Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Survivors at the Mikvah

Going to the mikvah, the ritual bath, is anything but simple when you're a survivor of child sexual abuse in the frum (religious) community.

 Mikvah is actually a beautiful, and often misunderstood mitzvah.

Both men and women go to the mikvah, although at different times.  For a woman, immersion in the mikvah happens as regularly as her monthly cycle.  During a woman's period and the week following, we refrain from any physical intimacy with our husbands.  The end of this physical separation is marked by visiting the mikvah.

 Mikvah has nothing to do with a woman being "dirty" or "unclean" because of menstruation.   This misunderstanding comes from a commonly mistranslated word in the Torah, "Tameh."   The condition of being Tameh, or ritually impureis related to a loss of potential for life.
 It applies to both men and women at different times.
 It applied to the high priest during the Yom Kippur service in the holy temple, the Bet Hamikdash.

 Water represents life, and immersing our bodies in the mikvah after menstruation is in a sense, a rebirth after the loss of a potential pregnancy; the potential for new life.   Many women look forward to visiting the mikvah, which is often beautiful and spa-like, before resuming intimacy with their husbands.

Ironically, I didn't connect spiritually to the mikvah experience until I read a book on Feng Shui.  Feng Shui is a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing the human existence with the surrounding environment, and is all about energy.  
Feng Shui explained how water changes energy in a positive, life giving, way.  The mikvah, and ritual hand washing, made more sense to me when I thought about how water changes us energetically.

 Before my wedding, my rabbi's wife taught me the detailed laws of mikvah, and taharat hamishpacha. (ritual family purity)   I learned that a rabbi is often asked very personal questions, and sometimes looks at biological stains on a woman's undergarment, to assess whether she can go to the mikvah on time or not.

 (Today, In Israel, we are blessed with a mikvah hotline, which is staffed by women who are trained to answer the same questions.)

 When I heard about the rabbi's involvement in this very personal ritual, I was horrified.
I put my head down on the table and sobbed.
The rabbi's wife tried to soothe me.  She said, "Think of it as going to the gynecologist.  They are especially trained.  They just want to help you get together with your husband as soon as you can.  There are plenty of rabbis out there who are not perpetrators."

At that point in my life, I had met very few rabbis, who weren't perpetrators or weren't enabling other perpetrators.
 Because of my background, I knew I would never go to a male gynecologist, anyway.

I felt trapped and humiliated by the fact that men, especially rabbis, were involved in such an intimate and personal process.
My father, my grandfather, (a rabbi) and other religious men who had sexually abused me as a child, all seemed involved in this conspiracy somehow.
Would I ever get away from these men?
Would their hands forever be on my body, controlling what I did with it, long distance, if not in person?

 I had promised my husband that I would follow the laws of taharat mishpacha.   My father and grandfather had succeeded in robbing me of a potentially beautiful experience.
I felt spiritually abused.
Anger and resentment at the injustice burned inside me.
Why were men, and strange men at that, in charge of my body and what I did with it?
 Why not me??

 If I didn't follow the rabbi's interpretation of the mikvah rules, I was a spiritual failure, because I was not following halachah. (Jewish law.)
I hated men.
 I hated rabbis.
 I hated going to the mikvah.
Even after many years of marriage, I often came back from the Mikvah filled with a deep sense of sadness  and loss.  A feeling of having given in and allowing myself to be victimized.
And that was after a relatively good experience.

  The bad experiences made it that much harder to go.

 Before we made Aliyah, we were in New York for a Shabbos, and I had to go to the mikvah on a Friday night.  Where I came from, (out of town) you made an appointment, and used the mikvah when no one else was there. I had privacy at the mikvah. I never sat in the waiting room with anyone else.

 The waiting room in Boro Park that Friday night was full of women and babies. 
Women praying, and babies crying.  
In the center of the building were ten or so mikvaos. Women entered and exited the doors to the thirty plus preparation rooms surrounding the mikvaos.  My head spun trying to follow what was going on.  There was barely a break in the action.

  I had the strange feeling that I was in a human dunking factory.

 I watched women heading into preparation rooms. 
 I heard them exiting to the mikvah.
I heard them reciting the blessing, 
 I heard the splashes as they dunked three, or seven times, depending on their custom.
Then the mivkah lady's loud announcement:  "Kosher!"
 Then more splashes as they exited the mikvah and headed quickly back to the preparation room,
 and then hurried out the door.


When the mikvah lady came to get me from the preparation room her manner was impatient.  She said, “Come with me, I'll toivel you now.”

I felt like an object.  A new dish. (We dunk new dishes too.)
 Let's get you toveled fast, so I can go home to my Shabbos dinner.
There was no eye contact.
I need eye contact at the mikvah.  As a survivor, I need to know that I am being seen as a person and not just a body.  As a child, I experienced complete loss of control over my body while I was being abused.  I needed to feel a sense of control over my body, in order to feel safe, and not re-traumatized  by the mikvah experience.  I needed to not only deal with the anxiety, and vulnerability of the immersion itself, I also wanted to feel relaxed, and grounded enough to go home and be with my husband, which presented its own unique challenges. (see my previous post on healing sexual intimacy.)

 In order for the mikvah immersion to be kosher, I knew my body had to be completely free of any object that might prevent the mikvah water from touching me.  In my anxiety, I forgot to take off my wedding ring.  Now I was not only a new dish, but worse, a new dish with a sticker! 
I had to take the ring off, and go back in and dunk again.

I numbed part of my mind to get through the experience.

Once, while in Israel, I needed to go to the mikvah and I happened to get into a cab with a female driver.  She wore a low cut, sleeveless tank top, long, bright red nails, and three inch heels.
Clearly chiloni, (not religious) or so I thought.
 I asked her if she would be available that night as I was looking for a female driver.  She said,
"Sure. What time? where do you need to go?"
"Eight a clock.  I need to go to the mikvah."
Without missing a beat she said,
"I need to go too.  Let's go together."

I told my female, mikvah going, taxi driver that I had heard of a new mikvah that was supposed to be very beautiful.  The floors were heated, wedding music played, and there was a floor to ceiling aquarium of tropical fish to relax with, while you waited for your turn.  I wanted to try it out, hoping  for a  positive experience. 

She agreed to try it out with me.

It was indeed a beautiful mikvah, clean and sparkling.  Each room had heated floors, a closet with a snow white bath robe, a new toothbrush, and disposable slippers. The tropical aquarium was a work of live art.  The wedding music was lovely. I felt like I was at the spa.

That is, until the mikvah lady arrived.

 The mikvah lady entered my preparation room carrying a tray of sterile equipment.  Scissors, nail files, tweezers, alcohol, etc.  She proceeded to sit down on a chair and arrange her equipment on a towel, explaining that she would  be checking my body for any barriers, loose skin, loose hairs, etc.  I politely declined telling her I had already checked, and offered to let her see my hands and feet.  She got upset.  This was unacceptable. Her rabbi instructed her to do it her way.  And who was she, or I, for that matter, to question her rabbi?  She threatened not to let me immerse in the mikvah, if I didn't follow her rabbi's customs.
Feeling too vulnerable to create a scene, I let her begin her invasive check.
She snipped off a hair on my head saying, 
"I'm not sure if this hair is attached so I'm cutting it."
 That was the limit for me.  I held up my hand and said, "That's enough!  I'm ready to go in now."

She walked me into the mikvah room and yelled to another mikvah lady, "I can't let her in.  She won't let me check her!"
I was standing there, only wrapped in a towel, feeling vulnerable, humiliated, and exposed.
 I was very close to leaving without using the mikvah at all.

 Luckily, the second mikvah lady rescued me.  She said, "Don't listen to her.  I'll take you in.  You can follow your own rabbi's customs."
When I got home, I cried.  
I was too anxious to let my husband anywhere near me.

 I still go to the mikvah, and mostly it's been OK, if not inspiring.
I never went back to that beautiful mikvah again.
Some time later, I happened to meet my female taxi driver again, and she told me that she never went back there either.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Healing Sexual Intimacy (part two)

After four or five therapy sessions like the one described below, something inside me had shifted.  My husband and I both noticed the difference.  I realized that by doing this work I had acquired a new list of words associated with sexual intimacy.  A very different list from the first: 
 ...Connected...safe...present...close...caring...intimate...beautiful...and yes, even holy.  
 I had arrived at a new place inside.  A place that I had never been , and couldn't have imagined entering, before I did this work.  
It was a miracle. 
I want to share this part of my story with fellow survivors, whose ability to trust and be intimate was damaged as a result of the abuse.    I want to offer hope to you, and your spouses, those hidden heroes like my husband, who live with, and love those of us who have been sexually abused as children, despite our limitations.   Everyone's path to healing will be their own, individual, path.  Each one of us can get to a new, healthier, place in our own time, and in our own way.  The important thing to remember is that HEALING IS POSSIBLE!  

It felt like I was at my own birth.
I was both the mother in labor, and the unborn child.

 The mother just wanted it to be over, and for everyone to come out of the experience safely.
 The child was suddenly finding herself in an environment that was much too small for her.  She wanted out.  It was time to leave.  It was time to grow.
 Time to be born.

I was more present and grounded than I thought I would be.
 I was ready to let the hurt younger part of me  know that I was an adult now, I was in charge, and it was finally safe.

 My therapist asked me what I wanted to remind myself as an adult.
 I told her that I am very determined.  I told my inner child that I am a safe adult and that I love her.  I reminded myself that I was doing this to help myself heal, and that I would be safe.

Hinda's presence helped a lot.  I have known Hinda for many years.  I think Hinda was the very first safe person in my life.  I love her.

I gave Hinda and my therapist permission to sit on either side of me. I asked them to help me, and hold the part of me who thinks she has to hurt me, in order to survive.

I knew I needed physical help to hold these feelings. When I tried to do this work on my own, I felt intense pressure from inside to numb out mentally, or to hurt myself.

Hinda and my therapist sat on either side of me on the couch.  With my permission they took my arms and held them firmly.
At first it was OK.  Three mature adult women sitting together on the couch.  Supporting me.

Then my stomach lurched and intense, overwhelming feelings surged forward into my body.  I pulled to get away. When I realized that I really couldn't get away, I panicked.
 What was I doing?
My body and mind froze.
I was trapped.  This was not safe.
Maybe if I played dead they would go away.

My therapist asked me to tell her what was going on inside.
I told her and Hinda what I was experiencing.
 Getting away was very important.
I had to get away.
As we struggled I reminded myself and my younger part,

"I LET my therapist and Hinda do this.  I WANT them to do this.  I give them permission to hold me."

I didn't know if I believed myself.

A hurt younger part of me, was struggling to break free of me,and other adults, who she still believed were only there to hurt her.
I wouldn't let go, until she re-learned that she was going to be touched, and there would be no hurting.  I wouldn't let go, until she understood, and experienced, that safe adults were now in charge.

Safe adults.  Did such a thing really exist?  At the time, I wasn't sure.
 I struggled with my therapist, and Hinda, for an hour, maybe two.  I don't know for sure.

I was struggling to break free of the terror and trauma, that had been in control of my life for so long.
Hinda and my therapist were right there with me. Struggling with me.
Fighting for me.
I couldn't believe what I was actually doing.  Yet, I knew I needed to do it in order to free myself.

It was one of the scariest things I ever tried to do.  I was hot.  I was trapped.  I was flat on my back on the couch with Hinda and my therapist on top of me. Their bodies were so close. Too close, touching me, triggering me. The fear made me nauseous. My body was touching theirs.
Yuck! Shame. Rage. Terror.

I wondered why I ever thought this was a good idea.

I was terrified.
I was sure Tatty was there...Or that he would show up at any moment.
This is the kind of thing he liked to do.
Tie me up.  Hold me down...Hurt me.
 I was sure in the end I would be hurt.  Just like always.
My mouth hurts!  My bottom hurts!  Something is cutting me down there.
I heard a very young voice crying in pain and fear.  The voice was coming from somewhere inside me.

I was re-experiencing the moment of pain and panic that physical touch triggered in me. The moment when, as a young child, I felt like I had to die inside.  The moment when he violated my body.  The moment of intolerable, unendurable pain, when my mind split.
 I had to leave my mind, because I couldn't leave the body that was being violated.
In the end, a part of me always had to die.

But always, doesn't always happen.

This time the ending was different.  My therapist and Hinda talked me through it.  My therapist talked more than Hinda.
She asked me what it feels like to trust.
She told me we would stay there all night if we had to.
I begged her to let me go.
I accused her of breaking therapeutic boundaries by touching me.  (I ignored the fact that it was my idea, and that we had discussed it at length.)
She told me that sometimes we have to step out of the normal boundaries of therapy, in order to grow.
She told me many good things while she held me tight.
She promised to hold me until she was sure I was safe.

 I didn't understand everything she was saying.
I just knew that she was not going anywhere.  She wouldn't leave me alone with this.
 I knew I was not alone.
For me, that was a very new feeling.