Some Fruits of Solitude

No one has ever made a children’s book about holidays with people off on their own, crying into their pillows, staring at their clocks and counting seconds until the holiday is over. It’s always a smiling family, the children gaily frolicking around the house in their new finery, or joyfully shrieking at the sight of their new presents as their parents look on, smiling. The holidays are meant to be happy, celebrations of past victories or milestones, anniversaries of events that helped shape our present. They are a time when we get together with family and celebrate those milestones.

I’ve been one of those people, however, who has sat alone in his room, crying into a pillow and counting seconds until it’s over. For the past five years, I haven’t had a family. They exist, but not as my family. I’ve always viewed family as a privilege, not a right, and my “family” lost their familial right to me. I come from a pretty large family; I have approximately 50 first cousins, and the numbers grow every day. In fact, it’s growing so fast that I don’t even know them all. I used to, but my family seems fine excluding me. It’s almost like the fact that I felt I needed to leave them was so insignificant to them, that the sheer numbers of other relatives make up for my absence.

It’s not easy to give up your family, and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I didn’t feel I had a choice; my family was literally driving me to suicide. I still live at home, though, which makes my estrangement from my family all that much more painful. They all still come over to see my mother and grandmother. Never me, though. I’m generally in my room when they come, which is down the hall from the dining room where they all congregate and socialize. My room is two steps from the bathroom. It’s so close I can hear the toilet flush after they do their business, but none of them ever come knock on my door. I can hear them laughing and celebrating from my room; even if I cried audibly, I doubt they’d hear me over their merriment.

I should be used to it by now, like a sore knee you sort joint you sort of learn to deal with eventually, but it hurts like new every time. The first time it happened was after my mother told me she wished she’d aborted me. She meant it, too. I ran, crying, from my house, and came back a few hours later to find my mother entertaining relatives. I lost it and yelled what would become the last words I’ve ever spoken to her, and stormed out of the room crying. My relatives stayed. With her. They didn’t even check on me to see what was wrong. I feel that every time I sit in my room and hear them in the living room.

I spend most Shabbosos (sabbaths) alone in my room, sleeping, reading, and counting seconds. Shabbos lasts 25 hours. There are thirty six hundred seconds to an hour. Ninety thousand seconds. Ashrei yoshvei vesecha, 1, 2, 3. Lechu neranena, 1821, 1822, 1823. Hashem echad ush’mo echad, 3612, 3613, 3614 (these are all prayers said on the sabbath). Ninety thousand seconds to havdalah (ceremony marking the end of the sabbath), to my life back. I get suicidal on three day yomim tovim (holidays). Holidays in general make me hate life. Shabbos meant to be happy and restful, and I’ve learned to cope with them, but holidays are meant to be particularly festive, and I don’t have anyone with whom to share in the festivities.

Thank God it’s not always like this. I have, what my friend Chaim Levin likes to call a “logical family” to replace my biological family. They are people I’ve come across who have taken me into their homes and their hearts, and whom I love dearly. One family in particular has me over as often as they can. Honestly, I don’t think they understand the significance of their kindness. They are literal lifesavers. All of my “logical family” are. They keep me alive, sane, and reasonably hopeful, and I love them all dearly for it.

It’s not quite the same, though. People expect their own, their “flesh and blood,” so to speak, to love them unconditionally and always be there for them. I know I have people who love me, but it doesn’t make up for the family I was born into and the way they’ve rejected me. It doesn’t fill that void I feel around holidays, that void in place of the family I should have. I think the only thing that will ever truly make up for it will be the family I build myself. I look forward to it.

People like asking what other people stay up thinking about at night. I stay up imagining my family, my wife, my kids. I stay up imagining what I’ll say to my wife when I walk in from shul (synagogue) on Friday night, which tunes I’ll use for which zemiros (songs traditionally sung on the sabbath). I imagine my kids standing up and reciting mah nishtana (series of questions asked by a child to his parents on Passover), shyly at first, but growing more confident as they go on. I imagine teaching my son how to put on tefillin, dancing with him at his bar mitzvah, watching his back as he walks to the bus for his first day of high school. I imagine sitting in the audience watching my daughter perform at her school plays, crying at her graduation. I think about all the places I’ll go, and the things I’ll do with my family. I fall asleep dreaming about having a wife I can love and share my life with.

For now these dreams are painful, but one day I’ll look back on my suffering now, and I’ll look at the family I built, and the pride, and happiness, and love I’ll feel then will be magnified by all that pain.

That hope is what keeps me going.

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3 thoughts on “Some Fruits of Solitude

  1. Thank you for sharing these painful truths. Sadly, others share your experience. Unfortunately there is a code in many families that punishes those who dare to say the truth when it fractures a myth or threatens a reputation.

    However, you have pointed to a saving grace, your logical family. I would also add, you goodness, which is well known to others you help.

    Those of us that have come to know you are optimistic that you will grow your own community and family, one rooted in truth and kindness.

  2. Somebody sent me your post, and I want to thank you for expressing these important thoughts and feelings.

    In case it can be helpful to someone, I will post here an article that was in this week’s Jewish Press:

    Freedom for Survivors of Abuse

    By Bracha Goetz

    It is hard for many at our seder tables to imagine what it must have felt like to experience the abuse perpetrated on the slaves in Egypt. And it is hard for many others at the very same seder tables to imagine what it must feel like to be set free – because they do not remember how freedom tastes. That’s because childhood abuse can have an unfathomable power over people so that they remain enslaved throughout their lives.

    Adults who have been abused as children usually find it much harder than others to trust in God. They feel like God abandoned them, in addition to all the other adults who didn’t protect them. It’s impossible to understand the big picture of why the agony of abuse ends up in so many people’s lives, just as it is impossible to understand the abuse suffered when we were slaves in Egypt. What is not impossible, though? Helping our family members and friends who are survivors of abuse to not feel abandoned by us as well.

    Recent sociological research has corroborated what seems fairly evident: people who are suicidal feel isolated and not understood in their deepest struggles. The trauma of childhood abuse is a common cause of suicidal ideation. It often involves carrying within the deepest kind of struggle, one that has been widely misunderstood.

    Until now.

    It isn’t an accident that at the same time that reports of childhood abuse are just beginning to come forth more readily, we are also witnessing the beginning of research coming forth in the area of neuroscience that is of great assistance in comprehending how trauma changes people. Functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain (f-MRI) is demonstrating why traumatic events can leave such a dramatic impact on people’s lives.

    We’ve learned that the subcortical (the lower and dorsal) region of our brain has a negative bias. It is the more primitive part of our brain designed to aid in our protection, so it seems that the dangerous experiences we’ve had tend to leave a deeper impression on our brains than the pleasant ones.

    The neurons that fire frantically during a traumatic experience cause an actual rewiring of the brain. This means that neuroscientists now have the technology to observe the physiological changes that can take place in the brain as a result of childhood abuse. Through imaging, researchers also recently achieved the ability to detect the effects of triggers on the brain – circumstances which lead the survivor to respond with somatic reactions as if the abuse is still actively continuing.

    Trauma survivors are generally finding it extremely valuable to learn about the new insights from psychobiology that are emerging, and it is also vital for those who want to aid survivors in the healing process. Recent knowledge helps to explain why cognitive therapies, while important, are limited in their healing capabilities, as the cerebral cortex (the higher and frontal part of the brain) is only of limited assistance in processing trauma.

    Thinking one’s way out of “past” trauma can only get a survivor so far, and this is very useful to understand. Since triggering events cause the same re-wired neural pathways to fire, eliciting the same primal reactions in the survivor’s body, it truly is as if the abuse is still continuing, and not an event from the past. That’s why expecting a survivor of trauma to “just get over it already” actually makes no logical sense, as the survivor can be re-experiencing the trauma frequently.

    New information is gained daily from previously unelucidated areas of neuroscience, right along with daily new information from dark closets filled with physical, emotional and sexual childhood abuse. It turns out that the neuroplasticity of our brains causes traumatic experiences to become embedded in our bodies, but this knowledge about the resilient qualities of our brains is, at the same time, shining light on effective methods of healing. Greater awareness of the mind-body interaction helps clinicians, as well as survivors and those who want to support them, uncover clues to an individual’s trauma history as well as his or her specific recovery process.

    As the way we view survivors of trauma, and, more importantly, as the way survivors view themselves, changes, the added layer of frustration and blame over what has been seen as a lack of progress in “moving forward” is removed. Psychobiological advances are translating into sensori-motor training, somatic therapy, movement therapy, and a wide variety of mindfulness techniques – utilizing the diverse and specialized capabilities of the “full mind” so the brain-body integration can be optimized.

    Understanding where and how memories are processed and stored leads to maximizing the interrelationship between the cortical and subcortical regions of the brain, as well as the right and left hemispheres of the brain, to actually change the way the abuse is stored in the body. Measurably significant differences become manifest as new vertical and lateral connections are forged.

    We are living in a time when there is an explosion of disclosures of an as yet untold number of cases of abuse, and there is an explosion of neurobiological knowledge, as well, that can help the survivors seeking relief. In both realms, we are only now getting to see the very tip of what is vastly bigger than we ever realized.

    Both types of breakthroughs offer trauma sufferers the chance to finally be released from their abuse and their abusers. Trained professionals are needed to help a survivor safely override the electromagnetic circuitry of the nervous system that has become frayed and torn, if it has led to the extremes of hyper-vigilance or dissociative numbness. It is as if certain fuses became overwhelmed and blew, but now that they can more accurately be identified, survivors can gradually be empowered to learn mind-body techniques that help reset them to a balanced level of relaxed alertness.

    With increased awareness, we can reach out with more appropriate and compassionate support to the survivors who sit with us at our seder tables –as well as to all those who cannot yet face being there this year. Social engagement with an empathetic supporter is essential, as they have felt alone in their deepest struggle. Simply by offering patience and understanding, we help survivors in their courageous exodus from Egypt, from that constricted place where one is stuck reliving one’s personal enslavement again and again.

    When we reach out with tenderness, we can reach across every level of consciousness in the brain, until we reach the fiber that connects to another’s heart. No longer alone, our caring helps raise each other’s dignity, as we trek toward redemption together.

    BIO: Bracha Goetz studied at Harvard University and the Medical College of Virginia. She is the author of over 20 Jewish children’s books which can be found on her Amazon Page, including Let’s Stay Safe!, Let’s Stay Pure, and The Invisible Book. It is possible to reach her at bgoetzster@gmail.com.

    • It is definitely more difficult for abuse survivors to either believe in or trust God after our experiences. Physiological effects aside, there are fundamental questions that people have been asking for aeons which your average Yossel manages to avoid in his religious life by never being forced to confront it. Questions like tzaddik v’ra lo rasha v’tov lo, why the good suffer and the bad prosper. The only answer we have to that question is that there is no answer, and that we must trust that God is ultimately acting in our best interests, and that by His divine reckoning, we will be repaid in full for all of our suffering, as will those who cause us to suffer.

      It’s a very difficult concept to accept, particularly because we have no actual proof whether or not it’s true. We *see* bad people prospering, we *see* good people suffering, but we never see the ultimate justice; we never get that glimpse into the Olam Ha’emes, to see for ourselves that yesh din v’yesh dayan. Faith is hard on a good day. It’s even harder when your life is a living hell. Most people never have to consider these things. They go through life paying lip service to a God who never, as far as they’re concerned, “betrays” them (so to speak.) Emunah and bitachon are easy when they are never challenged.

      I’ve written about this in previous posts on this blog and others.

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