By Lydia Bloom Medwin
Former Rabbinic/Education Intern (pictured at left)
Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
“Acquire for yourself a teacher…” This passage from the Mishnah encourages us to seek out those more knowledgeable than ourselves and to become their students. After meeting with four Or Ami congregants, each recovering from alcoholism or an addiction in one form or another, I have found for myself some wonderful teachers.
During the past month, I met with three alcoholics or addicts and one spouse of an addict. Each had a unique history with their own addiction – the first time she drank, the transformation of his alcoholism into a heroine addiction, her sifting through the credit card bills to find her husband’s unknown charges – yet all four had so much in common. The most important commonality emerged in discussions around a twelve-step program. Each day they surrender their lives and their will to God – their lives depend on it.
My teachers are some of the most spiritually centered people that I have ever met. They have all developed close relationships with God, however they define their Higher Power. They know that when the world becomes overwhelming or when something makes them fuming mad, there is only one solution: give it over to God. These moments of prayer and meditation, both spontaneously spoken and ritually observed, anchor them in the truth on which their lives depend. This truth is comprised of the first three steps in a twelve-step program: 1. I can’t do it. 2. God can. 3. I think I’ll let Him.
But these are only the first few steps on the journey toward recovery. Even in recovery, the addict (and even the spouse of an addict) can find that he or she becomes consumed by the fear and pain that pushed him or her towards addiction in the first place. They are forced to learn completely new ways of dealing with their problems, because they cannot turn to the bottle or the pills or whatever addiction used to dull their pain. They know that if they ignore these fears, the disease of addiction can progress on. If the alcoholic stops drinking but does not deal with his or her fears, the addiction continues to intensify. When the addict returns to the addictive substance, the abuse of that substance is far more serious, as if they had been drinking and getting progressively worse during the entire period of sobriety. Talking about their fear and pain is just as much a part of recovery as abstaining from the substance itself.
My teachers taught me that they can only find the power to face their fears by constantly refocusing on “giving over one’s problems to God.” This is the only path that can lead to recovery and healing. I was amazed by the incredible strength they evidenced as they moved from addiction to recovery. Imagine truly believing that “I will not survive unless I continually remind myself that I must give my life over to God.” Would you have the strength to surrender to your Higher Power? But it is only this surrender that helps the alcoholic/addict choose to abstain from using. In the Torah, we are commanded to choose life that we may live. An alcoholic actually chooses life every day.
“Only a drunk can help another drunk.” This quote from the movie The Story of Bill W. completely baffled me when I first heard it. How could two people with such a disease help one another get sober? What does this mean for me, a rabbinic/education intern who wanted to be of service to the recovering alcoholics in our congregation? Once we realize that the only way to stop the addictive behavior is to continually find fellowship with others who understand, we can embrace the truth: No one can understand the internal life of an alcoholic like another alcoholic. No matter how much the person’s loved ones care and want to help, only a community of people who have the same disease can speak the language with and feel the empathy for the alcoholic or addicted person.
It was this seemingly simple discovery that led Bill Wilson, an alcoholic himself, to develop the first twelve-step program, a system of recovery, lifetime support, and anonymity for people with addictions of all kinds. It remains the only known way of helping people who struggle with addiction. Presently, there are over two thousand Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction recovery meetings each week in the greater Los Angeles area, including many in the West San Fernando and Conejo Valleys. AA has a rich, proud, and private history; its members are protective of their meetings and the organization because of its incredible healing power in their lives.
As a rabbinic intern, I thought that through these discussions, I would be able to better to talk to the Jewish alcoholics or addicts that exist in every Jewish community. I learned instead that it was my role to listen: to their stories of pain, of hitting rock bottom, of survival. Then it was my responsibility to educate others about the disease of addiction and to the program of recovery, about the ones who don’t make it and the ones who do, and the ones who thrive despite all of the odds against them. I would like to thank those people who shared their experiences and their lives so openly with me for the sake of our communal learning. I deeply respect their incredible journeys. It also means a lot to me on a professional level, as their stories will certainly inform my rabbinate for years to come. You are four really great teachers. One of you said to me, “In seeking God, I find relief.” I pray that you all find many moments of relief.
We can all learn from the addicts in our lives and in our community. They have so much to teach us in terms of hope, personal change, strength, and spirituality. Or Ami is a place that strives to better understand addiction and the Twelve Step program. We are a place to come for understanding, acceptance, and spiritual support. We welcome all those struggling with these issues to contact Rabbi Paul Kipnes ([email protected]) or Rabbinic Intern Sara Mason-Barkin ([email protected]) for support or Jewish resources regarding addiction and recovery.