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  • Writer's picturejules

ptsd and my journey with judaism

Updated: Feb 7, 2021

what the talmud asks me about my trauma.

Something felt very, very wrong. My limbs were heavy like cement, my breath coming in and out in and out in tight, painful increments. I lay on my bed, eyes fixed on my wooden bookcase in the corner. With every push and pull on top of my body, my mind drifted further and further away in an attempt to distance myself from the situation I was in. What I didn’t know at the time was that, no matter how hard my mind would work to separate itself from the event, I would have to live with those feelings every minute for the rest of my life.

I told myself again and again that what had happened was not the dreaded r-word. He had been my boyfriend for so long up until that point, and, after all, I didn’t think my experience had fit the textbook sexual assault definition. I dragged myself out of that relationship shortly after and spun into a period of mental disarray--to put it nicely. And a few months later, I began getting in touch with my Jewish heritage.

Through the too-dense challahs and the purchasing of several Jewish self-help books, I was determined to be “fine”. What I had experienced the year before was going to be a distant memory, and the catapulting of myself into Judaism was sure to guarantee that.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account the sleepless nights in which I would sit up crying and staring at that same bookcase after waking up from a dream that put me back in that all too familiar memory. I hadn’t considered the constant reminders I would receive through looking at his social media accounts and watching girls comment praise, wishing I had been strong enough to announce to the whole world what he had done to me so that they could save themselves from that same pain. And I definitely hadn’t expected that those few minutes in my bedroom that felt like hours would be perched in the back of my mind for every second of every day to come while he went about his days without a care in the world, lifted up by the compliments of young girls who were as naive as I was.

In my plight to utilize my Judaism to fill in any missing holes in my psyche, I began looking for solace in the writings that serve as the foundation for our religion. I was met with rather alarming results that, nonetheless, offered me much to consider.

First, the Torah.

“If a man finds a virgin girl who was not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, the man who lay with her shall give 50 shekels of silver to the girl’s father, and she shall become his wife, because he violated her. He shall not send her away all the days of his life.” Deuteronomy 22:28-29

What a way to punish, I thought. The man is punished to spend the rest of his days with his victim as his wife, while I am punished to spend the rest of my days with the thought of him plaguing my every movement. Of course, the idea of the woman being forced to marry her rapist in turn is rather discomforting--but, still, I doubt that mine spends more than a few moments in a week thinking about me. Thinking about our first kiss outside of a bookstore, or our time spent making failed pasta dishes in the kitchen, or the day he forced me onto my bed and took every shred of my dignity away with his want for power over me and my body. What would life be like for him if I was on his mind as often as he is on my mind? Would that be punishment enough?

Then, the Talmud.

“How is payment for damage assessed? If one blinded another’s eye, severed his hand, broke his leg, or caused any other injury, the court views the injured party as though he were a slave being sold in the slave market, and the court appraises how much he was worth before the injury and how much he is worth after the injury. The difference between these two sums is the amount that one must pay for causing damage,” says Mishna in Bava Kamma 83b.

What am I worth now? I feel much less of a prize than I had before. I am hollow most days, floating from bed to desk to bed to bathroom in an attempt to busy my thoughts that are normally filled with insults and impulsive distractions. I pick up a book to read it, only getting stuck on a word halfway down the page, the letters getting scrambled in my head. I turn on the TV, a scene plays between a man and a woman and it is clearly the r-word, and I am spiraling and shaking and wishing I was able to feel okay. To feel like he has paid for the damage he cost me. He hasn’t, though.

The thought of that bookcase in the corner of my room sends a shiver down my spine.

It’s peculiar, though, to consider your worth. Would someone pay less for me now than a year or so ago when I was buoyant and carefree and sure that my relationship was going to be one filled with kisses and consent? I assumed yes. I assumed that I was doomed to be the girl that people approached in consideration for romance or intimacy only to be sat down on the edge of the bed and told a detailed history of my trauma in order to discourage them from taking a chance on me. It was like that--for a while. But it isn’t now.

When I wake up with those tears in my eyes and that bookcase in my peripheral vision, I think of what I am grateful for that day. The list normally looks something like this.

My mom. My cats. A good book with juicy words. Challah bread that is the perfect amount of dense. A laugh track on a cheesy sitcom that makes the joke somewhat tolerable. A Wes Anderson film. Passover. My boyfriend who does not think of me as the girl who had to give him a SparkNotes of her trauma before he could kiss her, but as his other half, perhaps. His family that loves me and lets me light a candle with them on Shabbat. The days that I feel like I could conquer the world. The days I feel like I couldn’t move if I tried, because they put the other days into perspective. My psychologist. David Bowie. Really good pasta. And most importantly, my worth.

It might feel like it is less than before. Some days I have a hard time picking through my brain to find any evidence of worth. But it is mine. I am in control of the way I view myself. I am in control of the people I surround myself with. And most importantly, I am in control of the way in which I spend the rest of my life: purposeful, adventurous, and full of l’chaims.



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