I’m a Rabbi With Mental Illness and I’m Done Trying to Hide My Pain

July 20, 2021

By Rabbi Avram Mlotek (’15), for Alma.

Content warning: suicidal ideation

I live with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. As a rabbi, cantor, actor and author, that’s not how I usually introduce myself. But this summer I spent three and a half weeks at an in-patient facility tending to my mental health and that was how I usually identified myself.

Now, of course, each of us is larger than the sum of our parts. Our illnesses needn’t identify us nor do our failures. But for someone like myself, it felt so freeing to finally speak so honestly about being in such pain.

What’s ironic is that I’ve written openly before around my depression. I’ve strived to serve as an ally for members in my community who experience mental illness, creating support groups around their own wellness. As a rabbi, I’ve always felt it was my duty to ensure that everyone in my community felt comfortable talking about their mental health with me. But as many who live with mental illness know, our sickness is insidious and comes in waves. To make matters worse, I have not been vigilant in my own self-care; the past year of COVID-19 introduced a whole new level of loneliness and anxiety with all in-person gatherings pausing for the time being. And the bottom line was that I did not prioritize my mental health as I served others. I neglected it. I abused it.

To say I felt like a fraud or an imposter is an understatement. As a counselor, I constantly remind those who do seek my counsel just how precious they are, just how important their own self-care is. But here I was unable to admit just how much pain I was in, just how difficult it was for me to get out of bed in the morning, just how close to suicidal despair I was. It was far easier for me to tend to others’ broken hearts than it was to honor my own.

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