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When addiction spins its web around the person you love, you too, are trapped. Five personal accounts of perseverance, survival, and recovery

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

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HELPLESS How many, many times had I uttered this prayer, as I helplessly watched you fade away in a stupor of pills and alcohol?

Addiction is swallowing some of our best and brightest. No longer a few individual voices; this has become a communal cry of pain. These voices tell the stories of those who bear witness to addiction’s gritty costs, giving a glimpse of the battles they fight daily. Five women who have a relative grappling with addiction share the pain of being on the edge of the whirlpool, unable to pull out the person they love.  

Where There Is Love, There Is Hope

Tikva Ben Shalom

I lie in my daughter’s bed, holding her as she trembles with withdrawal symptoms from yet another drug relapse. Tomorrow she flies to a new facility. Maybe it will be different this time. I’m on a tilting Ferris wheel of raised hopes, fearful of having them dashed yet again.

Her body nestles into mine as she slumbers, and I’m reminded of my little girl of years ago — my little blonde bundle, as she nursed, her rosy body sweet and healthy. Now, I gaze at her, tears coursing down my face, her pain-wracked body relaxed at last, long tresses strewn about her face, thin and pale. An old song pops into my head from a long-ago childhood place.

Where are you going, my little one, little one?

Where are you going, my baby, my own?

Turn around and you’re two

Turn around and you’re four

Turn around, and you’re a young girl going out of my door

And the verses continue:

Little sunsuits and petticoats

Where have they gone?

Turn around and you’re tiny

Turn around and you’re grown

Turn around and you’re a young wife, with babes of your own.

Whenever I played this piece on the piano, I’d become teary-eyed. The lyrics spoke to me of the transience of life, and of the preciousness of those fleeting scenes of childhood.

I never knew when the pressure would grow so intense that everything would explode again

I stroke her wan face, and I remember that little girl, and I yearn to hold her with the same confidence in my ability to protect her and assure her of a beautiful future. I’m mindful of how fragile she is, and how completely powerless I am to protect her from the pain that’s her constant companion.

I used to think that if I just knew the perfect parenting formula, or consulted with the top professionals, I could locate that foolproof formula: a solution to the paradox eluding us, and others as well, in these troubling times. I now know that it’s the One Above Who holds the key to her recovery, and this painful journey, too, is part of His perfect plan.

What is it like to live with addiction?

It is heartache that never goes away — it sits in your chest, taking up residence, heavy and unmoving. It is fear, constant fear, that rises unbidden, at all hours of day and night. Sometimes, it can be pushed aside, and you can actually go about your business. At other times, the fear is like a balloon, inflating slowly, bit by bit, until it fills your innards so tightly you are certain you’ll burst from its paralyzing grip.

Addiction sucks out the joy of a beautiful day, the pride you ought to experience in your healthy family members who are involved in the ordinary tasks of daily living. Addiction attaches itself like a lingering stench, accompanying you wherever you go, tingeing everyday affairs with its pervasive odor, with the sense of things not being right, not ever being right because something’s always missing… (excerpted)

I’m Fine, Really

As told to Shoshana Schwartz

My mom and I used to be close. Real close. I’d tell her all my secrets, share my hopes, my fears. My favorite times were when we snuggled up on the couch together, just me and her. I felt loved, warm, protected. I felt, I knew, that I was really important to her; I was an integral part of her.

It didn’t happen overnight. But slowly, day by day, things changed.

It started with Aron, my older brother. I’d be in my room, doing homework or listening to music, and the screaming would start. My dad would be yelling at Aron and my mom would start crying. The topic was always the same: Aron was drinking. A lot. He’d yell back, bang a few things, my dad would yell louder and my mom would cry harder. Eventually, someone would slam the door and it would suddenly grow as silent as a graveyard.

The quiet was worse than the noise.

It grew even quieter, because Aron stopped coming home in the evenings like he used to. He’d wander in at three or four in the morning, or stumble in as my dad returned from Shacharis. Sometimes I’d wake up in the dead of night to thunderclaps of anger ringing in my ears, boomeranging around my room. I’d climb further under my covers, trying to stuff my pillow into my ears to shut out the bitter fighting.

I remember sitting together with Dini, my little sister, on her bed in the middle of the night, holding and rocking her, trying to calm both of us. We held each other like two frightened passengers in a flimsy storm-tossed boat with no captain. And no life preservers.

The air in the house always felt thick. Heavy. As if I were living inside a thundercloud. I never knew when the pressure would grow so intense that everything would explode again.

The atmosphere was poisoning me. So I withdrew. I let the rain wash over me, let the clouds come and go. I grew apathetic toward my family, creating an emotional barrier between myself and everyone else. I tried to keep an eye out for Dini, to shelter her from the worst of it. But my parents, Aron, and my older sister Yehudis were just shadows in the periphery; they barely registered on my radar.

I missed talking to my mom. I missed having the whole family sit around the Shabbos table. I missed… having a family. But stepping back was the only way to survive. I knew that if I wasn’t strong, I’d get sucked into the maelstrom.

I kept my nose squeaky clean. I pulled straight As, cleaned up after myself, and stayed out of everyone’s way. I didn’t leave a footprint. I developed a knack for leaving a room just before a high-pressure storm blew in.

I had created a bubble for myself. I began to think nothing could penetrate that bubble.

And then Yehudis tried to kill herself.

My dad broke. Through the whole Aron thing, he’d been furious. Solid, stalwart, unbending. He tried to whip Aron back into shape with demands for better behavior and promises that he’d toe the line. “How can you do this to yourself?” was the line I so often heard rip through the air and ricochet off the walls. But Yehudis’s suicide attempt, her first of several, and the drinking and drug use they discovered had preceded it, was a blow beyond anything he could handle. When his strength crumbled, so did any remaining feelings of security I’d had. I was more than devastated; I was paralyzed… (excerpted)

Dark and Light

Lili Grun

Dearest Ima,

Thank you for the card.

I found it as I was rummaging through the box Abba had made of all the junk from your pocketbook and your dresser. I’d been sifting through it, asking myself what to do with your Delta frequent flyer card, your little sewing kit, and just as I was wondering if I was going to stumble on yet another stash of the fat white pills that became — and eventually took — your life, I found it.


It had beautiful flowers along the edges, and written in the center was the motto we say in my Al-Anon program for family members of alcoholics, the Serenity Prayer: “G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I sat on the floor, mouth agape. How many, many times had I uttered this prayer, as I helplessly watched you fade away in a stupor of pills and alcohol? You didn’t go to a program, and you didn’t know I went to one. Two therapists we are, and we never once discussed your addictions. Was that a terrible mistake? Does it matter now? Where did this card come from? I turned it over. On the back, more flowers, another quote: “Make yourself familiar with the angels, and behold them frequently in spirit; for without being seen, they are present with you.”

You are present with me, Ima. You’re my mentor and my spiritual guide still, only now I can reap the benefits of your presence and your wisdom free of the chaos of your addictions.

Living with you was to have the rug pulled out from under me over and over and over again. You’d light up proudly at my accomplishments and exclaim, “Ahh! You got it now! Climb to the tippy top like a monkey!” “You could be a professional organizer!” “I’d bet you could publish this!” “What did your teacher say? Everything I expected her to say! You’re conscientious and sweet and write beautiful poems!” Then you’d get drunk and follow me around the house, threatening to return my puppy to the pound, to cancel my birthday party, to cut all my hair off when I’m sleeping… (excerpted)

Circle of Support

Ruchama Jacobs

“Ma, I don’t know how to say this, but Shiffy is drinking way more than she should.”

“What do you mean? I thought you need to drink a lot in Israel.”

“No, Ma, not water. Vodka.”

“Vodka? What are you talking about?!”

Were we in denial? We’d had our struggles with Shiffy over the years, but a drinking problem?! As weeks stretched into months and months into years, we became acquainted with the world of detox, rehab, halfway houses, therapists, mentors, relapses, overdoses, and a world that had always existed on a different planet. We were a happy, healthy, ehrliche family. This couldn’t happen to us. Except that it could. And it did.

A friend nudged me to join a support group for frum mothers of addicts. But it wasn’t for me. “I’m okay. I’m strong. I’m handling it,” I kept saying. I would just undertake to say Perek Shirah every day. I’m a private person. I’d never be able to deal with a group situation. Besides, I was embarrassed, I didn’t know who else would be there, and anyway, I was doing okay.

Except that I wasn’t. Then the day came when I found myself bursting into tears with no provocation, every two hours, and I finally realized that I wasn’t so okay. I called my friend and asked her to let me know when the next meeting was.

I felt better after I made that call. Actually attending was another thing entirely. As the meeting approached, I tossed and turned at night. What should I say? Who would be there? Would I be making a relatively public statement about something that we had kept so quiet?

The clincher came when I spoke to Shiffy. “It’s a great idea, Ma. I’m going to AA meetings and they really help me. If you’d go to these Al-Anon meetings you’d understand more and feel better. My friends at AA (I cringed in my head at this phrase) whose parents go say it’s a really good thing.”

The conversation did nothing for my menuchas hanefesh, but it did firm up my decision. If Shiffy wants me to go, I’ll go. Not for me; why would I do something for me? But for her, I’d do it for her.

So I went. Mainly, I listened. Yes, there were people I knew. Some I knew and was shocked they were there. Some I had known or suspected that they were dealing with addiction. Some I met for the first time. One thing I felt right away. These women understood. They had been there. Judgment wasn’t in their lexicon.

Back home, my husband, who was very wary, asked, “So, nu, how was it?” “Interesting,” I replied. “I’m not really sure what the point is, but I did hear horror stories that seem even worse than ours, so I guess there should be nechamah in that. It could be worse. But you know what, they really want to make this work and they need people to come, so I guess I’ll go again.” For them, not for me. Of course… (excerpted)

A Matter of Trust

Henya Klein

It’s very hard when you don’t completely trust your husband.

There’s always that doubt, in the back of your mind, like an annoying sound you try to block out but can’t, not completely. When he says he’s traveling for work, or going to a shiur, or going to see a friend, you think, Is he really?

What can you do, though? I guess you can ask him. “Yes, I’m really going to learn,” he’ll say. Of course he’ll say that. He’s not going to say, “Actually, sweetheart, I was lying.” So you nod and return to the dishes or the laundry or the kids or lesson planning and say a silent prayer that he’s not doing anything that will cause your life to fall apart.

That’s what it’s like, every day, being married to a recovering addict. Oh, it gets better of course. There are therapists and support groups — tons of support groups! They teach you to manage anxiety, to focus on yourself, to let go, to not accept the unacceptable. But there’s a point, I don’t know when, when you stop for a moment and realize that you may not ever trust your husband fully. And that’s sad, no?

Even if his words match his actions for a year. Two years, three years. Even if your toddler can make an impressive tower out of the sober coins he finds in the night-table drawer. Even if, even if. So what do you do, exactly? You ask the women in your support group. “Just focus on today,” they say, “don’t worry about if you’ll trust him a year from now.” “It gets easier.” “Just keep focusing on yourself.”

It’s helpful, the support group. Except for sometimes when you feel like you’re going skydiving and the instructor tells you, “I don’t know if you have a parachute, so good luck,” and then pushes you out of the airplane. And you hope you have a parachute but you don’t really know. Just like you don’t know if your husband is using or stealing or cheating. Just like you don’t know if you’ll have to sit your kids down one day and say, “Abba doesn’t live here anymore.”

Oh, that’s rough. That’s too hard to think about. So you lock it away, in a box near the annoying sound that you can’t block out. The tiny red flags that wave, that bring up memories when triggered, that make you feel like your life can change for the worse at any moment, any moment at all.

It’s hard when he travels. It’s hard when I see triggering behaviors. It’s hard for me, it’s hard for him. So why write this? I guess because when everything first happened, I felt so alone. I thought, I must be the only frum woman with a husband in rehab. I must be the only frum woman with a husband who is struggling in recovery. I must be the only frum woman with a husband celebrating his first year sober. I must be the only frum woman who is dealing with this… (excerpted)

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