From the pages of Jewish Action
My 22-year-old son David is tall, handsome, bright and charming. He is also an alcoholic and a drug addict.
David was brought up in our Orthodox Jewish home in Queens, where he was active in Jewish causes. He discovered an interest in drinking, as my wife and I learned recently, when he was ten years old. Over the next few years, he developed a growing affinity for alcohol and added marijuana and other drugs during his last two years of yeshiva high school. When he stayed overnight with friends – ostensibly, to study – he was actually engaging in drugging and drinking. David was eventually kicked out of two yeshivot.
During his adolescence, we thought he suffered from personality disorders, and sent him to a succession of psychologists. David was able to fool them as well as he fooled us. Unfortunately, no school guidance counselor, teacher or psychologist ever suggested to us the potential source of the problem. There is no more adept liar, we learned, than an alcoholic or drug addict; and yeshiva administrators and school psychologists often are not familiar with substance abuse or its occurrence in the Orthodox community.
The relationship between my wife and myself was often strained due to David, with each of us accusing the other of being responsible for his behavior. The anguish was sometimes unbearable. We tried to hide David’s problems from our other children and from our extended family, without much success.
After high school, David went to Israel to study in a yeshiva that dealt with troubled boys. David didn’t last past Sukkos. Upon returning from the holiday recess, he was kicked out for reportedly smoking hashish. After reviewing the situation with my wife, I quickly took a flight to Israel. Upon my arrival, David told me that he had only tried hashish once and was being thrown out as an example. I had no success in convincing the yeshiva administrators to accept him back. At the time, we were angry with them. Today, we have come to understand that they were not the address for helping boys like David.
We were given guidance by a Jerusalem rabbi, Moshe Prager (real name), an unusual, personable, and dedicated Karliner Chassid from America who devotes his life to helping boys like David. On his advice, David applied and was accepted to a well-known ba’al teshuva yeshiva and I returned to the United States. After one month, David was asked to leave because the school was not equipped to deal with people from religious backgrounds, even though David had behaved reasonably during his stay.
David spent the next few months wandering around Jerusalem, sleeping in school dormitories, friends’ houses and youth hostels. Eventually, he volunteered to work in a non-religious kibbutz near Tiberius. He told us drugs were forbidden there. (He informed us later that he and some other volunteers bypassed this restriction by going to Tiberius a few nights a week to buy hashish.) We were very disappointed that David was now totally non-observant. We did hope, however, that the hard physical work in the banana fields would turn him around.
When David returned to America three years ago, we had to confront almost the worst nightmare a parent can face. David was in hell already; we were about to join him there.
My friend Robert was the first to make us fully aware of the true scope of David’s problems. He is a well-respected religious therapist, some of whose patients suffer from alcoholism. His support and sage advice helped us through many difficult nights.
David asked to meet with him to discuss his problems.
Robert notified us that David had a raging drug problem and recommended that we speak to Barry Wilansky (real name), executive director of the Tempo Group in Woodmere, New York. Tempo provides outpatient services to alcoholics and drug addicts and also runs support groups for family members.
David agreed to attend weekly group meetings at Tempo, while we were encouraged to join a family support group. In a recent letter to his younger sister, David described his feelings at that stage: When I used to meet people, I would try and see if they were like me, a drug addict. If people weren’t, I mostly attempted to see what I could get from them, whether it was their money or their pity. The alcoholism almost killed me.
Physically, there were many times when I should have died of alcohol poisoning or an overdose of drugs. Spiritually, I was bankrupt. It felt like there was nothing for me in life and that the only way to get through another miserable period of time was to get drunk enough or high enough till it would go away. This became harder and harder as time went on.
Alcoholism is truly a family disease. David’s sickness was mirrored in our family: He was in a state of denial and we were in denial; he was suffering and we were suffering. Our nerves were raw and many a night we cried ourselves to sleep. We went through all the emotions of terror, shame, humiliation and disbelief. But we never gave up, even at the worst moments. We were dogged; we remembered the sweet child David had been, and we were determined that somehow or other things would turn out all right.
At this point, David was supposedly attending a local college and living with friends near the school. He lived in a pigsty of an apartment with other similar boys. He was completely non-observant, confrontational and irritable. He never disclosed to us how he spent his time and constantly badgered us for money. Eventually, we found out he was supporting himself and his habit by gambling on sports with bookies at the college.
David intermittently attended group meetings at Tempo and was tested for drug use. I remember vividly one parent support group meeting when the group leader, a social worker, asked us how David was doing. I replied that he seemed to be behaving a little better. She then told the group that David had recently tested positive for cocaine. I started screaming at her.
How dare she announce that in front of the entire group? I was totally agitated. After all, how could a young boy from a religious, successful, respected family become an alcoholic and a drug addict?
With the help of the dedicated professionals at Tempo, we started to learn about the “disease” of addiction. If 10 teenagers were to experiment with marijuana, nine of them might enjoy it but would not develop an incessant craving for it. The tenth, however, might be genetically predisposed to develop a chemical dependency. We learned that this disease is viewed like diabetes – you can learn to live with it, but there is no cure.
We learned of the ability of human beings to develop addictions to a wide-ranging group of mood-changing substances. Some of them are socially acceptable, like alcohol, Valium, pain killers and sleeping pills. Keep in mind that substances like alcohol can take years to build up to a level affecting daily functioning.
Other substances, such as crack, may take only a few months. What could we parents do? We learned at the group how to deal with a member of the family who is an addict. The addict continues to need the family, because eventually, no one else will assist him or her. Parents normally try to help and support their children; addicts require the opposite treatment. We learned about acting in ways that we previously thought would be hurtful, but were now actually acts of love and kindness. The natural tendency to “enable” them financially and otherwise must be totally ended. For example, we could not allow ourselves to assist David with money to rent an apartment, because the money would go for drugs. Only when the addict hits rock-bottom is there a chance he will take stock of himself.
Unfortunately, no one can define that bottom. One can only hope and pray they reach it before the disease kills them. We did learn, however, to seek out leverage to raise the bottom before tragedy struck.
Six months after becoming involved with Tempo, we were advised that outpatient treatment was not working for David. I will never forget the afternoon of October 3, 1995. At a family meeting with David and Barry Wilanksy, we told David that he had two choices – either immediately go to an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, or leave the room and never see us again!
We were tense and emotionally drained because we didn’t know what answer to expect.
It had taken us six months to reach this point. We weren’t bluffing: we meant every word and David knew it. We couldn’t enable him to continue his senseless existence and we had to make the hardest decision for a parent – before he killed himself.
David agreed to go. The Tempo staff arranged for him to join an excellent program at a rehab center in the Midwest. Within two days he was on the plane. We concealed his journey from our friends and family with various concocted stories. His Bubby was especially agitated by his behavior and it was difficult to hide the situation from her.
David later told us it took him six weeks at the rehab center to admit to himself that he was truly addicted. He stayed in the center for four months full-time, one month in a volunteer work program and one month in a halfway house. He then decided to remain in the town, attending outpatient meetings and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) groups. Many of the doctors in the center, which had been founded expressly for the treatment of health-care professionals, were themselves recovering alcoholics and/or addicts. Substance abuse cuts across all ethnic, religious and socioeconomic boundaries.
During a family visit to the rehab center, David related his history of substance abuse in its entirety at a group meeting.
The patients in the room included doctors, lawyers, housewives, nurses, factory workers and our son. When I asked the social worker why each visiting family had been provided with a box of tissues, she told us they would be necessary. She was right.
The tears flowed, first in choked sobs, then more freely, as each patient related in detail – to their family members and the group – his or her history of substance abuse.
This was all part of the recovery process. We learned that some alcoholics began at the age of ten, others at the age of 55. One alcoholic explained that he started each day with a 12-pack of beer. Others spoke of taking enormous quantities of every imaginable pill. (We had never heard of most of them.) All described the trauma they had caused to themselves and their families. Other patients who had heard the stories in prior group meetings were assigned to interrupt if the patient prevaricated.
As we sat among the group, David described his entire odyssey to us for the first time. We were requested not to interrupt until he finished. We learned that the fact that we had not realized that he had an alcohol and drug problem until years after it began was typical of most families of substance abusers. By the end of the session, the tissue boxes were empty.
David came back for his first visit home a few months later. In a remarkable move, he visited all of our family and close friends and informed them of his addiction. To our wonderment and gratitude, most of our friends and family were understanding and supportive. David’s openness about his affliction removed an enormous burden from our shoulders. We didn’t have to be secretive and furtive about his whereabouts and behavior anymore. We could start to recover with David. We finally were able to explain the situation to his Bubby, and though she found it difficult to comprehend, she was supportive.
In some ways, David is mature beyond his years; he has learned to take one day at a time. In other ways, he gropes to understand the world around him. Coming out of his drug-induced stupor, he has had to rediscover himself; and that includes his religion, his family and his community. Thank God, he has passed these self-examinations successfully.
Two years later, David’s recovery continues. He attends college and was recently offered a position as a clinical assistant at the treatment center he had attended. His estrangement from Jewish observance has lessened. In fact, he was asked by the local community to teach Bar Mitzvah lessons and he instructs a group of five people in the intricacies of laining the weekly Torah portion. Rabbi Prager of Jerusalem recently visited him and informed us that he was amazed at his progress.
David’s story is not his alone. A 55-year-old man from a large Orthodox community recently enrolled in the treatment center. His alcoholism and crack addiction had been exacerbated by drinking at a weekly “Kiddush Club” during the Shabbos services.
When I read the first draft of this article to another couple – close friends of ours – they abruptly stopped me in the middle to call in their “yeshivish” son. They suddenly realized that his intense interest in drinking at Purim and Pesach might mask a deeper problem. In the discussion, he admitted that he drank up to half a bottle of whiskey at holidays or when he felt tense, a total of perhaps 15 times. Having gone the course and having no illusions about addiction’s tenacity, I probed the young man, with his parents’ permission. His drinking problem turned out to be serious and he had already started taking drugs to satisfy his cravings.
Our community must realize that the curse of addiction can occur in any family – even an Orthodox one – and in any yeshiva. It happened in ours. I believe the road to recovery lies in recognizing the symptoms and dealing with them honestly, no matter the pain. Help is available.
People tend to believe that addicts can beat the disease if they are disciplined enough. The otherwise successful professionals we met during the family visit to the rehab center belie this seemingly logical point. As a general rule, if you can beat the craving yourself, you’re not truly addicted.
The 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous directs the addict to the path of spiritual growth necessary to counter-balance the addictive craving.
The 12-step program stresses belief in a Higher Power and turning to God for help. Working within a group of peers, this approach guides the sufferer out of the wasteland of addiction towards a plateau of spiritual serenity.
When the alcoholic and addict work with the program assiduously, they are on the road to recovery.
For the rest of his life, David will drink grape juice in place of wine for Kiddush. For the rest of his life, he will be wary of any medicine containing a mood-changing ingredient.
David continues to attend AA meetings on a regular basis; his sponsor and mentor is also a yeshiva graduate. We thank God every day for David’s grappling with the disease of addiction and his accomplishments, though the time lost has left its scars.
For the rest of his life, we wish David the blessings of spiritual growth and continuing recovery.
The author wishes to remain anonymous. Names and places mentioned in this article are fictitious, except where noted. All else is true. “David” reviewed the article and gave his permission for its publication.
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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.