Addiction Doesn’t Care If You’re Frum

I am not an addict, nor an addict in recovery.

My parents are not addicts. No one in my family or any of my friends are addicts or have died in an overdose – accidental or intentional.

I grew up sheltered in a conservative community. A religious community. A community of values, of standards, of crystal clear clarity in right and wrong.

No one was doing drugs. No one was drinking uncontrollably. No one was spending hours watching pornography, sneaking off to strip clubs, cultivating anonymous identities on internet dating sites. No one was hosting weekly poker games that spiraled into incessant gambling and crushing debt. No one was a ‘functional addict,’ able to juggle a job, a family, and a thriving, life-sucking addiction.

No one.

Do you really believe that?

My first exposure to drugs was when I went to college in New York. I was living in Crown Heights after my Freshman year and I met a bunch of fellow Chabad kids. Young, creative, full of life – and open to new experiences, to say the least. I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of ‘party drugs’ and the far reaching ripples of those behaviors– I mean, who talked about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse at our all girls, hasidic yeshiva? For whatever reason, that subject was not on our syllabus.

Yet as I reflect over those years in New York and then in Israel, so many young people I knew were flirting on the edge of dangerous, highly addictive behavior. For many, that veil between sporadic, social, fun times and habitual, mind-numbing, soul-wrenching usage was thinning rapidly. I wondered: what were the odds that we’d emerge whole? What was the likelihood that at least one of us would end up broken and strung out?

There was my friend who would suddenly become anxious and mean, who I later found out was battling a heroin addiction. My other friend from seminary who married a real nice guy she met in Tzfat – whom after her wedding realized was a closet crack addict. The young girl who would smoke pot all day, every day, to try to forget about her uncle molesting her when she was twelve. (How many users and addicts are also victims of child sexual abuse? My guess is that number is very high.) The kid who sat on the Wall in Jerusalem, scrounging every last shek to purchase some pill – and eventually began dealing to nourish his supply. The guys who snorted Ritalin and Coke and dropped LSD and Ecstasy and Speed and more on any old night… when would it become one pill too many?

All these kids, from nice Jewish homes.

Educated. Well mannered (mostly). Good families.

Religious kids. Learned kids. Kids with a home.

All these kids, all these worlds, teetering on the edge.

Someone is bound to fall.

I never believed drugs, alcohol and addiction spared my community. I know it’s everywhere. I know this demon sees no color, size, shape or gender. It’s not impressed if you’re observant. It knows no yichus.

In the U.S. alone, more than 47,000 people died from drug-induced deaths in 2014, including 10,574 deaths from heroin.

Stop a minute, reread that sentence, and contemplate those figures.

I do not know what the numbers of accidental or intentional overdoses are in the Orthodox or Hasidic community. But lately, it seems that more and more young people are dying ‘in their sleep,’ ‘suddenly,’ or ‘unexpectedly.’

Are we ready to get real?

Last week, a young man in my hasidic community died from a drug overdose.

A whole world, stopped in its tracks.

This is definitely not the first young adult from my community to die from a drug overdose. Not the first life cut short because of this treacherous, vicious disease. Yet for some reason, this young man’s death hit me a harder than others. For some reason, it hit me deep.

I wanted to share my pain with my friends. So I posted this on my wall:

… We are so driven to shroud our communities challenges. But enough is enough! We need to talk about what we must do better. We need to talk about the children and adults around us, within us, who are broken. We need to feel an urgency so palpable that no challenge will stand in our way.

Our schools need to be better. Our communities need to provide more resources to combat abuse. We need to talk about drugs, sex, rape, and ALL the addictions – and the possible courses for treatment…

We are all children. We are all parents. And we are all responsible for each other. Talk is cheap. What are we going to DO to transform our community? When are we going to display the courage to truly fight all the darkness around us?

Within hours, I received so many messages from neighbors, friends, and many whom I never met who also felt this pain. They, too, knew someone struggling with addiction. They, too, were helping their young child battle this disease, sparing no mental, physical or financial resource to save their son or daughter. They, too, wanted to help awaken our community from its deep, amnesic slumber.

The next night, I hosted a brainstorming meeting at my home.

Ten people gathered in my living room to talk about the pain of addiction and how to bring awareness, education and empathy to our community.

In one room, we were parents, educators, children of addicts, therapists, addicts in recovery, and advocates.

In one room, “they became we,” as one mother profoundly exclaimed.

And in one room, we began to dispel the deep pain and darkness with a little bit of light.

I told my 10 year year old son about this meeting. He knew why there were people gathered there. We told him that a young man in our neighborhood died from using drugs.

One day, someone will offer him a joint. One day, he will be at a farbrengen and someone will encourage him to macht a l’chaim, have a drink, and then another, and another. Someone will offer him their prescription Adderall or Ritalin or Percocet, or maybe something worse, just one time, just once more. Someone will show him how to subscribe to internet porn or gamble online. Someone will ask him to wait on a corner to meet up with their friend and say ‘hey, why don’t you stay to hang out with us and try something fun.’ Someone might hurt him, push him away, tell him he doesn’t belong, kick him out of their schools and render him worthless.

Someone – or something – might make him feel more welcome, elsewhere.

I guarantee you that someone that you know – and love – is battling addiction. Whether to alcohol, prescription drugs, gambling, pornography, food, video games, narcotics, sex – someone you know is fighting one of the strongest, most ruthless demons known to this world.

Someone you know is battling for their soul.

What are we going to do about it?

We are hemorrhaging, losing our children, friends and lovers to a poison that’s seeped deep into our pores.

Enough with the denial. It’s time to burn the stigma.

Addiction doesn’t care if you’re frum.

I am not saying anything new here- this has been said a million times before.

We need more education, for teachers, parents and children- starting from a young age. We need to shelter our children and young adults from drugs and alcohol (even at farbrengens). We need to talk about internet porn and addictive gaming. We need to look at AA and SA and NA and every other 12 step program that can bring real healing to our loved ones.

We are no different than any other community in the world. People are people. Addiction doesn’t discriminate. The stigma is damning. Treatment is out there. There is hope.

Our children are worth more than our reputations.

And we need to ask ourselves, what are they working so hard to numb themselves from?

There was a moment that night in my living room where one of the participants, a mother and educator, said, “I have a friend who’s child is battling addiction. She said to me, ‘Years ago, I smelt it. It was right there, under my nose. But I was in denial.’”

Please, please, please, let us all let go of that denial.

Let us help each other fight this ugly, vicious monster that is ripping into our communities.

Addiction doesn’t have to win this war.

If you know someone you suspect is fighting an addiction, get them help. Be ruthless. Don’t take no for an answer.

If you are a parent, educate yourself. Learn about this disease and its warning signs. Do not turn a blind eye– it will not just disappear. We are our children’s lifelines. Its up to us.

If you are an addict-in-recovery, know that you are a warrior. Share your strength. Share your courage. Share your wisdom. So many need it.

If you are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, or any other form of addiction, know you are not alone. There is help out there. You can fight. You can win this.

But first- you must walk toward the light.

We are here– to hold your hand, embrace you, pick you up, put you on our shoulders and forge ahead.

There is no shame. There is no guilt. Only love. Hard work.

And faith.

Come with us.

Please.

Please.

We will do this, together.