Why I Never Discuss Tragedy in Its Immediate Aftermath

Short answer? Because it’s maddening. It’s so infuriatingly predictable and horrible. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that when tragedy strikes, my first thought, after registering the shock and horror of what happened, is to consider all the ways that the tragedy will be exploited, and guess how long it’ll take until that happens. I’m rarely wrong. Every time there’s a mass shooting, I count the seconds until Wayne LaPierre issues a pro-gun statement, and wonder whether it’ll be him who speaks first, or the anti-gun crowd, neither side able to wait until the bodies are actually cold and buried before they pick them apart for scraps of an argument.

 

Here’s the long answer. Every single time I’ve lost my cool, and in a moment of pure anguish and frustration written a diatribe against whatever social ill I felt was the “real” cause of whichever tragedy had just happened, it made me feel good for around 10 minutes, but then inevitably sucked me into an irrelevant argument that left me feeling terrible, and utterly disconnected from the empathy I knew I should be feeling. In the aftermath of the Yishai Schlissel stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, I was so angry I got on Facebook and said that I hoped this would cause the Nations to hate us, because maybe if they used this as an excuse to start persecuting us again, we’d get an idea of how wrong and hurtful our homophobia really is. But of course the world doesn’t work like that. Violence doesn’t beget understanding, it begets more violence, until the whole world is blinded by it.

 

This is especially relevant when we have a suicide in the religious, or formerly-religious world. Immediately, the vultures descend on the body, from both sides, each claiming the suicide victim as their martyr. He died because of mental illness, and we need to do our utmost to address this serious problem. No, counters the other side, she died because her frum family, shitty, callous people that they were, tortured her so relentlessly about her choice to leave religion, that she finally killed herself. No, you don’t know the whole story. No, you don’t know the whole story. And on it goes, the buzzards feast, and secondary to the entire discussion, is the reason the discussion is happening: A person died.

 

A few years ago, an IDF soldier was found dead with his weapon next to him. The circumstances around his death were a little murky, but since he had been an open survivor of abuse who had described his struggles on his blog, certain activists immediately jumped to the conclusion that it must be suicide, because it fit the narrative they wanted to promote. And as just a cause as I’m sure they felt their co-opting of tragedy was, as just as I’m sure everyone who exploits tragedy for their agenda feels it is, they did so without regard to the feelings of the family, the actual mourners who were now left bereft of a son, a brother, a cousin, and on top of all that had to read agenda-driven speculation online while their loved one awaited burial.

 

Personally, I decided not to discuss it at the time. I can’t tell you why—it wasn’t because of this policy that I have, which, at the time, I didn’t yet have—but something stayed my opinions. About two years later, I got a Facebook message from the sister of that soldier, thanking me for not jumping on the bandwagon that was using her brother’s supposed suicide as a soapbox for their opinions. She told me that they still weren’t sure what it was, and that she appreciated the fact that I hadn’t used his death to make a point. That was the moment that I realized what had stopped me from discussing it—the understanding that the very worst time to discuss tragedy, is immediately in its aftermath.

 

If we intend to teach, to educate, to change the world in a way that prevents tragedy from happening again, then the absolute worst time to discuss it is when emotions are running high, no one is particularly interested in discussing things rationally, everyone already has an opinion that you’re not going to change, and nothing new will be added to the conversation that one billion other people with a Facebook account won’t already be saying. And of course all these post-tragedy rants range from the mildly to wildly offensive, not just to people on your friends lists, but also to the victims and their families who have to hear the world fighting for the endorsement rights to their pain and suffering.

 

If you must speak following tragedy, if you absolutely must say something because it hurts too much to keep it all in, try to think about what the victims and their families want to hear. Make it about them, not yourselves. What we might call slacktivism might just be compassion. A world standing in solidarity, saying “We’re here for you, all of us, and we have a lot to say, but we understand that right now is not the time to say it.” And yes, changing your profile picture to include a different overlay might not actually change anything, but you don’t need to immediately start changing anything in the direct aftermath of tragedy. If there was something you could have done about it, presumably you would have.

 

But the tragedy happened. And there are people who suffer in its aftermath. And those people need love, and support, and a feeling of safety and security while their world crashes down around them. They don’t need your opinions, and they don’t need your agendas. There’s always time for that later, when the passion and anger has subsided, and we can begin to discuss how to prevent it from ever happening again. When you won’t say things you’ll later regret. When you won’t lose friends because you absolutely had to speak your mind. When your words are motivated not by an angry desire to watch the world that allowed such tragedy burn, but by a love and empathy that needs the world to heal.

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How the Internet Saved My Life

When I started this blog, I intended it to be a place where I could share my thoughts with people who would hopefully like them, share them, discuss them. I’m not quite sure what I was hoping for beyond what every blogger hopes for—high hit counts, lots of shares, fawning adoration, if we’re being honest, some validation of my wacky ideas. It started a year and change ago on Tisha B’av at Aish Center in New York City. I had come early to their Tisha B’av program, and I was just chilling on a couch in their library with my smartphone.

I’d written a piece the previous night about how I relate to Tisha B’av, and what the day means to me. I thought it was a good piece, good enough that the world should see it. At the time I didn’t really have my own blog. I ran a blog for Our Place, I sometimes contributed to FrumFollies, but I didn’t have a place of my own to share my ideas. I copied the piece to Pastebin and shared it around, but there’s a reason, apparently, why people use WordPress, not Pastebin, for their blogging. A friend suggested I start a blog. I hadn’t wanted one at that point because having a blog means you have a commitment to your readers to write content that will keep them interested in you, and I wasn’t sure I had enough to say to fulfill that commitment. Sitting there on that couch, I wasn’t sure I could keep the commitment, but I knew that people had to read what I was writing. I felt I had something to add to the conversation. On Tonight I Mourn and The Gift of Tears I built my blog.

I didn’t just want my blog to be a place where I dumped my ideas waiting for unsuspecting people to stumble upon them and read them. I wanted it to be a new beginning, a more mature representation of my thoughts and beliefs, a departure from the biased, childish naiveté of my Our Place blog where I was forcing myself to seem more religious than I was to appeal to a more right wing demographic of potential donors, and the caustic, scorched-earth  indictments of my contributions to FrumFollies. I wrote things in both places which, while they made sense to me as a time, now make me cringe. They were preaching to a choir that already knew the lines. I wasn’t provoking thought, internal debate—I wasn’t starting a conversation—I was just shouting my way into the middle. I was determined to change that with my new blog, and I believe I have.

Along the way, though, what being a blogger means to me has changed. Honestly, the experience has been nothing short of humbling. Over the past year, I’ve received emails from people I greatly respect who have experienced tragedy, telling me how much my writing has meant to them. My readership has grown to a number I never would have imagined. My posts have been picked up by other publications and have started conversations so big that I’ve lost track of them. But they’ve also connected me with beautiful people, people with incredible hearts whose support and care has helped me through some very difficult times.

Over 50,000 people read my post about my mother’s abuse. For the next three days, I received so many messages sending me love, support, advice, offers for help and empathy, that I had to spend a few hours each night responding to all of them. I’ve made some good friends because of that post. The Carlebach post that followed was the first time I had truly connected with my readers as equals. I left the post open ended, hoping for a discussion, which I got. I spoke to people on all sides of the issue. People who were victims of Carlebach’s, people who had grown up with Carlebach, whose lives had been changed immeasurably by him and his music. I spoke to people who called me a liar, people who praised me for my courage in writing about a subject so delicate, people who themselves were conflicted about the issue and were grateful for the opportunity to discuss it. For the first time, I wasn’t just giving an idea to my readers hoping they would agree with it—my readers were giving me the ideas.

And then you people changed my life, and made me understand the true power of blogging. On January 8, my mother came back home. Those of you who follow my blog know that I was under the impression that she was going to Ohel permanently, and that my grandmother and I would finally be able to rebuild the lives that my mother had broken. But she came back home. I had woken up late that day. Business had been very busy, and mornings that I got to sleep in were rare. I woke at 10:30, and spent the next 45 minutes in bed watching Netflix. At 11:15, I heard her voice in the hallway. I heard her voice for the first time since the family meeting at the hospital, and the fact that I was hearing her voice just did not compute. She couldn’t be there. She couldn’t. How could someone who lived in Ohel be there in my hallway.

I listened for a minute to make sure it wasn’t just my aunt who has a very similar voice. It wasn’t my aunt. It was my mother. Frantically I called my aunt. “She’s here. She’s here and I don’t know what to do. She’s not supposed to be here. Why is she here?”

“Well, where else should she be?”

“She’s not supposed to be here! Is this something that’s been happening when I’ve been at work? Has she been visiting?” Her visiting my grandmother from Ohel is something we had discussed with the social workers at the family meetings.

“Well she’s human, she has to go somewhere.”

“She has Ohel! What is she doing here?!

“She’s not in Ohel; Ohel didn’t take her.”

At this point I started having a full blown panic attack.

“What do you mean they didn’t take her…”

“They didn’t accept her.”

“And no one thought it might be a good idea to tell me?”

“I don’t know, we didn’t know much ourselves.”

“You knew enough to know she was coming home, and you didn’t tell me anything!”

She started stammering, trying to find an excuse, but she was never the one who made the decisions anyway, so yelling at her was pointless. Next I tried calling my uncle. He didn’t answer, so I texted. I had texted him on December 2 asking him if the Ohel interview happened, but he had never answered. On January 8th, this conversation happened:

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I got dressed in my room. At 11:35, I posted this message to an online support group I help run:

“She’s back and oh my god I don’t know what to do and my family isn’t saying anything and Oh my god help I can’t live like this I can’t I fucking can’t she didn’t get into Ohel and no one told me and she’s back and I want to die and help I need to go to work but I can’t deal with life right now I can’t I can’t I can’t do this I thought I was free Oh my god someone help[.]”

At 11:45, I packed my briefcase with what I’d need for work, my medicine, and my laptops, and I left, not knowing if I’d ever be back, or how I’d live. I was, effectively, homeless.

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I had just come back from a trip to Chicago a week prior. During my trip, I’d expressed interest to some of my friends in moving there permanently if I could find a job. Through some connections, a tentative job offer was made, which would probably start by the end of summer. That left me a few months to get my affairs in order in New York, including paying off my unfortunate credit card debt. Thinking that my mother was safely in Ohel, thus giving me as much time as I needed living with my grandmother all expenses paid, I spent all my money paying off the trip, and began paying off the credit cards. I had no money in my bank account.

My day started in Crown Heights, where I had four driving lessons to give. I had no idea what I would do after work, but I knew I couldn’t afford to take off, because whatever I did do after work would probably cost money. It’s a miracle I was able to focus.

Thankfully, by 12:12 PM I had already been offered a place to crash temporarily. My friend, Chaim Levin, offered to let me stay on his couch. While that was a generous offer, what Chaim actually did, was sleep by his parents for Friday night and Saturday night, allowing me to get a decent night’s sleep on his bed, for which I am deeply grateful.

At around 1:00 PM, I got a message from Elad Nehorai offering to help me raise money by crowdfunding to move into an apartment. He asked me how much I needed; I told him $5000. I wanted a number that would get me as much as I needed to move, but not more. He got to work on starting a GoFundMe. Being that I run what I like to think of as a sort-of-successful blog, he told me to write a post about my situation, and appeal to my readers for help. I pulled over to the side of the road, wrote it, and sent it off. Elad continued to work on the finishing touches for the campaign. By 2:40 PM, it was up and running.

At 2:24 PM, I called my best friend, and for about a half hour, had a complete meltdown. I was crying, gibbering, talking to myself, shaking, incoherent. She just listened and offered her empathy, which is exactly what I needed. I told her that Elad was helping me with crowdfunding, and she set to work finding me an apartment. By around 6:45, she had found something and emailed the landlady. At 9:00 PM, I went to see the apartment.

At 2:46 PM, I called my uncle. I wanted to know what was going on. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I remember yelling at him for two minutes about how unacceptable it was that she didn’t get into Ohel, blaming him for it falling through, and demanding to know why no one told me. He said something along the lines of “You’re coming on very strongly, but you have to understand there’s only so much one person can do.” I asked him, “You couldn’t at least tell me? You couldn’t warn me?” He claimed that they didn’t know what was happening. I called bullshit because he had to have known at the very least that she wasn’t accepted into Ohel. He had never answered my texts. He hadn’t even tried to keep me, the one person who was most affected by what was happening, apprised on what was happening. I yelled at him for not telling me, for making me think I was safe when I really wasn’t, for turning me into what amounted to a homeless beggar, for making me uproot my life at a moment’s notice. Then I paused to catch my breath, and waited for him to say something. When he didn’t, I told him “I’m going to hang up now. You go try to find a way to live with yourself; I’ll go try to find a way to live.”

Those were and will be the last words I speak to my family. They’ve hurt me enough.

By 3:00 PM, $500 had been raised. By 6:30 PM, $4900 had been raised. By the following day at 2:07 PM, $7,000 had been raised. By the time the campaign ended a few days later, close to $8000—$3000 above the goal—had been raised.

Around 7:30 PM, I went home to pack my things. I walked in without anyone noticing, put everything I thought I would need into two large suitcases, and moved onto Chaim Levin’s couch. The next day, Elad arranged for me to spend the Shabbos meals by two lovely families who made my first Shabbos as a displaced person feel much less scary. By Sunday afternoon, the landlady had called my references, vetted me, and told me I could move in at 6:00 that night. I didn’t have the money that had been raised through GoFundMe yet, but she confirmed through Elad that it was there, and agreed to let me move in before signing the lease and paying the rent and deposit. Since I’ve moved in, she has been nothing short of a saint.

Around 5:00 PM on Sunday January 10, I went home one last time to get my stuff. On my own, I dragged my fridge, TV, toaster ovens, books, computers, and other stuff to my car as my grandmother and mother watched, not quite sure what I was doing, but pretty certain that I was moving. I didn’t say a word to either of them. By 10:00 PM I was moved in.

The one thing I regret about the move is cutting my grandmother off. I don’t blame her at all for what happened; she was just as much a victim as I was. She still is. I can’t talk to her anymore because anything I tell her will get back to the rest of my family, and I can’t have them knowing about me anymore. I’ve ignored their texts and calls, not that there have been very many. I hope one day to have a relationship with her again, but as long as my mother is alive and a part of her life, I don’t see how that’s possible. I pray that she understands and forgives me, but more importantly, I pray that she finds a way to let go of the guilt that she’s been carrying all these years about my mother. She doesn’t deserve it.

What’s amazing about this whole story, and what makes me truly appreciate the power of blogging and social media, is that all the people who helped me, all the people who have shown that they truly love and care for me, the people that I now consider my family, the people who support me unconditionally, are all people I have met online. Shay, Chaim, Elad, and all the other people who have been there for me, and continue to support me, are all people I’ve connected with online. The money that was raised, was donated by people who, for the most part, have never met me, and will, most likely, never meet me. The only connection they had with me was my blog, and yet they’re the ones who helped me when I most needed it. That is the power of the internet.

The internet has really shaken things up since its inception. The advent of high-speed internet and its ubiquity has thrown a wrench into the social order. Whereas people who formerly felt isolated, whether because of their ideas, their questions, their family situations—people who felt powerless and helpless, like they had no one and no options—were alone, without a community to help or support them, without the basic comfort of another human being to say “I’m here for you,” now have that through the internet. I am no longer a victim because of the internet and the friends it has given me. I am religious because of the internet and the people I found online who were going through the same struggles I was, who listened and advised instead of judging and dismissing. To me, the internet, and how you all helped me escape, is nothing short of miraculous. I thank God every day for the internet. I’d be dead without it, either by suicide or by circumstance.  I have a voice because of the internet. I have a family because of the internet. I have all of you because of the internet.

I have a life because of the internet.

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After 20 Years I’m Finally Free

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?”

“No!”

“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.

 

 

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Why I’m Not Shomer Negiah Anymore

They taught us in writing class that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. They taught us that it’s a complete fabrication made up by people who were too lazy to write. There are, however, times when the creative juices just seem not to flow. “Just write about anything,” my teacher said. “Write about getting out of bed in the morning, or the birds that chirped outside your window as you got dressed, or the fly that jumped into your oatmeal while you were looking away at the morning Times. Write about your writer’s block. Write about anything as long as you write, and that block will disappear.” That’s kind of what I did with this opening paragraph. It’s not that I’m too lazy to write; honestly, the fact that I’m writing this scares me a little.

I put myself out there with my writing in a way that most people wouldn’t be comfortable doing themselves. Being a religious Jew living in my community, I should be terrified of what this blog does to my shidduch (suitability for marriage) prospects. When I started writing, I gave up any hope of shidduchim. Instead of depending on shadchanim (matchmakers), I chose to meet girls on my own. So I don’t have that hanging over me. Still, though, I try to keep the objectionable stuff to a minimum here, especially when it comes to things that can come back and bite me, but I think this is something that enough abuse survivors struggle with, that the discomfort I may experience from writing this and dealing with the resulting judgment of people who don’t understand is outweighed by the potential benefit.

Growing up, touch was always a touchy subject for me. My family isn’t one of those touchy feely ones where hugs and kisses are a normal thing people do. Everyone, I assume, knew that everyone else loved them; they didn’t need physical signs of affection to understand that. The only one who ever hugged or kissed me was my mother, which to most people will seem normal, but it never felt normal to me. The way she touched me was stifling, constantly kissing me, hugging me, almost possessively, as though she were marking me as hers. I could tell her to stop, I could tell her I was uncomfortable, but she wouldn’t stop.

I hear those eyes rolling, those mothers in my audience groaning because it reminds them of when they try to kiss their own children despite cries of “Oh my God, mom, you’re so embarrassing!!!” My mother abused me for years in ways so subtle I didn’t even realize it. Every time she touched me it was possessive and dominating, not loving. She was the only one who ever touched me as a kid. That coupled with what she did resulted in me having an extreme aversion to touch. I can’t even handle too many people standing around me, even if they’re not touching me. Just yesterday, I was in a restaurant at a table behind a large family on their way out. One of them passed a coat over me to another, and the coat brushed me. I had to clench my jaw and ball my fists to prevent myself from screaming or hitting one of them.

For most of my life I couldn’t handle anyone touching me. They did anyway, and I didn’t say anything, but I hated it. Both men and women. I reacted viscerally any time someone touched me. Then I met Melanie. Melanie came to me at a time in my life when everything was coming to a head. I had pretty much dropped out of high school because of what was happening to me at home. I had lost the ability to feel any emotion at all. The abuse at home required a certain cruelty of me, a callousness that left no room for any other emotion. It had gotten so bad that I slept with a belt near my bed in case my mother came in and tried beating me. I had to be willing to fight back against my mother, and hurt her if necessary, if she tried hurting me. It’s no easy thing for a son to injure his mother, to hear her cry and know he caused it. This was happening almost daily when I met Melanie.

She was a member of a forum I was very active on. I say met, but we only ever interacted online. I never actually met her in real life. It’s amazing, really; someone who had such an integral role in making me who I am now never actually met me. She was an Irish Protestant aspiring divinity student from Hawaii with a strong interest in religion, theology, philosophy, and politics. We instantly became best friends; we were as inseparable as two people living six thousand miles from each other could be. We spent every waking moment Skyping, IMing, texting, or calling each other. She somehow saw past my surly, caustic, sarcastic, heartless exterior. Somehow she saw that cowering version of me, hiding in some dark recess of my soul, terrified to come out for fear of being hurt even more. She saw the secrets I kept and how much they were hurting me, and she offered to help me carry them. She’s the first person I’ve ever told everything to. I think she’s the first person I ever loved.

It was she who showed me that I could feel again, that the cruelty I’d been forced to feel toward my mother didn’t have to become who I was. She helped me trust again.

Writing is what ultimately helped me start healing. An article I wrote for Ami magazine about what I’d gone through sort of opened the floodgates, and I’ve been writing ever since. It’s an amazing catharsis, and it has really helped me sort through things. Sometimes you just need to get all that conflict and inner turmoil out on paper before you can stare it down and tell it to jump in a lake. I started writing a memoir. It’s no easy task, writing a memoir, and it helps to have people around you, other writers who understand how difficult writing can be, cheering you on.

Every November is National Novel Writing Month, worldwide. Thousands of aspiring authors shake off the cobwebs, dust off their typewriters, and write a novel in a month. Living in New York City is great during NaNoWriMo. There are writing meetings all over the city where you can sit with other authors and bounce ideas off each other, discuss which way would be best to kill off your characters, which characters should fall in love with each other, how to accurately describe a freshly severed head, get drunk, and write until your fingers fall off. Most of them aren’t Jewish, and the ones who are generally aren’t religious, which means that sooner or later you’re going to get touched, whether it’s a hug, handshake, pat on the back, or arm around the shoulder. It happens so fast and so naturally that you don’t even have time to object if you’re shomer negiah (careful not to touch the opposite sex unless you’re either married or immediately related to them).

At the time I was still shomer negiah, and I would protest if I could, but more often than not it was over before I could begin to protest. I found myself liking it. They were a great bunch of people who knew the parts of my story I’d given as a synopsis for my plot and were very supportive of me, and I trusted them. It felt great to be touched by people and not feel like I had to run; to be hugged by someone I thought of as a friend and not have a panic attack. I never initiated any kind of physical contact; I just sat there waiting for one of the girls to come and hug me, or just pat me on the shoulder, hoping that they did it fast enough for me to get away with not protesting.

Funny enough, I still hated being touched by the guys. I’d cringe every time one of them so much as came to close to me. I’ve discussed it with my therapist because it seems counter-intuitive. I was abused by a woman and not a man, and yet, for some reason, if I trust them I’ll let a woman touch me, but no matter who the man is and how much I trust him, I can’t stand being touched by him. She says it’s because of Melanie, that since she was the first person I opened up to, I’m open to trusting women more than I’ll ever trust men.

I knew I liked being touched by women, but I still believed that it was wrong. I was still shomer negiah, which made life very difficult for me. Before this, I had resigned myself to the fact that I’d never like being touched by anyone, but now I knew that it didn’t have to be like that for me. The fact that I had options made the idea of going the rest of my single life without any physical contact very scary. People take physical contact very much for granted because they, thank God, have it in their lives, even people who are shomer negiah. That “bro hug” or clap on the shoulder is huge. It’s almost like breathing. You take it for granted until you can’t have it. Being touched by men gave me panic attacks and being touched by women was forbidden. That scared me. A lot.

It took me a year to finally decide to stop being shomer negiah, and it was not an easy decision. A year of hoping someone would touch me before I had to object. A year of feeling both guilty and pleased for wanting that basic human need fulfilled. Finally I couldn’t do it anymore. One day I just messaged a friend of mine that I had been spending a lot of time with and told her that I wasn’t shomer negiah anymore. She wasn’t shomer negiah either, and while she found my sudden decision strange, she was pleased that she didn’t have to be careful around me anymore. She could hug me if she wanted to. She could tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. She could hold my arm when we walked. I was pleased that she was pleased, because I wanted all those things too.

I felt so guilty for the first two months, like I was headed down some slippery slope to premarital sex and unintended paternity. It took some time to rid myself of that guilt and come to terms with the fact that touching the opposite sex does not have to be sexual. I literally sat in coffeshops watching the way secular people interacted with each other as friends to get some sort of feel for what was normal and acceptable physical contact between friends and what wasn’t. A hand on the back is ok, but only if it isn’t too low on the back. Too low means you want something else. A kiss on the cheek is ok as a greeting, but only if it doesn’t linger. A hug is ok but only for a second or two. Past that gets uncomfortable.

 It may seem odd, but there was a very steep learning curve for me, a rather religious boy from a rather religious family in a rather religious community. What I was doing was unheard of. Scandalous. God forbid anyone saw me. I’d become an instant kiruv (religious outreach) case. Boys who touched girls were almost certainly having sex with them, and sex before marriage is strictly forbidden. I had to be careful lest anyone think I was having sex.

It’s been a little over a year since I stopped being shomer negiah, and I can’t say I regret my decision. I honestly don’t think I would have lasted being shomer negiah, knowing that I would have to go until I got married without so much as a high five from someone that didn’t give me a panic attack.

That being said, the fact that I’m not shomer negiah does not mean I believe I’m doing the right thing. More to the point, I still believe in the rationale behind being shomer negiah. I still believe that premarital sex is wrong, and that being shomer negiah is the best way of heading it off. To that end, I set limits for myself. I may not be shomer negiah, but I still keep as much of the spirit of that law as I can. I don’t do anything sexual. I’ve never kissed a girl, nor do I intend to before I’m married. I don’t touch parts of the body that are sexual. I don’t touch a girl’s chest or genitals, or get close to either. I’m not looking to get away with more than I think I need.

It’s not easy. Honestly, if I could be shomer negiah I like to think I would be just because of how complicated it is to toe that thin line between what I need to satisfy my need for basic physical contact and going any further. It’s very hard to just stop myself, especially when the other person really wouldn’t mind me going further, but I have a very clear idea of why I don’t want to go further, a clear understanding of the law, and a desire to keep halacha (Jewish law) stronger than my desire for sexual satisfaction. (That being said, have I mentioned how difficult it is? Because let me tell you…)

I’m not recommending what I do to anyone, nor am I looking for anyone to tell me that what I’m doing is ok. I know it’s not ok. I know it’s not halachically permissible. I choose to do it anyway. This post is meant to help anyone who experienced what I did, to validate the feelings they may be having, to let them know that they are not bad people for wanting something forbidden. I know there are people going through the same struggle and I want you to know that whatever you choose to do, whether you stay shomer negiah, choose not to be but with the same boundaries as me, or choose to do away with it entirely without any boundaries, no one can judge you, no one can criticize you, and no one can make you feel bad about your decision. Anyone who does has never walked a minute in your shoes, and anyone who has would never judge you.

I hope this post can help people, and to anyone reading this who is going through the same struggle, I wish you luck in your healing, a long and happy life devoid of pain, and the courage to transcend whatever was done to you.

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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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