“But you’re not going to tell everyone I’m crazy if I tell you something not so normal?”
Eitan was about as normal as they come. Or, at least that’s what he told me when he booked an appointment after being referred by his sister, who was a neighbor of mine.
He was a real estate lawyer, was makpid about learning daf yomi, and lived in Raanana with his family. It certainly sounded normal.
And “normal” was the word that kept on coming up as we exchanged emails before our initial meeting. As an attorney, Eitan was quite nervous about scheduling his appointment, concerned as he was about issues of confidentiality and of course mandated reporting. But when the word “normal” came up for the seventh time, I began to have my concerns that maybe something else was going on, given his extreme obsession with confidentiality.
Having been in this business for a while now, I was pretty good at recognizing a red flag. While patients certainly have legal rights to their privacy, healthcare professionals — similar to police officers, teachers, and clergy members — are bound by an ethical code and a legal responsibility to protect their patients and the lives of others in certain situations. That means that if, for example, a patient is acutely abusive to children, there is likely a responsibility to contact child welfare organizations. Should a patient become suicidal, contacting family members or emergency services may be necessary. If a patient is homicidal or threatening other individuals, calling the police is a potentially lifesaving legal responsibility.
I therefore reminded Eitan that there were exceptions to patient-doctor confidentiality in the explicit cases of personal and interpersonal safety.
“But you’re not going to tell everyone I’m crazy if I tell you something not so normal?” he pleaded. “I mean, that’s still confidential, right?”
“Eitan,” I tried to reassure him over the phone before we met, “as long as you’re safe and everyone else is safe, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
He thanked me, and then I added a necessary caveat: “That being said, if you’re homicidal, suicidal, or a danger to kids, I’m calling the cops.”
“No, no, no, I’m normal, Dr. Freedman. You’ll see. I’m normal.”
And I did see. And he was. Eitan was a graduate of Yeshiva University and its affliliate, Cardozo School of Law, who had married Yael, a girl he’d known from childhood in the Five Towns. After interning in a prestigious law firm, Eitan and Yael had followed their dream of making aliyah and moved straight to Raanana, where they both had family. Life was going well, and before they could turn around, they had three kids, Eitan had become established as a real estate attorney, and they’d bought a house.
“I told you, Dr. Freedman, I’m normal,” he said, as he gave a quick synopsis of his life.
I agreed that it seemed like a fair assessment, based on what I’d heard thus far. But then Eitan told me about how fast things changed when Yael was diagnosed with a rare malignant brain tumor.
It began with a fall and an unexplained seizure while taking the kids to preschool one day. The brain scan showed a massive bilateral tumor and within a few hours, their entire world was flipped upside down. And yet, Eitan’s response to the unfolding drama was about as level-headed and stable as anyone could have imagined.
He kept the kids in school and took care of the house, pulled out all the stops to get his wife the best possible medical care, and simultaneously worked enough to stay afloat in the business realm. Yael’s first surgery wasn’t a success and neither was her radiation or chemotherapy, but Eitan kept optimistic until the last moment when the experimental protocol failed and Yael succumbed to an infection.
The community was heartbroken, but Eitan kept it all going. Although he was shattered inside and grieved according to halachah, he was a rock for his kids, stayed on top of the daf, and brought in a junior partner to help shoulder the burden at work. In less than a month, Eitan had already sent his mother back to America as he’d mastered the daily schedule of waking up early to learn, getting the kids to babysitters and gan, and finishing up a day’s work in time for afternoon pick up.
There didn’t seem to be any depression or anxiety, and no bad coping skills like drinking himself to sleep. Eitan was just a powerhouse when it came to plowing through the days and weeks as a single father in aveilus.
The months passed, Chanukah became Purim, but it was as leibedig as it could have been under the circumstances and the kids seemed to be adjusting well to the new reality, given how present Eitan was as a father. As Yael’s yahrtzeit approached, Eitan’s family weren’t the only ones who began suggesting shidduchim — he was a great guy, smart, dedicated, and without anything suggesting he wasn’t ready to be a super husband once more.
Eitan was reluctant, but a few months later, he felt he ready — and knew that his kids needed a mother even more than he needed a wife. Shani seemed like a wonderful woman: warm, loving, and with her own story that involved her husband’s death in an IDF mission shortly after their marriage. Eitan’s family liked her, she cared for his kids, and even Yael’s parents gave a symbolic thumbs-up as they knew she’d be good for their grandchildren.
They had a l’chayim and the wedding was planned for a couple of months down the road at the end of the summer.
And that was when things stopped being normal.
“You have to promise to remember that I’m a normal guy,” he reminded me edgily. “I’ve told you everything and you can even google me to see that I’m an upstanding citizen, a mensch, a normal person.”
I nodded, waiting for his big revelation. I really had no idea what he was planning on telling me.
“Okay, so this is it, Dr. Freedman. Three weeks ago, my wife started visiting me. It happens every morning right before I wake up. She’s right there, sitting across the room from me at the crack of dawn, looking at me and waiting for me to say something. I know it sounds crazy — I thought maybe I also have something wrong in my brain, but I already went to a neurologist who gave me a clean bill of health. I should also tell you I’m not on drugs, I’m not depressed or anxious or psychotic or anything else.”
“Except scared out of your mind,” I interjected.
“Exactly. I’m not the kind of guy who’s into this stuff. I don’t study Zohar, I don’t even like reading the Aggadetas when I’m learning the daf. I’m as normal as can be — I just have my wife’s ghost sitting in my bedroom every morning.”
I agreed with him that it sounded pretty not-normal and reassured him that I didn’t think he was crazy. I was certainly glad that he wasn’t some kind of psychopath with a dangerous secret underneath the facade of a YU graduate and lawyer living in Raanana. But this one wasn’t going to be simple.
To be continued…
Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.
Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman, whose new book Off the Couch has just been released in collaboration with Menucha Publishers, can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills around Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 828)
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