Why Depression and Anxiety Made Me Leave My Post as a Rabbi
Sixteen years ago, I graduated from seminary and was ordained a rabbi. My wife and I immediately moved to upstate New York where I served a large congregation. Nine years later, I left my post at the congregation and left behind my role as a member of the clergy, at least professionally. As with anybody else, my work history comes up in conversation on occasion. And when it does, people are usually caught off-guard when they learn my little secret. Really, it’s not a secret, but I never advertise my title.
People always want to know why I am no longer committed to the life of a cleric. I usually joke that I was disbarred or dishonorably discharged, and then I simply tell people I decided politics are not for me. That is a half-truth, as telling a brand new acquaintance that the role proved to be a constant trigger for my depression and anxiety might kill the conversation on the spot. But that is my truth which I share with almost nobody. It has been over seven years since I left, and I only just recently shared this with my closest friend, who has been more of a brother to me since fifth grade.
I do not blame the life of the clergy entirely. I was born with genes that probably predisposed me to my mental health challenges. Simply stated, the job of the congregational rabbi and I are not compatible. I will parse this out for you a bit.
I am anything but perfect, but I am a perfectionist. The constant need to be flawless typically tears at my gut at occasions when I am to be standing before a crowd. Speaking and teaching are the tasks that agitate my latent anxiety. In my mind, I am being judged and so I must leave an impression of perfection. Eulogies, in particular, were my kryptonite. Having listened to many impersonal, even offensive eulogies, I always insisted to myself that I would not be the rabbi who said, “I never knew so-and-so, but…” I don’t brag about much, but I do write and deliver a kick-ass eulogy. I know how to tease out the relevant information about the deceased from their families, and writing the story of one’s life in a way that accurately honors a life lived was always simply a matter of putting pieces of a puzzle together. If a mourner did not tell me that my eulogy captured his or her loved one exactly, I felt like a failure, and the anxiety left me with an enduring dread that constantly reminded me I was a letdown.
Receiving a call from the funeral director always caused my heart to drop into my stomach. I am not proud to admit that the dread always hit me harder than the actual loss. On occasion, the calls sent me into a tailspin, but nobody outside of my household ever knew that because if I have managed to perfect anything in my life, it is showing the world my veneer. Nobody was ever aware of just how thin it was. I did not even reveal my vulnerability to my wife. Instead, I became agitated and I took it out on her. When I first recognized my need to engage therapy, it was because I thought I had anger issues and I was not happy about the way I was treating my wife. It turned out the anger was just an expression of my anxiety.
The first thing that always crossed my mind as soon as the funeral director called was, “Would I have enough time to write something flawless?” I vividly remember the funeral I conducted that caused me a full-blown panic attack. I received the call early on Friday. The funeral was scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sunday. The family would not meet with me until 10 a.m. the morning of the service. By the time I left the family meeting, I had two hours to compose a eulogy and get to the funeral home. I wanted to die. That seemed less painful than standing before a crowd of people looking at me to bring some meaning and comfort and disappointing every last one of them. I typed practically without error, I folded the pages neatly and placed them into my left inside jacket pocket with a backup copy in my prayer book, and I sped to the funeral home. After I parked my car, I took a deep breath and once again hid my terror behind my tired eyes and neatly pressed Hickey Freeman suit. The eulogy was perfect. The family was pleased. I could finally exhale.
I had a casual meeting with a rabbinic colleague at a neighboring synagogue. We talked about what rabbis often talk about when they are together: the endless ways they feel they have been insulted by members of their congregations. My colleague moved to his desk chair and reached into his bottom drawer. His hand emerged with a file folder labeled, “hate mail.” In that file was every judgmental, condescending or spitefully written letter and note he received over the duration of his 30-year career. Each letter received was another slash at his heart. Rather than discard or even ceremoniously burn those letters, he kept every last one of them and despaired over them often.
Therein appears the monster that fed my depression. With my anxiety causing me perpetual fear of being judged harshly, those times when members of my congregation or community at large told me that I, indeed, was not enough inevitably devastated me. A prominent member of the congregation would invite me to lunch once or twice a year and use the occasion to list all the ways I failed him and the congregation. I recall another member telling me he was tired of hearing me talk about my life in my sermons. To understand why that was so biting, it’s important to know that when I shared personal stories in my sermons, I needed to let myself become vulnerable in order to share my message with the congregation. That feedback was received as a wholesale rejection of me, personally. But easily the most extreme criticism I ever received was from one woman, whose mother had died several months prior, sending me an email, sharing that she had been troubled by a recurrent dream in which her mother’s soul was stuck in-between Heaven and earth. She insisted it was my fault the soul of her mother had not elevated to Heaven. Ridiculous though it may be, all that mattered to my sense of self-worth was that I was seen to be at fault.
I hated my job. I hated my life. I hated myself. Every morning on my five-minute commute, I repeated to myself over and over, “I hate my life. I hate my life.” I started to doubt my faith. If there was a God, how could He allow me, a man who dedicated himself to His service, to suffer so deeply? I needed to walk away. After I spoke with the president of the congregation, my relationship with the executive committee of the board of trustees deteriorated. I was accused of trying to destroy the congregation in my wake. I was accidentally included in an email dialogue among the officers of the board when the secretary of the board was commended by the others for attacking me personally. It was this that threw me to the floor of my kitchen, weeping uncontrollably, and attempting suicide — doing no visible harm, but raising the stakes immeasurably. I had to ride out the final six months of my contract with a burden that started to ease only as the light at the end of the very dark tunnel started to approach and brighten the path before me.
Seven years later, nothing is “calling” me back. I retain my title, though I never use it. I teach a bit, here and there, and on occasion, family or friends call on me to perform a life cycle event, but my rabbinic identity died that desperate day when I sat on the kitchen floor and attempted suicide. I still grapple with my faith, while anxiety and depression remain prominent in my life. My facade continues to paint a picture of stoicism, but beneath the opaque veil, I am clamoring for strength and stability. I sometimes grieve over the loss of that piece of me which remains just a memory. The rabbi died. All the remains is me.
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