Contempt kills the spirit

Contempt kills the spirit

Dr. Miriam Adahan

Since Sticks and Stones was published, I have received thousands of letters and phone calls from people suffering from abusive family members, bosses and co-workers. Boruch Hashem, there is now more awareness about the problem. Before reading the book, many people were not even aware that they were abuse victims. This awareness can make the problem create even more pain at first, for it may mean giving up the hope that, “If I just try hard enough, I’ll get the love, understanding, respect, support and communication I crave.” Hard work won’t ever be enough if the person has APD (Abusive Personality Disorder).

The most frequent questions about APD situation are:

1. “DOES S/HE REALLY HAVE APD (Abusive Personality Disorder)?” We are all grouchy, irritable and unkind at times, but if we feel ashamed about our behavior and apologize for the pain we’ve caused, we do not have APD. People with APD do not feel shame about hurting others. They do not feel sorry for the person they hurt or take any responsibility for the damage they have caused. In fact, they may be proud of being “honest” or attack the victim as being to blame. People with APD are adept at excusing, justifying and rationalizing their behavior with even more abuse:

“You’re the one who’s hurting me by being so inept, uncaring and crazy.”

“Yelling is the only way to get you to listen.”

“It’s all your fault. You’re the one who provoked me!”

“You’re making things up. It never happened. I didn’t do anything.”

2. “HOW CAN I GET THROUGH TO THIS PERSON?” You can’t! They are not interested in closeness, only power. Let’s say you tell the person, “What you said hurt me.” A normal person will reply, “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I’ll really try not to do it again.” But if the person has APD, the fact that you have shown that you are bothered by what they said means that you’ve exposed your vulnerability, which will cause the person to use the word more frequently! Second, the fact that you have a complaint against them will enrage them, because they cannot tolerate thinking that they have any faults. Thus, they are likely to explode angrily and accuse you of being abusive for having pointed out a fault. They might say, “I didn’t say anything wrong. You’re just a complainer.”

3. “HOW CAN I CHANGE HIM/HER? HOW CAN I GET HIM/HER TO LOVE ME, RESPECT ME AND APPRECIATE ME? HOW CAN I MAKE HIM/HER STOP SCORNING, MOCKING, CRITICIZING AND HURTING ME?’ These questions imply that it is the victims’ responsibility to make the abuser stop. This is a fatal mistake, which keeps victims mired in shame and guilt, which then encourages more abuse. Abusers blame others for all their problems. If victims fall for this bait and continue to feel guilty and ashamed, they will not be able to break this deadly bond.

4. “SO HOW CAN I LIVE WITHOUT LOVE, COMMUNICATION AND RESPECT?” You’ll live, but you won’t live very happily, any more than a person being tortured in prison can truly enjoy his existence. Anything you do can be twisted by the abuser into an excuse for an attack. Victims who makes lists of the complaints they receive end up feeling that they are everything they do is wrong - the way they eat, clean, slice the bread, spend money, discipline the children, etc. Abusers interpret any irritation or failure to satisfy their will as signs of disrespect; thus they feel that they are the true victims, which justifies their explosions or vindictive punishments. Any expression of pain on the victim’s part is seen as a criticism, arousing angry accusations or ridicule. The fact that these abusers can be so nice at times, or nice to the people they want to impress, makes a diagnosis far more difficult.

5. “MAYBE I’M THE CRAZY ONE.” Often, an abuser will try to drive his victim crazy. A famous play called “Gaslight,” depicting how this is done, became a noun and a verb describing this kind of behavior. A gaslighter, for example, will do the following:

He will make a promise, for example, to meet you at a certain place, then not show up and when you ask why he wasn’t there,, will say, “But I never made an appointment with you. You must be crazy.”

Whenever you show any signs of fatigue, nervousness or anger, he will insist, “You really must get to a psychiatrist and get some pills to make you feel better.”

He will make an appointment for himself with the psychiatrist and insist that you come. When you get to the appointment, he will insist that you are the crazy one and prove it to the psychiatrist, who is very

likely to agree with the husband when you become agitated and insist that he is the one who needs to be treated.

6. “WHAT CAN I DO?” When a person is in pain and can do something to relieve it, he stands a better chance of healing. But when a person is subject to frequent, unpredictable shocks (which is what critical remarks are), he will eventually fall into a state of helpless and despair. Make sure that you keep a list of the complaints and explosive episodes, noting the time and date. This is because, when the abuser is acting nice, you will forget that he was ever nasty. Make sure you keep your feelings to yourself; the abuser is not interested. Learn to disconnect. Make a life of your own. Hide whatever money you can in a secret account. Do not give over your inheritance or earnings to “prove your love.”

7. “CAN S/HE CHANGE?” I have never seen a person with true APD change, at least not before a heart attack or other major health crisis which may make them realize that they won’t get the services they need if they continue to bully others. As long as bullies are rewarded for bullying, they will continue to do so. Bullies want power, not love. They see love as a sign of weakness and stupidity.

8. “BUT S/HE CAN BE SO NICE AT TIMES!” Yes, every human being is capable of being charming, sweet-natured and flattering. But people with APD are putting on an act. Being “nice” is a ploy to win others’ confidence in order to gain power over them. Once they have what they want, whether it is your money or some concession, they can drop you or turn cruel in an instant.

9. “MAYBE S/HE DOES LOVE ME UNDERNEATH IT ALL?” Real love is trustworthy, reliable, predictable, consistent and responsible. Yes, he may be irritable or moody at times, but a truly loving person never hurts you on purpose and that you can trust this person to honor and support you despite the inevitable conflicts which arise in all normal relationships. Crumbs of “niceness” – especially when they are unpredictable and rare - do not constitute a loving relationship. Any person is capable of being nice at times, especially when they want something from you.

10. “BUT IT’S JUST WORDS, SO WHY CAN’T I IGNORE IT?” Words can be as damaging, if not more so, than physical abuse. People with APD are like snipers walking around taking pot shots at people. Even if the bullet only

grazes your skin but does not cause serious damage, or even if it misses you, it is traumatic. If this sniper is your own husband, and you get shot at 30-40 times a day, day after day, then after a while, the mere presence of the person will trigger a traumatic reaction. Thus, people will often say,

Example: “I’d rather be hit than mocked. When there is a physical bruise, at least there is physical proof that I’ve been hurt, that something real has taken place. But when I’ve been reduced to a state of utter nothingness by being called names or treated with icy indifference and then people tell me that it’s ‘just words’ and that nothing happened, then I’m left feeling wounded by the insulter but also invalidated and by the person I’ve turned to for help who keeps trying to trivialize my pain.”

8. “HOW CAN I STAY SANE?” You can’t, at least not completely. The cumulative effects of the stress will affect you to some degree, both emotionally and physically. Te result is a predictable, inexorable breakdown of the physical body and the ego. Victims of abuse suffer some degree of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as characterized by:

Heightened sensitivity: an exaggerated startle response and extreme sensitivity to noise, surprises, changes in routine, etc.

Anger and irritability. No matter how hard you try to be in control, the accumulation of unexpressed rage will inevitably cause you to snap at people when your nerve resistance is low, i.e., when you are hungry, tired or in pain.

Anxiety: a sense of dread, as if one is trapped in a cage with a hungry tiger.

Negative self-image, the feeling of being defective, inferior and unworthy.

Suicidal thoughts, feeling “There’s nothing to live for.”.

Mental confusion (difficulty concentrating and remembering).

Sleep disorders: nightmares, difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, suddenly waking up in a state of dread.


Gum disease: gum disease as a result of excess adrenaline produced by the constant tension, teeth grinding at night and frequent tooth decay as changes in the body’s chemistry changes due to constant irritation.

Weakened immune system: victims suffer from more frequent colds, skin disorders and many will get auto-immune illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, arthritis, etc.

Chronic pain: severe headaches, back and neck pain, etc.

Digestive disorders: chronic fear wears away the lining of the digestive system, creating ulcers, IBS and other problems.

Mood disorders: depression and panic attacks, as well as loss of libido.

Food disorders: a person may become overweight, bulimic or anorexic.

Living in a state of chronic fear raises the level of CRP – C-Reactive Protein – which is a clear predictor of future heart disease and stroke, according to Dr. Shmuel Melamed, director of the Psychological Institute of Industrial Medicine, in Ra’anana. He has shown that the immune system reacts to emotional distress as if there were an actual physical wound. He found that women are far more vulnerable, because their immune systems are more sensitive. In his research, 70% of Israeli women who lived in fear of a terror attack had elevated levels of CRP. Now, imagine that the “terrorist” is in one’s home and can attack at any time, including in the middle of the night and that there is no way to protect oneself. It is impossible to be unaffected, both physically and mentally, by abuse.

11. “BUT HOW CAN S/HE BE SO HONORED IN THE COMMUNITY AND NICE TO OTHERS WHILE BEING SO NASTY TO ME?” It is easy to act nice in public, because interactions are usually short-term and the abuser is not threatened by any real intimacy.

12. “HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF?” Abuse kills. The death may not be as dramatic as a shot from a bullet, but many would prefer that to the slow demise of the capacity to love, to experience joy, to feel self-worth and to trust in people. Every normal human needs love, appreciation and respect. Without it, the spirit dies.

Example: “My mother tries to control every aspect of my life. She comes over whenever she wants, criticizes what I wear, how I feed the children, everything I buy and everything I do. She even tried to destroy my marriage, but thankfully, my husband is a wonderful man and he supported me. However, the daily calls and attacks are getting to me. I have heart palpitations whenever she calls. She can keep me on the line for an hour or more. Once, when my baby was screaming after falling, my mother told me not to go to her. I feel trapped. If I don’t do what she wants, she complains to my other siblings and relatives and can even tell strangers what a terrible person I am. Then people call me and ask why I don’t treat her more respectfully. Everyone believes her, because she is very well-known in the community and people think she is a saint for taking care of the really nebech cases. No one can imagine what a gehinom I live with. My father is very passive. I know he suffers from her, but he cannot say anything. One brother is already in an institution, but people think I’m the bad one and the one who caused her so much grief.”

Example: “My marriage has been a nightmare almost from the beginning. He has always criticized everything I do – the way I walk, talk, eat, cook and clean. The hardest thing is how he has turned my own children against me. They think it is cute to make fun of my faults and mistakes. If I protest, he blows up. I just want to die. He beat me up last month and a neighbor called the police, but I was afraid to press charges, so they released him. Since then, he’s been playing the victim, telling the children that I’m the one who provoked him and the one who caused him to be in jail and the one who is breaking up the family and that if I would just respect him more, there would be no problems. They all take his side and are terrified that we’ll get divorced, which would ruin their chances for a shidduch.”

When a person is infected with APD, there is nothing to do but try to distance oneself as much as possible. However, since this is impossible if the bully is one’s own spouse, the victim must figure out how to survive being a human dart board, in what many describe as being “trapped in a freezer, a coffin or a daily slaughter.”


1. HOPE DOPE: Hopefulness is a characteristic of healthy people. Thus, when young people see signs of severe disturbance in their spouse soon after the wedding, they tend to believe the advisors who invariably promise, “Be patient. With love, everything will improve.” They lack the courage and maturity to stand up to parents and advisors and declare, “NO! I won’t stand for this!” If they do, they are scolded and reprimanded, “Where is your faith? This is your goral! Try harder. Look at all the great people who had abnormal spouses and managed to respond with compassion. It’s your fault. You should be more respectful and _______. ” People are afraid to admit the degree to which they are suffering for fear of being seen as failures. By the time victims realize that things are not only not changing, but getting worse, they have already sustained enormous damage to their physical health and mental health. Often, there are numerous children, as well, which makes it much harder to divorce. Furthermore, every normal person wants a supportive, warm, loving family. The need for love is so strong that people will imagine that it exists when it doesn’t, much like a thirsty person in the desert will imagine that he sees water just ahead. The mirage of love keeps many people involved in relationships. The victim of abuse will imagine that criticism is love or that the few moments of “niceness” is love.

2. INTERMITTENT CONDITIONING: If a caged bird pecks at a lever and gets a food pellet, it will keep pecking until the next pellet comes. If no food comes for the next day or so, the bird will give up and stop pecking. However, if, at the end of the day, there is even one small pellet, the bird will keep pecking forever and never give up. This is called

intermittent conditioning. Since even the most abusive person will display moments of humor, charm and caring, the victim keeps on trying – sometimes forever.

3. FEAR OF PAS – PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME: Abusers often hire top lawyers to prove that the victim is insane and must not be allowed to see the children and should be put in a psychiatric institution, the presence of PTSD makes victims feel that this accusation is true. Since abusers thrive on fear, the deterioration of the victims’ ego feeds their megalomania and lust for power.



Few people in abusive relationships get divorced. The price for leaving is just too high: social stigma, impoverishment, isolation, difficulty finding shidduchim for children, loss of control to hostile social workers, lawyers and judges and loss of connection with one’s children, either emotionally and/or physically as well.

However, there is also a price for staying.

The Gemara states that one who embarrasses another is considered as if he had killed him (Bava Metzia 58b). Thus, it is extremely confusing to find that so many people take this sin so lightly.

Mature people are reliable, predictable and considerate. Abusers are the opposite. Immature people blame others for their foul moods and destructive behavior. If the victim makes an innocent mistake, has an accident or gets sick, they relish the opportunity to decree that the person is a totally defective failure. Abusers have a ravenous appetite for control, attention, power and money. If they don’t get what they want with explosive tantrums, they may punish with hostile silence, which is worse than a beating, as the implication is “You are not even worth being spoken to!”

A few years ago, a California man won a $2 million dollar lawsuit against his employer, for the physical and emotional anguish he suffered at the hands of anti-Semitic co-workers who called him names and made his life miserable in other ways. The situation is far worse when the abuser is a family member. Whether it takes a few months or 30 years, victims go through the following stages:

STAGE ONE – HOPE DOPE: “I’m determined to do everything possible to get him/her to love me. After all, we have wonderful moments together. This proves

that I should overlook the abuse, that it doesn’t really mean anything. All the advisors I’ve consulted have reassured me that if I’ll just be calmer, more respectful and fulfill all his/her needs, that s/he will become responsible, caring and mature and I will soon get the love I crave.”

STAGE TWO – SELF-HATRED: “I don’t understand it. I feel so dumb that I can’t figure out how to please him/her. No matter what I do, it’s always wrong. It must be my fault that I can’t fulfill his/her expectations. If I were calmer, smarter, richer, better looking, more organized, s/he’d be loving and happy with me.”

STAGE THREE - ISOLATION: “I feel so isolated. I don’t want anyone to know, so I put on a happy face in public. But the need to put on an act wears me out and makes me feel like a fake. I don’t invite people over because I’m scared s/he will have a tantrum or shame me in other ways. I’ve cut off contact with friends or family members, because s/he says they’re all stupid and crazy.”

STAGE FOUR – PHYSICAL REVULSION: “I’m beginning to actually feel nauseous when s/he’s around. It’s like having a real allergy, except that this is an emotional allergy. Even if s/he is nice, I cannot bear to be in his/her presence.”

STAGE FIVE – EGO DISINTEGRATION: “My mind is going – I can’t concentrate or remember things. Everything s/he said about me – that I’m crazy and uncaring – it’s all coming true. If I’m silent, I’m ridiculed for not talking. If I talk, I’m ridiculed for whatever I say. I don’t care about anything any more. I just want to get through the day. I used to be so full of love, but now I just feel numb, even toward my own children, whom I used to love so dearly. I function like a robot. I’m irritable and edgy. My nerves feel raw and exposed. I’m so tired. I just wish I could go to sleep and not wake up. I long for death.”

Just as many people live with chronic physical pain, the same holds true for chronic emotional pain. Those trapped in abusive relationships must be very nurturing of themselves, something most of them find extremely difficult. This means:

Daily exercise – at least 40 minutes of aerobic exercise.

Good nutrition, with lots of protein, and a high level of vitamin B and omega oils, which can be found in fish or flax. Avoid white sugar and white flour, as these reduce the level of vitamin B, which protects the nervous system.

Fulfilling activities, including volunteer work, Torah classes and fulfilling work. Take on a tzdakah project to regain a sense of self-worth and value. Find people who value your efforts.

Go to a pain clinic to learn relaxation techniques. Even though these methods are aimed at relieving physical pain, they will help you mentally.

Put money in a secret account. If the abuser finds out about it, you will be bullied or charmed into “proving” your love by giving them the money.

You may not be able to get out of the war zone, but you must learn to take care of yourself. See yourself as heroic for simply going on, despite your grief and chronic pain. If you had infertility problems or cancer, you could find a support group. The fact that this is a problem which cannot be shared publicly, makes it more harder to bear. That, in itself, is a huge nisayon.

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