How to spot — and stop — a drinking problem
On the surface, they look like your regular frum wife and mother. But they’re carrying a secret: during a typical Shabbos seudah, their husband is sprawled out on the couch, drunk. Or maybe he's drinking too much at night. Or at simchahs. For so many, what started off as a few sips has begun spiraling toward addiction. How to spot — and stop — a drinking problem.
Alcohol is not the answer. It only makes you forget the question. – Anonymous
First a man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes the man. – Japanese proverb
Esti G. is about the most normal girl you could imagine, a veritable poster girl for a Bais Yaakov alumna. Her life story checks all the boxes: married, three cute children, works in a school, busy with her life, and family simchahs.
Except that Esti is struggling with a secret problem, one I never dreamed of until I ran into her at the supermarket one day. After exchanging hellos, to my astonishment she pulled me aside and hissed, “I have something you need to write about!”
She looked dead serious. I pushed my cart over to one side and prepared to hear her out.
“You absolutely need to write about all the drinking that’s going on in our community!” she said, glancing around to make sure no one was coming down the aisle. “Do you have any idea how many husbands are spending their weekends drunk? They come home hours late from shul. They spend the rest of the weekend sleeping. They scream at the kids. It’s not all right!”
“I know about this firsthand,” Esti continued. She looked me in the eye. “My husband, you see, is one of them.”
Esti’s husband, Avi, started drinking for relaxation. But today it has gotten to the point where he’s completely addicted. “I feel like I’m a single parent, because he’s incapable of handling anything in our lives,” Esti says. “I’m shell-shocked. It’s the last thing I thought I’d be dealing with in my marriage.”
Esti proceeded to tell me her story in detail, and I was so taken aback I felt compelled to share it. I also went to find out what professionals and experts have to say, so that we can put the brakes on drinking before more wives find themselves in Esti’s shoes. I wanted to focus on the antecedents to alcohol addiction: the kind of problematic Shabbos, Yom Tov, and simchah drinking that gets out of hand and may eventually lead to a full-blown addiction.
Now approaching 30, Esti says she was naive and clueless about alcohol when she got engaged right out of seminary to a “good learning boy.” “It didn’t even occur to my parents and me to ask about drinking during the time I was dating, and addictions were never discussed in seminary or kallah classes,” she says. “My father makes Kiddush on grape juice. My family spent Purim day driving mishloach manos packages to rebbis and morahs. No one touched wine until the seudah, and even then there was never any hefkeirus. The worst that ever happened was that someone got a tiny bit tipsy in a funny, harmless way.”
But shortly after her wedding, when Esti and Avi went to her sister-in-law for a Shabbos meal, she was shocked by what she saw. “The men were already drunk by the time they got to the fish,” she says.
Her sister-in-law took it completely in stride. “All the men come home from shul drunk!” she said merrily. But her husband was unable to run a proper Shabbos table, disappearing even before the cholent to collapse in a stupor on his bed. Esti’s husband was in better shape. Although he’d also been drinking, he was happy and relaxing, schmoozing and reminiscing with his sister.
At the time, Esti says, her head was still in the clouds. She didn’t realize that alcohol dependence starts slowly and grows over time. Seven years later, when her son was bringing home parshah sheets, Avi was never in any state to go over them at the Shabbos table. He’d come home from the shul’s lavish kiddush, and within ten minutes it would be quite clear he was in his cups. He would begin a little hyper, a little charismatic, babbling about what the rav had said and asking if she agreed. Their meals slowly grew shorter and shorter, because he was ready to conk out even before the cholent came out. “Time to bentsh!” he’d yell as soon as the fish was done. Esti never accepted Shabbos invitations, because she didn’t know what state her husband would be in after shul, and she didn’t want to embarrass herself or display her husband in a bad light.
Most Shabbosim Avi was controllable, and in the early years Friday nights were never a problem. On Shabbos morning Esti would tell him to go lie down, and he’d sleep off the liquor (of course, she herself could never enjoy a Shabbos nap because he was always sleeping while she watched the kids). But at other times he’d become nasty. “Put the kids in for a nap!” he’d shout, enraged that they were making noise and disturbing him. “What was I supposed to do when my kids had already napped?” Esti says. “I lived with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At least my husband never became physically abusive, but there are some men who do.”
It got bad enough that she once called a rav, in tears, to ask if she could let her three-year-old son color on Shabbos, because it was the only way to keep him quiet and avoid angry outbursts from her drunken husband. “You don’t have to cry,” the rav said gently. “You’re not the only one. I get this sh’eilah all the time.”
Esti received little support from her in-laws, as most of the men in the family were drinkers. Her mother-in-law’s attitude was that boys will be boys, so what’s the harm? They’ll just nap it off. Her sister-in-law told her ruefully, “Why do you think I host the Purim seudah every year? I don’t want my husband to drive home.” Esti found that after simchahs she often had to fight with her husband for the car keys. What if he injured someone or himself?
She found herself in frequent fights with Avi about money. Esti was working hard, trying to save to buy a home, putting in extra hours with private clients after school. She would agonize over whether she should allow herself new stockings or save the extra $40. Then Avi would come home from the liquor store Erev Shabbos with a car full of booze and a tab that ran close to $400. It made her furious that the hours she spent trying to make extra money were being literally poured out each week into destructive behaviors. Sometimes she didn’t have enough money for groceries.
“I met a woman who had no heat in her house anymore, because her husband spent all their money on alcohol,” Esti says. “She had no hot water, and she’d have to lie and tell her neighbors her boiler was broken and could they please use their shower? But how long can you tell people you have a broken boiler?”
Another source of contention was Avi’s loss of any filters when he drank. It sapped all the joy out of attending simchahs for her, because she was so anxious he’d embarrass her or make a scene. A walking illustration of the dictum nichnas yayin, yatza sod, he’d start talking about his problems at work, or their income, or that his wife had gained ten pounds. He once embarrassed their son by announcing that he’d failed a test in school. “I stopped sharing private information with him,” Esti says. “But what kind of marriage is it if the wife can’t speak to her husband about what’s on her mind?”
She had always been taught that an “ishah k’sheirah osah retzon baalah — a good Jewish wife follows her husband’s will.” But a husband with an addiction requires a different approach because his enslavement to his addiction robs him of his seichel. Esti began to sort out what she could control and what she couldn’t. For example, she could control some of the money he had access to. She could pour out whatever remained in wine bottles after their Shabbos meals. She told her friends they wouldn’t accept Shabbos invitations if there were more than one or two bottles of alcohol on the table. If she went away for Shabbos, she arranged to have a backup place — the home of a friend or colleague — that she could flee to if her husband got out of hand.
As her older sons grew old enough to go with their father to shul, Esti didn’t like the way her sons were exposed to men starting their kiddush club before Krias HaTorah, and getting so drunk they weren’t able to supervise their sons on the walk home from shul. Avi was never able to review parshah questions or Mishnayos with them at the Shabbos table, was too drunk to take them to the Avos Ubanim program on Motzaei Shabbos, and too hung over on Sunday morning to get them to yeshivah early for the cocoa club.
But it wasn’t until he landed in the hospital with alcohol poisoning that her husband was ready to admit he had a serious problem. After two days of convincing, he finally enrolled in a rehab program. She’s hoping it will finally get him back on track, but she’s aware it may take more than one try.
How Did We Get Here?
Fortunately, most drinkers don’t get to the point of needing rehab. Full-fledged alcoholism is an addiction that requires tremendous resources, commitment, and grit to overcome. But today we’re seeing many “weekend warriors,” men who don’t indulge much during the week but let loose on Shabbos and weekends and are at clear risk for becoming addicted down the line. In the process, their families are left with fathers who are physically absent for hours — drinking in shul or passed out at home — or absent in their interactions with their families.
“Everyone sees the problem,” says Dr. Joseph Nissenfeld, an addictions psychiatrist and the medical director of Achieve Behavioral Health in Rockland County. “We’re seeing husbands who come home on Shabbos after three different kiddush clubs, or who indulge in dangerous drinking on Purim or Simchas Torah. Even other intoxicants, like cannabis, are becoming more mainstream.”
How did we go from the People of the Book to the People of the Bottle? A generation or two ago, the common wisdom was that Jews weren’t drinkers. Our parties were heavy on food and light on liquor, while non-Jewish parties tended toward the opposite. A Yiddish proverb states, “Only goyim get drunk.”
Some research has produced evidence to show that Jews are genetically less predisposed to alcoholism. Judaism has traditionally upheld a controlled, nuanced approach to alcohol, advocating its consumption in moderation as part of religious ritual and celebration. So what has changed?
Dr. Shalom Augenbaum, substance abuse specialist at Ohel and the author of Inside-Outside Parenting (Mosaica Press), says it’s possible that drinking problems existed in previous generations but were less acknowledged. “There was a macro level of denial,” he says. “But that decreased with time and exposure.” In the 1970s, the phenomenon of Jews struggling with alcohol first began to be acknowledged, with Al-Anon groups geared toward our community.
But drinking in shuls and simchahs still remained modest. Dr. Nissenfeld cites a research article from the 1980s that stated that Jews at the time had lower rates of drinking than non-Jews, attributing the lower rates to a lack of social pressure, higher stigma, and the practice of using moderate amounts of alcohol in meaningful ways in religious observances. He remembers the days when shuls would keep a single bottle of Chivas on hand for a l’chayim. “Now the shuls compete with each other to have a well-stocked bar, to draw people in,” he says.
In recent times, we have begun as a community to glorify alcohol as a sign of status. Jewish society became more prosperous, and one way to show it was to buy high-end wines and spirits for homes, shuls, and simchahs. Print and social media began to include ads displaying attractive bottles of liquor; the Kosher Food and Wine Expo attracts hundreds of exhibitors and visitors. Taking our cue from society at large, we started to associate drinking with relaxation and fun. “Drinking on Shabbos and at simchahs has become normalized,” says Jessica Steinmetz, clinical director of the SAFE Foundation, a Jewish addictions center. “If you don’t participate, you’re on the outside. There’s less shame or need for privacy where drinking is concerned.”
“The frum community began seeing performers taking a drink to get in the mood for a simchah,” Dr. Augenbaum says. “People would drink at farbrengens, kumzitzes, parties. Rabbis tell me, ‘If we run an event in shul and there’s no alcohol, nobody comes.’”
He states that these cultural norms and other environmental influences are equally if not more important in creating problem drinking than the genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Unfortunately, in many frum circles, drinking has become systemic. In chassidic circles, alcohol is a staple at many a farbrengen or tish. Shuls offer lavish kiddushes with hundreds, even thousands of dollars’ worth of alcohol available. “As a bochur, my husband would be invited to Shabbos meals where the hosts felt obligated to serve a lot of alcohol,” Esti says, “and when his friends began to get engaged and married, he was out at vorts or weddings every week where there were open bars.” The old stigma against drinking was replaced by peer pressure to participate, and the formerly controlled approach to enhancing Jewish rituals and simchahs with alcohol became co-opted into an excuse to overindulge and a cover for problem drinkers.
It’s not a halachic problem to imbibe a little at a simchah to add to the enjoyment, Dr. Augenbaum says. “But we have to send out a unified message that over-imbibing is not what halachah had in mind.”
What Drives Drinkers to Drink
Not everyone is tempted by an extravagant liquor table at shul or simchahs. What causes some people to find it irresistible?
Dr. Nissenfeld offers that, across the board, mental health professionals are seeing more anxiety, stress, and unhappiness among clients. Social anxiety is rampant in a generation more accustomed to interacting virtually than face-to-face. Bluma, a wife in Dallas, recounts that her husband is naturally shy and started drinking at parties to fit in and feel more comfortable socializing. “It helped him make friends,” she says. “If you’re the only guy at a party who doesn’t drink, you feel isolated. When my husband was in recovery and still struggling to abstain, the peer pressure to participate again was a huge challenge.”
Many events for older singles now serve alcohol to lessen anxiety and loosen social inhibitions. “We’re creating a generation of people who lack the ability to have fun or be comfortable in relationships or social gatherings sober,” Dr. Augenbaum says. “I see couples who need alcohol when they go on vacation. But if you need to introduce a third element into your relationship to make it succeed, there’s clearly a problem.”
Some men are overwhelmed by the stresses of marriage, children, or the struggle to keep up financially, and drinking becomes a means of escape. “This generation has a hard time sitting with discomfort. We’re accustomed to a quick fix, and alcohol serves the purpose,” Dr. Nissenfeld says. “Some people have an underlying issue that’s driving the behavior, and they’re seeking to relieve the distress.” They may be dealing with deep emotional pain or a spiritual void. Jessica Steinmetz notes, “Most people who develop addictions have some kind of trauma in their lives and/or a predisposition.”
It’s important to watch out for the signs that problematic drinking is deteriorating into deeper levels of alcohol addiction. Most wives are familiar with their husbands’ baseline behaviors, yet in the crush of everyday work and childrearing, it’s easy to lose touch. “Keep the communication open and your eyes open,” says Steven Heyers, administrative director at the SAFE Foundation. “If you see a change in normal patterns — slurred speech, mood swings, irrational outbursts, financial indiscretions, or changes in spending habits — your radar should go up. A wife should trust her gut responses, her intuition.”
“You’ll see over time if your spouse is unable to function in his daily activities without alcohol,” Jessica adds. “His drinking won’t just happen at simchahs and kiddushes anymore. He’ll be making more and more excuses.”
Some professionals advocate a “harm reduction” approach to problematic drinking, advising that drinkers limit imbibing to controlled environments such as shul or the home, where the damage is contained. Dr. Augenbaum emphasizes that the immediate safety of the family is key. “If your husband is about to drive drunk or wants to hold a baby when he can barely stand up, refuse to give in,” he says. “If necessary, call someone to help you physically take away the car keys or the baby. Many women feel guilty or embarrassed to do it. But you have to realize that the drunk person in front of you is not himself. He’s not the same Avi you married.”
Support for the Spouse
Laurie Corlin, a kallah teacher and social worker in Brooklyn, avows that no woman thinks such problems will happen to her when she gets married, even if she attended lectures about red flags while single. “No one anticipates excessive drinking, or for that matter Internet addictions, abuse, infertility, and so on,” she says. “Unless a girl saw drinking at home, she’s not likely to be attuned to it. Today, with easy access to everything, even the ‘best boys’ develop addictions.”
Due to the preponderance of these problems, she emphasizes that it’s essential for kallahs to stay in touch with their teachers after marriage. While a kallah teacher is not a therapist or addictions specialist — and should recognize her boundaries — she should know what resources are available for help so that she can refer young women to places specializing in the appropriate help.
Malka* opted to turn to her rav when her husband’s drinking got out of hand. The decisive moment came one evening when her husband, who’d had some drinks, offered to help with the baby by giving a bottle and putting her to sleep. Malka came in later to find both of them fast asleep, but her husband had left the baby on the edge of the bed in a way that she easily could have fallen off. “I felt I couldn’t trust him anymore,” she says. “I didn’t feel safe leaving the baby with him. I couldn’t trust him to push a stroller in the street because he didn’t pay attention to the cars.”
Her rav insisted on bringing both of them in for a meeting. “If a wife can’t trust her husband, it’s a real problem,” he told them. Malka’s husband started therapy, and things improved. “Some husbands are insensitive, but others can hear their wives,” Dr. Nissenfeld says. “They can get in touch with their ambivalence about what they’re doing and pivot in the right direction.”
But not every husband is open to the influence of his wife. “There are some husbands who will gaslight their wives,” Jessica says. “They’ll tell them, ‘You’re exaggerating, you’re crazy! Everybody drinks. I’m not some sort of problem case.’ Then the wife feels isolated and ashamed.”
“Most men don’t like when their wives become their mashgichim,” Dr. Augenbaum agrees. “Often a wife’s reflex to ‘right’ a problem is wrong. It’s well-intentioned, but it just makes the husband angry. It hurts his pride and ego, and he gets defensive.”
If he isn’t open to discussion — denial is, after all, a cornerstone of problem drinking — then a wife should do all she can to educate herself about alcohol addiction and get support for herself through an organization like the SAFE Foundation, Jewish Al-Anon, Sisters in Sobriety, or the many other support groups available for frum women. If a couple has a strong collaborative relationship, they can sit down and she can tell him, “You’re having a hard time keeping the drinking in bounds. What can we do?”
The good news, Dr. Augenbaum says, is that if problematic drinking is treated before it becomes a full-fledged addiction, it’s often amenable to change. “Brief interventions, like four sessions of therapy, are often very effective,” he says. One young man got his act together after only two sessions, shaken when Dr. Augenbaum told him, “You just got married, yet you were out all night long! Your wife was frantic! Is this how you want your marriage to continue? If your wife is worried, and you don’t care, it’s a sign something is wrong.”
Dr. Nissenfeld recommends checking out the CRAFT intervention (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), which is designed to help the family members of people suffering from addictions. CRAFT is a nuanced approach that acknowledges that helping your spouse or child doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, Dr. Nissenfeld explains, “Some addicts need to hit rock bottom before they change, and others don’t — and the spouse doesn’t have to be the one to help them hit bottom.” CRAFT teaches people to communicate effectively, give positive reinforcement, identify solutions, and allow the family member to suffer the consequences of his behavior. It also emphasizes that a spouse or caregiver can avoid being overwhelmed by getting the appropriate self-care — be it therapy, a support group, exercise, or financial help.
In cases where drinking stems from issues of anxiety or depression, Dr. Nissenfeld notes, it probably makes more sense for a husband to get the right psychiatric medication rather than simply mask the problems with alcohol. There are also medications available to help wean people from alcohol dependence.
A wife can do her best to set limits in situations that are under her control. “She can make a no-alcohol-in-the- house rule, or a rule that Kiddush will be on grape juice, or ask guests not to bring wine as a gift,” Jessica Steinmetz suggests. If the couple goes on vacation, she can try to set limits like two drinks a day (and let him know that needing more than that is a clear sign that he’s descending into an addiction). If her husband is draining the bank account of money needed for daily expenses, she may need to set up a separate account he has no access to. “In some couples, the husband handles all the money,” Jessica says. “We try to encourage those wives to establish a little more independence and financial awareness.
“At SAFE we can work with a wife alone, to teach her how to start the conversation she needs to have with her husband. We do our best to empower her and her loved ones. We want her to make good choices and be able to live her best life.”
Questionnaire from Alcoholics Anonymous
If you’re concerned that someone you love has a drinking problem, check if the following questions apply to them:
- Do you lose time from work due to drinking?
- Is drinking making your home life unhappy?
- Is drinking affecting your reputation?
- Have you felt remorse after drinking?
- Do you crave a drink at a definite time daily?
- Do you want a drink the next morning?
- Do you drink alone?
- Have you ever had a complete loss of memory as a result of drinking?
- Is drinking jeopardizing your job or business?
- Have you ever been to a hospital or institution on account of your drinking?
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 868)
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