D'var Torah Holidays

Welcoming The Stranger

Tonight many of us will be sitting down for the Passover Seder, the meal in which we retell the story of how we were freed from Egypt. For the past several years, many families have graciously hosted me for Seder, fulfilling the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger. I’m sure most, if not all, of us have felt like the stranger at one point: starting a new job, moving to a new city, leaving home for college. On a personal level, sometimes it feels like I’m always the stranger, just outside the crowd. It’s a feeling I’ve struggled with for many years, one of the many ugly symptoms of the depression I’ve lived with for most of my life.

Every year, nearly 43 million Americans suffers from some form of mental illness. For a long time after I was diagnosed with depression, I did not want to be associated with that statistic. Mental illness, in any form, is already hard enough to cope with and when you add the stigma that still comes hand-in-hand with those words, you can understand why someone would want to avoid sticking out, much like the stranger.

In a way, depression and other mental illnesses are like the Egyptian slave driver, constantly making you question yourself and your actions, making you feel like you just can’t measure up, no matter how hard you work. The plagues may not come in the form of locusts or frogs, but as low self-esteem or suicidal thoughts. It’s hard to see a way out of that and nearly impossible to see the light. I was lucky enough to have my own Moses, my mother, who never gave up on me even when I had and who is quick to provide light when I need it.

In three weeks I’ll be participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk. From dusk until dawn I will be walking alongside thousands of people who have been touched by mental illness and suicide, either personally or by association with a friend or relative. It is my version of the Israelites’ redemption; as I walk from City Hall Plaza to SMU and through the Katy Trail back down to the starting point, I will be freeing myself from the bonds of the stigma surrounding people with mental illness while also helping to ensure that organizations like AFSP have the funds to reach out and help those who suffer from depression and can’t see a way out of the darkness.

So this year my Passover miracle is accepting who I am and acknowledging my depression publicly while also knowing that it doesn’t define me or dictate my path in life. I hope that in being open about my depression I am helping, in a small way, to welcome those people with mental illness, showing them that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and, hopefully, returning some of the kindness shown to me by those who welcomed the stranger to their Seders.

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