My grandmothers broke the ice in order to go to the Mikvah. I go despite having an excoriation disorder. The external challenge might look very different, but the commitment to overcome challenges — both within and without — is the same.
This is not an article that will give you all the good feels about the beauty of the mitzvah of Taharas Hamishpacha. There are plenty of those. This is about sharing how I am here, though it is trying and difficult, to do a mitzvah that may seem like an insurmountable challenge.
Let me take a step back. When it comes to one’s body, repetitive behaviors and disorders can be tricky. If someone is picking at a scab and making themselves bleed it seems so simple to say “stop.” But for someone with a skin-picking addiction, or excoriation disorder, it seems impossible. For whatever reason, Hashem wired me in a way that once I start, my brain sends me commands to pick until I cave in to its demand. Picking my skin gives me a release from my anxiety. When the tension builds up my automatic response is to indulge in this self-destructive behavior. If you can’t relate, I am truly happy for you.
With lots of outside support, I have learned to manage day-to-day life. I have learned many healthy coping mechanisms, and I abstain from behaviors that can lead to a picking episode — that is, until it comes to Mikvah. It would seem like Halacha itself is the biggest obstacle and trigger for my old behaviors. The preparation of checking the body for intervening substances is, and has been for many years, an absolute nightmare.
I used to cry for hours before, during, and after Mikvah. I felt so alone and at a loss for how to go about fulfilling this mitzvah without hurting myself.
I am so grateful that today my experience is far from the disaster that it used to be. Keeping it a secret was a form of torture and only buried me in shame. Being honest with the right people helped me come up with a plan that would support me emotionally and spiritually. I am grateful to have a very patient and understanding Rov who has given me guidance on how to prepare in a way that would be the least triggering to me. My friend is a nurse, and when I finally unburdened myself to her she helped me come up with a plan in the most unassuming way possible. I am blessed to say that I have only encountered the kindest Mikvah ladies and understanding women along the way. I have come to realize that Halacha is my biggest protector, and that my triggers are manageable when I can properly identify them for what they are, false triggers.
The most important part of this journey was my learning how to surrender. Before I prepare for Mikvah I say a tefilla from the depth of my heart, “Dear Hashem, this mitzvah is so so so hard for me. You gave me this mental illness, and I am doing the best that I can to serve you in a way that won’t lead me to negative behaviors. Please help me accept the imperfections of my body and help me to surrender and do Your will.”
Even today, fulfilling this mitzvah comes with anxiety and internal battles. I continue to ask for help before and after I go to keep me focused on what I should actually be doing and not on what my internal voice is telling me to do.
I also spend time meditating. I think about how the same Hashem that commanded me to fulfill His mitzvah gave me this challenge. How I would not have this exact life's circumstance if I didn't have the deep inner strength to overcome it. I think about how unlimited my neshama's capacity is, how infinite it really is.
I am conscious of my thoughts, because if not my mind will wander. I have learned the hard way that it is up to me to direct my train of thoughts, so it doesn't take me to the wrong destination or fall off the tracks altogether.
Despite the deep struggle, I go. I go because this is my ice to break and my icy water to tread. I go because I am a soldier in Hashem’s army. I go, not because it makes sense, but because I am committed to doing Hashem’s will no matter how much effort I have to put in. This is my private battle — one that almost no one in my life is privy to — yet the Most Important One, Hashem, is “bochen klayos valev.” Hashem looks deep into my heart, sees the absolute challenge and how much I invest in overcoming it, and it gives Him so much joy and pleasure.
And so, while it is not the emotional spa experience I would choose to have, I would not give it up for anything in the world, for it is the most profound spiritual experience. I am transcending myself; surrendering to Hashem’s Will for me.
As I submerge in the water, my heart is light, for I know that this is the purpose of Creation. I feel so close to Hashem, and nothing, not even an excoriation disorder, will get in the way of my serving Him. And all the icy waters melt in the warmth of my surrender.
Editor's note: If you have any challenges preparing for mikvah, please consult a competent Rav. See also resources on Mikvah.org.