Judy's Journey: Something had to give

March 13, 2023

Judy's Journey: Something had to give

Something had to give…

Chances are, you’ve heard these words before. They’re often spoken as a sort of reckless cliché, especially when an outcome seems inevitable. Whether it’s an elastic stretched to its limit, a 60-hour workweek during flu season, or a bridge overloaded with cars, it’s a phrase that can be applied to almost any point of tension. Because that elastic is eventually going to snap. Because someone is bound to catch that bug. Because a bridge can only take on so much weight before it collapses.

Because something had to give.

But when long-time JF&CS client, "Judy," says these words in her sturdy Georgian rasp, on the verge of tears for the third time in the same afternoon, they don’t feel cliché. They emerge heavy and defiant, and carry so much emotion that they practically tell a whole story all on their own. Though in Judy’s case, these words are just the beginning.

By all accounts, Judy once led a normal — if not privileged — life. Her job as a software programmer and IT specialist paid a solid wage; she belonged to a vibrant social circle, and though single into her 30s, she dated frequently and confidently.

“I knew what I wanted in life,” Judy says. “I wanted to be married. I wanted to have a career. I wanted to have a family… all the things our culture wants us to have.”

So, when she eventually got married at age 34 and gave birth to her first daughter a few years after that, it was everything she wanted and what the world wanted for her.

That all changed following her second pregnancy, when doctors found some irregularities during a routine mammogram. “They knew I had cancer, but they didn’t tell me,“ she says. “They had to go through this whole protocol.”

The protocol, naturally, was further testing, including a more invasive diagnostic mammogram. But it was only during the biopsy that Judy started to get scared. And when doctors called her at work with the diagnosis, her fears were justified: those “irregularities” were actually abnormal cells signaling a condition that oncologists refer to as ductal carcinoma in situ (or DCIS)-- better known as breast cancer.

Luckily, Judy was able to catch the cancer at its earliest possible stage; it was treatable, though she was compelled to scramble, making appointments with a gynecologist and scheduling a lumpectomy, all while working through the weeks at a stressful job and taking care of two toddlers who were still both in daycare. In the end, Judy was forced to have a mastectomy. All the while, her husband seemed to take little to no interest in what she was going through, and thus, according to Judy, she was left to deal with a very frightening situation all on her own. It was around this point that her marriage started to fall apart.

Judy returned to work only a few weeks after reconstructive surgery, but soon realized this was unsustainable. “I had two kids, I was working my ass off, and my husband wasn’t helping me,” she says. “I pride myself on being a career woman and being independent… but when you go through a life and death situation, you have to say to yourself, okay, I need to make a change.”

The change she had in mind was to work part-time — going down to four days a week instead of five — but even this was too much. Two years later, overworked and overwhelmed, Judy quit her job entirely, choosing her health and her family over her career. Unfortunately, this didn’t sit well with her husband, stoking financial concerns and ultimately setting them both on a rocky 7-year path toward a messy divorce, culminating in tens of thousands of dollars in court costs and legal proceedings.

Judy’s situation deteriorated even further once the papers were signed. As can happen with any separation, many of her friendships soured, and her social life started to suffer. To add insult to injury, her husband gained custody of the family dog and had nearly succeeded in taking the house as well.

But far worse, as their households split, Judy began to lose control of her kids. As part of the settlement, Judy was awarded primary physical custody. But as her daughters aged into their pre-teen years, the strain of divorce and competing affections poisoned what was once a strong bond, and they ultimately stopped talking to her for years.

Understandably, the relentlessness of these personal and physical losses drove Judy into a state of utter despair. “Cancer was cake compared to this,” Judy says. “I was so desperate.”

Something had to give.

And so, urged by a friend, Judy began seeking counseling, though she did have some difficulty finding a therapist she connected with at first. In fact, it wasn’t until after her divorce that someone recommended JF&CS. That’s when she started seeing Nicky.

Nicole “Nicky” Albert is a licensed psychotherapist providing therapeutic services through JF&CS with a focus on grief and loss, suicide prevention, and crisis intervention. But even her 20 years of clinical experience couldn’t prepare her for Judy’s case.

“I’ve been doing this for so many years,” says Nicky. “This goes down as being a long, sad, devastating, traumatic story… there was such chaos, and there was such a lack of stability and regulation in her world.” As experienced as she was, Nicky couldn’t guarantee that anything would change or improve for Judy.

“The one thing I could promise is that I was going to hang in there with her,” she says. “For as long as it was going to take.”

It wasn’t easy. At the outset of her therapy, Judy’s life was extremely chaotic. She was practically penniless (she had aged out of the young and competitive IT industry and was forced to take a job at $12 an hour so that she could afford groceries). She had lost her dog and a host of friends and was, in fact, in a session with Nicky the day she found out she’d lost custody of her daughters.

“It felt like the devil was winning,” says Judy. “There were dark times when I thought about taking my own life.”

As Nicky describes it, their first few sessions were “an outpouring of emotion.” She observed Judy in a state of total helplessness and hopelessness. There were sessions when Judy couldn’t even catch her breath, tearing through boxes of tissues without being able to complete a sentence. In their bleakest moments, Nicky felt like all she could do was provide space. But she was true to her word and hung in there. And as Judy learned to trust the process, they did the work together. Four years later, Nicky and Judy are still in regular sessions and have made tremendous progress.

“I am healing. I am not healed,” Judy says, adding that she is still triggered by the events that led to her therapy. “When I got into this marriage, I was at the top of my game. I looked good, I was a professional, I had friends, I had money, I had personality. I was on top of the world. I’m not there anymore.”

The breakthroughs are evident, though: recently, Judy began reconnecting with her daughters, and is rekindling her social life with a close-knit group of friends. Judy has even found moments of joy, turning her love of crochet into a bustling business selling thousands of dollars’ worth of infinity scarves and bucket hats at music festivals. “It’s only going to get better from here,” says Judy. “I think the worst is over.”

With Nicky’s help, Judy now has the tools she needs to move forward. What was most important, in her opinion, was having a professional therapist tell her there’s nothing wrong with her and who has given her the agency to actively confront her anxiety and anguish instead of sweeping it under the rug.

“Everybody deserves to have the opportunity to feel that they’re allowed to experience what they’ve experienced… and know they’re not crazy,” says Nicky. “You’re deserving to feel your pain. You’re deserving to feel love.”

Despite being immersed in her terrible situation for so long, Judy understands she’s not alone and that there are women out there who have been through worse. Her advice to those women: “Seek therapy. If you don’t like your therapist, find someone else. Don’t stop until you get somebody that connects with you, because you can’t do this alone.”

Judy is living proof that investing in a single life has a ripple effect that spreads throughout the community. Her story stands as a remarkable testament to the importance of the work done through Jewish Family & Career Services. However, it’s only through sustained community support that JF&CS can continue to serve those who need it the most.

“Empower Lives. Strengthen Community.” We don’t just see this as a slogan for a fundraiser. We see it as a way for all of us to move forward. So please consider donating to JF&CS. Perhaps Judy says it best: “I don’t think treating mental health should be a privilege… and people who are donating are helping people like me.”

When individuals in our community need help, we are there to respond, because you make it possible. Your support empowers individuals and families to thrive, and together they strengthen our community. Please consider a gift to the JF&CS Annual Campaign.

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