"Their behavior doesn’t change your inherent value, all it does is prove that they aren’t good gemologists"
Lazer was a British bochur who was allegedly learning in yeshivah, but spent most of his days sleeping and watching TV. He had an abusive childhood at the hands of a vicious father and was struggling to find his way out of the negative self-image that was defining and sabotaging his life. PART III
Lazer had been in treatment for about a year and I was grateful for the progress we’d made, honored to have been a part of his recovery journey. The combination of antidepressant treatment and psychotherapy had done wonders for him — he was overcoming his painful past and was living a very meaningful life in the present, having finished up an amazing zeman of learning in the Mir by surrounding himself with good chavrusas, dedicated rabbanim, and positive friendships. He was finally soaring toward his potential without the heavy weights of his traumatic childhood to pull him down.
And then came the frantic phone call.
His father had come to visit.
Now, while there are sometimes parent-child relationships so toxic that they must be severed, relationships are rarely all good or all bad. Even the most abusive parents can sometimes be loving, which can be extremely confusing for the child, even an adult child like Lazer. And of course, we Jews have a commandment to honor our parents unconditionally.
“Dr. Freedman, I feel like I’m facing a ticking time bomb, and that every tool we learned and practiced is out the window,” Lazer said in a panic. “So far my dad’s been pretty nice, happy that I have good learning sedorim, but I just know it’s a matter of time until he explodes with a barrage of criticism or worse.”
I told Lazer to come over, and we discussed techniques for being caring and respectful while protecting himself from further abuse, all the while making sure not to fall into the trap of false guilt. I didn’t want him to regress into old patters of self-hate, no matter what his father spewed at him.
Whether or not Lazer’s newfound strength and self-identity had an influence on his father, one thing he told me after the week-long visit brought tears to my eyes: Before he left, Lazer’s father gave him a hug.
Lazer stayed in yeshivah for another year, and then decided to continue on to a beis medrash in the US that was looking to recruit solid bochurim. We parted ways and I reminded him to keep me posted if I could ever be of help. “Remember, tzaddik, you might no longer be my patient, but I’ll always be your doctor. I’m here if you need me, so don’t be shy if you ever need to call.”
The call wasn’t long in coming.
“Lazer! What can I do for you?” I asked.
“Well, I mean, I guess I’m okay. I’m just kind of having a tough time.”
Lazer explained that it was nothing catastrophic. In fact, he sounded relatively solid. He’d been back at home in England for a few weeks and had avoided the standard pitfalls that many bochurim get caught up in. He was still waking up for early Shacharis and had found himself a great morning chavrusa and a nice group of fellows at home for bein hazmanim.
“Sounds good, Lazer. So what are we nervous about?” I asked curiously.
“Dr. Freedman, this is the thing. For the last two years, I’ve been in a pretty good place, but now, I’m back here with my brothers and it’s really throwing me for a loop. I thought I was fine, cured and everything, but now I’m feeling destabilized.”
I recalled his family: four older brothers, the oldest with chronic drug problems, two twin brothers who had permanently distanced themselves from the family, and another brother spending most of the year in Las Vegas as a professional poker player who was covered head-to-toe in tattoos.
“It’s just hard, Dr. Freedman. Two brothers refuse to come home because they’ve learned to cope by never seeing my parents. So our nuclear family is now me and my brothers who do come home: Shimi, who just got out of a rehab again, and gambling-addict Zalmy, who isn’t any healthier.
“I really thought I was in a good place, but it’s back to the old garbage, and their barbs are just wearing me down. Things like, ‘Oh, now you’re pretending to be so frum but we know you’re just a big faker,’ stuff like that. Or, ‘Don’t you want to come to a club with us tonight? You can’t tell us it’s assur, we know what you did when you were in Israel, you’re just like us, don’t pretend you aren’t.’”
“Lazer,” I said, “you’re not like them. You’re healthy, and you’ve done a ton of personal growth.”
“I know, and that’s the funny thing. It’s like a flashback. Their comments and beratings are bringing me back to a bad place, cutting me down and making me feel like I’m not so good after all.”
I tried to walk Lazar back to a calm place. We recalled the loving memories of his childhood with his Zaydie Ephraim and it helped him relax. I then walked him through a mental exercise to try and keep things in perspective.
“Think of some exquisite beauty you once saw — the Grand Canyon as a kid? The Great Barrier Reef in Australia? A sunset at the beach or a sunrise in the desert? A rainbow after a thunderstorm? One way or another, every one of us has had the opportunity to see some serious beauty in Hashem’s world, and witnessing the sheer majesty of Hashem’s creation is a powerful experience. It helps us to realize the insignificance that characterizes so many of our concerns and gives us that deep, unifying consciousness that we’re part of something so much bigger than ourselves.
“But when everyone else is busy appreciating the deep, spiritual beauty of snow-covered peaks in the Swiss Alps,” I continued, “there is also that one person with you who says, ‘I don’t get it, it’s just few big rocks next to each other.’ For everyone who is inspired by the Redwoods in Sequoia National Park, there will always be that cousin who says, ‘I can’t believe we shlepped all the way here just to stare at a bunch of big trees.’
“You, dear Lazer, are an enormous, ancient tree. In fact, you’re higher than any peak in the Himalayas and deeper than the Mariana Trench. Just because a family member doesn’t appreciate you doesn’t mean you aren’t worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox. You’re the only one out of billions and billions of people who is exactly like you. You’re one of a kind and made in Hashem’s image, gifted with the creative energy to make this world a better place with your own unique set of skills and abilities.”
“Wow, thanks, Dr. Freedman. I mean it.”
“Lazer, just remember this the next time someone criticizes you, whether it’s a neighbor, a friend, or even a brother. You’re still a diamond. Their behavior doesn’t change your inherent value, all it does is prove that they aren’t good gemologists.”
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 907)
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