What do the mikveh, Orthodox Jews, and sex addiction have to do with one another?
As an Orthodox woman, and a member of S-Anon, I can safely say that they are deeply intertwined. S-Anon, modeled on 12-step fellowships like Al-Anon, is a support program for spouses, partners, and others affected by another person’s sex addiction.
Several years ago, I unknowingly married a sex addict. I thought we had a perfect Orthodox marriage, and every month I dutifully cut my nails, pushed back my cuticles, scrubbed my feet with vigor, bathed until I was pruny, then went to the mikveh to become ritually clean (as part of my practice of niddah). Sometimes I enjoyed using the mikveh, and sometimes I didn’t – but that didn’t matter, because I never saw visiting the mikveh as an optional mitzvah. After coming home, no matter what type of mood I was in, I let my husband know that I was “available” ritually. Yet, upon discovering his addiction, I traded evenings with the mikveh lady for S-Anon meetings.
Being married to a sex addict can mean living in a shroud of shame. I sat in that shroud after discovering my husband’s addiction – and reacted by crying and indulging in the three major food groups of grief – wine, chocolate, and pizza.
Eventually, I picked myself up off the floor, and with the help of a woman in a similar situation, began going to meetings and seeing a therapist. Today, I am able to function (most of the time) despite my husband’s addiction. When I began in S-Anon, I imagined myself driving a car filled with emotions. Each emotion was a passenger, and my passengers were betrayal, heartbreak, resentment, shame, sadness, and an anger so intense it burned through every part of me. Now, with the help of S-Anon, I am able to let these passengers out. While they reappear at times, I also have some new passengers -hope, serenity, safety, and self-love.
I went to my first meeting with a broken heart, but when I walked in the door, I felt my heart break all over again. The meeting room was filled with sheitels, tichels, and hats – all the ritual head coverings of Orthodox women. Women spoke about the stress of living with an addict while preparing for holidays like Pesach, Purim, and Sukkot – and the difficulties of going to the mikveh.
After finding out about my husband’s addiction, I stopped going to the mikveh because I couldn’t bear the thought of having sex with him. I made a decision to abstain from the mikveh, and sex, until I could trust him again.
There are times now when I want to go to the mikveh for myself, but just can’t do it – a visit to the mikveh, for me, means the possibility of sex. And sex is off the menu until there is trust. Some of my fellow S-Anons do use the mikveh and give their husbands a perfunctory hug afterwards; others have stopped entirely. Some women have sex without trusting their spouse.
Trust is hard to gain, but is even harder to rebuild. Understanding addiction is one step in rebuilding trust, a marriage, and personal sanity. I used to believe that my husband was a monster. I believed that the men who joined him in Sexaholics Anonymous meetings were monsters – especially the Orthodox ones, and especially those who had exposed their wives to diseases or worse. I wanted to become a monster so that my spouse could understand what it was like. I thought if he could feel what it’s like to live with a monster then he would be sorry for being one.
I was determined to get even in my own way. I got drunk repeatedly, shredded his tzizit and kittel – the garment that he wore when we got married, and screamed so much that I lost my ability to speak. And yet, I still wasn’t a monster. Eventually, I decided to stop trying to get even and started trying to get better. I realized that while I was angry and nasty, I was also very, very human and very sick.
That realization led me to another one: my husband is not a monster – and neither are other sex addicts. They have done monstrous things, sometimes unforgivable things, but they are not monsters. I pity these addicts, sometimes I distance myself from them and sometimes I cry for them – because they are human, like me.
Upon hearing the news that a prominent rabbi in Washington D.C. was arrested for allegedly videotaping women using his congregation’s mikveh, I felt a twinge of sadness for him, his family, and his congregation. I have used that mikveh, and am sickened that pictures of me, my friends, and others may be circulating around the web. Yet, what really pains me is the reaction to this news.
I don’t know if this rabbi is a sex addict or simply someone who has made some very poor decisions. I do know that either way, if these allegations are true, he is very sick – the same way that so many in our community are. One does not make the decision to jeopardize a prominent rabbinical career, or a marriage to an adoring woman, without being sick. And far too many in our community have this sickness. Although the Washington Post isn’t reporting on my husband’s addiction or the addictions of the men who have joined him in the fellowship of SA, his sickness is no less destructive, no less insidious or all-consuming.
As I wrestle with my husband’s illness, my soul cries out for the mikveh. I want to simply be part of it again. I miss the days when I could pop into the mikveh’s velvety waters, and suddenly, I was pure.
Now, reality holds me back – if I take a dip, I risk making the mistake of being with my husband before I am ready. For me, being with someone who I cannot trust is tantamount to flushing away my dignity and the sanity that I have struggled, so painstakingly, to regain.
So, for now, I cling to my dignity on dry land. The only times when I languish in the purity and ecstasy of velvety waters come when I dive into the lake next to my parents’ home. And while that lake cleanses my body, it can never cleanse my soul the way a mikveh could.
Chaya (name changed) is an Orthodox woman who is married to a recovering sex addict. She encourages those who are married to, or who have been affected by, someone who is a sex addict to visit www.sanon.org or www.sa.org and to seek guidance from a professional who understands sex addiction. Every day, she seeks to bring serenity into her life and the lives of those around her by following the 12-step S-Anon program.