A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about life in my house. I detailed the abuse I was experiencing. Over 50,000 people read that post, and it was shared over 1,500 times. I received an enormous outpouring of support, both in the form of sympathy, and actual offers of help from lawyers willing to take my case pro bono, invitations for Shabbos, and advice based on personal experience. More people than I can count shared their own stories and experiences in dealing with an abusive family member with a mental illness. Honestly, readers, you humbled me; you showed me the power of social media, and the significance of the words “me too.” Thank you so much for being there for me.
It’s been a couple of weeks, and there have been a couple of developments I’d like you all to know about. But let me back up 20 years, and explain exactly how significant these developments are.
My mother has been in and out of the psych ward at Maimonides hospital since I can remember. The first time I can remember, I was four, and it was after she had a “manic episode” and took me, on Shabbos, to a man’s house where I witnessed them having sex. I wasn’t quite old enough at the time to understand the significance of what they were doing, but I do now. The weekend ended with my mother and that man getting into a physical altercation; my grandmother had to come over to break up the fight and make sure I got home safely. The police were called and she was committed. That’s the first time I remember.
The rest were a blur, happening every three years like clockwork, as she cycled between long periods of depression, followed by long periods of stability, followed by her deciding that stability meant she was cured, ceasing to take her medicine, rapidly decompensating, culminating in her involuntary commitment. I was too young at the time to really understand what was going on, but I knew it was bad, and I knew it was stressful. I didn’t have to handle it back then, though; that’s what my grandfather was for. Unfortunately, he died when I was 11, and my grandmother was left to be the disciplinarian in the house, and she became the one to call the police when it was time for my mother to be committed.
The two months my mother would take to decompensate would be different for me every time. Sometimes it wasn’t half bad. She would take me to interesting places, spend all her money on me, and make me feel like the most important person in the world. Sometimes it was all about her, and I had to watch every word I said to her, lest I send her into a rage. Sometimes she just left and shacked up with some guy for a while until I’d find out who he was, call his house incessantly, cursing him for taking my mother from me, until the guy would decide that the annoyance I posed was not worth the sex he was getting, and send her home. Sometimes it involved a diet that my mother decided she had to try. But it’s no fun doing a diet alone, so she would force me to go on that diet along with her. These diets usually ran along the lines of the starvation diets to which models, actresses, and people with eating disorders subject themselves—totally unsuitable for an adult, let alone a child.
But there was always a running theme, a way for me to know what was coming. It was always religion, and a focus on my biological father. I am the result of an affair my mother had with her hairdresser while married to her then husband. I don’t judge her for having that affair; her husband was an abusive man who I don’t doubt did many horrible things to her. When I was born, I posed a problem to the family; a mamzer is not something you want to have around when there are shidduchim (matchmaking prospects) to consider. My family asked a rav (rabbi) and a psak (ruling) was give: I was to be considered not a mamzer, since my mother was still married to then husband and possibly still having sex with him, and I was given her husband’s surname. For all halachic intents and purposes, I was her husband’s son. Understandably, she did not like this.
But she never really made a point of mentioning it unless she was on her way to the hospital, so to speak. Then she would bring it up at any opportunity. She would call me by my full name, and use her hairdresser’s surname rather than my given surname. She would make a point of the fact that to her I was a mamzer (illegitimate child), and be quite cruel about it. I know better now than to care, but back then it was not pleasant hearing that I could never marry anyone who wasn’t also a mamzeres (fem. illegitimate child). It was very important to her that I know the truth.
Another recurring theme was religion. My mother has never been particularly religious, but she would become incredibly devout right before having a complete breakdown. She would cover her hair, pray all day, often uttering God’s name as it is spelled out, rather than the accepted name for God in prayer (Ye-ho-vah rather than Ado-nai), which to me at the time was akin to desecrating God’s name. She would continue with this extremism until she realized she wasn’t going to get what she wanted from God, by which time she would be hospitalized. She would always come back barely religious again. In some way seeing her irreligious was a comfort; it meant that she was stable.
The final harbinger of her breakdowns was always the list of grievances she had against anyone and everyone she felt had ever wronged her, no matter how slightly. She is a master at bearing grudges and laying guilt trips. From $35,000 my grandparents supposedly stole, to her failed marriage, which she claims my grandparents pushed her into (which may very well me true), to all the times she “sacrificed” for me and I hadn’t reciprocated. As a ten year old. How selfish.
So life was not easy growing up for me. Aside from all that, there was always an undercurrent of conflict between her and my grandparents over who was truly responsible for parenting me. When my mother was first hospitalized, shortly following her divorce, my grandmother sued for custody and won. Her argument was that if my mother was too unstable to care for me, someone else had to have custody and be responsible for me. To be honest, I was always quite pleased that my mother didn’t have custody of me. I never really trusted her like that.
My mother was not pleased at all, however. When I was around 11 years old, she sued for custody from my grandmother, and being that she was stable at the time, the judge granted her full custody rights. Mind you, the entire time we were all living in the same house—my grandparents, my uncle, my mother, and I. Despite winning custody, there were constant arguments over who had the right to a say in what was best for me, from the books I read, to the shows I watched, to the food I ate. Everything was a conflict between my mother and my grandparents. And I was always caught in middle, often prompted to choose a side. The problem was, I generally preferred my grandmother, but was too afraid to say so. To be honest, there were times when the conflict confused me. I remember one time, after spending a weekend hearing my mother tell me all the horrible things my grandparents had supposedly done to her, picking up a knife and running at my grandfather with the intention of stabbing him.
This continued for the first 16 years of my life. It was difficult, but I always had my grandparents to lean on (after age 11 it was only my grandmother). At age 16, my grandmother fell into a deep depressing following a hospitalization which was a result of a side effect of an anti-depressant she’d started taking when the situation became too much for her to handle. That’s when things really got bad. My grandmother could no longer act as a buffer between me and my mother, and my mother was free to do whatever she wanted to me. That’s when the beatings started. The verbal and emotional abuse was worse than ever. I still have the marks on my doorframe where the posts were splintered by my mother’s attempts to break down my door. I never got around to fixing that.
It was harder dealing with my mother on my own, especially after I stopped talking to her. That really sent her over the edge. My mother has a son from her ex-husband, a son who was taken from her at the end of the marriage and placed with an adoptive family which has raised him like their own. My mother tried for years to get custody, but every time she got close, she had a breakdown and the judge ruled against her. Losing my brother hurt her deeply, which made what I was doing to her by not talking to her that much worse: she had lost both her sons. Unfortunately, rather than self-examining and coming to understand why she had lost me, she turned that hurt into rage directed at me.
For the first time, I was left to fend her off myself, and it was much harder then than it had been when I was younger. I was older so I could take more, and boy did she dish it. In lieu of my grandmother, I was the one who had to have her hospitalized, which made me the consummate bad guy. She would come back fro the hospital angry that I had sent her away, and the cycle of abuse would start all over again.
These past few months have been the hardest months of my life. The abuse was the worst I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t physical, because she knows full well I would fight back, but there are other ways of hurting people. She deprived me of sleep, abused my grandmother knowing full well there was nothing I could do about it—my grandmother refused to let me take any action—she threatened my life and safety, damaged my property, and let no opportunity to let me know exactly how worthless I was go to waste. But none of that compared to the anxiety her instability caused me. I was constantly on alert, my fight or flight reflex screaming at me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, always ready to spring into action should she do something really harmful to my grandmother or me. Months of constant anxiety. That was the worst.
She was in and out of the hospital 4 times in the past 5 months, each time they would keep her until she was stable enough that they could no longer justify keeping her against her will, and each time she would come back and immediately become unstable. The problem was, there was a little bit of a catch-22. I had a life to move on with, but I couldn’t move on until I knew my grandmother was safe, but it seemed that I was always the catalyst that set her off. So I was at once the solution and the problem. The only person who could solve that problem was my grandmother, but she refused to kick my mother out of the house. Every time my mother was hospitalized, my grandmother would take her back in, no matter how vehemently the rest of my family and I protested.
The problem was, that as bad as my mother was, and as much as she made my grandmother suffer (I believe my grandmother suffered much worse than I did these last few years), my grandmother refused to throw her out unless she knew for a fact that my mother would not wind up in a state mental hospital. My mother had been sent to one before for 6 months, and it had been a very unpleasant experience. Nothing anyone said to my grandmother could convince her that my mother would not wind up in a state hospital if thrown out of the house, so my grandmother kept allowing her back, regardless of the suffering she knew she was accepting.
But what was different this time than all the other times, was the fact that my grandmother finally spoke up to us and said that she hated how she was suffering. She actually told us that had she her way, she would be rid of my mother, as long as she could know for sure that my mother would not be sent to a state home. The last time my mother was released from the hospital, a social worker was assigned to her case to stay on top of her treatment compliance and work with her toward a supervised living arrangement away from our house through Ohel. My grandmother was skeptical because Ohel had never wanted to accept my mother before due to how unstable she could be, and the supervised living arrangement never went anywhere.
After the incidents I wrote about in my last piece about it, my grandmother realized that this couldn’t continue. I made sure my family was putting as much pressure as they could on her without outright forcing her to make a decision. About three weeks ago the hospital held a family meeting. They had tried to hold one a month prior, but I refused to show up. I was told later, that it’s very possible that my mother was allowed home because I didn’t show up at the meeting and make my case. As reluctant as I was to be in the same room as my mother, I forced myself to go to this family meeting.
We got to the hospital and rode the elevator up to the fourth floor. My mother was waiting to greet us, and she seemed happy that we had all come. She proudly pointed me out to all of her ward-mates. “That’s my son!” I just kept my eyes on my phone. I wasn’t there to see her or be shown off; I was there to make sure she never came home again. Her social worker and psychiatrist then met us, and the meeting began. The psychiatrist laid out the situation, with comments from the social worker. They told us that she was ready to be discharged, and that we had to make a decision what to do with her, whether to let her come home, or push her into an Ohel supervised apartment.
When we had walked in, my mother had made a point of asking my grandmother in front of all of us whether or not she would be allowed home. My grandmother said yes for lack of a better option, and my mother genuinely believed that my grandmother meant it. As the meeting progressed, it became my turn to speak. I had a lot of things I wanted to say to her doctors. I detailed the abuse she had put me through, and asked them how they didn’t feel responsible for any of the damage my mother had caused as a result of being released when she was clearly a danger. The psychiatrist took slight offense at my tone, and told all of us that it was not his responsibility, but ours to decide whether or not to allow her back home despite their warnings to the contrary. The point was well made, and it was time to decide what to do with my mother.
My mother started about me to the doctor. “It’s not my fault, it’s that bastard! He doesn’t talk to me! He provokes me! He does things to me! If he weren’t home, everything would be fine; he should be the one to move!” The doctors tried to calm her down, but she would not stop. She was escorted out of the room, and stood by the glass looking in. The meeting continued, and the doctors explained to us that his recommendation was to tell her that she was no longer welcome home and that she was either going to Ohel, or a homeless shelter. We asked some questions, made sure my grandmother was satisfied that Ohel would be a safe place for her, and then it came time for the decision: My grandmother was finally put on the spot and asked whether or not she would tell my mother that she couldn’t come home.
My mother was called back in. Immediately, she asked my grandmother whether or not she would be allowed back home. “I’m sorry, it won’t work out. You can’t come home.”
“But you said I could! You told me I could when you walked in!”
“I’m sorry, but you can’t. It won’t work out.”
“I took care of you for years! I too care of you after tatty died! You let Moishe (one of my uncles who married late and lived with us until that time) live there until he was 39 years old; why can’t I live with you?”
“I’m going to be moving into a smaller apartment, and I won’t have room for you.”
“That’s ridiculous! I want to live with you! Anywhere you go I want to go!”
“I’m sorry, it won’t work out.”
At that point the doctor took over, and explained to my mother, forcefully, that it was over. That she was never coming back home. My aunt chose that moment to tell my mother that it was because she was so unstable that this was happening. My mother didn’t like that, and grabbed my aunt’s wig off her head and flung it across the room. The psychiatrist yelled at her to calm down.
“I DON’T WANT TO GO TO OHEL!”
“Well,” said the psychiatrist levelly, “It’s either Ohel, or remember what we discussed?”
“Yeah. The shelter.”
“You don’t want to go to the shelter, do you?”
“So then you have to go to Ohel. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. Your mother can’t take care of you, and this is the best solution.”
“FINE, BUT I NEVER WANT TO TALK TO ANY OF YOU AGAIN, ESPECIALLY YOU, BASTARD!” she yelled, pointing at me, and stormed out of the room.
I have never been prouder of my grandmother.
The house has been quiet and safe for the first time in years. I cook dinner for my grandmother when I can, take care of the grocery orders, and make sure she eats. For the first time I can remember, my grandmother sat with me in the kitchen with me while I cooked dinner, and watched Netflix with me. We talked about the show, and what I was making, and for the first time in years, I felt connected to her again, like I finally had a family. She’s still severely depressed and it’s very hard to get her to open up and talk, but there’s the start of a relationship, and it feels so good, honestly. I feel happy to have a family for the first time in my life. They all stood up for me, they all finally listened and took my side, and they finally made it safe for me and my grandmother. I actually think I love them.
I’m writing this as I fly to Chicago to see my friends, and I’m trying to hold back the tears, but it’s not really working. On the way out this morning, my grandmother smiled at me and wished me a safe trip. I think it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. I look forward to seeing it many more times.
Hi, my name is Asher, and I have survived.