. In fact, I even get promotions. I have friends. I have a loving and tight-knit family. I do not deserve to be treated as a pariah, an unwanted nuisance, an interloper to a perfect family.
If I didn’t believe in Hashem to the extent that I do, if my faith in Judaism wasn’t as strong as it is, I can tell you that after my experiences in the dating world, I would no longer want to be frum. I have friends outside the Orthodox world, and while there is still stigma surrounding the topic of mental illness, it does not exist to the same degree. There is more education, awareness and sensitivity towards those who struggle or may have struggled in the past. Parents are not as involved in their children’s dating lives and don’t end relationships that are on the path to marriage. Couples who want to get married do so with or without parental support, knowing that at the end of the day they are at least getting to spend the rest of their lives with the person they love.
Our relationship ended two weeks ago and I don’t write this as a plea to his family. This is a plea to the Jewish community at large. Don’t wait until your child comes home and says he or she wants to marry someone who has been diagnosed with depression. Don’t wait until you are set up on a date with a guy or girl who you soon find out has anxiety. Educate yourself now. Learn about what it means to suffer from these disorders on a daily basis. Understand that just because one suffers from a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that the person is unable to take care of him or herself and live a stable, happy, productive life. The “buzzwords” of mental illness are nowhere near as scary as they sound.
I often read articles about the “shidduch crisis” and marriage horror stories. Numerous shiurim and dating books describe red flags and obstacles that lead to unhealthy marriages. None of them (at least that I’ve come across) have described what to do when the person you are dating is everything one is looking for but comes with one—just one—of these red flags. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses are all seen as red flags. Does this mean people with the slightest case of depression are not marriage material? What if a woman has a baby and gets postpartum depression? Is she no longer marriage material? Is a divorce in order? I can assure you that numerous people with some form of mental illness get married every day and do just fine.
Instead of looking at mental illness as a red flag, we need to view it on a spectrum. I am not going to lie. Some forms of mental illness are in fact red flags, and do need to be evaluated as such. When searching for a spouse or “investigating” your child’s future partner, keep in mind that medication does not mean mediocrity. Remember to be sensitive in the questions you ask and the way you go about your questioning. Speak with a psychologist or doctor trained specifically in the illness your loved one suffers from, preferably one who works with him or her. You will need your partner’s permission due to confidentiality, but I can assure you that if he or she loves you, permission will be granted. The doctor will not only be looking out for his patient’s welfare. In fact, once speaking with you, the doctor is obligated to tell you the truth about your loved one and you do not have to worry about lies. Speak to a rabbi who works with and understands mental illness. Find a neutral party to help guide you in this process. If you truly love someone, it will be worth it.
I have a challenge for the Jewish community. We need to open up a dialogue—a dialogue about dating and mental health in an open-minded, calm and sensitive manner. We need to raise awareness about the challenges of dating when diagnosed with mental illness, and educate our community that the nature of a diagnosis is different for everyone. The Jewish people are a nation built on the foundation of Torah, avodah and g’milus chasadim. As we navigate the dating world, let us keep in mind some of the most basic bein adam l’chaveiro tenets and limit the lashon ha’ra that comes out of our mouths. I urge you to do your avodah, but do it properly. Make sure to reach out to the proper people and take advantage of the correct resources. Lastly, be kind. Do not forget that you are dealing with another person’s emotions, self-respect and dignity. I plead to you: If confronted with a situation related to shidduchim and mental health, act with kindness, sensitivity and understanding. In this way, we will together be addressing a different aspect of the shidduch crisis—one that often goes misunderstood, unrecognized and unheard. Let us be a light unto the nations by being a light unto ourselves.
Name Withheld Upon Request
(Originally published in the Queens Jewish Link.)