How Debbie Akerman Transformed Personal Tragedy into an Opportunity to Inspire and Educate
Debbie Akerman was a work- from-home mom of 11 when a scandal broke out involving her then-husband. Faced with his sudden unemployment and legal proceedings, she understood that it would be up to her to acquire a stable profession and support her family. Never one to shrink from a challenge, she began to study social work alongside her job as a real estate agent. After four years of further study (a two-year M.A. followed by two years working towards a doctorate) and a number of attempts to salvage her 26-year marriage, Debbie decided to leave her husband. She focused her energies on her children, her work and her studies, and felt that despite her many struggles, she was on an upswing.
Then, her eldest son Boruch was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“I felt crushed and overwhelmed,” she re- calls. “How could it be, a mere six months after my divorce, that this was what my family was facing?” She has a vivid memory of going home that night to tell her children the bad news and watching the silent tears stream down the face of another son whose bar mitzvah was only two weeks away.
“It was a year of unexpected complications, emergency surgeries on the Shabbat, insurance nightmares and raw pain watching my child suffer,” she says. “It was also a year that I saw the incredible love my children have for one another. One son chose not to spend his gap year in Israel, electing to stay home and take care of Boruch instead. My 15-year-old daughter regularly woke up at dawn to change Boruch’s IV. With superhuman strength, the rest of my children rallied around their beloved oldest brother. It was a year I saw Boruch’s friends divide the days into shifts and come to the hospital or our home, arms laden with comforting treats—giant chocolate cheese muffins, over-stuffed deli sandwiches and new headphones.
His friends held him, hugged him, helped him with his basic needs and worked on raising his morale. Day after day, Shabbat after Shabbat, Saturday night after Saturday night, Boruch was never alone.”
During that year, Debbie also met, dated and married her second husband, Moshe, acquiring eight stepchildren in the process. “Moshe provided sunshine, warmth and the feeling that I was loved, cared for and nurtured. Most of all, Moshe provided a future—something to hold on to, something to focus on, something to breathe in when it seemed there was nothing else.”
BUILDING MEANING FROM RESILIENCE
Boruch passed away on the eve of the Jewish New Year. “The level of exhaustion was so overwhelming, the grief so deep,” says Debbie. But when the community held a memorial service for Boruch thirty days after his passing, Debbie spoke about her struggles and her loss, and that foray into public speaking changed her life. Her platform, Triumph from Tragedy, emerged from that experience. “It was literally a form of life after death,” she says.
“I wanted to create meaning out of my son’s death. I wanted people to know how special he was, and I wanted to carry the message of Boruch’s life and death,” she explains. “I know that finding meaning in tragedy is therapeutic, but at the time, I was not thinking of that. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
Unfortunately, Debbie’s first-hand experience with tragedy didn’t end there. Only 15 months after Boruch’s death, her two-year-old granddaughter was killed when a car ran over her in front of her home. “My maternal instincts went into overdrive and I focused all my energy on my daughter,” she says. “I needed to and had to do anything and everything possible to help her and ease her pain. And, yet again, I witnessed the incredible resilience of my children as they gathered to support their sister.”
In addition to her one-on-one work with clients and as a professor of social work, Debbie speaks to audiences about a variety of topics that touch on both her personal and professional experiences.
On the more professional end, she speaks about coping with addiction, childhood abuse and trauma, and gives lectures to mental health professionals on how to address these issues within the Orthodox Jewish community. On the more personal level, she talks about resilience in the face of tragedy, facing the stigmas and perfectionism ingrained in society today, how to carve out time and space for ourselves, and more, focusing on the power of hope and faith in dealing with the challenges of parenting and relationships.
Debbie has spoken at many community events organized by well-known Jewish organizations such as Chabad and Aish HaTorah as well as different synagogues in the United States. She is currently expanding to the corporate sphere as well.
Ultimately, Debbie’s story formed her philosophy on human suffering, “We all have resilience and strength,” she insists. “This is the cornerstone of social work philosophy and it’s something I believe in very strongly. In my opinion, it is the job of the social worker or therapist to find the resilience in everyone and help them build that resilience. To me, resilience looks like a little tiny candle that burns inside an individual. A little bit of light can illuminate a large dark space. This is resilience.”
“My basic philosophy is that all individuals possess the strength they need to navigate their challenges in life,” she goes on. “Each and every individual is unique, worthy and strong, simply because of who they are. This philosophy is born from the humanist orientation of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. When we approach our clients from a place of acceptance and love, with no shame or stigma,we can find out what works best and help the client reach their goals by working together. My practice is definitely client-centered with the client determining the control, speed and outcome of the process.”
“Human beings are made of incredible spirit,” says Debbie. “We just have to find and nurture it.”
PARENTING WITH UNDERSTANDING
One topic she speaks about often is “off the derech” teens: adolescents who have deviated from the religious path of their observant Jewish parents. “This is a painful topic that is unfortunately very common today,” she says. “We have to come together and have a respectful dialogue as to why this exists. I work with adolescents; the pain that teenagers exhibit is real and cannot be dismissed. We must talk about addiction, abuse, divorce, economic pressures, and strained educational systems.”
“I spoke at my son’s memorial service last year, I told those assembled that I often come across parents who reject their children who have taken on a different level of religious observance. Those parents, I stated, have the luxury to reject their children. When a person has suffered the loss of a child, they understand with deep and crystal clarity that they would take that child back no matter what. No matter how that child behaved or what they believed. This is the fundamental lesson that the deaths of my son and granddaughter taught me. We never reject our children. To me, it is antithetical to our religion, to our community and to the very nature of who we are. It is well known that teenagers struggle with their identity and it is a normal rite of passage. Communal and parental expectations shouldn’t add to this developmental burden.”
Debbie believes solutions can’t be quick-fix plasters but longterm attitude changes.“The only solution can be summed up by The Beatles: ‘All You Need is Love.’ Carl Rogers, one of the pioneers of humanistic psychology, stated that when children do not get unconditional positive regard as they are growing up, the consequences follow them into their adult life. I am a strong supporter of humanistic psychology, and I firmly believe that you cannot love a child—or another human being, for that matter—too much. There is simply no such thing as too much love for anyone.”
Debbie shares sensitive, private information and feels this is something positive as it normalizes these conversations. “Sharing my narrative with audiences, and now in print, makes me very grateful and hopeful,” she says.“I am grateful beyond words for everything I have in my life. I have been to the other side, and I hope I do not take anything for granted. I hope that the message I wish to share is accepted, understood and integrated. Part of a new paradigm for our time is an increased awareness of what mental illness is, and the reduction in stigma associated with it. Millions of individuals in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness and they should not be identified by their illness any more than someone with heart disease or diabetes. The message is beginning to filter down and I am honored and thankful to be part of that message.”
“Working with my clients gives me great joy and I learn from them every day,” says Debbie. “It humbles me to see how individuals, couples and families can work toward their goals and find truth and meaning in their lives. The strength of the human spirit is truly a wonder of the world, and one that I never tire of seeing. We are all children of God, and when we allow ourselves to celebrate our differences and unite in our commonality, the possibilities are truly endless.”
Debbie Akerman, LCSW, is a licensed social worker currently working on her Ph.D. in social welfare at Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work. A mother to eleven biological and eight chosen children, Debbie brings her personal and professional knowledge of addiction, relationships, bereavement and, ultimately, “triumph over tragedy” to individuals and groups. Through individual and group therapy, publishing and speaking, Debbie’s engaging, honest,”cry ’til you laugh” or “laugh ’til you cry” style inspires people from all walks of life.
Contact Debbie at 845-642-2854 firstname.lastname@example.org