Life & Culture

Jewish prayers are helping us to live with my son’s psychosis

Secular Jew Tanya Frank never imagined she’d turn to religion until her beloved teenage boy’s life fell apart


Aside from mum’s chopped liver, her love of Zionist documentaries and the few Hebrew songs she remembered from her childhood at Norwood Jewish Orphanage, I wouldn’t really have known we were Jewish.

I was curious but totally assimilated into a secular life on Chingford Hall council estate until it was time for my sons to go to high school.

King Solomon in Essex was well-funded and resourced, so I dug out my parents’ ketubah from almost four decades ago and got permission to enrol the boys. Dale learned his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah at King Solly, and Zach was able to learn prayers in Hebrew.

I didn’t anticipate how desperately we would need these prayers seven years later.

The boys and I had moved to Los Angeles to help care for my ailing aunt, and we moved into her house after she died, assimilating into a sunny California life. But at the age of 19, Zach had what the doctors called a psychotic break.

He lost touch with reality, was hospitalised and diagnosed with psychosis. Everything that he was working towards fell apart: the degree he had been pursuing at a prestigious West Coast college, the group of friends he treasured, all of them braided like a loaf of challah, and even his love of surfing, which had become his religion.

The day he came home from the psychiatric ward, I had expected him to feel better. But he looked pasty and fidgeted as if he didn’t belong in his own body. He was hungrier than I had ever known him to be but remained unsatiated.

Everything seemed quite wrong. It didn’t seem possible that this boy of mine, who had talked about wanting to be an author or a professor or a scientist, who was planning a year abroad in Barcelona, could no longer get out of bed to brush his teeth and continued to be suspicious of the neighbours, his friends, and even me. The doctors had not fixed him and I had no idea how to.

I was too scared to leave him alone in those early days. I sat next to him as he lay in bed, staring at the walls, sedated by the psychotropic drugs.

“What is going to happen to me?” he asked, convinced I knew. But I understood nothing other than how fearful I was and how much I loved him, how I wasn’t sure that we would adjust to this new label, this sense of chaos. When there weren’t any words to fit what was happening or they felt too full of stigma to pronounce, we turned to prayer.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Zach recited as we stood on the cool wood floor. I repeated them after him, the three words echoing in the old Moorish home.

Something about the ancient language made me question who had come before us and uttered the same lexis. The doctors wanted to know too, because as well as asking about Zach’s birth, which was pretty much normal, they asked if any other family members had been diagnosed with mental health challenges.

By this time, I had started researching desperately, writing it all out as if to give it some order with clear margins and page numbers.

I’d wondered whether his lack of sleep, exam pressure, marijuana use, or immigration status had precipitated this thing. Had he been bullied because I was gay, like my aunt? And might our ancestors have tainted our DNA?

I decided to Skype with my uncle Henry in Israel. I watched him on my computer screen, his furrowed forehead under the bright embroidered threads of his yarmulke. He told me about his mother, my grandmother Klothilde, and how she had been admitted to Banstead Mental Hospital after the Second World War.

He cleared his throat, perhaps clogged with emotion, while telling me that after her admission, Klothilde’s husband (Henry’s father) stopped mentioning her, and soon enough if it was as if she had never existed at all.

This was common back then; such was the shame associated with madness. Even their tight-knit Jewish community could not save my grandmother from living the last 40 years of her life in an asylum.

“Do you mind if I try to find out more?” I asked my uncle. If I could find out what medicine she had been given, what helped and what hadn’t, I could use the information to fix Zach. We shared some of the same DNA, after all.

“No, not at all,” he replied. “I know they called her Tilly, for short.”

The archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives got to work for me, and a few weeks later an envelope came in the post. It was so thin I wondered how it could represent a life. The letter informed me there had been a fire at Banstead.

My grandmother’s record had burned to ashes. All that remained was a log sheet that showed her date of admission and diagnosis of non-systematized delusional disorder, a condition that was non-congenital and of late onset.

These meagre facts stopped me in my tracks. Instead of continuing to look for the perfect cure, adhering to the dominant biological medical model that sees the brain as broken and drugs as the frontline defence, I turned again to my uncle.

“What do you know about her life?” I questioned. “What happened to her?”

As a child, Tilly and her older sister had crashed into a tree while tobogganing, he told me. Tilly had lost consciousness, but her sister was killed outright.

Tilly’s parents died young, too, leaving only her brother Kurt, whom she loved fiercely. Years later, after Tilly and her husband, my British grandfather, left Europe to escape the war, she swore she would bring Kurt across the sea to live with them. She would find a way.

By the end of the war, the couple had three children, but there had been no word from Kurt. Like so many others, Tilly eventually got the news that he had been killed in Auschwitz.

Her demise was quick after that. The madness of grief? I believe it is a thing — a dysregulation of sorts that comes from extreme distress. Perhaps this is what Zach had “inherited”.

Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, explains how trauma can be passed down through the process of epigenetics.

The effects of stress and trauma as well as resilience can transmit biologically, beyond cataclysmic events, to the next generation, she asserts. Her seminal studies looked not only at Holocaust survivor descendants, but also at the children of women in their third trimester of pregnancy when they witnessed the devastation of 9/11.

We are born with a set of genes that can be turned on and off, depending on what’s happening in our environment. If a child grows up with an overload of toxic stress, their stress-response genes are likely to be activated, and they can pass this response onto their children.

It isn’t necessarily a remedy, this knowing, but it is a sensibility that helps me try to connect with Zach rather than control him, and to look at what happened to him rather than what is wrong with him.

Mostly it helps me to say his name, rather than to hide in the shadows like my grandfather did. It leads me to advocate for less coercive and punitive methods of treatment. It gives me hope.

We still sometimes turn to prayer. Zach recites it and I recognise those first three words, always.

They continue to give us both a sense of identity and togetherness, linking us back to the strengths as well as the suffering of those who came before us.

‘Zig Zag Boy: Madness, Motherhood & Letting Go’, by Tanya Frank is published by William Collins

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