Childhood trauma is real

SUMMARY

Childhood trauma is real. Acknowledge your wounds and trauma, but don’t let them hold you back. Yes, it was upsetting and painful when you suffered them, but don’t let them shackle you down from pursuing your life goals. Use your past to empower yourself in moving forward. Don’t wallow in what could have been. It’s time to “go forth” and leave your childhood wounds behind.

THE QUESTION

Towards the end of Parshas Noach, we meet Avraham (then Avram). We learn nothing more than his lineage. However, immediately upon opening this week’s Parsha, Hashem and Avraham are having a conversation. There seems to be a chunk of time where the relationship between Hashem and Avraham developed that we know nothing about. It feels almost as if (chas v’shalom) there’s a chapter missing. We hardly know anything about Avraham, and he’s already having conversations with Hashem!

Moreover, it also feels like the Parsha starts in the middle of a conversation. Hashem is asking Avraham to leave his homeland on blind faith. How about some character development? Logically, it would stand to reason to first develop Avraham’s childhood, explore his struggles and challenges, and how he built this rich relationship with Hashem. After all that, we can continue with the dialogue of “lech lecha.”

Furthermore, why is there such an emphasis on departure without knowledge of the destination? And the Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” Hashem describes to Avraham in three distinct ways how he is to leave where he currently is. But, when giving directions, there’s no need to emphasize where you’re leaving from. People often know where they are. The vital information they need to know is an address and a destination. Here, we see the exact opposite. Hashem provides extremely vague destination points but emphasizes a great deal of where Avraham is at the moment and where/how he needs to leave. What is the significance of focusing on the departure?

THE STORY

This week’s story has no real beginning, climatic plot twist, or end. The protagonist’s challenging journey is still ongoing. Therefore, I ask for forgiveness from anyone who may feel hurt by how I retell this story. Specifically, for those involved, I cannot fathom the emotional rollercoaster you must’ve felt. With Hashem’s help, I hope to bring out the right message.

In 2019, Rabbi Avremi Zippel testified publicly about being sexually abused as a child.

With permission from Rabbi Zippel:

Avremi Zippel grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. His parents are Chabad shluchim of the area, and Avremi is the Rabbi and Director of the Young Jewish Professionals of Salt Lake City. In 2015, Avremi and his wife welcomed their first son to their family.

Looking down at his infant son, Avremi was euphoric. Pure, sweet happiness overcame him, as you would imagine any new parent would. However, his time in paradise was short-lived. Avremi was soon consumed by darkness, panic, and anxiety. Cradling his son, recognizing his newborn duty as a father, triggered something within him. Avremi was overwhelmed with inadequacy. He began feeling that his son deserved a proper father, not a miserable soul like himself. These feelings started to fester and eat away at Avremi, becoming even more apparent to everyone around him.

These feelings weren’t unfamiliar to Avremi. He knew exactly the source of his pain. They were just dormant for a very long time. It was the secret he tried keeping from everyone — something he hoped he’d never have to revisit. It was locked inside a vaulted closet, not ever to be opened by anyone-even himself. But the demons inside were slamming, knocking, and pounding away to be unleashed. Avremi’s unresolved trauma was creeping out against his will. His childhood wounds affected him to the point where he was almost emotionally paralyzed.

Avremi was sexually abused by the family nanny at the innocent age of eight years old. The abuse continued for ten years. The nanny committed these vile acts under the despicable pretense that she was “just grooming Avremi to be a good husband.” But becoming a father for the first time and looking into his son’s round, pearly eyes, Avremi felt disgusting. He felt anything but “good.”

Not knowing why Avremi was acting this way, his family encouraged him to see a therapist. There, he shared — for the first time in his life (to anyone!) — that he was sexually abused. With his therapist’s help, Avremi opened up and began telling his wife and parents about the events he endured.

While all this took place for Avremi, the country was also going through a transformative state. The MeToo movement was beginning to develop. People were also firmly gripped by the televised witness testimony of Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman. During the trial, she publicly spoke against her former Olympic Team USA Gymnastics coach. (Tangentially, during the 2012 Olympics, Aly Raisman performed in front of the entire world and specifically chose to dance to the music of Hava Nagila. Thank you, Aly, for showing your Jewish pride on a global stage and at an event being watched — and that will be continuously viewed– by millions). Seeing this brave young girl, who had been up against the fiercest competition in the world, battle her most treacherous opponent in court inspired Avremi to consider doing the same. Shortly after hearing the sentencing of the gymnastics coach, Avremi decided it was time to call the Salt Lake City Police.

In weighing his decision on whether to go public with his story, Avremi recalls that it was the most challenging choice he ever had to make. From Avremi’s many concerns, chief among them was that he would not be taken seriously because of the public taboo against believing sexual abuse victims. Distrust and disbelief were still widespread despite the MeToo movement beginning to weaken the public’s skepticism. Before going public, Avremi discussed his concerns with various rabbinic authorities, who cautioned about the unknown wave of repercussions. Avremi remembers one community member saying, “I admire your bravery, but no one knows what will happen to the first person who comes out. I don’t know how you’ll be able to marry off your children.”

However, Avremi was not lured away from what he felt must be done. He wasn’t going to continue living this way. He wouldn’t have this guilt/trauma/disgust weighing on his conscience anymore. No matter what — no matter how harsh the public humiliation may be. He needed to break free. He needed to do it for his son. He needed to do it for his wife and family. And most importantly, he needed to do it for himself.

Avremi finally took action. “When I reflect on my experiences, the most justice-filled moment for me was my first police interview,” he said. “At the end of the interview, the detective looked at me and said, … ‘I trust you.’” After decades of bottling this part of his life, Avremi felt slight relief when he heard these words and knew the healing could begin.

Police investigated the case and brought it to trial. In preparing with the prosecutors, Avremi recalls that the type of justice he wanted was for his abuser to stand up and say, ‘I wasn’t doing this to make you a good husband. This was my sickness, my taking out my own issues on you.’”

Yet, as the trial date neared, Avremi realized that the defense would do whatever they could to vindicate their client. Moreover, he would have to share his personal story publicly. He knew that what lay ahead would be virtually humanly impossible to emotionally withstand. However, Avremi was highly blessed to have his family’s loving support and professional care. Also, Elizabeth Smart, whose story of abduction and survival in the 1990s captivated a generation, provided Avremi with crucial backing as well.

Avremi was terrified of the pending court date and developed a routine to prepare himself. “I would drive to the courthouse, and there was one song in particular that I would listen to that really captured my mood at the time.” The Waterbury Mesivta’s “Tatty My King” became a ritual. “I would park my car and put my soul in the hands of something greater than myself.”

Avremi would play the song at the highest volume as he entered the courthouse before each hearing. And the trial itself was nothing less than brutal. The defense attorneys frequently referred to him as “the rapist.” They even mentioned Adolf Hitler in front of a predominantly Jewish gallery. The trial was emotionally draining on Avremi and his family, to say the least.

However, justice prevailed.

Upon hearing the guilty verdict being announced in the courtroom, Avremi walked out to the hallway and cried.

THE EXPLANATION

Avremi Zippel is a superhero. His ordeal is akin to a “superhero origin story.” He decided not to be imprisoned by his childhood wounds and journeyed into the unknown. In doing so, he tapped into his innate superpowers: faith, bravery, and courage. To this day, he battles his inner demons and memories that can’t be washed away. But now he is empowered by his past — not shackled by it. (Or, if you will, it’s no longer his kryptonite). He is a true champion for abuse victims and is a prominent advocate. He is among the most courageous, brave, and inspiring people I have ever spoken to.

This is Hashem’s message to Avraham and, in turn, Avraham’s decision to travel forth. Acknowledge your childhood wounds and trauma. Yes, the difficulties you suffered were traumatic and painful. However, don’t let those wounds shackle you down from where you need to reach in life. Rise up, dust yourself off, and use your past to empower you going forward. Do not wallow in what was or what could have been. It is time to “Go forth.” Leave the emotional scars of your “land, your birthplace, and your father’s house” behind.

Hashem’s commandment to Avraham, “lech lecha” is the cosmic blueprint for any authentic change in one’s life. A person’s destination is unimportant if you’re tied down with a ball and chain to your past. So, Hashem is telling Avraham that if you want to truly find yourself, leave your childhood wounds behind (i.e., acknowledge, learn to heal, and move past).

For this precise reason, the Torah does not introduce us to Avraham’s childhood. While it was vital in Avraham’s development — and in building his relationship with Hashem — it is not productive to dwell on it when the mission is to “go forth.” The Torah reveals how we are to self-parent, heal and move past childhood trauma. Obviously, we cannot deny or ignore real, hurtful experiences that happen to us. We can’t simply erase memories. But we must decide that past traumas will not define who we are now and who we will become.

THE FEELINGS

Past traumas are only our origin story. Our true story begins the moment we choose to move on and heal. This is Hashem’s dialogue with Avraham of “lech lecha.” Hashem tells Avraham, “I know your past is dense, but to become the ‘Father of Nations,’ you need to move past your childhood. Your life (and your life’s mission) begins now.”

Avremi Zippel decided he was not going to be defined by his childhood. He decided he would create a new path — despite his suffering. Avremi needed to let go of the trauma paralyzing him from materializing his potential. Remarkably, Avremi, whose namesake originates back to Avraham, followed so deftly in his forefather’s footsteps. Avremi was, and still is a victim of abuse, but that is not how he is defined today. Today, Avremi is a champion. Avremi, like Avraham, despite his childhood wounds, the skeptics, and the fear of the unknown, became a trailblazer. Skepticism did not hold back Avraham either. Hashem said to go forth. So he went. Avremi, too, embarked on a journey. He left behind a culture of cover-ups, notions of ostracism, and childhood wounds to become “Avremi,” the father he always wanted to be. A father whose children are fortunate to call him “Tatty.”

THE PRACTICAL (introduction to the concept of your inner child)

As adults, we are often caught up in the responsibilities of life; bills to pay, careers to advance, and relationships to maintain. What often gets left behind is our inner child. We neglect this innocent part of ourselves and lose sight of who we are as individuals. We’ve all heard the expression “never grow up,” which many of us have forgotten. So why is it so important? Because your inner child is the voice within you that knows who you are without pretenses or judgments. It is the foundation of your soul and a crucial part of your personal development as a human being. If you feel like this part of yourself has been neglected, let’s discuss how to nurture your inner child and let childhood wounds go.

1. Acknowledge and recognize your wounds

As a child, you depended entirely on your parents to meet your needs. If they could not fulfill you emotionally or be emotionally available, this wound is called an “insecure attachment.” This may be why you seek attention today: you didn’t get enough attention as a child to feel good about yourself. Feeling rejected or abandoned is another common childhood wound that many people experience. This can occur when your parents divorce or if they’re unable to emotionally support you. Feeling misunderstood is another childhood wound when your parents impose their values and wants onto you. This causes you to feel that you have to be someone you’re not.

2. Learn to recognize what triggers these feelings

In order to work through your childhood wounds, you have to first recognize the feelings that you have when they arise. Your feelings result from unresolved childhood wounds, which means you have yet to heal from them. These feelings can be hard to detect at first, but once you’ve identified them, it’ll be easier to take the next step: finding a way to let them go. It’s important to understand that these feelings result from what happened to you in the past. They are not an accurate reflection of what’s happening now in the present.

3. Go for a walk and breathe

Let’s say you’re experiencing strong negative feelings like anger, resentment, or sadness. It’s important to avoid suppressing these feelings, as they’re a part of you that needs to be expressed and processed. However, if you try to suppress these feelings, they’ll build up inside you until they spill over, and you find yourself in a bad place. So what can you do? Let’s go back to feeling emotions as energy. When you feel sad, you can actually feel the energy inside you as a heaviness. If you feel angry, you can feel the energy inside you as heat. Feeling the energy inside you is a great way to understand your feelings. Another great way to deal with strong emotions is to go for a walk outside. The fresh air and walking movement can help you shift your mood.

4. Write in a journal to release emotions

When you write in a journal, you can look at your feelings from a third-person perspective. You’re no longer experiencing them as yourself but instead observing them from a distance. Journaling is a wonderful way to let go of strong emotions, thoughts, and feelings that keep you from progressing. When you write about unresolved issues from childhood, you’re essentially processing them on paper. The act of writing allows you to look at your feelings with a new perspective and gain clarity about what’s holding you back. When you journal, the best thing to do is be completely honest with yourself. Don’t hold anything back. Let everything come out onto the paper. This is the best way to let go of these emotions and move forward.

CONCLUSION

The journey of self-discovery and healing is not a do-over of your past but really an ongoing journey. And with each step you take, you are one step closer to who you are meant to be. You are equipped and exposed to begin healing your past wounds and becoming your best self. There is no “right” way to do this. You are the only one who can make this journey. You are the only one who can change yourself for the better. And you, only you, get to decide what the journey will look like for you.

The journey of healing is not a one-size-fits-all process. Everyone is different and will respond differently to the same challenges. You may need various tools and techniques to get past your childhood trauma. The key is having an open mind and heart and working with a professional who can guide you through this challenging process. And most importantly, have patience and trust in yourself. You are worth it. So, go forth. Where will your journey take you?

By: Yitzy Cwibeker Parshas Lech Lecha 5783–2022

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