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The Fourth Year Dreams

Up until recently, my dreams kept throwing me back into the fourth year of high school, telling me that I still had credits to finish in order to graduate, even though I have three master’s degrees in real life.

The literal truth of the dreams is that, when I went there, my high school had a three year program. It was an Orthodox Jewish high school, and the idea was to graduate us a year early so we’d feel obligated to spend a year in Israel before college. The other literal truth is that I fell apart during my last (third) year of high school, and even though I went to college the next fall (at age sixteen), I was unable to stay there.

Looking back, I think part of the reason for the dreams was wish fulfillment. I wanted to go back to high school and do a fourth year, because I wanted to believe that my collapse in college was caused by not being old enough to handle it. Maybe, I hoped, if I could go back and finish that last year of high school, I would be all better.

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“Hmm.”

And in those early versions of the dreams, my orthodox Jewish high school had a drama department, and art classes, and a therapist (none of which we had in real life). But the dreams still focused mostly on the anxiety and stress of high school, with all of the social failures, and the tests in math, or physics, or social studies that I was wildly unprepared to take.

The dreams kept going, even as I got older and worked to get better. It was frustrating to keep returning to high school as I slept, because when I was awake I knew how much progress I’d made in therapy, in writing, in self-awareness, and in my overall mental health. But the dreams kept reminding me of all of the things I still couldn’t do. With each year I fell further behind my peers: in relationships, and work, and money, and independence. I never stopped trying to move forward, but for every mile my peers traveled I made it about a foot into the future.

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“Every step counts, Mommy.”

There’s a theory that if you can work through the issues behind your dreams, then you’ll stop having those dreams, but for a long time I felt like these fourth year dreams were going to haunt me for the rest of my life. And the thing is, along with all of the anxiety and failure and humiliation of the dreams, there was also a sense of possibility; that I could have another chance to learn what I couldn’t learn the first time through.

Gradually, even during the dreams, I was able to remember the work I’d done, and the degrees I’d earned in the real world. And then, after graduating with my Masters’ degree in social work last year, the dreams changed again, and even though I was still back in my fourth year of high school, this time I was surrounded by my former classmates, all at our current ages, and all trying to finish those last few credits. And then, sometime this past fall, around the same time I started teaching synagogue school a few hours a week, my high school best friend appeared in the fourth year dreams with me, despite being married with four children and living in Israel, and it was such a relief to have her there with me, and to feel like we were in this fight together, even if it was just a dream.

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And I started to realize that I’m not alone in this unfinished feeling. When I looked at everyone else’s lives on social media, they seemed to be overachieving and rushing ahead and having a great time, but the dreams were telling me that maybe we each had our own unfinished tasks that we needed to go back and work on. Because we’re all still trying to figure out how to be okay. I started to think that maybe all of those kids I grew up with were having the same fourth year dreams that I kept having, stuck back in those old classrooms while they were sleeping, and maybe that’s why I saw them there so often.

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“Hmm.”

 

I haven’t had a fourth year dream in a while now, and that seems to be a sign that I’ve passed a marker of some kind, and filled a void that needed to be filled. Unfortunately, other bad dreams fill that space now, with other unresolved issues that need my attention, and they seem to think I need to be hammered over the head on a constant basis so that I won’t forget that there’s more work to be done. And, really, I know that there’s still a mountain of work left to do, but it’s nice to take a moment and celebrate that some of that mountain may have finally been chipped away.

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“Did you say chips?”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Six Weeks into the Apocalypse

 

After the anxiety phase of the shutdown, which I wrote about two weeks ago, I moved into the depression phase. I got really tired, and started to feel hopeless, about everything. The idea of putting on my mask, and gloves, just to go to the supermarket and possibly find out that they had no toilet paper, or paper towels, or mushrooms, or fat free Greek yogurt, overwhelmed me. I stopped arguing with the voices in my head that were telling me I wasn’t doing enough, and just accepted that they were right. And the nightmares continued. Night after night, from the safety of my home, where I have more than enough, I imagined myself lost and lacking in everything.

In my waking life, I did everything I could think of to manage the gradually lowering clouds, and the thinning air, of my emotional world: I watched Steven Colbert, and his dog; I watched Rachel Maddow, and wondered why she didn’t bring her dog to work with her; I watched the news as selectively as possible, and I went to my Zoom events, and worked on my lesson plans, and exercised, and played music, and cuddled with my dogs. But I couldn’t push the grey clouds back; they just kept coming closer and closer, squeezing me into an ever smaller corner of my world.

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I tried to count my blessings, and my successes from the past year, but my brain turned everything into the wrong thing. And, suddenly, all I could focus on was the wasteland of Cricket’s hair; her matted ears had become the measure of my self-worth. No matter what else I might accomplish, the fact that Cricket wouldn’t let me brush out the mats on her ears meant that I was a useless piece of shit, not just as a dog mother but in every possible way.

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“I look beautiful. I don’t know what you’re kvetching about.”

Ellie, reluctantly, let me clean her eyes, and her tushy, when necessary; and, with very sad eyes and a light grumble in her throat, she even let me comb through the more stubborn mats in her hair. Cricket, on the other hand, got crazy eyes and bared her teeth at me if I even looked at her ears. Cricket tends to see grooming as a war, and a war that she usually wins.

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“Grumble, grumble, Mommy.”

I tried everything I could think of. I loaded her up on treats before even introducing the comb or the scissors. I tried raising her dose of anti-anxiety meds, and even giving her the Ace pill she takes before a regular grooming visit, but her anger only increased.

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“I won’t back down!”

A few days ago, I finally had the energy to put Cricket into the bathtub, despite my rapidly depleting sense of self, and I was able to remove about twenty-five percent of the mess (fresh clean butt!); and then, during her after-bath-zoomie-tantrum, she wiped her face on every piece of furniture and dislodged even more of the muck, some even under her eyes, where I always worry that she will get an infection from the clumped, wet hair, that absorbs her eye goop.

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“You cannot take my eye goop!”

But despite every effort, and my increasing attempts at stealth, there’s still so much left to clean and trim, and I have very little confidence that she’ll let me do it.

It’s a sign of my looming depression that I am taking Cricket’s behavior so personally. I’m not in a full depression yet, thank God. Therapy and medication have made it harder for my system to fully shut down, the way it’s done in the past, and I’m doing everything I can think of (diet, exercise, social connections, entertainment, etc) to stay above water; but I can see the cliff coming, and I’m afraid, because once the depression takes over it’s very hard to pull myself back up.

I’m hoping that Cricket reads this essay and, out of pity, allows me to at least trim the hair under her eyes, to help stave off my depression. She’s a very smart dog, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s taught herself how to read; but making a sacrifice to save someone else’s life? That might be expecting too much. Even if that life is mine.

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“No. Just no.”

Obviously, Cricket doesn’t think her sacrifice is necessary yet, and maybe she’s right. I’m not looking over the edge of the cliff yet, I’m just worried that it might come to that, the longer we stay shut down and unsure of what’s to come. But, really, if Cricket walked up to me and offered her ears for combing, that would be a true sign of the apocalypse. So, maybe I should count my blessings and be grateful that we haven’t crossed that line, yet.

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“Can you blame me? This is what happens when I let them near my hair!”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

When My Therapist and I Disagree

 

My therapist and I usually agree, so when we don’t it’s jarring and upsetting, to me if not to her. Most often when we disagree it’s about how I’m doing. She generally thinks I’m further along in therapy than I think I am. And it’s annoying, because when I walk into her office feeling discouraged or overwhelmed by tasks I don’t think I can do and she says, Nah, that’s not a problem, I feel, suddenly, all alone. Because she’s not offering me any path forward. She’s telling me that I’m somewhere I know I’m not, and that means I’ll have to make the rest of the trip from A to B alone.

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“Alone?”

Usually, my therapist is able to hear me when I say that I’m struggling, and she’ll ask me questions to figure out what the real struggle is made up of. Is it a general self-esteem issue, or a wave of panic or depression? Is it a concrete problem that we can solve with some detailed plan of action, or a temporary low caused by a negative experience that will pass?

All of the years spent working through these things with her have made this process automatic for me, and I go through it a lot on my own, sitting down and going over an event to find out where the negative mood set in and why, or coming up with practical steps to address a problem that genuinely needs solving. But it still hurts when I tell her that I’m struggling and she doesn’t understand.

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“Harrumph.”

There are times when I’ve been on the other side of that kind of glitch. When I see my students struggling, part of me just wants to say – but look how smart you are! You’ll be fine! And you know who will be reassured by that? Just me. Not them. Because what I’m actually saying is: I trust you to handle this yourself, without any help from me. Why would I choose to say that? Maybe because their anxiety is scaring me, or frustrating me. Maybe because I don’t know how to help them, or I don’t really understand why they’re struggling and I don’t have the time to find out. But all of that is about me, and for me.

If Cricket, God forbid, got off leash and ran into the street, I would be terrified and I would be yelling at her and chasing her – because I wouldn’t be able to think strategically with my baby racing out in front of cars. Intellectually, I know that chasing her makes her run faster, and yelling at her makes her ignore me and act more erratically. But in my anxiety, I wouldn’t be able to think all of that through.

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“Grrr arrgh!”

I don’t know what it is that causes my therapist to not be on the same page as me sometimes. I know she always believes that she knows better than me, or has more perspective than me, because of her wider experience in life and in therapy. In those moments, she probably believes that I am temporarily thinking with the wrong part of my brain, and if she lends me her confidence then the right part of my brain will snap back online.

I think sometimes the gap opens up when my therapist is most aware of her own age, and my mom’s age, and she’s scared that I won’t be better in time to take care of myself. Her fear, for me, makes her try to push the therapy faster by brute force. But, if anything, that just scares me more and sets off my anxiety, and despair, and prevents me from seeing any path forward.

My therapist is very well trained and very experienced, but the horrible fact is that she is a human being. And it sucks. I preferred it when I believed that she was perfect and all-knowing and that I could rely on her to tell me everything I needed to know.

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“You know everything, right Mommy?”

The thing is, a lot of things are harder for me than they seem. When I tell people that I need two naps a day just to function, they think I’m kidding, or exaggerating. It used to be one nap a day, and it will probably go back to that eventually, but I’m in a two-naps-a-day phase at the moment, and it makes everything hard to do. Like laundry, or driving or teaching or writing.

I tend to schedule my naps so that I can have the most possible energy when I know I’ll need to be around people, which means that they then think I’m fine, because I look my best when they see me. And most people, including my therapist, trust what they see with their own eyes over what I tell them about myself. My therapist only believes that I’m struggling when she can see me looking exhausted or walking badly or she can hear me slurring my words or forgetting simple words in front of her.

Mom and the dogs, who see me in every mode, have a better sense of what’s going on with me, but even they get confused sometimes, between what I can do and what they want me to be able to do.

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“Huh?””

And the thing is, I don’t want people to lower their expectations of me. That’s probably why I try so hard to be at my most functional in public. I hate how it feels to be around strangers when I can barely hold my head up, and I don’t feel safe being away from home when I’m so close to the edge. I want there to be a way for people to adapt their expectations of me to fit both what I am capable of and what I want to do. But maybe, and this makes my head spin, I’m expecting other people to be able to do more than they can do, and I’m being just as unreasonable in my expectations of them as they are being unreasonable in their expectations of me.

Now my head hurts.

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“Mine too.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Shabbat Morning

 

Shabbat is the weekly Jewish holiday of rest. It starts at sundown on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturday. The theoretical, biblical, reason for a day of rest is, of course, that God created the world in six days and therefore took a well-earned break on day seven. But really we all need a day of rest each week, even if we didn’t create a whole world by ourselves. (I’m pretty sure I need more than one day of rest in seven, but this isn’t the time to quibble).

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Cricket believes in resting seven days out of seven.

I grew up going to synagogue every Saturday morning, first for junior congregation with the other kids, and later to the adult services, which lasted two and a half hours and ended with Slivovitz (plum brandy) and gefilte fish. But it’s been a long time since I went to synagogue regularly on Saturday mornings. Instead, I go on Friday nights, because my synagogue is more of a Friday night kind of place. We only have Saturday morning services when there’s a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to celebrate, or a holiday that falls on Shabbat. So, for a long time now, I’ve treated Saturday like, well, any other day. A day to do chores, make appointments, get my work done, etc. I took the time out for Friday night services as my weekly celebration of Shabbat and felt like that was enough.

I didn’t realize that I was really missing those Saturday mornings until I started to teach Synagogue school on Saturday mornings at my synagogue and was able to sit in on the children’s service. We all sat together in the first few rows in the sanctuary, with the Rabbi sitting right in front of us and leading us through the short service in a very relaxed, informal sort of way. When we read the morning blessings, the Rabbi asked everyone to share a recent accomplishment, or an exciting event coming up, or a difficult problem we needed support with, and the kids raised their hands. They shared about their new braces, and trips to Disneyworld, or New Jersey, and injured wrists, and newborn siblings. I didn’t have the nerve to speak up, but their openness inspired me. It was prayer as a chance to check in with our community and ourselves, and take a deep breath (or ten) and feel the natural holiness that we bring with us into the room.

And then we drank grape juice and tore through Challahs (really, these kids can do some real damage to a very large loaf of bread), and went to class. The mood of Saturday morning class is so different from the after-school rowdiness of synagogue school earlier in the week. We can meander through a discussion and hear from everyone more fully, and share our outside interests in music and Lego and animals and bring them into the discussion of the Torah lesson for the day, knitting together the ordinary and the holy.

Shabbat was hard for me growing up, because Shabbat was one of the battlegrounds my father chose to fight over. He made us walk six miles to the orthodox synagogue, and he stopped us from watching television or doing homework. The day became a wasteland, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, because we didn’t live in a Jewish community with other people in the same situation. And it wasn’t restful at all. It didn’t feel holy or sacred to replace the toilet paper in the bathroom with tissues, just to avoid ripping paper on Shabbat, or to cover the light switches with plastic to keep from turning the lights on and off; it felt more like prison.

For years now, I’ve had therapy on Saturday mornings – either group or individual – and I accepted that I couldn’t go to Saturday morning services at a synagogue, because I knew that therapy was more important. But I realized that I liked this Shabbat School version of Saturday morning prayers. I liked that it didn’t take hours, and we didn’t have to dress up, and we did get to talk, a lot, about our actual lives. This past week the cantor ran the children’s service, and we all sat in a circle-like clump on the floor to sing along with him and his guitar, and then to breathe together, and then dance together, and I thought, yeah, I could do this every week. If only my dogs could be invited.

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“I wanna go!”

Cricket and Ellie know all about rest and holy time, and they don’t need as many memory aides as humans do to help them get to that peaceful, connected place. They just need the birds singing to them in the morning, and the air filled with smells from near and far, and a few chicken treats and cuddles. Though I really would love to see Ellie dancing along with the kids at Shabbat school, and she would love to share their Challah. Cricket would probably steal the whole challah and hide it under the ark, where only she and the rabbi could find it. But they’d probably enjoy that too, hunkering down in the sanctuary to share bread.

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“Did you say Challah?!”

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“I could eat.”

What’s a community for, really, if not to take time out to share good food, and sing, and maybe even dance?

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

My Inner Critics

 

I have a lot of internal critics, and they are loud. Some of the internal noise is just me disagreeing with myself about what I should be doing at any given time, but the critics are distinct and somewhat separate from “the real me.” The three most obvious voices are the snake, the crow, and the mouse.

The snake tells me that I am evil, and the cause of all evil, and that everything I do is suspect, and nothing I do is on the level or even passably okay. The snake isn’t some common garden snake, or even an eight-foot python or a boa constrictor. This snake is more like the Basilisk in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. It is huge, and deadly, and I can’t get rid of it.

Basilisk face

(not my picture)

The crow, on the other hand, is more like an obnoxious teenager. He tells me that I am a drama queen, and always exaggerating and being melodramatic. The crow minimizes my pain and my achievements, and tells me that I’m annoying and overbearing, and mostly tells me to get over myself, the way my brother used to do. This voice is almost impossible to argue against, because it sounds so true to me, which leaves me feeling hopeless and helpless and unimportant.

Then there’s the mouse. She isn’t so much a critic as a misguided ally. The mouse tells me to make myself small, and to hide, because that’s the only way to be safe. She tells me that I shouldn’t be so open or so loud or so visible, not because I’m doing something wrong but because it will bring danger to both of us. The mouse also doubts my chances for success or support out in the world, because she doesn’t trust the world to be a safe place.

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“You don’t mean me, right? ‘Cause, I’m not a mouse.”

There’s a theory in mental health circles that even your introjects (the critics, “old tapes,” or voices of your earliest relationships that live on in your mind) always have your best interests at heart, at least from their own points of view. And the crow and the mouse fit within that description; they both think they are right about how the world will treat me if I act in certain ways, and they mean well. They are, really, giving me their version of the best possible advice.

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“I always give you the best advice, and you never take it.”

But the snake is different. The snake has no interest in what’s best for me. The snake is only interested in the snake, and in creating pain and destruction. So maybe what the mental health community is forgetting is that if you have been abused as a child, by someone very close to you who actively meant you harm, then you will have an introject that means to abuse you continually. For some reason, despite the presence of evil in so many people’s lives, the mental health community prefers to believe that most people don’t experience evil. I don’t know why they believe something that is so patently untrue.

The snake is my version of “fake news,” and its message is broadcast at me twenty-four hours a day. I make the best possible arguments against the fake news, collecting my facts and logic and arguing fiercely, but it’s exhausting. And sometimes, after the crow and the mouse have worn me out with their warnings of danger, I don’t have the energy to fight off the fake news, and the snake takes that moment to shoot venom through my entire body and mind.

I wonder what Ellie would think if she could hear what the snake says to me every day. She’d probably cover her ears with her paws and hide in her bed. Cricket would growl and bark and threaten bodily harm. Which is why I’m grateful that the snake stays inside my head, and not outside. If I can’t protect myself, at least I can protect my puppies.

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I keep trying to create safe containers for each of the introjected critics; to gently remind them that they are relics of the past and not needed in the present moment. But they keep coming back, louder, more articulate, and more convinced of their own beliefs. That’s not what I was told to expect. I was told that therapy would help me to at least mute the critics. I was told that I could, over time, rewire my brain to work around the old messages. Instead, I’ve found that while I can add more than I ever thought possible to my brain: new information, new pathways, new connections, I can’t remove anything. I don’t have a knife sharp enough to accomplish that task. Or a medication either.

Cricket is my most consistent external critic. She lets me know, right away, when my behavior is not up to her standards: when I’ve slept too late, spent too much time at the computer, eaten too much of my own dinner, etc. But it’s easier to recognize her self-interest when she criticizes me, than to recognize it in the introjected critics, because Cricket is physically separate and not inside my head (though she’d really like to have the technology to make that possible). There’s something about hearing messages about all of your flaws and mistakes broadcast in your own voice, inside of your own head, that makes them harder to push away.

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“You make me sound awesome!!!!”

But every once in a while, I remember the Wizard of Oz, and how the Great Oz was really a little, ordinary man behind a curtain. And I think, maybe that snake is just an illusion; powerful and effective, but an illusion just the same.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

The Children Inside

 

Generally when I write in my blog, or anywhere else, I’m writing from the point of view of my most grown up, most presentable self, because that’s what people do. When I leave the house to interact with other people I generally dress up in a certain way and use certain words and facial expressions, and I pay close attention to how I present myself. Am I being nice enough? Mature enough? Responsible enough?

But when I’m at home, watching TV, doing puzzles, or playing with the dogs, other parts of me are allowed to surface and have their say. There’s a lot of arguing about food (Why can’t I have the whole container of ice cream right now?) and clothes (I want to wear pajamas all the time!) and entertainment (Cartoons! No, wait, mysteries! No, episodes of Law & Order on an endless loop!). Most of this doesn’t fit my image of who I’m supposed to be at my current age, and therefore I try to keep it at home where no one can see and judge.

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The girls don’t seem to care what we watch, as long as everyone’s together.

Or I bring it to therapy. Though it’s still hard for me to bring my whole self to therapy, even after twenty-five years. Generally, I report the hard stuff from my notes, or I keep it to myself.

Over winter break, I watched the HBO miniseries version of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and it reminded me all over again of the thing I loved about the first book when I read it a few years ago (someone said to me, if you like Harry Potter, you’ll love this): each character, in this alternative universe, has an animal dæmon; not just an animal companion, but a part of their soul that exists outside of their body and takes an animal form. Up until puberty the dæmon is able to take many different forms (ferret, mouse, bird, turtle, cat, etc.), to meet many different needs, and then at puberty the dæmon takes the shape of one specific animal for the rest of the character’s life. That last part was the only thing that didn’t ring true for me when I read the first book. Only ONE animal companion? Only one aspect of the soul? Unlikely. My dæmon has never settled. My self has never come together into one definite and unchanging thing. I still flit and switch and change.

I would say that, for my most grown up self, the part of me that goes out into the world, my dæmon would be a Yellow Labrador Retriever – not quite as trusting and fluffy as a Golden Retriever, but playful and loyal and gentle, and smart, rather than clever.

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“A yellow Lab. Really?”

My writing self is more like an eagle, soaring above it all and observing, feeling the wind in her feathers and finding her way; mostly isolated, but able to be part of a congregation, when necessary.

But the little ones, the ones who live in pajamas and think chocolate covered pretzels make a great breakfast, they’re different; both from the adult version of me and from each other. After watching the HBO miniseries, I tried to come up with a list of animal familiars, to help me recognize each internal child part more clearly, but that just set off a lot of internal noise and a sort of buzzing that sounded like a table saw, so I had to stop for a while and rest before trying again.

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“It was so loud I could hear it too, Mommy.”

I think there must be a porcupine, and a fluffy brown rabbit, and a black Lab puppy, and a Starling or a Sparrow, and a bee (though nobody likes the bee).

I don’t have anything like a tiger or a bear or a lion in there, and I feel the lack of that protection.

This feels like a project I should take on: get out a huge animal encyclopedia and see which ones resonate with me and which ones don’t. I should draw pictures and write stories and figure out everyone’s favorite foods and colors and music. But just the thought of it exhausts me.

Like Walt Whitman said: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I’m just too tired to count them right now.

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Clearly, everyone’s exhausted.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

My Turtle Shell

 

It’s so hard to stay focused on my own journey, and recognize my own accomplishments, when I’m too aware of how other people are racing ahead of me. I want to congratulate myself for taking the synagogue school teaching job, and for performing with the choir, and for self-publishing my novel, and graduating with a Master’s degree in Social Work and earning my social work license. But instead I’m berating myself for all of the things I can’t do.

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“Want some help with that?”

I am getting by, and functioning to the limits of my current capacity. I know that. I’m not setting the world on fire (as I’d hoped), but I am sending out resumes for social work jobs, and submitting essays to literary magazines. I am writing (though never as much as I think I should), and I am prepping for synagogue school classes as if I were teaching full-time instead of two hours a week. I am studying my languages, and practicing ukulele, and doing my breathing exercises, and trying to exercise my body when I can. But I feel like a failure on a constant basis. I am always trying, and, it seems, never succeeding.

 

People still look at me funny when I say I’m only looking for part-time work, because I seem fine, to them. I feel guilty for “imagining” that I am still struggling in any way, as if I’m choosing to suffer longer than is reasonable, and I should choose not to suffer anymore. I don’t know how to do that, but people keep saying it’s a choice and that I’m making the wrong one.

And yet, I saw a picture on Facebook a few weeks ago, of a turtle who had been in an accident and lost most of his shell, and he resonated for me. The headline of the story was that someone had built the turtle a new shell, with a 3D printer, and painted it in beautiful designs and colors; and with his new shell, the turtle was able to go back to living his very slow, very long life, with his safety and dignity intact. And I realized that I am just like that turtle. I’ve been rebuilding my shell for the past twenty-five years. I don’t know if it never really grew in the first place, or if the one I had was so battered and bruised that it barely lasted into my teen years. And my shell still isn’t whole, and it’s definitely not painted and decorated to my liking, but after twenty-five years, instead of walking around naked and unprotected from predators, I have most of a shell to cover me.

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The 3D shell

I still feel the rain too quickly, and I still take in too much of what other people say to me; I still bruise too easily, and recover too slowly, but I take more risks now. I can even go outside on a rainy day and do a slow little dance between the rain drops.

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“Dancing!”

I’d like to think that, even at my slow pace, I am living my life with dignity, and feeling safe enough to do things in my own unique way. And maybe, someday, I’ll finish growing my shell and even decorate it in a way that celebrates my long, slow, full life.

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“Slow is good.”

 

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

The Aftermath of Childhood Abuse

 

In order to have a successful life, it’s not enough to be smart and talented, you have to be able to function, every day, without having three panic attacks before lunch. I was certain that, twenty-five years into therapy, I would be married, with children, and published multiple times. I wouldn’t have made it through the first ten years of therapy if I’d known that I’d still be struggling with forward motion in year twenty five. But this is where I’m at, and this is the best I’ve been able to do, despite all of that promise, because of childhood sexual abuse.

I was the kid that teachers loved and never worried about. Rachel will do fine at whatever she chooses to do. Rachel is smart and responsible and hardworking and never needs help. They didn’t consider my social anxiety, or crippling depression, or the endless fragmentation of my mind as a problem, because even with all of that I still did well at school. But I didn’t want to, and that was the killer. I did not want to wake up each morning. I did not want to meet new people, or go to parties, or get a job, or choose a major, or whatever each next step was supposed to be.

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“This is a difficult topic, Mommy.”

 

I am tired of hearing about how resilient everyone else is, and how well they’re doing, despite this and that and the other thing. It implies that we all had the same obstacles and everyone else is just better than me at overcoming them. But the fact is, if I had the same life experiences as I’ve had, without the great good fortune of intelligence and talent, and a Mom who loves me, and a therapist who has been there for me since I was nineteen, I would not be here. I would have walked in front of a bus, or swallowed a bottle of pills, a hundred times by now. It’s important to know that, and not to be smug about my successes, and not to be so quick to judge others for their lack of success.

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“I’m here for you, Cricket.”

The percentage of substance abusers with child abuse histories is very high, same with prison inmates, and patients in mental hospitals, but I feel like we choose, as a society, not to know these things. We choose to ignore our good fortune when we have it, and we choose to take credit for all of our successes, despite the help we’ve received along the way. We imagine that people are successful because of their intelligence and hard work alone, and therefore those who are unsuccessful must be lazy and stupid.

Lately we’ve been talking more about privilege – white privilege, male privilege – but we forget the less obvious forms of privilege; being safe in your own home, and being loved and nurtured by your family, and having the support you need when you have to face big and small challenges along the way, are huge privileges that many children never experience.

I remember watching episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show, years ago, when she would celebrate kids who had survived war and starvation and abuse and got into Harvard anyway, or started a successful business, or saved the world in some way. And it made me angry, one, because I could never do any of that, and two, because most of the kids who went through those same circumstances wouldn’t be able to impress anyone and win the attention and rewards they would need in order to survive. They would have the same residue of pain and trauma, without any help to get them through, or anyone to celebrate their small achievements along the way.

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“I love to celebrate!”

Everyone wants to know the secrets of the resilient child, but resilience has more to do with how we take care of and support these children than with their own inherent qualities. Their strength, or weakness, comes mostly from us. If they fail, it’s because we didn’t hold them up. We keep forgetting this. We want to celebrate, and vilify, the individual, if only so that we don’t have to take responsibility for each other. But it’s an illusion. We are intertwined whether we acknowledge it or not, and we pay the price for the suffering of others, whether we caused it ourselves or simply chose to ignore it.

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Platypus knows that we all need help.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Friendship

Friendship is still something I’m not very good at. I’m friendly, and I have some friends, people I care about who care about me, but I’ve never figured out how to be a good, day to day friend to someone. I have friends who I can reach out to when big things happen, positive or negative, and I know that they will hear me, and they know that I will hear them. But I don’t have people I call every day, or every week. I’ve tried, very hard, to do better at this. I’ve tried to put myself in positions to have friends like that, but something always stops me.

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Cricket can relate.

There’s a constant monologue in my head judging what I say to other people. Was I friendly enough? Too friendly? Do they like me or think I’m a loser? It’s as if the closer I get to other people, the more rejectable I feel, and the more damage they can do to me. It’s easier to care about people from afar, but them I’m lonely and isolated, and that’s not good either.

I was better at mimicking friendship when I was a kid, doing all of the behaviors asked of me: listening, caring, and showing attention. But I was never very good at requiring friendship in return, or believing that I deserved it. If someone got angry at me, and said that I wasn’t being a good enough friend, I believed it. If someone said I wasn’t interesting enough to be their friend, I believed them. I didn’t like it, but it seemed true to me.

I like where I live now. I like that there are people who live all around me, and even without planning to, I can run into a neighbor (and her dog!) on a random laundry trip. But it’s so much easier to befriend dogs than people. First of all, they always have their own humans, so I don’t have to take responsibility for them. With other humans, I always feel like I’m supposed to help them, take care of them, and do things for them, and I feel disappointed when they don’t fix everything for me in return. With dogs I can just share a nice moment, offer affection and curiosity, and then move on. Except, I usually feel bereft and guilty for walking away from dogs too, as if I should have done more for them, or gotten more from the exchange.

My therapist once said that she assumed I had an attachment disorder, and that’s why I didn’t have more friends. She was so relieved when I fell in love, because it proved that I wasn’t completely detached, even though it also meant my heart was broken when he said goodbye. But the thing is, I never felt detached. If anything I felt more attached than I could stand.

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“Harrumph.”

One of the benefits of becoming a therapist is that I can focus on caring about other people, without requiring them to care about me in return. My job as a therapist is to give, and not to take, and that feels so much easier to me. I like being kind to people. I like helping people, and feeling compassion and understanding for people. But I don’t like being disappointed in people when I have expectations of them, or need things from them.

Cricket is a great customer for this kind of therapy, at least with me. She’s much more of a caretaker with her grandma: guarding her, listening to her, keeping her company. With me, she accepts my support and guidance and attention, and seems to be free of any burdens of care in return.

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Cricket guarding Grandma

I miss my Butterfly, though, because however much she needed me and needed my care, she always had room in her heart for me, and licked my hand to let me know she was with me. Cricket has tried to take on that role, every once in a while, when I scratch her under her chin, but the licks last only for a moment, and then she wants me to take her outside for her walk. And that’s okay with me, because she loves her walks and her joy is contagious.

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“Hi Mommy. Do you need lickies?”

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“Let’s go! There’s so much sniffing to do!”

Keeping Cricket Busy

 

A few years ago, I collected a bunch of Cricket’s toys and put them into a bucket on a shelf under the TV. The plan was to switch out the toys from the bucket every week or two, so that she could have the benefit of all of her toys, without spreading them on the floor where I would trip over them. Of course, I got distracted and forgot about the bucket of toys a long time ago. At around the same time, I stopped taking Cricket for her three mile walks each day, and she definitely noticed the difference and has perfected her disappointed-with-Mommy face.

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Recently, I watched a story about a man with a movement disorder who went to a special kind of occupational therapy, with not only a human therapist but also a doggy therapist. The exercises required the man to put treats into treat puzzles, in order to rebuild the strength and flexibility in his fingers. His reward was to watch the dog chasing after the toys and enjoying the treats. The smile on the man’s face when his knotted hands were successful at fitting the treats into the toys, and the dog ran across the room after the toys, was pure joy.

And it occurred to me that we might have some of those toys; not the flat puzzles with secret compartments, but the plastic toys in different shapes that would allow small amounts of treats out if Cricket could figure out how to make them bounce the right way. We’d bought a ton of toys for Cricket when she was an incorrigible puppy, in order to keep her from continuing to destroy the furniture with her sharp puppy teeth. And in the bottom of the bucket, under the everlasting chew toys, and the purple dinosaur that has dried into a husk of its former self, I found three treat puzzles of varying sizes and levels of difficulty.

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Pink vase, red ball, and blue thingy

Cricket has been needing more attention and distraction since Butterfly died, and even more so since it’s been too cold for Grandma to take her for extended walks in the afternoon; those garbage cans up by the 7-11 were an endless source of fascination. So I was willing to try something new to keep her busy, and, hopefully, happy.

I had to do some significant cleaning on the old toys – boiling them with baking soda and rinsing thoroughly – before I could risk putting food in them again. For my first experiment I used the pink vase-shaped toy. I was worried that I’d made the pieces of Pupperoni too big, and Cricket would go straight past optimal frustration into the land of rage and disappointment, but, actually, she loved it, and was busy for hours. She was actually disappointed when I gave her next treat toy to play with, the red ball, and she was able to empty it within minutes. Cricket likes a challenge.

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This is where Cricket uses her head.

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This is where Cricket guards her toy from the humans.

Now, if I try to let a day go by without filling the pink vase toy with treats, she gets grumpy, and insistent. She stands next to me as I fill up her toy and then she tosses it around the room, and hoards it under her couch, and does everything she can think of to make it give up its riches. I’m pretty sure that my face looks very much like that man in the occupational therapy video, full of joy, as I watch Cricket running after her toy and bouncing it into submission to get every last treat.

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“I need more treats. Now.”

Now, if only I could figure out how to set up a drone to take her for walks when it’s too cold for me. Does anyone know if a drone can be programmed to pick up poop?