This episode is special for me in so many ways. I interviewed my husband, Ari. It is very personal and self revealing. As in all my interviews I don’t discuss ahead of time which topics and questions will be raised. I find out things along with my listeners.
Before I explore our relationship I want to provide some background. Ari and I both come from Orthodox Jewish backgrounds, but the similarity stops there. I was raised in Israel from age 2 and have 5 siblings. My parents are warm, loving, supportive and caring. There are many people who found their way to our home who consider my parents a guiding light in their lives. My mother was an at home mom most of my formative years.
Our house was a fun place to be and provided security and love.
I graduated high school and for the next few years worked in a school for mentally handicapped children as an assistant to the teacher and then as a graphic artist in a digital print company. At 23 years old I became a project manager in a very large software company. By age 25 I supervised more than 30 people in various software projects.
Ari grew up in Queens, New York in a single parent home. His mom walked away from her family when he was 9 years old and did not figure at all in his life. He has one sibling, an older brother. His father raised the two boys as best he could under the circumstances, but Ari grew up as a latchkey child. Early on he learned how to cook, do laundry and figure out how to manage on his own.
After high school Ari came to Israel to study in a yeshiva. A yeshiva is an institution where the Talmud and Bible are the primary texts that are taught but a whole lot more is being learned. The students are immersed in learning a lifestyle of moral and social values. Deep connections are forged with their mentors and philosophical and existential issues are explored along with handling day to day issues.
Four years later Ari returned to the United States and he graduated college Shortly thereafter he began his own business. When I met Ari he was 30 years old and bent on getting married. He had already dated more than 400 girls. I had dated maybe 15 guys and most of them were one coffee date.
We met in Israel and our 6 month roller coaster courtship began. We were both interested in getting married, but wanted to make sure we had found the right one. Our relationship was based on deep conversations and connecting.
Ari enjoyed being in the here and now, not caring about the past. I was intent on examining the relationship from every possible angle and circumstance.
“Ari, would you describe me as a fun loving person?”
“No. You are an extremely focused, driven, exacting, demanding, perfectionist personality. When we were dating you were totally absorbed in checking out the relationship.”
“Did you notice any signs of mental illness while we were dating’ or early in our marriage?”
“I am not qualified to diagnose mental illness but what I witnessed when you had your first of many panic attacks, I had not seen before. You’re an anxious person and hi-strung, but there were no signs of depression or unprovoked anxiety.”
“Ari, what motivated you to be so patient with me during the time of my crisis? You had to take over the running of the house, taking care of our three children, and supporting a non-functional wife. What gave you the ability to give and not pressure me to “just get it together”?
“Men are generally logical and women are more on the emotional side, each one speckled with a bit of the other. My reaction to you was on a very logical level. When the EMS guy told me that you were physically fine and reassured me that you weren’t dying he advised me to take you to an emergency room and find out what was happening in your mind that made you think you were dying. Then my emotional side kicked in and I said, ‘I need to be supportive to Matana when she is going through this trauma.’
If I smashed you over the head saying, ‘just get it together’ I would not be helping the situation. It really was quite selfishly motivated. I wanted you to be able to be the old Matana as soon as possible.”
“My mentor Rabbi Orlowek taught me that preparation is fundamental in coping with life’s challenges. The example he gave was a guy is coming home from work after a full day. When he gets to his door he should pause and picture the worst scenario. The house is a mess, the kids are dirty, there isn’t a shred of food prepared, his wife is at her wit’s end from a whole day dealing with the kids – in short a disaster. Then he takes a deep breath and walks through the door. If he finds what he had just imagined than he is somewhat mentally prepared for the scene. If, on the other hand, he imagines that he will find a spotless house, the children bathed, in pajamas sitting and playing sweetly, while his wife is all smiling as she brings a freshly cooked meal to the table and he walks into a mess, he’ll just feel anger. “
“So when you were deeply depressed I would pause at the door every day and picture you still in bed with the curtains drawn in a bad mood, ready to pounce on me for a real or perceived slight. Then I would be prepared for whatever the real scenario was. There were good days and not such good days. I held on to the memory of the good days with the hope that soon you would have more and more good ones.”
“When I asked you to fly my mother in from Israel and I told you that I wanted only the top of the line doctors, who asked for so many tests, that I wanted to spend a few months back in Israel, you went along with it all – no trying to cut corners or bargain. It must have been very difficult to agree to, since we were financially in a tight situation at the time.”
“Matana, the doctors explained that the only thing that would really help was to calm your mind. To do that you needed to have your parents, your friends, the familiar places you grew up with. If that is what you needed there really was no other choice.”
“At that time I, Matana, was just literally surviving. I was suicidal. Not because I wanted to die. I just couldn’t bear the pain anymore. When I first experienced a panic attack I kept on saying, ‘Ari, I don’t want to die. Don’t let me die. I want to live.’ I didn’t trust myself when I was in such deep depression. I want you to know how much I appreciate your love and support and the feeling that you gave me that I was your top priority.”
“A short time ago I asked you what your language of love was and you told me it was a smile. When I was in the pits, I couldn’t smile; I couldn’t even look at you. How did you cope with a wife who couldn’t in any way speak your language of love?”
“Once again I used a methodology that Rabbi Orlowek taught me. He said, ‘Never bring a negative from the past into the present, but always bring a positive from the past into the present.’ When you were in the throws of depression I superimposed a mental picture of you from earlier times. Snapshots of you laughing, smiling, giggling at some insanity that I said, slapping me on my arm for some inappropriate comment that I might have made, or enjoying a boat ride together. I said the woman who is physically sitting here is not the real Matana. The real one is the one whose mental pictures I carry with me.”
“Ari, I remember there was an episode with your father when for a short period of time you were in a very bad place. You functioned at work and smiled with the kids, but when you were vulnerable with me I saw that you were not the Ari I knew. I wasn’t up to using Rabbi Orlowek’s methodology. I just prayed to G-d, ‘Make him well. I can’t handle not having him being my support.’ And thank G-d it only lasted a few weeks.”
“You are always giving to others, Ari. How do you fill yourself up so that you can keep on giving?”
“I think the confidence in my decision that this is a valuable person to invest in. Just because a spouse is having a hard time for a month or six, or a year or two or ten, doesn’t mean that their partner gives up on the relationship. There are people whose spouses are in a coma for years and they keep visiting and hoping for their recovery.”
“When one travels on a plane the stewardess gives her speech about the necessity to take care of oneself first when traveling with another person who needs help. You need to take the oxygen mask first so that you will be there to help the other person. Ari, what is your oxygen mask?”
“Well, Matana, one of the therapies that you did religiously when you were recuperating was yoga. I knew that you would be out for at least an hour each night. As soon as you left, I made myself some very delicious and unhealthy supper, sat down in front of a big screen TV and watched the Discovery Channel or the Travel Channel and I was off in an escapist world.”
“Ari, I wish I had a therapist who would have been able to explain to me then how important this was for you. It was during my recovery that I argued with you to get rid of the television. I saw it as a waste of time. I didn’t want our children filling their heads with what was on the TV and learning to veg in front of a TV I didn’t realize what an important role it played for you.”
“There was another time when I didn’t understand your needs. Each year when you would go to Las Vegas for your trade show I would want you to ask me to come. And you insisted on going alone. I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t want the love of your life, me, to not join you. So I called my older sister, Gvira. She explained that for a person like you, who is always giving, the only way you can recharge your batteries is by being alone. The moment someone else is with you, you are busy giving to them.”
“What a sacrifice you were willing to make for me, Ari. You gave up your oxygen mask when I battled to get rid of the TV. How did you let go of it?”
“I realized that you still needed my full attention for you to feel secure and make headway in your recovery. Keeping the TV would have been contra-productive in achieving your mental health. And that was both our goals. Matana, what type of oxygen mask would you think was appropriate for me to have, knowing my personality?”
“Going out with your friends. Or something spiritual like when you joined the Chevra Kaddisha, the burial society. The act of doing this last and special kindness with the dead. To cleanse them and dress them for burial. You would come back feeling very fulfilled from doing that. Maybe also gardening. Oh, and the chicken coop. When you bought the chickens and built the chicken coop for them, the whole project of taking care of them was very rewarding for you. I think you love construction, so maybe building something that you could take out your pressures with a hammer and nails.”
“What would you tell others who haven’t had your experiences in life that prepared you for difficulties? Or what would you tell someone who doesn’t really care about their spouse?”
“Matana, the basis of giving is caring for the other person. If you don’t care for them there isn’t any reason to stay in the relationship for the long haul. But if you love them, try to do things to remind you of who the real person is behind the mental illness. Prepare for the battle ahead by educating yourself as to what your loved one is experiencing, what are the triggers, what can calm them, what are the different degrees of the illness. Know what to expect. Then if something escalates you aren’t frozen in fear and you know how to act. Recognize the value of the person so that taking care of them becomes less of a chore and more of an investment in your future.”
“If the person who is ill does not want to go for help or put in the effort to travel the path to wellness, you might have to creatively trick them into going to a mental health professional. But they need to want to heal.”
“The Matana I know now is very different from the Matana before the panic attacks. She is more sensitive, more aware of others and their pain. The
trauma increased your value and growth. It made you aware that there are many others out there in the greater world who are suffering like you did and it created a kinship between you and them. The world became a smaller place for you.”
“Ari, what does hope mean to you
“Mental illness has left no stain on our marriage. No negative association. There has been a tremendous amount of growth in understanding and sensitivity. Our children are more aware and sensitive to others who have issues with mental health.”
“Hope to me means the present. The present is something that is constant and ongoing. Right now we have the ability to make choices and the choices we make in the present will allow us to achieve greatness in the future.”
“Ari, I want to express again and again my appreciation for your support and loving care during my fight with my depression and anxiety; the bouts of panic attacks. I can never say it enough times.”