Post-trauma is a psychiatric issue that stems from an external event in a person’s life, one that includes an element of danger or the chance of danger (for instance, having a personal experience involving murder, rape, or violence; a car accident; or battle — or even being a spectator). The experience a person has, even if he or she remains physically intact, immediately calls up feelings of shock, fear, and vigilance. Oftentimes it takes a while until these feelings pass, much like a physical wound, and sometimes they leave their imprint on a person’s mental world, which becomes more sensitive to things that are related to the harrowing experience the body has undergone. This is post-trauma. Post-trauma is a problem that can be solved through a long and complex mental process; in some cases, feelings of desperation, guilt, and anger can prevent healing.
Two and a half years ago, I was in a car accident. A car that was behind me reversed, hitting me, resulting in back and head injuries, a number of fractures, and most importantly, post-trauma. I cannot bear to be touched on my back. I cannot leave my house unaided. I have stopped driving and cannot ride on the bus. I cannot be with a group of people if my husband is not with me; in effect, I am unable to be far from him for extended periods of time. So, for example, I was employed at a workplace where my husband worked too; when he stopped working there, I resigned.
Obviously, the state of affairs makes daily life difficult; however, immersion in the mikveh has become even more problematic. My very arrival at the mikveh is fraught with fear. Being naked in such a place constitutes an opportunity for a tremendous number of triggers that I cannot always control. Not knowing whether the mikveh attendant will be kind and enabling or uncompromising and argumentative makes it impossible to mentally prepare for the complicated experience, making coming to the mikveh a trial. For the most part, when I do go to the mikveh, on my arrival I have difficulty breathing and an overwhelming desire to escape as quickly as possible.
Being in the mikveh itself is also no easy task. Some mikveh attendants allow themselves to touch my back without my permission in order to remove hairs, which is an immediate trigger for me. Moreover, because of my back’s sensitivity, the fact that a woman is standing behind me, while I am naked, sets off anxiety and fear. This anxiety, my awareness of what might happen, leads to a terrible mental state and a sense of disadvantage; being there at all is painful for me, and all I want is to flee.
There have even been a number of times when I chose to forgo immersion because I did not have the mental strength to withstand the tension that surrounded it.
But I know how the immersing experience can be made easier. The attendant, for one, can be a positive influence. Her greeting when I arrive is very significant; she can meet me with a smile and allow me to immerse on my own without arguing with me. Avoiding contact, too — especially contact with my back, in my case — can be very helpful. If I am forced to tell her that I am suffering from post-trauma, she can be discreet about it and not ask too many questions. Some attendants have asked me why I was suffering from post-trauma, what it means for me and what can happen to me — which is terribly difficult for me. There are women who come to the mivkeh having experienced extended internal battles and wars with the world around them, and these types of questions can undermine their world and the peace they have found, as well as affecting the not-at-all simple experience they have at the mikveh.
The physical space of the mikveh, moreover, is crucial. Even the question of whether there is adequate parking next to the mikveh can be significant for women like me and for others. The closest mikveh to my house is a forty-minute walk away, on a busy and crowded street, with no reasonable parking nearby. On weekdays, I can make it if my husband drives around while I’m inside, but imagine immersing on Friday night, after candle-lighting, when I have to walk for forty minutes there and another forty minutes back — and I cannot go in one direction by car because there is no parking. In the first year after the accident, when my entire body hurt when I walked, this was doubly hard.
Once, after the accident, when I had to immerse on Friday night and walked with my husband the entire way, I arrived at the mikveh and found myself arguing with the attendant about whether she could allow me to immerse alone. She also yelled at us for arriving late and insisted that my husband stand far away at the end of the street and not come close to the mikveh. I understand that it is difficult for her to work on Friday nights, and I understand the importance of privacy for other women. But I wish she could have stopped for a moment; I wish she could have thought, and seen me, a young woman, recently married, shaking from pain and exertion, a woman had just walked with her husband for forty minutes with great difficulty in order to immerse. I wish she could have been pleasant, greeted me kindly, and enabled me to have a more calm and peaceful immersion.
I am troubled by the fact that the mikveh is not accessible and suited to women with physical and mental health problems. This need not be the case in a proper and true religious framework. I hope and await the change, the developments on this issue; I pray they come soon.