E li had been my patient for a long time, although, baruch Hashem, the days of his panic attacks — of running into my office crying — had become a distant memory.
In fact, he was doing so well that I was pretty surprised when he called and told me he needed an urgent appointment.

“For this week, Eli?” I asked.

“Actually,” he responded, quite out of breath and flustered, “for today, for now.”

I heard a knock on my office door a minute later and figured it must be him. I opened up to greet a disheveled, sweaty Eli, who clearly must have sprinted over from his office across town. Luckily I’d had a cancellation and was able to sit with him for as long as he needed. Eli started to explain, but I encouraged him to sit down and catch his breath.

I made it clear I would get us each a cup of water before I’d let him tell me the story. (My rebbi, Rav Meir Atar, always reminds me that the best way to calm an overwhelming situation is with a cup of ice-cold water.) We started with a brachah — shehakol nihyeh bidvaro — that reminds us everything comes from our loving Creator. Then a cool sip of water provided us with a powerful physical sensation that facilitated mindfulness and relaxation. We simultaneously calmed our minds, our souls, and our bodies.

Eli looked slightly more composed and said, “It’s not me this time. I’m fine, kind of— I mean, I guess I’m kind of panicking, but it’s not because I forgot what we worked on or anything.”

I nodded for him to continue and he took another sip of water, then finished the cup and went to refill it before sitting back down.

“It’s my wife’s family. They’re driving her bonkers! I mean, they’re not bad people. I don’t hate them, not really — it’s just that they’re torturing her about visiting them for the chagim, and it’s totally not based in reality. It makes her cry every time they speak on the phone. Frankly, I’ve had enough of their blame game over the past eight years, so I told her that I can’t stand them, and then we had a fight, and now I’m the bad guy. She even told me, ‘You always blame my parents,’ which isn’t true — it’s just that I want to protect her because they make her feel so bad. But I couldn’t find the right words, and then she was crying, and I couldn’t take the pressure and starting having palpitations and then I panicked a bit and then I didn’t know what to do so I ran here like I used to. That’s okay, right?”

I nodded again.

“Look, they’re frum and they’re decent people, and I really do believe that they love her, but they never help her feel good about herself. They’re always bashing her and breaking her down and making her feel guilty over ‘never coming to visit,’ and then I’m left to pick up the pieces. I don’t think that means I’m having an anxiety attack. Or am I? I’m just so upset, and I’m hurting on her behalf.”

“Of course you’re hurting for her,” I said, allying myself with him.

“No. Well, yes— I mean, I don’t know. You know, from the beginning it was crazy, ever since we left Manchester and moved to Israel. She’s just never been good enough for them, even though she’s amazing. She worked so hard to finish a degree with honors. She’s raising a large family, always does chesed in the community, and makes sure to go to a weekly shiur. Of all her sisters, she’s the only one who married a guy who learns every day and sends her kids to a real Talmud Torah. My wife is amazing, but all she ever hears from her parents is how she never visits.”

“Is there a reason she doesn’t visit?” I asked him.

“Well, it’s a real balagan over there, but I’m not the one to judge. Plus, flying back to England with the family costs a fortune, and it’s not like they ever even offered to fly us out. We’ve told them to come to us, and I even offered to pay for a hotel, as there wasn’t any room in our tiny apartment. But instead, it’s ‘too far’ for them to come visit, and ‘too expensive’ for them to buy plane tickets. To me that sounds ridiculous.”

I gave Eli a look to show that I sympathized with him — and really, I did. It was clear he loved and cherished his wife. I’d witnessed this young man as he worked mightily to conquer his anxiety and fix his middos to be the best husband and father possible. Beyond that, Eli had done some amazing hishtadlus to build a new law practice in the city while remaining a masmid — his daily learning seder is nonnegotiable.

That being said, it was painful to see him like this again, and it was clear to me he’d made a fundamental mistake that was going to require some fixing. “Eli, there’s no doubt in my mind you love your wife and are proud of her, and it’s also the case that her parents don’t know how to appreciate her for all of her hard work in becoming such an eishes chayil.”

“So you know I’m not the bad guy — thanks, Dr. Freedman!” He smiled and looked less despondent for a moment.

“Eli, you’re not a bad guy by any means, but you still have some work to do. You’re a professional these days, but you still made a minor-league error.” Eli looked scared enough for me to jump in and reassure him quickly. “You’re a mensch, don’t worry. It was nothing awful and nothing permanent that can’t be fixed. It’s just that you told her that her family is crazy.”

“But they are, Dr. Freedman,” he lamented defensively.

“Eli, you think she doesn’t already feel bad enough about how they’re always bothering her to come visit when it’s frankly impossible!? You think she doesn’t already hurt, knowing how unappreciated she is by them? You need to add insult to injury?”

“I… I guess you’re right.”

“I don’t want to be right, Eli. I want to help you support your wife and get through this in one piece.” I paused and waited for Eli to ask me what to do.

“But how can I protect her from them? She knows they’re unreasonable. I’m not looking to stoke the flames, I just want to calm the whole situation down.”

“Then you need to avoid making remarks about her family, Eli. You are completely correct that she knows how unreasonable they are, so why make her feel worse by stating the obvious? That will only make her feel she has to defend them. Instead, just tell her you know she’s trying her best to be a good daughter.”

Eli sighed. “But her best isn’t good enough for them, and that’s the problem.”

“That’s their problem, Eli. Your problem is making sure your wife knows how much you appreciate her. In the end, nothing you do will fix her relationship with her parents. All you can do is to be as supportive and loving as possible at home in order to give her the koach she needs to navigate this mess.”

Eli stared at me, and then asked, deflated, “Is there really nothing I can do to fix their relationship?”

This was the hurdle Eli had to pass. Could he be calm in a situation that had no immediate resolution? Could he maintain his equilibrium even if he couldn’t fix what looked to him like an impending catastrophe? “No, Eli, not now. The situation sounds too intense. We need to devote some serious thinking to figuring out how to navigate these treacherous waters. But for now, you’ve got to just lie low and help your wife to weather the storm with positivity and unconditional love.”

Eli stood up and looked like he was about to start running again.

“Where are you going, Eli?” I asked.

“I’m going to fix up what I can immediately with the biggest bouquet of flowers I can find, Dr. Freedman.”

And with that he shook my hand and ran out of my office even faster than he’d burst in a mere 30 minutes earlier. Only this time he wasn’t fleeing anything, he was moving toward the goal. 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 672. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Jerusalem. He serves as the medical director of services for English-speakers at Bayit Cham, a national leader providing mental health treatment and outreach within the religious community. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com.