Dancing in My Chair – The Rest of My Story

It was the same every Simchas Torah, which is why I kept going back to Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park. I tried other places, but I could never get comfortable. The men and children would gather excitedly around the bimah, anticipation in their eyes, the long-awaited release of the singing and dancing as they circumambulated the bimah, Torah scrolls held reverently to their chests, or high in the air by some of the stronger folks, celebrating the yearly completion of the Torah. Ana Ad-nai hoshia na! And they’d be off.

Slowly at first. My favorite part was always the beginning, slowly chanting the first verse of the portion designated to each of the seven hakafos. All the places I went to skipped the rest. The verses are all from the latter part of Psalms 19 and recited in order at the beginning of each hakafah respectively, yet somehow nobody in the places I’d go seemed able to keep a handle on which verse was said when, and what the words actually were. I always prided myself on knowing the correct verse, and often my voice would be the only one chanting the words while the rest of the congregation took a momentary break to consult a prayer book. We’d start low, slowly chanting, building the melody, our voices rising, higher, until the climax where we’d profess loudly, and joyously, children and Torah scrolls held aloft, our belief in the absolute truth of the Torah, and in Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived. And then the dancing would start.

Well, I say dancing. It’s more like running in circles. It’s kind of nice, though. Everyone joins hands, or holds the shoulder of the person in front of him, forming what amounts to a large, circular conga line, typically focused, and dancing, around something important in the middle. At weddings, it’s the bride, or groom. On Simchas Torah, it’s the bimah, where the Torah is read. It gets much livelier than it sounds a few rounds in. Some people grab the person next to them and go off to the side to form their own, faster paced circles. Some people grab the person in front or to the side of them, and encourage them to sing a little louder, smile a little broader, and dance just a little harder.

That’s why I loved going to Young Israel. None of that ever happened there. No one ever grabbed me, or bumped into me. No children ever wrapped their arms around my leg, bumming a ride around the bimah. There were a grand total of three young children in a congregation of older and middle-aged men. I could dance around without holding anyone’s hand, or having anyone touch my shoulder. I don’t like when people do that, but it’s hard to tell people you don’t like being touched. They start looking at you funny, like you’re some kind of damaged leper. Sometimes they ask what happened to you, and actually expect an explanation. Most of the time I put up with it without complaining too much, because that’s what’s expected of me, and honestly I just don’t have the patience to explain to everyone in shul that I really want to be a part of the group, but only if no one touches me.

Sometimes I can handle it. Sometimes I can’t. I wasn’t in Young Israel this year, and I really couldn’t handle it. The night of Simchas Torah I managed to last for two hakafos, and then had to leave shul or risk punching the next person whose hand reached for mine. The next day, I deliberately came late. I told the friends I was staying by that I was hung over from the previous night and overslept, but the truth is, I just didn’t want to deal with hakafos. I wandered into shul around 11 o’clock and sat in a pew watching the merriment. Some people tried to get me to dance, taking pity on that guy in the corner sitting alone, but honestly I’ve become very happy watching from afar. I’m not sad, and I don’t feel alone. I’m with them in spirit. Dancing in my chair.

I’ve disliked being touched for as long as I can remember. Until just a few years ago, I couldn’t remember ever liking hugs, or feeling loved by kisses. I never felt camaraderie from an arm around my shoulder, or a pat on the back. Touch always made me feel intensely uncomfortable, as though anywhere in the world would be better than where I was in that moment. I never really knew why, or gave it much thought, I just knew I didn’t like it. And then one night a few years ago, while working on the manuscript for a memoir I’ve since scrapped, I made a terrifying connection. I was writing a paragraph about how I’ve always hated being touched, and how I’ve never had a hug I liked, and this connection I had never made before hit me like a ton of bricks. I ran over to my blackboard and wrote it all down before the realization went away. As I wrote, it jarred me, left me shaking, but I set it aside and went on with my life.

Two weeks later, I was in a chatroom for an online support group in which I was a member, and we were talking about my aversion to touch. One of my friends in the room asked me if I remember ever liking being touched by anyone, and that same connection hit me again, and this time it was there to stay. I told them everything.

I told them how I could remember hating being touched by my mother. How she used to hover over me all the time, and touch me more than I was comfortable with; how I did ask her to stop every now and again, but she never listened. I was her son and she was entitled to certain things. She hugged me whenever she wanted to, kissed me whenever she wanted to, but sometimes those kisses made me feel funny. I had no idea why, but I knew it was not ok. I told her to stop, but she always told me that a mother is entitled to kiss her child. She would kiss me in places that made me feel aroused. Never on my mouth, or anywhere that would be considered overtly inappropriate. On my ears, my earlobes, my neck, my shoulders, and different parts of my face. I knew how it made me feel, and while I didn’t understand what that feeling was at the age of 5, I knew it was wrong.

She would do this until I couldn’t handle it anymore, and that feeling I was feeling became all-consuming, and 5 year old me knew it had to be relieved. So 5 year old me would masturbate. Sometimes I would do it in private, sometimes I couldn’t go somewhere private, so I would stick my hand in my pants off to the side and do what I had to. Sometimes she would be in the same room and I would try to hide it under the covers. Apparently she saw me doing it, because she would tease me about it when I finished. One name she’d call me when she saw me was “masturbating genius.”

The incident I recall most vividly is when I was 12 and she was kissing me like that at the Shabbos table. She would not stop, no matter how much I protested, squirmed, or tried to inch away from her. My whole family was sitting at that table and she was kissing me that way, and I felt myself getting aroused, and I didn’t know what to do. She would not stop. After about a half hour, I couldn’t contain it any longer, but I also couldn’t leave in middle of the Shabbos meal, so I went to the couch behind my grandfather, masturbated in my pants, and came back to the Shabbos table. She knew. I could see she knew. She started kissing me again. She teased me about it later. This happened for ten years of my life.

When I finished telling my friends in the chat, I was shaking, crying, having a panic attack, and all I wanted to do was die. The shame was unbearable. I felt so dirty, so disgusting. What kind of sick freak masturbates when his mother kisses him. And which mother doesn’t kiss her children? Those other kids never masturbated when their mothers kissed them, what excuse did I have? Was what she did really different? Was it really wrong? I didn’t know. My friends were telling me it wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t understand how it wasn’t. I had put my own hand, down my own pants, stimulated my own penis, until I reached orgasm. She hadn’t done that, I had done that. And no matter how many times my friends told me that it was her fault because I was a child and she knew what she was doing, it would not sink in.

My friend, who ran the online group, drove in from where she lived, picked me up, brought me to her house for the weekend, and arranged for me to see a therapist the next week. I told my therapist this story, and she also told me it wasn’t my fault, and again, I refused to believe her. “If you had a video,” she asked me, “of what she did to you, what would you think was happening? Would it look like a mother kissing a son?” I thought about it for a second or two, and told her “No. It looks like foreplay.” I had to know, though. “Did she know what she was doing? Did she know that what she was doing was making me aroused?” My therapist asked me if she had ever had sex before. I’m living proof she has. “If she’s ever had sex, which she obviously has, she knows what arousal looks like in someone else. She knew what she did, and what she did was wrong, and it was not your fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” No one had ever told me that before.

Even after discussing, and dissecting it with my therapist, I never spoke about it with anyone. It sort of became this festering secret that I stored in my mind’s attic, encrusted in mothballs and collecting dust, until the day I’d be forced to drag it back out and stare it in the face. I don’t know why I’m doing this now. I guess because I’m sick of being that lonely-looking guy in the corner of the shul. I’m sick of having to either go along or leave instead of asking people to respect my boundaries. I’m sick of being the freak.

This doesn’t mean I’m magically going to start liking touch. I’ve known this stuff for years, already, and it hasn’t made me any more comfortable being touched than I was when I didn’t know why. It’s a work in progress. It’s weird, though, I love being touched by the right people. I love a good hug from a close friend. I crave it, and need it, and hate going without it. But there are only a few people whom I trust enough to let touch me. I wish I could carry cards around and hand them out to people explaining my situation and asking them to respect it. Perhaps that’s too much to ask.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be ‘cured’ of my aversion to touch, and I don’t know that life would magically go back to normal if I were. But until that happens, please try to bear with me. If you see me sitting off to the side, smiling slightly, tapping my feet in time with the singing, please don’t come over and ask me to dance. I’m not lonely, and I’m not sad. I’m with you. In spirit. I’m dancing in my chair.

 

 

 

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The Monster on My Bed

Theres a certain degree of scrutiny to which you open yourself as a writer, a certain understood and assumed lack of privacy which you invite into your life when you make so much of yourself public. There’s always a reason and everyone’s is different. For some it’s fame. For some, money. For others it’s a cause, a catharsis, or a little bit of both. Every writer has their reasons for what they publish and even better reasons for what they don’t. Certain things are private; certain secrets, struggles or hardships or beliefs which, for one reason or another, they feel will do more harm than good to either them or people that matter to them. We keep these secrets because the potential benefits don’t outweigh the potential fallout. Sometimes, however, there’s a sort of grey area where the cost-benefit analysis isn’t quite as clear cut as we’d like, but we write it anyway, over the cries of protest from our better judgment.

I don’t always make the best company. I make people uncomfortable sometimes. My friends reading this are probably smiling and rolling their eyes because they know I’m a fan of understatement. I’m either cracking an inappropriate joke, seeing how much I can get away with saying, or broaching a subject that people would rather avoid. I discuss abuse a lot. Mostly the abuse of others, open and public cases, how the public responds, proper awareness, debunking abuse myths—things that rank up there with politics and religion on the list of topics one should avoid as dinner conversation. Sometimes I talk about what happened to me in public, but I try not to because it makes me more vulnerable than I’d like to be. You can’t control the opinions that fly at you in public the way you can on a blog.

Even when I do discuss what happened to me, and even when it’s on my blog, I try not to talk about the effects abuse had on me; I prefer to let my readers draw their own conclusions. I have to live in the real world, a real world where people know me, associate me with what I write on my blog, a real world where what I say on this blog can affect my chances of landing a client, or, more importantly, someone with whom I can hope to share my life.

Sex worries me. I know that as a man I’m supposed to—expected to—want sex, crave sex, desire sex more than anything else—that it is supposed to be the center of my existence and the focal point of all my goals, but it’s not. I talk about it plenty; I joke about it plenty; I think about it plenty, but sex, actual sex with another person, as in not hypothetically, but actually contemplating having sex with someone worries me. Worries is perhaps the wrong word to use. Worried is the word people use when their erections don’t stand up quite as proud and tall as they’d like them to, or when they’re worried they’re lacking in the experience department. Lack of experience is the least of my worries. Scared, perhaps. No, scared sounds a little wimpy, like I’m worried I won’t be able to please my girlfriend. What’s the word…terrified. That’s the word—terrified.

Sex seems nice on paper, sometimes on the screen (God, I hope my rav isn’t reading this), depending on what I’m watching. My friends all do it, enjoy it, rave about it, tell me it’s nice, feels good, bonds them and their significant other in ways I’ll never understand unless I have sex, and while I can understand the appeal, feel the physical drive, want, on a base level, to have sex with someone, either significant or just for the sake of it, I can’t bring myself to actually, consciously, want to have sex.

I suppose it’s lucky that I subscribe to a religion that demands celibacy of me until marriage. It means that whichever girls I spend my time with will not only never pressure me to have sex, they’d be horrified if I asked for it. There was a time in my life when religion meant nothing to me, when I’d just as soon have broken my obligation to maintain chastity until marriage, but I never did. I never even tried. The thought never crossed my mind. Religion came in handy, in that sense, even when I didn’t believe in it; it was an excuse I could fall back on for being a 19 year old virgin. I’m 22 now and still a virgin, and while I take my liberties here and there, the one thing I’m happy to keep, the one thing I’m glad to be obligated to keep, is my obligation to stay a virgin until I’m married.

Everything I know I learned by negative example. I know how to treat people by having been abused. I know I would never want anyone else to experience what I did, certainly not by my hand. I learned how to have a relationship by seeing so many bad ones. I learned how to educate myself by seeing the cost of ignorance. The problem with learning by negative example is that there’s a steep learning curve when you try to infer positive from negative and apply it practically. Everything I know about sex I learned by negative example.

Age four, I watched my mother have sex with a man I barely knew from the foot of the bed they were having it on. Age 10 I had to beg my mother to come home and take care of me when she ran off and shacked up with some man she hardly knew for a few days, and told me it was because she wanted to have sex with him. Age 16, I heard my mother tell me that she wished I was dead because my not existing would benefit her sex life. There’s plenty in between that I’m not ready to talk about.

And that’s what I know about sex firsthand: I know that sex hurts, that it tears families apart, that it causes irrevocable damage—that I still suffer because of it. I know that every time I so much as think of actually having sex with someone I experience physical anxiety. I can’t count the number of times I’ve considered finding someone with zero interest in sex and just settling down with that person, resigning myself to a life which, while devoid of what I’m told is something wonderful and pleasurable, would also, thankfully, be less one more thing that could hurt me or anyone I love. I’d be secure in the knowledge that I could never be hurt, nor could I ever hurt someone in the ways I and so many of my friends have been hurt.

That doesn’t make me happy, though. I know that my experiences aren’t the only truth out there. I know that abuse, and pain, and suffering are not all the world, that relationships, that sex has to offer. I know that there are people, many if not most people, who live happily, have happy relationships, happy sexual relationships, happy sexual relationships which in no way involve anyone getting hurt. I just don’t even know what that looks like, and I am absolutely terrified of letting myself find out whether or not I can have that. Maybe I can; but what if I can’t? What if I hurt someone the way I’ve been hurt? I know I don’t want to, but does everyone who hurts someone else want to? What gives me the right to take that risk?

I faced something similar when I stopped being shomer negiah. I was scared of touching someone else, especially girls I dated. I was scared I’d do something wrong. I learned a lot from not being shomer negiah (shomer negiah is the Jewish law prohibiting men and women who are not either married or immediately related to each other from touching). I learned boundaries, what I like and what I don’t— I know I like cuddling, I know I like holding hands, walking down the street hands around each other’s shoulders or waists, and I imagine I’ll enjoy kissing and touching. I learned when to initiate and when to back off. But I don’t feel that’s enough for me to let myself consider sex with someone else. It seems like there’s so much more at stake—so much more potential for pain. I know one day I’ll have no choice, but…

Help?

 

 

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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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