Teen Dani, an eleventh grader, shared her journey mental health journey to an overflowing synagogue on Yom Kippur. Her honesty – raw and real – blew open a conversation about mental illness, suicide and depression. Then, Rabbi Paul Kipnes challenged Congregation Or Ami to lift the veil of silence to speak openly and honestly about mental illness (read his sermon). Dani’s mother, Debby, also spoke about her appreciation that the congregation and its clergy offered deep support for their daughter (read Debby’s words).
Confessions from the Edge of a Cliff: My Teen Mental Health Journey
by Dani, an 11th grader
Hope is a powerful thing. Hope inspires change. Hope – hatikva – is the reason our Jewish people have survived and thrived in this hostile world for so long. Hope is the ability to look past the darkness of the present and see a brighter future. But when a person loses hope, loses that ability to imagine an eventuality in which anything could ever be alright, it becomes difficult to go on.
I know this because I barely survived four years living without hope. For those four years, I was stuck alone in a dark, empty room, seriously contemplating just getting up and checking out before I realized that those who loved me – my friends, my parents, my rabbis – were only a phone call away. It is an experience I would not wish on anyone, and one I wish never to repeat.
It all began when I was ten years old. The day before the start of middle school, I cried for two hours straight. Middle school, I was convinced, would be a horror of puberty and schoolwork and growing up comparable to hell. In sixth grade, I was hit with a world that I was unprepared for. Some of the teachers seemed cold and unhappy compared my elementary school teachers. The campus was enormous and crowded with scary older children, and the friends I had so adored in elementary school wandered off and found other people. I quickly became wound so tightly that even the smallest stressor would send me crying.
I convinced myself that … no one would answer my call
Seventh grade wasn’t much better. I became friends with someone who was skilled at getting people to feel sorry for themselves and I found myself caught in a world I had created in my own mind where I was the victim of circumstance. I convinced myself that, even if I were to ask for help, no one would answer my call. The resulting loneliness and the idea that I was unloved banished hope from my head altogether. As far as I was concerned, I was condemned to live life alone and unhappy. I remember deciding then to leave my darkened world. Though only twelve years old, I was convinced that I would not live to see my next birthday.
In eighth grade, I was at my worst. I had just returned from a month of almost pure bliss at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where I felt cherished by an amazingly caring group of friends, and made memories that warmed my heart. But when I returned to middle school, I was tired all the time, somehow incapable of getting enough sleep to satisfy my brain. I quit basketball and singing, and withdrew from other activities that I had once loved. My friendships at school collapsed for reasons I never managed to fully figure out.
I was on the edge of a cliff, coming very close to falling off
I isolated myself from my mom, the most selfless and fiercely loving person I have ever met. Although she devotedly checked in constantly to make certain I was okay, how was she supposed to distinguish between normal teenage angst and the darkness that was consuming me? Hope was nowhere to be found. I was on the edge of a cliff, and I came very close to falling off.
Somehow, I managed to ask myself if there was another way that I should be living and I pulled myself far enough out of the fog of the depression to cry out for help. Working up that courage is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but, in a moment of desperation one evening, I managed to text Rabbi Paul Kipnes: “I need to talk with you.” He set up a meeting right away.
I asked Rabbi Paul about the meaning of life. Thankfully he probed deeply, and with the love and care he has shown for me for well over a decade, I soon found myself pouring out my darkness and my depression. I confessed that I thought I was going to take my own life.
My rabbi help me find a way to share my pain
My rabbi listened for a long time. With his tireless patience, I slowly managed to find for myself a beam of hope. He helped me find a way to share my pain with my parents. And, from what I now understand, he helped my parents be able to hear my pain, and take my words seriously. Talking about my feelings and the thoughts in my mind was scary and uncertain, but at that moment in my rabbi’s office, I caught my first glimpse of hope in years.
Getting better wasn’t an immediate thing. Healing took lots of tearful conversations with my tireless and devoted Mommy and Papa, and more words of encouragement from Rabbi Paul and Rabbi Julia Weisz than I can count. But despite the difficulties, the setbacks, and the struggles to find myself and to find hope, I have learned to recognize that I am not alone and have established Hope as a permanent resident of my mind.
As my treatment progressed, I came to realize how crucial communication is. I learned how to talk about what I was feeling and to articulate what I needed. Becoming willing to speak without feeling ashamed was liberating, and allowed me to embark on what I believe for me is the next step of recovery: helping others.
It has become painfully apparent to me that there is no shortage of people in need.
Over 20% of students … have seriously considered suicide
Mental illness is an epidemic, especially in young adults my age. Adults too. About ten to fifteen percent of American teenagers are experiencing symptoms of depression at any given time. Every year, Las Virgenes Unified School District puts out a “Healthy Kids Survey” for its middle and high school students to take. Last year, over twenty percent of the students wrote that they have seriously considered suicide. Twenty percent!
As difficult as healing was for me, my awareness of the greater problem at hand opened my eyes to the fact that my own recovery was not the end of the road. All around me, my friends are struggling similarly to find their voices to cry for help even though they are unsure they will be heard.
Here at Congregation Or Ami, we stress the importance of Henaynu, of being here for one another through rough times. In the spirit of henaynu, Rabbi Julia invited me to design and lead a mental health workshop for teens at the Triple T teen retreat last fall. Although I had spoken privately about my journey with depression, the Triple T Retreat was my first public acknowledgment of the darkness I had lived through. Partnering with a compassionate therapist, I led a program that opened up important conversations. I have since shared this workshop at other camps and youth groups and even spoken about it at Brown University’s Leadership Institute.
The gift of Rabbi Julia’s confidence in me coupled with such a safe and accepting environment in which to go public with my mental health story has given my life direction. I advise people: if you are trying to help yourself or help others, talk about the parts of mental illnesses that are not supposed to be “okay” to talk about. Reach out to an adult, a teacher, a rabbi. Talk loudly and talk a lot, because communication is first step on the path to healing.
We gave everyone our rabbis’ cell phone numbers
Our rabbis and our Cantor Doug Cotler, and the other amazing staff at Congregation Or Ami, want us to know that we are not alone, and that this congregation is a family that will support us through dark times. The support that they offer is not just smoke and mirrors. It will not disappear when called upon. The love and concern they feel and demonstrate can change lives and, when necessary, save them.
On that Triple T Teen retreat, we gave everyone our rabbis’ cell phone numbers to put into their phones for when they need them. I have learned that by extending the priceless resource of our rabbis’ time and compassion, we have helped many of my peers reach out for the help they needed. For me and for so many teens at Or Ami, the love that we were so freely given by our community was pivotal in my recovery.
Rabbi Paul, Rabbi Julia, Cantor Doug, this synagogue, our youth advisors, and my youth group peers all showed me that I was (and still am) deeply respected and loved by a great many people. They taught me that I have the capability not only to save my own life, but to help others do the same for themselves. I am not helpless, and I am no longer hopeless. For that, I am forever grateful.
G’mar chatimah tova. May we all be sealed for a blessing in the Book of Life.
Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) is the proud recipient of a major grant from the LA Jewish Teen Initiative’s Focus on Teen Wellness, co-funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jim Joseph Foundation with seed funding provided by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. We are inspired in this work by the Ruderman Foundation and the Union for Reform Judaism. We are transforming our synagogue into a safe space for all, training our staff, clergy, and faculty to see more clearly the pain within our families, and teaching the teens and pre-teens useful techniques for shmirat haguf v’hanefesh, caring for their precious bodies, minds and souls.
To learn more about Congregation Or Ami’s project, Shmirat Haguf v’Hanefesh: Caring for the Teenage Body, Mind and Soul, contact Rabbinic Intern Julie Bressler.
A final reminder: If you know Dani’s family and want to share words of support with them, please do. Otherwise, Dani and her family request that you post questions and stories about your journey with mental health and wellness here, or be in touch with Rabbi Paul Kipnes directly. Thank you for respecting their privacy and journey.