Today I am going to the mikveh and I can barely breathe. The anxiety starts days before when I know that I have a week left until I have to go. I put my children to sleep and begin the long process of preparing to dip my body in the pure waters. But the weight of these waters is heavier than anyone could imagine. It is a trigger for me that takes me back to my past and threatens to drown me. Taking off my clothes, donning a robe, and walking out into the center of the mikveh, leaves me breathless. The hardest part is taking the robe off and being completely naked with another person examining my overweight body, even if it’s from the back. I gulp for air, go under, and come up. Then I walk out, dripping with shame, grabbing the robe as fast as possible and escape into room #6 to put my clothing on as quickly as possible.
I am a frum woman and this is what I have to do every month. Nobody told me about this part of religion when I was 13 and became a baalas teshuva. I was naïve, with wide eyes, looking to escape my sad, broken life. I always thought that it was my mother’s various boyfriends that abused me when I was young, but over the years of deep searching, I discovered that it was my own mother who made me so ashamed of my own nakedness. She was always present, a mother who did not understand the boundaries that I desperately needed. The bathroom lock was broken, always. She would walk in on me when I was in the bathroom, showering. She would pull aside the shower curtain and tell me to turn around. That she wanted to see me. “I made you and I can touch you anytime I want. You are mine. Turn around. Let me see you.” I was 16 years old, afraid of the changes that my body was going through and felt completely out of control over this new body. Each time the shower curtain lifted, I felt like I wanted to die. Die of shame, of the invasion of my privacy, of the inability to protect myself.
Going to the mikveh, reminds me of this feeling and brings up the abuse each and every time I go. I begged the Rabbi to let me dip alone, without an attendant. I explained to him that I was abused as a child and it is a trigger for me now. I tried to describe myself gulping for air, feeling like I am going to pass out each time I disrobe. To no avail. “You have to have someone watching you. But I will talk to them and tell them that you want it done quickly, without unnecessary questions.”
He called them and told them to be swift. When I walked into the mikveh reception area that night, they looked at me with sorry eyes. I was not normal, not 100% sane, mentally ill, and unnecessarily anxious. I avoided eye contact because I was ashamed to be so bothered by something that everyone around me did without a complaint and sometimes even with joy and excitement. I handed them my $12 and walked into the bathroom to get myself ready for the walk of shame. Standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror, I was disgusted. After giving birth to 3 children, my body morphed into something I didn’t recognize any more. Saggy skin, rolls of fat, and the many imperfections no matter what angle I looked at it made me look away. I put on my robe and notified them that I was ready to dip.
“We want to make you as comfortable as possible,” the head mikveh lady told me as I looked down into the water. Her face was full of worry for me and wonderment as to what it might be that was bothering me so much about this seemingly simple ritual. Abuse was a word that became strongly feared in the frum community, and who knows what she was thinking was done to me to make me so emotionally imbalanced.
“I just want to get it over with please,” I pleaded.
“OK. That’s fine.”
I turned around, she took off my robe and I walked into the water, panic taking over my whole mind and body. Barely breathing, I even forgot the brocha that I was supposed to say.
“Ko-Sher” she hollered from atop the balcony.
“I’m done.” I said loudly.
She lifted the robe above her head and I quickly walked up the stairs, turned around and wrapped the robe around my naked body. I walked into the bathroom and put my clothing back on. Tears stung my eyes. What made me cry was how broken I must have looked to the mikveh ladies. It was their concern that broke my heart. Walking out of the mikveh house, the feeling of not being normal and needing all these special phone calls and accommodations swept over me. As I got in my car I began to sob. Right then I knew that this was not how doing a mitzvah was supposed to feel like. Opening myself up to a trigger for my fears and sadness was not what G-d intended when He wrote the laws. This cannot be purity. This cannot be joy. This experience felt more like a punishment than a purification.
I heard there are mikvehs that allow a woman to dip without an attendant, but when I asked the Rabbi, he gave me an adamant no. When I spoke to my religious therapist, she insisted that I must be watched. I had to make phone calls on behalf of myself and my fears and ask repeatedly for the process to go as quickly as possible. But no amount of therapy or asking will take away the pain that I feel each time I am expected to disrobe. The wounds open once more and don’t have time to heal. Breathing gets more difficult and my mind gets foggy with worry. I want out of this life and a free pass on this mitzvah. But I am a frum woman and every step I took since I was 13 led me to this point in my life. I can’t change my course of life at this point. I have a husband who married a religious woman. I have children who I am raising in the paths of the Torah. There is no turning back.
The older I get the more confused I am by this life that I lead. When a community is so careful on being modest: covering your whole body with skirts, long sleeve shirts, and wigs, but when it comes to going to the mikveh, you have to do the opposite of modesty. I have to take all the rules that make me feel safe around men, and undo them by getting naked in front of a stranger. Granted the stranger is not a man, but then again, my mother was a woman, too, and she inflicted so much pain that the feeling will not go away.
There must be a way or a heter out of this tunnel. I’m sure that I am not the only Jewish woman suffering like this. I am not suffering alone, as I speak to my therapist, but nobody can save me from what I fear every month. Even my therapist has come up blank as to what to do to help me. Do the Rabbis not trust that I will dip all the way and properly? Do you need an attendant to watch you light the Shabbos candles or dip your very new dishes in the very same mikveh? Why must there be such a level scrutiny and not enough faith that we can do this on our own, as it is such a private ritual? Why do we have to adhere to this law that can be so hurtful for so many? I know that no amount of therapy is ever going to make my fear of being naked in front of someone else go away. So answer me: is there any way out of this painful law?