On Sunday, I left Los Angeles with its toasty 78 degree weather. When I awoke the following morning in St. Croix, Wisconsin (just over the Minnesota border), it was minus 19 degrees outside. Walking from the hotel to the waiting van, I thought my tuchis (rear end) would freeze off. Yet, after spending a few days at Hazelden, a residential addiction treatment center in Minnesota, I found myself warmed by the profound healing happening amongst recovering addicts, their families and the incredible Hazelden staff. [All the names, situations and stories are composites. In order to protect the confidentiality of all involved, I generalize from my experiences and those of my colleagues.]
I am one of four rabbis and a rabbinic spouse attending the Hazelden Foundation’s Spiritual Care Providers Professionals in Residence program. Recognizing that even Rabbis and Rabbinic families suffer from the disease of addiction, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), my national rabbinical organization, raised funds so that our delegation could acquire the education necessary to help our own. We seek an understanding of chemical dependence and our role in helping persons affected by addiction recover and heal – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Jews Don’t Drink!?! How many times have you heard that Jews don’t drink? Well we do. And we use chemicals, misuse prescription drugs, snort coke, and engage in a myriad of other addictions too! Like just about every ethnic group, our Jewish brothers and sisters too are seduced by their addictions until their lives are damaged beyond recognition. Slowly, too slowly, our Jewish community is waking up to help. So here I schlepped during the frigid Minnesota winter to deepen my pastoral skills in ways that could benefit both my colleagues and my Or Ami congregants.
In the past fourteen years, I have run recovery retreats, led Jewish 12 Step meetings on Yom Kippur, co-written curricula for developing Jewish 12 Step groups, and mentored rabbinical students to become 12-Step-friendly rabbis. None of this, however, prepared me for the intensity and depth of emotion that permeates this wonderful community.
At Hazelden, we participated in a family program in order to understand how addiction affected relationships. We partnered with addicts to learn first-hand about the challenges they faced. We listened to lectures about alcoholism as a disease and heard inspiring speakers who provide guidance and hope. At one point, I looked out the window at the falling snow hiding the frozen ground beneath. It reminded me that there is so much heartache hidden beneath the faces arrayed before me in Hazelden’s community room. But in the fellowship of recovery, the stories were shared and the pain revealed. Always, I was amazed at the strength of character that it took to face it and fight back.
We learned so much about addiction and recovery.
- About how addiction is about a “desire to be numb” and the recovery is about “the desire to be alive.”
- About how many addicts in recovery are grateful for the crisis in their life – their rock bottom – that brought them to recovery.
- About one study which showed that a person with an alcoholic parent but an otherwise stable family was still FIVE TIMES more likely to develop alcoholism as was a person from a multi-problem family without an alcoholic parent.
- About the three C’s: Cause, Control, Cure (a family member of an addict DID NOT Cause the disease, CANNOT Control the addiction, and CANNOT Cure it either).
- About the fifty-pound phone, the notion addicts use to describe how hard it is initially to lift the telephone headset to really reach out for help.
- About how the craving for the object of your addiction (booze, a joint, some pills) is so insidious and powerful that it is stronger than anything else (love of family, concern for job, caring for spouse).
Beyond making me so grateful for all the wonderful parts of my own life, my stay at Hazelden also taught me how addiction can rob anyone of the fullness of life.
This morning we were playing outside during a break. We had heard that in below zero temperatures, you could throw a full cup of boiling water up into the air, and it would vaporize before it hit the ground. We had to try it, and vaporize it did. I immediately thought of my newfound family group partners. Their lives were once so full. Yet as the chemicals heated up their days, those cherished lives – marriages, careers, economic security, families – were vaporized in less time than it took for that water to vaporize.
I feel so honored and fortunate to be learning this. And to have the opportunity to deepen my pastoral skills so I can reach out and help others. May the Holy One grant me the chance to use this learning to lead others down the path of recovery from addiction.