If jokes weren’t going to work, I was doomed. There was only one other thing to try
"You have to help us,” Sari’s mother insisted. “We’ve tried everything. All the therapists say that if she’s not going to talk, they can’t do anything. But she refuses to talk to them or to us or to anyone. The only people she ever talks to are her friends, on the phone, late at night.”
I tried to convince Mrs. Miller that in this situation, our best tools were patience and acceptance.
“You mean we do nothing?” Mrs. Miller demanded.
“Actively,” I added. “We actively do nothing. It’s different from passively doing nothing. It means you calm down and accept that right now, Sari is refusing to talk. When she’s ready and feels comfortable, she’ll open up. We have some theories about why she’s doing this, but right now all we can do is wait and accept.”
I could hear her mother crying. “I understand this is very difficult for you,” I started, “but it will pass as soon as we show acceptance of—”
“I can’t live like this,” she interrupted me hysterically. “Why aren’t you trying to help?”
“I’m not sure what you want me to do,” I said. “Growth is a process. We can’t just skip steps.”
“I’m sure there’s something you can say to snap her out of this,” she argued.
“Listen, Mrs. Miller, I know you want this whole situation to be over already, but from what you’re telling me, it’s just getting started. Your daughter is in pain. It takes time to heal. There’s no magic incantation I can say to make her pain go away. There are only two options here. Option A is to let it happen slowly. Whenever she’s ready to meet with me I’ll make myself available. It’s just not the right time yet.”
“What’s option B?”
“Some kids try drugs,” I said. “But I hear there are side effects.”
She didn’t laugh. “Please, just talk to her for a few minutes,” she pleaded. “Hashem will give you the words.”
The pressure finally wore me down — plus I really wanted to prove my point. I gave in. We set a time and hung up.
It was late. My kids were still up and I was exhausted. I looked over at my daughter, sitting on the couch, waiting for me to read her a book.
“Papa, who was that?” she asked.
“It was someone asking Papa to do something,” I said.
“To do what?”
I rubbed my temples. “To do a magic show.”
She popped up, wide-eyed. “You can do magic?”
“No,” I said. “That’s the problem.”
I was prepared for Sari to stonewall me, but this was a whole new level. She walked into my office, slumped down into a chair, folded her arms, and looked out the window. I gave her my introduction as to who I am and what I do and don’t do while she acted like she didn’t hear me.
I usually find that humor works well in these situations. I threw my best at Sari but she didn’t crack a smile. If jokes weren’t going to work, I was doomed. There was only one other thing to try.
“So,” I said, “if my memory serves correctly your mom mentioned that you like going on family trips. Where was your favorite?” I asked this while looking out the window; I sensed her spin around and felt the glare.
“I’m good at reading people,” I said in an arrogant tone, “and you’re an open book, so I’m going to guess it was when you guys went to… hmmm…” I looked at her like I was reading her mind. “The Football Hall of Fame!”
Sari hated family trips.
She hated sports.
And (like most people), she hated being told, by some smug know-it-all who just met her for the first time, that she was an open book.
If you can’t charm someone into talking to you, provoke them into yelling at you.
Sari looked like she was going to kill me. She narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth. I braced myself.
Then she stopped and turned to the window again.
I waited a minute, then I laughed and said, “Come on, admit it. I almost got you.”
She continued staring out the window, but she smiled slightly and shook her head, as if to say, there’s something wrong with you.
“Either way, our time is up. I’ll see you next week,” I said. She rolled her eyes and walked out.
Mrs. Miller sounded defeated when she called the next day. “She’s still not talking to anyone in the family,” she said. “I asked her how your meeting went and she grunted.”
“Well, I guess you want me to admit I was wrong. Okay. I was wrong,” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“I said she wasn’t ready and a meeting wouldn’t accomplish anything, but I was wrong. You got a grunt instead of silence so I guess we’re making headway.”
“Well, actually, I was hoping…”
“You were hoping for a miracle,” I interrupted. “That’s not real growth. Change takes time. Silence becomes a grunt, a grunt becomes ‘I love my life and my parents are incredible.’ Maybe I skipped a stage or two, but you get the idea.”
I met with Sari three times before I got a single word out of her. In subsequent sessions, more words followed, and eventually sentences. Maybe one day I’ll hear some stories.
The hardest part was not pushing too hard too fast. Not trying to inspire her to talk, but allowing her the opportunity to do so, and respecting her silence if that’s what she chose.
Oh — did you want to know what her first words were?
She stood up. She said it. She laughed and she left.
I laughed too. Progress. —
Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.
Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan serves as mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva High School of Cleveland. He is a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) who currently maintains a private practice, and does motivational speaking and community education on addiction all over the US and Israel.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 813)
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