Friday, July 25, 2014

The thing I didn’t expect (the thing you’re hiding).

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NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.


Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
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Know what I didn’t expect?

When I stood up a month and a bit ago to give my eulogy for my brother, and shared it with you online, I didn’t know so many other people, so many other families, were suffering, too.

Look, I’m a writer:  a shy, prickly, private person, who relates better to a keyboard than to other human beings and their eyeballs.

But after that eulogy, it was non-stop eyeballs.

Do you know how many people came up to me afterwards to tell me that they, too, had a mentally ill family member?  I don’t either.  Some were people I’d known for years.  Normal people; productive, happy, busy, hardworking, everyday kinds of people.

The thing I didn't expect (but should have) is that almost everybody has a story like this somewhere in their immediate family. Family members who were broken in the same way or a similar way to my brother Eli.

These are stories that must be told.

Stories that are hidden.

My mother took my dvar Torah for his shloshim and read it out at a ladies' meeting she's been going to for years (like, 30 years or more).

She read it and halfway through, she thought it was too long and too frum and wondered why she'd decided to read it.  And then, after she was done, there was a silence... and the woman next to her, who she had known for ages and socialized with often, started crying and said, "my son is an addict."

I think this is a special problem when it comes to our kids.  As Jews, it's like we're programmed to be proud of our kids, brag about our kids, share our nachas with the world, but also to shut right up if there's a problem.  This is why I love Avivah Werner’s blog so much, by the way… Hashem sent her a kid with Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome), and she brags about him to the world.

(I honestly believe that he is reaching his potential specifically because she’s bragging about him.  She tells the world how smart and capable he is, not “retarded” at all… and you know what?  She’s right; he is smart.)

Her son is a gift, not in any sappy Pollyanna way, but because, goshdarnit, he’s a gift, like any other kid.  Avivah Werner refuses to hide a story other families might consider tragic. 

Maybe I’m guilty of hiding my kid’s story, too.  You hear a lot in the Jewish world about kids who are “off the derech,” who are no longer observant, no longer keeping Shabbos, kashrus, no longer believe what they were raised to believe.

Kids like… my son. 

My brilliant, beautiful yeshiva bochur, who is now a man and is making his own choices about how his spiritual life will play out.  Which I haven’t said much about here before… perhaps because I’m guilty of wanting to share only the nachas, and keeping the hard times to myself.

Of course, going off the derech is a far cry from a mental illness.  Really, you can’t even compare the two, though “going OTD” is considered nearly as great a tragedy in the frum world.

Which is why even though I disagree with my kid’s choices, I am still ever so grateful for this boy (okay, man) and the life he’s creating for himself.  And I’m proud of him.  Unqualifiedly proud:  not “proud despite” but “proud because” of who he is. 

He’s going into second year university, he works harder than most kids his age, he lives with his bubby (my mother) and helps her around the house.  He opens doors for old people, attends a singalong for a cancer victim, loves kids of all ages and is one of the most thoughtful people you will ever meet.

Of course, because I am me, and I love the things I love, I was very, VERY proud the day he led mincha / maariv during my brother’s shiva.  My choices and beliefs may not be his choices and beliefs, but that day, he did it out of love… and that was enough.

I want you to know that I’m not hiding my kid.  I’m proud of him.

Who does hiding help, anyway?

I never hid the fact that my brother was mentally ill, even in person, even when it made conversations awkward.  Sometimes, very, very awkward.  When you have a mentally ill relative, there’s a certain amount of chaos in your life, and anybody who’s going to be part of your life had better know about it up front. 

But the conversations around it could be hilarious… if they weren’t so tragic.

Know what’s weird? 

When you have a relative in the hospital, everybody’s concerned… until they find out that it’s a mental hospital.  (Here’s a story about a visit I had with Eli in the hospital a few years ago.)

“Oh.”

“He’s mentally ill.  He has schizophrenia.”

“Umm.”

When a relative dies, especially if you’re not particularly old, everybody’s shocked.

“Your brother died?  How old was he?”

“43.”

“Was it sudden?”  (They want to know if it was an accident or cancer, the two main things that kill people who aren’t old.)

“Not really.  He was mentally ill.  He had schizophrenia.”

“Umm.”

That “umm” at the end, that fading out, is because they have run out of things to say.  If they’re quick on their feet, they’ll bounce back with “I’m sorry,” which is absolutely the right (and perhaps only) thing to say.  But too often, all they manage is the “umm” before they start glancing around nervously.

These are stories that must be told.

Bringing our stories into the daylight.

Do you have a story you’re hiding from the world?

It I had a nickel for every father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter with mental illness whose story I have heard over the last month, I would be wealthy. 

But the truth is, I already am.  As a society, we are inevitably richer for hearing these stories and passing them around.  That way, we can help each other, support each other, remind each other that we are not alone.

I said in my dvar Torah for Eli’s shloshim that I hoped “Eli’s neshama [would] help those who still suffer; may his bright spirit and gifted mind intervene to ease the pain of others.”

It seems that his memory still is.

I love hearing these stories, and if you have one to share, I would really like to hear it. 

None of us are alone.  Please get in touch at Tzivia “at” Tzivia “dot” com.

3 comments:

  1. Super important post, possibly your best.
    My neighbor, who's s doctor, says that anyone who claims there aren't/weren't any mentally ill people in their family are lying or just don't know or maybe don't have any family...

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  2. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Thank you both. I love that quote, @Batya! Must remember that...

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