Friday, December 28, 2007

A Chanukah gift from my rabbi

When I met with my rabbi again a week later, he began by asking me what are the obstacles to feeling relaxed and happy in shul.

Three came immediately to mind.

The first was that I am occasionally asked to help in a variety of ways. I love this. It helps me feel connected and valued and a real part of the community. Some things, like helping out in the kitchen, are easy and require no planning on my part. Other things, like being asked to lead a children's service or women's tefillah group, are not.

It isn't that they require planning. I know these things well enough that I could probably do them cold. But I am scared to. Maybe it is the OCD or maybe it's my experience or maybe it's something entirely different, but I get extremely anxious if I haven't practiced and prepared to the point of knowing it backwards and forwards and upside down. And even then I am scared but I do it anyway. And it always works out well and no one has ever suggested I not do this anymore, but I am terrified of making a mistake.

To that, my rabbi told me what he tells his bar and bat mitzvah students. He said in school, to get an A you need to score at least 90%. So however much of whatever they are doing for their bar or bat mitzvah, if they get 90% of it right, they've earned an A. The previous Shabbos, for instance, the bar mitzvah davened about 2/3 of the service and layned all but one of the Torah readings. Figuring the bar mitzvah was leading maybe two hours of the morning, my rabbi said he could have had 12 minutes of mistakes and still earned an A, and to date, no one has ever had that many mistakes.

This helped a little. I still have to find ways to cope with the anxiety, but he said he would do his part to give me advance notice if there was something he wanted me to do.

The second thing I said was silly and I was embarrassed to even bring it up. My rabbi assured me, and in earnest, that it could not be silly. So I told him, still feeling embarrassed, that I was afraid of losing my seat. You see, I almost always sit in the same seat on Shabbos. I chose it years ago and made sure it had been unoccupied before me. It still seems silly to say, but it has great meaning and significance for me.

But one of the times I was absent with a long depression, another woman began sitting there. When I returned one Shabbos and she came in late, she was horribly upset with me that I had taken her seat. She went to other women and complained about me. One mutual friend said yes, it's been your (her) seat for a short while, but before it was your seat, it indeed was Rivka's. I felt, in a word, ashamed. This other woman decided to move and found a seat that was better for her, she said, but it took a very long time before I felt comfortable in my seat again. And to this day, I am anxious until I arrive at shul and see that my seat is available.

I did tell my rabbi that someone--like him--could use this as a reason for me to be in shul every single week, and the earlier the better. He laughed and said, I wasn't going to go there, really. The reality, we both know, is that I have young children and a brain disorder and people get sick on occasion and sometimes I can't make it on time, if at all. He said he would be willing, and saw no problem with, putting a sign on that seat that said, please do not sit here until X hour. I was afraid of that beginning a whole seat reservation system, so I declined, but he seemed seriously willing to do that and it really touched me.

The third and last thing had to do with dinners that take place a few times a year in the shul. On those occasions, I told him, when there is no pre-arranged seating, it is very common for me to wind up virtually alone with my family. Let me explain. Some tables seat 8. Others seat 10. My family is not so large that we'd occupy an entire table (b'ezrat HaShem, it will someday be larger). People tend to gravitate toward their friends and people they know well, and despite the fact that I have been at this shul actively for thirteen years, I am still a newcomer. So other tables fill quickly and I need to sit with my children, so we find a table and there are still enough seats for others to join us but no one does. It is very hard not to take this personally, even though I know it is not intended as such. My solution is that I stopped going, but this still left me feeling sad and excluded.

This Chanukah, the shul hosted a latke dinner on a Sunday evening and there was no pre-arranged seating. My children really wanted to go, so we went. After Ma'ariv, we were one of the last families to find seats, because as many parents know, people without children can move faster than those of us with, and there were few children that evening.

I was near tears, just knowing this was going to happen again, when my rabbi came up beside me and gestured to a particular table with one parent and one child sitting at it. I looked around and saw everyone else was seated. He saw that, too, and as soon as his wife emerged from the kitchen, he wordlessly asked her to sit at our table. And when he was done with the parts of the evening that required him to be standing and mobile, he came and sat with us. It was the first time in at least eight years that I have sat at a table with adults other than my husband to talk to.

I don't know if he realized just how meaningful that gesture was. In a way, I really hope he does, because it meant the world to me, not to have to be left out of the conversation, left out of the community, again. And I got to know his wife a little better, which was very nice. It was a truly wonderful gift.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What if you gave a party and nobody came?

Rabbi Without a Cause has a post up about birthday parties and I have not been able to stop thinking about my experiences with them.

I have already had my birthday for 2007. That narrows it down, doesn't it?

My next birthday is a big one for me. I would love to have a party. A big party. Maybe even a surprise party. But I am really, really scared about that.

Growing up, there was not a single birthday I remember--and I have a very good memory--that wasn't upstaged by a sibling. Usually a male sibling, for whatever that's worth. Extended family would come and ask me about school or whatever was new in my life, and I always had something going on that I was very excited about, and they'd be all ears until any of said siblings walked in the room. You could see all eyes turn to said sibling and I would be forgotten. Not for just a few seconds or minutes. For the whole rest of the evening. And it was my birthday party.

My sixteenth birthday I was certain everyone was planning a suprise party. None of my friends at school said anything and every previous year they had giftwrapped my locker door. This year nothing, so I was sure something was afoot. Some previous years my mom would offer to make me a special breakfast on my birthday. This year she'd stayed up late and slept in. My friends and I usually hung out for a while after school. This year they all had to go home right away.

I went home laughing with joy that I'd figured it out and when I would get home all my friends and family would be there and it would be a dream come true.

I got home and silence. My mom was at the grocery store. Siblings were at their various other commitments. I waited. And waited.

My father came home from work. My mom asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner.

There was no party. The surprise was on me; when I asked my school friends the next day, they had all forgotten it was my birthday.

As an adult I have tried a few times to host a party. Free food, free cake, no gifts expected, a fun time for all. One year I invited everyone I knew at the time, sending out a couple dozen invitations. No one called to RSVP. No one showed up.

So I am wary about having another party, or asking for one. Because with my wacky brain chemistry the way it already is, this is the sort of repeated experience that fuels the belief that no one cares.

To my husband, a birthday party is just a birthday party, no big deal. To me it is much, much more than that.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Being truly SEEN by the rabbi

This, they would say in counseling, is progress.

It is ten minutes since I finished that last post and what I was writing sent me into a new flurry of anxiety. I managed to calm the hair-pulling by forcing both hands on the keyboard, but then those anti-anxiety cleaning instincts took over. I really should clean my keyboard. Not a wipe off the surface cleaning, but a take off all the keys and deep clean with Q-tips and rubbing alcohol. My mouse isn't looking so shiny, either. And there's dust on the monitor and the windows need cleaning and the carpet needs to be vacuumed and the children keep getting out of bed and anything--anything--but sit here and write about how I will not be needy and I'm not worth the rabbi's attention.

I will combat faulty self-talk with logic.

All in all, I met with my rabbi five times over the span of four weeks. This was not at my suggestion. I would have been happy with something more frequent than once every two years. But he saw some necessity in it, and he thought it was worth his time, and he could have had his choice of excuses why we couldn't meet and he didn't take any of them. I know that I cannot always trust my sense of self-worth, but I am certain I can trust his. He thinks I am worth it. I am overruled. Case dismissed.

I wish it were all that easy.

At my third meeting with him, I asked him if he had any idea how hard it was to come see him without an agenda. He gave me a smile that--if interpreted correctly--was somewhere between "It's good for you" and "I don't know, I've never tried it."

He wanted me to talk more about reintegration at shul. How was it going? I told him. Some people did just pick up where we left off. Some had forgotten about my late miscarriage last spring and didn't understand why I felt a pang of hurt when I saw the babies who had been born around the time of my due date. And some asked what I'd been up to, why I'd been gone so long.

How do I answer that?
  • Not much, just a little mental breakdown
  • None of your beeswax (said politely, of course)
  • Well, see it all started with a scarcity of the neurotransmitter seratonin
  • Doesn't everyone leave shul for months at a time?
  • I overslept
  • I gave it up for Lent (a good friend reminds me it's the wrong time of year for that--she finds my ignorance of Christian rituals quite amusing)

I shrugged. I smiled. And then I asked about them. It works almost every time.

One person came up to me during kiddush and said quietly in my ear, I don't mean to out you but I've heard you've been dealing with depression. I've dealt with it too. A lot. Anytime you want to talk, I'm here.

I didn't know how to take that. Did that mean this person wanted to talk? Or was just offering to be on my safe list? What if when I was feeling fragile, they were too? I'm still not sure.

But then as I was talking to my rabbi it all fell apart. I couldn't keep past hurts from intruding on the present and some of them were making me gun-shy. So he encouraged me to tell him what these hurts were. I hesitated.

I don't want to turn this into Let's Bash the Shul or Let's Bash the Rabbi Day, I said. No, no no, he said. This wasn't about him, or the shul. This was about why I felt hurt. So I told him and with it came the tears.

And then he was very quiet and I feared I'd stepped over some invisible line. It was one of those times I wish life had an Undo button. I felt horrible.

Then he said, you take your responsibility to the shul very seriously. I nodded. Yes, of course, the shul means a lot to me. Doesn't everyone feel this way?

He shook his head, inhaled sharply, paused, and said no. And then he said, "you have an overly heightened sense of responsibility. I suspect, from everything I know about you, that you developed it very early as a coping skill, because otherwise there would have been too much pain to endure, and without it you probably wouldn't have survived."

I didn't know what to say. I nodded silently, tears unchecked. This rabbi, this man, didn't just get it. He had Seen me.

There was pain low in my stomach, as if something shifted in the core of my being. He had managed to do what few people in this world have done. He had truly Seen me without judgment or labels or an agenda to "fix" me. We both knew it. And I was grateful.

And then, of course, we were out of time. He asked if I was free to meet again on such-and-such day. I pulled out my PDA and brought up my calendar. Yes.

Doesn't that thing make you more anxious? he asked. Always knowing everything that's coming up?

I was surprised. No, I said. It makes me less anxious because I can look at it and say here's the appointments for tomorrow, I've got notes for this meeting, nothing needed for that one, it's not my turn to bring snack, good, I'm prepared and I can relax.

That's where we differ, he said. Knowing everything that was coming up would make him very anxious. The only way he could relax was having no clue what the next day would bring. Neither one of us saw the need to go into the pros and cons of that approach.

I started to put our next meeting in my calendar, accidentally selected the wrong time, and took a moment to fix it. "Rabbi" he said helpfully.

I laughed and said, cute. Then he told me about this training seminar he'd gone to about conducting hostage negotiations. The part of my brain that censors what I say--especially to my rabbi--had apparently shorted out and I heard myself ask slowly, do you find you need to do a lot of hostage negotiations in your rabbinate? He got up and said, you never know.

We'd meet again in a week and I had no idea what we were going to talk about.

The rabbi, the gabbai, and sobbing in the bathroom

The last time I wrote about seeing my rabbi, it was October. We met again ten days later. And then again after a week, and when that meeting was unexpectedly cut short, three days after that.

So much happened in those brief 45-minute sessions that I am still not certain I can put words to it all. I think in a lot of ways we both dropped our shields. A bit.

Let me start at the beginning.

In October, I had an agenda when I met with him. I wanted him on my "team," someone to talk to about all those Jewish questions my Christian counselor is intrigued by but can't answer, someone to help me navigate the emotional land mines that come with the interaction and interdependence of community through shul. My plan was to keep to the present, set aside more than a dozen years of shul-related (though not always--or even often--rabbi-related) hurts, and try to rebuild my trust in him.

When we arranged for the second meeting, he told me to come just to "talk about this" some more. It wasn't the time or place for questions, so I began our second meeting by asking, which "this" are we supposed to be talking about?

"This" was re-entry into shul. Why, I asked. Why does there need to be re-entry? Why can't we pick up where we left off? Why can't we pretend the last few months--or in my case, maybe the last year--haven't happened?

Yet I'd answered my own question just the Shabbos before, when I went to help another woman and we got our signals crossed and I thought I'd done something horrible and as much as I tried to stop it, I wound up sobbing in the restroom again, silencing my cries every time a woman came in, so she'd never know.

I did talk to her that Shabbos and we cleared everything up and neither of us had done anything horrible. I related the story to my rabbi at that second meeting, feeling as though I was admitting to some unforgivable sin when I told him about seeking refuge--not for the first time--in the restroom.

In return, he told me that he'd had a run-in with the gabbai at about the same time that day, wanting to get across to the gabbai that those who were coming up for honors during the bar mitzvah needed better cues on what to do when. But wanting brevity over verbiage, what came out was "work with me, here." The gabbai shot something back and it was apparently rather tense for a while until they worked it out after services, and now he says they're best friends again (I don't take that literally).

But the point he said he wanted to make with this story was that we all get our signals mixed up sometimes. It was the heightened emotional state I was already in, being back in shul after being away so long, that tipped the scales toward my needing the bathroom refuge.

On top of which, he added, my self-censure about even being heard crying in the bathroom only increased the stress and made it that much harder to find relief. Instead, he wanted me to find someone. I told him about my (short) list of safe people, people who know what's going on with me, who know about the depression, the anxiety. He was glad to hear I had such a list, and then he told me to add him to it.

I wanted to cry right there. On the one hand, I was so relieved and grateful that he would say that, and on the other I didn't think I could do it, to come find him when I was moments away from completely losing it and bawling and tearing my hair out in the bathroom. Because I keep coming up against this same wall:

He. Has. More. Important. Things. To. Do.

In my more rational moments, I realize this is a self-esteem issue. I also realize this is a very deep issue because I have pulled out more than a dozen hairs as I am writing this and it started only three paragraphs ago.

My counselor has suggested that I try on a different perspective. What would I tell a friend who was about to go sob in the bathroom? Or what if I was the rabbi--would I want this person to come tell me?

I can argue against my telling faster than I can argue for it:
  1. It's not his job
  2. I already have a counselor
  3. There are at least 1-200 other people here who want his attention
  4. They might have bigger problems than I do
  5. I cannot--will not--be seen as too needy
  6. It's not something he can fix, anyway
  7. I'm not always certain I'm worth it

And with that, the bathroom refuge is inevitable.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My new anti-anxiety kit

It is amazing that after years of therapy, I am still learning things about myself. What I've learned recently, now that I am recognizing the signs of anxiety and the OCD features, is that I am a very tactile person. Touch is a primary way that I can ease the anxiety.

I learned that when my counselor suggested aromatherapy, to find a scent that would relax me, and all the scents I tried didn't do anything for me other than make me sneeze. But she got me thinking about what I do when I'm sitting and anxious.

I pick at things: skin, hair, scabs, cuticles, fuzz. I pull hair out, which I discovered is a diagnosis all by itself and part of the OCD spectrum called trichotillomania or TTM for short.

I'm attracted by textures. In fact sometimes I wish I could wear a tallit katan just so I could finger the knots in the tzitzit (fringes). A friend suggested worry beads but my first reaction was that it would be mistaken for a rosary!

So I went on a scavenger hunt around home and started collecting things in an old small sewing box:
  • satin binding from a childhood blanket
  • set of four 1-inch ball bearings, to manipulate in my hand
  • palm-sized smooth stone
  • pair of strong magnets to play with
  • hand-held bathing brush with bristles on one side and pumice stone on the other
  • Koosh ball
  • Rubik's Cube
  • and to top it off, hand lotion in a Eucalyptus/Spearmint scent that I can massage my hands with

Then for Chanuka my husband gave me a home manicure set from Israel, with Dead Sea minerals (or so it says). I tried it on one nail and it's smooth and shiny like I polished it and lately I've been rubbing it instead of picking at hair.

My counselor thinks it is great that my answers to anxiety are things that are self-care. I fear becoming vain or superficial, yet at the same time these things are allowing some of my hair to grow back.

While I don't usually like labels because I think they often are unhelpful, having a diagnosis to help me understand why I do what I do--when I'm not thinking about what I'm doing--has been very helpful. Finally I can stop fearing the manic episode that has never come and work on finding ways to deal with and tame my anxiety before it turns into depression.

Monday, December 3, 2007

At least life isn't boring

I don't know why I don't want to write. I am home sick today, my children taken care of, sitting in bed with my computer. For hours my mind has been going over and over the events of the past few months. I want to share but the thought of writing it all down leaves me exhausted.

I think I will have to break this down into different topics. It is overwhelming otherwise. I want to share about

For now some more tea, a nap, and I hope to be back shortly to begin.