My Struggle With Bipolar Disorder

A prominent rabbi apologizes and reflects on his diagnosis and arrest by police during a manic episode.

Tue, 03/11/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Alfredo Borodowski
Alfredo Borodowski

Eight months have passed since the beginning of my experience with the criminal justice system. (I was arrested in June and accused of impersonating a police officer and was ultimately charged with non-criminal violations.) My involvement in that system is now well settled and gratefully behind me. These eight months have also given me the respite to reflect deeply on what took place, the challenge of being bipolar, and how to use this difficult and painful experience, and my diagnosis, to derive something positive.

First, I want to acknowledge the pain and stress my actions and their consequences, albeit in the throes of a psychiatric episode, caused my family, my friends, my congregation and others who came to be on the receiving end of my symptoms.

Now that the legal part of my crisis has been resolved I am able, for the first time, to share my experiences openly. In breaking my silence, I hope to be able to help those who suffer in silence from mental illness to be properly diagnosed and treated, early on, so that they can continue to lead productive lives, without having to experience the crisis I had. I hope as well, as I continue to progress in the treatment of and recovery from my illness, under the supervision of thoughtful and caring general physicians and psychiatrists, to highlight that individuals with bipolar disease, treated properly, can continue to contribute their talents and expertise as productive members of society.

I am still shaken by the events that happened to me back in June. Who would have anticipated that a rabbi of a wonderful congregation and executive director of a prominent Jewish educational program would, in the span of two days, be confronted by the legal system, experience self-destructive thoughts and be admitted to a psychiatric unit of a major hospital? But, in fact, as unbelievable as that may seem, the signs had actually been present for months.

The higher doses of antidepressant medications that had been prescribed for me at the time actually brought me from a state of depressed despair back to my habitual high energy, then to what became an extended period of bipolar mania. In those three months of mania I actually accomplished some amazing things. I completed writing a book, started another one, read voraciously and extended the activities of the center that I directed — all with half my usual amount of sleep. Yet something was seriously “off.”

The energy and creativity was accompanied by a tremendous degree of grandiosity and self-importance, also common symptoms of bipolar disorder. Convinced I could accomplish just about anything, I also became irritable and argumentative. This inflated sense of self manifested itself, among other behaviors, in my seeking to make order in the world by confronting drivers on the road, ultimately leading to my arrest. While mania often generates high energy and high productivity, it cannot continue to be a positive state, and, as in my situation, it is bound to end negatively.

This began my downward spiral into acute depression, which ended on a psychiatric unit of a major metropolitan medical center. There I learned my proper diagnosis, bipolar disorder. In the days to come, I was faced with the embarrassment of the public aftermath of my untreated symptoms and resultant behaviors.

But there was also hope. That came from my beloved congregation, Sulam Yaakov, built from scratch a few years ago with no big building, name or cache. The congregation became the counterbalance of compassion and Torah I needed to survive. My return to the bima at Sulam Yaakov back in August was the greatest therapy I could have had. Standing side-by-side with my family, the congregants sent an unmistakable and loudly spoken message: We know this man and we know who he really is. 

In that moment and beyond I came once again to know how lucky and how blessed I am.

Today I am left with my mental health condition exposed to the community: What do I do now? I’m attempting to transform my difficult and challenging experience into a blessing. In the psychiatric unit, I was introduced to a new community in search of a voice — a community still hiding behind closed doors, feeling rejected, stigmatized, discarded and scared to be discovered.

Many conversations I have had about my crisis end with the other person sharing that a relative or friend has a mental illness. People also say how difficult is to be open about and confront mental illness issues. If just one individual is inspired and encouraged to say, “Wow, the rabbi, one who leads a community and is a public persona, is not afraid or ashamed of being bipolar, then neither do I need to be ashamed and remain hidden,” then a great part of this very challenging illness I carry will be justified.

Finally, I came to learn there are wonderful programs that train individuals in key positions to detect mental illness and to assist those at risk and their loved ones to avert situations like the one that happened to me. To be trained in these techniques and to train others has become part of my mission. With training, rabbis, Hillel directors and other religious and community leaders can literally save lives.

Coming through my experience has brought a deep wisdom and gratitude to my life. I’m very thankful to my family, friends, community and health professionals for my treatment and teaching me that bipolar mania can be treated, stabilized and recovered from with insight, cooperation and compliance. As an “out of the closet” person with bipolar illness, now being properly treated and stabilized, I serve as a test case for the community that must choose between opening or closing its doors to me and the many others with mental illness silently standing by my side.

Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski is spiritual leader of Congregation Sulam Yaakov, Larchmont, N.Y. Email: rabbialfredo@optonline.net

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Comments

I thank you for your courage and honesty.
My mother was diagnosed paranoid and schizophrenic when I was 8 years old and sent away to a hospital for the majority of the next three years.
This took place 3 months after my brother was born when I was 8 years old.
To grow up as a child surrounded by a community with shame and stigma has been very challenging.
I could say much more. My entire life and way of being was imprinted through witnessing delusions, hallucinations, psychosis.. For years and years and years.
I have not found a healer/ therapist / analyst that is able and willing to stay grounded, loving, present, caring and compassionate with my emotions and story.
I betrayed and abandoned myself..my daily needs and emotions just to keep the family
As normal as possible.
I have been a voice of compassion for those who have mental illness.
Who will speak out for the unmet needs .. Emotional and developmental needs.. Of those of us who were parentified and abandoned?

The children of the mentally challenged are often invisible and silent caretakers.

We need a safe place to speak and heal.. And not Alanon only.

I pray for more compassion and safety.
For people who care and want to listen.
And love.
Those who are depressed, anxious, lonely.. And abandoned by the synagogue as well as the family.

I am a single Jewish woman, who will turn 60 years old this year. I have lived with depression and bi-polar disorder for years which has affected my life tremendously. To the point that I am now feeling very alone. I am originally from Scotland, UK and have lived in the USA for 35 years. My only family is a sister, brother-in-law and my three nieces and their children who all live in London and live a very fulfilling life and are very involved with the Jewish community. On the other hand I have not been involved with the Jewish Community here in Colorado. I would truly like to change my life style and start being involved with the Jewish community here in Colorado but to be honest do not know where to start. In your congregation in New York? Do you have any Jewish support groups in Colorado? Is "Bring Change 2 Mind" the best support group to join for someone living with a mental illness?

I couldn't agree more with Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski in bringing this dreadful mental illness out into the light of day (so to speak). I'm grateful that we can now count upon his voice to speak out for those of us who share the devastating symptoms of bipolar disorder. Through knowledge, prejudice evaporates. THANK YOU!

How could you know whether he has asked for forgiveness from those he harmed?

I commend Rabbi Borodowski on his courageous decision to "come out" about his mental illness. He is in a position to do much good for the many human beings afflicted with such problems, and I believe he will. It is important to note that the vast majority of people with serious mental illnesses have less resources and support than Rabbi Borodowski. Thank G-d, before his crisis, the Rabbi had a good job, health insurance, friends, family, and even an entire congregation following and supporting him, there to catch him, there to stand with him when he emerged from darkness, there to prevent another fall. Most are not so lucky. With 15% of the US population living in poverty (https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/), and many more falling into a sickening large "low-income" bucket, most who are stricken with conditions like Rabbi Borodowski's do NOT receive the treatment they need to become stable, let alone the resources/support they need to maintain that stability. Properly treated, the vast majority of individuals with a serious mental illness do not need hospitalization or long-term institutionalization, but they do need access to treatment, rehabilitative services, and social support. Had Rabbi Borodowski lacked these things, he would not likely be publishing an article right now. The sad reality is that many with afflictions like his are instead somehow surviving, or dying, on the street. Conditions like this afflict roughly 30% of the homeless population, and 50% struggle with substance abuse, which is also recognized as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association (http://homeless.samhsa.gov/ResourceFiles/hrc_factsheet.pdf). Mental illness strikes without regard to class, but the course of the illness depends heavily upon it. When someone wonders aloud why someone on the street doesn't just get a job, we should blunt their teeth and cry for shame at the continued lack of insight and compassion our society can muster for those in the greatest need.

We are defined as a Jewish Kehilat Kodesh by the way we treat our fellowmen, especially those who are in need and suffer (this is the crux of the work of the great Jewish philosopher like F Rosenzweig, M. Buber and E. Levinas ).
In the mental crisis Rabbi Borodowsky experienced, there were real mentsch and institutions which acted with Chesed ( kidness) and love ,and others, who react in a very bureaucratic soulless way, that goes against the Jewish prophetic and Rabbinic traditions.
Judaism is beyond nice sermons; it’s a way of life. In the long range people will know who is who in this process.
It´s very interesting to see, in some of the reactions to this article, an old fashion Puritan rigor that would like to punished people with serious mental problems.
We believe in the power of Teshuvah as a healing process. Rabbi Borodowski expressed his regret for his past conduct. Now is time to support him and those like him, who took the necessary steps to return to the community, were they belong and were they have a huge contribution to make.
In a society in which many public officers and leaders make wrong decisions, by greed, ignorance or vested interests, that affect seriously the well being of the thousands of persons, it’s very easy to point the finger to the weakest sectors of the society.
Rabbi Borodowsky has shown great courage and integrity to share his experience, in a way that should enhance our sensibilities to our attitudes and treatment of people with mental problems.
Jazak veematz and all the best!

" I completed writing a book, started another one, read voraciously and extended the activities of the center that I directed — all with half my usual amount of sleep. Yet something was seriously “off.” The energy and creativity was accompanied by a tremendous degree of grandiosity and self-importance, also common symptoms of bipolar disorder. Convinced I could accomplish just about anything, I also became irritable and argumentative. This inflated sense of self manifested itself, among other behaviors, in my seeking to make order in the world by confronting drivers on the road, ultimately leading to my arrest. "
Thank you for sharing.

My dear friend, this article is in the best sense of Jewish leadership. In Isaiah 25 we are taught: your teacher shall not shield himself from you, for your eyes must look upon your teachers." True leaders lead by example, by standing exposed of all pretense, transparent, and most importantly, authentic in their humanity. Only then can they become true teachers and models. Your writing models the highest level of teaching. Yeahar koach! You continue to serve the community well.

In his mea culpa he paid scant attention to the people he terrorized. Americans love to forgive transgressors, but Rabbi Borodowski still exhibits a sense of grandiosity with these comments on his new vision to help other suffering from bipolarism. "Others came to be on the receiving end of my symptoms", he wrote, are otherwise known as his victims. Let him apologize to THEM first and then thank all these people who embrace the embattled abuser.

You are misinterpreting his intentions.

How can you know whether he apologized to the people he harmed?

Agree. That should be the first order of business. Everything else is hot air and self promotion.

Dear Rabbi Borodowski,

Leadership can come in many ways and you are exemplifying perhaps the toughest way to be a leader. Kol ha-kavod for your courage and humility. May you go from strength to strength!

Every time I read or hear that a new voice has come forth to try and change the stigma of mental illness, I fell gratitude. I personally was effected by the illness and now am doing everything I can to help families of and individuals with the diagnosis. I applaud you for your bravery and mission.

What a wonderful piece, Rabbi! Well said and Yasher Koach to you and this critical mission! No mental illnesses should ever be stigmatized and we must help those who don't yet have the tools to manage themselves to the fullest.
All the best!
Danny

Please read An Unquiet Mine by Kay Redfield Jamison

People with mental illnesses should be properly treated, not shunned or shamed. With such treatment, they can be very productive members of society, benefiting others and leading happy lives, without the debilitating effects of depression. Rabbi Borodowski, may you fully succeed in overcoming the challenges that you have been dealt.

Wow…what a powerful article. So much good can come from those of us, yes..I have bipolar illness as well, who speak up and out about our illness. Together we can make a difference..a much needed difference.

Yeshar koah, Alfredo. You are truly courageous and great rabbi. Proud to have you as a colleague and friend,
Ron

Rabbi Borodowski-

Congratulations for taking the big step to speak out about your diagnosis. And amen to your support group and congregation for acknowledging that you are not your diagnosis. This is important stuff. Eradicating stigma could make accepting mental health diagnoses so much easier to understand, manage and support. Societal acceptance by not only each individual's community, but the greater world as well would mean patients would no longer be afraid of seeking help, asking questions, learning how to care for their illness and generally speaking freely about their dramatic and often life threatening illness. If you're unaware of an organization called "Bring Change 2 Mind", I recommend "liking" their facebook page and following some of the spot-on stories and articles listed daily. May your journey be yours, not one dampered by a controlable diagnosis. Best wishes and good health to you and yours. Cheers.

Thank you for sharing. I wish you continued success and all good things.

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