“Lazer, who gave you the idea that you’re a worthless failure?”
Lazer was a British bochur who was allegedly learning in yeshivah but spent most of his days sleeping and watching TV. He’d had an abusive childhood at the hands of a vicious father and was struggling to find his way out of the sinkhole that had become his life.
Lazer had been diagnosed with various ailments over the years
and correspondingly medicated along the way: Ritalin for ADHD when he’d spaced out as a parentally abused second grader. Prozac when he’d cowered as an abused sixth grader. Seroquel when he’d been unable to sleep as an abused ninth grader.
Now, I’m definitely not a pill-pusher, but I did feel that a low-dosage antidepressant would help alleviate the lack of energy, motivation, and chronic sadness that he was stuck in and jump-start the healing process he seemed ready to try, by virtue of the fact that he was sitting here.
“But Dr. Freedman,” he said, “you know that an antidepressant isn’t the answer to my problems. I still need to find some way to untangle myself from this terrible life that I live.”
“Lazer, I think of it as the grease for your wheels that makes it easier to push the car out of the rut it’s stuck in.”
“Yeah, but I’m in a pit with four flat tires, a busted engine, and my taillight’s out.” He laughed sadly. “I mean… sometimes I think I’m such a failure that maybe it’s better to just abandon the car and let the bums steal the hubcaps than to pay for a tow truck and—”
I interrupted him because I wasn’t even sure he was aware of how hard he was being on himself. “Who gave you all this negativity, Lazer?”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, who gave you the idea that you’re a worthless failure?”
Lazer blushed nervously before he responded, “I didn’t think it was a debate. All I do is sit in my dirah and watch TV.”
People who receive consistent love and support during childhood grow up with the feeling that they’re valuable and loved. But a bochur like Lazer, who faced excessive humiliation and trauma during childhood, will generally wind up with a poor sense of self, lack of trust, and an extreme fear of failure, based on a feeling that he must be worthless and good for nothing. That’s because a child who gets consistent love is aware of his intrinsic value even with all his flaws and imperfections, so failure doesn’t define his self-worth and he’s equipped to overcome challenges. But someone who thinks he’s not good enough believes failure is a reflection of his intrinsic worth and becomes too petrified to step out of his cocoon and risk anything he might fail at. This was Lazer. It was easier to sleep all day than show up to seder, or even to minyan.
But the fact that Lazer wanted to get some help meant he was ahead of the game. For some people, it takes years to unravel the mess, to figure out why they fail and why they can’t have normal relationships.
But although Lazer’s days weren’t filled with meaningful activities and there wasn’t too much movement toward anything solid or of substance, he wasn’t a bad kid by any means; baruch Hashem he was sober, he still kept Shabbos, and was holding on to emunah by his fingernails.
“Lazer, I’m not so sure you’re as big a disaster as you think you are,” I said bluntly. “I’m pretty sure you’re whipping yourself up a bit too hard. If you called your roommates worthless piles of garbage and worse, like you call yourself, they’d clobber you.”
“I’m probably worse, but let’s say…”
“Lazer,” I said, holding his gaze, “the first thing you have to do is to realize that this is happening, that you’ve been spending the last few years torturing this poor kid Lazer and force-feeding yourself a lot of toxic negativity. You can then ask yourself: Is there a different strategy that I can use to approach myself? One that isn’t so punishing?”
Lazer sat and thought again. He took a few deep breaths before he answered as the tears welled up in his eyes, “Yeah… like maybe thinking about love and positivity?”
“Great idea, Lazer. Boundless and unconditional love is an infinitely better system for building someone up than cruel, conditional love. How can you show yourself true love, then?”
Lazer drew a blank, as he thought of all the negative experiences he’d had over the years with his parents and other adults.
“Can I push you?” I asked. “Have you ever felt that love? That unconditional love? I know it feels like it never came from your parents. But maybe from someone else, somewhere else you felt it? A rebbi who really supported you, your bubby?”
“My Zaydie Ephraim!” Lazer said, fairly shocking himself as he burst into tears. “My Zaydie Ephraim zichrono livrachah was the one who loved me. The only one.”
“Tell me about him, tell me how it felt to have him in your life.”
Lazer told me about his Zaydie Ephraim, a fifth-grade rebbi who understood the nefesh of a young boy, who respected Lazer’s brothers even as they charted their own way, who did his best to protect their fragile souls under the circumstances. Lazer told me about their Shabbos walks together, their summer weekends on the coast in Northern England. “Zaydie Ephraim was always in my corner. He was the shomer that kept me alive throughout my messed-up life.”
“Lazer,” I practically whispered, “you can give yourself that same feeling. Even though Zaydie Ephraim is up in Shamayim, his love is still deep within you. You just need to work on accessing it.”
We spent time on a deep and meditative journey to remember the warmth and unconditional love that Lazer’s grandfather had shown him. We spoke about walking on the shoreline, the rough sand in his feet between his toes, the softness of Zaydie Ephraim’s fingers as they held hands. The smell of the salt from the sea and the cold spray from the waves with their repetitive-yet-ever-changing crash. The blue of the sea and the sky and the green of the hills with the brown shoreline between. Lazer was there as a child again and feeling the love he needed.
As we finished our mindfulness exercise, I encouraged Lazer to practice it again and again to allow himself to feel the positivity he needed to stay afloat.
“You mean I need to give myself that love, that feeling, that focus on the positivity within me that Zaydie Ephraim gave me?”
It was so much better than the negativity he was giving himself. I wondered if Lazer could maintain it after he walked out of here. “Exactly. Find the love that Zaydie Ephraim is still giving you.”
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 906)
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