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From the Ashes of Disaster…

  • May 13, 2015

Last night’s talk was a train wreck. I violated all my cardinal rules of public speaking 1. Prepare 2. Don’t depend on technology 3. If you rely on technology have a backup plan.

In all honesty I did prepare. I watched the film my son Daniel and I made with the Mental Health Channel and my entire speech hinged on the preface of that 8 minute film. When I arrived at Pollman Hall at Temple Emanuel, I saw Mental Health Channel emblem on the screen and thought, Great, they’ve already tested this, I can relax.

Rabbi Debra Robbins asked me to write down a couple of softball questions for the Q&A after my talk.  In my over-caffeinated-I-am-invincible state I thought I hate softball questions. I pride myself on my ability to respond on stage, forgetting that my cat-like thinking usually depends on sleep and better nutrition than cheez-its, an oversized chocolate chunk cookie and shot-gunned Diet Coke. I scribbled down my starter question: I understand you have an interfaith marriage. Do you think this contributed to your depression?

Did I forget to mention I had never answered that question in front of a crowd before? Ah well, I had just rewritten a press release, figured out how to help rid the world of depression, helped sustain a major arts institution, sent out graduation announcements, attended a funeral on my birthday and prevented my mother-in-law from attending senior “Rally Day” at my daughter’s high school. I could do ANYTHING. Well, almost.

Pressing “play” revealed that the 8 minute video had no sound. In truth, there was some sound, but despite frantic tapping of the volume key and an Abbott and Costello like routine of unhooking the microphone from the podium, nearly tripping on the cord, shuffling it from one speaker to the next, I decided to pull the plug. It was then I realized I didn’t have a Plan B.

For those of you who have heard me speak before, there is an “old” way to start talks. I paint a dark picture of how bad it was on the worst day of my depression and work up to brightness. Without a Plan B, I reverted to my old speech. “In September of 2001,” I began, “when most of you were watching to planes crash again and again into the twin towers, I sat in a locked psychiatric ward waiting for my first round of electroconvulsive therapy.” Recently, this beginning has found its way to the bottom of the trash. It’s effective, but let’s face it, off-putting.  I usually start with humor these days, following the formula discovered by the creators of “Blues Clues.” People listen when they hear something familiar to which they can relate. If the story starts too far from experience, people tune out.

This formula was developed for toddlers, but adults are no exception to this rule. If an extreme case of mental illness is presented for shock value, the extreme case becomes alien, something that would never apply or be used by the listener. My audience listened, but with the stunned expression of those observing a circus sideshow freak. Not a good outcome for them or for me.

Luckily, in the question and answer, a few reliable funny stories about my children warmed up the crowd. Then the Rabbi softened my question about interfaith marriage into a question about faith. I heckled her, goading her to ask my original question: I understand you have an interfaith marriage. Do you think this contributed to your depression?

Raised Roman Catholic, I stopped attending church regularly my junior year at the University of Notre Dame. Even in 1980, many of the rules of the Catholic Church rankled me. A clever boyfriend pointed out that if I didn’t agree with a long laundry list of items, how could I call myself a Catholic? Intellectually, what he said made sense, so I stopped attending church.

When I met my future husband, a nice Jewish boy from Dallas, TX, I hadn’t attended church regularly for about 7 years. We knew we wanted to raise our children with a faith, and being open minded, I agreed to raise ours Jewish. In that casual transaction, I jettisoned my culture. Yes, I disagreed with the Catholic Church on many issues, as I still do. But at 29 years old, I failed to account for the impact of my childhood.

For the first 18 years of my life, while my family moved from place to place for my father’s military career, religion was the glue that gave our lives consistency. I might have been at a new school, been struggling with new friends and unfamiliar places, but every week I knew when to stand and to kneel, what words to say and what songs to sing. For about 12 of those years, I knew the familiar roundness of a wafer on my tongue. I never bought into the idea that wafer was the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, but I knew it bound me to something far bigger than myself.

When I married my husband, I stopped receiving communion. I didn’t attend church often, only when visiting my mother or family members, but I thought it disrespectful to receive communion when I no longer was a practicing Catholic. It hurt to be in a service and abstain from the focal point. But there are rules to religion. If nothing else, my Catholic upbringing taught me to follow the rules.

My renegade Catholic priest uncle shook me free of this notion in a small private mass he gave for our family. When asked me if I’d receive communion before he held mass, I violently shook my head no. He listened to my reasoning, and paused in thought. “If you returned home after a long absence,” he offered, “wouldn’t your father welcome you to his table?” This favorite priest uncle of mine left the priesthood in his mid-seventies and married. Like me, he was fed up with rules of this institution that had sustained him. But unbeknownst to him, his broad theology had bridged me back to the faith of my childhood.

Today, I call myself an ambiguous Christian with Catholic roots. In practice, I am more Buddhist than anything these days, Thich Nhat Hahn, John Kabat Zinn flavored with Thomas Moore and Theilhard de Chardin. I meditate singularly, and have not yet found my spiritual congregation that sits in a building. I am not sure I need a building anymore, but I still miss it. My Catholic running group, my Shabbat group, my Notre Dame buds, my Cooper Center friends, mis amigos de Decidí Vivir, my book clubs, my Dallas Theater Center pals, my Dream Group and my spiritual mentor of Something New– these friends comprise my self-crafted spiritual community. They are now the wafer that melts in my mouth.

As I steeled myself for my own hardball question last night, the tears began to flow. I tried to explain, inadequately, that jettisoning a culture is a dangerous thing. As I stared out into the room of Jewish faces, I asked them to be kind to the nice Catholic girls who might marry their sons. Perhaps this concept was as foreign to them as suicide and psychiatric wards. I hope not. In a global culture, we need to discover better ways to honor our pasts as we build our futures.

A marriage that blends religion, geography or bends the traditional notions of man and wife will be more common than not. For these newlyweds, I wish a safer journey than mine, with rules that mold but don’t break them. For me, at 55, there is only one rule. As a Fallen Away Roman Catholic, I don’t quote Bible verses, but this one I do know, Corinthians 13:13: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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Testimonial

"It is my pleasure to recommend Julie Hersh as a public speaker. She is well qualified to speak on the topics of depression and suicidal behavior. She is knowledgeable about contemporary psychiatric treatments and has been diligent in seeking information from medical experts in psychiatric medicine. She is an articulate, engaging and authoritative speaker who ably communicates her important public health message."

Charles Kellner
Charles Kellner, MD, Director of ECT Services, Mount Sinai School of Medicine
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About Struck By Living

In Struck by Living, Julie Hersh picks apart the irony of her life with humor and brutal honesty. Despite a loving husband, healthy children, financial security, Julie attempted suicide three times. With the help of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), Julie broke the deadly course of her disorder. Now well, Julie promotes the importance of mental health with collaborations with other artists and organizations.

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