September 3, 2013
We don’t live in Stepford
Not long ago, I showed up for a Friday night Shabbat service at Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City. Over the years, I have counseled a number of congregants whose adult children were saved by this addiction recovery program, and I wanted to experience Beit T’Shuvah’s spiritual Shabbat service, which I had heard so much about.
As I walked into a room crammed with several hundred people, I spotted one of my young adult congregants who had shared his struggle with addiction with me over the years. He gave me a big hug — it was clear he was grateful for the opportunity to share this part of his life with his rabbi.
A short time later, I noticed a synagogue member sitting with her husband and two 20-something sons. I knew this family well and wondered what brought them to Beit T’Shuvah. Over the last 20 years we had shared moments of joy and sadness as well as a closeness every rabbi yearns for with his congregants. I wondered if they were there in support of a family member. When I finally caught the eye of the congregant, it was if she had been punched in the stomach; there was no joy in her eyes, only fear. I knew then that she was there for one of her boys.
Toward the end of the service, when I made my way to the exit to get a little air, one of the sons left his seat to find me. He said it was as if God had brought me to him. He had not been at Beit T’Shuvah long, and he made his mom promise that she would not call me until he had contacted me first — thus his mother’s look of surprise and consternation. He was there for an addiction to prescription drugs. My presence, he said, was an omen that everything was going to be OK. By the time his parents greeted me after services, they had gone through the emotional journey of my presence — from the fear of exposure to the gratitude of sharing. As they greeted me with hugs, I could feel a sense of vulnerability and relief.
Whether it is a troubled teen who is sent to a residential program or a 20-something enrolled in a rehab program for substance abuse, we live in a community in which our imperfections are too often kept secret, sometimes even from best friends. As a rabbi, I see many of the struggles of “good Jewish families.” Few families have the perfect life, and yet we live in a community that often wants to portray the so-called perfection of a “Stepford” world.
There are many reasons why our kids lose their way. Depression, addiction and criminal behavior are a few of the issues our community faces. I have shared the struggles of families who took legal custody of a grandchild because their child’s drug addiction rendered them an unfit parent. I have cried with parents who listened to their out-of-control teen scream, “You are a terrible parent!” while being sent to a residential program. I have tried to give strength to mothers who had to lock their sons out of the house so they would hit “the bottom” necessary for the self-realization that they needed help.
Mental illness, suicide and incarceration round out the list of issues grieving or struggling parents share with me in the confidence of my office. These are not families in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. These are not dysfunctional families. These are our families. But unfortunately, many of them keep their struggles a secret because of the guilt, shame and embarrassment they often feel. This occurs partly because that is our parental default — to blame ourselves — but it is also the result of a community in which families like to portray everything as perfect.
In truth, not every family is required to share their family secrets. They have no obligation to reveal their family struggles if they don’t want to, and it is none of our business. In other instances they want to share, but worry about how people will respond. Will they be seen as bad parents? Will they be judged as a dysfunctional family? Will everybody know? (Why is it bad news travels so much faster than good news?) Sometimes the struggles are a result of biology, and sometimes they are psychological. In some cases they are just issues of bad choices on the part of the child. But in all instances, the family can use our help in coming to terms with their situation and having the strength to deal with each day. There are some extreme cases in which the abusive or dysfunctional behavior of parents can lead to the problem of the children, but in our community this is often not the case. Not that we only have perfect parents, but rather we mostly have “normal,” imperfect parents. We must stop judging parents for the challenges of their children and instead provide the place to deal with their situation.
It takes families time to get to the stage where they can share. Like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, they must go through their own stages that will finally lead to an acceptance of their child’s condition. It is time for us to provide a safe and caring community in which people can share. A community in which the veneer of perfection is removed and the realities of family life become the norm. We must provide comfort to the struggling families as well as celebrate their successes.
Some things I have learned in dealing with these families: Don’t try to fix the problem, just let them share. Don’t overreact, but be sympathetic. “What’s going on now?” and “How are you handling it?” are questions that allow the individuals to open up ... or dodge the question. Don’t offer suggestions unless asked. Never say, “I know how you feel,” unless you have been in a similar situation and are willing to share it. Keep their family situation in confidence; it is their decision to share, not yours. Most of all, help them feel “normal.” The synagogue family I met at Beit T’Shuvah that night has not yet shared their family struggles with friends. It will take courage for them to “come out” and risk the exposure of not being a perfect family. But until they can, there can be no true healing.
I am not a psychologist or a therapist who specializes in these issues. My thoughts come from the experiences of dealing with many families struggling with these family dynamics. I only wish everyone could see what I see, to know that just about every family has confronted one of these issues. There is no need for guilt, shame or embarrassment; most of us have experienced something in our families, and we need to be able to support each other in these difficult times. Let us remove the false veil that shrouds the truth of our lives and perpetuates the myth that our families do not suffer these travails. In doing so, we can deal more honestly with each other and provide the strength and comfort necessary to deal with the realities of life. As we enter the High Holy Days, reflecting on our own imperfections and striving to be better, let us find the strength to acknowledge our imperfect families and begin to share the real struggles of real life with friends and community.
Stewart Vogel is senior rabbi at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.