Wednesday, July 25, 2018

My Nephew

Almost twenty five years ago,  I had a conversation with my younger sister I will never forget.  I was twenty one, living on my own in a basement apartment.
 My little sister Chaya* called me to ask permission to get engaged.

"I don't think you are really in a place to date now anyway,"  she said, "but I am asking you permission out of respect because you're older than me."

Her question was painful.  I had dreams of getting married and having a family of my own, but Chaya was right.  I was in no position to be dating.  I could barely get out of bed in the morning.  My world was in shambles.
  A couple of years earlier I had disclosed memories of my father and grandfather sexually abusing me.  In my naivety, I expected help and support, but my family and community, including my families rabbi, denied my memories, saying they were untrue and impossible.  I was labeled crazy, unstable, an attention seeker, by my family, and even my therapist at the time, ...who happened to be a close friend of my father.
I was indeed crazy.  Crazy with grief, loneliness, pain, rage and confusion.
I could not imagine what God wanted from me.  I wanted to die if only to find out the truth.
I told Chaya I wanted to die and I was thinking of taking my life.
Her response was,

"Why don't you stop talking about it and just do it already."
It was a cruel thing to say, and I personally can not imagine ever saying such a thing to anyone, but today I harbor no anger or resentment toward Chaya.  I understand where she was coming from.  She was young, she was in pain as well, perhaps having been a victim herself, and I was a major threat to her world.  She was simply voicing the unspoken wish of many in my family that I and my terrible memories disappear.

A few years later I was officially cut off from my family because I did not agree to keep my memories a secret. It was as if I had died.  I have not seen or spoken to my siblings, including Chaya in many, many years.  I heard that she had many, children...numbering in the teens.

I had been praying for years for contact with someone, anyone, in my family.  I had healed tremendously from the trauma of abuse, but the secondary trauma of ongoing rejection and blame was still overwhelming. Feelings of loneliness, of longing for connection with my family were often intense.

A couple of years ago I received a friend request on Facebook from a young man who I didn't recognize.  I ignored the request assuming it was a mistake.  A few months later, in a friendly mood, I accepted his request along with a couple of other requests from people I didn't know.

I was shocked and thrilled to discover that the young man friending me on Facebook was non other than my sister Chaya's son, Uriel!*
 I had met Uriel a couple of times as an infant before I was officially cut off, and had fallen in love with him.  Now he was all grown up and reaching out to me! It felt surreal.
Uriel and I began to message, and soon talked on the phone. Uriel, like me, was not in contact with his family. -He has his own story, which is only his to tell-.

 A few months later I met my amazing nephew in person. I loved him immediately. Uriel spent time with us, and we slowly got to know each other.  We connect deeply, on a soul level.
Uriel is a diamond.
 Having him in my life is a miracle.
This past Purim, at the same age of my unforgettable conversation with his mother, at the age of 21 Uriel moved into my house.
A sense of truth and justice, in connecting with, of all people in my family, Chaya's son, filled me with nothing but pure joy.  God wants me alive and well to support and love the child of the sibling who thought me better off dead.   It reminds me that God is in charge and not my family, and that is cause for celebration.

I don't know how long Uriel will want to stay, and how long I will be zoche to love and nurture him, but I cherish every minute of our time together.

* Not their real names.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Pesach: Holiday of Healing

(five minute read)

For those of us who have been enslaved by physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or sexual abuse, Pesach is our story and the Seder is our guide to healing.

 At the Seder, we find the answers to our deepest questions:
Why was I abused?
How do I get out of it?
 I left the abuse behind, what now?  How do I heal and move on?  How long will this take?  Will I always feel this awful?
How do I believe and trust in a God that allowed me to be abused in the first place??

The Pesach Seder holds the answers to our mental and emotional freedom.

As a Jewish nation we suffered abuse and torture for many years in Egypt.  It broke us physically, spiritually, and mentally, as abuse does.  We could not get away from it on our own.  All we could do was cry in pain, and ask, "why?"

Then, miraculously, we were freed.  The slavery and abuse ended very suddenly through open miracles, and we could breathe a sigh of relief and move on with our lives... Or so we thought.
 Yet, true freedom eluded us. We left the abuse of Egypt behind but were still enslaved mentally and emotionally. Slavery and trauma, stole our ability to trust.  We could trust no one.  Not Moshe (Moses), and not even God.  We went into a deep and blinding denial.  A denial so strong, we created and worshiped a golden calf, a fake god, just after personally seeing God at Mount Sini!

As victims we were needy and confused.  We tested God every step of the way, because we had to.  We had to make sure He wasn't going anywhere, no matter what we did.  We complained, rebelled, and wanted to go back to Egypt.  Abuse and slavery was our normal. At least in Egypt we knew what to expect, and had an identity.  We were slaves, victims.  We were not yet healthy enough to claim our freedom and enter Israel.  We would need forty years of desert therapy to recover from our deep trauma.

Through all of our struggles, mistakes, and victim-hood, God loved us, forgave us and gave us more chances.  He held us close, fed us, and showed us the way through the desert of recovery to Israel, and mental and emotional freedom.

But, as my teenagers say, "What the...??!!" Why did God want us to go through a horrific experience in the first place?  How could any good possibly come from such horror, such evil, such trauma and brokenness?

I believe that as a nation, (and as individuals), we have a unique and challenging mission to accomplish in this world.  In order to complete our mission we need a very specific set of skills and training.  The depth of clarity, compassion, empathy, integrity, sense of self, and mental strength that we need in order to accomplish our national mission and bring this world to redemption, is unparalleled.  As a nation we acquired these traits from our experience moving from victims to survivors when we left Egypt.  Nothing can compare to the way Jews as a nation, "get it."  Like a good therapist who has themselves healed from abuse, we Jews "get"abuse and persecution like no other nation.  We are champions for justice and human rights in the world because we have been there and we know.  Egypt was elite training for our elite mission.  We are the navy seals of the world.  Not many can get through that kind of training, or even want to.  But the ones who do are the strongest.

When I was about 20 I attended a workshop by Dr. Miriam Adahan.  She had us write down our worst challenges and pain.  Then with our left hand she asked us not to think, but to allow the voice of our eternal soul to answer the question, "why?"  Why do I have to go through this?  Why is this happening to me?
I was not in a very good place in my life at twenty. I thought God was punishing me. I was angry and hurt. I wanted to die. 
I watched as my left hand scrawled "In order to heal and help others."
I laughed at the ridiculousness. I couldn't even help myself how was I supposed to help anyone else?
But deep inside my soul I had a glimmer of hope to guide me during the coming years of darkness.  I had to acknowledge that a part of me obviously believed I could one day heal and help others.  After all, I had written the words.

One of the most important lessons of the Seder is to respect the process of recovery.  To respect our confusion, our pain, our need to test.  When we leave an abusive situation we are not OK. We may not be OK for a good while; years,even.  We have to rebuild ourselves from scratch and that is an enormous task.  We need the space and time to do it.  We need resources, we need support.  And we need an all powerful and all knowing God to love and accept us unconditionally, with all of our baggage.

We need a God we can be as real with as it gets.  We need to complain, to get angry, to yell Why???!!! And, Where were you?!?!
We must turn to our God (the real God of unconditional love and acceptance, and not the fake god's of Egypt) and demand the help we need and deserve, and expect it.

God loves us and will not abandon us during this painful process.  It may take a while, but he will lead us out when little by little we learn to trust Him and let Him in...

At the Seder we meet four sons, all of them parts of us.  We have that wicked voice that dissociates from the rest of us.  The wicked voice points his finger, judges, condemns, criticizes and blames us for our suffering.  Our wise voice asks real questions because he wants to know the truth.  He wants to understand deeply.  Our simple voice just wants to know what's happening, and what to do next, and the silenced child doesn't say a single word.

At the Seder we learn how to respond to our inner world. Each part of us needs and deserves our attention and a response. Our wise voice is the one to nurture in depth.  Our abusive blaming voice is to be silenced quickly. Tell him to shut up, knock his teeth out.  He is a remnant of our abuse.  The simple voice needs simple uncomplicated instructions and guidance.  And the silent child needs to be held and told what happened.  "You were hurt, but now you are safe.  It is not your fault. I've got you. I'm not going anywhere."

At the Seder we learn that it is not only a good idea to talk about our slavery, it is a mitzvah, a commandment!  Not only do we have to talk about what happened, we have to re-experience it, and relive it with all of our senses.  As painful as this may be, it is the only way through trauma.  We have to own it and acknowledge what it did to us, how it feels, and how it felt, and recognize that we are no longer there.  And, we have to do it slowly, in a safe place and in a safe way, and with the support of family and friends. Denying or minimizing what happened to us is a sure way to repeat the abuse mentally, with ourselves and our loved ones.

On the other side of the Seder is healing. But first we must involve ourselves in the process.
As Jews, not only do we have to spend one night a year exclusively on the topic of our slavery and redemption, we also have to remember every day (in our prayers,) who we are, where we came from and where we are headed.  As a nation WE ARE SURVIVORS!  We are free!  At the Seder we touch our slavery and freedom in the same moment and celebrate how it turned us into the indestructible nation we are today.  We too, can learn to touch our abuse and our healing in the same moment, and celebrate how it made us the amazing courageous, and compassionate, survivors we are today!

Chag Sameach!!
Happy Passover!!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Post Traumatic Growth

When deep trauma changes you, as it did me, there is no bouncing back.  After enduring both severe sexual abuse as a young child and rejection by my family and community following disclosure, I was so completely shattered and confused that there was no me left to bounce back.  There is and was only moving forward, bouncing forward if you will, and embracing change.  I lost everything I thought I needed to survive and I almost gave up.  So many times I had to force myself to keep swimming through a sea of seemingly unending pain.  Sometimes it seemed pointless but I persevered, becoming resilient and gaining access to a new horizon and eventually to a new shore which I call my island of Self.
For so many years, when I could not keep swimming, when I had no more strength at all, I would lie flat on my back and float and rest and dream of one day not having to fight the waves, of one day arriving at a destination.  I wondered what this destination would feel like and what I would find there.  My deepest hope was to find safety.  But what I finally found when I arrived on my island of Self is so, so much more.
For years I could see my island only in the distance, a tiny bright dot on the horizon.  Then finally, one blessed day, I reached the shore of white sand, pure sunshine and endless warmth.  I pulled myself up onto the soft sand and rested, knowing that here I am safe and loved.  There is no other reality but love and safety on this tiny but magnificent piece of land.  This, my island of Self, is the most beautiful place on earth.  It is my home, my center, my place of connection and strength.  Here I have clarity.  Here I have everything I need and I am everything I need.  When I finally stood with both feet on my island and felt the strength and the love surrounding me I rejoiced. But then, inevitably, as will happen in life, a trigger, an anniversary or holiday, reached my beautiful island, and a huge wave swept me back into the sea and I was forced to start swimming again.
But I had found my island and knew I would never forget the feeling and so I gave up despair. I remembered that my wonderful island was there and that it was real. It wasn't going away. Only I had gone away temporarily, knocked over by a wave of life.  But I knew in which direction to swim and I was certain that I would reach the island again.
And I did reach it, over and over again, and began spending more and more joyful hours on my island embraced by safety, warmth and love.  Hours turned to days, and sometimes even weeks at a time.
Here I live peacefully, joyfully in each moment and when a storm inevitably comes along and a wave engulfs and drags me back into the dark sea of pain, I use my inner strength and confidence to swim back quickly, so much faster each time it happens.

In more recent years, I began writing and speaking publicly, sharing my story of hope and healing with others, and I looked around me in the sea of life and noticed others struggling beside me.  I reminded myself, and them, that we could join hands and swim together.  I have been able to build up my strength, not only to swim back to my Island repeatedly, but also to bring visitors along with me.  And I always come back, standing tall and resolute in the center of my island, breathing the pure sweet air deeply again.
Through accepting deep trauma and pain, I earned this island of Self.  A place I never knew or imagined could exist. My island is strong, enduring and whole and I am privileged to celebrate and share it.
On my island, love and goodness can never be diminished by another's badness. Nothing, not even my own failings and mistakes, can negate my innate eternal beauty, value and goodness.   This beautiful island is a spiritual and emotional center of love and joy.  It is here that I have gained an appreciation for being present in each moment and I am enveloped by unending gratitude. Each morning I awake on my island, I breathe and rejoice in my healthy body.  A body I once hated and tried to hurt and destroy.  I am grateful for every inch of me. Each day on my Island begins with mindfulness, prayer and meditation.  This grounds and centers me and reconnects me to myself and the Source of Life. 
I thank God for each toe, and toe nail, for the balls of my feet, my arches and heels. I give thanks for my ankles, my calves, my knees, and thighs, my intimate parts and all of my internal organs.  I am so grateful for my heart that pumps blood throughout my body, my lungs that breathe life and air into my body. I am grateful for my skin, blood, my bones, my muscles, and nerves, arteries and all of the intricate systems of my physical self working in harmony .  I am so grateful for my fingers, palms, wrists, arms, elbows and shoulders.  I give thanks for my spine and my neck, and my ability to turn my head and look in any direction I choose.  I am so grateful for my skull and brain, and the incredible ability to select my thoughts and process the events in my life, and heal.  I thank God for my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, face and features.  I am grateful for a nose that can smell, ears that can hear, a mouth that can speak and communicate, pray, eat and drink.   I give thanks for a tongue, teeth, gums, jaw, cheeks, palate and throat.  For saliva and the ability to swallow!  For eyes that can see this beautiful, stunning and majestic world, for ears that can hear the quiet and the birds, for a nose that can smell the fresh air.  I am a walking, living miracle of life!
I know I am not here by chance, and every morning I ask God to help me fulfill my mission here.  I pray to be a source of strength, hope, healing, light, love, and joy to myself and others, especially those who have been through trauma.
When I see other survivors of severe trauma and child sexual abuse floundering in the sea as I was, I throw out a rope and if they have the strength to hang on, I pull them ashore, as so many others once did for me. There is no greater meaning and purpose than holding survivors close as they gasp and retch, and try to catch their breath, as I once had to, and occasionally still do. We survivors have so much in common and I have met many courageous women and men who have become my soul sisters and brothers.  Some people are born on an island.  We were born at sea.
These precious friends have permanent guest rooms on my Island and in my heart. Nothing brings me greater joy than speaking with, encouraging and loving them. Incredibly, there is endless room here on my island, and miraculously, the more guests who join me here the more the island grows and the more possibilities become visible. We will always be connected by the uncontrollable sea of life and the force of our love. The relationships I form here are deep and lasting. I have found deep meaning and joy in the heart of this painful sea and I ask God to help me continue to pull others toward my island to rest and to help them to increase their strength and to reach their own beautiful and permanent island nearby.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Broken Leg

My muscles are alive. I hear blades scraping ice and feel cool air blowing against my face, blowing my long denim Biz style skirt between my legs. My lithe twelve year-old body rejoices in movement and balance.  I glance down and it looks like I'm wearing jeans which I am never allowed to wear.  I speed around the rink, faster, faster and then slow down as I turn a corner.  Multi-colored disco lights dance in time to the Miami Boys Choir song that our B'nos leader asked the rink to substitute for the usual pop music.  We rented the place out and are entitled to our choice of music.  I ignore the swish of long skirts, the giggles and shouts of middle and high school Bais Yaakov girls skating all around me.  I breathe and feel my heart pumping, so alive.  This is a rare experience of feeling okay in my body and I cherish the moment.
There is a sudden flash on the ice in front of me.  It's a piece of jewelry, a bracelet, which must have fallen off someone's wrist.  My ankle twists as my skate blade hits the bracelet and I am sliding across the ice on my side, a searing pain radiating up my ankle to my knee. I can't move. Two twelfth grade girls glide up beside me.
"Need a hand?" they ask.

I nod but I don't reach up to grab their hands.  I'm afraid, so afraid of the pain and the loss of control of my body and of being hurt.  I am hesitant to let them touch me, to admit I am hurt and vulnerable.  I don't want to be hurt but at the same time it feels so right.
"I think I broke my leg," I say and that sounds right too.  Finally my inner brokenness can be seen and felt.  My inner pain is suddenly actualized in my injured ankle.  The girls pull me up as I wince, unable to place my foot on the ice.  I don't know where the shame comes from, the terror and relief. I'm hurt and that's good, but I am not supposed to be hurt.  Being hurt is not and never was real.  All I know now is that it shouldn't be a relief to be hurt, and yet I feel relieved.  What is the matter with me?  Did I make this happen?  My young brain rages in pain and confusion.  I don't yet know or understand anything about triggers or flashbacks. I just know there is something wrong in my reaction The memories that would begin to make sense of these feelings would not come for another six years.  I only know somewhere deep inside that being hurt is my fault, my responsibility.  To my mother, I should offer to pay for the surgery needed to put my cracked bone back into place. Not that I have the money, but I know I am responsible and I need to pay.  So I offer to pay the twenty dollars for the crutches.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tribute to Chris Cornell

I couldn't wash my hands in the morning,
'cause it always reminded me of everything.
I hated washing and bentching after bread, 
'cause it always reminded me of everything.
I avoided men in black hats and white shirts,
 'cause they always reminded me of everything.
I avoided long sleeves and women in skirts, 
'cause they always reminded me of everything.

the things I've loved
the things I've lost
the things I've held sacred that I've dropped
I don't avoid them anymore,
'cause you gotta know
I'm here to learn and I want to grow.

I avoided speaking Hebrew and Yiddish words,
'cause they always reminded me of everything.
I avoided praying from a siddur in a shul,
'cause it always reminded me of everything.
I avoided Jewish music if I could,
'cause it always reminded me of everything.
I avoided my heritage wherever i could,
'cause it always reminded me of everything.

the things I've loved
the things I've lost
the things I've held sacred that I've dropped
I don't avoid them anymore,
'cause you ought to know
I'm here to learn and I want to grow.

Jewish holidays brought tears and pain,
'cause they always reminded me of everything.
Birthdays triggered emptiness and shame,
'cause they always reminded me of everything.
I avoided closeness with my husband and kids,
'cause they always reminded me of everything.
I wasn't connected,
I couldn't really live, 
'cause life reminded me of everything.

the things I've loved
the things I've lost
the things I've held sacred that I've dropped
I don't avoid them anymore,
'cause you gotta know
I'm here to learn and I want to grow.

My mind and emotions triggered and controlled,
'cause they always reminded me of everything.
I couldn't get away from trauma and pain.
Too much reminded me of everything.
Feeling real rage
crying real tears
helped me remember everything
Facing my scariest thoughts and fears
brought me to joy and acceptance of everything.

the things I've loved
the things I've lost
the things I've held sacred that I've dropped
I don't avoid them anymore,
'cause you know
I'm here to learn and I want to grow.

Now, men are just men and colors don't matter,
they remind me not to quickly judge anything.
Reality is truth and God is love
and I know the importance of everything.
I'm grounded, connected and present today
and I have the strength to face anything.
I wish I could bring you to this healthier place
where we can celebrate you and everything.

the things I've loved
the things that I've lost 

the things I've held sacred that I've dropped
Please don't avoid them anymore,
 'cause you ought to know
we're here to learn and we're here to grow.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Pesach Poem

The past is in my eyes
blocking out the sun's shine.
I squint and lunge for a piece of driftwood
Like a drowning sailor.

This elevator is going down and I need to get off.
My husband and my children are on this floor waiting for me.
I pound the button but the elevator door slams shut on my arm. 

I am trapped in this small space, 
plagued by dreams of people and places I haven't thought about or seen in years.
Images I don't want to see, feelings I don't want to feel.
Pain that squeezes blood from my heart
frogs jumping
lice itching

animals dying
babies crying

Get me out of here,
out of Mitzrayim and slavery of the past 

to Pesach,
to freedom.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Drunk on Faith

I cried through the megillah reading this year.

My daughter who sat next to me hugged and kissed me with 
her black-lipsticked mouth, leaving a smear on my cheek.  
She was surprised that the megillah
 brought me to tears. "You're so emotional, Mom! It's gonna be okay,"
 she whispered.  She wiped my black -smeared cheek and my tears and 
blew me more kisses.

I cried in empathy with Esther, the orphan, who was given a lonely mission that
 she neither wanted nor requested.  I know what it's like to be separated
 from family after being forced into an unwanted sexual relationship. 
 I suspect that, like me, Esther would have gladly died, rather than
 be violated by King Achashverosh and then have to live separately 
because of it for the rest of her life - becoming just one of the many girls
 the king used for pleasure and discarded.  Esther spent the rest of her 
life in the king's palace, not really belonging nor wanting to be
 there, cut off from her people.

Esther made the best of her situation. In the end, when she
 understood why she had been chosen, Esther accepted her 
destiny. She rose to the occasion and saw opportunity and
 ultimately redemption in her desperate situation. 
 She chose to use her position for good.  Mordechai helped
 her see the bigger picture.

Through my tears I remind myself of the many 
Mordechai's in my life who believe in me and my mission.

Like Mordechai, they cannot fully enter my inner world, 
but like Mordechai they stay close by and remind me 
not to get lost in despair.  They know I am here in this
 strange, lonely place for a reason.

They remind me that I am on an important mission.
Like Esther, I was given this unique set of circumstances for a reason.

Like Esther, I can choose to run away from this mission and God
 will find some other way to save my family from this evil.

Like Esther, I will gather courage and find my voice and do
 the right thing.  I will let my voice be heard.  I will banish 
self-doubt by turning to God.  My faith will carry me through 
this mission.  I will find the strength to confront people of
 power, and I will arrive uninvited and speak my truth.  
I will find a way to be heard and expose evil.

I could have gone quietly into the night, lived my life,
 healed my own pain, focused on my own family and
 ignored the larger mission in the situation I was given.

I am not Esther, but I can see that in my own life, in my individual
 story, I too can make a difference.

I am confronting an evil that almost destroyed me and
 is threatening to destroy my people.

Sometimes, when I am high on faith, I truly do not know the difference
 between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.
When I am drunk on faith it's all the same. Nothing bad 
ever happened, or will happen. I have everything I need,
 and I am everything I need.  I have clarity.

When I know that everything is from God and I occupy a
 place of love, there is truly no difference between good and bad.