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Never Say Never

Jacob L. Freedman

“That’s why I’m wasting everyone’s time, your honor”

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


hmulik had been to his first detox hospitalization before the age of 15 and had spent a night in jail long before he was old enough to vote. After burning his way through every treatment program in the area, Shmulik’s uncle — his closest relative since his parents had been killed in a car accident — brought him to Eretz Yisrael. He eventually found sobriety for a few years within the structure of the Israeli Army’s Nachal Haredi unit, but that fell apart once the fear of random drug testing evaporated following his discharge. Shmulik had become involved in various financial schemes, a few domestic violence incidents, and at least one armed robbery. Plus, he’d been regularly abusing just about every drug he could get his hands on.

He wasn’t the kind of fellow who usually came to my office for treatment, as detox would be the first step, something he surely wouldn’t be interested in.

But Shmulik’s uncle was a therapist who happened to be my colleague, and he was a tough bargainer.

“Come on, Yaakov, just see him once. Maybe you can help him? He’s a yasom, and he’s drowning the pain of being alone. Look, I’ll even bring you some kibbeh from the old Syrian guy next to my office.”

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But Shmulik showed up late and was slurring his words, asking me for an extensive drug cocktail, a prescription for medical marijuana and even for Ritalin. “Buddy, you’re likely to end up in jail again if you keep on putting this stuff in your body,” I responded. “You need a detox before you do something unwise and end up with a few months of hard time, given your record.”

“I appreciate the heads-up, Doc, but I’m already looking at a few months for property damage.”

“Shmulik, I’m not sure I have too much to offer you right now until you’re sober,” I said honestly. “But I might be able to help you avoid jail time for smashing whatever you smashed if you could get sober and agree to meet me once a month.”

“A car windshield of some guy,” he hiccupped. “The guy ran over my uncle’s dog so I smashed his windshield. No one messes with my uncle.”

“Gotcha,” I said. “Listen, if you want to get sober and detox, we can meet again — and maybe you’ll get a letter for the court.”

“Cool, Doc,” he said as he got up. “I’m gonna go smoke a cigarette and think about it.”

The next month-and-a-half were Shmulik-free, although I never did get my kibbeh. Truth is, I’d seen plenty of folks who’d come in only once and hadn’t been ready for sobriety. But then, out of the blue, I received an email from Shmulik telling me he’d reached a month of sobriety, was engaged with a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous, and wanted to meet again.

“I have your kibbeh too, not sure if you know what that’s about, but my uncle told me to bring it to you.”

Good to his word, Shmulik arrived with a brown paper bag filled with kibbeh for us to share.

“What happened, Shmulik?” I asked.

“My uncle got me a lawyer who told me that I was looking at a month in jail. I told him I had met a doctor who told me he could stop them from locking me up, and he said it was worth a try — so I figured I’d get sober and come to see you. Can I get my letter?”

I had to hide my surprise. “Shmulik, I’m happy to write you a letter, but it won’t do you any good unless you’re my patient,”

“Okay, so I’m your patient. Sentencing is in eight months, so what do I need to do in order to get my letter in time?”

“You need to stay sober, Shmulik. And the only way to do that is to keep up with daily AA groups, get a job, and stay busy—”

“I’m cool with that. I’m already working for my AA sponsor learning how to be an electrician,” he interjected proudly.

“Amazing. But we need to have a regular drug test and we might want to also try a medicine that will keep you honest.”

“What does that mean?”

I proceeded to explain the idea of a medication called Antabuse. It was a pill he’d have to take on a daily basis and that would keep him off of alcohol by causing the worst hangover of his life if he had even a drop of liquor.

“Is this gonna get me a letter for the judge?”

“You betcha,” I answered. “As long as you stay sober and engaged in treatment. Your lawyer should be able to give it a good fight.”

Shmulik actually reached the important AA milestone of 90 days, his drug tests were negative, he continued on his medicine, and he was working hard as an electrician. He’d even begun regular courses with Hatzolah to be an EMT.

As the court date approached, I wrote Shmulik his letter, explaining that he was sober, engaged in treatment, and was a true baal teshuvah. In spite of this, Shmulik’s uncle called to let me know that the judge was tough, and that Shmulik was looking at up to six months of jail time, given his history of violent crimes and newly added charges of public intoxication and resisting arrest.

“Doc,” he said at our next meeting, “I did my part and stayed sober and now you’re going to have to do your part and get me off. I’m a changed man. I’m volunteering as a Hatzolah guy this Purim instead of drinking myself back into Hamanville. Now it’s your time to deliver.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I owe you.”

I made a call to Shmulik’s lawyer and decided that I’d make a surprise visit to the courtroom on the day of sentencing.

I sat in the back, waiting for my moment. The hearing began, and then Shmulik’s lawyer asked the judge to allow me to speak.

“I’ve been working with this patient for the past six months and have been truly surprised that this young man has been able to remain engaged in treatment,” I told the judge. “He’s been regularly attending AA meetings, is medication-adherent, has negative drug tests, and is gainfully employed—”

The judge interrupted with a combination of boredom and sarcasm. “This is old news, Doctor. Why are you wasting my time and yours with old news?”

“Because he is a true baal teshuvah. His parents were killed in a drunk driving accident, and instead of drinking himself into oblivion this Purim, he’s going to be volunteering for Hatzolah as an EMT. That’s why I’m wasting everyone’s time today, your honor.”

The judge actually grinned, while everyone present awaited his response. “I think you need to tell me what the treatment plan is, and I’ll see to it that we postpone sentencing for another few months.”

“Can I ask you to clarify?” I asked.

“Well, you’re clearly doing good work with this patient. If he can stay sober for a full year, then I’m willing to make sure he doesn’t waste a day in jail when he could be out there building a life for himself.”

“But Judge—”

“Yes, Doctor?” the judge snapped.

“Shmulik’s the one who’s doing the work. I’m just in it for the kibbeh.”

Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 752. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in The Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website

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