Story of How a Psychiatrist Used Jewish Spirituality To End a Serious Depression

Have you ever felt almost unrecognizable to yourself? Like a cartoon character whose several sheets of transparencies had gotten out of alignment? Just like in the many stories of dysfunctional families in the Torah, in the torah of your life have you also wandered in a wilderness state of consciousness?  

After an initial burst of joyful life energy at freeing myself from a marriage sadly gone toxic, I had tail spun into appropriate mourning and then plummeted into an acute depression. Couldn't even pick up a mug and move it from one side of a plate to another?

Losses upon losses, all unanticipated, were mounting up as the institutions and patterns that had governed my life each let go like ropes breaking off a ship in port during a storm.                                                                                                       

The Viennese psychotherapist to whom I took myself, wondering if institutionalization was in order, he . . . well  . . .  he chuckled. "Zo, I haf good news. You haf not the endogenous depression.  You haf the reactive depression." 

Me: "Doctor, what does that mean!?"

Doctor: "My dear, it means you earned it."

He looked at me over his unlit pipe, goatee twitching and wrote two prescriptions. "In Jewish tradition we are told to keep a piece of paper in one pocket which reads ‘I am nothing but dust and ashes' and in the other pocket a slip that reads: ‘The whole world was created just for me.' Yah?" 

Me (hesitantly): "Yahhh."

His blue eyes bore down on me, "Here is a prescription for Prozac (antidepressant) for one pocket and Zanax (anti-anxiety) for the other. If you fill them, you will come see me weekly. Yah? For medical supervision. Yah? $125 per session. Yah?"

Herr Doctor continued: "Or, perhaps you will try a remedy which is also in our tradition, that of finding one hundred blessings in every day. When you torment yourself with certain circular thought patterns, around and around, begin to notice what you are doing to yourself. Then, interrupt the thoughts by asking, ‘How can I bless this day? What can I bless about today?' Perhaps even something right in front of you - a flower, a kindness, a scientific discovery appearing in the news, perhaps simply bless the existence of butterflies.” 

“My dear rabbi, find a hundred blessings in each day! And, should this work, maybe give a little tzedakah, ‘donation’  somewhere in my name in honor of your accomplishment and savings to your pocket book. It is also the case that your body can get stuck in the chemistry of depression. That would be very serious and require medical attention that could save your life. Zo, after some time, you may require these medications to help you emerge once the depression has done its work.  I leave the decision for now in your hands."

His rare wisdom in treating me at the level of soul shaped my days. We never met again. I cultivated a phrase to use whenever obsessive thoughts about my soon to be wasband or concerns about the trauma to our children would start up again.  I chose the words  Ma ah-vah-reyh? -  “What will I bless?” Then I would utter this phrase and look about for something, no matter how trivial, to bless.

One day during this process I noticed something strange about my laundry. My usual parrot-like attire was no where to be seen. Every item was black - black pants, black shirts, black socks, black yarmulka. Color began to reenter my life with each moment of finding a blessing. It was as though the blessings functioned like a magic wand, restoring my color vision and joie de vivre.  Energy began to dawn anew.

Writing this seven years after that visit with the therapist, I'm in a new marriage and the power of blessings is still working.  My hubbatzin Barry and I find many intervals to bless life and each other. Even on days of great interpersonal wrestling, we hold hands at the beginning of a meal and find something to bless about the moment. "Blessed is the Source of Life which gives us companionship, song birds, art museums, insight . . . " We fill in whatever feels right from the day.

After our creative blessing formulation we add a blessing for others: "May all those who labored in the fields, and trucks, and stores and kitchens to bring this food to our table be blessed very soon to eat as well as we do."  We usually continue with a formal blessing, which has taken on a spiritual translation form for us that looks like this, based on the teaching of Gikatilla, 14th Century, in his book Shaarei Ora

Baruch Atah Adonai                                                    
Bending my knee at the Pond of Blessings 

Eloheynu Melech ha-Olam                                                       
Our G*d-sense, Governing Principle of eternity

ha motzei lechem min ha aretz                                   
bringing forth bread (sustenance) from the land. (MIRACULOUS!)