Nothing in my parents’ marriage had quite prepared me for what my own shanah rishonah would look like.
alking home from yeshivah I felt that familiar pit — of what was it? dread? anxiety? doom? — in my kishkes. Would there be supper when I came home? Would Chedvah eat with me or would she just sit there looking annoyed? Would Chedvah even be home or would I have to track her down at one of her sisters’ houses? Would tonight’s conversation devolve into a fight as it did practically every day?
Nothing in my parents’ marriage had quite prepared me for what my own shanah rishonah would look like. Although my parents were polar opposites — my father was soft-spoken and bookish my mother was loud funny and super-talented — I never saw them fighting. Oh yes they discussed things they had long conversations in their room but I never witnessed or sensed tension friction or disagreement between them. Throughout my childhood I saw opposites being attracted to each other and working out their differences in a respectful and loving way.
As a child growing up in this environment I got to build healthy self-esteem with a good balance of optimism and realism. I was always a leader in yeshivah always popular. All my brothers were big camp guys and I was no different. I was head of drama in camp and I ran a big-brother program while in beis medrash. The quintessential all-around guy.
I was as prepared for marriage as a bochur could be ready to give ready to work and ready to enjoy a respectful relationship.
To no one’s surprise I was the first of my friends to get engaged. My kallah Chedvah was upbeat and spunky and we heard rave reports about her.
She was overweight but that didn’t bother me terribly. I had always been health conscious and I reasoned that I’d be able to impart this value to her and eventually she’d lose weight. I wouldn’t buy soda or junk so she’d learn to drink water and snack on fruit.
Like every chassan I had some small question marks about my kallah during our engagement. When I brought up the subject of living a healthier lifestyle she clammed up even though I didn’t say a word about her weight
Often, when we had to make a decision, she would say, “I’ll discuss it with my parents” or “I need to ask my sister.” At one point, an issue came up between our parents over where the wedding should be held. Even after the matter was resolved, she brought it up virtually every time we met. “Are you sure it’s okay?” she would ask anxiously. “I really wanted to get married in that hall, but I can change it if it’s important to you.”
“It really has nothing to do with me,” I’d reply. “It’s okay, it’s water under the bridge.” I couldn’t understand why she had to keep mentioning it.
But these things were so minor, certainly not worth making an issue over, so I didn’t bother raising them with anyone.
Soon after we got married, things started to go sour. Chedvah barely ate, as far as I could see, yet she continuously gained weight. And she would get really mad any time things didn’t go her way. Any issue that we didn’t agree on — to stay home or to go away for Shabbos, to buy a pair of shoes that we couldn’t afford, what to do on Chol Hamoed — set her off. Walking into the house on any given day, I never knew what awaited me: Would I be greeted by the dynamic, happy-go-lucky girl I had married, or by the brooding, volatile wife I was seeing so much of?
Both Chedvah and I came from respected, functional families, and I was bewildered and embarrassed that we were fighting all the time. My parents were also very different from each other, I reasoned, and they got to where they got by sitting down face-to-face and resolving their issues.
But in our case, the direct approach never seemed to work.
I used to drive Chedvah to work, but many days, she stayed home, complaining that she was too tired, or something was hurting her, or she had to go shopping, or she just needed a break.
“Chedvah,” I said gently, “you missed four days of work in the past two weeks. I think we need to get onto a better schedule.”
“You try making a Shabbos!” she yelled at me.
When I pointed out, in a way that I thought was non-confrontational, that the housework wasn’t getting done, Chedvah exploded. “Your father always overworked your mother, and now you’re doing the same to me!”
Chedvah was overworked? Were my expectations that unreasonable? And what did my parents have to do with this?
I called my chassan teacher, and we had a long talk. “This is what we spoke about,” he said. “Women are more sensitive than men. It says in parshas Bereishis that a man leaves his parents, but a woman doesn’t do that. You need to be understanding, and give her time to adjust.”
I kept going back to him, but his advice to perpetually give in didn’t sit well with me. I knew that a husband and wife shouldn’t be fighting over everything. It couldn’t be that one person (she) was always right and another person (I) was always wrong. But what was I supposed to do about it?
The weirdest and worst part about Chedvah’s post-wedding transformation was the food. She bought food and bought more food, until there were bags and bags of food everywhere — under the sink, in the bedroom closet, in the trunk of the car. Any time someone was going to a store, she asked them to buy food for her. When our little apartment ran out of space, she started storing stuff in neighbors’ freezers, in her friend’s car, at her siblings’ houses.
We lived on a kollel budget, yet she spent hundreds of dollars on unneeded food. I once found her hoarding chalav stam pastries, which sat around until they turned moldy. The strange thing was that Chedvah didn’t necessarily eat the food — she just bought it, stored it, ate some, threw some out, and bought more.
We went into overdraft, and used up much of our chasunah savings. With our budget busted by Chedvah’s food-buying habit, I could never afford to buy myself anything.
Still, I tried my hardest not to confront her in an aggressive way. “Chedvah, take a look at this bank statement,” I’d say. “Our checking account is overdrawn, and our savings account is depleting. How about we try to save up some money this month?”
I tried to make incentives for her to stay on track in terms of both spending and eating, offering to buy her jewelry or take her on vacation, but it never worked. Any time I brought up the topic she would clam up, get angry, or change the subject.
She went on dozens and dozens of diets. Every two weeks, she started another one, which she invariably broke in less than 48 hours. If I ever mentioned anything about her weight, she would go into shutdown mode and lock herself into a room. Sometimes, she would yell at me, “Okay, I know it’s a problem, but I can’t do anything about it. Now leave me alone!”
Between all these outbursts, there were times when the old Chedvah would appear, and she would talk very honestly about herself and how she wanted to change, how she wished she could stop her crazy behavior. At times, she could be fun, and we could enjoy each other’s company, but these times became fewer and further between as time went on.
A couple of years after we got married, my brother married a super-skinny girl. Chedvah hated her. She wouldn’t invite the new couple for Shabbos meals, and refused to go to my parents for Yom Tov if they were there. I couldn’t even talk to her about it.
At around this time, she started having violent spells, throwing things on the floor and breaking things in the house. She was also spending money on food behind my back, writing checks out to cash so I wouldn’t know where the money was going and racking up huge bills on a backup credit card that I kept for emergencies.
After four years of marriage and one child, I decided I wanted out. We were broke, I was emotionally drained, and there was no hope in sight.
Before taking such a drastic step, I went to my rosh yeshivah. I had always been close with him, and had spoken to him on numerous occasions, but never had I opened up to him about my marriage. Now, I cried to him for about three hours, as I revisited the past and relived all the pain.
“You need professional help,” my rosh yeshivah said.
I almost fainted. I would rather have gotten divorced on the spot than gone to therapy. Therapy meant that we couldn’t manage on our own, that we needed someone to meddle into our lives and tinker with our relationship — a thought that was horrific to me. I also viewed therapy has an artificial, temporary fix: as long as the therapist would be in the picture, enforcing on us a particular way of living, there would be some relief, but it wouldn’t be real or lasting. And the shame of having to expose myself to someone in the frum community frightened me tremendously. Therapy was for crazies. And I knew I wasn’t crazy.
“You can’t get divorced until you try therapy,” my rosh yeshivah said. “Since you committed yourself to your wife in the kesubah, you are morally obligated to do anything and everything that can save your marriage. Divorce is a last resort.”
Deep down, I didn’t want to end the marriage. In her moments of clarity, Chedvah would speak about “getting this wall off me” and being able to “see through the fog.” I realized that behind all the fighting and yelling, overeating and overspending, there was still a person that I liked and wanted to help.
At first, Chedvah went to therapy alone, and told the therapist that she was suffering from depression. The therapist told Chedvah it was postpartum depression. When I heard that, I booked my own session with the therapist and laid it all out, telling her what was truly going on. The next session, we went together, and it wasn’t pretty.
After dozens of unproductive sessions of both individual and marriage counseling, we both felt that the therapist wasn’t getting us to where we needed to go — although we ourselves didn’t know where that was. But to her credit, the therapist got Chedvah to attend an Overeaters Anonymous (OA) meeting because she had a “hoarding addiction.”
Therapy was pretty much the waste of time I had thought it would be. All the talk about reconciling our differences and adjusting our expectations got us exactly nowhere. Yet in the process of trying to work on our relationship, Chedvah and I made an important statement to each other: We are willing to do whatever it takes to rescue this marriage.
In contrast to therapy, OA made a huge difference in our life. With the help of the 12-step group and her sponsor, Chedvah learned how to refrain from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors. Once she began recovery, we realized that because she used to nosh on sugary snacks all afternoon, she was too nauseous to eat supper with me. And the reason she missed work so often was that she needed to be alone so that she could eat without being disturbed. Isolation, we learned, is a key component in addictive behavior.
In the course of her participation in OA, I started participating anonymously in Al-Anon online meetings for codependents. I also spoke to a therapist to help me deal with my frustrations, and read tons of literature about addictions. Rounding out my support system was a good friend to whom I vented regularly, and my rosh yeshivah, whom I spoke to often.
I had always thought that losing weight was a matter of self-discipline and self-control. Through Al-Anon, I learned that Chedvah had no control over her eating. Only by turning the struggle over to Hashem and acquiring tools for emotional self-regulation can a compulsive overeater — or any addict — begin to heal.
In retrospect, I realized that many of Chedvah’s disturbing behaviors were par for the course for an addict: the uncontrolled urges, the shame that comes after, the blaming and manipulation, the moments of clarity when the “real me” speaks out.
The outpouring of love, support, and encouragement that Chedvah received from her 12-step group was instrumental in her recovery, and along with her abstinence came a clarity of mind, a lifting of the fog. To me, that was priceless. Slowly emerging was that spunky, upbeat girl that I dated, the wife who truly wanted to do what was best for herself and for us. I loved that person very much, and I found it rewarding to help Chedvah uncover that part of her. There was a certain comfort that the OA program brought to my home, and Chedvah and I started enjoying each other’s company once again.
Yet even with OA, she still went on crazy food buying sprees, albeit less often. By now, however, we had learned about the concept of “triggers.” (A trigger is anything that sends a recovering addict scurrying back to addictive behaviors.)
Now that I was paying attention, I noticed something interesting: When Chedvah was around her family, she would automatically start to overeat.
Chedvah came from a choshuv family, and her parents and siblings were successful, high-functioning people. But she was not the only one in the family who had a problem with food. Food addiction ran rampant in Chedvah’s family.
The more I paid attention, the more I realized what was happening. When Chedvah was around her family, old resentments would flare up, triggering her need to soothe herself by overeating. And because she had family members who suffered from the same issues, she felt safe in their company, because her behaviors were perceived as normal. No wonder she was always running to her sisters’ houses — and no wonder she would come home and binge on cookies and chips.
I used to tell her all the time not to go to her siblings’ houses. In response, she would yell, “You just hate my family! You’re trying to keep me away from them!” And she kept on going right back.
After two years of OA meetings, I felt that we still weren’t hitting the nail on the head. Things were better, but they were not great. And although divorce was no longer on the table, in a way things were more frustrating. When Chedvah was relaxed and functioning well, her fun side would emerge. I would let down my guard, only to be stabbed in the back when she went on her next shopping spree or visited her sister. Not being prepared for the sudden shift to overeating, anger, and volatility made it all the more difficult for me to cope with the emotional punch in the gut when it came.
It was hard to see myself as a codependent, hard to accept the fact that I was married to a person with serious mental health issues. Yet the more healing Chedvah did in OA, the more confident I became that we could achieve a consistently healthy relationship, and the more motivated I was to keep seeking help, despite my personal discomfort.
At the urging of my rosh yeshivah, I called Relief Resources, a mental health referral organization, and they pointed us in the direction of a psychologist in Manhattan, who diagnosed Chedvah with panic attacks, OCD, and severe anxiety, among other stuff. Chedvah used to check the windows, doors, and stove continuously, and peek in on the kids frequently to make sure they were breathing. At times, she would crave a certain food, and she’d have a panic attack if it wasn’t readily available. We had never dealt with these conditions because they were overshadowed by the food eating disorder, and it was a relief, indeed, to hear that they were treatable, with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication.
Looking back, there was no way my chassan teacher could have known all this, but perhaps he could have realized this situation was above his head. Ditto for the first therapist we went to, who only sent Chedvah to OA as an afterthought, after months of wasted time. Our marriage could easily have ended up a statistic, if not for my rosh yeshivah’s ongoing insistence that we pursue every possible avenue of healing.
My wife has been going for CBT for quite some time now. No quick fixes, as I had originally hoped. Chedvah still eats compulsively at times, and she still slips back to overspending. But we are working together, and we feel comfortable discussing our fears and failures. We know each other’s limits and boundaries, and that leads to open communication. We can sit at a supper table and eat and laugh together, knowing that no matter what setbacks we will experience, we are committed to creating a healing environment for ourselves and our children.
Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 614
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