From the Depths I Called to You
As told to Debbie Shapiro
LEAD When Miri and Aharon stood under the chupah close to two decades ago, everyone thought they were the perfect couple. Miri grew up in a home steeped in yiras Shemayim and were close to a Chassidic Rebbe. Although Aharon was raised in a very yeshivishe home, he was far more right wing than his parents. Everyone knew him as a happy and well adjusted. No one was aware of the battle that raged within him.
"At first, I thought that our shalom bayis problems were nothing more than a result of our very different backgrounds. Aharon wanted me to wear black stockings and shave my head; I was a Bais Yaakov girl, and most of my friends work long human-hair sheitals. But although I tried – and oh how, I tried -- to comply with his wishes and be the perfect, obedient wife, it was never enough. He was never satisfied and nothing I did was ever right. My cooking was horrible; the house was never clean enough; I didn't dress the right way; no matter what I did, I was wrong. I was trying so hard to please him and make him happy, but instead, he was miserable, and blamed me for all his problems.
I felt like a total failure and any self esteem that I ever had was totally crushed. I viewed myself as absolutely worthless. I once wrote in my diary, "I'm crumbling, collapsing. Soon there'll be nothing left of me." When I served him tea, it was either too hot, or too cold, or too sweet, or not sweet enough. Supper was either too greasy or too bland or just plain horrible. And that was when he was in a good mood. The truth is, I wasn't such a great balabusta, but the constant criticism was just making it worse. I felt like giving up and not even trying, after all, why should I try if I can never, ever do anything right?
When Aharon was down, he spent the day in bed, complaining that he's sad, and that of course it's entirely my fault since I am the one who makes his life so horrible. After all, he would tell me, as his wife, it is my duty to make him happy. Each time he repeated those words, I felt as if something inside of me was dying. Then, I'd apologize and explain that I really don't want to make him miserable. But he'd accuse me of not really meaning what I said, since, if I really didn't want to make him feel rotten, I'd find a way to make him happy. I felt so guilty. I had no idea how to help him – or myself --- or my marriage.
I had such conflicting emotions. On one hand, I felt that he was strangulating me, crushing me into nothingness. On the other hand, I loved him. He was my husband. We were a couple; we were destined for each other, and it hurt me to see him in such agony. All I wanted was that he appreciate me. Nothing more. Instead, I was his scapegoat, the reason for all his pain and misery. I lived in total fear of the stranger I had married.
Because he spent most of his day in bed, staring at the walls, he was unable to work and we had no income. Zero. Absolutely zero. The situation became so bad that we didn't even have money to buy food. I would visit friends around supper time, hoping that they'd feed my children together with their own. At home, all we ate was lukshen and day-old bread, topped with Humous or Tehinna (cheaper than cheese) to make it healthy. Eventually someone who was aware of our financial situation arranged for us to receive catering leftovers. My husband would complain that it wasn't fresh enough. We had the rights to purchase three chickens a week from a chessed organization at the greatly subsidized price of three shekel per chicken, but many times I couldn't even afford those three shekels and we were without chicken for Shabbos. I continued putting on a good act, always being the strong, cheerful one, and pretending that everything was normal. But inside, I was slowly losing myself.
Eventually, my husband saw a psychiatrist who prescribed heavy-duty anti-depressants. But that only made him worse. When he got upset, he'd go wild and do absolutely crazy things. He'd throw things on the floor and break them. He'd shred paper and throw it all over the house. He'd make big posters with phrases like, "I want to die," or "I'm worthless," written across them and then tape them up in the living room. He'd write me notes saying, "You make my life miserable," and leave them on the table for me to read. He would break bottles, and turn over all the furniture. Interesting enough, when the children were aroud he would try to behave somewhat normally, which meant that he always did these things late at night, after they were in bed. During this horrible period in my life, I was so afraid of his fits that I'd go to sleep together with the children. Then, in the predawn darkness, after he had fallen into an exhausted sleep, I would pull myself out of bed to put the house together again. Although I could clean up the shattered glass, I never managed to put together the broken pieces of my heart.
I did my best to pretend that life was normal. When my husband, for example, would be lying in bed sobbing hysterically, I'd smile brightly and tell the children that "Tatty's listening to a shiur and please do not disturb him." But the children saw right through my act, and they were petrified of their father. Since I was pretending that my husband was the tzaddik that I wanted him to be, I kept on trying to be the good, obedient wife – just like in the books, always patient and helpful – and, most difficult of all, cheerful. On the few occasions that he had remorse for his behavior, I told him not to worry, that it's all right, and that the main thing is that he – not me! – should be happy. But deep within myself, I felt worthless, less than a piece of dirt. ,
The situation was so terrible that I assumed that it could not possibly become worse, but it did. We went back to the psychiatrist, who doubled the prescription of anti-depressants. It turned my husband into a raving maniac. He had a dazed, crazy look to him and I lived in fear of what he'd do next. One time he put a noose around his neck and told me that he was going to kill himself. Other times he lay on the floor or table, covered himself with a tallis, and solemnly inform me that everything was all over and that he had died. He would scream hysterically at me, telling me that I'm nasty and evil and that I deserve to die.
And yet, I still felt that it was my fault. The key to marital happiness is in my hands, so if only I'd be a better wife, then he'd become a better husband. I felt that I was to blame. I was shattered, a shadow of a person.
The turning point was when I sent to speak with my husband's Rosh Kollel, an extremely perceptive individual who understood my pain and fear. He listened – and I mean really listened – to me. As I sat in his study and wept, I felt that finally, for the first time, I was not carrying my burden alone. He told me – and at that point it was a real chidush – that it's my husband's responsibility to be a mentch and that I must never blame myself for his problems. He also took some of the physical pressure off of me by arranging for cooked Shabbos meals to be sent to our home each week. Finally, I could serve the family meals without being petrified of his nasty comments – after all, if it was greasy or bland, I wasn't to blame. The food was delicious and kept us going for most of the week. It was a breath of fresh air; finally, my children were eating healthy, wholesome food, and all of us felt better from it.
My husband's Rosh Kollel insisted that we go to speak with a psychologist. The psychologist physically brought my husband to see a psychiatrist, who refused to give up on our case. He later told me that although our case was one of the worst that he had ever dealt with – as he described it, that my husband was a monster suffering from wild anger, bitterness, depression, and manic disorder -- he was also perceptive enough to realize that my husband truly desired to get better. Interesting enough, it was the anti-depressants prescribed by the first psychiatrist that hade made the situation go from bad to worse, yet, as ridiculous as this might sound, I am forever grateful that he was prescribed the wrong medicine, as that was the impetus that pushed me to get help.
While my husband was working with both the psychiatrist and a counselor, I met regularly with the psychologist. He slowly but surely taught me to have self respect; to learn to be a whole person, in touch with my emotions and aware of my strengths. It was not easy. My parents were of the "old school" where feelings were kept under wraps and "big girls never cry." I had been taught that a good wife must always agree with her husband, now I was learning to be assertive and to respectfully let Aharon know how I felt.
It took a long time – and a lot of money, which we had to literally struggle to get —to create a real family. I won't use the word "rebuild," because our family unit was never destroyed as it was never there to begin with. Although we were husband and wife, we never really experienced the emotional intimacy of marriage. The psychiatrist prescribed drugs that provided Aharon with the emotional equilibrium to be able to begin the serious work of dealing with his pent up emotions, and learning to letting go of his deep-seated anger. But it wasn't just him; we both had to learn to deal with our emotions in a healthy manner. While he had to learn to control them, I had to learn to stop submerging them. We also had to learn to communicate and share our inner worlds so that we could become a true couple. Although we obviously kept our shalom bayis problems under wraps, the few people who knew what was going on helped us cover the enormous cost of therapy.
I learned that by my being sweet and submissive when my husband was screaming and acting crazy, I was basically giving him permission to slide into the depths of his depravity and that in the end, he'd pull both of us down. The first time that I answered back to him, he was so shocked that he burst into tears! Yet, even as I told him that his behavior is totally unacceptable, I felt my knees buckle underneath me (I always thought that was poetic expression. It's not). It was a big milestone. For the first time, he saw that I would not accept his crazy behavior.
I needed a lot of support to remain strong and not feel guilty for my husband's outbursts. But when I was strong and refused to accept the blame for his craziness, he began to realize that he must pull himself together and behave like a mentch.
Once the crazy outbursts stopped, we had to work on creating a relationship based on trust and love and mutual respect. It wasn't easy. Both of us had issues with self esteem, and we first had to learn to believe in ourselves before we could believe in each other. We also had to learn to talk – really talk – so that we could clear up misunderstandings and deep seated fears. It was a long process that took years – yes, years - as well as endless patience and money. But it was more than worth it.
Today, I have a family; a husband, children, and a warm, supportive home. I can honestly say that with Hashem's help, my husband totally recreated himself and today he's a really wonderful guy. He's supportive of me. We talk, and yes, sometimes we even disagree, but when we do, we do it with respect. Since he's learned to express his emotions in a positive way, instead of subduing them and then letting them burst like a volcano, he barely needs medication.
Ours was not an easy path. But with Hashem's help we climbed the mountain, and have reached the pinnacle of understanding and closeness, something that I would have never imagined five years ago. My husband invested tremendous kochos into overcoming his illness, and I admire that tremendously for that. Without his hard work, we would not be where we are today. Sometimes I see people putting so much energy into sweeping these problems under the rug, when they should really be working towards finding a solution. Yes, I realize that even with all the good will in the world, there is not always a cure to mental illness, which is why I can only say that my greatest appreciation is to the One who orchestrates everything and guided my husband in his long arduous path to mental health.