One of the things that has struck me throughout my journey is the degree to which being a victim and survivor of abuse has shaped my world.
I’ve blogged about it before- noting how this experience influenced my decision to move to Israel.
I received some really amazing feedback from people about that blog. Friends who had made aliyah themselves and, in the words of one person, “it’s been 7 years since I did it and I just now realized that’s why.” That my blog had helped him put together the pieces of his story. I even had a reader in California message me that he too was a victim of abuse and a gay Jew and was empowered to see someone like him speaking up.
I’m not one for trigger warnings, but in this case, I’ll say that I’m going to share some very personal and possibly hard-to-read content. So if you’re not up for it, maybe come back to this post later, or not- do what feels right to you.
I dedicate this blog post to all the survivors out there.
Some survivors can’t speak out or are afraid to. Understandably. The stigma is enormous- sometimes our abusers will try to punish us. Or sometimes people are still being abused. One friend of mine in Israel, whose name I of course will keep private, is in this situation. And to hear him talk about how his family is stalking him brought back so many bad memories. And I’m so proud of him for surviving and progressing towards his goals despite the many people trying to hold him back. Ari (pseudonym)- I’m with you.
I’m fortunately on the other side. Not that you ever stop encountering abusive people- just a few weeks ago a Belgian woman chased me out of her AirBnB at 8pm in a rural village because I complained about insects in my room. She claimed it was normal to have bugs and (her words) mice in her house- that meant it was a healthy home. When I asked for help in dealing with bees buzzing around my room, she went ballistic saying I was a “child” and she wanted me gone. There’s no logic- it’s literally as crazy as it sounds. That’s how abuse works. I had to spend 40 euros on a cab to the nearest town and another 100 on a last minute hotel room.
I could add to this list my bank, Bank of America. I’ve been with this bank since 2004- 14 years. While over the past few years I had heard troubling stories about their mortgages and the bank bailout, I had personally never run into issues with my simple checking account.
Until now. Two months ago, I noticed some crazy expenditures on my bank account. Someone had bought just over $1400 in fried chicken and other goods in Rishon LeZion and Eilat, Israel- two cities I had never visited. I like chicken, but not that much.
I called a Bank of America representative immediately- within 24 hours, as you’re supposed to do. The agent agreed these charges were way out of character and gave me a temporary credit to cover the fraud while they investigated.
Then, about a week ago, while in Belgium I noticed suddenly my account went way down. I called the bank- again, on my own dime using foreign minutes- to figure out what was going on. Turns out the bank needed to clarify several expenditures in the fraud claim in order to wrap up the investigation. In the meantime, with no message or notice, they had withdrawn the temporary credit, explaining the drastic drop in funds. I gave them the appropriate information, the customer service agent laughing (along with me) about the ridiculous fried chicken purchases. She said it made her day to see something so silly. She expected the money back in my account soon- perhaps as quick as 2 days.
I again followed up, using the last of my sim card minutes, when I saw the strangest message the next day. Bank of America sent me a short message (with no proof) that actually my fried chicken disaster was valid! That I had bought who knows how many hundreds of pounds of fried chicken in cities I’ve never visited. Despite having spent $50 in phone calls speaking to multiple agents for several months, Bank of America had decided to steal my money.
In a last ditch effort to fix things, I took to Twitter (because this sometimes works) and I filed a report with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the “CFPB”- thanks Elizabeth Warren!). I even shared visuals of the dates of purchase alongside my Google Maps timeline showing I was never in those places. Four different people on their social media team responded- all of whom told me to call a phone number whose extension doesn’t work. It’s four digits long and it’s supposed to be six- so I couldn’t get a human being and they refused to share any written info. I then got someone on the phone from the staff that deals with CFPB complaints. She told me they’d try to get back to me in two weeks- two weeks without my money to cover my travel and my life expenses.
I’ve now called this customer service rep back on her personal line three times during her working hours with no response. I can’t check any messages she may have left before because my sim card minutes have now run out. And I’m not about to spend another $50 on wasted calls- and stress. I’m supposed to be enjoying my trip, not wading through Bank of America’s labyrinth of people who try to discourage me from getting my money back. To give up due to the stress of the process- which is a smart strategy because it is getting really stressful and I’m now in a pinch while abroad. Despite having done everything by the book.
I’m hoping somehow there’ll be a resolution in the next few days, but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve waited two and a half months and have been given the run around over and over again. The fried chicken story isn’t funny anymore- give my money back.
Sadly, if you go a cursory Google search, I’m hardly the only one getting screwed by their bank. Purposefully.
So you see, abusive behavior doesn’t end when you leave the primary abusive relationships you were stuck in. New people or institutions come along and hurt you- and it hurts twice as bad because you’re still trying to heal from the previous abuse while managing to stay afloat- financially, emotionally, physically.
I’ve heard all sorts of reactions, in Israel, America, and elsewhere (especially in Israel, which is such a family-oriented society) when I say I’ve cut out my family. Some people just want me to “move on”. Others show genuine empathy. Others, like one of my childhood rabbis I bumped into a few months ago, told me to try to reconcile with relatives who sexually abused me. My answer: “have you ever been sexually abused?”
His: “no”. He backed off.
So let me tell you a bit what it was like for me to abused. To lift my voice up and to share my story when so many others can’t. To maybe make you a bit more empathetic. Or, if you’re a survivor yourself, to advocate for us.
And due to laws stacked against victims, I am not going to name any names. Just share the experiences.
Today, the hardest experiences for me are usually the easiest for everyone else. See, I’m fantastic at foreign languages (several Spaniards told me recently they thought I was from Barcelona or Chile). I travel the world- 8 countries in the past year alone. Often places that few people visit- I’m adventurous. Sibiu, Salerno, Chloraka, Mataró, Cabo de Gata, Debrecen, Perpignan. Just to name a few. If you don’t know most of the names, that’s probably because instead of waiting in line at the Vatican, I was chilling with rugby players in Bracciano, Italy.
What’s hard for me are the basics. Peeing, pooping, drinking water, breathing, eating, looking at myself in the mirror, sleeping. Bright lights, loud sounds. When someone enters a door unexpectedly, or bangs on it.
When growing up, relatives would regularly walk in on me in the bathroom. While urinating, taking a bath, you name it. Sometimes when I was naked. And when I protested, one relative’s response (even well into my teens) was “don’t cover your penis up, it’s nothing I haven’t seen.”
My relatives used food as a weapon against me. I distinctly remember being in a restaurant for my birthday and ordering a dessert. When the dessert came, one relative shouted out loud, in front of the whole restaurant: “Matt, Matt the fat water rat.” While the rest of my family said nothing or laughed. I could give hundreds of examples.
So then I worked hard to be slim and fit. But when I looked svelt, my family (who was sexually abusing me) would comment on how hot I looked. Which frankly scared the shit out of me. So I then ate more. Because if I looked more attractive to them, maybe they’d sexually abuse me more. Like when one relative, well into my teen years, would slap my ass and say “I’m playing tushy drums”. Years of protests did nothing- I just received laughter in my face. And when your literal existence- your food, your water, your housing, your transportation- is at their behest, there’s not really much you can do about it. “Suck it up”, as one relative would say. Or “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well put by someone whose entire worldview is about saying nasty things to people. So nasty that they apparently they were recently detained by security at a hospital while visiting a sick relative. For screaming out of control at other family members. Not surprised- I had to call the police on this relative multiple times as a child. For the loud screaming I had to endure. And for thinking they were going to hit me. Which one time, they actually did. The neighbors, I can picture their faces, looked on outside as the police spoke to my relatives. Nothing changed.
During all of this, I was a child. Children have a lot of needs, including supportive family members. Or at least ones who won’t make them miserable. Typing away on a loud computer keyboard till three in the morning in sex chat rooms next to my bedroom. So loud I couldn’t sleep. Of course my needs didn’t matter. And the chatting continued- I even bumped into some of the filthy transcripts while using the computer.
And my mornings are still difficult. I can recall relatives who were sexually abusing me, waking me up at times. Touching me inappropriately- even when I told them to stop. Guilting me for when I woke up and for taking too long to get ready. When I basically lived in a dungeon- some relatives wouldn’t let me sleep at night, others made my mornings time for touching my body.
Some studies have compared sleeplessness to being drunk. That sleep deprived teenagers shouldn’t really be driving to high school so early. For me, this was my entire reality. And sometimes still is, though thanks to a lot of hard work, a bit less. As a 6 year old I remember family screaming so loud- in different houses, on different occasions, even different family members. So loud that I could hear them screaming 3 floors up. And couldn’t sleep a wink.
To this day, one of the scariest times for me is when I close my eyes. And I check to make sure my hotel room or apartment door is locked. Because frankly, I have it in my system to be scared that someone will come in and hurt me. For you, it might be normal to close a door. For me, it’s an emotional necessity.
Returning to the metaphor of sleep deprivation to alcoholism, yes, that has been a problem too. Only in my early 30s did I discover I was an alcoholic, using alcohol, as many abuse victims do, to temporarily soothe the pain. Pain that can feel non-stop at times. Both when people are being actively abused- I was stalked by multiple relatives via phone, social media, in person, and even via my friends. And when you see things that remind you of the abuse, even years later. Could be a food you used to eat on your birthday, a sign for a restaurant you used to go to, even a phrase someone says that your abuser used to say. And you’re not always sure if they mean it in the same way. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the original phrase itself wasn’t abusive, but the person saying it was. And I have to decipher what all of this means for me now. What’s right? Emotional abuse is just as scarring as any other type, and incredibly hard to heal from.
I’m proud to have not drunk a single drop of alcohol since I realized I was an alcoholic over 2 years ago. Even as a few months ago I discovered it runs in my family- something nobody bothered to tell me that could have saved me a lot of pain.
And a few months before I realized I was an alcoholic, I realized my boyfriend at the time was too. Unfortunately, when you grow up surrounded by abuse, you’re often initially attracted to people who behave the same. It’s what you know. And I’ve discovered it’s not what I want for myself. In fact, seeing his behavior helped me realize my own challenge.
Usually when you have these kind of problems you go to your therapist. When I had told my therapist I thought my (ex) boyfriend had a drinking problem (he drank excessively, emotionally, and even drove while drunk), the psychiatrist’s response was: “don’t worry, it’s just a cultural thing. His family is from a part of the country where that is common.” Another therapist, when I told them that my ex was repeatedly pressuring me to have unprotected sex and touching me when I didn’t want, was equally nonchalant. I’m glad I chose to protect myself in spite of the voices around me telling me I was worth less.
You see therapists can be abusive too. I’ve actually found most of the ones I’ve worked with are. One therapist I worked with liked to tell me stories about his narcissistic mother- even after I told him I didn’t want to know about his personal life. He then wanted to tell me how much he disapproved of his daughter’s career- as if somehow this was relevant to my life. Or the hundreds of dollars I was paying him.
Another therapist prescribed me the wrong medication in the wrong doses. And lost my prescriptions. I’m proud to say I’m almost entirely off these medications- which I discovered were most likely improperly and unnecessarily prescribed- with years of side effects. Weight gain, fuzzy memory, stunted emotions, and more. My therapist even told me I could drink while on them- which a much better doctor informed me down the line could’ve ruined my liver. For life.
The therapist would often arrive 30-45 minutes late to sessions- or sometimes, not show up at all. This doesn’t even cover the therapist who told me, to my face, that she would not “validate my sexual abuse.” Despite the fact that she was obviously not there when it happened (and I was). And I had told her about relatives playing with their genitalia in front of me. Sometimes screaming at me while fully naked. Well into my teenage years.
Reading this you might wonder: “well why didn’t you get out of this?” First of all, I did. Despite growing up in an entire environment of abusive family, family friends, and the therapists they chose for me. Family has the most control over your life during your most vulnerable and formative stages. And even if you start to realize how damaging they are, you’re dependent on them and it hurts you psychologically. It takes years- maybe even a lifetime- to recover. And things that seem strange to you might seem normal to someone who has been abused. While you might view someone grabbing your ass as highly inappropriate, to me it just reminds me of my family. That’s what I grew up with. Not a pinch- grabs. Slaps. Spanks. Gross.
Obviously when you grow up like this, you both don’t understand other people’s boundaries nor how to protect your own. I was taught that I didn’t deserve boundaries or autonomy. And so why should I think other people are different?
Years later, I realized that I had hurt other people. To give an example, on several occasions I tried to grab straight friends’ bodies. And they didn’t want it. It’s a violation of their body and self- and it’s wrong. It’s harassment. So once I had this realization of how I had hurt others, I had some serious moments of repentance and disgust. I went through the names in my head and I started apologizing. I wrote messages to people who in some cases I hadn’t seen in years. Detailing specifically what I was sorry for and asking for their forgiveness, promising that I had learned from the experience.
And I was relieved to see when people forgave me. Some didn’t view what happened nearly as seriously as I did. And some were upset- and were glad I apologized. It was the right thing to do. And it’s important to reflect and respect others’ feelings- not to tell them how to feel. And to apologize when you’ve hurt then. While I’m angry and ashamed to have hurt others, I’m proud to have realized the wrong and brought some healing to them. And frankly, to me too.
It was brave. Abusers never look themselves in the mirror. I saw my worst fear being realized- that if I didn’t change my behavior, I was going to become like the people who hurt me. For someone to escape the path they were taught- the abusive path of hurting others and self- you have to do some serious soul searching. And question almost everything you were taught. Like you’re Jim Carrey in The Truman Show– everything you thought was real and normal was an illusion. I always was moved by that film as a kid- an in retrospect, I see why. It was my life. To escape this is mind-bending and thoroughly exhausting. And I’m extremely proud of myself for choosing this more difficult but morally right path.
We all make mistakes and I continue to do so like all human beings. But I’m proud to say that in spite of an entire ecosystem that taught me to harm others, I’ve chosen a path oriented towards respect, kindness, sincerity, sensitivity, self protection, strength, and growth. What to many people might seem natural is something I had to learn on my own. Through observing other people, through researching things, through going to an AA meeting, through asking people for advice. I raised myself. And I think for having overcome such incredible hatred, I’ve ended up even sweeter and kinder than the average person.
So that rather than being like the abusive relative who pumped my rabbi for personal information about me- which he gave- I try to respect people’s confidence. So that rather than being like my relatives who told me playing music and ice skating was “effeminate” and “not normal” (they put an end to those activities), I try to let people do what they want. And if they find a passion, to encourage them to pursue it. Rather than being like the relatives who’d degrade my appearance, saying I was overweight or too skinny, or caressing my hair over and over again, or grabbing my inner thigh near my crotch. I don’t touch people if they don’t want me to. It’s not hard, but for someone who has had this done to them for years, it is. And the fact that I’ve chosen a different way of being is a testament to my strength of character and hopefulness.
So for you, taking a chug of water isn’t hard. For me, it reminds me of relatives saying I was irresponsible for drinking too little. Even though drinking water is good for me, I associate it with people who hurt me. Whose basic advice I couldn’t trust. And who told me this actually important advice in really degrading ways. The same relatives who touched my body. The same relatives who wrote me out of their will. Not long after I came out of the closet. I didn’t receive a penny.
How should I know, as a child, that their advice about drinking water is any different from their advice about punching kids back on the playground? Or about not being a degenerate effeminate “fag” while they flashed their penis at me, told me how masculine jock straps were, and left their homoerotic Men’s Health magazines lying on the bathroom floor? Perhaps being an alcoholic isn’t the only thing that runs in my family. Boy did that revelation screw up my understanding of my gay identity.
Narcissists make everything about them. My relatives, almost to a person, fit that description. If I accomplished something, I knew I had to thank them a million times, because it was really their accomplishment. If they were feeling down, it was my job as a child to comfort them. To give them skin-to-skin massages. To listen to them tell me highly personal stories about their friends and their friends’ children- who I knew. Which then made it super awkward when I’d see them, knowing about their clinical depression or dating issues or their own abusive relationships. That I’m quite sure they never wanted me to know about. But my relatives respected no one’s boundaries, and I know it all. More than a child should ever have to know.
So for you, maybe languages are hard. Maybe traveling is difficult. Maybe living or traveling alone is even harder. I’ve now been on the road for 6 weeks by myself. And while there have been ups and downs, frankly it doesn’t feel much different from the rest of my life. I’ve always had to rely on myself. And even with the challenges of travel, I feel pretty good right now. At least this journey on my own is by choice.
For me, what’s really hard is going to the bathroom worried someone will barge in. What’s really hard for me is choosing what to eat- hearing my relatives’ voices in my head about what will make me fat, what will make me attractive, what’s good and what’s bad. What I do and don’t deserve to put in my body. Which they then violated.
For me what’s hard is the loneliness. Even though I’m grateful to myself for separating from such toxic and mean-spirited people, I’ve had to build a support network on my own. The things you might take for granted. That your family can help you financially or let you crash for a while when you’re in-between jobs. Or give you advice. Or just have a place to visit. A place to call home.
I don’t have that. I didn’t choose it. I was born into it. And if I had decided to stay a part of it, I would’ve become like it. And you wouldn’t like who I am- and I wouldn’t either.
It’s not a choice. It’s a mandate between becoming abusive or spending thousands of hours and dollars and effort in building yourself into something better. Breaking a chain likely going back generations. So that the next one, if I make one, won’t have to suffer.
And so that I, even with all the years of pain I’ve endured and will continue to feel, can hopefully live a better life.
I can’t say it’s easy. When friends talk about cousins or missing their siblings or going to a relative’s wedding, I can’t relate. I’m an only child and I was abused by so many relatives. I have no family get togethers- not that I’d ever want to go to. I don’t have any weddings and I don’t have anyone to crash with.
If I do, it’s because I found these people. Deprived of even the most basic elements of unconditional love family should give, I’ve had to find them on my own.
So that while I’m still stewing in a mess of Bank of America shit, a friend in Israel asked me the most amazing question. “Matt, how are you doing financially?”
Because there are times I really question whether having come to Israel was the right choice- and who knows where the future will take me.
But one thing is for sure- this friend. Whether he actually offers me money or a place to crash, I know he’s got my back. And he won’t let me fall. I earned it through our friendship- and he knows I love and support him too.
This kind of kindness will never replace the hatred and lack of care that I received as a child- even well into my adult years. When you still need your family in various ways.
What it does is help me feel that I’m not alone.
At my core, I’m a hopeful person. A realist- there are some pretty awful people in the world and sometimes I feel I’ve met all of them. But I haven’t- there are a lot. The maxim “most people are good people” is not one that speaks to me. Not because I think most people are evil, but I think “good” is a relative and fairly opaque term. And because a lot of people aren’t so great to others. You have to protect yourself from them. And some people are shining beacons. And others are somewhere in between, with their behavior even changing based on the circumstances they find themselves in. A world of “good” and “bad” people is a dangerous oversimplification, a black-and-whiteness I resist.
So in the end, why am I traveling? Why do I put in so much effort to heal? In the face of almost impossible odds- I’ve almost died many times during my life. From the stress, from the anxiety, from the degradation. From eating disorders, from alcoholism, from risky ways I lashed out to just have some release. To at times, thinking life was too hard to live.
And in the end, I never took that step. Even though there was sometimes part of me that just wanted to end it, I didn’t take the jump. I didn’t lose hope. Not because life is always great. But because I believed it could get better.
And one thing I can say is that even with the insanity of certain parts of the past year and a half- being chased by a violent Arab man in Israel, escaping an actual wolf in Belgium, seeing a viper in Romania, having landlords steal my money, having my bank steal my money, living through air raid sirens, being chased by a pack of wild dogs, and having a Druze man threaten me because I was gay. I am here. I am alive. I know more. I’ve grown. I do despair- and I don’t give up.
I’m Matt Adler. I’m an abuse and incest survivor. An abuse and incest victim. Those words carry such weight, such stigma- but it’s not me who did it. So why should I bear the weight of the sins?
I’m a person who has risen above the fate that was planned for me to be someone kinder, more caring, more daring, and more loving than the people who’ve tried to sink me along the way.
If they don’t give you a boat, if they don’t give you a raft, swim.
I can’t promise where you’ll find land. But wherever you can pause and grab a piece of wood, rest. Wherever someone helps you along the way, give thanks. Enjoy the moment- you don’t know when the next good one will come along. Breathe, take in the sights when you can. Who knows what tomorrow holds.
All I know is I’d rather be swimming, sometimes gasping for air, struggling and getting stronger. Than living in a bitter sea built of someone else’s tears.
You’re worth it. I love you guys- don’t give up. I won’t either.