Tough love was the way back
I had the Pesach that changed my life in the unlikeliest of places—rehab. When I’d gone in a month before, I was a hollow shell of a person, as far off the derech as you could get. That’s probably the last thing you’d ever expect to hear from the daughter of one of the most respected rabbanim in the city, but it’s the truth. I was lonely as a kid, even though I was surrounded by people all the time. My parents were very public figures, always “on” for the constant stream of people passing through our house. My seven siblings were also natural extroverts who seemed to have been born with a confidence and ease that I just didn’t have. Even as a young girl I suffered from a debilitating shyness that made it difficult for me to make friends. I was prone to bouts of anxiety and, as I grew older, panic attacks. I often entertained a fantasy that I had been accidentally switched at birth with another baby at the hospital and that one day my real parents, reserved people like me, would come to take me to their nice quiet house far away from the city, where I could spend my time in the safety of books and my own company.
My parents tried to draw me out of my shell and took me to therapists to help with my anxiety. But no matter what they did, I was never able to fit the mold. There was always a pressure to play the part of the happy daughter of a highly visible family, and I constantly felt that I didn’t measure up. With few friends, I spent most of my time at school alone, and even at our Shabbos table I felt like a tourist in a foreign country. By the time I reached high school, the loneliness had slowly saturated every part of me and curdled into bitterness. I don’t really know how it happened, but somewhere around my sixteenth birthday I met a group of kids in my neighborhood who just seemed to “get” me. They were rougher than anyone I had ever known, but for the first time in my life I was actually comfortable in other people’s company. I started skipping school with them and staying out late. Over time my wardrobe changed completely. I stopped keeping Shabbos. And I started using drugs.
At first, the drugs seemed like a miracle to me, quieting the anxiety and selfconsciousness that had always plagued me; it was like a long exhale after years of holding my breath. Then the high would pass and I’d plunge into someplace darker than despair. I’d swear that I’d never do it to myself again, but then the discomfort of being in my own skin would stir once more and I’d desperately seek escape. Eventually, I started slipping money from my mother’s wallet in order to keep up the habit. My relationship with my family began to crumble. I had nothing but barbs for my siblings, who quickly learned to avoid me.The fights I had with my mother got worse and worse. I said things that made her flinch, as if I’d thrown acid in her face. It got to the point where we could barely speak to each other without someone crying—usually her. My father, when he was home, would look on with the expression of someone watching his house burn down. One night I stumbled into the house, raging violently at everyone, screaming horrible threats that terrified my younger siblings. But then suddenly, the drugs sent my mood plummeting and I crumpled, crying hysterically, on the living-room floor.
The next morning I woke up in my room to find my parents sitting across from me. “Malky,” my mother said, her voice shaky, “we love you, but you can’t stay here anymore.” “Are you serious?” I exclaimed. “You know we’ve tried everything we could think of to help you,” she replied. “We said nothing when you were running around at all hours of the night, even on Shabbos. I even kept quiet when I realized you were stealing from me. Don’t bother with the stories, Malky—I know it was you. “We thought if we didn’t push you, if you lived at home, things would work out. But it’s out of control now. We have to think about your siblings. They shouldn’t have to live in crisis all the time. We need to protect them and you. If you go on this way, you could die.” I was speechless. I stared at both of them for a long minute, searching their faces for some indication that they might be swayed. I looked at my father, whose knuckles were as white as goose down. “Totty...” I started, pleading with my eyes. “There is no choice, Malkele,” he replied. I couldn’t believe it. They were serious.
Helpless, I railed at them. “How can you do this to me? What kind of parents are you? I have no place to go!” “Yes, you do,” my mother replied. “It’s called Penn Recovery. It’s a couple of hours from here. They said they can take you this morning.” “Wait a minute. You’re sending me to rehab?” “No. We got you a bed there. It’s your choice whether or not you actually go. If you want to, we’ll take you. If you don’t, well...either way, you can’t stay here anymore.” When she said that, I felt a wave of selfpity rush through me that was so intense I could barely breathe. I was being thrown out of the only home I’d ever known by the people who were supposed to love me more than anything in the world. And they were sending me to rehab! Like I was some kind of drug-addicted criminal! The truth was, though, I thought with the taste of shame in my mouth, that I did need help. I’d known it for a long time.
Deep down, underneath the anger, was relief that someone else had made the decision for me. “Fine. I’ll go,” I murmured, eyes down. “Good. Get dressed. Pack. Shimon is waiting downstairs. He’ll drive you as soon as you’re ready.” My mother’s forcefulness threw me. “But what about...when can I come back?” “I don’t know the answer to that,” she said. “First you must become drug-free.” Her words were so painful they left me numb. I couldn’t speak to my parents, nor to my brother as he drove me to Penn, a severe-looking building of brick and stone. He said only one thing to me: “Just know it’s not because we don’t love you.” It took everything in me not to curl myself around his feet and beg him to take me home. Instead, I swallowed the scream lodged in my throat and slid out of the car, affecting a nonchalance I didn’t feel. I desperately hoped that Shimon would see through the act and have pity on me, but he didn’t. As I watched the taillights get smaller and smaller, I shuddered with the realization that I was totally, completely alone. I turned toward the rehab center’s intake nurse and walked forward gingerly, as if any sudden movement would shatter me beyond repair.
One month later, I wrote my parents the following letter: Dear Mommy and Totty, It’s 3:12 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I have the feeling neither of you are sleeping, either. It’s two weeks until Pesach, which means you’re probably doing your yearly top-to-bottom cleanout. This year I’m not there to tell you, like I always do, that the halachah isn’t to purge the house of everything you’ve ever owned. And Totty, you won’t respond with your signature pun: “But it’s so LIBERATING! Puts me in a Pesach mood.” I’ve been thinking about Pesach a lot lately, probably because it’s the first one I’ve ever spent away from home. I keep envisioning the thrum of activity that starts building up in the house a few days before, when Bubby and Tante Nomi come in with endless bags of groceries and take over the kitchen with Mommy. Even as a kid, I used to love watching Bubby at her giant iron skillet, frying a mountain of onions, her brow dotted with pearly beads of sweat. I hated onions, but the smell of them frying in Bubby’s skillet always made my mouth water. Tante Nomi usually put me to work peeling potatoes and carrots, which I hated because by the time I was done, my knuckles were scraped raw and my hands felt arthritic for days afterwards.
You were always so calm, Mommy, even as Yom Tov was approaching and everyone was running around yelling, looking for the parsley or the sash for Mindy’s dress or Zeide’s old Haggadah. Pesach was always your favorite, and you refused to welcome it with anything but happiness. And Totty, you looked so handsome in your kittel, all lit up from the inside.But I’ll be honest with you. Pesach never meant much to me beyond some new clothes and time with the family. I’d learned about the Pesach story every year in school, and I knew plenty about why we did what we did at the Seder. But really, I was there because I had to be, going through the ceremony because that’s what was expected of me. But there was never any heart behind it. In fact, the last few years I resented having to sit there, forced to fake my way through an empty ritual. At least that’s how it felt to me. It’s ironic that now that I’m in rehab, I finally understand what Pesach is all about. I feel like the slaves in Mitzrayim, held in bondage. I’m like a captive here. All I want, more than anything, is to be home with all of you.
I’d give anything to be able to abuse my hands with a potato peeler, to iron Bubby’s cream and gold napkins, to help you make that charoses recipe from Morocco with the dates. I want to be sitting at the table on Pesach night, laughing at Totty’s bad jokes, covering my ears while the boys try to sing “Chad Gadya” the loudest. But I can’t do any of it because even if I could leave treatment, which I can’t, you wouldn’t let me in the house. I know what you’re thinking—the Jews in Mitzrayim were victims while I am not. I chose to start using drugs. I chose to stay out until all hours of the night with people I still can’t believe I called my friends. I chose to steal money from you and then lie to your face about it. And I chose to say things to you and my siblings that were so horrible and abusive that you were forced to cut off contact with me. You probably think I have no right to feel sorry for myself, and you’d be right. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t miss the smell of Mommy’s chicken soup —this place smells like a deep fryer, despite the frozen kosher meals they serve me. Maybe it’s because I’m in a prison of my own making, away from my family and one of the few Jewish kids in this place, that it all means something to me now. I know I could have done it differently. I have to live with that, without being able to change it. It’s the loneliest place in the world.
But I suppose that’s exactly what I deserve, right? The punishment fits the crime. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I’m sorry. Until now, I never really understood that what I was doing affected anyone else. I never accounted for the nights you both sat up well past midnight waiting for me, or the fear you must have felt not knowing where I was. It must have been so painful for you to watch me struggle, and then on top of it, to withstand my abuse. My counselor says that I shouldn’t regret the past, I should just learn from it. So I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. I was luckier than I ever realized to have loving parents who put up with me for as long as you did. You let me get away with too much because you didn’t want to push me away. I know it took everything in you to cut me off; all you wanted was to do the right thing for everyone. I’ve also learned, after a sad amount of damage, that the pressure I always felt to fit the mold was self-created. You always loved me and accepted me exactly as I am. I was the one who thought I wasn’t good enough. I realized that it’s okay if I’m not one of those bigger-thanlife people like you and the other kids. That’s not the way Hashem made me—and don’t you always say, Totty, that Hashem doesn’t make mistakes? I don’t expect any of this to magically make things better between us, but I wanted to tell you just so you’ll know I’m okay.
Chag kasher v’sameach. Love, Malky Two weeks later, on Erev Pesach, I sat in the cafeteria at Penn. The day before, an announcement had been made that some rabbinical student had volunteered to conduct a Seder for the Jewish patients. I had never been happier to hear anything in my life, considering that I had been pretty close to despair at the prospect of spending Pesach alone in this place. So I went, along with 20 or so others who were Jewish, curious or just looking to get out of group therapy. A long table had been set up in the middle of the cafeteria with a white paper tablecloth, bowls of parsley and salt water, boxed matzah and hard-boiled eggs. Nothing fancy, especially compared to the crystal and silver at our sedarim at home, but still nice, considering. The rabbinical student finally showed up about two minutes before sunset, bursting through the doors as though he’d just run a marathon to get here. He was hauling a large backpack and a sleeping bag on his back, like he was on a camping trip.
As soon as I saw his face, I froze. It was Shimon. Without thinking, I ran over charging into him so hard he almost fell backward. “What are you doing here?!” He laughed out loud. “What, a guy can’t come home for bein hazmanim and visit his little sister?” “I don’t understand...it’s Pesach...do Mommy and Totty know you’re here?” “Of course they do! Who do you think sent me?” “What? What do you mean?” He rolled his eyes playfully. “And you’re supposed to be the smart one. Mommy and Totty got your letter. They wanted you to be with family on Pesach. They couldn’t come, of course—Totty’s leading the big Seder at the shul—but he sent me as a backup.” I was completely dumbfounded. “I can’t believe they sent you…” “Well, believe it or don’t; I’m here either way. Now, let’s get this Seder started. I’m starving!” Shimon led an incredible Seder. He involved everyone, whether they had never been to a Seder or had sat through a thousand. And as he told the story of yetzias Mitzrayim, it felt like I was hearing it for the first time. My brother’s presence filled me with a hope and elation so intense it brought tears to my eyes. Although I had a lot of repairs to make, I knew I had taken my first steps on the road toward forgiveness. I could begin again. And for the first time in my life, I really fulfilled the mitzvah of feeling that I had personally been freed from Mitzrayim.