All That Glitters Is Not Gold
Eitan’s father was one of Israel’s leading scientists. Internationally renowned, he was one of the people who contributed to some of the most exciting breakthroughs in Israeli bio-tech. The whole family were high achievers as well. Eitan’s mother was a successful lawyer, his older brother was a talented pianist and mathematician and his older sister was studying abroad with a scholarship in a leading US medical school. Eitan himself had always sailed through his gifted student classes with minimal effort.
When Eitan was 16, things took a turn for the worse in high school. His grades started to slip. He started fighting with two other students. There was a spate of thefts, and one day Eitan was caught in the act stealing money from a classmate’s backpack. The principal called Eitan’s parents to discuss what might lie behind this downward spiral. They felt that there must be some emotional issue driving their son’s uncharacteristic behavior, and so they called Kav L’Noar.
At the initial intake meeting, Eitan and his parents sat with the Kav L’Noar therapist. All three were quiet and scrupulously polite, and all three wore the same blank expression. Each of them seemed to be in their own private world, without any signs that they were related and living together in the same house.
When Eitan returned for individual sessions, he answered the therapist’s questions dutifully and told him what was on his mind but he still seemed blank and far away, as if he was going through the motions but wasn’t really present. Nevertheless, the therapist did his best to respond enthusiastically to whatever Eitan shared, to give him a sense that he mattered and that what he had to say was valuable and important. The therapist touched base regularly with Eitan’s parents, but they didn’t give him any more insights that could help him understand their son or get through to Eitan at a deeper level. Yet despite Eitan’s manner, as time went by the therapist did succeed in developing a genuine and somewhat close relationship with him.
After five months, Eitan’s parents reported that there had apparently been a turnaround at school. The principal had told them that Eitan’s grades were back to their normal high level, and that he hadn’t been in any more trouble. They thanked the therapist warmly for doing such a great job with their son. But the therapist remained uneasy. His years of experience gave him a sense of when things were being covered up.
Testing out his hunch, the therapist asked Eitan if, now that things had improved, he was ready to start the process of finishing therapy. Eitan reacted more emotionally to this than to anything else they had discussed. He looked straight at the therapist, his hands balled into fists and he shook his head vigorously, saying “I’m not ready to stop.” The therapist smiled encouragingly and said, “that’s fine, what would you like to focus on next?” But Eitan just stared at the therapist and replied with a shrug and a “whatever you think best.”
The therapist would usually wait to allow Eitan to share what was in his heart when he was ready. But one time, when Eitan casually mentioned that his father was away at an international conference that week, the therapist took the initiative. “It must feel sad that it doesn’t make any difference whether your father is in the country or not, you never feel able to talk to him anyway.” Eitan had never said this directly, but based on his knowledge of the family so far, the therapist took a chance of suggesting some possible feelings and watched Eitan closely to see how he reacted.
Sure enough, Eitan froze, with his eyes on the floor.
The therapist continued. “It’s not only you who feels that way. Your mother can’t talk to him either. Maybe she even prefers it when he’s away.” Again, the therapist was talking with confidence but it was just an educated guess. “It’s so lonely to be living with people who are supposed to love each other but who act like strangers.” Suddenly, Eitan started to cry and cry. The therapist let Eitan express his deep pain until he eventually leaned over and softly said, Eitan, I am here with you...it’s ok to cry...tell me Eitan, what are your tears saying...try to put them in words…”
Eitan continued sobbing but now even louder. The therapist again said "Eitan, I'm here with you...it's ok...let me know…” Eitan finally answered amidst the tears.
“My parents curse each other all day long! They have so much anger; there are times my father won't come home for weeks at a time; I can't do anything - I try to get involved but then my father attacks me and then my mother goes hysterical, screaming with no end...she threatens divorce all the time. I just make things worse. Everybody thinks we have the best family. I'm so scared, I don’t know how much longer I can keep it a secret!” Eitan was shaking. “All this time I’ve wanted to tell you. But I just couldn’t. I come from a golden family. How could I betray them like this?”
The therapist spent the rest of the session being with Eitan in his pain and his dilemma. They talked through some possibilities of how the therapist could help. Because by now he truly trusted the therapist, Eitan agreed to let him get involved.
In the weeks that followed, the therapist invited Eitan’s parents to come for couple’s therapy sessions. He also held sessions for Eitan and his parents together, in which they explored their relationship more honestly and freely, and worked on making Eitan feel like his parents were truly there for him.
Things improved dramatically for the whole family. There were painful issues to work through, but being able to be open about them changed the whole family dynamic for the better. Two years on and Eitan has excelled academically just as expected, but is also now much more relaxed and truly engages with the people he encounters in a more real, honest and connected way.