“I can’t let her go. I know that I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life”
Ahrele was a young man from a chassidishe family who’d suffered abuse at the hands of a relative, dropped out of the frum world, wound up in a psychiatric hospital after use of psychedelic drugs, and had gotten his life back together over the past year. But his father still couldn’t accept him. Part IV
t was just over two years since Ahrele had been out of the hospital, and since he’s been asymptomatic, we slowly tapered him off the antipsychotic medication that he’d needed to escape the delusional nightmare brought on by psychedelic mushrooms. He was in a good place, forging a new identity as a personal trainer. And for better or for worse, business was booming; Ahrele had developed quite a following.
He was booked solid from morning to evening with personal workout sessions, group workouts, and had even completed formal certification. He was making money, living drug-and-alcohol free, and building up honest self-esteem for the first time in his life.
And he was finally ready to work through the early trauma of child abuse, which had been festering for so long. He was even allowing Yiddishkeit to creep slowly back into his life. Tefillin was on his arm and over his tattoos most days and he’d become a regular at a Carlebach-style Shabbos minyan in his neighborhood.
But it wasn’t simple. Healing from the trauma of childhood abuse can be a difficult process — addressing painful memories is often an uninviting prospect. Additionally, the very interpersonal dysfunction caused by abuse — the difficulty in establishing healthy connections, fear of vulnerability, and inability to trust, can make the therapeutic process difficult. Ahrele had to learn to trust me, and only then could he move on.
Now that Ahrele was clean, having moved away from using in order to cover and deaden all that pain, the real work began. We worked on modeling what secure relationships look like, while at the same time addressing unhealthy thought and behavior patterns as we moved toward psychological harmony, resilience, and creating and maintaining safe and fulfilling relationships.
And then Ahrele gave me some great news: He told me about Shireen, a special girl from a traditional Persian family whom he’d met at his minyan. Shireen had a story of her own, but she was stable, sober, kind, and seemed like a great fit for Ahrele, who eventually brought her to meet me.
At one point, Ahrele told me that things were “getting serious” with Shireen and it was time to talk.
“She’s great, Dr. Freedman,” he told me. “She’s the right level of Yiddishkeit for me, she’s into living a healthy lifestyle, she’s cool, she’s thoughtful, and she doesn’t judge me for what I’ve been through.”
“So she’s great and the two of you are really connecting,” I summarized. “The only problem is…”
Ahrele cracked his knuckles as he looked away, scared out of his mind to make eye contact as he whispered, “She’s so perfect for me that I’m horrified about having to trust someone. I mean, if I’m gonna get married and be her husband, I’ve got to really allow myself to be, what’s the word, I mean, you know what I’m talking about — I’m not the only one you’ve had this conversation with.”
Vulnerability. Ahrele was going to have to take a very real risk that would come with forging a truly intimate relationship. Shireen could break his heart into 46,838 pieces without warning and cripple him emotionally once again. While we could hope it wouldn’t happen, he was going to have to take that leap of faith if things were ever going to progress in his life. Sure, he could have a successful job and friends, but unless he could allow himself to trust Shireen completely, their relationship wouldn’t last.
“You know it’s not her, Ahrele,” I told him. “It’s you. You’ve got to recognize the fear that still keeps you from fully trusting, from opening up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable.”
Ahrele shook his head again, looking like he was ready to cry. “I know you’re right, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready.”
It took a few weeks of ongoing discussions, and I was concerned that this relationship was stuck in quicksand. But things changed when Shireen was suddenly offered a job as a teacher in California and was seriously debating flying off and taking it, leaving her home. And Ahrele.
“I can’t let her go,” he told me. “I know that I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life.”
“It sounds like you need to make her stay then,” I replied.
“And what — just tell her we should get married? You know that I might not be ready.”
“I also know that you might never be ready.”
“So I just marry her then?”
“Ahrele, you’re the one who said, ‘I can’t let her go.’ ”
Ahrele called her from the chair in my office and asked to meet her at the Kosel. It sounded like he was ready to trust her.
But there was another hurdle. His father, Reb Leibush.
“Don’t tell me he’s growing in his Yiddishkeit when he still has a ponytail, Dr. Freedman,” Reb Leibush said flatly during a meeting he requested. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten what Yiddishkeit means in our family.”
“Reb Leibush,” I said, feeling like a broken record, as we’d had this conversation many times before, “keep in mind that it was only a few short years ago that your son was in a locked psychiatric hospital after a nasty drug experience that left him acutely psychotic. Where he was at, he could have been wallowing in prison. Or he could have even taken his own life.”
The pained look on Reb Leibush’s face showed that he vividly recalled bringing me to the hospital for a second-opinion consult over his son. I knew it hurt him, but we needed to keep going.
“Reb Leibush, keep in mind that it was purely derech neis that he woke up from that nightmare.”
“It was a nightmare Dr. Freedman, this whole thing has been a nightmare! It still is a nightmare! You should have seen how he used to sing Shabbos zemiros — his peyos, his smile!”
“He’s still smiling, Reb Leibush. And it’s not such a different smile. This is a kid who isn’t taking psychiatric medications because he doesn’t need them anymore, who’s been working through his trauma, who has a steady job, who’s going to shul on Shabbos, putting on tefillin, and im yirtzeh Hashem, getting married. I know it wasn’t what you planned, but it’s nothing short of a miracle considering what could have been.”
Reb Leibush had a long and silent cry. Ahrele was living a life so completely different from the one his father had expected. I was sure he’d get up and leave, tell me yasher koyach and I’d never see him again. He did stand up — but then he grabbed my right hand with his own two outstretched hands and began sobbing hysterically.
“Dr. Freedman, this is just so hard — it’s something I know nothing about, and now I need your help again to understand my son and to support him.”
I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t hold back my own tears. As I dried my eyes, I helped Reb Leibush find a language that could bridge the pain.
“I don’t have any idea how to relate to him anymore,” Reb Leibush admitted. “Where is he headed? What’s he thinking? Is he happy with this girl?”
“Maybe you just ask him,” I suggested. “You tell him, ‘Ahrele, you’re my son and I love you. I don’t really know too much about your new life but I hope you’ll tell me about it and about how I can help you if you ever need me.’ ”
“That’s it?” Reb Leibush looked surprised.
“That’s it,” I answered affirmatively. “He only has one tatty and letting him know you support him is worth more than anything anyone else could ever offer him.”
“I really hope I can do this, Dr. Freedman. I just need to know how to say ‘mazel tov’ in Persian.”
That one was easy. “Just tell her mubarak beshe.”
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 827)
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