Were we really the only ones with a child in rehab?
One Motzaei Shabbos, a few nights before our daughter Elana began high school, my husband, Etiel, and I came home to find her drunk. We had gone out for the evening, and when we came home we found her sitting on the floor, her head in her hands, crying hysterically. She was extremely nervous about starting high school, fearing that she wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t make friends, and was palpably anxious about embarking on this next stage.
My husband and I are, at most, occasional drinkers, but we did have a bottle of scotch in the cupboard (an office gift) and some wine that we rarely used, and Elana had decided to calm her pre-high-school jitters by mixing them in a large glass and downing a drink. Shocked and concerned, we promptly sent her to a therapist to help her learn healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with stressful situations.
Elana continued therapy throughout high school. She was a brilliant student who excelled in all her classes, but she continually felt disconnected from her parents and siblings. She was diagnosed, at various points, with anxiety, depression, and ADHD, and was placed on medication. We were very attentive to her mental health needs, constantly working to get her the help she needed, but it was hard for her to connect with us, as she was unhappy with herself and, as a result, she pushed us away and did not really share her inner struggles with us.
When Elana graduated high school, she was still struggling, and we felt it would be best that she stay home with us in Teaneck, New Jersey, instead of spending the next year in seminary in Israel, as most of her classmates were doing. We wanted her to continue under professional care and slowly transition from living at home and commuting to New York for college, to living away from home while attending college. Once things were more stable and she seemed to be doing well, we felt comfortable sending her to live in New York.
While in college, Elana continued therapy and visited her psychiatrist regularly to update her prescriptions. She wasn’t living under our roof, and was already a legal adult, so she went to these appointments on her own. Overall, she seemed to be doing well. She was enjoying her courses, her grades were very good, and she was adjusting to living away from home. During her second year in college, however, we noticed that she seemed more anxious. This anxiety was triggered by stressful situations, like finals, which had caused her stress in high school as well. We were worried, but Elana assured us that she was working through these issues with her therapist, and we were confident that she would manage to work things out, as she had in the past.
Toward the end of the first semester of Elana’s third year of college, Etiel and I took her out to a restaurant for her 22nd birthday. The last thing we expected her to tell us then was, “I’m having a problem with drugs.” But that’s exactly what she said.
Stunned silence ensued.
Then, feeling as though the floor had just dropped out from beneath us, Etiel and I started groping for explanations. When had this started? What had triggered it? How bad was the problem? What could we do to help?
Apparently, during her second year of college, Elana had begun staying up late at night to study and finish her term papers, and she had taken extra Adderall pills, prescribed for her ADHD, to help her focus. The rapid pace at which she was going through her pills should have been a red flag to her psychiatrist, but she duly refilled the prescriptions each time Elana asked. From there, it had been a short way to seeking stronger substances that gave her a high feeling or that brought her down from these highs.
Today, she describes it as a battle between her brain and her heart: In her heart, she wanted to stop, knowing that what she was doing was self-destructive, and she even tried to stop on her own over and over again, but each time her brain would betray her, as it had become chemically dependent on these substances. By this point, she was dealing with a full-blown addiction, as she was taking drugs just so that she could feel “normal” and function.
Although Elana initially opened up and asked for our help, she soon did an abrupt about-face. “I can handle it myself,” she declared, and quickly retreated, refusing to talk about the problem anymore.
Etiel and I immediately sought out whatever information and professional help we could get, but we soon learned that drug addiction is very different from the other mental health issues we had helped Elana work through.
“There’s not much parents can do,” experts told us.
We struggled to accept the “three Cs” of dealing with a loved one’s addiction: “I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, I can’t control it.” Feeling overwhelmed with helplessness and fear, we began frantically researching treatment options and getting professional advice on the subject.
Addiction, we discovered, is a family disease: It affects not only the person misusing substances, but the entire family as well. We worried about our daughter asking her siblings or grandparents for money, so we had to tell them not to send her any money, in case she asked.
Telling our parents was heartbreaking. How do you explain to your parents that their adored granddaughter is in the throes of this insidious disease? How do you tell your children that you have no idea what is going to happen to their sister and whether she will end up on the streets — or worse?
Above all, we had no access to community support, because addiction is a subject shrouded in shame and stigma. When Elana had struggled through her other mental health issues over the years, we had always been able to find people to talk to in our community. Although mental health comes with a stigma of its own, people were still relatively open about issues like anxiety or depression, and within our circle of friends we knew other parents and families who were dealing with these issues and could offer vital information about treatment options. More importantly, they provided much-needed empathy and support.
But when it came to addiction, there was no such dialogue. We didn’t know anyone else in the frum community who was struggling with this issue, and we felt incredibly isolated. When we looked for resources outside the Jewish community, we found a local Nar-Anon group for family members of those suffering with addiction. We attended a few sessions but did not find it terribly helpful, partly because the people in the group were miles apart from us culturally. We then found another family support group a little farther away and actually met a couple of other Orthodox Jewish families at that group, which reinforced to us that our community is not immune to this disease.
Within a month of Elana’s disclosure, we made the heartrending decision to cut off her financial support. She had stopped attending classes weeks before, and we knew that whatever money we were sending her was only enabling her to continue misusing substances. Soon, she came back to us and admitted that she could not handle this on her own and did, in fact, need our help.
Desperate to help our daughter, we contacted many mental health professionals we knew, and they directed us to a therapist who specialized in addiction. Elana asked us to make the appointment for her, and we scheduled the appointment for a Friday. That afternoon, just as I was about to light candles, she called and reported that the therapist was recommending two treatment centers, one in Pennsylvania and the other in Florida. Within a day or two of that appointment, Elana packed up her room in New York, bought herself an airplane ticket, flew down to Florida, and checked into a rehab center. So aware was she that she needed help that she made the necessary arrangements completely on her own.
Rehab was a harrowing journey. Elana left that first rehab facility and checked into another, and then left the second treatment facility, against clinical advice, because a girl she had befriended there convinced her to leave. She disappeared for three days on the streets of Florida, and we had no idea if she was alive or dead until we received a call from a third treatment facility checking our insurance, as she was inquiring about checking into their program. She and this girl entered this facility and, once again, the friend tried to convince her to leave. Luckily, Elana said no. She stayed and her friend left. (A year later, that friend tragically died of an overdose.)
In the meantime, we began formulating all sorts of vague non-answers to use when people asked us what Elana was up to. Our closest friends and family knew what was going on, but how could we explain to random acquaintances that our daughter was receiving treatment in Florida for drug addiction?
About a year after she entered rehab, Elana was able to transition to a sober living facility. Around the same time, my husband and I were standing in line in a local store, and our shul rabbi happened to be standing right in front of us. Knowing some details of Elana’s struggles, he asked how she was doing.
I gave him an update and then added, somewhat sarcastically, “You know, Rabbi, we must be the only family in Teaneck dealing with this issue!”
He shook his head sadly and said, “If you only knew.”
Around the same time, our family was leaving shul on Shabbos, and a friend asked us what Elana was up to. After giving some “she’s finding herself” kind of answer, I lamented to my husband and kids, on the way home, that I wished I could just be open and honest.
“Why can’t you be?” asked my 20-year-old son Gavriel. “When people ask me what Elana’s doing, I just say, ‘She’s in rehab.’ ”
“But she’s not in rehab right now,” I pointed out. “Now she’s in sober living.”
“Oh,” he replied. “Then I guess I would tell people that Elana was in rehab.”
Just like that — so matter-of-fact and simple.
Why couldn’t we do that, we asked ourselves.
These two interactions convinced Etiel and me that we could help people by telling our story. We asked Elana — after all, this was her story to tell — and all our other children if they were okay with us going public with our family’s struggles, and they all approved wholeheartedly. Elana had only one condition: She wanted us to make her contact information available in case anyone wanted to talk to her about their own struggles.
We decided to arrange a substance-addiction-awareness event, one in which we would talk openly about our situation for the first time. We contacted the local press, both Jewish and secular, and three newspapers ran our story on their front cover.
I felt so exposed and uncomfortable. “Never mind ripping off a Band-Aid,” I confided to some of my close friends the week before the event. “This is like ripping off a body cast.”
But once the story ran, people started approaching us — in grocery stores, at school events, in parking lots — to tell me about their own situations. One person literally chased us down the street on Shabbos to tell us that he had a brother in recovery. Another had a family member who overdosed and died. Another had a friend whose wife had become addicted to painkillers after undergoing surgery. Another woman’s husband was dealing with alcoholism.
Suddenly, we were not the only ones. We had known all along that we couldn’t possibly be the only family grappling with this problem, and now we finally had confirmation that addiction is a widespread — if buried — issue in the community.
The common denominator among all these stories was that the disease of drug addiction had deeply affected the families in question. Some of the addicted individuals engaged in behaviors that would otherwise have been unthinkable: stealing from relatives, faking prescriptions, even breaking into Pesach hotel rooms to steal medications. These previously rational people had risked marriages, livelihoods, relationships, and everything that matters because the substance had taken over their lives.
We expected about 50 people to show up to our event, 100 at most. Yet on the evening of that initial event, held in April 2018 at a local high school, over 700 people showed up. They filled every seat in the room, they squeezed into the sides and corners of the room, and they overflowed into the hallways and down the staircases. The most amazing thing was that as Etiel and I spoke before 700 people, preceded by Rabbi Zvi Gluck, CEO of the Amudim organization, you could not hear a sound from the audience. Jews aren’t usually quiet, but the people in attendance — even the ones standing in the stairwells — were mesmerized, and hung onto every word.
We told our story, honestly and openly sharing the pain of our journey and our daughter’s terrible ordeal with substances. We wanted people going through this to know that they were not alone, and that they didn’t have to feel isolated or submit to the stigma that is associated with addiction. My husband described how he had learned to reframe his own understanding of what it means to suffer from addiction, and to recognize that addiction is a disease — one that does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, race, religious affiliation, or socioeconomic bracket.
Before the evening began, a woman approached me, crying hysterically. At first she couldn’t utter a word, but finally she blurted out, “I want to thank you for doing this. My son died of an overdose four years ago.”
At the end of the evening, someone I have known for over a decade came up to tell me that his son also struggled with addiction. For weeks after the event, people kept approaching us with their own stories to share — some with happy outcomes, some with tragic endings, and some ongoing.
For the first time, we felt that the entire community was mobilized behind us.
Based on feedback cards we put out at the event, we decided to form a support group for loved ones of people struggling with substance misuse and addiction. The group has (sadly) been going strong since May 2018, and now that we moved to Zoom, it has been opened to people outside our immediate geographic area. We also founded a not-for-profit organization called “Communities Confronting Substance Abuse” (CCSA), and have conducted additional community events since the first one, most recently a Zoom event on mental health and addiction attended by over 250 people.
In addition, we offer evidence-based programs in frum schools designed to educate students about what addiction is and how it happens, what substances can do to their brains and body, and how to develop refusal skills and healthy coping strategies. These programs are presented by people who are themselves in recovery and can infuse their own personal journey into the presentation, driving home the message that this can happen to anyone. Elana herself has delivered this presentation, telling her own powerful and compelling story. In conjunction with a professional clinician, we also conduct parent and faculty presentations regarding current drug trends, signs and symptoms of substance use, and communication skills.
Let’s face it: Every kid in our communities is going to be exposed to alcohol, whether at a kiddush, on Purim, at a wedding, or even at a Shabbos meal. With recreational marijuana legalized in New Jersey and likely to be legalized in New York, and with habit-forming pain medications readily available, young people — and not-so-young people — need to be equipped with knowledge of the dangers of these substances, with powerful resolve to avoid those substances, and with tools to deal with challenges and pain without resorting to the quick-but-perilous fixes provided by alcohol and drugs.
What makes these substances so dangerous is that certain people are biologically wired for chemical dependency, and when they are exposed to those substances — as most of us invariably are at some point — their bodies quickly learn to need the stimulating highs, or numbing lows, that these substances provide. And, while many people who develop addictions have a history of trauma or abuse, drugs are also a serious a problem among kids like Elana, who have no such history.
As someone who is involved in fighting addiction on a communal level, I can tell you that this scourge spares no community, no matter how sheltered and devout, no matter how yeshivish or chassidish, no matter how wealthy or poor. We need to acknowledge that this problem exists among us, so that we can successfully combat it.
By staring the problem of substance misuse calmly in the eye and not denying its existence, we can enable people suffering from addiction, and their families, to get the help they need without shame or recrimination, while empowering our community to prevent addiction in the first place.
Our Elana has now been in recovery for three years. She graduated college, and is currently working as a certified peer recovery counselor for those in treatment for addiction, while pursuing a graduate degree. She has been to more funerals than weddings in her young life, as many of her friends who used are no longer with us.
When she tells her story, she describes feeling horrible that weekend before she started high school, when she first experimented with alcohol to calm her nerves, but she also talks about how she experienced a flicker of clarity: Ah, this is the answer. While she was still far from developing an addiction — she started using harder drugs several years later — she sees that night as the flashpoint of her journey, the moment when turning to substances for relief entered the realm of possibility.
In retrospect, I realize how incredibly brave it was of Elana to come forward and admit her struggles to us at that birthday dinner. That disclosure also attested to the fundamental trust in our relationship and her knowledge that we would stand by her no matter what. And, indeed, throughout all her ups and downs, we kept repeating to her that we were there for her, and that we wanted her to live a healthy and productive life. It was not easy, but with our support she persevered in pursuing treatment, and now, baruch Hashem, she is stable, healthy, and able to pursue her goals and dreams, and our relationship is in a better place than ever.
Elana’s experience could easily have ended tragically, like the tales of so many others who struggle with addiction, so we are profoundly grateful to Hashem for giving her the courage and strength to turn her life around and conquer her illness, and for fortifying us to stand by her throughout this journey.
The current pandemic has only exacerbated the problem of addiction, and we’re getting calls from families all over the US asking for help with this issue. But today, no frum family has to feel alone or isolated as we once did. Those early days of our journey seem light years away, but recalling those feelings of isolation and loneliness inspires us to work harder for the sake of sufferers, their families, and Klal Yisrael’s communities.
The narrator, Lianne Forman, and her daughter Elana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the CCSA website: www.time2talkaddiction.org
To have your story retold by C. Saphir, e-mail a brief synopsis to
email@example.com or call +1.718.686.9339 extension 87204 and leave a message. Details will be changed to assure confidentiality.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 847)
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