My parents are quick to disbelieve any medical issues I have, and often get angry when I seek treatment. They think I'm a hypochondriac, though I usually only seek medical attention after I'm sick enough that my friends start to get worried.
This came to a head last summer, when I was suffering from clinical depression. My mother vehemently argued with me about whether I was depressed and told me not to get counseling, when I was in fact suicidal, and those arguments drove me further into depression & towards hurting myself.
I'm seeing a therapist now, and the mental issues are clearing up. However, I'm still in a bind about how to deal with my parents. I know that honoring your father & mother is a mitzvah, but how do I honor my parents when listening to them -- or, sometimes, even speaking with them at all -- can be hurtful or even dangerous?
What can Jewish values, ethics and law tell me about how to handle this?
I am sorry that you are having such a hard time with your parents, and glad to hear that you are getting productive help for your difficulties. Dealing with parents can be hard in the best of times, let alone in tense ones, and it is perhaps in this light that Maimonides, in the 12th century, already noted the possibility that a person might pay people to take care of his parents and stay away.
That possibility comes from an important difference between the Jewish understanding of "honor" and the ordinary one. While this is not the ideal, the minimum filial responsibility, according to what I know of Jewish law, is to insure that the parent is clothed and shod, has food and drink (and, if unable to do it him or herself, is fed), and is taken out and returned home (again, if unable to do it for him or herself).
That definition stresses actions we take. We are also not allowed to treat our parents in certain ways, as a function of the fear and awe that the Torah obligates us in. If a parent speaks harshly to us-- and I recognize how difficult it might be to keep what I am about to write-- we are not allowed to respond in any similar way. It is for that reason that Maimonides notes the real possibility that we will outsource the actual care of a parent, out of recognition that we cannot be around them and act appropriately.
This isn't the kind of thing we can accomplish all at once, but is a framework for you to think of: When you're actually with your parents, you need to strive to act with proper fear and awe, not contradicting them, not shouting at them, and so on. If your parents have physical needs, it is your job as their child to take care of those (or hire someone else to do so).
In terms of obeying their commands, you are also obligated to do so, as long as those commands do not contradict what Jewish law tells you to do. Since self-preservation is an obligation of Jewish law, you would not be required to obey those of their commands that are hurtful to you. You would have to try-- and it's hard-- to calmly tell them you are not going to accept this advice/command of theirs, and move the conversation elsewhere. If the conversation becomes heated, you would try to remove yourself from that conversation (or from their presence), to avoid speaking in a way the Torah prohibits.
But you might also point out to them that if they make it uncomfortable for you to be around them, you will choose not to be around them. Staying away is a legitimate option, although a sad one. You can point out to them that both sides need to try harder, to build a space where you can be properly respectful and yet also feel safe and loved. That would be the best option, but it will take efforts on both sides.
Otherwise, you need to take care of yourself (and them, but you can do that at a distance). I hope you do, and that the three of you find a way to build together and towards each other, in health and happiness.
I wonder if your parents might feel that your depressions reflect negatively on them as parents. As if they have done something “wrong” and that they are to blame. Have you explored this with your parents in a conversion, maybe it a separate conversion with each of your parents? Especially depression is very hard to understand for somebody who hasn’t experienced it. Would it help to refer your parents to a forum of family members of people with depression to learn more about this condition? Maybe some of this can be part of a conversation you can have with your parents to address their concerns or to clear up some underlying issues.
The obligation of “honoring your father and your mother” comes with some limitations: You are not supposed to publicly shame your parents or dismiss them but neither do you have to follow their advice if doing so would be harmful for you. Listen to what they have to say and then make your own decision which you may explain to them why you chose not to follow their advice.
In some situations self-care takes precedence. If personal interaction with your parents interferes with your health, like in the way you described, you are entitled to stay away from your parents, yet making sure that they are provided with what they need. You may enlist the help of a third person to do so.
Hopefully over time and if needed from a distance you will be able to rebuild your relationship with your parents.
First, let me begin by saying that I am not a doctor. I have no medical degree and any input I offer does should not, in any way, constitute a medical opinion.
Having said that, let me share with you that it sounds as if your parents are of the generation which believe that Jews can never be alcoholics, never get violent with their spouses (usually their wives), never have mental illness and would never join the armed forces. Even today, there are people who are like this even if they are not of your parents' generation. But the truth is that in my rabbinate - and all over the Jewish world - we are the same as anyone. We just like to hide it a bit better because of the shame it is deemed to bring upon all the Jews. But in hiding it, we hide from ourselves.
This is what it sounds like happened to you.
It sounds as if your illnesses are real and they have their roots in your depression - a very real and often debilitating disease. Now that you are being treated, yasher koach and refuah shleima - congratulations on recognizing the illness and getting it treated and our wishes for a speedy recovery.
But your question still impacts your relationship with your parents. I don't know them but I will assume that they only want the best for you. Their confict with you vis-a-vis treatment for depression possibly comes from the belief that depression is a made-up illness and that, if it were real, Jews don't get depression. It is your reality they will need to come to terms with - that is, they will have to be taught that depression is real. 'Listening to your parents' and 'Respecting your parents' has nothing to do with getting treatment for an illness if they are resistant to it. This is an issue of pikuach nefesh - of saving a soul - your own.
This does not mean, however, that you ought not to respect your parents and honor them with your own words and deeds. Give them the benefit of the doubt when they doubt your illness. Remind them how lucky they are they do not suffer from it. Perhaps they will begin to understand its reality. The simple truth is that unless you have experienced depression, lived with someone who has it, or are a trained professional, it is hard to understand it. I suspect that that is where your parents are at.
In the meantime, do not disparage your parents publicly or privately. Say nothing negative about them except if necessary in the course of talk therapy. Honor them by respecting their shortcoming and try to teach them that your illness is very real.
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