Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Part 2: Living with Chronic Illness: What Not to Say

Chronic illness is an ever changing beast that we have to learn to work with. And we aren't handed a toolbox with which to fight it. My life with chronic illness has evolved a lot over the last year since I posted the first half of this blog post. I've grown a lot as a person and actually learned to make friends because of my chronic illness. Once again, these are all written from personal experience, and you may feel free to disagree with anything that you so choose. Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and I hope that you all have a wonderful day filled with many spoons if you need them (If you're confused, click the link)!


Don't Say: "You look great."
I understand that this comes from a place of kindness, and that you, when you are saying this, see it as a compliment, but it can come off as invalidating of someone's illness. Often, this one will sound like "You don't look sick." Especially when it comes to invisible illnesses, one may often look completely healthy while suffering greatly on the inside. Yes, I put on makeup and did my hair today, but that doesn't mean that I am not in pain. No I may not look sick. But, yes, I feel sick, and your words are not helping.
Don't Say: "Are you okay?"
The concept of "okayness" is a weird one because it is relative and completely undefined for the most part. On a day where most people might be miserable, a chronic illness warrior may say that they are "okay". One can still be "okay" while being sick. Additionally, this question puts pressure on the person to say yes because it is often asked without the expectation of the answer, just like the question, "how are you?"

Do Say: How are you feeling?
This one goes for a bunch of the "don't says" because it is generally just better to ask a question about  how someone is feeling as opposed to assuming literally anything. It allows the person to give an honest answer about how they are actually doing. It doesn't assume health or sickness. The one catch with "how are you feeling," is this: you have to actually be expecting and wanting a real answer.

Don't Say: "You're trying the best you can? So are the rest of us."
This one is just mean, in my opinion. Even if it is trying to make the person suffering feel less alone, it is completely invalidating of the fact that many people who struggle with chronic illness have a much harder time, and additionally, it is just never helpful to compare two peoples' pain because pain resists the simplicity of language and we can never truly live inside another person's brain, so we can never truly know someone else's pain.
Do Say: You're not alone. I'll be here for you no matter what. 
One of the hardest parts of chronic illness is feeling alone, so this reminds the person who is suffering that someone is there for them. Additionally, many people with chronic illness, including myself, often feel like a burden upon their friends and family, so reminding them that they have someone who loves them unconditionally can help a lot.

Don't Say: "Oh do they know what that is?"
This one is a tad bit insensitive, and in my opinion should be common sense, but people have said it to me, so I felt compelled to include it. Yes, I am also wondering why I am feeling the way that I am feeling, however, you asking is not doing anything to help.
Do Say: "How'd your appointment/test go?"
This doesn't assume anything, and it allows the person to talk about what is probably on their mind anyways. Often, people with chronic illness feel that they are boring or annoying their friends by talking about their illness with some regularity, so asking them about their appointment gives them an opportunity to feel comfortable talking about it.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Blog Elul: Accept

Accept. Acceptance is really freaking difficult. The truth of the world is really difficult to accept.Childhood was for fantasies, but we are now grown ups and we now have to accept that there are bad things in the world as well as good ones. But we cannot simply accept hatred. hatred has no home in our communities. We cannot accept it.

But there are things that we must accept, with radical acceptance no less--the concept of accepting things as they happen, not passing any judgment upon them. We must accept that we are only human, and as much as we would like to be superheroes, human emotions exist and physical and emotional limitations exist. Let our power be found in that acceptance. Because when we accept our emotions and the things that come to us, we have to power to find empathy and compassion, and more than acceptance, our world needs empathy and compassion more than anything.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Blog Elul:Choose

Our lives revolve around choices. We choose what to do every day. We choose how to live our lives, and most importantly, we choose what to believe in. We can choose to have faith in humanity and in ourselves, or we can choose to give up our choice and go by what the media or other people are telling us. But at the same time, we can choose to hold fast to our beliefs and not allow others to alter them. We can choose to believe that we have the power to change the world. Because, truly, we do. Every action that we choose to make. Every single choice. That choice impacts someone or something else.

And we can choose how to think. We can choose to think with empathy and compassion, to think that maybe that person who cut in front of us at the grocery store is trying to get home to a sick child or maybe that person who just snapped at us is having a really hard day. We can choose to be this way.

So this is my call to you. Choose action. Choose to believe in your power, and we can all be superheroes. Choose to believe in hope. Make your choices and make them known.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Blog Elul: Prepare

I was watching an episode of Grey's Anatomy from Season 1 the other day, and I noticed that the title sequence portrayed getting ready for surgery like getting ready to go out. This got me thinking about preparation. This whole week for me has been about preparation. The beat before. The anticipatory anxiety that every student feels before a school year, but Elul is about preparing us for something more, the High Holidays. Of course, I've started planning out services and brainstorming for my D'var Torah is at the top of my to-do list, but there's some emotional preparation I've yet to do.

How do we prepare our souls for the High Holidays? How do we prepare to start over? How do we prepare to forgive? Is it like preparing for school? Can I go out and buy something that can help me. Or is it all internal? My preparations for this High Holiday season involve a lot of journaling, long walks outside, and making sure to take time out of my day to talk with friends. How do you prepare?

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Blog Elul: Search

I'm  searching for answers. Both physically and metaphysically. I'm on a search to find what made my health so bad for a few weeks. By God's grace, they seem to have found a cause (stupid gallbladder), but the search involved numerous doctors and arguments and tests of all kinds. All I'm saying is that the search may be rewarding, but it's not always pleasant, especially for those of us who live with health issues. So I want to offer a prayer for those who are searching, whether it be emotionally, spiritually or physically:

May you search
May you find your way
May you live and love for yet another day
May you remember that on days when the search is hard
It's okay to just stay still, the search will go on tomorrow

May we search for love and peace
And find them in our hearts
May we be, hand in hand
Searching for justice
Throughout the land




Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Blog Elul: Act

I don't know how to act. I don't know how to act in the face of bigotry. I don't know how to act when there are bomb threats at my school. I've been feeling a little bit paralyzed lately. But all we can do is try our best. All we can do is continue fighting. I think I need to think about how I act more.

So that's my goal for the month. To act with intention. To act with love. To act in a way that I truly want to. And to choose not to act when I need to do that. Choosing not to do is something I'm working on. And it's a privilege to not have to act all of the time. I need to keep that in mind as well.

Please let me know your intentions and thoughts for the month of Elul!


Friday, June 2, 2017

"What Can I Do To Support You?": What TO SAY To Someone Struggling With a Chronic Illness

In a recent flare up of my chronic illness, I found myself struggling with answering the question, "what should I say?" or "what can I do to support you?" These questions just made me angry because it's just like if you tell someone to apologize to you, the apology then means nothing. This is no fault of the person asking the question. Our society doesn't train us to talk about illness as a long term thing that has no foreseeable end. So I thought I'd write a list of things you should say if someone comes to you struggling with a chronic illness. This also serves as a sort of manifesto of things I would say to my fellow spoonies/chronic illness warriors as well.

DISCLAIMER: This is just my opinion; I'm sure that you may disagree with some of the things I say here; if you do, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

1. I'm not going to sit here and pretend to understand what you are feeling or going through.
Why: Unless you actually understand, this is a necessary first thing to say because most likely, you don't understand, and that's okay. My experience, and I'm sure that other chronic illness warriors would agree with me, is that each person's journey is very unique and while you may understand aspects of what I'm going through, you probably don't fully understand.

2. I will not tell you that everything's going to be okay because I do not know that; I am not your doctor.
Why: Our instinct while comforting is often to say, "It'll be okay," but the struggle with this when speaking to someone who is battling chronic illness is that that's not necessarily true, so it can feel invalidating of our experiences if you say it. Instead, acknowledge it, as scary as that might be for you as well.

3. I know that you feel alone, but just know, that while you may feel alone, there are people out there, including me, who love and care about you and benefit from having you in their lives.
Why: Chronic illness is isolating; there's no way around it, so reassurance is especially helpful. One caveat with this one is that you have to say it even if the person is not believing you because often, when we are stuck in pain or alone for so many hours of the day, one person saying this to us is not actually going to fully remedy the loneliness, although it can do something to help.

4. I know that on some days you want to give up, and that's okay. Chronic illness is hard and taxing, but on those days, you can call me, and I will sit with you in the pain and not tell you to have a positive attitude.
Why: I am so sick and tired of people telling me to "think positive." I get it, that's what we are trained to say. Choose happiness and all of those other pinteresty kinds of quotes, but there are going to be some days when we want you to just be supportive instead of trying to impart advice upon us. Something John Green said he was told sticks out to me, "don't just do something, stand there." And this is super important. Being there and sitting through the bad days is the absolute best thing that you can do.

5. I see that you're scared, and while I can't take away the fear, I can tell you that you will never be alone in facing the darkness,
Why: Uncertainty, no matter how hard you try to embrace it, is scary and while it is a very necessary part of life, the worst part about it is facing it alone. We may not be able to shine a flashlight into the darkness of the future, but we can certainly hold hands while we step into that darkness.

As always, your input is always appreciated. I try to use these strategies in my own work and I hope that they will be helpful to you as well.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Choosing to Connect: Thoughts on Shavuot and the Book of Ruth

Note: Much of this information and teaching came from the wonderful rabbis I had the pleasure of learning from last night--Rabbis Andrea London, Michael Balinsky, and Rachel Weiss, so thank you to them for their wisdom insight and source sheets that I drew on to write this blog post.

From what I can tell, the holiday of Shavuot is all about connection, connection to God and connection to the Jewish people, to one another. There's the basics of the holiday: we are connected to the commandments that were said to have been handed down from Sinai on this day, but I think there's a deeper aspect as well.

On Shavuot, we traditionally read the book of Ruth. The book of Ruth has something to teach us about connection to others and about "chosen family." If you're unfamiliar with the story, you can read it here, but for this point, the important part is that Ruth chooses Naomi, her mother and law. When both of Naomi's sons have died, Naomi tells her daughters in law, Ruth and Orpah, to turn back and go back to her people, the Moabites, but Ruth refuses. Ruth "clings to" Naomi and says, "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, your God, my God." This seems like a love confession, not necessarily a romantic one, as some scholars would say. Ruth and Naomi are mother in law and daughter in law. They have no blood connection between them and yet, Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, to adopt herself into Naomi's family.

So many of ourselves have found ourselves feeling alone either because of a part of our identity that has not been shared or because or because we are a minority or because we are struggling with something that no-one can see. Ruth and Naomi were isolated too. It was quite unusual in Ancient Israel for a family to just be two women, and yet, as Ruth did, we must take the risk of connecting with others and choosing them for our family. We must choose carefully, but choose lovingly. And at the end of the day, the connections between members of a chosen family can be just as deep or deeper than the ones between a family by blood.

Also, we are the connection between God and the earth, just as the mountain is the physical connection between the earth and the sky. Shavuot is all about receiving the Torah from Mount Sinai, but what does that really mean in the modern day world where we receive things all the time and we live in a world where we can receive information in seconds from devices we keep in our pockets? It means we still have to obligation to study Torah because Torah is what connects the heavens and the earth. When we stand tall, with our hands open, we are ready to be the messengers of Torah; we are ready to receive the Torah we need and if we are open to God's teachings, our help will also come from God, maker of heaven and earth, often in the form of Torah and love from other Jews.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

V'ahavta Lvrarecha Kamocha: Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself Even When It's Hard

I pride myself on loving everyone in my life unconditionally. But I wasn't always this way. So today, I'd like to talk a little bit about loving one another even when it's hard. This past week, in the portions Acharei-Mot-Kedoshim, we read the words "v'ahavta lvrarecha kamocha"--I apologize for the terrible transliteration. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Okay, this seems easy, but I don't think it's supposed to be easy. I think that loving your neighbor as yourself is supposed to be hard:

The first challenge is with loving people who seem to have irreconcilable differences with you. This is difficult. How can I love and respect someone if they are hurting me or if they have beliefs that pain me to think about? And once again, this is not easy, but I think we need to recognize the humanity in each person. You can love a person for who they are even if you don't want to spend a lot of time with them. You can respect someone's beliefs and argue with them instead of cutting them out of your life. You can embrace difference and see it as an asset as opposed to as a problem. This leads me into my second point: Loving people who it's hard to look at.

I know we've all done it. Crossed the street so we wouldn't have to walk past a homeless person, awkwardly avoided the person in the wheelchair at the movies, judged someone for their clothes. Believe me, I have a little sister in a wheelchair. I know what kind of looks we get when we walk down the aisle at the grocery store. We like to throw around buzzwords: inclusivity, diversity, celebrating differences. But how do we actually celebrate differences? In order to do that, we need to stop avoiding difference and start just loving other human beings while confronting difference head on. You can ask me what my sister's name is or just simply wave to her, acknowledging that she is human and your neighbor just like the cashier who you tell to have a nice day. You can spend a little more time listening than you do talking, and maybe, you can realize that all anyone wants is to live a meaningful life and be respected by other human beings.

The last point I want to make is about loving when it's hard in terms of people who are already a part of your life. Sometimes, I'm a hard person to love. I isolate myself, scared that the symptoms of my various preexisting conditions will make me an outcast. I complain of pain, sometimes leaving very little space for other people. It's easy to love someone in the good times. That's not a difficult task, but it is so much more meaningful to love someone in the bad. And at this point, I'd like to thank all of the people who have sat down with me, asked me how I was and wanted a real answer, given me rides places, listened to me talk for hours or just hugged me and told me that I was okay and that I was doing the best I could. These people are the people who love unconditionally. I strive to be one of these people as well: I never turn my phone off, so if someone calls me and tells me that they need me, I will be there in a second. It's just who I am.

We need to strive for love, no matter how much hate and disdain and discomfort there is out there. We need to take this commandment to heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. I'd like to add: even when it's hard.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Coming Out As Chronically Ill: Yes, I am a Zebra

They say that when you hear hoofbeats, you should think horses, not zebras. But I am here to tell you, that some of us are zebras. I am a zebra. You need not be scared. You need not be cautious, but you must be understanding.

Recently, my chronic illness has been flaring up. I've had a lot of pain in my hands this time a symptom that I hadn't ever experienced, and for the first time ever, I've had to express my limitations to pretty much everyone in my life. And that has been scary, so I'm here to give you some advice on talking to someone who has just told you that they have a chronic illness, and that they are struggling in the moment.

When someone comes to you in pain:

Don't Say: Oh I understand, I hurt my knee/hip/hand playing soccer last week.
Do Say: I can't understand, but I want to try (and if you can understand, please please please share in hospital stories and morbid jokes with me).
It's okay that you don't understand.  I don't need you to understand, I just need you to be there. And frankly, you're probably not going to understand. I need you to acknowledge that right now, I'm not doing well, and I need you to let me be selfish, at least for a little bit.

Don't Say: How are you feeling? (If you don't want an honest answer)
Do Say: Can I help you with anything?
Obviously, if everything is hurting, I am not okay, and I hate having to lie, so that people don't have to deal with my problems. And I'm probably not going to be your definition of "okay" ever. I have a chronic illness that has become my "new normal." I'm used to the knee pain and all of the other things that come along with my rare disorder. But asking if you can help makes me feel a little less alone, one of the hardest parts of having such a rare disorder.

Don't Say: You're so strong.
Do Say: I admire your courage.
It's scary to tell people that you are sick. I was incredibly terrified when I had to tell my professors that I was struggling, and I'm a little bit scared to write this blog post. We live in a productivity driven culture that implies that you are "weak" if you aren't getting things done. And I don't feel strong when my chronic illness is flaring up, especially when I'm feeling quite alone and scared. Telling me that I'm strong is negating what is actually wrong. Affirming my courage makes me feel supported and hopeful for the future. Because I do feel brave. I feel brave for learning how to navigate Massachusetts General Hospital and for getting myself to the emergency room when I need to go and for calling my doctors. Thank you in advance for affirming that.

Thank you to all of you who have supported me so far, and thank you to those who will support me and others in the future. The only way one can survive is with support. Thank you for affirming my stripes. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ancient Prostitutes: Single Women or Slave Women?

In both of the languages that I study--Hebrew and Latin--there are many words for prostitute, from zonah and kadesha in biblical hebrew to meretrix, scortum, and lupa in Latin. But what can these words actually tell us about who these women were and how their systems of prostitution worked--if there were systems at all.

More specifically, I want to talk about whether these prostitutes were slaves or single women. The answer to that question depends on a lot of things including which culture you want to look at: Roman or Ancient Israelite: Ancient Israelite/Biblical prostitutes, at least from the research that I have done so far( and I'm probably writing my final paper for the year on this topic) were the only women in Ancient Israelite society who were free from the control of a man. Before marriage, women belonged to the oldest man in her family, usually her father, but sometimes the brother would take control if the father had passed away. After marriage, the woman belonged to her husband, and if the husband died, she would be sent back to her father's house. The prostitutes in 1 Kings 3 came to Solomon because they didn't have a man to make the decision that they were looking for. I'm sure there are other examples.

But Rome, on the other hand was a little more complicated. Prostitution was an extensive industry: looked down upon, but at the end of the day, relatively common. There were brothels on every corner at least according to the archaeological record at Pompeii. There were essentially two categories of prostitutes in Rome. The first, called a number of things, including a mulier, a woman, or a scortum, or occasionally meretrices in the plural, were prostitutes, owned by a man, a pimp, a leno,  who worked out of inns or taverns or in a brothel.  These women, often foreigners who were captured by pirates or in battle, were sold to the pimps as slaves. They rarely made enough money to buy their own freedom. The second category was the meretrix, a word that literally means, the one who earns. These prostitutes were generally Roman women who chose this profession. She walked the streets and acquired her own clients, and she in fact wasn't under the control of any man.

So what's the verdict? I think it's still out. The Zonah and the Meretrix were certainly single, independent women, who didn't need a man, but does that make up for the pimps, the lenones that enslaved many helpless foreigners? You tell me.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

#BlogExodus:Perplex

Perplex. Confuse. Complicate.
I am perplexed. Why do we act in the way we act? Why do we choose what we choose?
Why did I wake up in pain?
But there are also good things that I am unable to explain.
What exactly makes a person or piece of writing inspiring?
Why can people be so kind?
 I am confused.
But I am content with being perplexed.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

#BlogExodus: Expand

Take a deep breath.
Let your lungs expand and then deflate.
The magic of the human body.
Stretch your arms.
Take up space.
What will you expand into?
Who will you be?
The future has yet to come.

Monday, April 3, 2017

#BlogExodus: Read

The things we read influence us. They change our lives, shaping how we look at the world and how we look at other people. Everyone's story can be pulled, at least to some extent from the things that they read, whether that be the Bible or anything else. My story is intertwined with the Animorphs series, Harry Potter, and so many more pieces of writing. My story is intertwined with the Shakespeare plays and poems that we grandfather reads me at the breakfast table. My story is intertwined with Crime and Punishment, one of my favorite books that we read in my high school career. And my story is wrapped in and out of books by Abraham Joshua Heschel and liturgical supplements and every prayerbook that I can get my hands on. And by the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a poem that I truly think changed my life. There is so many pieces of writing that I have read that have shape my story. My hope for the future is that someday, I will have the chance to write something that will shape someone's story just like so many pieces of writing have shaped mine.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

#BlogExodus:Retell

Judaism does a lot of retelling. Retelling of our own family memories and of the stories of our people. This got me thinking about why do we retell these stories so often? What can we learn from retelling the stories of history? I think about this a lot when I think about why I study Classics as well. And I think we retell for a couple of reasons. First, we retell stories to bring people closer to their ancestors and to their descendants. Shared stories are often what make communities strong. Second, we retell stories with the hope that history will not repeat itself if we remember it. Whether this always happens is a different issue, but ideally, we can learn from our mistakes and we can learn to speak out if injustice arises.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

#BlogExodus: Seek

I found myself seeking something that I could not find.
A place to be at home.
To be myself, to feel less alone.

Last night, or two nights ago if you are reading this on the day that it comes out, I had the opportunity to participate in a Well Circle with some lovely people from my university, organized by one of my close friends, and I was incredibly moved and excited by the energy there. This was a part of a grassroots organization called At the Well. We began the circle by lighting candles and then holding hands and offering intentions, things that we wanted to seek from this space: words or ideas, ancestors who we wanted to call into the space. We proceeded to discuss a few quotes that were presented to us, and this is where I found something that I didn't know I was seeking. The quote that my group focused on was "Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the LORD freed you from it with a mighty hand"(Exodus 13:3). And in the discussion of this quote I found a space where I could use my own vulnerability to interpret ideas in a way to help other people. This is precisely why I want to be a rabbi, but on that night, I didn't know that was what I was seeking. But I found what I was meant to find.

Friday, March 31, 2017

#BlogExodus: Rise

Sometimes I hear the demons outside
And inside my head
Trying to pull me down
To get me to shatter
Like a glass vase across the tile floor
But even if my back hits the ground
Still I will rise
Like a phoenix from the ashes
Like the son from the horizon

It's less important how many times you get knocked down
Than how many times you get up again
I am a bouncy ball that will bounce away from you
I will rise each time I hit the ground
Even if I need to stay there for a while first

I am a Jew
They tried to kill us
But they didn't
Moses, Esther,  and many others
Rose up
They fought for themselves
For their people
To rise.
I learn from these figures
To continue to rise
Despite the pressure
Despite any pain
Despite the people who tell me I can't
Because deep down I know
I will rise.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

#BlogExodus: Cleanse

Recently, I've been thinking about going on a sort of cleanse. Maybe it's because Passover is come up and I'm going to have to actually cleanse my room at school and then my house at home or maybe its because sometimes, all of the constant hum of social media and the news is just a tiny bit too overwhelming. I think that in some respects, I need to clean out my brain more than I have to clean out my room right now. So I started a bullet journal. I've been working to cleanse my mind by writing everything down. No more mental to do lists for me. No more social media in the time that I'm trying to do work. A clean start each day on a clean page of my notebook.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

#BlogExodus: Exalt

"As I grew up, I came to learn, that life was not a game, that heroes were just people that we called another name.."--Debbie Friedman

I think a lot about the idea of mentors and heroes, mostly because I am so grateful to mine for helping me through the worst times in my life, and making me smile on the worst days, and taking care of me when I was unable to take care of myself. And as this lovely song (And the Youth Shall See Visions) states, "childhood was for fantasies": I exalted my heroes, holding them up as perfect people above everyone else who had no problems whatsoever. But, this is not how people work. Every since person is complex, and I learned that God is the only one who should be exalted, but that the complexity of my human heroes and mentors was what made them worth honoring. My mentors taught me that it is possible to be successful even after going through hard times. My mentors taught be that sometimes, when it comes to confidence, you have to just fake it until you make it. My mentors taught me to be grateful for what I have. Because of those who I used to exalt and now just love and respect, I have learned who I am and who I want to be. And I couldn't be any more grateful.

"Today’s the day I take my stand, the future’s mine to hold.
Commitments that I make today are dreams from days of old.
I have to make the way for generations come and go."--Debbie Friedman

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

#BlogExodus: Launch

The word "launch" will forever remind me of my swim coach when he was trying to teach me how to dive off of the starting blocks. I was so scared, and he kept saying to "launch myself" off of the block, and to keep my head tucked into my chest. When you dive, you're supposed to kind of throw yourself into the water at a particular angle. Thinking back on this, learning to put my head down and launch myself into the next steps of what I'm doing was an incredibly important lesson. Yes, it's terrifying, especially if you don't know what exactly lies in the deep end. But if there are people next to you ready to support you and water that will break your fall if you hit it with enough moment, it is generally worth it. This idea of "launching" is about trusting that the step you are taking into a new place or off of the starting block is a new beginning that will turn out well even if it's a little bit scary to dive in.

This week, we are "launched" into a new book of the Torah: Leviticus. And we will continue forward. Trusting in God and the fate of the Israelite people, no matter how deep the water lying ahead is.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I've Been Sick For A While: Why We Need to Change How We Talk About Illness

We think about illness in our society as something that we need to beat. In fact, the slogan of one of the premier cancer charities in the country is celebrate, remember, fight back. I am not criticizing Relay for Life by using its slogan as an example. It's been an important part of my life for many, many years. I am criticizing the way that we think about illness and especially chronic mental illness. We think of illness as a mountain that can be summited and then climbed down, or as an obstacle that can be beaten. When I had the stomach flu last month, I had a few days of feeling really terrible, but by the end of the week, I was almost able to eat normally. I had beat the stomach flu. But this isn't how chronic illness, whether it be physical or mental, works. The word "chronic" essentially means incurable. There are generally ways that chronic conditions can be managed, but they aren't something that we can just beat. You don't beat depression or hypothyroidism. That's not how those illnesses work. They are an everyday struggle, and there are good days and bad days and good hours and bad hours.

I'm going to be honest: when I say I haven't been feeling good for a while. I'm saying that I've been sick. Sick is the way to describe how I've been feeling, but why do I feel so weird using that label? And this leads into the next point I want to make: that mental illness should be treated the same as physical illness. When I say that my lower back is hurting me (stupid hiking pack from 7th grade), people understand that I can't help set up chairs for an event or move around a lot to schmooze at Shabbat dinner. Or if I have a bad cold, people understand if I can't attend five events in a night or lead services. But when I say that I'm anxious or that I've been depressed, I tend to get two reactions most of the time--I'm not blaming the people who act these ways; I think that we should be taught how to deal with this stuff because it isn't necessarily innate. The first is that people don't want anything to do with me. Mental illness, because it is so stigmatized and because it is not often visible to the naked eye scares people. The second, which is related to the first reaction, is that people tiptoe around me like I'm a fragile glass bowl that will shatter if you even poke it.

If you are tempted to have either of these reactions, I want to say this to you: I am still me despite my illness. I am still resilient. I need your kindness, not your pity or your fear. I need you around. I need you to treat me with the same love and care that you would if my back was hurting. I know that it's hard because you fear and you pity because you love me. I get that. But please try. And yes, there are a few who know this innately; who cannot be scared away by anything. But those are the ones who are struggling themselves. And I thank them and all of you, no matter what because just by reading this you are learning and you will be better to the next person struggling with depression or any other mental illness. Thank you again.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

"I Tried to Write a Drash On Harry Potter": Harry Potter and the Sacred Text

I struggled with how to approach this topic because in my mind, Harry Potter and the Torah are both sacred books, but I know that many people would disagree with me putting a book series, supposedly intended for children, on the same plane as a set of texts that is approximately 2000 years old. As such, I will start with this disclaimer: I am a deeply religious person; however, I do not believe that God Godself wrote the Five Books of Moses. I agree with the majority of biblical scholars that the Torah is a conglomeration of literary works by different human authors over a period of time.

This being said, I was inspired by a recent episode of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text to approach a chapter of Harry Potter like I would approach a parsha (section) in the Torah (Old Testament): as if I was going to write a speech, a drash looking more carefully into a piece of text, on it, so I went step by step.

To start, I had my friend choose a random chapter from one of the books for me, just as if I was given whichever parsha was on the calendar for this week. We came up with Book Five, Chapter 17. Then, I proceeded to read the chapter and write down quotes that resonated with me and find themes that I thought I could talk about. Then, I waited for inspiration, as I do most weeks that I write a D'var Torah, and I came up with a few themes and quotes and then began to write.

A lot of Book 5 is about secrets. There are secrets related to the prophecy, secret Defense Against the Dark Arts groups and many more, and while this chapter is mostly about the founding of Dumbledore's Army and the dangers of Umbridge finding out about it, but I want to focus on two moments that aren't directly related to this topic. The first is when Neville got angry at Malfoy because he brought up the topic of St. Mungo's. It is a secret at this point that Neville's parents are in St. Mungo's after being driven to insanity by Bellatrix Lestrange. Neville holds this darkness inside because he is ashamed of them. This secret is kept because of shame. Mental illness really isn't talked about in the Wizarding World, and I personally don't think that it's talked about enough in our own society. Neville's parents didn't do anything wrong. In fact, they were actually doing something heroic  when they were attacked. In addition, while not in this chapter, Harry's PTSD is present in most of Book 5. While this may be obvious to some, it is not talked about nearly enough. It is harmful to those of us struggling with mental illness for it not to be talked about. And that's what I think we should take away from this parsha, oh wait, chapter.

Honestly, I think that sacred text is about learning from the text. Additionally, faith, rigor, and community are what make a text sacred (thank you Harry Potter and the Sacred Text), which will be addressed more specifically in my next blog post.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Unironic Enthusiasm, YouTube, and Fandom: Why Nerdfighteria is Important

I've been struggling to describe to people why Nerdcon: Nerdfighteria mattered to me. And it wasn't the conference in particular that matters, although my experiences at the conference echoed my feelings about the community as a whole, but the fact that Nerdfighteria (the name for the community created by the vlogbrothers on YouTube) has deeply affected my life so far.

First, some basic information: John and Hank Green started their channel, the vlogbrothers, in 2007, each making videos so that they could communicate with one another. People started watching these videos and other channels were started because of them. Over the course of the last ten years, Hank and John have started numerous channels including How to Adult, SciShow, Crash Course, and Sexplanations. A community has formed around these videos, and this past weekend, approximately 4000 people gathered in Boston to celebrate this community. 

Back to why it matters: One of my favorite John Green quotes is, " nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness." And this is why I am proud to be a nerd. Because this community woks the way it does, I am unafraid to love the things that I love and to talk excitedly about them to people who love them too, much to the mockery of the outside world. 

I was lonely in middle and high school, and as silly as it may sound to you, youtube gave me people to come home to. During the days of the Five Awesome Girls, Mondays were awesome because they meant a new video from Kristina Horner, who is actually the first YouTube creator that I started watching. For all of high school, I looked forward to Tuesdays and Fridays (or whatever days John and Hank were uploading at the time), and heck, I still do look forward to Tuesdays and Fridays. And when I am lonely, all of these people are right there inside of my computer to provide me with inspiration or comfort. 

There's too many little stories I could tell about why YouTube content and community matters to me. I could talk about how whenever I am feeling down about chronic pain, I rewatch John's video On Pain or that after the election, Rosianna's videos and Taylor's videos were what kept me going (everything will be hyperlinked so you can go check them out) or that the Project for Awesome is my favorite time of the year. I'm not just a fan. These things are deeply woven in with my identity (keep an eye out for a blog post about Harry Potter as a Sacred Text), and without them, I think I would be a boring person to be around. Hannah Hart's words at the Mental Health Panel this weekend made me feel like it was okay to not be okay. You may not understand, and most people probably won't, but that doesn't mean that this matters any less to me, and as much as we spent lots of time this weekend looking back at the past ten years, there is still so much more yet to come. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

You Are Not Alone: A Manifesto For Misfit Toys

On the way home for February Break, I found myself listening to soundtrack of Dear Evan Hansen for the first time, and as I listened to two songs in particular, Disappear and You Will Be Found, I finally was able to put into words how I have been feeling for the past couple of weeks.  There are two messages that I took away from these songs--"You are not alone" and "You will be found".

Many people come to me with their problems--I'm not complaining. Helping people is exactly what I do. But so many of those people are afraid that their problems make them seem crazy or that people will run away if they know the truth that is hidden under the mask. But none of us, as unique and scary as our problems are alone. There will always be a friend or someone to remind you that you matter as much as you feel like the darkness is descending upon you.

And so these things I promise to you, and I hope you will promise these thing to one another as well as we bring ourselves together on an island of misfit toys (in no particular order):

1. I promise to not run away if you tell me something. I know you won't believe me the first time I say this, but I will say it over and over for years and years until you begin to get it through your head, that you can't shake me. I will stay no matter how bad it is, even if I don't know how to support you. You can't scare me away.

2. I will answer my phone in the middle of the night because let's be honest, I'm probably not asleep either.

3. I will reassure you that you are not alone as many times that you need and at all hours of the day.

4. I will love you no matter what. We are all broken in different ways. This is not said to minimize your problems because each person's problems are real to them. This is said to remind you that you can't shake me.

5. I will cut you some slack on the bad days. I will tell you that it's okay if you ate two pints of ice cream or skipped class. I will let you use me as a punching bag if it is too much.

6. I will never tell you to calm down or that your feelings are not valid. Those things aren't helpful, and I know how difficult it is to hear them. Sometimes we just think the same things over and over again because our brains aren't rational.

7. I will do my best to make you laugh in the hard moments. After all, laughter is the best way to kill the boggart.

8. I will take care of you if you need me to. In any way. All you have to do is ask, and if I know that you are struggling I will send you a text to check in. I will help to support you or find someone to support you when you cannot stand on your own.

9. I will hold you when you are scared of uncertainty or just to be alive. You can always count on me for a hug even if you don't want to tell me what is going on.

10. I promise that you are safe here. Your vulnerability will not be taken advantage of. I will sit with you through panic attacks or anything else that you are struggling with. I will hold your hand at the doctor's office. I will proofread your emails to your professors.I know the world is a scary place, full of judgement and triggers, but here, on our metaphorical island, you are safe with me and with all of our misfit toys.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Small Victories and Freedoms: Parshat BeShallach

This parsha is a famous one. We cross the Red Sea and rejoice that God has brought us out of Egypt and drowned the Egyptians with their horses who were pursuing us. But I want to pull three things out of this very famous portion that is only really known in broad strokes around Passover: carrying those who have passed away with us, God's guidance, and joy.

At the beginning of the portion, when the Israelites are preparing to leave Egypt, Moses takes Joseph's bones out of the ground so that Joseph can leave Egypt with his people as it was meant to be from the oath that he swore. And we can take our ancestors and those we have lost with us as well. There's a quote, from Harry Potter, of course, that says that the "ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them," so whether you believe that those we have loved and lost are looking down on us from some sort of afterlife or if they are held in our hearts and in our actions and in the love that we give others, as Moses took Joseph's bones, the core essence of him, with the Israelites as they left slavery, we can take those people with us as we march, as we love, and as we live our every day lives.

Second, in a world that seems a little bit messy (okay, maybe a little is a tad bit of an understatement),  it's hard to think about God guiding us in a simple way as God does in this parsha. God "goes before" them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, so that the Israelites never lose their way in the wilderness. There doesn't seem to be so much of a guiding cloud or light at this moment, so I think we have to find that guidance in ourselves, in our prayers, in our friends, our mentors. I know that for me, many of the people I look up to have been my guiding pillars: they have shown me that it is possible to go the way that I want to go coming from the place I was afraid would close that door. So maybe God is showing Godself by guiding us, we just aren't looking for it in the right place. In my opinion, we should be looking for God in each other because after all, aren't we all made in the image of God?

A few weeks ago, a few days before the inauguration of our 45th president, I watched a video that was entitled Joy is a form of Protest, made by a lovely Youtuber who was struggling, as many of us are, to figure out how to take care of ourselves in this new world, and this parsha, especially the Song of the Sea, Shirat HaYam, reminded me of this idea of joy. Joy seems pretty hard to find these days. Turn on any news network, open any social media feed, it's all bad news, but I think we need to start looking for the joy, looking for the small Yitziot Mitzrayim, exoduses from Egypt. Celebrating the small victories like finishing a paper or helping a friend with a problem or getting to spend Shabbat free of all the bad news and just celebrating with those around us. I don't know if we are going to get an Exodus on the scale of the Torah anytime soon, all I know is that we have to try to find some joy while we fight for freedom.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Yad Vashem, Har Herzl, and How We Think About Memory

Human memories are not always the most accurate. We idealize the past often, but we also sometimes tend to horrorize it, especially those times that are times of tragedy. On one of our last days in Israel, we went to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem which triggered a longer train of thought for me: How do we remember the Holocaust (or other deaths or tragedies for that matter) without forgetting to celebrate life? One of the things that I like about The Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner's Kaddish, is that it does not mention death. Instead, it is all about celebrating life and praising God for life.

And that's what I learned in the first room of Yad Vashem. We need to remember that the people who were killed in this horrific tragedy were people just like you and me. They had their own cultures, music, food, tradition, and relationships. They are not the bodies found at Auschwitz or the emaciated  people in the camps. We collectively decide what we want to remember about these people. Most Holocaust museums show more of the death and less of the life, and I don't know how I feel about that.

Later that same afternoon, we visited Har Herzl, Israel's military cemetery which, at the top of the hill, the Har, has the grave of Theodore Herzl, a man who was incredibly significant in the imagining of the state of Israel. But as one walks down the hill, passing the graves of past prime ministers, one comes to the graves of the ordinary people who were killed in battle, and there are a lot of them, and more and more are added. Sometimes, when we are not confronted with these kind of things, instead of with just the numbers on a page. Only we forget about the complexity of the lives of every single person. I just think we should think long and hard about who and what we remember and why. And we must not forget to remember not only those in our own lives, but those who are in danger of being forgotten.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Don't Tell Me How To Feel: What Not to Say: Mental Health Edition

"Of course it is happening in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
-Albus Dumbledore

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about what not to say to people with chronic illness. You can go read that here if you missed it, but here, I want to talk about mental illness more specifically. Now I'm not a psychologist, but I've been living with mental illness for a quite a few years now, and I have a couple of things to say(and not to say).

1. Don't Say:  "That doesn't make sense; your meeting/presentation will go fine. Don't worry about it"
Anxiety is a green little monster (why green I have no idea) that claws its way around my body especially during times of transition or anticipation. It doesn't matter how many times the logical part of my brain tells the monster that nothing is wrong. I don't need you to tell me that nothing is actually wrong or that I will get my work done because I know that. I am very well aware that I am freaking out over nothing, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm freaking out. Also, I'm going to hazard a guess that the person hat you are talking to knows that even if they don't finish the research paper or embarrass themselves at a meeting, things will turn out okay in the end. The problem is convince the green little monster of that.
Say: "Your feelings are valid. I know that the anticipation is the hardest part."
Anxiety and depression are mean. They are monsters inside of your body, controlling your thoughts, coopting your brain as you try to fight them back with every coping skill that you have. Anxiety also feeds on uncertainty, so the certainty of having a friend/mentor/colleague who is validating is unbelievable helpful. It is positively terrifying to feel as if you are not in control of your own brain; if fact, it makes you feel like you belong in an insane asylum. Recognizing the validity of someone's feelings can make all the difference.

2. Don't Say: "Wow, you really have it all. There's no way you could have depression/anxiety/panic disorder. "
I might be too good at hiding the fact that I struggle with mental illness. So good in fact that a lot of people don't believe me when I talk about, and this may be because I tend to talk about it with a smile on my face, but I AM NOT SUPERWOMAN. Noone is. On the outside, I work very hard, but some of that hard work is fueled by anxiety and insomnia. Everyone including the one with the sparkly eyeshadow and beautiful planner can still be hurting inside. Telling someone that they "have it all" takes away their ability to have a "bad day" and feel okay about staying home from work.
Say: "Great job on that program/presentation. I'm really impressed with how you got so much done."
Complimenting one tangible thing is nice, and it removes the pressure of every part of me having to be "pretty to the public." I can run a great program, and then go home and cry for no reason. Sure, that's not the most pleasant experience, but it's better than feeling like a fraud because everyone thinks that you are perfect.

3. Don't Say: "I don't think I can handle talking to you about this. Are you talking to a professional about this?"
First of all, I know that this one almost always comes from someone who loves me. I assume that it is said out of fear of losing me or whoever you are talking to. These things are scary to talk about, but even scarier to feel. And yes, if the person is a danger to themselves or others, by all means, get them professional help. But, if the person who you were talking to felt alone beforehand (which, spoiler alert, they probably did because mental illness tends to do that), you just made them feel even more isolated. This one especially irks me when it is said by those in caring professions or who have offered to "be there no matter what."
Note: This one can also be communicated in uncomfortable looks or body language. These things are just as bad.
Say: "I don't know how to be most helpful in this situation. What would be best for you?"
Professional help is important, for me as well as many people who struggle with mental illness; non-professional help or help in a different context is also super important because it makes me feel like you care. Having these kinds of people in my life is what has kept me here. They are the ones who were shoulders for me to cry on or sounding boards at the end of a crappy day.

It's okay to not know what to do. It's just not okay to make me, or anyone else who is struggling feel more alone. So ask. It's as simple as that. Maybe all the person needs is a cup of coffee or a hug, or someone to sit there and tell them that they made it this far and they should be proud of themselves.

4. Don't Say: "That happened weeks ago. Why are you still thinking about it?"
Have you ever tried to control your thoughts? It's freaking hard, and if I could, I would. Now imagine doing so with little monsters running around trying to make you think about all of your mistakes or losses or problems that happened in the past. Pain is pain. It takes time, and you can never know what underlying issues the person has that are affecting how they are feeling. There is no timer on feelings--although oh my goodness, that would be amazing.
Say: "I know it still hurts. I'm here for you with whatever you need."
It hurts because it mattered. I can't change how I feel about whatever happened. It still hurts. The validation of my feelings is really helpful in and of itself. Additionally, some mental illness characterizes itself with repetitive thinking patterns, so I will have the same thoughts over and over again against my will, no matter how hard I try to stop them.

Thank you so much for reading. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Monday, January 16, 2017

On Freedom: Thinking about Religion and Race

Every year, I struggle with what to think or do on MLK Day. This day is not about me. It has never been. Posting MLK quotes on Facebook seems inconsequential. So I do my best to listen to those around me, and to stand with Black Lives Matter and other organizations that are fighting for freedom. On Friday night, I listened to my Rabbi talk about the fight for freedom that MLK strived for. I listened to rabbis speak about social justice, but none of it felt right. But when I was cleaning my room when I came back to school, I happened upon my copy of Religion and Race, an essay by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, written in 1963. Before I even got to the essay, I saw a quote from Ruth Messinger that I had written at the top: "We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. " We do not have the luxury of being overwhelmed. I kept reading.

And as I reread this essay, having only looked at it a few months prior, I found greater meaning. Perhaps it is because we are about to swear in a president who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Heschel speaks of the responsibility that we, as religious people, have to right racism which he equates to satanism. He asks the question of "How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt." And I found myself asking, how many? How many shootings? How many have to die before we start paying attention and fighting for justice? We are taught in Judaism that we shall not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, so why aren't we fighting? Heschel speaks about a "leap of action," a move in the exact opposite direction of what is easy to do what is right. We must push the arc of the world toward justice as much as we can.

I thought about empowerment and remembered something a rabbi said about telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps after they have lost faith in themselves and lost hope. I think about how to empower by listening, to empower in a way that is not patronizing or condescending. And in terms of this, I want other peoples' input. I am here. I am present, but I don't know what to do. Heschel was writing a long time, making his words about religion and race more and more potent. I will continue to pursue justice and to keep my eyes and ears open, and I will do my best, in a world that feels broken beyond repair, to build this world from love.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Wincing My Way Down Masada: Chronic Illness in Israel

Day 2 of the 10 day trip: I got up in the morning, screwed around on my phone because the kibbutz we were staying on at that point had good internet, took a shower, taped my feet to protect the sores on the bottoms of them, went to breakfast, stood up, felt a sharp pain in my left hip, sat back down, took Advil and continued with my day. When someone asked me if I was okay, all I said was this: "That's just what decided to hurt today." I did Birthright Israel, a ten day trip for Jewish 18-25 year olds, and I did it with chronic pain.

I want to make a point of saying this: I didn't have any pain-free days on this trip, although some were certainly easier than others. And I haven't had any pain-free days at any point in the past (that I can remember at least). I am not saying this to ask for your pity; I am saying this because I want to make it clear that I am writing this blog post to be open about my own life with the hope that this might make someone who is considering not going on Birthright due to a chronic illness reconsider their decision. It was by no means easy, but it was absolutely worth it.

Chronic illness, especially while traveling with a large group of people, is complicated. You don't have much time to yourself, meaning that it's very hard to hide how you are feeling, and you get a lot of questions if you wear any of the signs of pain on the outside. Additionally, there is a constant struggle between the desire to take in every experience and push yourself to have as much fun as possible in the limited time that you have and the need to take care of yourself and not end up crying on a park bench due to pain, mental or physical. And I am by no means an expert at balancing these two things, although I am a little bit proud that I didn't actually sit out of anything substantial on this trip due to pain. In some ways, I was lucky that I only had to deal with chronic pain. I know how to deal with chronic pain (at least that's what I tell myself), but a large amount of my trip did get the flu and have to sit out of things. I think it comes down to this: the pain you can deal with is also the pain that you have gotten used to. I don't like having to deal with chronic pain, but it's a fact of my life, and I now know, that if I can make it down Masada, I can make it through anything with my beautiful, broken body.

End Note: Thank you thank you thank you to Tamar Brendzel and Cindy Spungin, the chaperones on my trip for bearing with me when the pain was too bad to walk, for asking how I was doing at periodic intervals and just making sure that I felt supported and okay with how I was feeling for the whole trip. I can't thank either of you enough.