Azi’s Story: “Finding the Light Within Us”
(1/8): “Feeling Deeply”
“From a very young age, I had a great capacity to feel. I recall watching an episode of Sesame Street and Big Bird went away to camp. My mom asked me why I was crying, but I couldn’t quite verbalize the intensity of my sadness.
My exuberance for life was intense too. One time when I was five, I was playing Monopoly with the family and when I won Free Parking, I became so excited that I jumped out of my chair and split my chin open.
Years later as a teen in my Southern California suburb, I was dealing with deep emotions that started to get in the way of my functioning. I asked many “Why?” questions and I spent much time wondering about the universe. I had little appreciation for the typical American teenage life of Friday night football games and school dances. I couldn’t connect with these types of experiences. I was on a search for deep meaning.
I tried to find meaningful opportunities; taking philosophy courses, or teaching in the local Hebrew school. These were islands of meaning in the vast ocean of my life.
I spent a fair amount of high school depressed, on and off. I didn’t feel like I fit into a community and it wasn’t easy to find people that were asking the same questions or curious about the same issues that kept me up at night.
By age fifteen, my pediatrician had diagnosed me with major depression. I wasn’t given the emotional language to understand how to help myself feel better. There was no ‘Googling’ on the internet yet, where I could go to discover that I was not alone. There was so much stigma and I wondered what this medical diagnosis would mean for my future.
I felt alone with a mysterious secret. Had I caused this illness or willed it into existence? What was wrong with me? This lack of understanding, isolation, and shame only fueled the engine of the darkness I was living in.
If only I had known that I was not the only one feeling alone and that there was nothing inherently shameful about sadness or loneliness…but I was in the dark.
I vacillated between feeling deeply and intensely sad and also running from it by staying intensely occupied. I tried surfing, riding countless miles on my bicycle, visiting the local mediation gardens, and seeking answers from an array of spiritual teachers. I got a part-time job in a psychic bookstore, filled with secular spiritual ideas and psychics who worked there. I longed for them to see through the facade of my togetherness, but not even a psychic could see through the brick wall that I had constructed around myself.
I was always looking for answers.
Reading and researching led me to people with stories and challenges like mine. I needed to know more. I had glimpses of hope. Adolescence became an emotional rollercoaster with flashes of both dark and light. As I soon found out, there were even bigger rollercoasters waiting for me ahead.”
(2/8): “Losing Sleep”
“A few months before high school graduation, I broke my leg skateboarding. I spent the last few months of school in a cast and I got around on crutches and enjoyed those months in spite of it.
I got my cast off right after graduation and then I hopped on a plane to Italy and then on to Israel for my first visit as a participant on a summer teen tour. During the plane ride, I began experiencing swelling and extreme pain from the metal screws in my foot from the skating injury. I didn’t have any medication to deal with the pain, and I began to lose sleep. Landing in Rome, our first walk on cobblestone roads compounded the pain. On our first night in Rome, I did not sleep at all.
My brain went into stress mode. After a few days of not sleeping, I became unable to form sentences. After a week in Rome, we arrived in Israel and I could barely look at the sand-colored Jerusalem stones reflecting the sun without feeling blinded by their brightness. I had started hallucinating.
A counselor from the trip took me to an overlook to view the Kotel so that I could at least see it before I had to go home. My head was spinning. All I can recall is looking at the wall and pleading with God that day: “ I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I know that I need Your help.”
I had lost my ability to make rational judgments. I was seventeen years old, mysteriously unwell and in pain, and this was supposed to be the most amazing summer of my life. I was sent home to my parents.
When I got home, I met my first psychiatrist. He immediately diagnosed me with mania and prescribed a very strong drug. I felt so much shame about my secret already, and now it was compounded.
At age seventeen, I felt like my life was over.
My optimism and excitement about college had been sidelined by the heaviness of self-loathing and lack of hope that I would ever feel better. I felt alone with my secret behind a wall, with the shell of my outer self barely hanging on enough to operate in the world.
And that was how I started college.”
(3/8): “Needing to Get Well”
“I started college in a complete mental fog. The side effects of medication and a newfound inability to emotionally connect with life had replaced my ability to focus on school. There were days when I slept for twenty-two hours.
This former honors high schooler was becoming a failing college student. Toward the middle of the first semester, I called my parents and told them that I needed to come home. I couldn’t be in school and I desperately needed to get well.
I moved home, found a new psychiatrist, and I became a spinning teacher. I started feeling better and my brain slowly calmed down. I began to catch glimpses of balance and emotional stability. For eighteen months, I focused on healing so that I could move on to the life that I wanted.
With so many questions about what caused my challenges, I knew with certainty that I had to take responsibility for what I could control in order to create the life I so desired.
The focus on healing brought me to a better place. I got accepted to my desired university, and was able to move out – this time for good- and start the next chapter of my life.”
“I did well in school and in other parts of my life; I made lots of friends and graduated with a degree in Sociology. At the end of senior year, I met my husband. We dated for six months, were engaged for six months, got married in Summer 2003, and then ventured to Israel for our first year together.
It was the middle of the second intifada and I began experiencing anxiety for the first time. I didn’t know what it was but I felt too frightened to walk to my seminary. Explosions were going off in the streets. Most days, I sat at home and read books and painted. I felt a lot of shame and guilt about staying home and wasting the opportunity to learn in a Torah institution.
I found a new psychiatrist in Israel and he suggested that I take an antidepressant. He named what I was experiencing as depression but looking back I know that I was unable to verbalize my fear. I felt ashamed of my fear to leave the house when everyone around me seemed much less fazed by the terrorism. The choking feeling of somatized anxiety was mixed with the guilt and shame, both too much to swallow and yet too much to express.
What I didn’t understand about my experience then, is that once we realize the universality of our human experiences, we can stop judging ourselves for being human. Today, I inhabit a space of self-acceptance and love, but in 2004 I was very distressed and ashamed. My diagnosis did not fit into the pretty frame that I had picked out for my life. It was a secret that I hid away, cut off and separate from everything else I knew.
Our bodies are hardwired to self-preserve. This capacity manifests itself in a regular, everyday life if we aren’t physically threatened. Any time our emotional safety feels threatened; in relationships or social situations, the body may react as thought it is physically at risk. I’ve learned to notice, acknowledge, and even appreciate these physiological reactions even if they are uncomfortable.
In Spring of 2004, we returned to Los Angeles to welcome our first child into the world. What a blessing and what challenge parenthood proved to be.
Being a young mother was a thrill but I also had significant professional aspirations.
I had internalized the message of our generation, ‘You are a strong capable woman who can succeed in the career world and be the amazing homemaker that your mother was. You can do it all.’
And that was the beginning of my next struggle.”
(5/8) : “Too Much Pressure”
“As a newlywed, I was also newly observant and working hard to be a lot of things that were new to me. A new mom, a new wife, a frum woman, a community member, a student, and a professional. I was trying to help my students in the school where I taught, attend graduate school, stay in shape, be a homemaker, and host shabboses.
Every time I would meet someone accomplished, I would apply more pressure to myself. My life became a laundry list of “should’s” — there was no end. Accomplishments of others only reminded me of what I lacked. I developed aspirations to volunteer, take parenting classes, and accomplish anything I could think of to be a good person or to better myself. But the list became too long.
It was 2012. We moved into a new home, and now there were three kids. I started my doctoral program and my husband was busy running his own business. We had a devastating death in the family that fall.
The pressures swirled ferociously through my mind and left me unable to focus. My doctor prescribed medication to help me focus, and I functioned with much less sleep. The meds suppressed my appetite, and I no longer felt a need to exercise to maintain my weight. It gave me more time to work and study, and I felt like I was speeding through life. I seemed to need less, and so I gave myself less self-care.
After a few months, it became too much. I was reeling from the death in the family, and taking school and work extremely seriously. I was afraid of failing again. I was afraid of not being the best. I had so many ambitions; things I wanted to be involved with and things I wanted to be. I wanted to give of myself in every way. But instead, I overlooked my own needs in order to accomplish more.
It was November and I had a presentation coming up. I cut back on sleep and took extra medication to give myself the boost that I thought I needed to make it through. I was sad and stressed out and I started losing sleep, again.
I slowly lost touch with reality.
I became consumed by my own imagination.
And I ended up, for the first time in my life, as a patient in a psychiatric hospital.”
(6/8) : “Recovery”
“Over the course of three weeks, I was in three different institutions.
Sitting at the same table with people of all walks, I heard life stories filled with so much pain and hardship. I learned a lot about life, and there were moments of both healing and of trauma.
In the first institution, patients were herded around by orderlies. Other inpatients harassed me, and one another, while the same orderlies turned a blind eye. I was physically assaulted in my sleep by a roommate who was deep in her own haze of illness and trauma.
In the third hospital, I had access to fresh air, open skies, and my own room. There was art therapy with paints and beads, and I met a caring nurse who saw me as a competent person in spite of my current struggle.
Finding the right combination of medications was a battle. Some had terrible side effects and there were many moments of getting worse before getting better. I was stable enough to be able to go home from the hospital, but not yet well enough to go back to living the life I had known.
I couldn’t function well enough on the cocktail of medicines, so I had to quit working. My brain needed to recover, and I needed to make sense of the trauma that I had been through but was holding so closely as a deep and dark secret.
I felt damaged, and I no longer felt needed in the world. A part of me felt dead.
I stayed in bed for days and had a lot of trouble functioning. We had to get extra help at home and people brought meals although most of them didn’t know why I was sick. I felt shame and guilt as if I had brought this upon myself.
I felt damaged and thought that I’d have to defer my dream and quit my doctoral program. When I told my academic advisor the news, she simply asked me, “Where is the Azi that I know?”
At that moment, I was able to pause and ask myself, “Is she still inside of me? Can I push through this moment and persist?” Inside I felt a fire, and resolved to do everything in my power to fuel it to the finish line.
One Spring afternoon, a friend dragged me out to coffee before afternoon carpool. Tears fell into my cup. She had expected our usual chat– and although she had visited me in the hospital, I hadn’t let on how deeply the depression that came afterward was affecting me.
She looked at me and offered, “Azi, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
There was something about the sincerity of what she said in the moment that moved me. Suddenly, the blue sky above was visible. I knew – in a flash – that she was right. I hadn’t done anything wrong.
This was the beginning of healing, and of springing forward into living.”
(7/8) : “New Chapters”
“On an intellectual level, I concluded that feeling like a ‘worthy person’ would be the key to my recovery. I began writing short journal entries to document my acts of service and kindness, so that I could remind myself of my goodness in a moment of despair and reshape my identity from the inside out.
Day 1: I got out of bed in the morning and gave my kids a hug before school. Day 8: I drove my kids to school. Day 22: We invited guests for a Shabbat meal. With time, I realized that focusing on inner intention to do good in the world was an anchor. All of these entries helped me wake up to who I wanted to be — a kind person, rather than a ‘perfect’ persona.
I believe that we are wired for connection and created to shine light into our world. Our light may feel small sometimes and larger in other moments- but it is always significant. Being human and focusing on the deeper, inherent longing to shape the world for good shored up my sense of self-worth and dispelled self-judgment.
Slowly, I learned to slow down. I finished school, and by graduation in May of 2015 our bags were packed for our upcoming Aliyah. I walked away from the opportunities that my degree would offer me in the States. Instead, I chose Israel – the opportunity that countless generations before me could only dream of and pray for.
I knew that I had something to offer in this country. I took on a part-time job as a teacher and got to know the Israeli school culture. I worked on settling our family into our new home, community, and country. My husband was restarting his business. We were learning Hebrew. And at the year’s end, I found out that I was expecting. It was a big year.
It wasn’t an ordinary pregnancy – I was in and out of the hospital and our son was born five weeks early. After the birth, I realized that this new chapter of mothering and caretaking would also need to include healing and self-care for me.
I had to heal after the birth. I sought out all sorts of methods and doctors and discovered that the physical, intellectual, spiritual, and the emotional components of well-being needed to be addressed in different capacities at different times. I discovered that by having compassion for myself, I could lean into my life more peacefully and even with joy.”
(8/8): “Whole in the Duality”
“After settling into our new country, I decided it was time to create a new business. It was an amazing opportunity and I put a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources into it. But as soon as it got off the ground, again I found myself at a crossroads.
I was trading sleep for work, drinking too much coffee, and forgetting the importance of building balance into my life. I wanted to make it work, but before I knew it, the imbalance became clear.
I began experiencing symptoms of mania. As a precautionary measure, I checked myself into the hospital. This time, I was very open about it and all of my friends knew. Many came to visit me.
At this juncture, I found a critical choice: to look at myself through the lens of a deficit- – focusing on my shortcomings and my diagnosis as the defining factors of my identity- or to acknowledge the duality, and look through the lens of my assets. We are whole in that duality, and in order to emerge, I needed to learn to look at all of life through both lenses.
There are so many parts of who we are as humans- what we need, and how we are needed in this world. We are called to seek whatever it is that we need to heal, flourish, and show up in this world as who we were born to become.
We can broaden our perspective beyond the tunnel vision of self-limitation and insecurity. We can actively work to transcend the default mode which is trying – sometimes too hard – to keep us safe and merely surviving. Making space to reconnect with our inner essence, and shifting focus to where we are serving the world today, even if it’s one kind gesture or one small thing that we are grateful for — this can kindle a light.
The thing about light is that it knows no bounds. Each act is a kindling that creates infinite ripples of light between us.
Today, we’re living through a time of unprecedented mental health challenges. I am sharing my story because I want to share a message of hope – a bit of light for anyone finding themself in darkness.
I wrote a book about the ideas that have grounded me most over the years called, “Beyond All Things: Insights to Awaken Joy, Purpose, and Spiritual Connection.” I’ve also created a ‘Growing Kindness’ Journal, inspired by the journaling practice that has anchored me through storms. I’m applying the lessons I’ve learned over the years in dynamic coaching programs, helping women pursue their dreams and goals from a place of wholeness, and through the podcast – ‘Within Us’ – that I began producing nearly a year ago.
I find myself today in a place of wholeness, and simultaneously knowing maintaining wellness is a practice. I’m conscious to attend to the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of my being. Sharing what I’ve learned is a critical component to waking up each day with purpose.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.