Let me begin by saying that every part of Shoshana’s story that I’m sharing with you has been approved by Shoshana. I am very open about my struggles and my life, but when it comes to my children’s story, it is not mine to share without their permission and full support.
What I will be sharing in this blogpost is Shoshana’s journey from when she joined our family four years ago in 2016. She is only sixteen and G-d willing has a whole fabulous life ahead of her so stay tuned 😉
In the summer of 2016, we received a phone call from Shoshana’s grandmother Sheila asking if we had a summer camp that her granddaughter could come too. We did not know Shoshana’s grandmother at all, she was just calling the Chabad center that was closest to Cody, Wyoming, where her granddaughter lived. We had a two weeks summer camp and we told her we would be happy to have Shoshana (at that time her name was Courtney).
Camp was great and after the two weeks were over, Courtney went back to Cody. A few days later we got a call from Sheila saying that Courtney’s home situation was not ideal, to say the least, and she wanted to know if we had any ideas of how to help her. To make a long story short a week later Courtney was in our home for good.
Thus, began the most profound personal and parenting journey we could’ve ever envisioned. Jumping in to raise a preteen, that you did not raise up until this point, with a trauma background would challenge me in ways I could never have imagined. Yet, I can confidently say I wouldn’t be the person I am today if not for this incredible privilege of having Shoshana in our lives.
There were a lot of things our family had to acclimate to that first year. Courtney had to get used to living in a family with bunch of little siblings, that definitely comes with a lot of annoying moments. She also was new to living a completely observant Jewish life. Yes, she did know how our family lived and was eager to embrace it, but I think we can all agree that that’s easier said than done, especially at 12. Over time we have learned to create a safe place for her to experience Judaism in an authentic way while still upholding our boundaries. It took a lot of trial and error and many epic failings 😏 but we got the hang of it, for the most part.
It was also a really big adjustment for Chaya. She took great pride in her status as the oldest, being that we adopted Shoshana out of the birth order, her “oldest” status was no more. It continues to be a work in a progress, but she proudly holds the title of our first!
That first year was filled with incredibly beautiful moments and profoundly difficult ones. A few weeks after Courtney came, she started exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, for Courtney it fluctuated from severe deprivation to binging and later purging. This was a whole new thing for me and I felt very out of my depth. It’s really scary when your child is clearly suffering and making choices that is so detrimental to their own health. Chaim and I were obviously not equipped to deal with this alone. We set Courtney up with a therapist as soon as she came, so obviously she was a huge part of every aspect of Courtney’s life. We also used the help of the local eating disorder clinic. I spent so many months worrying whether she was purging after every meal. And the thing is, one never really knows as they get really good at it. We had all these supports in place, for example having her hang with me a half hour after each meal, or me standing outside the bathroom door which she, naturally, hated, or me coming to eat lunch with her in school. I can’t tell you an exact moment when we had to stop worrying, gradually she moved through it. And she has learned to identify triggers that might lead to disordered eating.
At the end of her first year we went to court and finalized Courtney’s adoption, it’s a formality but makes her adoption status official and it was a really special day. One of the things that happened on that day was that her last name was legally changed to Bruk. We took the opportunity for Courtney to choose her Hebrew name. She chose Shoshana Yael. Shoshana (a beautiful rose) as she was a rose plucked from amongst thorns, and Yael, because she was a warrior, like Yael in the Torah (Bible). That became her legal name as well, and from then on Courtney became Shoshana. We came home from court and had a BBQ to celebrate and that day will always hold a special place in my heart.
Let me tell you something about Shoshana. She is fun, has the best personality, super intelligent, amazing student and a talented athlete. She thrived academically her 8th grade year and was part of the track team and placed in some super impressive races.
Here is the thing about trauma. You can’t wish it away, ignore it, stuff it down or hide from it. When there is “stuff” to work through, your subconscious is going to let you know, usually in the form of maladaptive coping skills. So yes, we “conquered the eating disorder” but if you’re not getting to the root of the problem,, its gonna find another way to come out (this is all in hindsight and a lot of growth and learning, so I am able to share this perspective at this point). Shoshana was no exception. The struggle became self-harm – cutting. It got pretty serious, and I ended up having to keep my knives in a lockbox, no scissors, shavers, pushpins etc.… could be around and she was not allowed to be home alone. My heart was breaking seeing her clearly struggling. Self-harm is something so hard to understand. I spent a lot of time learning and listening.
Self- harm or eating disorders are not as rare as you might think. The reason Shoshana and I wanted to share this is to bring awareness that this happens all too often. To the teens out there that are struggling, don’t have shame and don’t be afraid to reach out for help. These are things that can escalate and get really dangerous. And for the moms out there that might have a child dealing with this, you’re not alone! Get support! And listen, you will learn so much.
At a certain point the self-harming evolved into more pronounced suicidal ideations and one significant suicide attempt that landed her in the hospital. This was rough to navigate let me tell you. I was brought to the brink of my breaking point so many times. But we rally together, we hold each other up and together we heal.
She was stable and doing well consistently for while that we made the joint decision, Shoshana Chaim, me and her therapist, that she should try going away to a Jewish religious boarding school. There are no Jewish schools here in Bozeman and we really wanted her to be able to have peers that were doing the same thing as her, keeping kosher dressing modestly etc…she was excited for this opportunity! Yes, ideally she should be able to stay home, but weighing the options that were available to us, we made the best decision with the information that we had.
The year started off ok, but as time went on, it became very clear that if we didn’t want to bounce from one mal-adaptive behavior to another we need to go deep and get to the source of all the trauma and pain. With a lot of guidance from so many amazing people, most notably Rabbi Benny Zippel of Project Heart in Utah, we decided that Evoke wilderness therapy program was the experience she needed. She needed to put everything on hold, her studies, her social life, even her Yiddishkeit, to really discover who she is at her core. (Not who she thinks she should be to please the people around her, which isn’t sustainable, which then leads self-sabotage.)
It was one of the hardest decisions Chaim and I had to make. We knew she would feel abandoned (although it was the exact opposite of what we were doing) and it broke my heart every time I thought about it. Yet, we knew this needed to happen, we were doing this to save her life! She was so upset and hurt, she said to us as she is trying to convince us to change our mind “how am I going to be Jewish in wilderness? I’m not going to be able to keep any of the mitzvot (commandments)” and Chaim said to her “in order to be a healthy Jew, you need to be healthy person, that comes first”.
On a Friday morning, I flew her to Salt Lake City, where the staff of Evoke were awaiting her arrival, to pick her up and take her to the field. There is this huge misconception out there, that sending your child to treatment or to a therapeutic program, is the easy way out. You just can’t deal with them, so you send them off so someone else will. That couldn’t be further from the truth. When we sent Shoshana to wilderness, that’s when the real work began for us (Though I did have a certain sense of relief knowing she was in a safe place, and not worrying when I went to sleep at night whether she would be alive or not). If you want a program like this to be successful you need to be fully invested, there is no way around it! We listened to podcasts, wrote weekly letters, had weekly therapy sessions, and read a ton of books. Having a child in wilderness holds you majorly accountable. It makes you look and process the hard stuff, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Chaim and I got to visit Shoshana once when she was out in the field and it was truly a life changing experience. We even made pancakes on a camp stove in the freezing rain under a tarp. It’s truly one of the most valuable memories that I will cherish.
She was in wilderness for four months. It is highly recommended that you transition from wilderness to a “step down” program and don’t go straight home. We found a wonderful therapeutic boarding school that specializes in equine therapy. Shoshana spent an amazing year working with the horses while keeping up academically, as she continued to grow and discover her more authentic self.
What prompted me to write Shoshana’s story? About three weeks ago Shoshana graduated and came home! Here is a girl that did not have it easy from the second she was born, she has persevered, and has gone through an incredible journey. Our whole family has gone through an incredible journey. We are here, we are strong and that’s worth writing about!
Life isn’t perfect all of a sudden and it’s not easy. It’s going to be hard, we will still fail, but I have faith that we will always do our best!
As much as I have shared about Shoshana’s journey, there are many things I haven’t. That’s healthy and appropriate and may that be a lesson to all of us. We never get the complete picture of anybody’s life, so try not to judge, as there is so much you don’t know!
I end with my deep gratitude to my husband Chaim who’s been my loving partner in all of this and with immense appreciation to Hashem for having faith in me, knowing what I can handle and having my back!
When I spoke to Shoshana about sharing some of her story, I asked her if she wanted to write something. She was excited about the idea and wrote a beautiful letter to her fellow teens. See it here…. https://clearasmud.blog/to-my-fellow-teenager,