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.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Lyza and Ruth

How can we tell the difference between emes and sheker?...
Allow me to introduce twin sisters,
Lyza and Ruth.
Lyza tells lies and Ruth tells the truth.
They look so alike, at times it's hard to tell
that one lives in heaven and the other in hell.
Lyza is afraid, she conceals her face,
shooting at Ruth from her hiding place.
She cannot discuss openly, cannot enter the light,
she is worried and anxious and filled with fright.
Introspection is hard because something is wrong,
inside her is a monstrous, anxious storm.
Lyza intimidates Ruth, tries to make her step back,
she shames her and blames her and confuses the facts.
Lyza lies to survive, cannot look Ruth in the face.
She will make any excuse to change the date and place.
She will avoid and confuse, blame and cause conflict,
rage and rationalize and deny her own tricks.
Lyza is in pain.
Ruth is very different.
Ruth is not afraid, Ruth doesn't hide.
Ruth knows she is up against Lyza's complex lies.
Ruth is strong and doesn't give in.
She is clear and powerful and in the end will win.
Ruth is not afraid to look at at her own face
and take responsibility for her mistakes.
Ruth knows what she knows and knows what she doesn't,
and doesn't pretend to know things she can't
( like other"s intentions, for example).
Ruth is open to hearing more information
and changing her perspective based on that knowledge.
Ruth is not going anywhere. She feels happy and safe
and wants everyone to join her in this wonderful place.
Ruth is filled with love and acceptance,
even for Lyza
who tries to control her perspective.
(Ruth understands and accepts Lyza's role.)
Inside us we all have a Lyza and Ruth.
Lyza lies to survive,
and Ruth?
Ruth is the truth.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


 This Shabbos I spoke publicly about this week's Torah portion, parshas Vayigash, focusing on family dynamics, estrangement, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

 Parshas Vayigash is very personal and emotional for me.  I relate to the story of Yosef and his brothers profoundly.
 In fact, this week's parsha, is the one that helped me reconcile my relationship with the Torah.
I had to find a story in the Torah that I could relate to and learn from in order to be able to live a Torah life, after what happened to me.

My personal story has so many parallels to Yosef's.
Like Yosef, I have eleven siblings.
 Like Yosef, my siblings saw me (and still see me) as a threat to the family and to their destiny.
  Like Yosef, they completely cut me off.

I was about twenty five when I was officially cut off.  I haven't seen my mother or siblings in eighteen years.
 And if my path continues to follow that of Yosef it will be a few years yet, until I see them again.

Like Yosef, I was cut off for speaking a truth that my family could not comprehend or believe.
 As a young child I was sexually abused in my grandfather's yeshiva by my grandfather and his students, one of who was my father.
When I was twenty, after years of depression and quiet suffering, I finally understood what had happened to me, what was wrong with me, and told my family.
No one in my family believed me.
None of the rabbonim I turned to for help in the community believed me, either.  They said I was imagining things.
When I was about twenty five I heard that my father, who was a teacher at the time, was being investigated for molesting a boy in his class and I decided to speak up. I realized that what happened to me could not remain a secret, as my father was (and still is) working with children.
My family's rav advised them to cut me off unless I promised not to talk about my father publicly.

Like Yosef, I suffered in a psychological and emotional prison for many years. 
Like Yosef, I chose to see the bigger picture.

This is not just about me.  
This is about all of us.
Our community is dealing with a virtual plague of child sexual abuse and its damage.

Yosef was sold down to Mitzrayim to prepare food for his family.  I feel like I was "sold down to Mitzrayim" to prepare hope and healing for my family. 
 Hope is the food of survival.

 Like Yosef, I could not have become the person I am today, the person I am supposed to be, while still in contact with my family.  I accept what happened to me.   I accept that Hashem is in control of the world and not my family or me, and that what happened is exactly what was supposed to happen.

But, what about forgiveness?
 What will happen when my family (whether in this world or the next) finally realizes the truth? 
Can the pain of all the lost years, all the lost relationships ever go away?  Is forgiveness possible or even expected when a family cuts off a sibling?
Was forgiveness expected of Yosef?
Forgiveness can only exist in a culture in which repentance exists. The cultures in the world at the time of this parsha were shame and honor cultures.  ...Only Yaakov's family, (our family), had a repentance-and-forgiveness culture whose central concepts are will and choice.  ...Yosef's apparent forgiveness of his brothers is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another. (
 Before Yosef revealed himself to his brothers he tested them over and over again to see if they had truly repented.  When he hears them admit that they made a mistake when they sold him, and that they feel terrible guilt and that they are willing to do anything to prevent the same thing from happening to their younger brother, he says to them: Beraishis 45 4-8

"I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God." 

Not everyone agrees that Yosef forgave, or was expected to forgive his brothers.
Rabbi Boruch Adler in Parsha Illuminations writes: 
 "The Or Hachaim says that Yosef did not forgive his brothers he accommodated them.  He understood his role and responsibility toward them.  He was more than civil toward them.  But he did not forgive them.  Yosef did not absolve his brothers of their guilt for selling him.  He was gracious but unforgiving."  
Rabbi Jay Kelmen explains:
"...Despite the warm wishes and good intentions it is not so easy to forget the painful past.  A close examination of the Biblical text reveals that all was neither forgotten nor forgiven.  "It is me who you sold into Egypt"; your sale has led to a long a bitter exile.  Your actions set off a chain of events leading to making Israel Judenrein.  Seventy souls may come down to Egypt but the Jewish people would not leave until they would number in the hundreds of thousands many of years later...An analysis of the aftermath of the death of Yaakov is quite instructive.  "And Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead and they said: Perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us and he will surely repay us all that evil that we did to him" (50:15).  Life is such that despite the best efforts the past can not just be undone.  Joseph leaving home at age seventeen and rising to the top of the most powerful nation of the world no longer speaks the same language. "They did not know that Joseph understood for an interpreter was between them" (42:23).  The innocence of youth, the closeness of father and son, the familial bond was lost forever."  Rabbi Kelmen points out that even though Yosef took care of his family in Mitzrayim, he did not live near them.  They lived far away in Goshen.
 Yosef's brothers were in denial about who he really was. Although he spoke of God and justice, using very un-Egyptian like language, they could not see past his external clothing, or imagine that he wanted anything good.  
In fact the midrash says that the brothers thought Yosef wanted their most handsome brother Binyamin to come down to Mitzrayim because he wanted him as his sex slave.
"Egypt was a hotbed of immorality,(9) and infamous for homosexuality and pedophilia...The brothers' suspicion that Yosef's intentions were less than honorable should come as no surprise; they do not entertain even the faintest notion, even in their wildest dreams, that this inscrutable, immoral monarch is actually their long-lost brother, a man who was not only sold, but was physically excised, cut out of the family. They do not dream that this man is Yosef, and that he has remained chaste - even at the price of being imprisoned. They do not see a Yosef HaTzaddik, nor do they see Yosef, grown to manhood and power. They see a lustful, powerful pervert. The only master plan they perceived was one engineered to satisfy Zafnat Paneach's (Yosef's Egyptian name) sexual appetite.Yosef is not seeking revenge, nor is he seeking vindication. Everything he says to his brothers and everything he does from the moment they stand before him is geared toward bringing the brothers to recognize him, to see him - and, as a result, to see his dreams - for what they really are. It is toward that end that Yosef pushes them, but they do not seem to understand. They don't understand that it is Yosef that he wants them to seek; they don't understand that it is Yosef he wants them to accept; they don't understand that it is Yosef who is in the room with them...The brothers' failure to recognize Yosef is more than ironic, more than a personal insult, more than tragic. The fact is that everyone else who came into contact with Yosef throughout his life, including Potifar and his wife, the chief baker and the chief wine steward, the chief officer of Pharaoh's prison, and Pharaoh himself, immediately saw Yosef's greatness. Yosef rose to the top in every situation - save one:
Only his brothers could not or would not recognize his leadership qualities, his innate talent, his God-given gifts. 
 This is the essence of sinat hinam, the quintessential example of baseless hatred: The brothers' hatred blinded them to Yosef's greatness. Even when Yosef stands before them, having overcome every possible obstacle in his personal rise to power, even when he practically begs them to open their eyes and see the man behind robes of royalty, they refuse to see. They seem to prefer their jealousy and hatred over acceptance of Yosef as their rightful leader.Tragically, the brothers are willing to look everywhere else, anywhere else, rather than look their brother in the eye and see him for who he truly is. With the sale of Yosef, sinat chinam was unleashed and the Jewish People has never quite managed to correct this schism." (
Although I am obviously far from being a tzaddika, nor am I associated with any kind of royalty, my current reality with my mother and siblings is similar.  
They can not see me for who I really am.
Yosef's brothers, before he revealed himself, saw him as a pervert.  At that point in history the immorality that was prevalent in Mitzrayim was not a part of Yaakov's family.  After we moved down to mitzrayim, to a long and bitter exile, the immoral behaviors of Mitzrayim began seeping in to Yaakov's family. 
Into our family.
Pedophilia and child sexual abuse do not belong here.
Although Yosef was alone in his mission, I am one among many.  Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse in our community, who have been "sold out" by our family, and our community, are speaking out at great cost. 
Our only goal is to heal ourselves and our community.  I wish I could keep silent to protect and shield my family and myself from the shame of what happened, but the deep pain that I experienced can not be silenced.  Yosef sent everyone out of the room before he revealed his true identity, in order to protect his brothers from shame. Yet he could not hold back his cry which was heard throughout Mitzrayim.
My story, like Yosef's, is a cry of deep pain.
Just as Yosef's sale and abandonment was the beginning of the galus and exile, May mine, and other survivors sale and abandonment be the beginning of the Geula and redemption.