The Things We Hide Part 1

“When I saw the call for submissions on “The Things We Hide” this morning, it felt like you had been watching me. It happens that I suffered an anxiety crisis yesterday, and today marks the first day of trying to stop hiding. You see, I hide a lot behind my generally pleasant surface. I’m attractive, I do well in grad school, and I am blessed with a lovely circle of friends and family. I put myself together and have fun. Yet a lot of the times, I’m masking how I really feel. When I was a young girl and not doing nearly as well, teachers and psychologists suspected that I had Asperger’s syndrome, or what’s now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder. I loved to read, read, read, and write my own stories. I was very sensitive to the noise of my classmates, and they thought I was weird and a know-it-all. After years and years of horrible bullying and abuse in elementary school at the hands of my peers because I did not fit in, I gradually learned how to be more “normal”. Nowadays, I am often considered a lot of fun, social, a little quirky maybe. Some of my extroverted friends make gentle fun of my habit to usually skip big parties, but that’s about it.

For me, so much of what’s said about autism is dead wrong. I care for and empathize deeply with other people. I pick up on other people’s moods and feelings like a moth picks up the littlest bit of light: my sensory filter is off-kilter. I love working with kids and the elderly — groups of people that often require extra patience and understanding. Still, I am sensitive to stimuli and get withdrawn and overwhelmed after a lot of socializing in groups. This is the root of a lot of pain as an observant woman: for example, it’s often a little much for me to have plans for both Friday night and Shabbat lunch, because having to deal with multiple groups over one weekend is exhausting. If I do go to two meals, I usually need Sundays for recovery. I attended seminary as an adult and loved it, but I would have loved it more if I’d had my own room and a little more time to myself. 

Aside from social exhaustion, a really unfortunate byproduct of my condition is depression/anxiety. Because I work hard to do what I have to do on a daily basis and fit in during it, I spend a lot of time thinking about what other people think of me. My self-esteem is low at the core because I faced so much social rejection in the past. I want to get married and have a family, but it’s hard for me to believe that someone I love will love me as I am, even when all my defenses are gone. I have a supportive therapist and medication, which I am grateful for yet also (irrationally!) embarrassed about. I am in my early 20s now and friends are starting to get engaged and married. Meanwhile, I get attention from guys, but my low self-esteem makes it hard to really engage with them. If they think autism is weird, a disorder for little boys or Rain Man-type geniuses, how are they ever going to understand and accept me? I try to have faith in Hashem and hope that my soulmate will love me because of my differences, not just in spite of it, but it seems like a tall order when I feel down. 

Still, nobody knows what the future holds, so I try to maintain faith and stick to those who do love and accept me. I’m happy to have found friends who do, so I truly hope that a loving husband will be next.”

” So, when was your last one? About 8 months ago. I’ve had this “skeleton” in my closet, terrified to find out. I got the diagnosis. The words echoing in my ears when my doctor told me, “having children may not happen for you…” Whether she said more after that comment, I don’t know. Who listens after they get that news. When I was officially diagnosed with PCOS, I was 22. I had no idea what it was it sounded complicated. PCOS is Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome. I had just come out of a significant relationship which I thought was supposed to be my happily ever after. I was so focused and heartbroken on why I wasn’t enough for that relationship that I didn’t realize that my body was telling me that something was wrong. I was scared to admit that I actually was damaged goods. Dating is hard. I was 22 and now very much single. My friends were “dropping like flies” getting married. My self esteem, my confidence, my “happily ever after” as a valued member of the Orthodox Jewish community were shattered. At 22, I already felt like I was the “older single” to be pitied. Now who would want to marry me? As the years passed, I slowly came to terms that kids may not be in the cards. I convinced myself daily “it’s ok, I never felt that much of a yearning for children anyways”. For years, I was on dating sites and apps. I met with shadchan after shadchan. Never revealing this huge burden I carried. I was rarely set up as it was because I didn’t have the cookie cutter figure and personality I was told that guys wanted. How much less so would I be set up if the matchmakers knew this significant information about me. I would cry to matchmakers asking “why are they saying no, they never met me, or even saw a picture of me!” Shadchans would give me various excuses like “you are out of town”, “lose weight”, “wear more make-up even though that’s not you”. Filling my head with these thoughts that I wasn’t good enough. Again, I convinced myself I was ok being alone. I was. I traveled. I had friends who I would drink wine and watch sappy hallmark movies with. I felt very free. Over time, and with the help of an excellent therapist, I became more confident in who I was. I became an educator and my students became my children. I was managing PCOS as much as I could. But I was so frustrated with the dating scene. I moved to a big city. I told myself I was moving for a job and not gonna be that person “who moves to X to find a husband”. A while after I moved, I spotted a guy in a crowd who little did I know would turn out to be my husband. I told myself that if I was interested, go do something about it. Things started slow. We really liked each other. But I was still holding on to this big secret. At this point, the thought of children didn’t seem as foreign to me. Now that I was getting serious with him, I then decided to do more research about what I have. I learned it would be possible to have children but it could be very difficult. Was he prepared to go on this journey with me? I thank G-D everyday that I found someone who, when I was ready to tell him, looked at me and said “There are doctors who can do incredible things. There are options. All I’m worried about is if you are ok and that we take care of this together”. I don’t share this story to shove in people’s faces my dating “happily ever after”. This story won’t be over for many years and I don’t know the challenges that life may hand me. I share this story because that no matter the martial or parental status of someone, they are still a valued member of the Jewish people. Everyone has fears of not being enough or worth it. You matter. I also share this story to help those have courage and that it’s ok to go after your Prince Charming. I know if I didn’t, my prince would still be stuck in a tree somewhere refusing to ask for directions.”

“I was the good kid. The kid no one needed to worry about. I never acted out, got good grades. But I needed someone to worry about me. I needed someone to notice. I was the child of an alcoholic.I grew up watching my father slip away from me. Going from doting to unavailable. When I was as young as 10, if I would wake up from a bad dream, needing the comfort of a parent, I would go to wake up my father, only he wouldn’t be there. I would find him in random places around the house and guide him to his bed. I was so young that I didn’t really understand that he should have been the one guiding me back to bed.When I was a teenager, I used to come home from school and before opening the front door I would take a deep breath. Not because I didn’t know what I would find. It was the same every time. I knew that my father would be drunk that night. I dreaded Shabbos. I stopped inviting friends over. It would have been so embarrassing for them to see him that way. I was blessed to be involved in NCSY. I had some place to go, whether it was a weeknight program, a chapter meeting, or a shabbaton in a different city. I had an escape, even if it was temporary.When I was in college, I remember the fear I felt one day when I got back to my dorm room and realized the volume was turned up on my answering machine. On it was a rambling message from a drunk father. Were any of my roommates here when he called? Did anyone hear the message? One day, I was heading back to my dorm when I had my first panic attack. I was walking down Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and my heart started to race. I started to cry and then I couldn’t breathe.I dreaded every time my phone rang because it could be my drunk father. I dreaded going home for Shabbos because it meant getting a Friday night bracha from the person who was causing so much pain. I dreaded dating. Why would anyone choose to marry me when I came with this father?After graduating college, I fell into depression. But much like my father was a functioning alcoholic, I was functioning while suffering from depression. I went to work, went out with friends, but I was a mess inside. I cried all of the time. I didn’t want to go to sleep at night but was exhausted all day. At some point, I hit my rock bottom and reached out for help. I remember shaking so much as I called the therapist recommended to me. Through many years of working together she gave me the tools I needed to live my life. She helped teach me to say the words “my father is an alcoholic”. She helped me to know that just because he was an alcoholic it didn’t mean that I was going to be. It didn’t mean that anyone who ever drank alcohol was an alcoholic. My father’s alcoholism did not have to define me. These may seem like simple things, but they are wildly complex to the child of an alcoholic. Throughout my experiences, I had an internal battle. I wished every day that someone would know my secret so that I wouldn’t have to carry this weight on my own. But I couldn’t let anyone inside. The stigma and embarrassment were too strong. But I really needed someone to know, to acknowledge that my life on the outside did not match my life on the inside. I am so thankful for the teacher who did. One of my high school rabbeim approached me one day and asked if I was okay. My walls immediately went up and I was scared that he knew. I asked, “why”? He said, “because you don’t smile anymore”. His acknowledgment in that moment was one of the greatest gifts. I carry that with me until today.I am now the adult child of a recovering alcoholic. I tried for so long to not let my father’s alcoholism define me. However, it does define me. I just get to decide how. I am strong, I am resilient, I am emotionally healthy. I am these things because of my siblings, my mother, my therapist and my hard work. To the other children and adult children of alcoholics who are hiding, I just want to say that you are not alone. That even though we may not know each other, I understand. “

“We all have things we hide from the public. But sometimes the most painful truths are ones we hide from ourselves.

I’ve been debating whether to write something, not just because of fears of how others will read it, view me, and comment; I’m hesitant because writing this means facing a truth in my life that I don’t want to face even though I totally know it’s there. A truth that kills me deep down but is getting harder and harder to avoid:

I’m not attracted to my husband.

At all. 

It wasn’t always like this and I never thought this would be me. I was very attracted to him when we were dating and first married. But they say that you don’t really know someone until you live with them, and the reality is that my husband doesn’t take care of himself and it’s been like that since he’s young. He didn’t grow up seeing role models of healthy self-care and never learned for himself. What that has looked like for us is that he has gained a significant amount of weight, he doesn’t put himself together nicely, wears clothes that don’t fit, doesn’t shower regularly, and has a body odor issue. 

We’ve had many gentle conversations about his self-care and he knows it’s a problem. He has little insight into why it isn’t more important to him and he is too stubborn to get support—not just for these issues, but in exploring why he continues to neglect himself despite seeing how it is straining our relationship. I suspect it’s connected to some type of untreated depression—but I can’t force him to get help. 

What’s hard is that I love him and we’ve built a nice life together. He is a good person. A loving father. A supportive spouse. A hard worker. But I hate how platonic our relationship has become and I hate that I’m grieving sex. 

I’ve always been a sexual person, and even through pregnancies, postpartum, and raising little kids, I always had a libido and interest in sex. It would be convenient to blame this issue on something physical in me; that maybe I’m not attracted to him because my hormones are messed up or it’s the birth control pill I’m on or that I’m depressed or something. But it’s not like that. I want to be attracted to my spouse, he doesn’t take care of himself, and I am turned off. I don’t think it makes me shallow. 

When I think of this situation, the word that comes to my mind is “lonely”. I feel really lonely in my marriage and I have been for a long time. I miss the days when I felt content, when there was passion and connection. Sometimes, when I watch a movie that has a romance scene, I feel this ache inside; yes, I know I’m watching Hollywood, but the ache I feel is a nostalgia for when I had that in my life too. The time period when I felt proud of our marriage and confident in our ability to navigate challenges that created distance between us. I no longer feel that confidence and am starting to work on trying to just lower my expectations for what I can expect in my marriage– I don’t know if doing that is a sign of victory or defeat. 

So this is where it’s at right now. I’m sad. Angry. Sometimes it feels really hopeless. But I’m hanging in there and I’m okay for now. But I do wish this issue could get better. 

(I’m gonna pre-empt the well-meaning advice/suggestions by saying that no, my husband was not sexually abused. Yes, we have tried exercising together. Yes, I have made him healthy lunches. Yes, I have bought him cologne. Yes, we’ve been to therapy. No, I’m not looking to get divorced. Yes, I’ve been to therapy and have read books. 

Just need to share my truth because it’s burning a hole in me inside…..and I’m guessing I’m not alone in this.) ”

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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.