Yesterday, I published a piece in these pages on the opioid epidemic and how it has affected the Jewish community. When I shared the piece on social media, I explained what has drawn me to covering this crisis. When I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college, my father committed suicide. We discovered (though I had already suspected) that at the time of his death, he was addicted to opioid painkillers, likely prescribed for back pain from a work-related injury. He had battled addiction my entire life, and it almost certainly played a part in his decision to end his own life.
I was blown away by the kind words and sentiments expressed when I shared this personal connection to the crisis. A number of people reached out to me to share their stories of how addiction affected them personally.
In the last hours of the Tisha B’Av fast, I spent 45 minutes on the phone with one such man. I’ve written his story so that others can learn just what the struggle with addiction looks like on a personal level. Others reached out to me and also shared their stories, which are below as well.
I kindly request you read, share and take the pain they’ve shared to heart.
What if I told you I know someone who was beautiful and strong, well-off and well loved, my hero and my best friend who was an addict? She was someone who meant the world to me. At 23, my mother began her battle with addiction, first turning to alcohol to escape from reality. She had become a single mother at the age of 17 with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Not long after, she became a functioning alcoholic. She started seeking treatment, multiple times, for alcohol abuse. When she finally had a breakthrough, it was exciting. Then she discovered cocaine. It completely took over her life. She became distant, not the woman I had always looked up to. She was no longer the woman who braided my hair, helped with my homework, went to my sporting events. I no longer knew my best friend, my hero. I didn’t understand why she had changed. By the time I was 19 she was living on her own, no prying eyes, no one telling her right from wrong. She found a new road, prescription drugs, and learned all the excuses in the world to get the next bottle of pills. This experience was short-lived as she found love in a stronger opioid — heroin.
My mother started using at the age of 50 and did things that were unimaginable to me. She turned to prostitution, theft, spent time in jail, and lost her relationship with our family.
I always prayed that she would realize this is not who she was, but opioid addiction takes over a person’s mind, body and soul. I prayed every day for her. I also prayed that I would never receive the “phone call.”
On April 27, 2015, the call I dreaded came. My mom had overdosed on heroin at 57 years old. I was broken but not shocked. She had battled a hard life for so long.
Addiction to opioids is serious. My mom got through her addiction to alcohol and cocaine, but the opioids grabbed her and wouldn’t let go. I like to compare it to the “devil’s horns digging in and never letting go.”
I hope the people who don’t understand the epidemic will see it’s a serious issue. We need to stop and take a stance now. I know people look at addicts on the street in a different way than those who live with them, but I still look at my mother as the strong, beautiful, amazing woman I knew when I was young. I have never walked in her shoes, but I do believe a smile, understanding, even just listening to someone can help. It takes a voice, a hand and a heart to help heal and care.
Anonymous (as told to Bethany Mandel)
I was born in Queens and moved to the Five Towns area of Long Island when I was 5 years old. My parents were divorced and I was largely raised by my father, who was usually busy working. I had to grow up pretty fast. When I was 13 years old I was constantly getting into trouble. Got kicked out of every camp; I was a wild kid. Jewish community didn’t know how to deal with a wild kid. They bounced me from place to place. When I was 15 years old I got busted smoking weed with friends. I’m not sure how it happened, but I got blacklisted from every yeshiva, even very modern schools. Luckily I was smart and had already taken my SATs. They were willing to take me early admission as long as I went to Israel for a year to yeshiva to clean up my act. The only one that would take me was Neveh Zion. I was really young and it’s a really crazy place, especially in those days. That’s where the wildest guys went back then.
In Israel I went to my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting at 15 years old. But it wasn’t a thing that Neveh was stressing, it was just something I tried out. I became too busy partying to keep up with it. They weren’t interested in curing addiction or a mental disorder from a clinical perspective. They want you to burn out from all the drugs and become frum, and that’s exactly what happened to me. I went to Modern Orthodox schools but I didn’t really believe it, even though my family did. After a year being burnt out on drugs, I felt like Judaism was the answer and was the cure-all for my addiction. I jumped right into it. I didn’t cure the problem, which was drinking and drugs. When I was religious at Neveh, I actually became more of an alcoholic. I ended up spending four years in Israel. I studied Gemarah on a high level; all the while I was drinking and smoking weed. And a weekend every here and there in Tel Aviv doing drugs, Ecstasy and pills and coke. I would come back to yeshiva in tears. “What’s wrong with me?” I didn’t realize religion wasn’t going to cure me; I was an addict and bipolar.
I was really religious and 19 years old, and the head of the yeshiva said: “I have a girl for you. You’re ready to get married and become a rabbi.” I freaked out that the rabbi didn’t know what I was really doing on weekends. I needed some kind of education, so I went back to America to Baltimore’s Nier Israel. I didn’t last very long; about a year and a half. I was a full-blown junkie by then. When I got back to the States, every other weekend turned into every day pretty quickly. I found myself shooting up before Gemarah shiur [session of learning] and getting drugs on the streets of Baltimore. I was doing this for a while, and one Purim I was at my rabbi’s house in Lawrence [in New York], and he pulled me aside and said: “I see you nodding off - I didn’t see you having a drink. Roll up your sleeves and let me see your arms.” He was a total Dead Head ba’al teshuvah and recognized what I was doing and wanted to see my track marks. He told me if I didn’t leave yeshiva and go to rehab, he was going to get me kicked out. He told me Judaism doesn’t matter, that I needed to go to this rehab and if I have to eat treyf there, so be it. This is a matter of Pikuach Nefesh [saving a life]. I went back to my parents and told them I was a junkie; I hadn’t lived there since I was 15 years old. They laughed and didn’t believe me. I literally had to take the heroin out of my pocket and show them the needle for them to believe me. My father got so freaked out, he almost had a heart attack.
I went to my first rehab at 20 years old, to a small rehab in upstate New York. I told myself I would stop all the hard drugs and smoke only weed. I smoked weed the whole time and I detoxed horribly. I swore I’d only drink and smoke weed from there on. At rehab the pressure was off. I forgot Judaism and stopped keeping kosher.
I got out and went to law school, to Cardozo, and went to meetings, smoking weed and drinking. I had a grease fire in my kitchen when I was high making mozzarella sticks, and burnt all the skin off of my hand. I was being pumped full of morphine and demerol; I was in the hospital for two weeks. They sent me home with a huge bottle of OxyContin. And just like that, I was a junkie again. I was scamming doctors and got by on pills for six months, until nobody would write me more prescriptions. So what did I do? I went to heroin.
I decided somehow I was going to get clean and go to New Orleans and run a nightclub there. I drove down there with my stuff in a U-Haul, including $7,000 of heroin, which I was going to take in order to wean myself off. New Orleans was the bottom of the barrel for me. I would steal from the club, I never worked. I had a house that I paid for, but I gave it to my drug dealer. I was sleeping on the floor of the club. I was in the worst projects of New Orleans and shooting up in shooting galleries, even crack. I’m 6 foot 1 and I weighed 145 pounds. My arms were green. I was working for the drug dealer selling drugs; I was doing whatever I had to do.
I picked up the phone when I felt like I couldn’t go on and I was going to die. And I called my father and he almost lost it. He couldn’t deal with it.
I went to California to a Chabad treatment center in Los Angeles. I went to one detox facility but soon was kicked out for doing drugs. I decided to go to skid row to get high. But Benny at the Chabad treatment center started driving everywhere trying to find me and found me and picked me up off the street. He told me I would get one more chance, and drove me to a detox in the Valley. My roommate had drugs but I decided not to do it. I started going through the drugs, and for a month I detoxed and didn’t sleep, vomiting every day. I ended up staying there for six months; it was great and I had the time of my life. I was making cholent on Shabbos and learning and teaching classes on Shiurim and Gemarah. I reintroduced Judaism back into my life. They told me at the end of six months I had to stay in L.A. and go to a halfway house. But the thing I didn’t figure out was I couldn’t make my own decisions, and I said I wasn’t going to go. I decided to meet my family in Miami, who were doing development there. I wanted to make money.
The same thing started again. “I’ll just smoke a little weed. I’m just going to take a drink.” And it led to me doing heroin again. I was spending all the money I made, and this time I was actually making real money. My life was a disaster. I got so high I felt like the rebbe was chasing me. I locked myself into the apartment in South Beach with a ton of drugs and planned to overdose. I was never able to overdose. I just kept doing more and more and more. I couldn’t even kill myself. I wasn’t even competent enough to do that.
I reached out to my father again. I went to a detox in Miami and went back to L.A. to the program again. But I came back and relapsed again within two days. And I called the head of South Miami Hospital, where I had detoxed. He agreed to take me only if I would come right then and there, immediately. I locked myself in the bathroom before I left and did all the drugs in my pocket and woke up a day and a half later in detox. I had a great therapist there, and a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as hypomanic disorder, a mild form of bipolar. They put me on medication and I did therapy there.
I decided I wanted to live, and committed to totally submitting myself to whatever my therapists told me to do. I was never going to do anything, ever again. I was taking my psychiatric medication. I got a sponsor who taught me how to live, how to share my story, and share everything inside of me to get it out, lest it eat me up from the inside.
I was six months clean at that point and got a girl pregnant; I barely knew her. She decided she wanted to have the baby and I decided I wanted to be a good father, and so she converted and I married her. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t work out, but my son is the most amazing thing that happened to me. He saved my life. I haven’t used since, and if not for him I would not have met my current wife, who is an angel. I never looked back. I never wanted my son to go through what my sponsor’s kids did — witnessing me using.
I make sure I take my medication, go to meetings, stay connected in life, and slowly reintroduced myself to Judaism and family life. I know no matter what, I can never pick up anything ever again. No matter how bad my day is. One sip, one pill, I can kiss my life goodbye. It’s that simple. It clicked and it worked for me.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment I realized my handsome and talented husband was struggling with a very serious addiction to narcotics. I’d like to say that it became completely clear to me when a friend of mine called me to tell me that my then-husband had called her to ask her if she any extra medication lying around, or when another friend called to say that pills had gone missing from their house after he had visited, but I think I still had some denial to work through even then. I considered myself informed and aware of the problems that were facing the Orthodox Jewish community, an entity that was such an integral part of my upbringing. Yet there was my altruistic, community involved husband and his impressive, well-connected Orthodox family and I just couldn’t see it. After all, he was the guy who stayed sober on Purim, the more organized one in our marriage, the traditionalist to my free spirit. Sure, there were demons — the learning disability that prevented his success in yeshiva, the abuse he alluded to at the hands of a teacher, and the feeling he had of being an outsider in his prominent family.
In spite of my reservations and doubts, I attempted to have a conversation with him about his still subtle changes in behavior and the concerned phone calls. My worries were met with the predictable denial, anger and exasperation. He asked if I really thought that little of him, if he had ever lied to me, if it was possible I was seeing addiction everywhere because of my profession. I asked myself the same.
As time went on, the evidence stacked up and I could no longer deny what I knew to be true; my meticulous, hardworking husband was completely hooked on pills. First it was the pain pills he was prescribed post-injury, then something stronger, and then medication he bought to try to get himself off all of it.
I spoke with my husband’s family members about my now confirmed suspicions. I was initially met with minimizing, anger and even blame. This revelation had caused them to look at this perfect life they built in the Orthodox world in a way that made them feel extreme discomfort and anguish. My observations were questioned, and then my character. I told myself they were afraid and worried, but I realize now that they were deeply ashamed of this very “not frum” secret in their family. For decades, addiction was the illness that we Orthodox Jews told ourselves we were immune to. Admitting that this wasn’t the case brought up questions with no easy or comfortable answers.
It’s been a long road, one that our marriage could not survive, but our friendship has. My ex-husband has a strong support network of other Orthodox Jews in various stages of recovery. He struggles with being Orthodox, and attributes some of his hardships to what he perceives as unrealistic expectations that are imbedded in our culture. His family is still trying to understand, but many of them have yet to utter the word “addiction.”
My story is both uniquely mine and exactly the same as millions of other addicts. We all start using different substances, at different times, for different reasons; but once we find ourselves in that bottomless pit, we are all in a vicious battle to save our own lives. Many of us make it into recovery, but, tragically, many don’t. I’m one of the fortunate ones who got out. I’m both an opiate addict and an alcoholic and have been in recovery for over two years. My first attempt at getting sober was in 2004, so it was a long fight. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.
I was already in AA when I had to see a doctor about some health issues and was prescribed an opiate pain medication. Before I even filled the prescription I talked it over with my sponsor, my partner (also in recovery) and my mother. We made a plan, and because I’d never taken or abused opiates, I truly thought it wouldn’t be an issue. So I began taking them as needed. And thus the battle began. In the nine years between that first prescription and my last sobriety date, I went to numerous detox facilities, multiple treatment centers, faced crippling depression, attempted suicide, lost my home and my family, and caused immeasurable damage to most of the people who loved me. Some of those relationships have healed, some are works in progress, and some were beyond repair. But at every point along the way, I had at least one person who refused to give up on me. It wasn’t always the same person, but I always had someone willing to stand beside me. My mom was one of those people.
Most of the Jewish men and women I have known in recovery all believed the same thing at some point: Jews can’t be alcoholics or, God forbid, drug addicts. I kept saying, “But I’m a nice Jewish girl from Shaker Heights!” For some of us, the stigma kept us drinking or using longer. And for our friends and families, it may keep them from talking about it or reaching out for support. Both of those things can be deadly. As things got worse and worse, my mom needed to be able to talk about what was happening in her life. Fortunately, when she reached out to some friends and a few people at her temple, she found lots of support and no judgment. Her rabbi offered an open door and countless prayers. She didn’t have to hide or carry the burden alone. This was vital.
My mom refused to give up on me, which probably saved my life, but it took an enormous toll on her. She didn’t sleep through the night for years. (I’m happy to tell you, she sleeps soundly now.) There is no one connected to addiction who doesn’t suffer in some way. It’s a heartbreaking disease. The road may be long and painful, but sobriety is both possible and amazing. We should never give up hope, on ourselves or our loved ones. Sharing our stories is one way we can offer hope to someone else in need. Every voice matters. The more we talk, the better chance we have of making a difference in someone else’s life. And when it comes to addiction, it is literally life and death.