Italy or Holland Overcoming Life’s Challenges
By Yaakov Barr
Overview: Some years ago, I was referred a man who was suffering from severe depression. He told me that he had always been a happy person, until ‘disaster’ struck. His wife had given birth to a child with special needs and he now saw his life crumbling before him. He blamed his wife, the world, and anyone else he thought was worth blaming. He had never been religious, but he decided to blame God too. What I did not know then was that, a few years later, I would face exactly the same challenge.

Some years ago, I was referred a man who was suffering from severe depression. He told me that he had always been a happy person, until ‘disaster’ struck. His wife had given birth to a child with special needs and he now saw his life crumbling before him. He blamed his wife, the world, and anyone else he thought was worth blaming. He had never been religious, but he decided to blame God too. What I did not know then was that, a few years later, I would face exactly the same challenge.

On December, 23, 2013, our son, Netanel, came into the world. Netanel was no ordinary baby. He was born with Downs Syndrome. As our new baby was taken for endless tests, I had time to think. I too was angry and confused. This was not part of my life-script. This was not supposed to happen.

Although we wish that life could live up to our dreams, inevitably we all have moments when we are suddenly dealt a painful blow. It is a shock, it hurts, and it knocks us off balance. We struggle to stay on our feet. Our hopes are dashed.

A reality slap can come in many different forms. Sometimes it is in a more violent form: lo aleinu the death of a loved one, a serious illness or injury, a disabled child, a violent crime. Other times it can be somewhat gentler: a flash of anger, a pang of jealousy, feelings of loneliness and isolation or a painful stab of rejection.

It is extremely difficult for us to cope when the reality is not what we had expected. But the more we fight and resist reality, the more pain it causes us. Emotional suffering is caused by our desire for things to be other than what they are. Our natural tendency is to try to take action to change the reality so it conforms to our wishes. But sometimes that cannot be done, as we found with our new arrival.

A nurse came to counsel us immediately after Natanel’s birth, but I was too dazed to remember what she said. She gave us some reading material about Downs Syndrome and then left us to come to terms with our reality. I came across a metaphor in one of these pamphlets that shook me to the core. It was written some years ago by a woman called Emily Kingsley. I have taken the liberty of adapting it slightly for the benefit of this article.

When you expect something exciting like having a baby, it’s like planning a vacation to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, Rome, the gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met in Italy.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…. and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills. And Holland has so much history. Holland even has tulips, and lots of them.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life you will say “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”

And the pain of that will never ever go away… because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.

When life does not go according to the script we had always envisaged, our mind protests loudly: This should not be happening to me, we think to ourselves, it’s not fair. As we get carried away by the storm of negative thoughts and feelings, we are helpless, we are drowning. Instead, when the storm hits us, we must drop anchor and take effective action. We need to embark on a new journey – the journey of accepting that Italy was never our true destination.

In a talk that I give to parents on the topic of preventing emotional problems in our children, one of the most crucial factors I discuss is for parents to be willing to accept who their children really are. Too often as parents, we deny and cover up, unwilling to accept the reality that our children may not be the children from Italy we dreamed about, and instead, for various reasons, they require emotional help. If we don’t acknowledge this and take action, we risk causing irrevocable damage to our loved ones.

Some time ago, I was referred a young married man whom we will call Benny. Benny was 23 and his marriage of 2 years was in serious jeopardy. Benny suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and was constantly being bombarded with frightening thoughts. He would sometimes spend hours trying to get rid of these thoughts. Understandably, living with his OCD made him extremely irritable and depressed.

Benny’s wife had no idea what was going on. Every day was a nightmare, as she tried to cope with everything singlehandedly, including a new born baby. She was too frightened to tell anyone about what was happening to her husband. Most tragic of all was that Benny’s parents had known about this problem for ten years. During his youth they had noticed some strange behaviours and Benny had complained about his constantly annoying thoughts. But they could not believe that their son could have “mental problems.” So they ignored it and hoped it would go away.

Well, it didn’t.

Benny’s wife did, and she got a divorce and took her baby with her.

Time and again, our inability to accept our reality, our Holland, jeopardizes our lives and the lives of our loved ones. If there is a problem, if our reality is different from what we expected, then we need to accept our reality and take meaningful steps to deal with it.

Although in his three plus years, Netanel has, for a variety of reasons, had more medical appointments then I have had hot coffees, he has changed our life in an unimaginable way. His innocent smiles, infectious giggles, and boundless love light up our world and the lives of all who set eyes on him.

Netanel teaches us that no matter what challenges we are given, we need to embark on a new journey: A journey of accepting that, despite our wishes, Italy was just not the destination that Hashem had in mind for us. Only then can we begin to embrace the reality, to embrace Holland with all the many blessings that come with it.

Yaakov Barr
Yaakov Barr is a psychotherapist specializing in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and a clinical supervisor working in private practice in London. He lectures in mental health awareness and is the founder of Jteen- an emotional health text helpline for teens in the UK and Belgium. https://www.jbarr.co.uk