t was six o’clock in the morning and I was sitting in my parked car waiting to go to work. The grocery store where I worked opened early but not this early. Most of the city was still asleep even though they had probably turned in for the night earlier than I had. These days with all the stuff I was using I couldn’t sleep more than two or three hours a night.
Maybe I should drive back home and try to sleep I thought. Nah then it’ll be too hard to get up.
Maybe I should just light up and get high.
That I certainly did not want to do. Just yesterday I had lit up early in the morning and passed out. I woke up feeling like garbage came late to work and felt horrible the whole day. I’m not going to make that mistake again. Today I will NOT smoke.
Next thing I knew my head was slumped over the steering wheel. It was nine o’clock. Late to work again another day down the drain. Why do I do this to myself?!
Just a few short years earlier I had been a regular yeshivah kid. I loved learning. I had a great family. I was popular.
When I was 13 I went to the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park and I saw bunch of non-Jewish teenagers hanging out together. If I could live like that I thought it would be so good.
At around this time I started feeling that something was missing in my life. I was angry and depressed much of the time and my parents — who are the nicest people in the world — became concerned. They sent me to a therapist and then to a psychiatrist and then to more therapists. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and then bipolar disorder and given medication for both. I was constantly switching medications and in the course of five years I saw dozens of mental health professionals: psychologists psychiatrists social workers trauma therapists.
Their first question was usually the same: “Were you ever traumatized or molested?”
My answer to that question was yes. On three different occasions by three different people.
When I said that a lightbulb went on in their eyes. After hearing that piece of information the professionals went on to tell my parents that they should go easy on me and let me do what I want.
My teenage life was a series of ups and downs. At times I was the best kid in the yeshivah. I was the first one up in the morning and I was the one who woke all the other boys up and urged them to get to the beis medrash early. When I was learning I was a star. But when I got into a bad rut not only was I into bad stuff I’d bring other guys down with me. It was important for me to be liked, so I made sure that whatever I was doing, I had other people to do it with. I got kicked out of one yeshivah for smoking cigarettes, from another yeshivah for circulating inappropriate material, and from a third for swearing. Still, I wasn’t into anything really terrible; I was a frum kid through and through.
That changed one Yom Kippur night, when I was 18. I was davening in yeshivah, and a disturbing thought popped into my mind and wrecked my concentration. I felt angry and disillusioned. If I’m trying to daven on Yom Kippur and this is what’s coming into my head, then why should I even try?
I walked out of the beis medrash in the middle of Shemoneh Esreh and paced the streets aimlessly. Shortly after that I decided to get a phone — something I had never owned before.
A few weeks later, I was kicked out of yeshivah for having a phone. By then, I had stopped keeping Shabbos.
Through social media, I started meeting up with the off-the-derech crowd. I pierced my ears, got myself some chains and necklaces, and started dressing in fitted jeans, shorts, and cool hats. I moved from regular cigarettes to marijuana, and then to narcotic sedatives.
The next three years were a roller coaster of drugs and relationships. Every so often I would decide to distance myself from my new friends and move back into my parents’ home, where I was always welcome. But some of these “friends” would stalk me, call me incessantly, and even drive by my parents’ house on Shabbos and honk at me in the street.
“What am I supposed to do?” I would cry to my mother. “I want to get away from them, but I can’t!”
My mother would just cry with me. Neither she nor my father came down hard on me; they were there for me when I turned to them for help, but they didn’t pressure me or turn on the guilt. They didn’t criticize my behavior or my choice of attire, but they didn’t encourage or enable my abandonment of religion, either. They just played it cool.
To support my drug habit, which, at its height, was costing me $400 a day, I needed a lot more money than I was earning working at the grocery (on the days that I actually made it to work). I “borrowed” surreptitiously from everyone and everything: my parents, my boss, shuls, mikvaos, and more. I justified each of these “loans” by telling myself that I was planning to pay them back eventually. The money I took from shul pushkes and other public funds was easier to rationalize, because I convinced myself that I was just as deserving as any other needy person.
I had no purpose in life. I woke up to use drugs, I went to sleep to use drugs, and there was nothing else I cared about. Looking at me, you couldn’t possibly have known I was Jewish. I thought that I had hit rock bottom. Had you asked me then if my life could possibly get worse, I would have said no way. But it did.
I moved into a crack house and got involved with violent black gang members. My life was in real danger; I had knives pressed to my neck all the time. I was physically sick, and I couldn’t eat or sleep for days.
I really hit rock bottom when I tried to arrange for a drug dealer to be killed, after he ripped me off. I was no longer working in the grocery at that point, but my former boss — who remained my friend despite everything — said to me, “Avi, if I had the guts, I’d book you a flight to rehab right now.”
“Moish,” I said, deadly serious. “Get the guts.”
I was in no state to board a plane on my own — I was talking to chairs at that point, my brain was so fried — so Moish flew with me and brought me to the rehab center. I have minimal recollection of my arrival at the center; all I know is that I started having panic attacks because I went into withdrawal. They took me to a psychiatrist, who stabilized me on a non-narcotic medicine.
Like most addicts, I was highly resistant when I started rehab. During group sessions, which went on for a few hours in the morning and again for a couple of hours in the evening, I fought ferociously to cling to my beliefs and perceptions. The group sessions were led by a rabbi who is an addictions specialist, and were based on the 12-Step model and the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. There were about a dozen recovering addicts in the group who were farther along than I was, and they threw questions at me left and right.
“Why do you use drugs?” they challenged me.
“If you would have gone through what I went through in my life you’d also use.”
“Did you ever use when things were okay in your life?”
“So why are you blaming it on your circumstances?”
Their theory was that once you get into the drug habit, you’re powerless over your addiction. I fought that theory with every fiber of my being. “I’m not powerless! I can decide whether or not I want to use!”
“Really? There was never a time you used after you promised yourself you weren’t going to?”
This line of questioning infuriated me. These people were so obviously wrong, and I was so obviously smarter than they were. I started avoiding them, by walking in the other direction when I spotted them and isolating myself from the group.
For three months I resisted. I was angry at these 12-Step people, I hated them, I was afraid of them.
But I couldn’t deny that this rehab place was onto something. I knew some of these addicts from before, and they had been really messed up. Everyone at the center had arrived in the same state I had — and here they were, not just sober, but happy and at peace.
There are answers here, I realized. If I would just stop fighting, maybe I could change, too. For the first time in years, I had hope.
Then, a miracle happened. I finally realized why I hated the people at the center so much: It was because I couldn’t acknowledge that they were in a better place than I was. Instead of accepting their guidance and allowing them to bring me up to their level, I was creating false beliefs in my head to allow me to stay at my own level and bring them down to where I was. But they weren’t coming down to my level. If I wanted to be on equal footing with them, I’d have to start listening to them and trying to change myself to be more like them.
It took me a few months to go through the process. Remembering the day I had passed out in my car, yet again, after resolving not to smoke, I finally admitted that I was powerless over my addiction and that my life had become unmanageable. That was the first of my 12 steps.
Steps two and three, which involved the acceptance of a Higher Power, puzzled me initially. No matter how low I had fallen, I had always believed in Hashem. All the years, I had continued to daven and even put on tefillin. So why did I have to “make a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of G-d”?
I discovered the answer myself one day at the center, while I was wearing my tefillin and saying the second paragraph of Shema. For the first time in my life, the meaning of the words jumped out at me: “And it will be, if you will listen to My commandments that I am commanding you today, to love Hashem your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and soul, then I will give the rain of your land in its time… and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware, lest your hearts be led astray, and you will turn away and serve other gods… Then there will not be rain and the earth will not yield its produce….”
Wow, I thought. So this is why my life is all messed up. I have been serving other gods all my life — idolizing people, pleasure, my own self. No kidding that my life is horrible.
When I abandoned Yiddishkeit, I thought that I wanted freedom. And boy, did I have freedom: I had all the money I could get my hands on, and I had unlimited drugs and pleasure. But now I realized that all that freedom was really slavery — slavery to my own desires. And instead of making me happy, the freedom to indulge without limits caused me more pain that I would ever have thought possible.
Only someone who serves Hashem is truly free. It was a principle I had learned as a little boy in cheder, and one that was echoed in the 12 steps. If I would commit to doing Hashem’s will for its own sake, then, as a corollary, I would also have a good life, because that’s the way the world is programmed.
The rehab center did not enforce religion — some guys were shomer Shabbos, some weren’t — but after doing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” (step four), the people in the program usually ended up seeing the truth of Torah and understanding that the reasons they had abandoned religion were flawed.
Some, like me, had gone off the derech because they were molested. Other had grievances against their parents, teachers, or rebbeim. Still others hated the restrictions that came along with religious observance. But the process of step four forced us to admit that these were all excuses. The truth of religion — namely, the existence of G-d and the need to follow His rules — was wholly unaffected by our personal traumas. Trauma did not grant us any moratorium on our basic responsibilities as human beings and Jews. Nowhere in the Torah does it say, “Keep Shabbos — unless you were abused” or “You shall be holy — unless you are in pain.”
In my teens, I had been to practically every top frum therapist in the Tristate area. All of them had taken the approach that my abandonment of religion was understandable, even inevitable.
Then there was the school of “unconditional love” that many of my friends’ parents had subscribed to, which basically involves not only letting your struggling child do whatever he wants, but actively helping him to do it. I was painfully familiar with the results of this approach: Many of my friends who received “unconditional love” are now dead of overdose.
At the rehab center, I learned that if I wanted to be a victim and blame the world for my problems, I could find lots of excuses to do that. But all of the excuses, anger, and self-pity in the world would not help me to build a happy, functional life for myself. If I was interested in having a good life, I would have to go through the deep, painful process of identifying my resentments, finding my role in them, and ultimately ridding myself of all my grievances.
In the process of doing this sweeping moral inventory, I realized that my nature was to be a people pleaser and seek attention and approval at all costs. And I finally understood that my relationships with my “friends” in the cool, off-the-derech crowd were illusory, based on superficialities, approval seeking, and self-gratification.
As I moved through the rest of the 12 steps, I had to start making amends to those I had harmed. The rehab people assured me when you make sincere amends, 90 percent of the time the results will be far better than you imagined. And indeed, my parents and the rest of my family were eager to put the past behind and begin a new, honest relationship with me.
By this point, I had reached steps 8 and 9, and I was considered to have “graduated” from rehab. Now, I was able to start living a normal life — which means working on myself on a daily basis.
Today, I learn in yeshivah for part of the day, and spend the rest of the day working at the rehab center. There’s plenty I need to do to remain spiritually fit, but I’m a free man from addiction. I haven’t touched drugs in two years, and I’m confident that I can remain clean for the rest of my life, because now, my life has purpose:
I am here to improve myself, help others, and serve G-d.
The last of the 12 steps is: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to others with similar problems, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
And that is why I am telling my story.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 624)
The narrator can be contacted through LifeLines or the Mishpacha office.
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