When we first met, I was a new psychologist, just beginning to feel comfortable with troubled people coming to me for help. He was as different from me as one could imagine. He was a dark-skinned African American man. His military background, athletic and artistic accomplishments, his broken family history were all outside my own experience. He explained in introducing himself, “I know I am not happy. I don’t know what happiness looks like.”
As he opened up, he talked about things he had never told anyone. As the only boy with three sisters, his mother had never accepted him. He looked too much like the father who had beaten and left her. She treated him like an unwanted stray dog. Often the family would eat and she would tell him there was nothing left for him. Any infraction could lead to expulsion from the apartment, forced to spend the night on the fire escape. She predicted he would end up in prison, another lost black man no one cared about.
Yet despite all the abuse and neglect he had forged a successful life. He had much to prove to her. He found coaches, teachers, and preachers who assured him that he mattered. He made good choices, never spending a single night in jail. By the time I met him he had a nice house, a good job, a happy marriage, and a large circle of friends. Still, he felt empty and fearful.
In therapy we faced his painful past. The simple truth: You did not deserve this. You are not your abuse. It took him years to accept and revise his life story. Despite our different backgrounds we developed trust, respect, and comfort in one another. Together we journeyed from the shame he had carried all his life, to pride in all he had accomplished since leaving his wretched family home. He found happiness and peace, by the end no longer haunted by his past. I heard when he passed away that his church was full of mourners who loved and respected him.
Rob Abramowitz has been a temple member since 1987. He has been married to Vicki for 40 years. They have two adult children and two grandchildren. Rob is a psychologist in private practice working with adults and families.