My Secret past // No one would ever guess just from looking at me

“I can’t take it anymore! I feel like going to sleep and never waking up.”

I had been asked by the school’s guidance counselor, my friend Matti, to try to reach her. She had been grappling with anger issues and violent mood swings for the past few months. Something more than the typical teenage angst was bothering her.
“Tova’s in a very bad place right now, Zahava,” Matti had said, lowering her voice and looking into my eyes. “Frankly, we’re at our wits’ end.”

“How can I help?” I protested. “I’m not a trained psychologist or crisis counselor.”
“That’s why we need you. You’re not someone with a fancy degree who sits in an office and diagnoses people. You’re her writing teacher, and she adores you. Besides…” her voice trailed off.

“Besides what?”

“You’re a real survivor. You of all people can understand where she’s coming from.”

Matti had a point. I had gone through more in my life than most people could imagine. But did that make me an expert on treating emotional turmoil? I wasn’t sure.

I wondered if I could find the right words to shake Tova out of her despair.

Now, as I sat across from my student, assuring her that I understood, I realized that I’d said the wrong thing. Her eyes blazed with fury.

“Yeah, sure! Make believe you understand what I’m going through even though you honestly have no idea. None of you can relate to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re married, you have two adorable kids, and a great job. You have everything going for you.” She was on a roll now and nothing could stop her. “You probably never had a hard day in your life!”

I bit my tongue to stop the words from escaping my throat. Then I took a deep, cleansing breath and waited. A few interminable seconds passed.

“That’s what everyone tells me. ‘Tova, don’t think you have a monopoly on pain. Blah, blah, blah. I know what you’re going through.’ Baloney!” Her face contorted in disgust.
“My teachers think I’m a failure because my grades are barely passing. I have no friends. My mother is wrapped up in her own little world, busy planning all the Chinese auctions and tzedakah parties in town, saving the world. She’s almost never home, and when she is, she’s on the phone making shidduchim. And my father? Forget it. I see him only on Shabbos, when he falls asleep with the newspaper after five seconds at the table. And if they ever do notice me it’s only to yell because I’m eating carbs and ruining my chances at shidduchim.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. “Do you have any siblings?”

“Yeah, an older sister and three younger brothers who are basically raising themselves. At least my sister made her own life. She’s off in shanah bet of seminary and doesn’t want to come home. I don’t blame her. But at least she got good grades in school, had a lot of friends and a support system. I could stop eating right now and no one would care!”
This was the point where I was supposed to step in and assure her that her parents did care about her, in their own way, that not having friends wasn’t the end of the world, and that while the world looked black today, tomorrow was always another day.

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