I Survived A Therapy Break

We’ve been on a break, my therapist and I. A Pesach / Easter / training combo break. Leading up to the break I was very aware of Little S. inside having a lot of feelings about P. going away. This, even though, I – or should I write we..? – were also going to be away for almost the entire break. There was an increased and very distinct need for emailing and texting P. to make sure that she was Real.

I think that what Little S. means by someone being Real is a combination of them not forgetting her when she’s not with them and for them to not abandon her when things get rough. But, at times it is also a way to express genuine fear that maybe the relationship with the other person is too good to be true, it is asking for reassurance; are you Real, or just a figment of my imagination, because it seems so unbelievable to me to have someone who is really there for me when I need them.

A break always brings out a lot of abandonment issues, especially for the Little S. part in me. From Adult Me’s vantage point this makes perfect sense, I understand why this happens; so many people in my life haven’t been there when I’ve needed them the most, so, naturally, when someone as important to me as P. declares that she’s going to be away, it is bound to trigger all manner of emotional echoes inside me. But, as much as Adult Me can see this, it doesn’t actually make it any easier for Little S. to deal with the anxiety and sadness that these separations inevitably bring to surface. To Little S. the worry that P. might be going on a break because she has been too much for her is very real, as is the fear that P. might – during the break – realise that she prefers not to have to deal with her ups and downs, her neediness, her constant need for reassurance.. Before a break the tension inside Little S. will keep building, until she is convinced that a) there is no way she can survive this break and b) that, should she through some form of miracle survive, there is no way that P. will ever choose to return.

A few years ago, back when I was still seeing A., I would never ever talk about any of this directly with her before a break. I would suffer in silence, and maybe – very maybe – mention it after the break was over, although generally in a very brief glossing over kind of fashion. Before a break, I would just feel the anxiety mounting, bring me closer and closer to breaking point, but I would not really acknowledge just how difficult breaks are for me. This, of course, lead to breaks being absolutely catastrophic in my mind, and it was extremely rare that I would not need to be working with the crisis resolution team during them.

In the first year or so of seeing P. I slowly and very gradually became better at talking around the subject of breaks, slightly dipping my toes in it, so to speak. I would talk about it in the way Adult Me sees it, intellectualising it, rather than actually feeling it. In part this was because I didn’t really know how else to approach it; intellectualising difficult feelings, analysing why they are triggered, rather than actually feeling the feelings, is how I have got through an awful lot of difficult times; it is a well beaten path. But, as I have been working more and more closely with P. to try to notice that there are feelings stirring inside, and to identify what those feelings are, I can now fairly often allow myself to stay with them.

The other part of why – back in the early days – I didn’t really talk about the feelings was that many of those feelings [particularly the ones to do with abandonment and separation, and the shame of needing someone else] belonged more to Little S. than to Adult Me, and Little S. hadn’t yet found her voice. Or rather, I hadn’t yet found a way to allow Little S. to express herself directly in our therapy. But, eventually we cracked it; first by letting Little S. email and text P. between sessions and then by Little S. speaking directly to P. in sessions [as opposed to through Adult Me]. It’s been a long journey, but I do feel that Little S. is now reasonably able to take part in therapy when she wants or needs to.

So, this time around, on top of the many emails and texts asking P. if she is Real, she was also able to not only talk about her feelings prior to the break, but she was able to experience them while she was talking about them. And that felt like a very big step forward.

The break in itself actually went quite well this time. Of course we all missed seeing P., and there were a few times when either Little S., bob, or Adult Me needed to email P., but there wasn’t quite as much anxiety to deal with as there might have been, had we not been able to experience and explore some of the feelings before the break, had P. not helped me make space for these feelings to be not only shared, but also heard. P. doesn’t ever make me talk about difficult feelings, but she does actively encourage me to try – and we set the pace together. She makes it very clear to me that it is safe to allow feelings out, that she wants to hear about them, whether it be in session or in an email, a text or in a drawing. And, possibly most importantly – especially to Little S. – she reassures her that she will be able to bear those feelings, that they won’t be too much, and they won’t result in P. no longer wanting to see her. That feeling and talking and talking about feelings is very much welcomed and valued in our relationship. Even when it’s scary. Especially when it’s scary.

Another thing that P. and I do to help Little S. manage during breaks and particularly difficult times, is to let one of P.’s ‘little friends’ – a soap stone hippo called Ringo [*not his real name, gotta protect his privacy!] – stay with me. I will also leave something of mine with P. to further strengthen the sense of connection between us during the break. As Little S. would say: “Something to help you ‘merember’ me, in case you start to forget.” It may sound like a childish thing to do, this exchanging of personal artefacts, but, Little S. inside is just that – she’s little – she may live inside the body of an adult, but she still finds comfort in having something physical to hold on to help her connect with P. So, no matter how silly it may seem to outsiders, taking Ringo with me everywhere I go, it makes all the difference in the world to Little S. And that’s worth a lot!

So, when you’re facing a break in your therapy, here is my advice to you: listen to what all of you need to make that break as bearable as possible. Don’t allow your Adult Self to stop your Little from getting what they need to manage it. To the best of your ability, talk about the fears and worries that all of the different parts of you carry about this break. Write it in a letter if it is too hard to say it out loud, if the fear of rejection gets too much. And if needed: ask if Ringo can come stay with you. And, if asking for a Ringo to stay with you feels too much; start small. I was given this tip by one of my readers many years ago, and at first, having something personal of P.’s felt way too overwhelming for me, so we started by my borrowing a random pen of hers that I could use to write in my journal with. And a little note from P. to help reassure me that she wouldn’t forget me and that she would be back.

But now that I have worked my way up to having Ringo stay with me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And neither would my sisters’ kids!

Be good to your Selfs.

xx

IMG_3885

A drawing Little S. made last night to show how happy bob, she and Adult Me feels that P. is finally back

 

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An Uneasy Dwelling – Delayed Reflections On Living In A Therapeutic Community

It’s been a year now since I moved out of the therapeutic community I used to live in. And I’m still processing it. The ups and the downs, pondering what I took from my time there, what more I could have got from it, what I’m glad to have left behind.

I can say without hesitation that I don’t regret moving in there. I can also say that it is the most stressful living situation I’ve every voluntarily put myself in. With three group meetings a week [on top of my individual therapy sessions outside of the house] it’s a pretty full on experience. Even though I often made the decision to stand on the sidelines, to keep myself at a distance, it was a pretty intense way of living.

Would I have got more out of living there, had I been more invested in it? I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t rule it out. Certainly it made a difference to the sense of community within the house that I chose to not engage as much as I could have, to not push for communal meals, to not easily join in with the household. Yet, at the same time, it just never made sense to me to bring my worries and desperation to the house meetings, to be looked at by people, who – although I liked many of them – didn’t feel particularly safe with. [This, incidentally, is solely a reflection on me, – not on them.] To me, it always seemed like the natural thing to do, to turn to my sisters and the friends I have always been fortunate to have when things got tough, to turn to them for extra support. And for the things I felt I couldn’t necessarily share with them [for whatever reason], well, I had my individual therapy with A. for that. Bringing it to the group sessions, it just seemed a bit odd.

That is not to say that I never shared anything in the meetings. I did. But not on a regular basis. It tended to be only when things were really really bad and I just couldn’t hold my tears back.

So, what was it that I found stressful? Well, in part what I have just written about; the expectation to involve myself, to engage and to share, and the feelings brought up by the fact that it was an expectation which I always felt I would never be able to live up to. Part of that was, as I said before, down to the fact that it didn’t quite make sense to me to share difficult things in a group of people I didn’t really know that well. But, of course, there were more deep rooted trust issues at work, holding me back. Other people, who may also have had friends and family they were close to, didn’t feel the same level of reluctance to take the plunge in the group meetings, and were much better able to let others see their vulnerability.

Another thing that was probably more stressful than I even realised at the time, was the constant stream of visitors to the house. Visitors who came to our meetings with a view to possibly join our household. This was a part of life in the house that I never got used to and always felt distinctly uncomfortable with. It was one of those things that made the place feel a lot less like it was my home as opposed to only being the place where I happened to be living.

People would come, share their story, share of themselves, [or in some cases not share] and we were, I suppose, meant to get a feel for whether or not this was a person who could fit into our house, who might benefit from moving in. It probably doesn’t sound particularly stressful, but it really was. Especially the decision making process, where – in theory – residents were said to have a big say in whether or not someone was invited to join, but which in reality often felt like a humongous and never-ending pressure to get new people in. Often at a time when all you really wanted was to find some headspace for yourself, to settle in the group you were already living with. I remember more than one meeting where one of the house therapists would say something along the lines of the process being about all of us reaching some sort of consensus about whether or not a person was suitable for our house, and in the next breath would not-so-casually mention how we needed to be X number of people living in the house for it to be financially viable. No pressure, right. :þ Also, I always took issue with the fact that the question “Is this someone I can live with?” seemed to be second priority to “Could this person gain something from moving in?”, which, it could be argued, sent the message that the gain of a person joining far outweighed the potential rise in stress level of those already in the house.

Clearly, there were times when the reluctance to accept new housemates were motivated less by worries about how a new person might impact the household negatively, and more about a strong wish to hold on to what was familiar. But, then, is that so strange? For a person to build a home, there arguably needs to be a level of familiarity and stability. A stream of new introductions allows little space for that.

Stressful was also the particular mix of people in the house at any given time. Without going into detail about any one individual, the people staying in the house – at least for most of my stay there – could be broadly grouped into either dealing with depressive and/or anxiety related issues, or difficulties which fell somewhere along the more psychotic end of the mental health spectrum. And, as housemates were supposed to support one another [rather than relying on the house therapists – who only come to the house for the meetings – to sort things out] it at points felt very much like the first group was responsible for the latter group.

It isn’t easy walking through the door, never knowing what you might be walking in to. I’m not going to say that I was in any way the person who most often ended up keeping track of others – I wasn’t – but, there were absolutely times when I had to drop what I was doing in order to help settle a very agitated housemate or, once or twice, call the police because someone had taken off, stating they were going to kill themselves. And I think this way of always being on the ready to put fires out, to some degree stopped me from being able to explore my own issues more. [Not the only reason for this, of course, but one of them.]

One of the really invaluable, yet hard bought, lessons from my time in the house, was having to seriously think and feel through what boundaries meant to me. Which ones were important to me, which ones did I feel able to be more flexible about? I had to work at asserting myself, when I felt the boundaries were being stretched beyond what was OK for me. Regular readers will remember that my decisions to ultimately leave the community came down to – in part – feeling that I needed to make a stand for myself, to not just go along with boundaries being pushed, but to recognise that what I feel OK with, or not, is important and worth holding on to. But of course, this was an ongoing battle, this getting a feel for when it was important to hold on to my way of living my life, yet at the same time question my reasons and motivations for doing so. When was there a valid reason, and when was I simply being stubborn and resisting change? When was it a case of me being the rebellious teenager I never got to be in my own family, when was it the adult me refusing to see things from another person’s perspective?

While I was staying at the house, one of the house therapists published a book about the community houses run by the Philadelphia Association. I made the conscious decision at the time not to read it while I was still living there.

Having now lived away from the house for nearly a year, I have read it, and I have to say that it’s a book well worth reading. I found it very interesting to read about the history of the houses [which I had some idea of, even before moving in, but, again had chosen to not explore too extensively], and how the philosophy behind the houses has altered and varied at different points.

I think it’s an honest book, even though I at times found myself smiling at the discrepancy between the idea of the community houses and the reality of them. At least from my point of view.

Anyway, if you are interested in reading the book for yourself, click the link or picture below.

If you would like to read about my time in The House: entries written between January 2009 and July 2011 were written while I was staying in The House. The first post I wrote having moved in is called “On My Own – An Entry About Finding New Ways To Cope“.

xx

An Uneasy Dwelling by Paul Gordon

An Uneasy Dwelling
by Paul Gordon

Staying Awake For Shavuot

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What Happened At Mount Sinai?

It’s a quarter to seven on a Sunday morning. I’m just back from shul. I’ve been there since six in the afternoon yesterday. You see, we are celebrating Shavuot, when we, in addition to eating hideous amounts of dairy food [particularly cheesecake, which I really don’t like], we do a full night of studying followed by a special morning service at sunrise, known as tikkun leyl Shavuot.

You see, Shavuot marks the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the Israelite nation at Mount Sinai, and there is an often told Midrash which tells of how the Israelites, in preparation for the receiving of the Torah, went to bed early the night before in order to be well rested the following morning, as the Torah was to be given to them at the first light of day. Sounds sound enough, doesn’t it? Proper good night’s sleep before a major event. Only the Israelites forgot to set the alarm on their iPhones and ended up oversleeping, and God had to wake them up. Not great, and as you can imagine God was decidedly unimpressed with this. So rather than just gently waking the sleeping Israelites, He – or She – did so by lifting up Mount Sinai and holding it over their heads, telling them that they had better get up pretty darn sharp or He [or She] would drop the mountain on them. A pretty rude awakening – but hey – it’s God, and I suppose God can do as S/He wishes.

So, to make up for this embarrassment, and to ensure there is no risk of oversleeping yet again, Jews all over the world stay up all night studying the night before the anniversary of this momentous occasion, and as soon as the sun rises a special service is held where the commandments are read out for all to hear.

[Also, being Jews, we get through an enormous amount of food on this night of study, but that’s a whole nother story..]

Now, I’m not someone who has a literal understanding of the Bible and of what happened at Mount Sinai, but I do like this idea of staying up for a whole night with my friends, learning lots of things, and having really fun and interesting discussions.

At my shul – which belongs to the Movement for Reform Judaism – we hold a joint tikkun leyl with one of the liberal synagogues every year, which makes this night even more interesting, as you don’t just get to argue and discuss with people from your own synagogue, but you actually get to do it with people from a different strand of Judaism. Although reform Judaism and liberal Judaism are both progressive strands of Judaism, there are also some very distinct differences, and that really adds a bit of extra spice to the mix.

This year the sessions I chose to take part in were a dialogue about conversion to Judaism – which, for obvious reasons, caught my interest, a discussion about whether God is dead and a more hands on creative session, where we made clay figures to try to express our own personal relationship with God. Trust me, at three-thirty in the morning, having not slept, there is nothing more fun than being allowed to regress to childhood and play with clay!

As the sun rose this morning, we all [well, us brave souls who had made it all through the night] climbed the stairs all the way up to the roof of our synagogue and held the morning service up there in the open, overlooking a beautiful but still sleeping London. It’s a very special service indeed.

There is a lot more I could write about this night of study, but to be honest, I’m so tired I could quite easily fall asleep if I stare at the computer for too long, and I wouldn’t want that to happen, as I’m going for another service at 11. I have contemplated going to sleep rather than attending this service, since, technically, I’ve already been to a Shavuot morning service, but this later one will have all of our little kids there, dancing and singing on the rose petal strewn floor of the Sanctuary, and it’s just the cutest thing ever. Noisy – but cute!

So for now I am going to stop writing and just focus on staying awake until it’s time to get back to shul.

All the very best, and if you are so inclined:

Chag Shavuot Sameach!

xx

PS. My memory of the above Midrash may very well be faulty, as my brain isn’t entirely alert and with it at the time of writing, so please don’t ask me to cite my source more specifically.

AN HOUR LATER:
On second thought, I think I’ll watch the service online, I don’t think I could possibly get my body in an upright position for long enough to get to shul. Just sooooooo tired.

EVEN LATER:
Did by some miracle make it to 11 o’clock service and back. Now: Bed, bed, BED!

When You Have No Voice – Making A Decision To Communicate

It’s been a long time, I know, but I’ll try to put you all back in the picture, as I know you will have all been eagerly awaiting my next update. [What? No?]

In the last few weeks I have been dealing with one of those much dreaded periods of flashbacks, and things have often felt completely and utterly hopeless. The flashbacks have by no means gone, but there have been a few days every once in a while when there have been fewer, and I’ve been able to find at least a little breathing space in between. When things are bad, that’s the time to focus on small blessings.

At the beginning of last week I had to go into hospital for a whole battery of tests and examinations. Part of these was a gynaecological exam, which for me is essentially an equivalent to psychological torture through physical means. I always try to prepare whoever is doing the exam by explaining that I come from a background of having been sexually abused as a child, and that these exams are pretty much garanteed to trigger off flashbacks; in short that they may need to brace themselves for my emotional response. They then usually say something along the lines of “Don’t worry, darling, I’ve seen it all before”, which is of course very kind and much appreciated, but it generally tends to become apparent that this is not really the case. When they’re faced with the sobbing heap these exams turn me into, it’s often clear that I react worse than most people they’ve examined. This then spirals into this odd cycle of them feeling sorry for me, and me feeling sorry for them having to carry out the exam on me..

So, not nice at all.

This particular nurse was absolutely fantastic, though, I have to say. It was very obvious that she was affected by my reaction to what she was doing, but because she was very open about that, I found that somehow reassuring and it in many ways it helped bring me out of the flashbacks and back into the here and now where we both were.

Concurrent with the flashbacks and general depression I have this week come down with some seriously nasty bug. This bug, by the way, is completely unrelated to the hospital thing, unless I have really lucked out and managed to contract MRSA while I was there..

At first I thought it was just hay fever, as this is the season when I usually have to stay indoors with my inhaler close to hand at all times. Had a very painful throat – not sore – painful, something I don’t usually get with my hay fever, but initially I just assumed that my body had decided to take my allergies to the next level. As it turns out this wasn’t it. Came down with a 39C temperature [that’s 102F, if you’re so inclined] in the middle of the week, and it’s been going ever since. So, what with the painful throat and the fever I’ve essentially had to be on paracetamol non-stop. It’s not great, Ibuprofen tends to be more effective, but for various reasons I am currently banned from taking that particular pain reliever, so there you go.

Feeling miserable on all levels is not a great place to exist and things have been unbelievably difficult. I know my last entry was pretty dire, and from there I suppose you could say things went south. Having no therapy has been really challenging, it feels like years until A. returns from maternity leave. But, I am still around, still fighting – even if the evidence of this has not been posted on my blog.

This Friday I had been invited to two sedarim – the special meal eaten by Jews on the first night of Pesach, but instead I spent the evening in bed, fighting flashbacks and this blasted bug. Last night I had booked a place at the communal 2nd night seder at my shul together with many of my friends. I did make it there, in fact even went for a pre-seder drink with one of my friends, but didn’t make it through the meal. Was feeling incredibly rough and then began having flashbacks, and I had to make the decision that I needed to make sure I could make it home safely before things got even worse. Hated having to leave, but as it turns out it was probably a wise choice.

This morning I woke up having absolutely no voice.

I have lost my voice in the past, but never quite this completely, and it’s kind of an interesting thing; the second you discover you have no voice [in my case when I began recording a voice message for my sister] you realise how much you rely on it.

I don’t usually use my phone or computer on Shabbat or during religious festivals. This is not so much because it’s biblically and/or rabbinically decreed that one should not use iPads or Blackberrys during festivals, as much as – being a modern reform Jew – I’ve made the informed decision that for me stepping away from all my techie gadgets and disconnecting for a bit makes those times different to other times. I am normally contactable at any given moment, day or night, be it through texts, Facebook updates or tweets, and so I like to make Shabbat and festivals different and special to other days, through unplugging in this way. Admittedly, most of my friends think this is completely bonkers, but hey, it’s just the way I roll.

However, since that accidental-on-purpose over-dose the other week, I decided that it’s actually a lot more life-embracing to temporarily break that self-imposed rule than to keep it. Which is why you are seeing this update today, during a week I would normally steer clear of modern technology.

To help me through particularly rough patches over these past few weeks I have often sought support over the telephone from my sisters, my friends and the Samaritans, regardless of whether or not this has been on Shabbat. Being able to talk about what’s going on, both physically and psychologically, makes me feel less like I’m on my own in this.

So, as you can imagine, waking up this morning, with no voice at all, has come as a bit of a shock, and has left me feeling very vulnerable. Which is why I’m sitting here now, writing this..

I guess that even when you haven’t got an audible voice, you can still find ways of making yourself heard.

Do be kind to yourselves,

xx

Maternity Leave, Eternity Leave & Lessons From A Goldfish

Some of you will know that I recently moved. I did a straight room swap with someone, and when this someone else moved, she – let’s call her K. – left behind a great big goldfish bowl with accompanying goldfish. Now, I told her straight off that I didn’t want it; I could never keep fish like that, in an un-oxygenated bowl with no black-out sides and nothing inside the bowl for the poor fish to hide behind. She told me she was going to get a smaller tank to fit in her room and come back for her fish. Being the friendly [if somewhat horrified] person that I am, I told her fine, just put it in the hallway for now, but make sure to come get it as soon as possible. No worries, K. replied and went on her way.

A week passed. Nothing. I started googling to find out what the heck to feed my un-invited flat mate [finely chopped spinach and orange, apparently] as I couldn’t just let it starve. I texted K. Nothing. I put a tea mug in the tank so the fish would have somewhere to hide from the world. Another week went by. Another text. Met by even more silence. And then, yesterday morning, a text from K. saying “Sorry about the late reply, I was busy with exams until Friday and now I’ve gone abroad. Won’t be back until January”. What the flying BEEEP..!?

Needless to say, I wasn’t much pleased with this development, so I texted her back saying that I understand she’s been busy, but really, sending a text takes seconds – anyone can fit that in no matter how busy – and wouldn’t it have been a good idea to check that someone was actually going to be in the flat over Chrismukah & New Year to look after her fish? Apologised in case I sounded harsh, but honestly I wasn’t very impressed.

Now, I’m not someone who habitually sends out even remotely angry sounding texts, so having sent off the text I sat down to reflect, realising that this was probably about something bigger than just the poor goldfish. I mean, I’m not actually going away, and feeding a fish isn’t exactly hard labour. So what was it about all of this that was really upsetting me?

Seems pretty obvious from a distance, right? What was really bugging me was – of course – the fact that she could so easily leave this living being behind without a thought, without making sure someone was going to be there to make sure that it was OK.

Fast forward to later in the day, still thinking about the fish, feeling genuinely upset by it being abandoned like that, I realised that I was very much identifying with this poor fish, and that my anger with K. was probably more accurately a misplaced expression of anger with A. leaving me behind, with no one to look after me.

So that’s what yesterday’s session – the final one before a two week Chrismukah break – was spent on. Trying to explore the feelings I have, not only around this break, but also about A.’s maternity leave – which I feel, ought really be re-named eternity leave. How I feel, much like this little fish, left to my own device in this not-great-but-won’t-kill-me place, where all I can do is to swim round and round in circles.

I feel that being in therapy gives me a sense of direction, like – although progress is often excruciatingly slow – I’m going somewhere, I’m moving. But with this massive break coming up, well, I’m not sure what to do with it, what to do in that huge expanse of time. Do I retreat into the tea cup of my mind? Do I try to move forward on my own, risking getting myself into territory I’m not at all ready to cope with outside of the safety of the therapeutic setting? Or do I just stand still? I genuinely don’t know, and that makes me feel lost and frightened.

A. gave me the breakdown of her plan for her maternity leave on Tuesday. She’s planning to keep working until the fourth week of February [but, naturally, there is no guarantee that that will happen] and then she’ll be off until some time in July when she will go back on a part time basis, meaning I will have only one session a week, in contrast to the three I’m currently having. And, of course that makes perfect sense, from her point of view, to start over slowly. But for me, I’m not really so sure. Going from thrice weekly therapy to weekly sessions, it’s one heck of a drop, even if it is temporary.

I’ve been in weekly therapy before [albeit not with A.], and it is incredibly different to having more sessions in a week. My experience of weekly therapy is that, although it is helpful – and certainly better than nothing – it’s very.. hm.. choppy. Because so much can happen in the week between sessions, there is both a sense of wanting to cram as much as possible into that one session, and also there is very little flow between sessions. What you started talking about last week can easily be pushed to the side, in favour of new exciting events and thoughts, and deeper exploration often suffer as a consequence. And if you are, as I am, prone towards avoiding digging too deep, this can be used as a way to get away with not looking below the surface of things. So, that worries me.

Towards the end of last session I was really finding it difficult to speak, feeling very emotional and tearful. I just felt utterly overwhelmed by this feeling of being left completely on my own, and feeling that I really haven’t got the tools to stay above water. Like I said to A.: Forget about that nice sturdy IKEA bag I was hoping to find, right now I’d settle for the flimsiest of Morrisons carrier bags to help somehow contain my emotions. I feel really worried that, lacking a time and place to express what’s going on inside of me, those horrendous flashbacks will start coming back again, in the way they did earlier this year. I just don’t feel I’d be able to cope with that. Not without resorting to self-harm again.

A. pointed out that despite things being difficult, I was still managing to look after that goldfish and taking steps to make things as comfortable as I can for it, given the situation, to which I had to admit that I had, in all honesty, thought that I really ought to put that poor fish out of its misery, as I can’t bear watching it live out its life in this depressing little tank. I realised then that this could easily be interpreted as my expressing thoughts of wanting to end my own life, because it just feels too miserable and closed in, and so I felt I had to reassure A. that this wasn’t my plan, that I simply wouldn’t have been able to kill the fish, or myself. I’m not entirely sure if this is true, but metaphoric suicide didn’t feel like a very good note to end the session on, and after all, the woman is pregnant, so I felt I needed to smooth things over.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying I’m suicidal, only that it’s kind of hard to know with me. Even for me.

At points in this final session I felt very strongly that I needed A. to reassure me, to play the good, nurturing therapy mother, and tell me that things would be OK, but, for whatever reason A. didn’t seem to pick up on that, and said very little when I felt I needed it most. [Yes, I do recognise that this is the child in me being angry at not getting instant gratification]. But then, at the very end of session, as we said our goodbyes, she gave me this very warm smile [which, for all I know she may have been giving me all through session, but since I rarely look at A. during session I wouldn’t know] which made me feel so much better, and I wished her a good break. And I meant it.

All the very best and more,

xx

PS. Once again, thanks to all of you who have voted for my blog in the TWIM Awards. The polling station is still open, so if you haven’t but would like to register your vote there’s still a little bit of time left.  Just click here. :) Voting closes at mid-day on December 31st.

Reform Judaism, Conversion & Finding My Own Path

It is now less than two weeks ’til I go before the Beit Din, the Jewish rabbinical court, for the formal completion of my conversion to Judaism. Prior to that I had to sit down and write a statement to the court about what this means to me.

I thought I’d share it with you.

~ * ~

Nearer to two years ago a lovely lovely lady called P. was the designated meeter-and-greeter at the doors of my shul. It was also the very first time I visited a synagogue. I introduced myself to her and openly admitted that I was very nervous as I had never attended service before and was worried about doing the wrong things at the wrong times. Without hesitation, and with what I now recognise as characteristic generosity, P. asked would I like to sit with her and her husband so that I could just copy what they were doing?

I’ve been sitting with them ever since.

These days P. likes to embarrass me by introducing me to people as “their star pupil”, when, really, the truth is that they – alongside the rabbis and my fellow J-Preppies – have been star teachers; have been people I have learned and continue to learn so, so much from. I have been exceptionally fortunate to have been befriended by long-standing members of the congregation as well as newbie J-Prep students, allowing me to not only stand on the sidelines, but to feel genuinely part of the congregation and synagogue life. A true blessing.

This past year has been a big year of learning, of spiritual growth and understanding, yet at the same time I firmly maintain that my Jewish journey did not start with the J-Prep course, nor will it end with it. Certainly, this year has been different to any other year, and my life has been truly enriched by it, but rather than seeing the meeting with the Beit Din and the formal conversion as the end goal, I feel that it marks the end of the beginning of my Jewish journey.

I came to the J-Prep course having never lit Shabbat candles, never made Kiddush, never affixed a mezuzah and so forth; I had a very bookish understanding of what Judaism is. I now feel that I have much deeper insight into what it really means to be Jewish, and have discovered that the things I had connected with prior to J-Prep; my faith in the one true God, the Torah as a religious compass and so on – all the things that had brought me to the J-Prep course in the first place – have held true for me and haven’t changed. But, I now also know and appreciate that Judaism offers so much more on top of that. I have discovered that many of the core principles of Judaism hold the same moral values as those passed down to me by my parents; the pursuit of justice, championing democracy, being generous to those less fortunate and being open to those different to myself.

I have been struck by the strong sense of community, the constant strive to make informed choices and decisions – even the freedom to challenge the texts we’ve studied – and they have all added a whole new dimension to my life and to the way I think about faith and religion.

Being Jewish means, especially this time of the year, to stop and reflect introspectively, to take a long, hard and truly honest look at what I can do to better this world through bettering myself. It means doing that very difficult thing; asking forgiveness. From God, from my friends, sometimes even my enemies, and, maybe the hardest thing of all; forgiving myself for those times when I have let myself down. To, rather than simply berating myself for my shortcomings, accepting that I am not perfect and never will be, but also recognising that I have been given the blessing of making a different choice in the future.

Even my choice of Hebrew name – Emunah אמונה – serves as a reminder to keep faith in my mind and to remain faithful, not just through words, but through actions and deeds; through actively doing what I can to help heal this very precious and beautiful world we have been given, whether it be through choosing Fairtrade products over products of unknown origin, making sure I recycle things rather than just binning them, or through taking on an active role in the setting up of a refugee drop-in centre rather than leaving it for Mr & Mrs Someone Else to do. It is a reminder that it’s not enough to just tell people that I am now Jewish. I need also recognise for myself and demonstrate to others that I am Jewish not only when I attend service or say my prayers, light my Shabbat candles or study Torah (all of which are, of course, integral parts of living a Jewish life), but that I am living Judaism in all aspects of my life.

To formally convert to Judaism is the difference between looking at someone else’s photograph album and being alive and present in the very moment that snapshot is taken.

Being Jewish is not just an adjective, it is also a verb.”

~ * ~

Click here to read about my meeting with the Beit Din.

Below is this year’s film from The Movement for Reform Judaism.


The End Of The Beginning

It’s been a little while since my last post. Guess I just needed a bit of down time to myself to feel things through without writing things down. I’ve also been quite light on the journal writing, so it’s nothing personal. It’s not you, it’s me.

Had my final regular J-Prep session on Wednesday, including a lovely Havdalah [separation] ceremony to mark the transition between being on the J-Prep course and continuing our Jewish journeys on our own. There were hugs, tears, well-wishes, all the things you’d expect at a graduation of sorts.

I have mixed feelings about the course coming to an end. There were no tears on my behalf, but – as I said to my classmates – I think I was emotionally shielding myself from the idea of J-Prep being over by focusing on the fact that next Wednesday we’re all going on a walking tour through Jewish history in the East End, so goodbye wasn’t really goodbye.

This course has been different to any course I’ve ever taken. I’ve learnt a lot, but even more than that, I’ve grown as a person. I’ve had a place to explore my own beliefs and an opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings with other people being on a similar journey, and that’s been one of the best things with this course.

I came to the course having – naturally – read quite a lot about the religion, but it was a bookish kind of knowledge. What the course has given me is a more real way of relating to things. Also, throughout the course, I’ve more and more discovered how Judaism is about so much more than just religious beliefs and studying the Bible; how the emphasis on tzedakah [charity,  fairness, justice] and tikkun olam [healing or repairing the world] really fits very well with my own way of thinking, and the values I was brought up with.

Spent a good part of Friday’s therapy session talking about J-Prep and what it’s been like to be on the course, and one of the things I realised, sitting there talking about it, is that while I have really enjoyed being part of my particular J-Prep group, I’ve also got to know a lot of the people in the other J-Prep groups, as well as being fortunate enough to have been welcomed into the community by some long-standing members of the congregation, who have been very generous in answering my questions and sharing their knowledge and experience with me.

That I’ve been able to form relationships with people in all the different parts of synagogue life, and so, even tough the course is now ending, I will still be as active in my new community as ever.

Though I feel sad that J-Prep has come to an end, I also feel ready to take the next step; going to the Beit Din to formally complete my conversion and to move on to truly being a part of the synagogue community.

All the way through the J-Prep course I have said that my Jewish journey didn’t begin with joining the course, nor will it end with the completion of it, and that feeling has not change. This really is just the end of the beginning.

All the very best and more,

xx

PS. To read a lovely little blog post by one of my rabbis about her experience of J-Prep please click here.

To learn more about Reform Judaism in general, click here.
Or here to learn about how Reform Judaism views conversion.

Stepping Into The Future; Moving Physically & Emotionally

Not long to go now until The Big Move. Two more days and I’m off into the future.

Got the keys to my new room and swung by it earlier today and I saw both things that I did like and things I didn’t like. The Didn’t Likes include the general condition of the shared spaces; kitchen and bathroom. Pretty unpleasant, if I’m brutally honest, and this is despite the fact that there is a cleaner who comes every week. So, not too keen on that, but as with all places once you’ve lived there for a while you get a bit blind to things, so hopefully I’ll get used to it. Also I emailed my landlord about a few things that I think need to be looked at, so hopefully he’ll sort those things out. Apparently when the person who had my room before me moved in there was a problem with the washing machine and after she pointed it out he went out and bought a new one, so I guess that’s a good sign.

Under the heading of Did Like I’ve got the most important thing: my room. I felt good, stepping into my room. Yes, it is small, but not quite as small as I had begun to imagine. The previous tenant hadn’t done much by way of cleaning the room, found a fair few bits and bobs when pulling out the bed and the desk, and I had to start with some serious hoovering. The desk, by the way, came apart when I pulled it out, and in all honesty I’m sort of glad it did, because I had already told the landlord I’d want to use my own desk, and as this one self-destructed I didn’t feel too bad about hauling it up to the top floor where there is a small space for storage. Although the desk is pretty rickety even after I re-assembled it, the drawers can be used for extra storage I suppose. Other Likes was the fact that there is actually quite a lot more storage in the room than I thought, and there’s a small wardrobe I hadn’t noticed when I went to view the room, and a small space to keep books at the head of my bed.

Anyway, enough about the practical side of the move. Let’s think a little about the emotional side..

So, I’ve spent a little over two years at The House, the therapeutic community, and in some ways I think it’s been time for me to leave for a while now. I don’t feel I fit in particularly well here, the communal living doesn’t really suit me. I don’t mind shared living, but communal, not so much. I was never going to be one to suggest having mandatory meals together on a regular basis or buying our food together as a group. I think I’m just a little too independent for that sort of life. [I’m not implying that the other house mates aren’t independent, they just seem to have more of a wish for those sorts of things].

And as far as the therapeutic side of The House goes, again, it’s not really worked for me. I’ve never really been able to entirely engage in the process of sharing in the meetings. To me it just seems so strange to be sharing my thoughts and feelings in a group, with people who I don’t feel particularly close to or have all that much in common with. They’re all good people, it’s just that it’s always made much more sense to me to chat with my friends or pick up the phone and ring my sisters when things get too much, just as they – both my friends and my sisters – will turn to me when things are hard.

That said, I think it’s really good that this place exists, and I genuinely hope that they’ll be able to find people to move into The House who are more up for this way of life. I can absolutely see how I’ve played a part in making this place be less of a community than it could be, through not lending myself entirely to the experience. Having been one of four housemates for a large part of my stay here, of course my way of doing things has had a direct impact on what sort of house this has been, and I do hope that the people who end up moving in here will be more able than I have been to throw themselves into making this place the community that it may have been meant to be.

Of course, as different as I have often felt, moving away from here is still a pretty major step. One of the things that is good about The House is that everyone knows that everyone else has their reasons for being here, and have some understanding for how life can sometimes feel all too impossible to cope with, and how working on your own difficulties is as hard a job as any other 9-5 job.

Will I regret moving out? I don’t know. I feel that it’s time for me to go. To try to take the next step. Push myself a little. I do expect to dip a bit after I’ve moved; it’s a big change going from a house where – whether I speak to people or not – there is nearly always someone around and there is always the option to knock on someone’s door if things feel too hard, to a place where people lead altogether separate lives and don’t seem to interact at all.

I am trying to keep in mind that this room I’m moving into is not the place I’ll be staying forever. It’s a step into the future, a stepping stone on the way to getting back on track. I don’t think I’ll be staying there for very long, in all honesty – but I thought making a move from The House was needed, and this will be my intermediary dwelling place until I can find something s bit nicer and with a more of a permanent feel to it in about six months’ time. Perhaps a share which is a real share without being too communal.

So here’s to change and stepping into the future!

All the best and more,

xx

Powerlessness, Asthma & Echoes From The Past

Feel like I ought to be given some sort of medal or badge today. It’s been one week since my last therapy session, and so far it’s been manageable. Moments of feeling somewhat lower than usual, but absolutely within the range of what I can cope with without freaking out.

That aside, today I feel like a prisoner in my own home.

The last few Fridays I’ve not been attending our Friday meetings, because B. – a former therapist of mine, whom I chose to terminate therapy with – is doing a student placement as part of her training at those meetings. I have been trying to explain both to others and to myself why I feel so strongly about her coming here, but it’s really hard to put it into words, aside from stating the obvious, that I chose to end therapy with her for a reason, and to not want to have to see her again, even in a group setting, seems – at least to me – a not unreasonable request. I would have thought that most people would not be particularly keen on having to see an ex-therapist once they have terminated therapy with that person. No?

But, of course, it goes deeper than that. It’s not just having to see her; at a stretch I could possibly, maaaayyyybeee, cope with that. No, I think this is tied in to the fact that I’d not just be seeing her anywhere, but actually in my home. And I have a feeling that this is a large part of what is getting to me; that living in this therapeutic community I ultimately have no choice in who to let in or not into my own home.

Now, let’s put this into context of my own background.
I grew up in a house where I was put through some pretty severe abuse by people living in my home; my oldest brother and also, for a time, by a foster child placed in my family. At the time I didn’t feel able to stop it, didn’t know how to speak up [lots of complex issues, as anyone having experienced abuse will know]. In the end, the only way out I could find – and not before having already suffered through twelve long years of abuse – was to kill myself. It was the only control I felt I had over the situation; the option to live or to not live. So, at the age of 17, I opted to take a cocktail of painkillers and my mother’s various medications.

Needless to say, I didn’t succeed, and – in fairness – looking back, I can see that this was probably a cry for help, for someone to see that something wasn’t right.

To an extent it worked; the abuse came to light and it stopped. Would I call this a happy ending? No. Absolutely not. While the abuse stopped and things came to light; even went to court, I couldn’t call it a happy ending.

You see, even after all of this came to light, after by brother was convicted for what he had done, and despite the fact that everyone believed what I said had happened, I was still expected to carry on seeing him at family dinners and holidays, essentially giving the message that what happened to me didn’t really matter, and his place in the family was still more important than mine.

Me being me, having spent my whole life acting as if everything was fine, of course reverted back to that old habit of acting as if I was OK, as if these messages did me no harm. Not good.

Going back to the present situation, with B. coming into my home [even though this time I have expressly stated that I don’t want her here] it evokes in me the same feelings of being helpless, of having no power over who is let into my life; that what I want doesn’t matter.

Realising that the situation wasn’t going to change, that whether I felt OK with it or not, D. would be doing her placement with us, I was faced with a choice. A) To go to the meetings, reverting to the old pattern of pretending that things are fine, putting a brave face on it. Or, B) Not go to the meetings, feeling somewhat driven out of my home, as I don’t want to be around when she’s there, even if I don’t actually attend the meeting.

So far I’ve chosen option B. I say so far, because, of course, there is an option C) Going to the meeting, and not pretend that things are OK, but to speak up with her in the room.

Now, I can certainly see that there would be some value in option C), but – and this is a big but – I honestly don’t feel I am at a place yet where I would be able to do that. And as long as I feel that way, as long as I feel that going to the meeting would make me go back to acting OK, I simply don’t see how that would be a healthy choice. And so, for now, I do the second best; I preserve the boundaries I have set up by choosing not to attend the meeting. I accept that I can’t change B. coming to my house, but I don’t need to be around when that happens.

Except today.

Today is a beautiful, hot, sunny day here in London. Gorgeous, really. It is also the perfect weather for death-by-asthma. The government has even gone so far as to issue a smog alert for this bank holiday weekend.

Despite this, not wanting to be in the house when B. is here, I still tried to brave it this morning and went out. Unfortunately, I had to turn around and head back to the house, because I just couldn’t get enough air in my lunges; the weather and the pollution was simply too much.

So at the moment, I’m in my room, using my inhaler, feeling more than ever as a prisoner in my own home.

Oh well, at least I have the internet here, and I can spend my time exploring where my feelings stem from, and then plague the world with my findings in the form of a blog entry!

Happy Easter, Passover or Spring – whatever floats your boat!

All the very best and much much more,

xx

PS. The trick is to keep breathing.

Independence, Community & Cyber-Kiddush

The week spent at my ex’s flat is drawing to an end. It’s been an indescribably luxury to have a place to myself, to be able to come and go as I wish and to have to justify to no one my need for solitude, which I am aware does not exactly fit in the House I am currently living in.

Some time ago I gave my notice to my house mates, saying that I’ve decided the time to leave has come. That said, I gave my notice quite far in advance; I’m  still going to be living in the house for a while – I’ve said I’m leaving at  the end of May. The reason for this is that I didn’t want my moving out to be seen as a direct response to things that were going on in the house at the time, but a decision in its own right. Naturally, things going on in the house is part of my decision, but I think there is a difference between something being a part of a decision and somehing being the cause of it. Also, I felt I needed the time to mentally prepare myself for moving. Because it is a big deal. I’ve been living in this therapeutic community for over two years, and although I am the first admit that I’ve not opted to entirely be part of this House in the way that perhaps people feel I ought to have, moving out is still a big step.

Staying at Dev’s flat, the second time this year, has been helpful in terms of testing the waters, of seeing how well I can cope on my own, to check that I am able to find a good balance of allowing myself time to myself, yet keeping myself from completely shutting myself off to the outside world. While staying here I’ve been taking part in my J-Prep course, I’ve gone to therapy as usual and – as an added extra – I’ve had friends over. This added extra, seeing my friends in the comfort of my home, has really reminded me of how much I have missed it. Back when I was still with Dev and we had our flat that was the place where my friends and I would meet. And I always loved that. While meeting in town, as I have been doing these past two years is fine, it’s simply not the
same as having people round to your own place. It just isn’t.

So, staying at the flat has made me feel very strongly that I am definitely on the right track with moving out. Whilst I’m unlikely to be able to get a place of my own, even just moving out of where I’m staying is a step towards that sense of independence. As much as I don’t regret moving into the House, it has also made me see how much I value my independence, and how much I struggle whenever I feel that that independence is under threat. I’m not a child, and while valid points have been raised regarding my need to keep separate from my housemates, I do feel that safeguarding my right to living my life the way that feels right for me is more important than a lot  of other things.

On to something entirely different.
This Shabbat I wasn’t able to make it to Shabbat morning service owing to ridiculous problems with public transport and an incessant dry cough which I would rather not pass on to the people I normally sit with in shul. Felt quite sad about not going, since it’s such a big part of my Shabbat routine. I love sitting in synagogue, listening to E. leading the choir and congregation in song and praying together with my community. Somehow the idea of saying the prayers and singing the songs on my own felt just not enough to truly celebrate Shabbat the way it should be celebrated. So I had a think and remembered reading about how some synagogues stream their services online, so that housebound congregants can still be part of the service.

Now, I don’t normally use the internet over Shabbat; this is my personal choice, my way of making Shabbat different to the rest of the week when I am always available and always hooked up to some techie-gear or other, but having given it some thought I decided that switching on the computer to be part of Shabbat morning service would enhance my Shabbat experience rather than detract from it.

My shul doesn’t yet broadcast the services online (although it’s apparently in the pipelines) so I had a look on the MRJ website to find a synagogue that does. Found one and with the click of a button I found myself virtually joining another of the reform synagogue congregations for their Shabbat morning service.

This turned out to be a really interesting experience. Having not really visited other synagogues it was really cool to see how in some ways things are very similar, but how each synagogue has its own little tweaks. One thing I really liked about the service I was joining was how the rabbi leading it at one point turned around and asked the members of the congregation to share their thoughts and hopes and prayers out loud, asking what their week had been like and so on. It felt like a very nice touch to make the congregation feel like a real community.

I was amazed at how I really felt I wasn’t just watching the service, but actually being part of it, joining this little community. The angle of the web cam allowed me to feel
like I was sitting in one of the pews of the shul, and – siddur in hand – I stood and sat with the congregation, just as I would have at any other service.

So, I guess my conclusion is that although people sometimes say that technology gives us a way to cut off from the world, it can also be used to do the exact opposite.

That said, I am already looking forward to seeing my J-Prep friends on Wednesday and my Shabbat service gang next Saturday. Somehow cyber-kiddush just isn’t quite the same thing as the real deal!

xx