‘It was very difficult to put on a brave face’

‘It was very difficult to put on a brave face’

'There were some days where I could not see any light at the end of the tunnel. A horrible feeling of hopelessness'.

Rabbi Shmuel Karnowsky.
Rabbi Shmuel Karnowsky.

LAST Rosh Hashanah, moments before the blowing of the shofar, I stood at my pulpit and in front of 800 people bared my soul and shared something very personal.

It wasn’t an easy decision and in the weeks leading up to yom tov I entertained thoughts such as, “Is it appropriate for a rabbi to be vulnerable in front of his congregation?”, “What if I’d be perceived as weak?” and “They may now look at me differently.”

All valid points perhaps, but my heart told me otherwise, and the overwhelming positive response, both immediately and for months after, justified the decision to talk about it then and my decision to put it in writing now.

I shared my then recent five-month mental and emotional struggle. A period during which I was emotionally and physically exhausted all the time, yet unable to sleep. I had lost any and all enthusiasm and motivation to do anything. I became cynical and my confidence and self-esteem were at an all-time low.

It was very difficult to put on a brave face to show up to minyan or to officiate at a wedding or funeral, as I had no desire to be anywhere or hang out with anyone.

There were some days where I could not see any light at the end of the tunnel. A horrible feeling of hopelessness.

All this obviously took a toll on my life, my relationships and job performance.

It became evident that I was experiencing severe burnout and exhaustion as a result of several things including compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. I now know this is not uncommon among rabbis and care givers in general.

As a communal rabbi, I’m exposed to the hardship, pain, trauma and suffering of others on an almost daily basis and I was not handling these issues appropriately. Self-care was not a major priority and the cost of caring caught up with me. I was pouring from an empty cup.

Thankfully, with the wonderful support I received and continue to receive from my dear wife Rivki, from my psychologist, my shule board, colleagues and others – for which I’ll be forever grateful – I am, thank G-d, much better and feeling great. 

I continue to monitor my physical and mental health and have put measures and boundaries in place to remain at an optimal level of strength to be able to be there for myself, my family, my congregation and community. I remind myself often that I can do meaningful work in a way that works for me and for those I am here to support. I can and will make a difference, without suffering. 

This experience, while I don’t wish it on anyone, has been a blessing in disguise on numerous levels. 

I’ve learnt many things about myself and about life in general, but first and foremost I now value the importance of being proactive, not reactive, when it comes to looking after my mental health.

As a result, things like mindfulness practices, physical exercise, leisure time, eating properly and listening to music are now crucial parts of my life, allowing me to be aware of my thoughts, feelings and emotions. 

This journey has also enabled me, as a family man, rabbi and police chaplain, to relate to others on a much deeper level and empathise with those going through similar experiences, with a better understanding of how I can be of assistance.

What I’ve also discovered since sharing my story is how prevalent mental health struggles are in our community. So many people, men and women, young and old, super successful people and those trying to make ends meet, have reached out to me over the last 12 months to share their current or past struggles. It’s a part of life.

Because if we’re honest, in between our smiley photos, perfect dinners and exciting check-ins that we post on social media, everyone has times when they feel discouraged, insecure or broken. 

We may try to pretend that we are more whole than we really are, because unfortunately there is still stigma and shame associated with mental health. It is hard for us to be vulnerable and authentic and it’s difficult for us to share our pain. It’s also easy to feel that we will never properly fit in and live full and happy lives.

Well, it’s high time we smashed the stigma and the shame, it’s time we stop judging people and it’s time we changed the narrative. 

“Man up!” “Stop being soft!” “Suck it up!” “Snap out of it!” “Get over it!” are things we hear all too often and they can and do destroy lives.

We need to give ourselves and each other the permission to embrace and acknowledge our struggles and to know that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

There is no shame in talking about our mental health openly, there is no shame in reaching out for support, there is no shame in seeing a psychologist, there is no shame in taking medication and there is no shame in having a bad day, week, month or year. 

Just last week we listened to the call of the Shofar – the powerful and complete sound of the Tekiah and the broken and sobbing sounds of the Teruah and Shevarim, representing those elements in our lives which are complete, as well as those which are broken.

These awesome days remind us and indeed encourage us to confront our brokenness and our battles. Because when we do, we will discover our Tekiah Gedolah – strength and confidence along with hope, light and healing, allowing us to flourish and live meaningful and joyful lives.

May the Almighty bless us all with a year of good health, physically, mentally and emotionally, with peace of mind, courage and clarity and a year in which we are surrounded by loving family and real friendships, with genuine joy and opportunities to celebrate.

Rabbi Shmuel Karnowsky is rabbi of Elwood Hebrew Congregation.

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