Struggling with My Limits: A Personal Reflection on the Intersection of My Disability and the Days of Repentance

This is unabashedly a personal reflection. I am sharing it because many people might find themselves where I am, and sometimes it is comforting to have someone name the issues with which we are struggling. I am not even going to pretend that I have universal answers, just thoughts, some of which comfort and some of which do not.

Yom Kippur is a fasting holiday, but I have not really fasted for years, since my doctors have long indicated that this is a dangerous practice for a body that for one reason or another is constantly fighting digestive issues and dehydration. I am not alone in this, and it is perfectly consistent with Jewish law, which is very very clear that it is a sin to endanger your life or your health by fasting. PSA: if you cannot fast safely, please do not fast.

I have, however, been able to reach a happy medium, where I drastically reduce my food intake, drink only water, and in general try to turn food from part of daily life into medicine for the day, helping me to maintain the otherness at the heart of the day.

Many of you know that I had ostomy surgery this spring, a generally wonderful life change, the realities of which I am still getting used to. One change that I am already aware of is that if I go more than seven or eight hours without a decent sized meal, my body is racked in pain. I can only imagine what attempting to eat minimal amounts of food for 24 hours would do, especially in an ostomy that is not quite functioning at as well as we would like.

Similarly, the medications that I take to keep my ostomy functioning have made hydration and even greater challenge, and so it is likely that I will need to continue to drink the watered-down Gatorade electrolyte solution (I call it my gator water) throughout the holiday. In short, I will be able to do very little, this year, to modify my eating habits in honor of Yom Kippur.

This is jarring for me. Not the sense of religious obligation, since I know full well that I am in the clear, but the practical question:

how do I make this a day of reflection when it will physically feel like any other? How do I find a spiritual discipline of otherness, without the physical crutch that changing our food patterns represents?

I think it is probably too late to answer that question for this year, but I welcome any friends and loved ones more also unable to engage in a physical fast think about how we might invoke the holy other together for next year. If you have a way that works for you, I commend you and would ask you to comment and share.

This is not the only disability that is troubling my Yom Kippur observance this year. I normally make a pretty extensive practice of Mechilah, the practice of seeking out and learning how you have wronged others, and making it right as best you can. This is very important to me, and I have even written about how it could be a metaphor for inclusion. And yet, this year I did very little.

You see, another one of my disabilities is depression. When my depression is in a bad place, like now, my general self-esteem craters, and, much more importantly, my sense of myself as a likable individual plummets. Simply put, I have been reluctant in my practice of seeking out how I have wronged others because my mind is awash in my many shortcomings, and God forbid someone should suggest something additional, I have no doubt that I will blow it all out of proportion.

Mental illness can be tricky like that. Intellectually, the very fact that I can write the prior paragraph means that I am aware of the phenomenon, can name it, and see it, and yet, should it happen, I would be powerless to stop it. And so, I have not sought a catalog of my wrongs, mostly for self-preservation. If I have wronged you, I cannot reach out at this moment because the Jewish calendar says that this is the day for it, but as soon as I am in a stronger place, I will invite you to let me know so that I can do better.

I am certain that I am not the only one for whom the high holidays exacerbate mental illness. It was many years before my anxiety disorder would allow me to listen to the unetanatokev prayer without being absolutely floored by the horrible fate that I was sure awaited. I still have to remind myself strongly that I do not believe in determinism, just to sit through the prayer.

In this item I am not so much asking for suggestions as hopefully offering strength. If you, like me, are finding some part of the holidays difficult to deal with because of mental illness, all I can say is go easy on yourself, take care of yourself, and know that, religious imagery notwithstanding, the opportunity to repent and make peace lasts as long as we draw breath, so it is okay if you need to put it off for a while, I think.

Thank you for listening, and a good and a sweet new year.

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