I was a bit overwhelmed myself — it’s not every day you see a person so candidly willing to admit his pain or weakness
“I can’t believe you won’t help us, Dr. Freedman! We schlepped all the way out here and you won’t even see my son?!”
I took a deep breath and encouraged Rabbi Hershkovitz to do the same. It didn’t help. Of course, I’d never said such a thing. I just didn’t agree with Rabbi Hershkovitz’s plan of action.
“We paid for your time! We brought his records! And now you’re refusing to help us! What’s the big deal with coming to the house and pretending that you’re a new chavrusa of mine who just wants to schmooze with the family? That’s a perfectly reasonable idea! Why can’t you cooperate?”
Rebbetzin Hershkovitz tried to calm her husband down, but it didn’t seem to help either. He stormed out the door and slammed it on his way out.
Rebbetzin Hershkovitz was infinitely less flustered than I would have expected under the circumstances. She sat calmly, preferring to finish up the time they’d booked.
A veteran Torah teacher throughout the seminaries around Jerusalem, she carried a certain self-respect that went beyond her yichus as a daughter of a prominent American rosh yeshivah. It was the kind of dignity that wouldn’t unravel so easily in spite of her husband’s temper tantrum.
“My husband is a good man, Dr. Freedman, I’m sure you can imagine how hard this is for him, given that Chaim Ozer is our only son. And as much as I agree with everything you said today, I just want to make sure I have it all set in my mind. It will help me to better explain it to my husband — and to help him really understand Chaim Ozer’s addiction.”
We spent some time reviewing her son’s history: Chaim Ozer was 19, the last of six kids and the only boy. The Hershkovitzes had lived in Eretz Yisrael since their marriage, with Rabbi Hershkovitz making great strides in his learning and eventually heading a chaburah. But he also became increasingly rigid and less flexible in his Yiddishkeit as he waited for a son who he had no doubt would become the next gadol hador. By the time Chaim Ozer was born, Rabbi Hershkovitz had already picked out the cheder and yeshivos that would be battling for the zechus of teaching the baby Torah.
But Hashem had other plans, and Chaim Ozer struggled intensely throughout his early years in school. He had some learning issues, plus a crippling stutter that resulted in serious bullying. By the time his parents got him the treatment he needed, Chaim Ozer was already a broken bochur in yeshivah ketanah with one foot out the door. This led to a cycle of treatment programs, therapeutic yeshivos, and eventually bouncing in and out of expensive rehabs across the world. What was clear to me, at least, was that no intervention or program — no matter how fancy or exciting — would be effective until Chaim Ozer was ready to honestly invest himself.
As I reviewed the boy’s history with Rebbetzin Hershkovitz, she nodded in agreement and added, “And then my husband asked if you would be willing to pretend to be just a chavrusa and to come over to the house and ‘trick him’ into doing a consultation with you…. But you were right to hold your ground, Dr. Freedman. My son is not an idiot and would figure it out immediately. And trying to force him to see a psychiatrist to talk about his daily marijuana smoking and the cocaine and psychedelics on the weekends will only make him angry, even though my husband thinks that’s good. He’s convinced that even if Chaim Ozer gets angry, it will be worth it, because in the end he’ll finally change his ways.
“But I know that isn’t how it works,” she continued. “Like you said, a person has to really want it, to be open and willing to ask for help.”
We sat again in silence. She was thinking hard and I wanted to give her the space and time to find her inner truth and to know what she needed to do.
“And if we push him,” she said after a few moments, “it will only make him push back twice as hard. And then my husband will get frustrated and will fight with our son. And when that happens, Chaim Ozer will go straight back to drugs, because not only will he have to feed his addiction, he’ll also be angry at his father, and he’ll need to use and use until that pain goes away.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself, Rebbetzin,” I told her.
As we stood up and I began to walk her out of my office, we were both surprised to see her husband sitting in the waiting room.
“I figured that the tikkun for slamming your office door was to sit here quietly and replay that scene, this time leaving in shalom,” Rabbi Hershkovitz said as he stuck out his hand. “Do you mochel me, Dr. Freedman?”
I took his hand between my own and shook it briskly. I was a bit overwhelmed myself — it’s not every day you see a person so candidly willing to admit his pain or weakness.
“You’re in a tough situation, Rabbi Hershkovitz. I see how much you want to help Chaim Ozer. The problem is that you can’t control your son, you can only control yourself.”
I motioned for everyone to come back into my office for us to sit down together. And then I told them about this famous Hispanic rapper who I saw as a psychiatrist in training.
“One Sunday while I was on call,” I began, “I was paged by the surgical team to see a Latino hip-hop star who had passed out from drinking and snorting pills after a big concert one night in Boston. They’d resuscitated him and stitched up a big cut on his forehead where he’d been whacked with a whiskey bottle during an intoxicated brawl. Anyway, as the team was getting ready to discharge him, someone decided he should see a psychiatrist to discuss his substance abuse. The nurse had told this fellow and his entourage that he couldn’t leave until the psychiatrist came, so by the time I arrived, they were already fuming. The Spanish curse words that were flying throughout the surgical ward could be heard from inside the elevator all the way down the hallway
“By the time I entered the room, the patient and his friends were already knee-deep into their second brawl of the weekend with a few security guards who had been summoned. Needless to say, the rapper never got his psychiatric consultation and was discharged in handcuffs. The good news is that he later released a track about the incident that actually references a psychiatrist, so I had my five minutes of fame on the Latino rap scene.”
By now, both Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hershkovitz were laughing, but they also both understood: A patient dragged to therapy against his will won’t see success.
We made up to meet again and discuss some motivational strategies that have had good results in order to help their son move forward, although I explained that therapy alone can never cure addiction — it can just be a tool to help someone like Chaim Ozer find his own strengths.
Rabbi Hershkovitz shook my hand once more. This time, he closed the door softly on the way out. It seemed like he’d found his.
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. His new children’s book — Me and Uncle Baruch — is available through Menucha Publishers. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 911)
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