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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Unesaneh Tokef Through The Eyes of a Survivor

I find it hard to pray for myself. I always feel unworthy. I feel like a hypocrite standing before God, imperfect as I am, a sinner set in his ways, asking God to do me yet another favour I know I’ll never return. I’ve heard the speeches. I’ve heard my rav (rabbi) tell me over and over again, that regardless of what I believe will happen after Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), one moment of pure teshuva (repentance), one moment of repentance, a single instant in which I tell God that were every moment that moment, I would never sin again, is enough to constitute repentance and earn me forgiveness in the eyes of God. No matter how many times I hear it, I can never accept it. Afar ani b’chayai (I am like dirt in my lifetime—taken from the Yom Kippur liturgy)—what right do I have.

So I spend my Yom Kippur doing other things. I focus on the Avodah (litany of the service in the Temple), I cry during eileh ezkerah (litany mourning the death of the Ten Sages by the Romans), I sit quietly in my seat and stare at the choirmaster as he conducts his choir. I pray for other people because I can’t pray for myself. I pray for my friends, for (some of) my family, for the countless victims of abuse and suffering, for the dead who can no longer pray for themselves, both those whose lives were taken by others, and those who took their own lives. I pray for other people, and in doing so, I pray that God sees fit to help me a little bit, too.

For the past five years, Unesaneh Tokef (litany composed by Rav Amnon of Mayence—recounted in part below) has been the hardest prayer for me to utter throughout the entire liturgy of the High Holy Days. I always end up crying bitterly. Thus far, thank God, no one has come over to me and asked me why someone so young cries so hard during a prayer that confronts mankind with a mortality that youth should find, at most, abstract. I have my answer all prepared in case someone asks me: For some of us it’s just more real. I’d like to share my thoughts on a few parts of the Yom Kippur prayers, and what they mean to me. Not all of the things apply to me, but they are all things I have come across since I started hearing people’s stories.

The story goes that Rav Amnon of Mayence, Germany was friends with the Archbishop of the town. The two would converse often, sometimes, and increasingly, about religion. The Archbishop very much wanted Rav Amnon to consider converting to Christianity. After wearing him down enough, Rav Amnon, to buy himself a little time, and to get the Archbishop to leave him alone, requested three days during which to consider the Archbishop’s request. Upon returning home, Rav Amnon was devastated by the fact that he had seemingly given the impression of even considering apostasy. He locked himself in his house for three days, repenting, begging forgiveness from God for even the slightest hint of heresy.

At the end of the three days, the Archbishop sent for Rav Amnon, to hear his decision. Rav Amnon refused to come. Eventually, the Archbishop ordered Rav Amnon forcibly brought to his residence. When confronted about his apparent disobedience, Rav Amnon told the bishop to cut off his tongue for saying he would return after three days, despite his having no intention of doing so. The Archbishop responded that he should instead cut off Rav Amnon’s legs, for it was his legs which were responsible for not bringing him after three days.

The Archbishop ordered Rav Amnon’s limbs amputated, joint by joint. Following each little amputation, he asked Rav Amnon if he would agree to convert. Rav Amnon refused. When both his arms and legs had been cut off, the Archbishop sent Rav Amnon back home on a stretcher, his severed limbs beside him. A few days later, on Rosh HaShana (Jewish New Year), Rav Amnon requested that he be brought, weak, bloody, and dying, to the synagogue. Right before the chazzan (cantor) recited kedusha (holy prayer recited by the cantor), Rav Amnon requested that he be brought before the ark. With his last breath, he recited Unesaneh Tokef, and passed from this world. I read the story every year before saying Unesaneh tokef; it never ceases to amaze me how a man so broken, so forsaken by his God, could hold onto faith so strongly. And with that in mind, I begin: Unesaneh tokef kedushas hayom.

 It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles — it will read itself.

You alone, God, know; You alone bear witness when the door is closed; You alone bear witness when a child is too afraid to speak; You alone can attest to the atrocity that tens of thousands of Your children experience every day, every week, and every year. You alone record it, and reckon it, remember it, and judge it. You alone can see the truth even if everyone else calls it a lie. That book of yours records and reports all those times a child cried alone, begging someone, anyone, to help.

 All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

Please, God, let this be the year we get justice.

 On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed…who will live and who will die.

Who will survive, and who will try their hardest, but eventually let go.

Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time.

How many more will be added to The Wall.

Who by sword?

Who will cut just a little too deep.

Who by beast?

Who will run afoul of their dealer.

Who by famine, and who by thirst?

Who will die as a result of an eating disorder.

Who by upheaval?

Who will be forced out onto the street to escape an abusive home.

Who by plague?

Who will contract HIV from a rapist who didn’t wear a condom.

Who by strangling?

Who will hang themselves.

Who by stoning?

Who will jump.

Who will rest?

Maybe this year he’ll stop.

 Who will wander?

Maybe these foster parents won’t be as bad.

Who will live in harmony?

Maybe my husband won’t force me tonight.

Who will be tormented?

My friend gave me a number to a shelter.

Who will enjoy tranquility?

Will he finally give the Get.

Who will suffer?

Will we ever see our children again.

Who will be impoverished?

Will anyone ever hire us again if we go to the police.

Who will be enriched?

How many more hundreds of thousands of dollars will be raised to help some child rapist while we have to literally beg for money.

Who will be degraded?

Maybe we really were asking for it.

Who will be exalted?

When will they finally celebrate a criminal going to prison instead of celebrating his release.

Fast forward to the close of Neilah (lit. closing [of the gates]), the very last time we’re given on Yom Kippur to beseech God for the coming year:

May it be your will, God, who hears the sound of our cries, that you place our tears in your flask to remain; and rescue us from all cruel and harsh decrees, for to you alone do our eyes look.

ISN’T THAT DAMN FLASK OF YOURS FULL ALREADY?! HOW MUCH LONGER! HOW MANY MORE YEARS! HOW MANY MORE THOUSANDS, HOW MANY MORE MILLIONS, HOW MANY MORE DEAD CHILDREN , HOW MANY MORE CUTS, HOW MANY MORE PILLS, HOW MANY MORE NIGHTS SPENT IN THE EMERGENCY ROOM, HOW MANY MORE THERAPY SESSIONS, HOW MANY MORE FLASHBACKS, HOW MANY MORE PANIC ATTACKS, HOW MANY MORE FINGERS DOWN HOW MANY MORE THROATS, HOW MANY DIVES OFF THE EDGES OF BUILDINGS, HOW MANY BODIES SWINGING FROM HOW MANY MORE ROPES, HOW MANY NIGHTS SPENT SOAKING HOW MANY MORE PILLOWS—HOW MANY TEARS WILL IT TAKE FOR YOU TO REALIZE THAT THAT DAMN FLASK OF YOURS IS ALREADY FULL?

Enough. Please. Enough. One day, I hope, my, and everyone else’s prayers will be answered.

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The Show Must Go On

Author’s note: This story was originally published in Ami Magazine. It has been edited from its original form. It was originally published under a pseudonym.

 

My story isn’t easy. It’s an uncomfortable subject for many people, for many reasons. I hope that in sharing it I can help not only myself, but others going through a similar situation.

Mental illness has always been a touchy subject. Society as a whole has done a decent job of addressing it, but as Orthodox Jews, we’re taking our time. We fear the stigma, the implications for shidduchim (Jewish matchmaking prospects) and reputation. While I’ll admit that mental illness is something to take into account when considering a prospective spouse, it must be understood that the culture built around the fear of mental illness and the stigma not only hurts countless people, but magnifies the problem. The damage stigma causes to people who suffer from mental illness, and the culture of denial and concealment, perpetuate the problem by ensuring that the people who need it will be too scared to seek treatment. My and my family’s suffering may have been avoided had this stigma not existed.

My birth was not a highlight in my family’s history. My mother was on the back end of an awful marriage, which ended shortly after I was born. That’s when her bipolar disorder decided to manifest. Various mental illnesses can lie dormant for years until some kind of inciting trigger sets it off. Bipolar is one of them. You’re born with a genetic predisposition toward the disorder, not unlike the genetic predispositions toward heart disease or cancer, but it generally takes some environmental force to trigger it. In my mother it was triggered by her divorce, and she suffered a breakdown. She was hospitalized for two months in the psych ward of a local hospital and placed on meds.

Psychiatric treatment is not a perfect science, and devising an effective regimen can be tricky. Often, drugs are not enough, and studies show that treatment is much more effective with accompanying psychological treatment as well as meds. Even when an effective regimen is devised, it can become less effective over time. People on meds need constant monitoring to ensure that their drug levels in their blood don’t get too high or too low, and the drugs’ effectiveness can eventually wear off. It’s difficult, which means that one of the most important factors in psychiatric treatment is how compliant and willing the patient is.

My mother wasn’t very compliant. She had grown up believing that mental illness was either a contrivance on the part of doctors (and what do they know anyway, right?) or that you were a gibbering loon who regularly converses loudly with people no one else can see as he stumbles down the street. The idea that most people have of functional people with a legitimate but manageable illness was foreign to her, her family, and her community. She would comply with the doctors and their regimen for as long as she needed to, but inevitably, she would declare herself “cured” and stop taking her meds.

This happened pretty regularly for 16 years in three year cycles. She would stop taking her meds, and for two months she would rapidly decompensate. She would become angry, snappish, moody, manic. She’d subject me to some kind of mistreatment, sometimes it was as small as just snapping at me if I spoke, sometimes it was a new starvation diet she decided was a good idea for herself which I for some reason had to adopt as well. My family would let her progress until she did something violent to someone and even then they were hesitant to have her committed. They didn’t like having to admit that there was enough of a problem. They downplayed it, pretended as if it could be managed at home, and no amount of experience ever wised them up. “What would the neighbors say.” “Shidduchim.”

So she would be committed, stay there an average of two months, during which she would go from angry, to “if I’m going to be here I’m going to run the place” to grudgingly compliant. I’d come visit her often. It wasn’t half bad, actually. The food was surprisingly good, and I was young enough to appreciate the activities they had for the patients. When she’d be released we would make her a welcome home party of sorts. I’d decorate banners to hang in the house, heralding her return. She’d mellow out, stabilize, and the good times would return. We’d go to restaurants during the week, touring different cities, and just sit around and talk on shabbos (sabbath) afternoons. Life was pretty good when she was stable. The two months of instability and subsequent two months of her being committed seemed a price worth paying for my mother.

Bipolar disorder, as the name suggests, is a cycling between highs and lows, or more accurately, mania and depression. In my mother, mania would make her a thousand times herself. She wouldn’t sleep. She would become very outgoing, energetic, very friendly with everyone but me, but with a very short temper. She became the life of everyone’s party. But she also became angrier, sarcastic, mean. After a few weeks of that she would crash. Her world would become grey, muted. She’d lie in bed all day, sleeping or watching TV, barely capable of walking to the fridge to get food.

They treated her with mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, anti-depressants, which worked great when she was depressed because they gave her some semblance of a life, but when she’d cycle back to manic (a muted sort of manic when she was on her meds, more like just high enough to function) the meds would make her feel limited, like her mind was hitting a glass ceiling teasing her with possibility but never allowing her to reach it. Kind of like that mashal (parable) people use to describe gehinnom (hell), where God is compared to the sun, and gehinnom is an eyepatch. She’d put up with it for about three years and then decide that she had enough. It would usually even out, though. She would crash hard and, albeit grudgingly, in some way acknowledge the fact that she needed treatment. She would never say those words, but she understood it.

For some reason, after years of being on Haldol, she suddenly developed a severe allergy to it. Her face swelled up and she had to go to the ER where they gave her IV antihistamines and immediately took her off the medication. Her doctor was supposed to replace it with another antipsychotic, but he never got around to it. To my mother it was like a convicted lifer getting a furlough. It wasn’t complete freedom, but enough to give her hope. Also enough to finally start functioning the way she felt she should. For two weeks she became more energetic, but not overly energetic. More alert, but not hyper-aware. Better but not crazy. Her doctor seemed impressed, and not only officially discontinued her antipsychotic, but lowered her other dosages. This kept happening, slowly over the course of about two months, until she was on such a low dose that she declared herself cured and stopped taking her medicine altogether.

That’s when she really started declining. She quickly started becoming manic. She became slightly less coherent, spouting ideas that only made sense to her. Her memories were distorted. Her difficult childhood rose to the surface, reawakening old vendettas ad grudges that she’d buried. She turned against everyone she believed wronged her. Her parents for not being there for her, her friends for not being supportive enough, her relatives for things they’d done to her as children, and I became the reminder of her failed marriage and ruined life.

One Friday night, when I was about sixteen years old, things came to a head. Because my mother was divorced and suffering with bipolar disorder, we lived by my grandparents. The household consisted of me, my mother, my grandparents, and my uncle, who was disabled and required constant care. He suffered from schizophrenia which went undiagnosed and subsequently untreated long enough for him to stab himself in the kitchen one night. Something went wrong during the surgery to repair his heart, and he spent the next fourteen months in a coma. He woke up, but since then he’s required constant care. We were an odd family, but my grandparents made it work.

Shabbos was always nice. My grandfather sitting at the head of the table, leading us through the meal, softly singing his zemiros (traditional songs sung on the Sabbath) in tunes from his childhood, telling us stories about “der alter heim (the old country).” He died when I was eleven, and my grandmother tried to take his place, but it wasn’t the same. Shabbos was never the same after he died. There was no substitute for him. Gradually shabbos became less about us eating together as a family, and more about getting the meal over with. We would all bring books to the table and do our thing as we made our way through the courses, hurrying to finish so we could each go nap, or in my case play. There wasn’t much ceremony to it, even less feeling. No more zemiros, no more stories. No more conversation.

Over the years, my mother’s approach to religion has moved toward the “I need something from God, let’s see what he’ll give me” approach. She wasn’t overtly religious, and didn’t really do anything particularly religious, unless she wanted something from God. Then she would go overboard, hoping for some immediate divine reward in return for her sudden piety. These “episodes” would usually coincide with her manic episodes. If she started to pray every day, or cover her hair, or do anything particularly religious, it was almost a harbinger of trouble to come.

That Friday night she had her hair covered and was singing shalom aleichem (traditional song welcoming the Sabbath). I came to the table with my book, feeling a little apprehensive. She saw the book and got angry. I was messing up her perfect shabbos. God wouldn’t give her what she wanted if I read at the table. She demanded that I take it away. I didn’t understand why I should. I mean, it wasn’t like this week was any different from any other; it wasn’t like we were suddenly going to be a regular family; what else was I supposed to do at the table if not read?

She lost it. She started insulting me, cursing me, telling me she wished I had been aborted, telling me that it was my fault her boyfriend wasn’t marrying her, and that if I weren’t around she would be able to be with him every night. I ran from the kitchen where we’d been sitting into the living room and barricaded the recliner against it. That didn’t stop her, though. She kept yelling and cursing at me to the air, to the walls, to my grandmother who was trying to calm her down. I couldn’t take it anymore. I kept the recliner barricaded against the door and slipped out of the house through the living room door.

I ran crying to my friend’s house, where I cried some more. They were incredible. His mother took me to a side room and asked me what happened, and then she and my friend sat with me for a few hours. She offered to have me over for the night, but I said no. I wanted to go home, see if things had calmed down. Maybe she would apologize. Maybe it would be ok when I got back.

I came back into my house through the living room door, hoping that they hadn’t figured out I had left and had left the room barricaded. I wanted to be alone. When I opened the door I saw my aunt and uncle sitting there with my mother and grandmother. They were all laughing at something my mother had just said. It was like nothing had happened that night, like she hadn’t told me that she’d have gladly traded my life for more sex, like she hadn’t told me that my existence was such a nuisance that she’d have been better off aborting me. She turned to me, the vestiges of laughter still on her lips, and said “hi.” No “I’m so sorry,” no “I will do anything you need me to do to get your forgiveness,” no “can we please talk about it?” Hi.

“YOU WANT TO FUCK HIM SO BADLY? WHY DON’T YOU GO FUCK HIM THEN?!”

Those were the last words I ever spoke to my mother. I ran to my room, crying, flopped into bed and vowed, as my tears soaked my pillows, that on my life I would never speak another word to her. It’s been five years and I’ve kept that vow.

She’s never once apologized, or even tried to. She still talks at me, but I don’t react. I still live in that house with her and my grandmother, but I haven’t so much as looked at my mother’s face, let alone spoken to her in five years.

That Friday night was the beginning of the end of my family and my connection with it. My mother continued to decompensate. She became increasingly angry, more violent. She shouted, cursed, and threatened, both me and my grandmother. I can’t count how many times I begged my grandmother to have her committed. I’d plead, beg, scream, hoping that she would come to her senses and have my mother committed, of not for my sake then for my mother’s. She needed treatment and we needed a break from her. My grandmother kept clinging to the hope that this was all part of a process which would eventually level itself out and result with my mother cured and able to function independent of medication. I’d point out all the times in the past when she and my family were wrong and ask why this time was any different. It always came down to the neighbors and shidduchim.  I tried to convince some of my family to circumvent my grandmother, have my mother committed against both of their wills. None of them wanted to cross my grandmother, and all of them shared her concern for our family’s appearance and reputation. Neighbors. Shidduchim. As if either of those have MDs.

Finally things got bad enough for shidduchim and neighbors to not matter as much. That’s when my mother played the guilt card. Over the years my mother has built up quite the arsenal of guilt trips, things she accuses my grandparents and her siblings of having done to her over the years which contributed to the shambles her life was. In between fits of violence she would play victim just long enough to make them appeal to their guilt and empathy. Whatever kept her out of the psych ward was fair game. As soon as they would acquiesce, she would go back to angry and violent. Much of that violence and anger was targeted at me.

I have a brother who was taken from her when he was an infant. My whole life I’ve been hearing about him. For years she had been going to family court, trying to win first visitation, and then full custody. Every time she seemed to get close, she’d stop taking her meds and wind up in the hospital. She never did manage to get him back. As long as she had me, though, it didn’t matter as much. At least she had one of her sons. But now I wasn’t talking to her, and she couldn’t bear to lose another son. I knew that was the worst possible thing I could do to her, which is why I stopped talking to her. She didn’t deserve children and I wanted her to be childless.

Rather than trying to repair her relationship with me, she tried controlling and beating me into submission. If she couldn’t have a son who loved her, then by God she would have one who feared her. Chosech shivto soneh b’no. Ish imo v’aviv tirau. (He who withholds the rod hates his child. A man should fear his mother and father.)Those were her mantras. I heard them often, usually right before I felt them.

Unfortunately, this left my grandmother in the middle trying to play peacekeeper. For my part I tried to make it as easy as I could for her, never instigating the fights my mother picked with me. My mother, though, occupied every waking moment of her day, and a few of her sleeping moments, too. My mother would keep her up until very late and then wake her up very early in the morning. Eventually my grandmother lost the ability to sleep altogether. She saw a psychiatrist, a friend of hers, who prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant, to help her mood and help her sleep. I remember the exact moment she called and told me she had decided to go on meds. I wanted my mother dead. I could handle what she was doing to me, but I hated that my grandmother was becoming collateral damage. Again I begged her to have my mother committed. Again she refused. The Zoloft would help her cope.

Two weeks later she collapsed on the kitchen floor, delirious and semi-conscious. My mother wanted to just put her in bed and let her rest. She tried stopping me from calling an ambulance. It’s a good thing I did; my grandmother, as a result of the Zoloft and poor diet, had developed a severe sodium deficiency. I rushed with her to the hospital, sitting in the passenger seat of the ambulance as she lay in the back, the EMTs trying to wake her up. We got to the hospital and my grandmother was taken to radiology to rule out stroke. I paced the ER, frantically calling my relatives, letting them know what was happening. They dropped everything and came running.

My mother came too, right as we were talking to my grandmother’s doctor. I was hoping she wouldn’t but there was nothing I could do about it. She wanted to be alone with my grandmother, and my uncle motioned me to come outside. I went with him, but stayed close; I wanted to keep an eye on my mother.

“RACHEL! NO!” My uncle dove at my mother as my mother tried to remove the central line from my grandmother’s neck. “But she wants to go home! She said so!” A passing nurse called security, and they escorted my mother out. She could have severely injured my grandmother, but my family still wouldn’t have her committed. The sodium deficiency was so bad that they admitted her to the ICU to keep her levels closely monitored. I stayed with her late into the night, and then came back the next day, but purim (holiday celebrating the Jews’ salvation from extermination at the hands of the ancient Persian king and his viceroy) was the next day and I had to prepare.

I spent that purim in the hospital with my grandmother. They had a very nice megillah (story of purim) reading for patients and family in the hospital atrium. I enjoyed the parts I didn’t sleep through. The food they had afterward was pretty good for hospital fare, but what I loved most was the effort the volunteers put into trying to make it as real and as festive a purim as was possible in a hospital, surrounded by the sick and dying. I think that night was one of the most beautiful purim experiences I’ve ever had. The singing was more real and heartfelt than anything I’d ever heard at home, and the feeling of togetherness of a roomful of people, each mired in their own personal tragedies, coming together to celebrate the salvation of our people, and the hope that must always exist even when death seems certain, brought me to tears. I went home late that night, and woke up early to get back to the hospital.

I spent as much time with my grandmother as I could, but even the most devoted seventeen year old can only stand so much hospital time. I made my excuses and left. I was supposed to be going to my yeshiva (religious school) seudah (festive meal), but I just went back to my room and sat on my computer. I just needed some alone time, some time away from the world and its problems. I had brought food with me from the hospital and ate my seudah alone while my cousins, uncles, and aunts celebrated together with my mother in the living room.

Some families get a little loose with alcohol and weird things happen by their purim seudos. Never ours, though. My family never drank. Our seudos were always tame. In sharp contrast to the sounds of a struggle and shouting I was hearing. I forced myself out of bed and out into the hallway and found my mother running through the house, in full view and earshot of all of my younger cousins, loudly accusing my disabled uncle’s home health aide of killing him. I found them grappling in my uncle’s room, my mother trying to push her to the floor. One of my uncles came running and pulled my mother away; the home health aide ran out of the house, yelling behind her that she quit. I ran after her and stopped her outside. My disabled uncle remained in the living room, watching the scene with a bemused smile on his face.

“Either she goes, or I quit. I can’t work like this anymore.” It was this, not everything my mother had done prior, not the beatings she had given me, not the way she used to physically push my grandmother around, not trying to rip out my grandmother’s central line, that final got my mother committed. Good home health aides are very hard to find, especially good ones who work a twelve hour shift. While my uncle kept my mother busy, I ran to the hospital. I still needed my grandmother’s permission before I could have my mother committed. I raced into her room and explained what was happening. It took ten minutes of convincing before I got the green light. I called my uncle at home and told him to have her committed. She was gone by the time I came home.

My grandmother came out of the hospital a shell, depressed to the point of catatonia. She’s gotten a bit better, but is still too depressed to function. My mother has turned her into a slave. I still don’t talk to my mother. My family still refuses to acknowledge their mistakes; they still refuse to do anything about my mother. I eventually learned to fight back when she beat me, and now she’s scared of me, but she keeps my grandmother under her thumb, uses her like a slave, and my family does nothing.

This article was originally meant to be published under my real name, but my grandmother adamantly forbade it. Ironically, that argument was the most lucid she had been since she came home from the hospital, and the most lucid she’s been since. Again the reasons for not printing my name with the article were neighbors and shidduchim. My cousins were becoming of marriageable age. Some people never learn.

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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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There and Back Again

It’s not easy having a relationship with God, especially if you never had a good relationship with your parents. That’s the comparison generally used when explaining the mystery of God’s plan, to a parent making decisions for their child that the child is too young to understand. Of course, children tend to rebel against their parents; it’s all a part of growing up. But they usually come back when they realize that their parents loved them all along and had only their best interests at heart. It’s a lot harder, though, when it’s God you’re dealing with, because parents respond more overtly and clearly than God does. With God, all you have is faith, and your belief that everything He does is ultimately for the best. It’s so easy to lose sight of that.

Life had fallen apart. After months of trying to play peacekeeper between my abusive mother and me, my grandmother broke down and was hospitalized. When she left the hospital, she was severely depressed, nearly catatonic. The only way for me to get money for daily necessities was to sit with her and try to coax some emotion out of her. If I could get her to talk–to feel–then I could connect with her enough to make her understand why I needed money. I was 17 years old, hardly a trained psychologist. It was torture to have to do that every day. She would sit there telling me why she had given up on life, how everything that had happened was her fault, and how she had felt in the moment she had given up.

I would run out afterward, after I had gotten the money I needed, and scream. Just scream. And punch the walls, and curse God and demand to know why–why I was being subjected to my life. All those years in a dysfunctional family, and then the abuse, and then having to get my heart ripped apart every day just to survive. God was torturing me and I hated Him for it. According to the Torah, the penalty for cursing God is death. Personally, I didn’t care; I wanted to die anyway.

I went to shul every day, three times a day, but the words I was saying felt wrong on my lips. I was praying to a God who would never answer, asking for mercy I’d never receive. I choked out shacharis, mincha, and maariv through tears and sobs, and every day it got harder and harder. Eventually I stopped crying. Like a child who is told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, I got over the fact that God wasn’t there and tried to move on with my life. Sure, I went through all the motions, but it was only because that was the life I knew. Until I found something else I could believe, I wasn’t quite ready to abandon my lifestyle.

God was gone, and in His absence was a void. I started looking for something to fill it. First I looked for a way to maintain my beliefs in the absence of God. I had always been taught that what separated the Jewish people from the atheists and idolaters of this world was their morality. No longer believing in God made me feel amoral. I started studying moral philosophy, trying to find a way to maintain a belief in absolute morality while still eschewing the idea of absolute morality requiring a deity, or higher entity. Kant’s moral philosophy, based on the categorical imperative, appealed to me at the time, especially since it acknowledged the practical need for the idea of some higher power to exist in order to maintain any absolute truth, but allowed for no higher being to actually exist. To quote Voltaire, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In short, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

So I had morality, which made me feel somewhat better, but I felt something still lacking in that void left by God’s departure. My life became a war between the two sides of me, the part that wanted Judaism and the part that wanted to reject God entirely. Though I had given up on God and religion, I felt sad doing so, as if an important part of me had just been lost. I started debating anyone who would accommodate me. Usually, I would take the side of Judaism against any opposition, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was trying to convince myself as much as my opponents. Instead of feeling vindicated after winning a debate, all I felt was shameful, and frustrated. I read every hashkafa book I could get my hands on, watched every video about atheism I could find, argued about both with whomever would give me their time, and none of it helped fill that void.

The more I searched, the more I kept seeing that there really is only one truth when it comes to belief in God: There is no proof; there is only faith. That’s what emuna p’shuta means to me now. Not blind, unquestioning faith, but the understanding that after you’ve questioned, after you’ve searched high and low for proof, all there really is, is faith. Confronted with this truth I had to decide: Do I, or do I not, believe in God?

It’s not a question you can answer in one day, so I took my time. I sat back and examined my life as it unfolded, trying to honestly determine if I could believe in God or not. It’s always the little things. The money I would make here and there when I needed it most, the opportunities that seemed to arise from nowhere, the people who came into my life when I had no one. Little things, but to me they were signs of some divine intervention. Grudgingly I accepted the existence of God, but that didn’t put Him back in my good graces. I hated Him just as much, but I couldn’t deny His existence. I just couldn’t see any good or purpose in my suffering.

That autumn, I wrote a draft of my memoir. Two weeks, fifty-thousand words. I barely ate or slept. After it was finished, I labored over it for a few days, correcting spelling and grammatical errors, until it was, for a rough draft, perfect. That night, I went to a FedEx store and had it printed and bound. While I knew I was supposed to be feeling elation at having accomplished something so incredible in such a short time, what I actually felt was sadness and emptiness. I nearly jumped in front of a train that night. That book had been my purpose, and there it was, in my hands, printed and bound–finished. My purpose, finished.

On a suggestion from a friend, I started volunteering at a drop-in center for kids at risk. I felt that perhaps others could benefit from my experience. In doing so, I discovered a purpose, a silver lining, almost, to everything that had happened. I still didn’t like the process, or the fact that I had to experience any of it, but God’s purpose started making sense–the good I had been looking for was beginning to make sense. It may seem odd for me to call the fact that I have the benefit of such unfortunate experience a good thing, but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than that first smile breaking across a face stained by too many years of crying. If my experience means that I can be the cause of that smile, then that’s the purpose–that’s the good.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand why I was chosen for the life I was given, but I don’t think I need to know that anymore. Not yet, anyway. I will one day, after I’ve lived my life, and I move on to the next world. For now, though, I have my God, I have my purpose, and that’s all I need. Don’t get me wrong, my relationship with God is anything but easy, but it’s the fact that there’s a relationship that I enjoy so much. I feel that, after everything I’ve been through, and after losing and then finding God again, I am much closer to Him than most other people. I feel that closeness every day, and I have no doubt that God loves me. I see His kindness in my life every day. I am a proudly Orthodox Jew, and I love my God.

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This Is My God

For the longest time I haven’t been able to bring myself to say the name “Hashem”. It feels wrong to me, like I’m forcing myself to utter the name of a being I know to be something entirely false and contrived by people with whom I would never want to associate. Don’t worry, this article isn’t a renunciation of my religion. No, I believe with all my heart in “Hashem;” I just can’t bring myself to utter that word, or even think it without cringing. When I need to refer to my Creator in conversation, I call Him God. That’s who I feel my bond with: God. Hashem makes me want to run and hide; God makes me feel safe and loved and protected. I feel God, not Hashem, watching over me. God is who I pray to, not Hashem.

Until this morning I couldn’t understand why Hashem is so objectionable to me. I thought about it because it’s bothered me for the longest time; I couldn’t say the name of my God without feeling dirty; I’ve really felt guilty about it. I thought about situations in which I would be inclined to discuss Hashem and, for the most part, they’re all with people who use Hashem to their own advantage. People discussing the “kids at risk” crisis, or the latest “falsely accused rebbi” or hateful discussions about how gay people are the scum of the earth and intend to destroy us one male sexual encounter at a time.

I realized that any time I have ever been spoken to about Hashem, barring a few exceptions, it’s been a discussion I wanted to run away from, with a person I wanted to berate for their ignorance. They were twisting my God into something so horrible that I couldn’t even say His name as it is accepted in my religious circles. Hashem is a disgusting idea to me because the people who claim to worship Him and embrace His law made their idea of Him so reprehensible.  

God, though…God is entirely my own construct. No one refers to God by that name in my community. In fact, most find it a bit uncomfortable when I do, like I’m an outsider trying to sound intelligent about a subject with which I couldn’t possibly be familiar. But God is my understanding of my chosen deity and religion. God is someone who loves me, protects me, and gives me a better way to live my life. God is something I want to be closer to. God is something I can work toward. God is the deity of my bible, the savior of my nation; Hashem just makes me cringe.

Someone once asked me an interesting question: Does someone who has an easy life have an easier time with faith than someone who has a difficult life? As I was trying to come up with an answer, someone listening in on the conversation interjected and said “It’s two sides of the same challenge.” On the one hand, the person who has a hard life is confronted with so much evil and pain that he may lose sight more easily of God, because the God he knew and loved seems so heartbreakingly absent. On the other hand, The person who has an easy life never has to confront the question of God’s existence because, in a sense, he never really needs God for anything. God is incidental in his life, and therefore, he may forget that God even exists and is the Master of Creation.

I had a hard life. Have a hard life. I’m only 21. I’m having a hard life. My mother abused me, physically and emotionally, for years. My grandmother tried to hold things together and keep the peace, but eventually she fell into her own depression. Life went to hell. We had money but no way to access it because my grandmother needed to sign the checks, and she was, effectively, catatonic. I was a high school kid, suffering through my abuse, not sure how I would pay for food or clothes, never feeling safe because my grandmother could no longer protect me from my mother.

At first I cursed Hashem. I cursed Him for the life I had been promised by all my rabbis and teachers, and the life He had given me; I cursed Him for letting my abuser go on unchecked, as she pleased, while my grandmother and I suffered; I cursed Him for the things I had to do in order to live day to day; I cursed Him for not just taking my life and letting it all end. Then I prayed. Every day, with tears in my eyes, I prayed, begged Hashem to help me. I stopped going out very much because I didn’t want people to see me crying.

I begged my family to help. Some of them knew what was going on, but for one reason or another, always had more pity for my mother than for me. My grades plummeted. I started skipping school and staying home, online, where my real friends were. My family told me that I had to go to yeshiva and rebuked me constantly for my “sins”. They seemed to think that if only I would be the perfect yeshiva boy they had envisioned, my life would somehow perfect itself.

All I saw were people who knew, but did nothing—who would only judge me, and focus on my spiritual shortcomings, rather than help end my abuse and help me heal. Hashem wasn’t there for me, and those who worship in His name only used Him to make me feel worthless and guilty. Regardless of what I needed to do to survive, it always seemed contrary to what they believed Hashem wanted. If I skipped school in order to earn money so I could pay for things like food and clothing, things that most teenagers have provided for them, I was sinning. I was expected to conform to everyone else’s norms even though my life was falling to pieces. All this in the name of Hashem. This wasn’t the life I had been promised; this wasn’t the Hashem I had been told about. I stopped believing in that deity.

For a while I had no god. I tried finding proof for the existence of the one I’d abandoned, proof that He had never existed, or proof of some other truth entirely. The more I searched the more I realized I would never find proof: It always came down to faith.

I examined my life and the course it had taken, and I couldn’t deny the hand of some intervening being. Hashem and His worshippers had never helped me, but there were those who did, and situations which somehow managed to work in my favour that I couldn’t explain logically. I had to finally admit that something was intervening, some sort of deity, but which one?

I started learning more about this deity I had once known as Hashem, but now He seemed different, more like a God I could connect to rather than the Hashem from which I felt so removed. I began to understand His law, His will, the way in which he governs our world, His mercy, His judgement, His anger and kindness. I still wasn’t seeing His plan as ultimately good, but at least I could begin to understand the rules—the method to His madness.

This deity I was getting to know needed a name. He was the god of the Judaism that I had accepted, but the feel of Him, and of my understanding of Him, was so radically different from the way I felt and understood Hashem that I couldn’t refer to Him by that name any longer. Hashem to me was synonymous with unfettered, blind, zeal, to the point where it superseded His actual will. I named Him God. I still can’t say Hashem without cringing, but I am an Orthodox Jew and I love God, because he is the God I chose, instead of a god I was forced to accept. His law is the law I embraced, not the laws that had previously been imposed on me. He is, in every sense, my God.

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T…Th…Thank…Thank you God…?

Author’s note: I use language in this post which some people might find offensive, especially in relation to prayer and God. I use that language because it accurately represents the situation. Those are words I have actually spoken aloud to God when I’ve been angry. I’m sorry if I offend people, but I felt this piece would be inaccurate if I censored it. 

I find prayer very difficult. I’m not alone in that. Many of my friends find it very hard to pick up a siddur (prayer book) and say the words. Some feel no connection to it; others are angry with God and can’t bring themselves to pray to a being about whom they feel so conflicted. For me it’s something else. It’s not that I don’t believe in prayer or find it unhelpful; it’s not that I have no connection to the idea of prayer, or that I don’t understand the prayers themselves. For me the problem is that the words codified by our Sages weren’t written for me. I don’t feel that they’re specific enough. True, most of the standard prayer service can be adapted to any specific emotion or thought, but getting to the point where I can connect the two is very difficult for me.

I pray every day, the standard stuff from the siddur, but all I’m really doing is mouthing words. I don’t feel more connected to God when I’m finished. I feel as though I have fulfilled my obligation, allowing me to get on with my day until my next God-related obligation. The times I’ve felt most connected is when the words come from me, when I am their author, and they are crafted for a specific situation, emotion, feeling, need, or expression. During Neilah (closing prayer service) on Yom Kippur, when I break down and cry like a child begging his parents for something, begging for forgiveness for my transgressions—the words I speak that elicit those tears aren’t written in my machzor (prayer book). I am talking straight to God, and it is the only time I feel God is actually listening to me. When I’m finished, I feel the way I imagine that begging child would when he thinks he may just get his way. It’s not easy asking for forgiveness, admitting wrongdoing, but one day a year, we are told that if sincere, our repentance will be accepted, and our prayers will be answered. That makes it somewhat easier.

Then there are the times when I’m angry, furious, hurt, frustrated, and feeling betrayed by God. These usually occur after when friends of mine are suffering. They are spontaneous and visceral. I remember driving down the BQE a day after spending the night with a friend of mine while she endured a rape kit, and suddenly bursting into tears, shouting at the heavens, asking God why the fuck He saw fit to torture the people I love. I remember the words of Neilah:

יהי רצון מלפניך שומע קול בכיות שתשים דמעותינו בנאדך להיות ותצילנו מכל גזרות אכזריות כי לך לבד עינינו תלויות

(May it be Your will before You, who hears the sound of weeping, that You place our tears in Your flask to stay, and that You rescue us from all cruel decrees, for to You alone to our eyes look.)

 It’s the basis for that Mordechai Ben David song, Daddy Dear. In it, a son asks his father if it’s true that when we cry, God cries along with us, collects those tears in His cup, and that when that cup finally fills, the Redemption will come. The father tells his son that it is true. “One more question,” asks the son, “Just how deep is this cup/ tell me when will it fill/ don’t you think it is time/ that the sun forever shine.”

 It’s the question I ask God every time I find myself at a loss to explain why people I love suffer. The words come easy, as do the tears. By far this is the easiest form of prayer for me, when I’m angry at God and confused by His judgment.

 The hardest form of prayer for me, is thanking God for everything He’s done for me. Sure, there’s Pesukei D’zimra and Hallel (prayers of praise), but years of rote make that equivalent to the half mumbled thank-you a child gives his mother before running out the door with a Popsicle. No, in order to properly thank God for something, the words need to be mine, with the object of my gratitude firmly in my mind. I need to open my mouth, and utter three simple words: “Thank you God.” To me, that is the hardest form of prayer. It takes me hours before I can bring myself to utter those words.

 I’ve thought about why it’s so difficult for me to get them out, and it’s taken me a while, but I think, through writing this, I finally understand. It’s not because I dislike God. There are things I will never understand, and I do find myself angry at God often enough. It’s not that, though. When I think about it, the most difficult part of saying “Thank you God” is the act of humbling myself to the point where I can acknowledge that whatever it is I feel compelled to thank God for, is something that I could never have gotten or achieved on my own without God’s intervention.

 As human beings we like to take credit for our possessions, our stations in life, our accomplishments, and sideline any contributors to that success or accomplishment. That doesn’t hold true only when it relates to God. How many times has someone taken credit for something you’ve done, something they could never have accomplished without you? It happens all the time in the corporate world, creative industries like writing, music, and art, even around the house, with one kid claiming credit for the spotless floor when really it was his younger brother who slaved away at it with a toothbrush, his left thumbnail, and a bucket of soapy water.

 That humbling is terribly difficult. In my mind I can easily acknowledge God’s role in my success. I can even write articles about it. But saying thank you to God remains difficult. Somehow when it stays inside my head, or between you and me in writing, it’s either personal, or between me and my fellow human being, and God won’t see it. I know that’s not true, but I can tell myself that God has other things to do, and that my admissions of humility in the form of thanks will go unnoticed, which makes it easier to think or write. When I actually utter the words, however, I know God is listening. God is acknowledging my humility, my admission that whatever I am thanking God for is not of my doing alone, and tacitly accepting my thanks. It makes it real. It makes it hard.

 Anyone else have the same issue with prayer? I’d love to hear some other perspectives on it. Share this around; get a conversation started.

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