Faith and Academia Unmask a Psychotic, Bipolar Depression
by Tova Feinman
Fall semester of my senior year arrived. With the MCATs and a manic episode behind me, my new challenges were to complete both my senior thesis and my applications to medical school. When I wasn’t doing research under my grant or studying Judaism with Rabbi Bergman, I was in Professor Gordon’s office strategizing medical school applications. Professor Gordon was a holdover from the 1960’s. His graying ponytail and “Grateful Dead” T-shirts offered an intriguing juxtaposition with a brilliant scientific mind that was keenly observant of people.
We narrowed my choices to three top research schools. My goal was to earn an M.D. with a Ph.D. and to become a research psychiatrist. I didn’t want to go into clinical practice. As the close relative of people with schizophrenia, I bore the psychological—and physical—scars from far too many 3 A.M. psychotic episodes. With all that baggage, I knew that I’d never have the clinical distance necessary to get into the trenches with patients in crisis. Instead, I wanted to give the clinicians on the front lines better tools with which to treat their desperately ill patients—people like my family members. My contribution to psychiatry was to be my scientific mind, not my crisis management skills. I was hungrily driven to discover a clue to understanding this insidious disease. Schizophrenia devoured my childhood, and its wounds bled into my adulthood. I would slay this dragon on my turf—the laboratory.
My applications relied heavily on my academic success, and things in that regard were looking good—mostly. My grades were outstanding, my MCAT scores impressive, my research experience solid, my essay unique, and my letters of recommendation were, apparently, glowing. The one glaring weakness in my applications was my lack of community service and volunteer experience. The truth was that I showed no effort in either. As an undergraduate—prime soup kitchen or “Habitat for Humanity” time—my limited energy was tapped out fighting monsters named rape, suicide, mania, and PTSD. The only part of me left unscathed was my intellect.
What made my essay distinctive was that I had taken a chance and chosen to reveal some of these personal struggles, describing how the lessons learned while wrestling with trauma made me exceptional physician material. I was ashamed that in the battle for my own survival I hadn’t included room in my misery for others. I was not a detached scientist, indifferent to human suffering, and I didn’t want to be perceived as one. Instead, I was a survivor with a gift for science who truly wanted to give back in my personal way. I was uncomfortable sharing details about my rape and its fall-out, but I took the risk. Professor Gordon described my essay as “moving.” Then he reminded me that review committees were made up of human beings and that my essay would impact them. He also thought that, given that my interest was research and not clinical work, the admissions committee might be willing to de-emphasize service experience. So, when he and I were satisfied with the applications, I mailed them, knowing I had given my all.
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I sent out three applications. Months later, I received three invitations for interviews, an exceptional response. However, instead of being elated, I felt hollowed out as an intrusive mantra skulked into my head:
“You are garbage,
You are nothing.
These phrases reverberated inside my skull, crushing any thought attempting to hatch. As I tried to finish my senior thesis, torrents of tears fell onto my paper tablet. I didn’t take care of anything in my life—not even eating or sleeping. Basic hygiene was cast off into the malodorous wind. Food became repulsive. I attempted a Sunday brunch one spring morning, but as I stood in the tray line at the college cafeteria, nausea overwhelmed me as I glanced up ahead. The rice appeared to be swollen and swimming. I shrieked, “They are serving us maggots!” then dropped my tray and ran to the bathroom to retch. The cafeteria became a “no go” zone, probably to the relief of the kitchen workers.
Nights then had no end, and sleep had no beginning. My nightlight, a stained glass cumulous cloud with a peeking sun, was my early childhood’s protector against lurking dangers. Now, my trusty security system turned against me, casting eerie shadows onto my dorm ceiling. The amorphous shapes had ragged angles like sharp teeth and multiple zigzagged edges with finger-like protrusions. I stayed awake night after night counting and recounting fingers and teeth. Desperate, I needed the count to match each time so that I could prove that the creatures weren’t reproducing. They looked hungry, and I didn’t want to be their next meal. I was both terrified to leave my dorm room and terrified to stay.What if the shadow people multiplied?
Somewhere during these weeks, I decided that it was a personal betrayal to change my clothes. There was only one outfit acceptable to wear: My pastel pink pull-over top and baby-blue ankle-length skirt became my symbol of childhood lost. My uniform was neither washed nor changed. Girls in my dorm would pinch their noses and snicker as we passed in the halls. However, no one—not RA, student, or faculty member—said a word to me. I felt like a contagion but stayed steadfastly branded. My declaration was that, in spite of all of my intellectual prowess, I was a discarded child. I curled more and more deeply inward. For distraction, I’d spend long tracts of time sitting by the campus lake, alone, throwing stones into the water. There were no thoughts accompanying this ritual—just the mantra and the fear of teeth and fingers. My possessed mind watched the ripples that the rocks induced. Each concentric circle made me feel more and more like those drowning pebbles.
I avoided Professor Gordon. With determination, he tracked me down to inquire about the progress of my thesis. He needed to see a final draft in just week! I completely dissolved into a puddle of tears, backed myself into a corner in his office, slid down the wall, and rocked. After a stunned pause, he said, gently, “Shoshana, this is the flip side of mania. This is depression. I know you can’t hear what I’m going to say, but you can get help for this.”
He was right: I couldn’t hear him.
Instead, we turned our focus toward getting my thesis completed. He set up mini-deadlines for me. We started with the paper’s introduction. He cajoled me to write two paragraphs a day. I quizzed, “How many sentences?” He said five sentences per paragraph, and then delicately added, “Shoshana, little girls don’t write research papers on cancer.” I thought to myself, I can write five sentences, and then the scientist in me kicked in. I scraped off my clothes, and the words flowed. Every first word was a force of will. Every resulting paragraph was perfect. We metered out my entire paper, paragraph by paragraph. Twice a day, I brought him my newly birthed words, and each pentameter fit together seamlessly. The resulting paper was stunning. I looked at Dr. Gordon and asked, still child-like, “Is it good enough?” He beamed at me, responding, “Yes, Shoshana, it’s good enough. How do you feel?” I responded, “Free.” He said nothing but instead rested his head on his right hand, nodded, and dabbed his eyes with a tissue. I was thunderstruck.
As the date of my first med school interview loomed ominously, I was cleaner but began to feel as I had in the days after my sexual assault—like death’s prey. I was suicidal, once again. This time, I reached back to memories of the sage chaplain who had helped me reclaim the soul that I tried to throw back in despair at G-d. I mentally replayed every conversation the rabbi and I had had while I was in the ICU recovering from what I falsely claimed to be an accident. A voice inside said, Did you learn nothing from him? Go to Rabbi Bergman for guidance.”
So, I went to see my tutor, whom, like Dr. Gordon, I had been avoiding.
I wasn’t sure how the very exacting Orthodox rabbi would take my intrusion after such a long absence. Yet, I needn’t have worried. Instead of his customary stern academic stare, he gave me an almost fatherly expression of concern. Trying to hold back tears, I confessed, “I’m so sad.” In a moment of human connection, he probed, “Depressed?” Choked up, I nodded. He said, “Shoshana, let me tell you about Dr. Victor Frankl. He’s a psychiatrist who wrote the most exquisite and poignant book on suffering based on his experiences in a concentration camp.” Then he proceeded to quote, from memory, sections of Man’s Search for Meaning.
I found comfort in Dr. Frankl’s words and in Rabbi Bergman’s tender recitation of them. The latter suggested that, when I wasn’t so intensely sad, we could explore the book and study the survival secrets imbedded in the human spirit. As I got up to leave, he stopped me and counseled, “Shoshana, I’m glad that you trusted me to share your sadness. Say Shema every night, even when you know that you won’t sleep. You won’t be alone. G-d will be with you.”
The profundity of the Shema, to me, cannot be captured in all of rabbinic wisdom, let alone in a single sentence. The prayer is the foundation of my certainty of G-d’s Oneness with His creation and His singleness. Rabbi Bergman was subtly reminding me that I was part of G-d’s oneness, and reaffirming that, just before bed, by saying the Shema would bind me to the Divine even in my desperation. How could I not then believe that my soul mattered?
I dragged myself through the abyss of my depression that senior year—delusional, hallucinating, and despondent—waiting for my first medical school interview, and carried through the void by a pony-tailed professor and an Orthodox rabbi. Dr. Gordon wouldn’t let me throw away my intellect’s potential. Rabbi Bergman reconnected me to life. I tried to make contact with both men when I finally began treatment in 1994 for the diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder with psychosis. Fourteen years after Dr. Gordon had told me that help was available, I finally sought treatment. It took motherhood to shake me out of my entrenched denial. I had never seen having a child in my future. I understood that the mutated genes that I carried could punish another generation, but G-d had another plan. My daughter’s name is Katie, and she is a miracle. Seeking my two mentors at this point in my life, I was saddened to learn that Rabbi Bergman had passed away and that Dr. Gordon had retired and immigrated to Europe. Despite my best efforts over these decades, I have never located Dr. Gordon.
If I could send each man a message, I’d tell Rabbi Bergman that I now keep the Sabbath and that I never forget to say Shema before going to sleep. I would tell Dr. Gordon that his tears for me that afternoon when he declared my thesis “good enough” enabled me hear my potential. I would assure both of them that I am blessed with a psychiatrist who has taken me on a journey from trauma to transformation. This doctor embodies both Rabbi Bergman’s wisdom and Dr. Gordon’s patience. I also have a psychologist who holds my pain and bears witness to my tortured history. It may have taken me over a decade to seek therapy, but once I finally took the leap, G-d provided.
My path in life did not, ultimately, include graduating from medical school. However, I understood that I was truly “good enough” to do so if I could have trusted myself. I work in cancer research now. My time with Dr. Gordon wasn’t wasted. My brain is still sharp. I have a well-worn copy of Man’s Search for Meaning amongst my treasured books, and sometimes I can hear Rabbi Bergman’s deep, bass voice, narrating a beloved passage from it. While for most of my life, I had no place to seek refuge, now I have a deep reservoir to draw upon.