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Facing Life as One

By: Yossi Simonds

Published in Mishpacha Magazine, June 27, 2012

For nearly 18 years, Yossi and his wife Goldy have enjoyed a committed, vibrant marriage. They lead a normal life of paying the rent and bills and keeping up with their friends. And they do it all despite their joint struggles with mental illness. Every Shabbos morning in shul, you can hear the rav or gabbai announce the Bircas HaCholim, a tefillah for the sick. It is safe to say that all the names mentioned refer to sufferers of physiological illnesses.

But what of mental illnesses?

Are those sufferers mentioned in the weekly Mi Shebeirach l’choleh? One in 12 people suffers from some type of an episodic, acute, or chronic mental illness, and requires the same refuah. What prevents us from praying for them? Is it that we don’t know any such person? Could it be that we forget?

The most likely answer is stigma.

As a community and as a society we are more comfortable and more accepting of medical illnesses than of mental illnesses. We can wrap our arms around a medical condition, we can find the right words, the best doctor or hospital. We can relate to a time frame of recuperation from surgery or other event. Not so with a mental illness. Many still cannot find the right words, and others don’t fully understand the difference between schizophrenia and personality disorder or bipolar and anxiety disorder. Stigma is when we are too uncomfortable to openly confront our own anxieties and fears and too embarrassed to admit that we would prefer not to be with, live next door to, or permit our children to marry into a family where there is a history of mental illness. Stigma is viewing a person by their diagnosis rather than by their achievements. Yossi Simonds is an accomplished writer and poet, a man who is true to his work, his friends, his religion, and most importantly, his wife, Goldy. They have been living in an apartment under OHEL’s auspices for 18 years. Yossi and Goldy are a wonderful, happy couple. They both have a diagnosis of mental illness. People with disabilities are our nextdoor neighbors. They work in our supermarkets, our offices, and our warehouses. They learn daf yomi. They enjoy a walk in the park or dinner with friends. They have the same life span and suffer the same physical and medical problems. Too often, they also suffer from an extra malady called stigma. It is a malady given to them by man, not G-d. But I’ve seen that these men and women can develop social relationships that may lead to marriage and the fulfillment of dreams — just as we all wish for ourselves and our children. Yossi and Goldy are one such couple.  See for yourselves.  When I first came to live in the OHEL men’s residence in the winter of 1985, I was, in the words of one of my mother’s friends (who was a Vietnam veteran), “shell-shocked.” I would just lie in bed and would avoid all conversation with my fellow residents. My roommate, Isaac P., however, was in a different place in his life. He would arise every morning promptly at 7 a.m.; don his tefillin, swiftly pray; and go off to his daily job in a workshop. Silently, I would watch him from the cocoon of my bed, taking in his impressive zeal. But I could never admit that to him. One day I got up the courage to get out of bed and tell him that if he continued at this rate, he might even someday get married. He responded emphatically, “Get married! I mean, just look at me! Who in the world would marry me?!” Here it is almost 30 years later, and I have been married to my lovely wife, Goldy, for nearly 18 years. For eight years, I have been working as a peer specialist helping other people with mental illness. My wife and I lead a “normal” life of paying the rent, the bills, and just spent an overnight vacation in a fancy hotel in Times Square. As for Isaac P., my zealous roommate, I see him every once in a while; he still lives in the residence, but has come a long way since our “salad days” and still has his job. In fact, there’s a metaphor in Chassidus that describes what seems to be his meager progress: When the shadow of a streetlamp moves a few inches, it means that the sun has moved a million miles. After all, who knows what it takes for someone with chronic mental illness like Isaac to motivate himself and to get up early in the morning, or to go consistently to a day program, or to go to group therapy, or even to go on a date? On the subject of these kinds of marriages, I am only half an expert. My wife, Goldy, is the other half. Interestingly, in a few ways, we are almost opposites. I grew up in a suburban, Middle American, New England home. My family would routinely feast on lobster and clams; would celebrate the Fourth of July amid bottles of beer and fireworks; and I was quite the literary scholar in school. Of course it all changed one day when I was strolling on a college campus and someone asked me if I was Jewish. A kind of war waged in my brain until I just said, “yes.” The rest is history. Goldy, on the other hand, was raised in an Orthodox environment by her parents, who were Holocaust survivors. She is fluent in Yiddish (and not too bad in Hebrew). Her parents were flexible and caring due to her illness as she grew into womanhood. And so it was that we both came to the OHEL home here in Boro Park. At that time the men’s home and the ladies’ home were next door to each other. One Erev Lag B’Omer, Goldy, who hardly knew me, approached me outside the home to ask me if she could accompany me to the parade in Crown Heights. “I didn’t feel it was right for a lady to ask a man out on a date,” she later confessed. “But my counselor told me, ‘Come on, Goldy, it’s 1990!’ ” I knew right then and there, on that day in May, that it was destiny. Even as we walked to the subway, I felt sure we would be together. Four years later we were married. 

Compliance Is Key

I am often asked how we have persevered over the years and how we’ve weathered many emotional obstacles. Of course there is no easy answer. As anyone with a diagnosis knows, the way back to wellness and recovery is fraught with pitfalls. My wife and I, both of whom have a diagnosis of mental illness, strongly believe that only adherence to treatment — adherence in a strict sense — can restore health and allow a sufferer to lead a life of major responsibilities. Routine, a concept that seems alien to the life of a person struggling with symptoms, must play a key role. The whole discipline of treatment, including therapy, medication, doctor’s advice, etc., must be the foundation of recovery. The word “compliance” has acquired a bad reputation lately, what with the advent of “consumer-based” treatment options in the field of mental health. To be sure, such innovations as the WRAP plan, in which consumers plot their own course to wellness, are both groundbreaking and inspiring. However, my wife and I feel that any departure from the wisdom and mentoring of a working treatment team, including the full gamut of support from professionals, as well as peers, can obstruct the attainment of life goals, of which work and marriage are the pinnacles. The area of socialization, in particular the prospect of dating and finding a mate, is a good example. A young Jewish man may think that it is far more important to sit and learn Torah than to navigate the unfamiliar currents of a shidduch. A young Jewish woman may feel strongly that an exciting night out to a restaurant is far more important than going to a shiur or visiting the sick. The truth is that as they say, it takes two to tango and that both young man and young woman need work out a routine of compromise when it comes to these issues. When a chronically mentally ill person finally decides that he or she is going to comply with treatment, which is really a life-or-death decision, that decision can determine the possibility of the attainment of the goals that, for the mentally ill, can really make life worthwhile, such as symptoms management, employment, and, yes, even marriage.

Better Together

Goldy and I have struggled for many years with our illnesses. With the support of therapists, medication, family in-patient and out-patient treatment, and our support at OHEL, we can honestly say, we are doing well. We are happily married. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, the institution of marriage was under attack, considered both outdated and even unnecessary. However, in the 90s and afterwards, it has made a big comeback. Even for those segments of society that, in the past, never considered it or even mocked it, it has become the banner issue of the day. These days, everybody wants to get “hitched.” I recently had the chance to sit down and talk to Moshe S., who, together with his wife, Tzipporah, lives in an OHEL-supported apartment. They met at the OHEL Simcha Program, which is an initiative to help make it easier for OHEL men and women to socialize and ultimately marry. When asked why he wanted to get married, Moshe readily quotes Chazal. “It’s not good for a person to be alone. I had dated for many years but I had a mental illness and had a hard time getting a shidduch. I always felt that my mission — my purpose — was to get married. It was something to strive for.” Moshe and Tzipporah didn’t have to worry much about the logistics of the wedding, since OHEL and the Simcha Program took care of everything except the ring. The real challenge is daily life after the crowds go home. “We try to help one another; when one is down, the other helps the other up,” Moshe explains the dynamics of their relationship. “When I was in low spirits and couldn’t get out of bed, my wife took away my pillow and blanket. And I support her by making sure she takes her meds and eats right. We do good deeds together, like visiting the sick. Bikur Cholim recommended we visit an elderly lady and I sing Shabbos songs while the lady sings along. Tzipporah chats with her and makes her feel less alone.” Tzipporah remembers a phone call with Rebbetzin Jungreis about five years ago, when she was feeling upset. The Rebbetzin advised her to “take it [the phone] off the hook, put on a pretty dress, and daven.” Moshe takes a cue from Rabbi Shalom Arush, a Breslover chassid and marriage counselor. “He gives a lot of good advice,” Moshe asserts. “For example, if it is a matter of shalom bayis, it’s more important to learn less and to make the woman realize that she’s the most important person in your life.” Moshe repeats that a marriage will work out “as long as you realize she’s the most important person in your life.” “When I was in low spirits and couldn’t get out of bed, my wife took away my pillow and blanket. And I support her by making sure she takes her meds and eats right”

No Bed of Roses

Sometimes things can go very wrong in these marriages, and it’s incumbent upon us to summon all of our courage to deal with them. Pinchas K., one of my closest friends, is trying to cope while his wife has been in physical rehabilitation at a nursing home in Flatbush for over a year. The two of them met over 25 years ago at the Midtown School of Business. She was studying accounting and he was studying business. Pinchas remembers, “We met in the cafeteria. I asked if I could sit down and, bingo! It just worked.” Now Pinchas is all alone in his apartment with no one to talk to except his cat. “It’s hard,” he admits. “I have no one and I need someone to walk with me to shul. Often I daven Shacharis at home. Learning Torah helps take my mind off of things. The computer also helps” (he likes to log on to Aish.com). And he tries to hold on to his Jewish sense of humor. Actually, it wasn’t always a bed of roses for Goldy and myself either. About ten years ago I got sick, was hospitalized, and I even asked for a divorce. The OHEL staff supported Goldy through that period and she never complained or even got angry. She just stood by me and eventually I came back — not just to her, but to a healthy life. What it all comes down to, ultimately, is love. To talk about marriage, especially for the mentally ill, is to focus on two people caring for each other much more than for themselves. In this way we are no different from anyone in the world. And our symptoms, like hanging clouds, seem to disappear when faced with the strong sunshine of affection. The warmth of a spouse’s caring and concern melts away the malignant feelings of self-hatred and hopelessness. Like a shining star, it helps illuminate the darkness of the universe. —

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