| Musings |

Another Mother

I’m in a psych ward. I can deal with that. Can’t I?

Mothers shouldn’t have to be in a place like this. Mothers shouldn’t have to be doing this.

My brain was on autopilot, answering the doctor’s questions while ignoring my peripheral vision, which was seeing images I didn’t want to process.

The white-coated orderlies. Brightly lit hallways with gated windows. The locked door behind me.

From somewhere down the hall a wail echoed in my consciousness. A keening sound, painful and piercing.

I tried to tune it out. To focus on what was right in front of me. I was here. Had to be here for my son’s sake. But mothers shouldn’t be standing next to their firstborn sons talking about hallucinations and disassociated reality.

Mothers should be hugs and freshly baked cookies. Mothers should be able to fix all problems with a kiss on the knee and a Mickey Mouse Band-Aid.

How did I get here? How did I get from his very first doctor’s appointment where I kvelled over his weight gain, to discussing psychotic symptoms with the admitting psychiatrist?

I’m in a psych ward. I can deal with that. Can’t I?

No. I can’t.


Chaim is rocking back and forth in his chair. The chair makes soft protesting noises, back and forth, back and forth. Chaim is muttering under his breath.

“What are you saying?” I asked him. I don’t know what possessed me to ask. Why did I want to hear about how he was Mashiach? How Hashem was right here with him in his pocket. How he was writing a new Tehillim to herald in Bnei Yisrael’s new reality. All thoughts he’d shared with me the last few weeks. All ideas that had spiraled out of control, out of sense to insanity. I didn’t really want to hear what he was saying.

But he answered me. He looked right at me, but I knew he wasn’t seeing me.

“Mommy, you know who you are?” That childish reference of Mommy. Reminiscent of earlier years. Innocent years. Since his bar mitzvah he’s called me Ma. Why did he revert back to Mommy? That sweet word sounded so discordant with his teenage voice, gravely with lack of sleep.

“Mommy, you know who you are?” he repeated. “You’re a gilgul of Rochel Imeinu. That’s who you are.” And he smiled, an inward smile, as if he knew something I didn’t know, something that made him content.

I should be touched. Should be grateful that when my son lost control, he lost it in such a spiritual sense. Should be awed that his words did not connect with his mind, but perhaps with his soul.

Instead his words flung me backward. Hit my heart. Filled me with so much pain I could scarcely take a breath.

Chaim. Where are you? Where have you gone? How did we get here?

I wanted to gather him on my knee as I’d done so many times in the past, and rock him, stroking his curly hair, singing him songs of little tzaddekels going to cheder. That’s what mothers do.

Rochel Imeinu. Yeah, right.

He was rocking again. Never stopping. Never ceasing to move.

But the rhythm had words to them now.

Rochel Imeinu. The pattern beat against my brain.

I am a mother. An ima. And I could do this. Could let my heart be ripped to get my child the help he needed. Could stand there while they slapped an ID around his wrist, could stand there with my heart aflame and my body shaking.

I could do this. Because I was the daughter of Rochel Imeinu. I could be like her, a small voice, laden with tears, and send up my pain to the Kisei Hakavod. Take this, Hashem. Take this suffering, and let it be a kapparah for Klal Yisrael.

And maybe, just maybe, if Chaim is right, then my words can herald the call, “Min’i kolech mi’bechi.”

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 714)

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  1. Avatar
    Ester Jakabovits

    Dear Tzipporah Bar-Lev,

    With tears in my eyes for a mommy who longs to erase her child’s pain with her embrace, I want to echo your son’s comparison of you and Rochel Imeinu. Your courage to share a journey most people keep in the recesses of their hearts may very well be at the root of Rochel’s courage to do the “unpopular, risky thing, to give over the simanim to her sister.

    In your act, in sharing your journey toward bringing your son to a psych ward, you may have given words to others who are too afraid to speak, camaraderie to those who don’t know how. On the yahrtzeit of Rachel Imeinu, which recently passed, I davened for your special son.

    How do I know he’s special? Because his is obviously a sensitive neshamah, feeling things at a frequency most of us don’t. Perhaps his soul lacks the dressing, curtain, mechitzah, that allows us to function in this world, but gives him no rest.

    Sending you continued strength,