| Off the Couch |

Lay the Ghost to Rest

“Talk to a ghost? I’m normal, Dr. Freedman. Aren’t you supposed to be normal too?"

 

Eitan was, in his own estimation, as “normal” as they come. After his wife Yael’s passing, he’d soldiered on and had done a remarkable job of caring for his children in addition to keeping his legal practice afloat and staying on top of the daf. But then, when he became engaged to a young widow named Shani, normal turned to bizarre — as he began seeing Yael’s ghost on a daily basis. Part II

It wasn’t the first time I found myself working with someone who was plagued by ghosts.

I once had a patient who was convinced his neighbor was a vampire and was secretly drinking his blood. That distraught fellow had called the cops enough times to end up in a state psychiatric hospital and actually got better with antipsychotic treatment. I had another patient who was convinced he was a werewolf and that he’d transformed into a giant dog-beast every full moon, and he also improved significantly after restarting his meds. Ghosts were often handled with a similar treatment regimen.

But Eitan was different. This young lawyer and father didn’t have any other delusional beliefs, symptoms of depression or a mood disorder, and there were no neurological or drug-related issues that seemed to be causing his daily experience.

Still, he described his daily visit. “She’s there sitting across from me every morning, Dr. Freedman. She’s wearing white and smiling at me. She doesn’t say anything and neither do I. I mean, what could I possibly say to her? She’s a ghost!”

With Eitan’s permission, I reached out to his father, who assured me that Eitan was “as normal as they come.” In fact, the report I received was glowing, and the whole family was very excited about the upcoming wedding to Shani. They all thought that she was perfect for him and the kids.

The only other person privy to the ghost story was Eitan’s rav. Eitan asked him whether ghosts can appear in human form, and on a regular basis at that, and the answer he received was a resounding “no.”

“We are not superstitious people, Dr. Freedman,” Rabbi Goldenzweig told me. “We have a rational approach to life. The Rambam would have probably told him to tell her to go back up to Shamayim and leave him alone!”

And then Rabbi Goldenzweig confided, “But for whatever it’s worth, I did ask my brother-in-law to ask an Abuchatzeira grandson what he thought, but this mekubal wasn’t particularly impressed that there was a ghost. Enough is enough. If you want my opinion, Eitan has cold feet.”

“Did you tell him this, Rabbi Goldenzweig?” I asked.

“You better believe I did — my relationship with Eitan is founded on straight-shooting and honesty. I told him, ‘Eitan, you need a wife and your kids need a mother and goodbye ghosts!’ Frankly, I think you should tell him the same thing.”

I actually appreciated Rabbi Goldenzweig’s assessment. He might have been a bit blunt for someone in Eitan’s situation, but he had a good point.

When I next met Eitan, I listened to him as he again described his wife sitting across from him on the bed just as he was waking up. She was always wearing the same white dress and waiting for him to talk. Her face was smiling and never menacing in the least. Eitan would sit there looking at her, trying to figure out how to communicate, and then before he knew it, his alarm clock would go off, he’d be fully awake, and Yael would disappear

The cold, rational academic in me wanted to tell him that these were what we call hypnopompic hallucinations — vivid, dreamlike experiences occurring in the semi-conscious state somewhere sleeping and waking. Like dreams, sleep hallucinations have always fascinated researchers, but there is a key difference: a dream usually dissipates, but these types of hallucinations feel very real, and the person is sure he’s seen or felt something tangible, which can be frightening and confusing. If these in fact were hypnopompic hallucinations, that would mean that Eitan’s visions weren’t due to ghosts or any sort of heebie-jeebies that belonged in a haunted house or a campfire horror story.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to attribute it purely to some sort of kabbalistic mystery either. After all, neither he nor Rabbi Goldenzweig would go for that.

Rather, sitting across from this young widowed father of three, I recalled sitting with my psychotherapy supervisor back in training. At the time, he seemed ancient as the hills, but he had a straight-shooting wisdom we couldn’t deny. As we discussed the case of a patient who had nonchalantly described a dream of killing her father, my supervisor reminded me that while it could easily mean she harbored unresolved resentment, it could also mean the opposite.

“It’s all grist for the mill,” Dr. Curtis said smiling. “If the patient tells you she’s excited about the dream, she’s clearly angry at him still. If she tells you it’s repulsive and she’s horrified by the idea, it may mean she’s the exact opposite. The only thing for sure is that it’s worth discussing in the course of therapy.”

Here was Eitan, the stalwart, a man who clearly never gave himself a moment to process his beloved wife’s tragic passing, as he was too busy manning the ship as both captain and first mate. Whether it was a hypnopompic hallucination, a ghost, or a story he’d concocted to deal with the psychological distress of moving forward, here he was, prepared to take the next major step in moving on, and there were certainly unresolved emotions rising to the surface. The fact that he was sitting here was a good sign: Maybe now he was ready to deal with them.

“Eitan, why don’t you ask your wife what she wants?” I suggested.

“What, and talk to a ghost? I’m normal, Dr. Freedman. Aren’t you supposed to be normal too? I mean, you’re a doctor, not a mekubal and not a ghostbuster,” Eitan laughed nervously. Then he revealed, “Plus, I feel very frozen when she visits me each morning. I’ve tried to speak but I can’t.”

“How about you go visit her this time,” I responded. “Save her the shlep.”

“You mean go to her kever? And do what?”

“Talk to her. Tell her how you feel. Tell her that you’re obviously conflicted about the whole idea of getting remarried.”

Eitan almost broke his stoic shield for a moment, but rapidly recovered. “Um, I guess it can’t hurt. So I’ll just go to the kever and talk to her as if she’s there? Isn’t that a bit silly?”

“What do you have to lose?” I countered. “Worst case scenario, maybe it will allow you to come to terms with moving forward and own up to your own feelings about the whole thing.”

Eitan surprised himself with more self-insight and appreciation for the suggestion than either of us thought he’d have. He thanked me and we made a time to meet in a week.

It was less than 24 hours later when he called to tell me he’d been to the kever and had asked Yael for her blessing to get remarried.

“It felt ridiculous, but I did it anyway. For a full 15 minutes, I poured my heart out and told her that I love her but that the kids need a mother and that it’s not that I don’t miss her every single minute of each and every day.”

My curiosity was killing me. “And what happened when she came to visit you the next morning?”

“She sat across from me on the bed wearing the same white dress. And for the first time she spoke and told me, ‘You have my brachah — I want you and the kids to be happy.’ She kissed my head and then disappeared.”

I felt chills run down my spine, knowing this was exactly the resolution Eitan had needed to propel him forward. The brachah Yael gave him would last him a lifetime.

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 829)

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