DISCLAIMER: The following column is a composite of several different experiences I have had with clients. It does not depict a specific encounter. This story is not about you!

Two people…. similar backgrounds, totally opposite reactions. It’s interesting to observe how differently we all respond to the challenges of life and the paths we subsequently choose to follow in our lives. There is no predictable outcome to hardships. Some people are more resilient, more compassionate, made of sturdier stuff.

Ultimately, we can’t judge those who seem to opt out of relationships that are extremely toxic. Sometimes, they are literally fearing for their well-being. Not to say that this is always the case, because on occasion some people could certainly work a bit harder to hold on. But unless we walk in another person’s shoes, taking into account their strengths and weaknesses, it’s a grey area that we can’t really know.

Yitz and Susie, on the surface, appeared to have a lot in common in terms of their backgrounds. Which is probably why they had an immediate connection when they met. They understood each other’s pain like no one else. However, what each one did individually with that pain created a serious issue in their marriage.

He Said

Yitz is a 35-year-old gentle giant. Extremely tall and broad, he spoke in soft tones with care and sensitivity. He spent half his day working his successful business and the rest of his time learning. There was a calm aspect about him despite a horrific childhood.

“When I think about the home I grew up in,” began Yitz, “I still can’t believe I survived it, not only emotionally, but also physically. It was a warzone. I’m one of eight children. Some of my siblings have come out of it a little better than others. But thank G-d we are all alive and close. My parents, in the first place, should never have married and certainly shouldn’t have had children. They both have serious emotional problems and absolutely despise each other. There was constant fighting between them and their frustration would ultimately land on us kids. My father would attack his sons ruthlessly and on more than one occasion, someone landed in the hospital, or at least at a doctor’s office. How our schools never called CPS on our parents is still a mystery to me.

“I do believe I’m kind of a miracle. I credit a few outstanding Rebbes I’ve had the privilege of connecting with over the years. One in particular truly saved me, and we are very close to this day. I also had two great friends who were always there for me. Their parents knew I had a difficult time at home, and when I couldn’t take it anymore, would let me sleep over at their house for a night or two, just to catch my breath. “Most important, my faith in Hashem really got me through the worst of it. And I live with tremendous gratitude that I have come so far. So yes, I’m a walking miracle.

“My parents thankfully divorced a number of years ago. That was a good thing that should have happened much sooner. But at least they no longer torture each other anymore. My mother has created some kind of life for herself. She goes to various groups at the community center, and seems to have met other women, like herself, who are struggling. My father is absolutely alone. He is in very poor health and does not take care of himself, even a little. Aside from one of my sisters, who lives out of town and calls him once a week to wish him a good Shabbos, none of his other children have anything to do with him. The wounds they received from him are still raw, at least emotionally, and I don’t blame them for retreating.

“Though I’ve suffered as much as the rest of them, from a place of compassion and also from a place of kibud av v’aim, I feel I can’t just abandon him. I don’t know how much longer he’ll be around, but I made the decision several months ago to invite him over for Shabbos once a month. Certainly, for his sake. He has nothing in his life. But I also feel that there is some kind of lesson in there for our children, who otherwise would have no grandparents in their lives and maybe need to learn that sometimes, if possible, one should not abandon their parents.

“This is probably the perfect segue for Susie to jump in.”

She Said

While looking at Yitz, one would never dream that he had experienced all that he had in his childhood, while Susie’s trauma is written all over her face. She has a weary, nervous disposition, and her speech is cautious and at times, filled with pain.

“When Yitz and I met years ago, quite by chance,” Susie began, “we found ourselves both having a very vulnerable moment and shared our histories. I had never been so open with anyone before or since, for that matter. But something about Yitz’s kindness and sensitivity made me feel safe enough to share the horrors of my childhood. I really let it rip and it all came tumbling out. Yitz had his own story to tell. Not that you can compare, but at least no one in my family landed in the hospital emergency room, so I guess I have to be grateful for small miracles.

“Like Yitz, my parents struggled personally with their demons and should never have married in the first place. They were clueless regarding parenting, and it was survival of the fittest. We didn’t all survive so well. When I was 18, I found a therapist on my own, who really saved my life. She encouraged me to find a place to live as far away from my parents as possible. I ultimately connected with a lovely family who needed help with their large family, and in exchange for room and board, I was at their disposal constantly as a babysitter. It was a great arrangement and I have them and my therapist to thank for my sanity, though at times I question that as well. I’m kidding…sort of.

“Anyway, Yitz and I could probably go on and on for hours talking about our traumatic childhoods, but that’s not why we’re here today. Unlike Yitz, I’ve had to totally cut off my parents. I found even hearing their voices was triggering for me, that I needed to make a complete break from them. This was my own personal decision that I’m not proud of, but I think it was necessary for my survival. Thank G-d I’ve created my own beautiful family. Yitz is the best husband anyone could hope for, and we have three fantastic children. This is much more than I ever could have dreamed of.

“The major problem Yitz and I are having is that several months ago, Yitz decided it was his responsibility to invite his father for Shabbos every so often. I didn’t really know his father, but from the stories I heard, I was already a nervous wreck thinking about him showing up. I tried to brace myself for the Shabbos and even scheduled an emergency session with my former therapist to help me get into my best frame of mind to manage it.

“Sometimes we fear things and they turn out to be not as bad as we had anticipated. This was worse than anything I could have imagined! Everything about him was triggering for me. His narcissism, his lack of kindness and consideration for any of us, including his grandchildren, was over the top. I found myself flooded with memories of my past and slipping down a painful slope. Thankfully Yitz drove him home right after Shabbos, but it took me days to calm down.

“I don’t want him in my home anymore. I can’t be exposed to his toxic behavior, and I certainly don’t want this type of behavior flaunted in front of our children. It’s just too much. Though Yitz is always fast to give in or at least compromise on most things, he’s really digging in his heels about having his father experience something normal for the first time in his life. I hear that and respect that, but not if it means my children and I have to be dragged into quicksand.

“Furthermore, even though I don’t think Yitz will admit it, or maybe he doesn’t even realize it, but after he spends time with his father, he’s not himself for a few days thereafter. Something in him also gets activated and he’s not his usual calm self. I just don’t know where we go from here.”

My Thoughts

After much discussion, it became clear that despite Yitz’s easygoing nature, he felt he was on some kind of mission to be the ultimate tzaddik when it came to his father, no matter the cost to the rest of the family, and yes, even to himself. Yitz and I spent many hours discussing what was driving his conviction. Certainly, much of it was tied to his constant growth in Yiddishkeit, as he was always trying to grow into a selfless human being that he believes Hashem expects of us.

It’s hard to fight with someone’s religious convictions. On the contrary, they are to be commended. But the missing piece for Yitz was his responsibility to his wife and children. Though his three lovely children were not as traumatized as Susie was from his father’s visits, it was enough that only Susie had such a visceral reaction. Yitz needed to understand that his loyalty toward his wife had to come first.

As Yitz and I delved deeper in our sessions, it also became clear that he was suffering from survivor’s guilt. Apparently, since he was basically the only one of his siblings to have gotten through his childhood more or less intact, (many of them were barely hanging on), Yitz felt he had to pay the piper. And what better way than to invite his menacing father back into his life?

As Yitz began to develop greater self-awareness, he finally understood that it wasn’t fair to Susie to expose her to the type of dysfunction she had spent her entire life running away from. However, Yitz was not totally convinced that he had to turn his back on his father. He agreed to take his father out to lunch every so often, but to check in with me afterwards, to process the encounter so that he didn’t return home afterwards in an altered state. What more could Susie ask for? A solution everyone could live with. n

 

Esther Mann, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in Hewlett.  She works with individuals, couples and families.  Esther can be reached at 516-314-2295 or by email, mindbiz44@aol.com.

 

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