I have known my friend Janet Berkowitz since the early 1980′s when she laughed and hugged her way into my life via our mutual friend Alan Cohen. Back then, she held a secret that I didn’t know about until many years later. This artist, poet, mime…altogether creative soul had been experiencing the darkest depths of depression and carried on her shoulders a symbolic knapsack filled with boulders with the label suicide stamped on them. Over the years, she has been hospitalized several times, has been on psychotropic medications and has come close to ending her own life. Those of us who know and love Janet, have ‘circled the wagons’ each time she has entered the swamp of despair and she has pulled through. I am inspired by her resilient spirit and her declarative statement SUICIDE DENIED! I offer that as an affirmation to the patients I serve in my role as a psychiatric social worker. She and her husband are family of choice for me and for my son and I am eternally grateful that they are still here, since Phil has faced his fears as well. Please read her story and poem below and if you feel so inspired, please contact Janet and also pass this message on to people you know who may be contemplating suicide, and to their families and friends. Her message is that healing is possible. This photo of the two of us was taken at a friend’s party this past 4th of July weekend and it is a brilliant testament to the ‘got your back’ concept. There have been many times when she was a solid support for me in the midst of crises, even as she has had her moments of feeling helpless and like she had nothing to offer. I don’t remember the song we were dancing to, but I do remember feeling lighthearted.
This is Janet’s story called THE POWER OF PRAYER
The power of prayer! They call it that for a reason. It works…like a wonderful and mysterious charm. It certainly did for me.
From 2007 to early 2011, I had been dangerously depressed on and off, mostly on. All day and night long I would hear the endless, racing droning of the word ‘suicide’ in my head. This had occurred quite a number of times before, starting at age 8, when I was brutally teased. But it hadn’t ever lasted for more than a year. I never really wanted to actually do it. I had come to love life as an adult. I just wanted to stop the pain. Besides, I was terrified of what lay on the “other side” of death. Since 1984, when I found A Course in Miracles, which teaches that only love is real, I came to believe that death isn’t real. I feared being only a sickened mind floating around, possibly facing reincarnation as a fly.
This last bout of depression was the worst. I came closer to attempting suicide than ever before. When therapists asked why, there was no obvious answer. They chalked it up to Bipolar Disorder, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and Borderline Personality Disorder. They dug into my past and my relationship with my parents. They tweaked my medications repeatedly (since 1980 I’ve been on about 75% of the psyche drugs available). I voluntarily hospitalized myself many times (three times in a fourteen month period in 2008-09) and received 25 shock treatments over a six month period (2008-09). This didn’t help much, or did help only temporarily. I had tried multiple forms of natural and spiritual healing like acupuncture, reiki, and affirmations. I turned to fortune tellers, astrologers, and modalities whose names I can’t even recall. I had done the daily lessons in A Course in Miracles at least twice and even lived in community dedicated to its teachings. It’s not easy being suicidal when you view the body as an illusion (a primary message of ‘the Course’).
I was living in such constant terror that my doctor wanted to commit me to a state hospital. I feared spending the rest of my life in straight jacket, locked in a padded cell. I lied to get out of that situation. I never felt so alone, even with many loving people around me.
Then, in 2010, I started hearing another voice in my head that kept saying, “Don’t be a victim. Do something to address the issue of suicide. Use your talents to heal the problem”. I am an artist, mime and drama teacher and I knew that I could bring all of that to the mental health field, which desperately needs some lighteninging up. I called all over the country, but could not find anything for those who were suicidal, only groups for those who lost someone to suicide. I tried starting my own group online, but to no avail.
Finally, I discovered Suicide Anonymous, founded by a psychiatrist, who’d attempted suicide 7 times, before he began to pray to a Higher Power (the term for God used in Alcoholics Anonymous). As he applied the 12 Steps of A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) to his life, he healed. I was very familiar with the 12 Steps myself, having gotten clean and sober in 1987 with the help of A.A. and other 12 Step groups.
So I started a Suicide Anonymous meeting in Philadelphia. Then I started one in Westampton, New Jersey with my husband, who’d made a suicide attempt once himself. Now, we are about to start another Suicide Anonymous meeting in Westmont, NJ. This has been such a safe haven in which to share my deepest darkest thoughts and feelings. He and I also created a workshop called, Creative Crisis Care: Taking Suicide Out of The Closet, which uses the arts and interactive exercises to approach the topic.
All of this was helping my mental health but I kept falling back into periods of extreme fear. Then one night I rolled out of bed and called out to God, “Please help me”. The next morning I felt the slightest bit better. I kept experimenting with this practice of prayer, which was relatively new in my life. One morning I awoke feeling so happy to be alive. For several months now, I’ve been really working on the first three steps of the 12 Steps, which are about establishing a constant contact with my understanding of a Higher Power.
There are infinite ways to reach a Higher Power and infinite concepts of what a Higher Power is. Sometimes for fun, I imagine myself sitting in an old diner, talking to this imaginary chef. He’s this big guy with a scraggly beard, whom I named GUS (God in Us) and he gives me spiritual advice.
For now a simple daily diet of prayer is what keeps me afloat. I recently recalled a visit to a mental hospital in 1987 for suicidal depression. I awoke every morning at 3:20 am on the dot, but was not allowed to leave the room or turn on the lights. The only thing I could think of doing was to get on my knees and pray. I’d ask God to heal me so I could help others with similar issues. Here I am, 25 years later, answering my own prayers. Now that’s the power of prayer!
If you’re interested in more information about Suicide Anonymous or her workshops and performances (she does mime pieces about mental health issues among other relevant topics, some of which appear on her Facebook page) call 856-266-0709. To find out more about Janet’s work, please visit her website at:
This is a poem that Janet wrote to express ‘the God of her understanding’ :
Face of God
By Janet Berkowitz
You are the face of God and you don’t even know it,
Or maybe you do but choose not to show it.
You are as holy as the sun is bright.
You give the world your magnificent light.
Even if it’s under a bushel,
It still shines ‘cause it’s so crucial.
And your part in this incredible whole,
Is just as needed to heal the world’s soul.
If you could just get it that one plus one is one,
I guarantee you’d have more fun.
Be like the ocean, ever moving.
Keep your heart big and grooving.
Know that I am always here,
Ready to soak up every joy and tear.
Leap to the sky with all your might.
Feel my love holding you ever so tight.