Down to the Last Drop| March 3, 2021
Is our community drinking too much? One wife’s chilling story, a harsh reality
Sari had only been married a few months when she found herself standing outside the neighborhood liquor store, waiting for her husband. She recognized the couple coming toward her — the husband was in the same kollel as hers and she’d met the wife a few times.
While the other woman’s husband ducked into the store, Sari chatted with the wife, making the usual hollow small talk. After a moment’s lull, the woman turned to Sari, her eyes darkening, and whispered, “Why didn’t anyone tell us?” She nodded meaningfully toward the liquor store that had swallowed their spouses.
Sari felt her stomach drop, the question piercing through the fantasy she so carefully concocted every morning. She was struggling for an appropriate answer when her husband appeared with a bulging bag. Sari waved a quick goodbye, but the question remained hanging in the air like stale cigarette smoke. Why didn’t anyone tell us?
Sari Freedlin* grew up in a bubble. Her father was a rosh kollel and her mother a beloved elementary school teacher.
“Insular doesn’t begin to describe my upbringing,” Sari explained to me over a Zoom interview. “I knew nothing from nothing. I went to the top Bais Yaakov in my area and I naturally gravitated toward the good girls. I had very little exposure to anything outside school, camp, friends, homework — my life was totally predictable.”
Even through the grainy screen, I can see that Sari’s piercing blue eyes have steel behind them; the girl she describes is long gone. In her place stands a survivor.
“I was a 23 when someone suggested Dovid. My older sisters had gotten married at a younger age and my family felt like I was being unnecessarily picky.” Though Sari’s parents heard glowing reports about this amazing bochur, they were sure Sari would find something wrong and end it after two dates.
This time, however, the research was on point: Sari saw something in Dovid she hadn’t seen in other boys she’d dated. He had storybook-perfect middos and an open ehrlich face and disposition. She was enamored. She agreed to another date, then another.
But beneath the surface, there was a niggling unease, something she couldn’t understand. Then, in a moment of honesty, Dovid brought up the fact that he’d struggled with addiction in the past. He’d attended a top high school, but wasn’t able to keep up. He confessed that his parents had “solved” his issues by sending him to yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael halfway through high school.
He bounced back and forth between Eretz Yisrael and home for a few years, and at one point attended rehab. At last, he settled down in Eretz Yisrael and saw some real success in his learning, making a name for himself as a genuine masmid. He quickly went on to explain that he’d been on the straight and narrow for many years.
Sari was in turmoil. She didn’t breathe a word to her parents, but paused the shidduch for a week to think things over. She decided to call an uncle who’d been involved in Dovid’s yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael for a long time, to do some more research. He got back to her with more glowing reports: “The past is the past; it was a long time ago and he’s doing amazingly well now.” He assured her there was no need to worry.
But Sari still had her reservations. Her brother, a confidant, suggested getting daas Torah from a big talmid chacham from Eretz Yisrael who happened to be visiting. With her brother by her side, Sari met with him, outlining the situation in detail. The talmid chacham listened carefully, then thought for a moment.
“Has he been sober for six years?”
Having done the research and spoken frankly with Dovid, Sari answered with a confident yes.
“Mazel tov,” the Rav answered. Then he repeated the mazel tov another three times. With her heart at ease, Sari got engaged soon afterward.
A few days after the vort, Dovid mentioned he was taking a small dose of Klonopin, a drug sometimes used to treat anxiety. Sari was taken aback — Dovid had assured her he wasn’t taking any medication. She didn’t want to involve her parents this late in the game and she wasn’t sure if they’d be able to handle the information or know what to do with it.
So she called the same uncle who’d helped her before and asked if she should call off the engagement. He recommended they go to a therapist together to discuss the dose of Klonopin and if it was safe. Dovid readily agreed.
The therapist met with the couple separately and then together. She reassured Sari that the dose Dovid was taking was minimal — just something to take the edge off — and that she shouldn’t worry about it. “You’re going to have an amazing marriage,” she proclaimed with confidence. Sari walked away feeling lighter, but still uneasy.
I interrupt her narrative with a question: If you had doubts, why did you move forward?
She sighs. “There were a lot of things I liked about Dovid. And I got advice from big people — rabbanim, therapists. They were all so reassuring and all insisted things would work out well. I let that guide me.”
The wedding came and went. Right after sheva brachos, the couple flew to Eretz Yisrael where they planned to start their marriage. There was the regular stress of unpacking and settling in, but from the beginning, Sari saw something wasn’t right. Dovid was missing days of yeshivah, sleeping late, and within a week of their arrival, he’d started drinking while still taking Klonopin — a combination that, unbeknown to Sari at the time, can be lethal.
“Here I was, temimusdig as it comes, up against something I didn’t understand at all. And the worst part was that I had no one to talk to about it. I didn’t want to breathe a word to anyone.” Sari wasn’t ready or able to face what she saw in Dovid, the quiet rearing of a beast that would grow to epic proportions over the next year, so she sealed her lips and put on her apron.
Dovid had a vast network of friends in Eretz Yisrael from many years of learning there, and Sari had plenty of connections of her own. She was an excellent cook, and despite her private internal turmoil, the Freedlin’s home quickly became known as “the place to go” for the best Shabbos seudah in town. Ten to fifteen bochurim streamed in every week, invited or uninvited.
“It was crazy,” Sari says. “I was working all day, then coming home to prepare supper, and making these lavish seudahs every Shabbos.” But the elaborate seudahs weren’t the problem. It was what came with them — the alcohol.
“I can’t even begin to describe it. Whisky, wine, scotch — the boys would bring their own alcohol and my husband would provide a bottle as well. By the end of the meal, everyone was gone. Everyone. Every week. No one could walk in a straight line; boys were collapsed out cold on the couch. My husband would go straight to the bathroom as soon as they left to throw up. It was Purim every Shabbos.” The binge drinking on Shabbos catapulted Dovid, who had a history of addiction, down a slippery slope.
From Religious Symbol to Status Symbol
Much ink has been spilled on the problem of bochurim drinking while in yeshiva. “Alcoholism in the frum community isn’t a new problem, it’s an old one,” says Zvi Gluck, CEO of Amudim, an organization that helps those suffering with addiction in the Jewish community. “But there are some new components. When I spent Succos in Eretz Yisrael a number of years ago, we hosted a lot of bochurim. I noticed they were talking about wine and scotch non-stop — vintage, what year, what label. I thought to myself, when did every 18-year-old become a mumcheh?
But is it just a “bochur” problem? As a self-proclaimed “data guy,” Zvi has the numbers, and the group struggling the most with alcoholism at the moment are the 20- to 30-year-olds, with the 17- to 20-year-olds only coming in as the fourth highest category. What that means is that we can’t just blame the bochurim. The young marrieds are drinking even more — and their behavior encourages the younger bochurim who look up to them.
“That Succos was eye opening,” Zvi continues. “The amount of alcohol flowing at some of the wealthier tables in the hotels and rented apartments around me could have paid my mortgage for six months.”
The way wealth factors into alcohol abuse is intriguing. In a now oft-quoted Gallup poll from 2010, findings indicated that the amount of people saying they drink alcohol regularly, increases steadily with income. Alcohol consumption went from 46 percent for people earning less than $20,000 to 81 percent for people earning over $75,000. Those with more education and higher socioeconomic status tend to drink more than others, according to a study by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organization that studies trends.
One bochur, an out-of-towner attending a yeshivah with a predominantly in-town crowd, told me he hadn’t been exposed to heavy drinking until he came to Eretz Yisrael, but it certainly wasn’t coming from the low-income families in the chareidi neighborhood he was learning in.
“I went to the Citadel for a meal with my roommate’s family over Succos last year. I’d never seen so much alcohol on one table. Everywhere you looked, there were these insanely expensive bottles and they were going through them like water. I realized that this is what means something to this crowd.”
Alcohol has always held a prominent place in the fabric of frum culture. “It’s woven into our lives, from the bris to the wedding. It’s in our Kiddush, at our Pesach Seder and Purim seudah,” Zvi notes. “Every Jewish event is linked to alcohol. And because it’s such a big part of our culture, it’s not viewed as bad or dangerous. In fact, it’s welcomed into our home a minimum of twice a week.”
But recently, alcohol has morphed beyond a religious symbol to a status symbol. “When parents prominently display their most expensive bottles of schnapps next to their heirloom, or when fathers leave the rav’s derashah to attend the all-important kiddush club, what messages are the children receiving?” asks Zvi. “When Reuven’s father proudly shows off his 30-year-old bottle, the message is: This is chashuv.
“I tell people all the time — my alcohol is in a closed cabinet. There’s a big difference between moderation and prohibition — I’m not against alcohol completely. But when I make a l’chayim, I take my bottle out, I drink the l’chayim, and I put it away. I don’t need my kids seeing bottles lined up in my dining room.”
Eli T., a yeshivah bochur from London learning in Eretz Yisrael for two years, describes a Shabbos he spent in a community of young Anglos looking to spend time in Eretz Yisrael after marriage. It was a regular Shabbos midwinter and one of the local men made a kiddush after minyan. “The amount of food and liquor was crazy. It must have cost him over 10k.”
Eli recounted that by 10:45 am, wives were trying to lead their husbands out the door because no one could walk in a straight line. The bochurim then followed their hosts home, only to present them with a fine bottle of whisky, and the drinking started up once again. A cycle of binge drinking only to be repeated the next week.
As another bochur aptly put it, “In these parts, heavy drinking only happens twice a year — Purim and Shabbos.”
Sari Freedlin experienced the same thing. The bochurim came for the geshmak, her husband invited them for the geshmak — and everyone left drunk. Week after week.
“What did you do about all the drinking? How did you handle it?”
Sari thinks for a moment. “I didn’t handle it. I pretended it wasn’t happening. My husband was sometimes out cold all day after a night of drinking. Sometimes he went to yeshivah; sometimes he didn’t. I worked until six or seven every night and when I’d reach my front door, I’d literally stand outside saying a kapitel Tehillim. I didn’t want to walk in.”
On the outside, Dovid and Sari were the perfect couple. With her pretty blonde sheitel and bright blue eyes, it’s easy to understand how Sari had everyone fooled. In fact, years later, friends confessed how jealous they were of Sari, her life seemed “Hallmark-card” perfect. But behind closed doors, Dovid’s drinking spiraled, morphing into a nightly activity.
Sari decided to reach out to a close friend, hoping the friend would give her the support she so desperately needed. Instead of being a rock of support, her friend berated her for neglecting the situation, insisting she go to therapy and decrying how insane the whole thing sounded. Sari recoiled and climbed back into her shell. She’d gone out on a limb and got nothing but judgement in return; she wouldn’t be opening up to anyone else for a long time.
The Freedlin’s open home filled with delectable Shabbos food and lots of laughs continued to be “the place to be.” The charade had everyone fooled.
Sari had come into the marriage with a nice amount of savings from years of working, but every time she took out cash, Dovid took a portion of it to feed his addiction, spending thousands of dollars on alcohol. They were fighting a lot, but oddly, they fought mostly about little things, avoiding the big issues.
When Dovid confided in his mashgiach about their fighting, the mashgiach declared the issues were stemming from the fact that the couple didn’t have children yet, and with utmost sincerity, he explained that the couple’s shalom bayis would improve if they had a child. Soon enough, Sari was expecting.
Yet the drinking didn’t stop. “I was so so good. I rarely said a word to him about his drinking. I would signal to him at meal times when I thought he’d had enough to drink, but it did nothing. Pretty soon I realized it was futile and I stopped. He’d tell me quietly — don’t worry, I know when I’ve had enough. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t berate him. So despite how worried I was at the thought of bringing a child into the mess we were in, I just accepted it.”
Sari’s pregnancy was terrible, and she had to endure it alone: At this point, her husband was emotionally detached and didn’t understand how sick she was feeling or how to be compassionate.
“I wasn’t in a good place. I was working long hours while incredibly nauseous. My husband was drinking so much that I didn’t feel comfortable bringing him to most people for meals, so I had to make Shabbos every week by myself.
“My parents and in-laws were in the States, so we had no family, but honestly, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable letting them see him in the state he was in. I wrote long letters to Hashem. We were fighting a ton by then, and I involved Dovid’s rosh yeshivah because I couldn’t bear the load all by myself. Baruch Hashem, the rosh yeshivah really helped us; he listened.”
Still, Dovid’s behavior didn’t change. He had found a family doctor near his yeshivah who gave out prescriptions like candy for a small price. The doctor kept upping Dovid’s dose of Klonopin, a drug known to be addictive. Dovid was drinking constantly now, as well as abusing other natural substances, including kitchen spices.
After Sari gave birth to their daughter, she came home to a husband whose brain was so addled, he became paranoid over the smallest things. “I was living a nightmare,” says Sari. “Dovid would wake up the baby multiple times to make sure she was alive.”
Dovid’s rosh yeshivah intervened and told the couple they needed to seek professional help immediately. The psychiatrist told Dovid he had to get off Klonopin. He prescribed less addictive medication, but nothing worked. Over the next year, the couple tried five different therapists, with little to no results.
“My husband was a wall: There was no one to have a conversation with, no one inside. I didn’t know how I was going to survive. I finally decided I needed family to know what was happening.”
Dovid’s oldest niece was getting married, and Sari insisted they go in for the wedding. She wanted his family to see what he was doing, his behavior, his drinking. True to form, Dovid drank the entire flight and passed out cold while Sari tried to take care of her screaming baby.
Sari made it through the wedding and sheva brachos with a phony smile plastered on her face. “It was the first time we’d been back since our chasunah, but instead of really seeing my husband, my in-laws put on rose colored glasses. Everyone thought we were the cutest couple. No one wanted to actually see my husband’s behavior. It was incredibly painful.”
The day before she was scheduled to leave, Sari mustered up the courage to discuss Dovid’s issue with her in-laws. Unfortunately, they didn’t want to hear it. They shifted their eyes and mumbled responses. She realized with horror that they weren’t going to help her.
Suddenly, whatever glimmers of hope she saw at the end of the tunnel had disappeared; in its place was a long, black hole.
Flaws in the System
“In the Freedlins’ case, the system seems to have been continuously ineffective at helping them,” says Dr. Moshe Winograd, a licensed psychologist at Rejuvenate Counseling in South Florida, a practice that focuses on helping individuals and families with serious mental illness and/or substance abuse.
“From Dovid’s parents, to the original therapists they saw, to some of the initial, extremely well-intentioned rabbanim they consulted, there were too many sweeping statements of reassurance without the proper assessment and perspective to be giving such assurance. In my experience, this is unfortunately extremely common and is largely preventable, and can save years of anguish and chaos.
“The failure to receive help from the family and friends,” he continues, “is often because of the stigma associated with addiction — they just don’t want to face it or don’t know how to have uncomfortable conversations.” Dr. Winograd also stresses the importance of community leaders and rabbanim knowing when to guide the couple toward a competent therapist or psychiatrist.
The high rate of failure to help those struggling today can be attributed to two things, says Dr. Winograd. The first is money: “The right kind of rehab — which includes highly trained therapists and deals with the underlying emotional and mental health issues, not just the addiction — isn’t affordable to most people.
“The second problem is that we aren’t treating the whole system around the identified patient. Many times, the family therapy and systemic approach is missing and that’s crucial. Even when a child is grown and married and well into adulthood, parental involvement lends a great deal of help toward recovery.”
He explains there’s an immense difference between one’s spouse suffering from addiction versus one’s child. “The hardest cases are those of a spouse who is refusing treatment. Spouses don’t have relational power and influence over each other — at least not in a healthy relationship — the way parents do over their children.
“When I work with a 22-year-old single guy, it’s different; the parents can put their foot down and learn how to set limits. Spouses can’t really do that as effectively. And that’s why in-laws and parents are crucial to the process, even after marriage. Generally, the more the parents can be effectively involved, the better treatment will go.”
Sari knew that Dovid needed rehab. But no one was offering to pay for that. Right before leaving, one of Dovid’s sisters came over to Sari and said, “You’re such a smart girl. Do yourself a favor and divorce him. He’s a wreck and no one in my family is going to lift a finger to help. Just leave him.” Sari walked away shaking. She wasn’t looking to get divorced; she was looking for support to help her husband combat an awful disease.
By the time the couple was back in Eretz Yisrael, Sari felt like a shell of herself. She continued working, cooking, even hosting. But inside she felt her world collapsing.
Sari was constantly in touch with her husband’s rosh yeshivah and when he heard what was going on, he put his foot down and told Dovid they needed to make an appointment with the top psychiatrist in the city. Thankfully, Dovid agreed to call. Sari lets out a sigh as she relays the details of that first meeting.
“I didn’t have high hopes — we’d tried this before. But this time was different. The doctor immediately honed in on my husband. Dovid tried to protest; he tried saying he wasn’t the one who needed the help. In his state, he really believed I was the one being crazy and I was the one with the problem. But the psychiatrist wasn’t having it.
“After speaking with us, he turned to my husband and said, ‘You need rehab. And if you don’t go to rehab, I’m not letting your wife stay with you. You need to call Amudim immediately.’ ” Sari’s face changes, lightens. “That’s the moment we found out about Amudim, and I’m so grateful.”
Amudim arranged for Sari to start her own therapy, separate from the joint therapy she was attending with her husband — a crucial step for those with loved ones suffering from addiction. This gave Sari tools she hadn’t had before and a whole new perspective.
“In general, the husband or wife of an addict can’t get their spouse to recognize they have a problem,” Zvi explains. “Trying to force them is the best way to create major shalom bayis issues.” What a spouse can do is seek professional guidance to gain the tools to properly address the issue.
“Loved ones can make the mistake of thinking that you just need to get the person into treatment and it will all work automatically from there,” says Devora Shabtai MSW, MSc, a therapist at Transformations Treatment Center in Florida. “The person’s own motivation and willingness are essential for lasting recovery.
“Also, getting the person struggling to engage in treatment and commit to recovery is something that cannot come from another person. Shouldering the responsibility for another person’s healing (or for the problem itself) can be debilitating. There are certainly tried and tested ‘do’s and don’t’s’ for spouses and family members that are recommended at all stages of recovery, but at the end of the day, this is a journey that requires commitment and buy-in from the person himself.”
As Sari realized early on, Dovid had a hard time discussing his addiction. And trying to force that dialogue through joint therapy was torture. When she finally had her own therapist to guide her, she found tremendous relief.
Dovid also started therapy, but his drinking was only getting worse. While trying to get their daughter’s stroller into a car one night, he was so drunk that he broke it so it would fit. Another time, Sari walked in to find him unconscious on the floor. “I really thought he was going to die.”
He started telling the babysitter weird things in the morning, like not to give his daughter any food, only bottles. One day, Sari got a call from the babysitter asking why her husband said their little girl couldn’t eat anything.
“I had to tell her not to listen to a word my husband said. And that was just one story, it was getting more and more embarrassing to live with him. He wasn’t in his right mind.”
By the time Shavuos rolled around, Sari and Dovid were both collapsing. “He started becoming verbally abusive to me, but nothing he said made any sense. It was like there was nothing left of his brain.
“Once I started finding marks on my daughter, I finally reached out to my family for help. They were shocked and appalled. They knew he needed rehab, but at $6,000 dollars a month… my parents are in chinuch, they couldn’t take on that burden.
“One family member called up my husband’s family and explained the situation. He said very clearly, ‘In the coming months, you can either shell out the money for rehab or for a kever. You choose.’ That finally got some of my husband’s family members to start understanding how dire the situation was.
As Sari lit the Yom Tov candles Erev Shavuos, she thought, this is the end. Dovid’s drinking was out of control, his complexion chalky. They were supposed to go to a close friend for the seudah, someone who knew a little bit about what was going on, and Dovid told Sari he’d meet her there after shul. They waited after minyan was long over. And waited. And waited.
“My friend turned to me and said, ‘Where is he?’ I replied, ‘He’s dead, my husband is dead.’ I was so sure of it.” Sari started searching the streets until she finally found him lost and completely disoriented, wandering around a different neighborhood.
That night, Sari brought him to yeshivah so his rosh yeshivah could see the state he was in. One of his friends came up to him and asked if he should call an ambulance. Dovid brushed him off.
“You’re dying, buddy.” His friend shook his head sadly.
After Yom Tov Dovid called up his rosh yeshivah and said, “My wife is crazy.”
That proclamation was the last straw; for both Sari and the rosh yeshivah. Amudim stepped in and sent Dovid to a detox facility. The rosh yeshivah convinced Dovid’s family to pay for that, but everyone knew he really needed full rehab, complete with all the supportive therapies it has to offer. After detox, Amudim recommended a rehab facility in Florida where Dovid spent the next eight months.
The charade was over.
The Road to Recovery
Sari desperately needed her family’s support so she moved back to live near her parents in Chicago. “On the recommendation of my therapist and Amudim, I started going to an Al-Anon group,” Sari says. “Al-Anon is similar to AA, but for family members of addicts. I walked into the first meeting terrified.
“It was a mixed meeting with all sorts of people, religious, Jewish, non-Jewish. After the first meeting, I was like forget it, I’m not doing this but my therapist pushed me, so I gave it another chance and I’m so happy I did. I met an amazing frum woman there. Then another. And another.”
“Being in recovery is a process which takes ongoing work and a whole lot of encouragement,” says Devora. “Seeking professional support isn’t only essential for the spouse of someone in recovery to preserve one’s own wellbeing, but is also necessary to build a healthy family dynamic needed for long-term success.
“Fortunately, there are many support groups for family members in the frum community. But it’s also crucial to recognize the value of joining traditional Al-anon groups. While the specific struggles family members face in their journeys may differ, a common thread running through is often a profound feeling of loneliness, and this is what these groups are here for.”
In Sari’s opinion, Al-anon is the most important part of the process for the family. “The message is we’re here to hear you. We’re here to listen to you and be there for you. You learn how to let go. I know that frum women are wary because many Al-anon meetings are often held in churches and are a whole mix of people, but going is essential and the groups are extremely respectful.”
Though Dovid and Sari were both seeking support, the sustainability of their marriage seemed murky. “My parents weren’t sure if I should stay married and neither was I. At one point, I went to visit my husband in rehab. The logistics were impossible and the trip was a disaster. During the group sessions, I felt like we weren’t on the same page. Sometimes he seemed to be completely against me. I came back to Chicago and hired a lawyer; I was getting divorced.
“I found out later that Dovid’s family only paid for one month of rehab, so he wasn’t getting the right care. His rosh yeshivah, together with Amudim, stepped in to see what was going on. At last, he was provided with all the right services and the best therapists because his rosh yeshivah took on the burden of paying for the next seven months of rehab — to a tune of over $40,000 dollars.” Right after his rosh yeshivah paid, Dovid was provided with a new therapist and things began to improve.
Sari was still set on divorce, but before making a final decision, she met with a well-respected rav. He listened carefully to her story and advised that if her husband was asking her to give him another chance, she should probably give him that chance post-rehab.
Sari held off on signing divorce papers — and also began noticing a remarkable change over the phone. Dovid was thinking, he was talking, reflecting. All the good things she’d seen while dating had returned.
Two months later, corona hit. “Amudim called me on Purim day, after the megillah reading. They said, ‘We’re putting him on a flight, things are closing, flights are closing. We don’t know what’s going to happen and he’s going home.’
“It was so sudden and I was so unprepared. I started frantically looking for a place for him to stay. Miracle of miracles, someone in my building was away and Dovid was able to stay there. Everything was shut down, and he was alone in this apartment, so I brought him food, made him dinner. And that’s when I found a different person than the man I’d been married to.
“He had changed over the past eight months and so had I. Still, it took a very long time to trust what I was seeing, to see if it was real, if he was going to stay sober.
“It’s been a year since he’s been home. He’s been clean and sober. He’s attentive and kind and giving. He doesn’t touch anything. He learned breathing exercises, he has tools to cope with his addiction.
“He still meets with his therapist from rehab every week over zoom. He also has so much support through his group from rehab over WhatsApp. The second he feels like he’s struggling, he gets immediate support, and it’s so helpful — it’s everything.”
Zvi recounts some of the mixed responses to the groundbreaking psak of Rav Dovid Cohen during the first wave of COVID in March. As the pandemic raged across the globe, all in-person AA and Al-anon meetings were canceled. That left the many ehrlich, shomer Shabbos AA attendees reeling, unable to walk to the meetings they attended religiously every Shabbos morning. Rav Cohen and others, including Rav Shmuel Meir Katz, ruled that in cases that met the guidelines of dinei nefashos, one was allowed to attend AA, SA, NA, or the like on Shabbos or Yom Tov over Zoom.
“The psak made waves,” Zvi explains, “because of some fundamental misconceptions: The average person doesn’t necessarily grasp the role that support plays for alcoholics in recovery. In many cases, attending weekly meetings is quite literally the deciding factor between life and death.
“To those who haven’t been exposed to the way addiction ravages human life, it’s hard to understand the psak. But to community leaders, rabbanim, therapists, and family members of addicts, the psak was not surprising. Meetings and support are the ultimate lifeline for those in recovery.”
Recently, the Freedlins hosted their first meal with guests. “My husband called them up and explained that we don’t have wine or alcohol at our meals. I can’t tell you how huge that is. I feel like I’m married now. We’re so close, we discuss everything.
“But I’m well aware that this is no fairy tale, that it’s going to take work for things to stay good, that my husband has a lifelong struggle ahead of him. I’m not under any illusions. But I can also say that I’m very happy.
“My husband says that every day is a choice: Do I want to do this or do I not want to do this? He’s enjoying his life. He knows one sip will destroy everything and every single day he makes the choice to do the right thing.”
Sari gets pensive. “When I found out certain bochurim we knew from Eretz Yisrael were about to get engaged, I was horrified. Remember what my meals looked like? Remember what I saw? I knew these boys were heavy drinkers, but when I asked a sh’eilah if I could tell their future kallahs about their drinking, I was told, “No, some boys can snap out of it, there’s no reason to say anything.”
“But here’s the thing: Addicts can’t snap out of it. Not all the boys who drank heavily at my table are addicts, but some of them may be abusing alcohol, and some of them may really be suffering from addiction. For those boys, snapping out of it won’t just happen. It’s not their fault — it’s just the way this disease works.”
While Sari and Dovid are finally enjoying a healthy marriage, not every couple is so lucky. According to the numbers at Amudim, cases of alcoholism and alcohol abuse are up since the start of the COVID pandemic.
“Pre-COVID, we were already seeing extremely high numbers,” says Zvi, “and no one should fool themselves: The kids see. They see their parents drinking, they know what’s going on. During COVID, it’s a whole different story. We’re dealing with daytime alcoholics — we’re talking mothers at home with their children, trying to do Zoom school and drinking. There’s been a 59 pecent increase just in alcoholism alone since COVID started.”
He shares another sobering development: “Today we’re seeing just as many issues with women as we are with men when it comes to alcohol consumption.” In 2015, Amudim was working with 24 female alcoholics; in 2020, that number has jumped to 758. These are women from across the spectrum of frum society — yeshivish, chassidish, Modern orthodox, etc. Frum women are abusing alcohol, but no one seems to be talking about it.
“As a community, we need to do two things from two different angles and meet in the middle,” says Zvi. “We need our community leadership to openly acknowledge that alcoholism is a huge issue in our community. And on the other end, as parents, we need to be educating our children at an earlier age.
“We don’t let our kids cross the street before teaching them the rules; we don’t throw them in the water before teaching them to swim. But for some reason, when it comes to alcoholism, the subject is taboo — parents are wary to raise the topic.
“Let me give you a national statistic,” Zvi goes on. “The average American parent speaks to their child about alcohol consumption between the age of 13–14. Yet the average American child has their first illicit drink between the age of 11–12.”
This disconnect can be seen in the frum community as well, only amplified. “You have a little kid who sees his father making Kiddush on wine and he wants to try it. And it’s acceptable because we do it every week. And yet, parents don’t discuss how to drink safely until much later — if ever.”
Of course alcoholism and alcohol abuse is everywhere; it’s not an exclusively “frum issue.” In fact, it’s become a trend in corporate America to have an IV station set up on Monday mornings in the office for those who overindulged over the weekend and want a quick way to ease the hangover headache. While that may seem preposterous to some of us, the idea is picking up steam.
Recently there was a large frum wedding in the US that looked like the typical over-the-top affair we’ve grown used to seeing — with one notable exception: installed around the room were strategically placed IV stations for those who went overboard at the bar. All the guests had to do was drink until they were nearing the point of alcohol poisoning, then head on over for some intravenous fluids to flush out their system.
This was conveniently located steps away from the dance floor. The pictures made waves over the internet in frum circles, but only because this wedding was the first. How long will it take until this the norm?
Devora Shabtai ends with a message of hope and a plea. “The infrastructure and outpouring of support when someone in the frum community is in need — whether it be a medical illness, loss of a loved one, or financial crisis — is unparalleled. Fortunately, it seems we have begun to put our community’s unique capacity for chesed in times of need toward those struggling with addiction and mental health.
“The resources are available and growing. The more we continue to spread awareness and education, the sooner families can begin the journey toward healing. And realize how much they are not alone.”
“He Drinks but He Isn’t an Alcoholic”
While Sari and Dovid Freedlin faced true addiction, what about cases that are less clear cut? What can a wife do when she’s fed up with the amount her husband is drinking, even if the drinking happens only periodically? What if he only overindulges on Shabbos or at simchahs?
This question is something that health professionals struggle with a lot as the lack of insight into substance abuse and mental illness is high, says Dr. Moshe Winograd. “Someone will come in and proclaim, ‘I’m not an addict.’ And based on certain standard criteria, we may even agree that the patient isn’t an addict. On the other hand, they may be struggling with addiction but are in total denial.
“In my practice, I tell people that there are a lot of ways to define addiction, but one of the most important ways is to ask yourself, ‘Is this causing a problem in my life?’
“Often, the answer I get is, ‘No, I’m getting up for work, I’m totally functional, etc.’ To which I explain, that’s not exactly accurate, because you’re here in my office or in a treatment center, which means this is causing a problem in your family life — your wife has a problem with it. Therefore, by definition, you have a problem in your life caused by substances.
“At that point, we can try to move on from the semantics by asking if it’s an actual addiction in the clinical sense, because the bottom line is that it’s causing a problem in your life. Then we can address the issue from a relational standpoint like many other issues that couples need to navigate with the help of an experienced therapist.”
Devora Shabtai explains. “Addiction is a uniquely complex issue — it has a physical component, an existential component, and a social component.” Due to its complexity, many therapists aren’t equipped to handle addiction, however major or minor it may be.
“When it comes to addiction, the professional — and it’s usually a team — you work with needs to be someone with extensive experience working with family systems, as well as substance abuse and mental health,” stresses Dr. Winograd. “Many times, there’s both a mental health issue and a substance issue. So a couples or family therapist may be great to work on the relationship aspect, but how much do they know about the world of higher levels of care, like rehab residential treatment if that becomes necessary? It’s important to go to someone highly qualified in the areas of mental and substance abuse as well as family systems.”
IS YOUR DRINKING A PROBLEM?
Alcohol-use disorder can be mild, moderate or severe, based on the number of symptoms you experience. Ten common warning signs and symptoms may include:
- Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
- Wanting to cut down on how much you drink or making unsuccessful attempts to do so
- Spending a lot of time drinking, getting alcohol, or recovering from alcohol use
- Feeling a strong craving or urge to drink alcohol
- Failing to fulfill major obligations at work, school, or home due to repeated alcohol use
- Continuing to drink alcohol even though you know it’s causing physical, social, or interpersonal problems
- Giving up or reducing social and work activities and hobbies
- Using alcohol in situations where it’s not safe, such as when driving or swimming
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol so you need more to feel its effect or you have a reduced effect from the same amount
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — when you don’t drink, or drinking to avoid these symptoms
Drinking too much alcohol on a single occasion or over time can cause health problems, including: an increased risk of cancer, weakened immune system, neurological complications, bone damage, birth defects, eye problems, diabetes complications, heart problems, digestive problems and liver disease.
Information taken from the Mayo Clinic www.mayoclinic.org
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 733)
Oops! We could not locate your form.