Naima’s Story: Resilience Through Mental Health
(1/5) “Sinking Deep”
“The prologue to my story takes place seven years ago when I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Since then, I’ve taken medication (almost) every day. I was in and out of therapy, trying to learn how to cope with my spiraling thoughts. I had panic attacks in the halls of my high school and whenever I had to speak publicly.
In August of 2015, I flew to Israel for my gap year, like many other day school graduates. After a few precious untroubled months, my Savta passed away, and on a Saturday night, I slept on the plane on the way back to New Jersey for her funeral and the shiva. Upon my return, I wasn’t quite aware that the texture of my year and my life had altered. I had been extremely close to my Savta as a young girl. While her dementia had made her forget who I was years ago, the finality of her death pushed me into a state of denial.
As the weeks progressed, I began to sink into a deep depression. I spent hours in bed, either drifting in and out of sleep or counting specks of dust on the ceiling. I barely ate, and every day, I fought with myself to shower. I didn’t go to class. I began seeing my therapist every week instead of every two weeks. I called my mother and cried out of frustration. As the days ticked on, I didn’t even have the energy to cry.
My therapist and psychiatrist were in agreement that I needed something other than what Israel and my program could provide. My mother flew to Israel to negotiate the terms of my return home. We stayed with family friends, went to the Kotel, and celebrated Purim. After that, we flew home. I was to return after Pesach, rested and rejuvenated…”
(2/5) “Feelings of Safety”
“When I got home, I hugged my brothers, grabbed coffee with my favorite high school teachers, squealed at reuniting with friends. Days began to go by, and I still felt fragile and brittle. I had to actively remember to eat and to take my medication. The slightest thing could upset me, sending me into whirring panic or into a burst of tears.
One afternoon, my mother drove me to the grocery store to pick up a few items. While I was on the checkout line, my shoulders tensed up. I furtively glanced over my shoulder. I knew that my fear that I was being followed was completely irrational, but I still couldn’t shake it. I managed to get back to the car, and communicated to my mother that I did not feel safe. Someone — I didn’t know who — was out to get me.
Once I managed to make it into the house, my heart was slamming itself against my chest. My parents coaxed me into swallowing a Xanax that I had been prescribed for just such an emergency. Eventually, I calmed down. The following day, my mother sat next to me on the couch as we spoke with my therapist, who recommended I start a day program in order to have more intensive individual and group therapy. I agreed because I knew that just being home wasn’t going to be enough to help me heal.
The day program was my first exposure to dialectical behavioral therapy, which emphasizes group therapy and teaches various skills to deal with irrational and depressive thoughts. After a couple months of that, I left the program and returned to Israel for Shavuot and the final week of classes.
The following August, I was supposed to go off to Brandeis, but I couldn’t even think about beginning to pack without my throat closing and my palms sweating. Over bagels and lox on the Upper West Side, my parents and I talked about the possibility of me pushing school back a semester. I was relieved; somehow I knew that I wasn’t yet ready.”
“The semester that I took off from college loomed ahead of me with blank days that I needed to fill. I took on two internships, a creative writing class, a tutoring job, and eventually a stage manager gig for the theater group with which I had worked in high school. While each individual commitment was enjoyable, I soon found myself fatigued and overworked.
By the middle of December, I was a rubber band pulled too far back, waiting to be snapped. I moved through my days in a robotic blur. I felt empty and worthless. I was convinced that my life wasn’t valuable and that I wanted not to be living it. One Thursday afternoon, right before my scheduled therapy session, I tried to hurt myself, while tears streamed hot and heavy in my eyes and on my face.
I told my mother she needed to drive me to therapy because I didn’t feel safe in my body. She looked at me and asked if I wanted her to join me, at which I nodded. After telling my mother and therapist what had happened in the bathroom at home, my therapist asked me if I felt that I needed to go to the hospital. I told her, yes, and without finishing my session, my mother took me to the emergency room at a nearby hospital.
That was the worst night of my life. Once I was finally checked in and given a plastic bracelet, I had to strip down to my underwear. I couldn’t keep my bra, because I could potentially hurt myself with its wire. I was given a hospital gown and placed in a bed. I was cold, so the nurse gave me more blankets. Eventually, I was wheeled upstairs to the psych ward.
The next few days were surreal. I lost track of time after sleeping for hours and being woken up for yet another intake interview. I couldn’t journal in my room. For fear I would use them to hurt myself, I had to use pens in a public space. I was the youngest patient at least by ten years. The kosher hospital food was not great, but I scarfed it down anyway. My parents came to visit me every day.
Eventually, the urge to hurt myself faded into the background, and I was discharged, wearing my laced winter boots for the first time in days.”
(4/5 ) “Bouncing Back”
“Once I was discharged, I was no longer a rubber band waiting to snap. I was a rubber ball bouncing up from the asphalt. I had finally gotten an acceptance from Hunter College, where I had decided to begin in the spring instead of Brandeis. I couldn’t wait to join my peers in college and be surrounded by people my age. I had not had the typical gap year experience nor started college with any of my friends, and I had felt alone in that. That loneliness was part of the depression that had ended with my hospitalization. Now that I was joining the ranks of college students, I felt secure that my depression would dissipate, which it did, at least for the most part.
I took my medication every day and did breathing exercises. I applied makeup each morning and spent time putting outfits together. I dyed my hair turquoise because I could. I spent time studying Torah and reading for pleasure before I was to begin my life as an English major. I enjoyed myself again. I delighted in being in my body, in my life.
I thought I was ready to move out of the house. I wanted to start a real grown-up life by living on my own. But my parents warned me about going too fast, about bouncing back too quickly. I heard them. I knew their concerns were valid, but I also knew that the psych ward had been the sharp break in my depression that I needed. After a semester of commuting into the city for school, I was able to move out of my childhood home and into an apartment in Washington Heights.
One year later, I’m not healed. I’m not ‘better.’ I’m not free of my anxiety, and my depression lurks behind every corner. I’ve come to acknowledge that there might be times in the future when it gets bad again when the sun won’t come up and the moon won’t glow. But I am not giving up, even if that means taking medication every day for the rest of my life. I am determined to slog through the muck of the hard times in order to soar through clear skies. While my mental illnesses may not be going anywhere, neither am I.”
“I really have a hard time with the way self-care is portrayed in the world at large. Often, people are pressured to feel that it’s another thing to juggle in a busy life. Self-care isn’t only bubble baths and manicures presented in a perfect Instagram post. I want to challenge the notion that self-care is the same as treating yourself. Self-care is often the nitty-gritty stuff that’s really hard to do. Self-care is not something to be scheduled in as ‘me time,’ but it’s the little things that add up to allowing us to function at our best.
It’s really important to know what you need in terms of self-care. Self-care can and should look different for every person, but it’s crucial to living with as much serenity as possible.
As for me and my life, self-care is waking up around the same time every day and taking my four medications. It’s making sure to eat three meals a day. It’s carrying my emergency Xanax in my purse, just in case a panic attack springs out of nowhere. It’s going to therapy every week. It’s breathing through a wave of anxiety, or actively thinking the opposite of whatever irrational thought is bombarding me. It’s every time I make the choice to brush my teeth before bed, even though I can’t imagine moving. It’s talking to my amazing friends, supportive boyfriend, and loving family once I know I’m in a tough place.
I also view sharing my story as an act of self-care. There’s something about being vulnerable that allows me to grow. Maybe it’s that I’m able to connect with people about their struggles with mental health, struggles I wouldn’t have known about without the platform the Layers Project is giving me. Maybe it’s that I’m finally being honest in a public forum about the ugly side of mental health. The stories shared about mental health often gloss over the nasty parts that we aren’t comfortable with. Those stories focus more on how it feels to have beat depression, to beat anxiety. When I read those stories, I’m frustrated, because I can’t see myself in them. My hope is that my story serves as a mirror to people who hate looking at their reflection. I want Jewish women and girls to know that their struggles are valid, that they are not alone.”
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.