“In-Confidence” Anonymous Series: Round Up

January 13-20, 2019

“I am lying on the living room floor. My husband is sitting a few feet away from me, and I am sobbing. We just got home from seeing my mother on Rosh Hashanah, the first Rosh Hashanah after we were married. I want him to understand how much I hurt. I scream in pain, in emotional pain. It becomes uncontrollable. I pound my head on the floor. I am holding my blanket that had been on the couch and now is on the floor with me. I scream and tear the blanket. I am not thinking. It is all emotion. I want to understand, myself. Why is my mother so kind and nurturing one day, and tearing me apart the next? Accusing me of purposely hurting her feelings in unspeakable ways. Saying I did things that I know I didn’t do. Or did I? My mother is always right, or so she says. My mother is always right, an unspoken condition of our relationship.

Six years earlier, I am in the car. It’s about 1am. It is the summer after my freshman year of college. My mom volunteered to have the kitchen kashered for me, so that I would feel comfortable eating from her kitchen. I am her only child, it is just the two of us in the house. She explained that she’d do anything to make me feel comfortable at home, and enjoy her cooking. Someday, she wants her grandchildren to eat in her kitchen. I am touched and grateful for what I know is a huge sacrifice. The shul rabbi came over on Friday, and he and I did the hot, messy job of kashering the countertops and the large pots that needed to boil over. My mom was out, perhaps since the whole thing overwhelmed her. I put the dog out in the backyard so that he wouldn’t get in the way or get hurt with all the boiling water. My mom came home just as we were finishing, and the rabbi left. She raged that I had put her dog outside in the warm weather, and that there was water all over the place. Her eyes were on fire, and burned into me with a look that said, “I hate you.” Now, in the car, I am driving down a long state road. It is Saturday night, and my mom has been in a mood since Friday. After the long shabbos with her, I feel deeply sad like I am nothing and deserve nothing. I am alone in the car, but have this sensation that she’s right behind me, hating me. I know it’s irrational, but I keep driving for almost an hour and pull into an empty parking lot, just wishing I felt safe. I try calling a friend or two in other time zones to hear a friendly voice. No one answers. I realize I have nowhere to go and drive home to my waiting mother.

I am ten years old. My mother is on the phone with my father, who she divorced when I was about a year old. I am asked to get on the phone and join their conversation. The conversation, about some sort of visitation logistics, turns angry. My mother shouts and rages, probably about one of my father’s frequent subtle, cutting remarks. He shouts back. My mother orders me to get off the phone, I shouldn’t be in the middle of their fight. My father orders me, “stay on the phone. I want you to hear how your mother talks to me.” Frozen, I stay on the phone and listen to two deeply unwell and insecure people lose control, and think that their unhappiness is my fault.

Around the time of our second wedding anniversary, I walk out of the therapy office that I’ve been coming to for the past two years. It is a warm summer evening, the time of day when the setting sun casts a cool shade on the still warm pavement. A warm, sweet smelling breeze rustles through the trees. I look at the building where I had individual therapy, group therapy, sobbing-induced headaches, mind-blowing realizations about life and my existence, at least an hour of homework assignments per day, and a relationship with someone who gave me the tools to start climbing out of the hell of depression I thought was just a part of me. We are moving away, and I just terminated with my therapist. I look at the building and my chest tightens, I want to freeze time and just watch the sunset reflected in the windows. I think to myself, this is where I got better, where I decided that life is worth living.

It’s December 2018. Our 10-month-old baby is in bed and I am lying in bed with my husband, criticizing myself over some minor parenting failure. I start insulting myself in an overly harsh, familiar voice, saying things that we both know I don’t mean, but that drop a palpable weight of instant depression on my chest. My husband remarks that I’ve got to get my mom’s voice out of my head. I take a deep breath, and tell him that I know. Since having our son I haven’t had the time or stamina to manage the toll that contact with my mother takes on me. I’ve had multiple psaks releasing me from my obligation to her; I was told there’s no mitzvah to make yourself sick. But I feel like I owe her. She raised me, and sacrificed for me. I was her whole world and the reason she never killed herself, maybe I still am. I talk on the phone with my therapist, and tell her that even the limited contact I have with my mom is dragging me back down to some level of depression. She tells me that makes sense, since I’m continuing to expose myself to a lifetime of trauma.

On a cold Friday morning just before the new year, I take my phone out of my desk during a pumping break at work. I send my mom a text, telling her that I have to put all forms of contact on hold indefinitely. I’d prepared myself to feel pain, agony, guilt, shame, and regret. I wasn’t prepared for the deep sense of relief.”

“I now understand that I have always romanticized my vision of death, imagining increased family unity in death\’s wake. Indeed, certain life experiences elicit sometimes unrealistic expectations because the closest we have come to such experiences is second-hand in the media, movies, novels, etc. Pregnancy and childbirth – and everything along the way, pregnancy loss included – often feel shockingly, and unfairly, different in real life to first-time moms dreaming of pregnancy glows but who may instead experience unending vomiting and uncomfortable swelling. Similarly, since death frequently evokes open and honest conversations, nostalgia, or at least seemingly closer family connections in the movies, I again feel duped by life\’s reality after having experienced my first close encounter with a tragic and sudden death of a family member.

My father-in-law recently and suddenly passed away from poor medical decisions and care three weeks after walking himself into a hospital bed, and getting swept into a distressingly rapid tailspin of health decline. It has been a harrowing experience for me personally from many perspectives: as a medical translator for family members, as the wife of my husband, who lost his father far too young, and as a mama to my very young kids, who suddenly lost a grandfather and have been reeling.

Even though there were years between previous family gatherings and no holidays or occasions where we were expected to attend – at least, not since the grandparents, z\”l, I somehow thought that family would check in more together after this kind of life-altering, hair-whitening experience. I certainly know of siblings who talk daily after such sudden losses. I thought family would try to get together for meals, holidays, or at least “firsts”. I thought that such an earthquake underneath us all would leave fault lines, but also would have shaken us all closer together, on one new island of grief. Everyone’s family dynamic is different for various reasons – in my husband’s case, there is a very wide gap in years, religious observance, educational values and years, and even field of study between his siblings and him (he has unabashedly been called “the oopsie baby”). Long ago functioning as anchors in his family, his grandparents are now long gone.

I have been wrong on all counts. While it has been a very painful experience, and certain aspects – like the funeral – required everyone to coordinate and plan together, the core is still the same. There is really none of the above, and not much has changed. Without a linking thread, there is no garment that will stay together.

We had to clean out my husband’s childhood home, and dissolve, throw away, or shlep hours away to our home my husband\’s childhood belongings, photos, his tangible items as well as the storage of any of his childhood memorabilia. However, there was also really also a disintegration of something much deeper – the family itself. As the anchors in the family have successively passed away, what is left will never be shaken to transformation. Sadly, my hopes and notions have been gravely wrong. It has been a difficult realization – on top of an already painful loss – and has been upsetting to experience vicariously through my husband, and especially for our young children, who are not yet old enough to understand the loss of the idea of a family they have never had on that specific side.

One day, we will need to answer to our children, when they ask the obvious questions about why there are no substantive relationships there. Why is that that already a disheartening few came to simchas before this happened, and that likely, no one from Daddy\’s side will come to simchas now. I can say with confidence that we will tell them we genuinely tried, so many times and in so many ways, with everything we had. It is still our failure to provide them with a larger village than their current tiny one, but these are circumstances that were handed to us, upon my husband’s birth.

The only thing that we can do is band together as a nuclear family, which we very much do. We pray with all of our souls that we will raise a family that continues to seek opportunities to be together. When my husband and I recently tried to go out, we came home to an inconsolable 7-year-old, who has recently become afraid of death and the dark and brings up his Grandpa at any mention of loss or of new experiences that Grandpa will now not have. He explained to us that he just really needs us to be home when he goes to bed, and to know that we are nearby.

I think what he was trying to say, and which he had trouble articulating as a 7-year-old, is that he needs to feel his tiny village around him. So we will need to do just that.

We will also continue to gather the rest of our small but loving village around us and our children. We will continue to plant ourselves in our community, and to grow our and our children’s’ roots.

And, last but not least, we will honor the very anchoring grandparents whose names our children bear, and we will continue to teach our children and remind them of those family and Jewish values that we – and their great-grandparents before – held dear. I only wish that we had had more time with them, and that our children could have experienced some years of the family gatherings and that feeling of family that they made happen. “

“I know my insecurities grate at the people closest to me. Classically attractive, smart, friendly, my self perception and my external self don’t add up. My persistent questions of “do I look okay?” are seen as fishing for compliments, my declarations of “I look fat in this” are seen as being overly critical, like it is impossible to not love yourself when your battles with yourself aren’t public.

So I stand here, pretty, relatively thin, popular and I can’t stand myself. When I look in the mirror I don’t see what you see. I see a woman who never feels comfortable in anything I wear, or in my body at all. Who is terrified to be myself for fear that even those who think they know me best will reject me for being “too weird”. A woman who can’t appreciate my blessings because I can’t relax and just enjoy being me.

I read about “loving yourself,” I follow body positive reformers on Instagram, I work on my skills as a professional and as a mom to be the best person I can be but I live in constant jealousy of those who seem to have found the bliss of self-acceptance.

Your compliments fall on deaf ears, I can’t hear them because I don’t believe them. If you only knew who I really was or how hard I work to look the way I do, or how terrified I am of aging and losing the beauty and luster of youth.

So when you hear me say, “ugh I feel so fat” or I seem distant when you try to get close to me, be patient with me.

Consider that though you may not see my demons, they haunt me just the same.”

“I switch back between anger and gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for, but I can’t ignore the anger.

I am often angry with Hashem for this lot he has given me in life. He gave me a mother who doesn’t have the capacity to truly love me and an absent father. Set up for a life of low confidence, not feeling like I’m ever enough, not feeling like I deserve to be loved. I carry terrible shame of coming from people who didn’t give me the love and tools I needed as a child or now as an adult. The shame of the emotional and physical abuse. The shame of being damaged, coming from a toxic home. The occasional nightmares. The questioning my ability to be a good mother because of how I grew up. The awful fear of not being strong enough to break the cycle of abuse.

And the terrible shame of cutting off my mother… what will people think of me? If you haven’t experienced it, you can’t understand my emotional turmoil. You can try but without experiencing it first hand, you’ll never fully understand. You may nod your head and offer a word or two of support, but secretly you judge me. How can someone shun their mother after all they did for their children? What kind of person does that? She did all she could, as she too was set up for failure. My father ran, but my mother did sacrifice. Please understand that I know she did. As a mother now, with much more than she had, I get it. I really do. It breaks my heart to think about how much she sacrificed. But a lot of people sacrifice. And a lot of people don’t have toxic relationships with their children. They don’t take away their love as fast as they give it. They don’t threaten to abandon their children, they don’t take out their anger on their children. They can handle important life events without punishing their children for their happiness. They actual revel in their children’s happiness instead of being jealous and angry and lashing out.

You may think, maybe you don’t do enough to show your gratitude. Maybe you could do more for her. Show your love more. Maybe you could reason with her! But you can’t. I’ve tried. I’ve read all the books, I’ve gone to therapy. I’ve begged. I’ve pleaded. I’ve sacrificed. I have made my self sick to try to make her happy. To show my love. The migraines, IBS, depression and anxiety. All a result of trying to make her happy. But it’s never enough. I’m always wrong. I’m always ungrateful and selfish. I’m always horrible things that I can’t even repeat because it hurts too much to write. 
But amongst the anger and terrible pain, there is the immense gratitude to Hashem. I have so much to be grateful for. Mostly, the gift of my amazing, loving and patient husband. He was truly sent to help me heal. To show me what love really should be. Not conditional, not manipulative, or controlling. He may not always like me, but he LOVES me and is always there for me. And when he’s not, when he falls short, he expresses his sorrow and learns from his mistakes. He stays and fights to make us the best we can be, to make us strong. To support me in changing the terrible patterns of my parents and their parents.

And my children. Hashem, thank you for my children. I’m not always a good mom, I struggle to break the toxic cycle. But now I finally know that I am not my mother. I love my children unconditionally, and when I make mistakes, when I am not the mother they deserve, I apologize. I talk to my husband and my therapist to vent and figure how to be better. I show them the kind of love and affection I never received. And I am beyond grateful to them for slowly helping me heal. My gratitude towards Hashem goes beyond their health and happiness; I am so grateful to him that I can raise children that will not carry the kind of pain I have. They will be stronger, their relationships a little easier. Their lives will be better than mine. 
When I slip back into anger, it’ s because sometimes I feel like I’m not strong enough. Not strong enough to be leave the pain behind and just be happy for the goodness in my life. After all, it takes so much effort not to break. To be happy, to see the good. Therapy, exercise, medication, prayer, and sheer will-power. It takes so much time and effort not to cave to the looming depression hanging over my head. Not to cave to the pain I carry around, even with all the good in my life. Not to decide it’s too hard and just give up.

But am I not strong enough? Maybe I finally found the strength my husband and therapist say I have by cutting off contact. By finally reclaiming my life and trying to focus on the good. I may slip back into the anger and sadness, like right now, when I’m crying while writing this. But more often than not these days I can see the beauty of my life. I can appreciate all the goodness even more. And for that, I am grateful.”

“Dear Unfaithful Husband,

As I sit here about to write this difficult letter to you, a door is separating us from each other. But let’s be honest, it’s not the wood screwed into the wall with metal hinges that caused the divide. 
It was you.

Your curiosity to “see what else is out there”, those numerous acts of disloyalty to the life we built together, to our child, and to me, has broken me for the last time.

Every text message you have sent to other women over the duration of our marriage has driven me further and further away: telling them they are beautiful, asking for nude photos, calling them “sweetie” and “gorgeous”, telling them you wish they could hold you, and god only knows what other things you have said. I’ve “only” caught you five times, but I have no idea how many more times I didn’t catch you, how many times you deleted the messages before I got suspicious, how many times you’ve hid their identities so I was never the wiser.

At what points during the day did you speak to all these women? I’m so curious.

Did you ask them for nudes while I was lovingly preparing your lunch? Did you beg them to hold you while I folded your laundry and washed your dirty dishes? Did you think about the next message you would send after we finished eating dinner? Did you imagine them naked while we sat on the floor playing with our baby? Did you wish them a good day after I kissed your cheek, wishing you the same? Did you text them good morning while bringing our child to daycare? Did you squeeze in a goodnight emoji while I waited for you in our marital bed?

Did you fantasize about them while making love to me?

I think the obvious message of an unfaithful partner is that they feel as though something is missing. I can’t say I understand that because my life became complete the day I married you.

I know women who complain that their husbands are lazy and selfish and entitled. Their husbands travel too much, work all hours, stay out late with the guys, don’t help around the house. Their husbands expect everything from their wives while giving almost nothing in return.

But you? You are none of those things. You are every woman’s ideal husband: you help around the house, you cook, you even recently learned to bake (with my help of course). You are determined to see your business grow in order to support our family, you are loving and attentive. You show gratitude and never take anything for granted. You are sensitive & emotionally mature; you are in tune with your feelings and are always willing to share them with me. You are present; you’ve always said your goal is to be with our son as much as possible. That you don’t want to be like those men who get stuck in their 9-5 jobs, never spending time with their children because they’re always working. You want to experience life as a family man. You tell me how much you love this life we’ve built.

You tell me how much you love me.

But how can you love someone and hurt them time and time again?

Before we met, you experienced tremendous heartbreak. Girls who didn’t understand you, who thought you acted weird or weren’t mature enough for them. (How can it be that someone who endured such pain could cause the same to another person?)

And you know I also suffered numerous broken hearts from boys who no longer wanted anything to do with me or who felt I was too emotional or sensitive for them. And this heartbreak bonded us so deeply; to be the one who healed each other, who cherished what others did not, who saw the qualities that make us great, this is the foundation of our marriage.

And yet, it apparently wasn’t strong enough. Apparently I am not enough. If I were enough for you, you wouldn’t be seeking out something else or someone else.

If that is what you desire, if you really do want to be a single guy again, allow me to paint the picture for you. As a divorced father, you will experience the following:

You will have to explain to every one of our friends and family that our marriage ended because you cheated. You will need to find a place to live. You will come home every night to an empty house, face the pile of laundry and dirty dishes no one else will do for you. You will brush your teeth alone and go to sleep alone. You will have to sign divorce papers and there will be a custody battle. You will have the shame of attending every family event, holidays and weekends alone while your family looks at you with pity. And then eventually, when you do feel ready to date again, you will likely endure rejection from women who don’t want to be involved with a divorced father. And you will wonder to yourself what have I been up to.

But at least you got to flirt with women online. So there’s that.

As a fan of romantic dramas, as you well know, I’m familiar with the scene where the wife/girlfriend has been so hurt by her male partner that she forces him to sleep on the couch, refusing to let him in their shared bed. It was a joke we used to have, it was something we made light of: “If you leave your socks on the floor one more time…”

But now you’re in the spare bedroom. For the first time in our entire marriage, we will be sleeping under the same roof, but not the same room. Even now, after you went out and brought home dinner, which I assumed we would share, you are closed off. I wonder what you’re thinking about. Are you composing a letter to me, perhaps an apology? Or are you texting them again?

It’s very strange being cognitively aware of how much you’ve hurt me, and yet I still desire your presence. Even if we aren’t speaking to each other, even though I hate you for what you’ve done yet again, your presence is enough to comfort me. Because it shows you’re still invested. You still want to try to make things work. The fact that you are in that room while I sit on the couch is actually scaring me. Because even though I know you are the one who messed up, you are the one who cheated, I am terrified you will choose any of these other women, or you’ll choose the uncommitted, unencumbered life over the one we’ve created together.

You’ve agreed to go to therapy and so we will embark on this journey together. But when the session is over, will we avoid each other, only speaking when necessary? What kind of environment will our toddler pick up on as we attempt to work through this?

But the biggest question of all: what is Hashem trying to teach us through this challenge?

I’m scared and overwhelmed. I’m hurt and I want to cry. 
But somehow despite everything, I still love you.”

“A few years ago my brother brought his girlfriend to my home for Shabbos. I did my best to be nice to her, to include her in the family, and to engage her in conversations that she would be interested in. On Shabbos morning, we were alone. As I was prepping for lunch, she began to complain about my brother’s relationship with my mother. She told me that she thought they were “too close,” that “he didn’t need her anymore” and that “she was going to take my brother away from my mother.”

I was obviously very alarmed. I told my husband what she had said, and both thought it was totally uncool of her to tell me all of that. We also saw lots of red flags that weekend. My brother and his girlfriend were completely not on the same page about anything in life. He wanted to be frum. She wasn’t particularly interested. He wanted to send his kids to a Yeshiva. She wasn’t interested in spending “her money” (she made more money than my brother) on school when public school was better, in her opinion. She wanted to live in the country. He wanted to live in the city. He wanted to be close to his family, and she thought family was not important, and somehow would take away from what they shared together.

Next time I spoke to my mom, I gave her a heads up about the conversation that I had with my brother’s girlfriend. My mom was alarmed, and yet refused to speak to my brother about it. She didn’t want to upset him, or make push him further away from the family. Before this moment, he came to every event, was the best uncle, and great son. There had never been any issues, and family was a huge part of his life.

I thought my mom should talk to my brother about these outstanding issues that we kept seeing. That he was being pulled away from us. He would tell us stories about terrible things his girlfriend would do to him. Ask us for advice. She was berating him in front of us and their friends. Putting him down. Making him feel terrible about himself. I told him that I was concerned about those behaviors. In turn, he would tell his GF what I said.

She began to hate me, too.

Eventually, they got engaged and were horrible to us. She wouldn’t talk to us at their engagement party. She wouldn’t talk to me about wedding clothes for me or for my six kids. She made it clear to my brother that she didn’t want us to walk down the aisle. She didn’t want to be associated with us. My mother wasn’t allowed to be involved at all. She was just supposed to hand in checks when they asked for it. She was so hurt.

At the wedding the bride and groom wouldn’t talk to us. We stood on the sidelines and knew that this meant the end of our relationship with my brother. When his foot cracked the glass under the chuppah, my heart broke.

She purposely went out of her way to exclude us. Wouldn’t let us in the dance circles. Not even my kids. They were crushed.

My daughter who was 12 at the time could not understand what was happening. She kept asking me, “Ima- what did I do to them? Why won’t my uncle look at me? Why aren’t we standing by the bedekin? Why can’t I dance with my new aunt?” She had been at 6 other family weddings when my other siblings got married. She knew the drill. This time she knew that something was terribly wrong.

My brother’s new wife had been whispering in his ear, making him feel that all his problems in his life were our fault. Because of our involvement. By the wedding he was seething.

At the end of the sheva brachot- they had been ignoring us all week. He called me on the phone and told me, that everything wrong in his life, was my fault. He never wanted to speak to me again. He just going to make his “new family” his “forever family.”

I was crushed. I love my brother. I would do anything to bring him back to the family.

I begged my new sister in law. I told her how much we miss my brother, and how I understood that she was unhappy with us. That we should talk about it. That I would do anything to fix it. I called, and emailed. Month after month. Year after year. Always with respect, always trying to offer solutions, or apologies or anything to bring them back to the table.

One night I got an email from her.

She told me that I and my mother had ruined her husband’s life. Because we wouldn’t “let him go and let him forget about us.” She told me she hated me. That their marriage was on the rocks and she had kicked him out of the house because he said he was considering reaching back out to us. I had ruined her life too, and she would never ever forgive me. She told me that they wanted us to pay for their medical bills and therapy costs because we had made them sick. She told me that we had abused her, and victimized her and that we were going to go to hell.

I was sick to my stomach, so upset about what was happening. I barely knew her. She refused to see our family as anything but an enemy from the minute even before she met us.

So now it’s been ten years. Ten years of missed celebrations. Birthdays, holidays, weddings and funerals. It is as if we never had a brother. My mother never mentions his name. Sometimes it feels like we are mourning for him. My grandparents cry when they ask us if we have heard from him. My kids don’t remember him.

Ten years without my brother. I don’t think the pain will ever go away.”

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Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.

She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.

She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.

Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.

Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.