Talking about addiction in the Jewish community
Local family decides to break the silence, discuss awareness and education, at Teaneck meeting
RE-POST FROM THE JEWISH STANDARD, BY JOANNE PALMER: APRIL 12, 2018
It would be wonderful to live in a world where all you have to do is refuse to acknowledge a problem, and then it would dutifully go away. You know, a world where denial truly would be a river in Egypt.
But we don’t live in that world.
We do live in a world, though, where some problems are swept under rugs and left to molder, where some issues aren’t a big deal but others are paralyzingly embarrassing. We live in a world — all of us live in a world, no matter which world we live in — where no matter how you define perfection, the ability to enact perfection convincingly is highly valued.
We also live in a world where the rate of drug abuse is skyrocketing, where the opioid crisis is making itself felt even in places where no one ever imagined it could be felt.
In places like the local Jewish community.
On Sunday, April 22, Torah Academy of Bergen County hosted a meeting about the opioid crisis, detailing, among other things, what parents should look for and where they can turn for help.
According to a March 2018 report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, more than 155 Americans die of drug overdoses every day; opioids include prescription medications, synthetic opioids, and heroin, among others. It is a horrifying statistic. It does not include deaths that are alcohol related, although, according to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010 approximately 88,000 people basically drank themselves to death.
There are very real mental health issues that underlie these statistics, as well as social policy decisions. There also is the fact that addiction is a very real physical phenomenon, not a moral failing, and that some people’s body chemistries make them more likely than others to develop physical addictions.
It is a messy and unpleasant subject. Often it is easier to stigmatize people who develop drug or alcohol dependencies as morally delinquent than it is to acknowledge the illness and help them recover from it; the fact that there is no simple remedy, no magic pill, no penicillin equivalent, makes treatment hard and complete recovery sometimes chimerical.
Given all this, given the stigma that envelops drug and alcohol use, and given the close-knit nature of the Jewish community, and the myth that Jews never fall prey to such problems, it takes courage for families to admit that they have that problem. But of course once those families do take that step, the easier it becomes for others to admit to their own problems. Because it is even harder to deal with drug abuse when people feel isolated by it, because there is strength in these numbers, the more people come forward, the better it gets.
That’s why the Forman family of Teaneck has decided to go public about the problems their daughter Elana, the second of their five children, has had with substance abuse.
They were on the panel at TABC.
Elana is now 23; she lives in Florida and is very public about her story; “I’m pretty much an open book,” she said. But that wasn’t always the case. It took years for her parents, who are careful and loving and diligent and very smart but did not know what they were seeing, much less what they should be looking for, to understand what was going on with her.
Lianne and Etiel Forman both are attorneys, who met at Columbia while they were in law school. They moved to Teaneck, and their family flourished; Elana, like her siblings, went to day schools, and did very well there.
“Basically I was a child just like anyone else,” Elana said. “And then, right before high school, I started feeling that I wasn’t like my peers. I felt lonely and misunderstood. And my solution, the way I found to cope with these feelings, was alcohol.
“I started drinking when I was about 13. I took it from my parents’ liquor cabinet, and I associated with friends who were doing the same things. We all took from our parents, and we had older friends who were able to buy it.
“We did it mostly on Shabbas. We would drink and smoke weed. It was just basically to cope. I felt like everyone else knew what they were doing, and I felt completely lost.
On a recent visit to Florida, Lianne, Elana, and Etiel went bowling.
“My parents noticed,” Elana said. “They knew something was wrong. They sent me to therapy.” But they didn’t really know what she was doing, because “I was able to keep it hidden. On the whole I looked okay. Sometimes maybe I acted out a little bit in school, and the teachers might have thought that there was a problem, but there were no huge red flags. There was no big problem yet.”
Or, to be more specific, there was a big problem, but it was another problem. Elana also developed an eating disorder, and as is not uncommon, the eating disorder masked the drinking and smoking. “When my eating disorder was less bad, when I was eating more, then I would drink more,” she said. “It was all intertwined, and all coming from the same emotional place.”
But Elana also was a skillful performer, and she was smart and a good student. “I was active in school,” she said. “I played on sports teams, I was on academic teams, I kept up with everything. I was able to maintain a façade.
“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. I had so many mental breakdowns behind the scenes.”
When Elana was in high school, her parents had no idea that she had a drug problem. What they did know, Lianne said, was that “her mental health issues started in high school, and for a long time we thought that she was clinically depressed. It was chicken and egg. Eating disorders come with co-morbidity — usually depression, OCD, bipolar disorder — so that made sense.”
But it wasn’t depression. It was substance abuse.
Elana’s substance abuse got dramatically worse when she went to college. “Then I had freedom, and I got into harder drugs,” she said. “Then my eating disorder was under control, but I had the same issues underneath, so once I had that freedom, once I was outside the little bubble I grew up in, that’s when I started getting into pills.
“I was self-medicating.”
As she had in high school, Elana threw herself enthusiastically into school activities. She was at Queens College, and “I was active in Hillel and in the community,” she said. But she started taking pills, “self-medicating, so I could keep up and live life,” she said. “But I wasn’t getting high to enjoy myself. It was a way to survive. I took Adderall during the day to keep up with my job and my schoolwork, and I would take downers at night so I could get some sleep.
“Without something in my system, it was hard for me to function.”
When she was in college, and even for some time afterward, Elana wrote papers for other students. She enjoyed it, she got paid for it, and if she took pills, she could stay up all night and work. “It was all connected,” she said. “Writing was almost like an addiction. I enjoyed the combination of being high and writing.”
It wasn’t hard to get pills on campus, she said; she had a prescription for Klonopin, and she could trade that for other medications that she liked better. She also used cocaine, which was widely available.
“Any time something was offered to me, I said okay, I’ll try it once. Something was always missing, so when someone said this will be great, I said okay. I didn’t have any built-in fear. Trying it was a no-brainer, and if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t do it again.
“But there wasn’t much that I didn’t like.
“Later on, when I got involved in a 12-step program, I learned that there was something missing for me spiritually, a hole that the substances filled. I didn’t now then and I don’t know now why I was so unhappy, and I figured that the substances that would get me high would fill the hole, but it never was enough.”
Elana made it through two years of college, but it wasn’t easy. “I had a couple of psych ward visits, and eventually, it all crashed in on me,” she said. She’d kept her parents more or less in the dark about her problems, but the school called them. They sent her to Israel, on a program for “troubled young adults.” It worked at first — “the geographic change was helpful, and it was good to be away from my friends, with a whole new set up and new support systems — but the drinking age is lower there. I wasn’t 21 yet, but all of a sudden I was able to buy alcohol legally. I was buying bottles of vodka and having them in my room.
“I started a new cycle of functional alcoholism — but how functional can you be if you have to drink in the morning?”
Elana’s unhappiness kept growing, and “I ended up trying to kill myself,” she said. “I had intentionally overdosed.” But she was discovered, and her stomach was pumped, and then she was sent to rehab. “I was there for three months,” she said. “It was helpful because I literally didn’t realize that I was drinking to avoid emotions. I was inept at dealing with life.
“I obviously knew it was wrong to use illegal drugs, but it wasn’t something that I talked about or realized was a sickness until my first time in rehab,” she said.
That was the first of her four rehab stays. “Residential rehab is good for separating from the substance itself, and to have extensive therapy in a controlled environment, but I am not a huge advocate of rehab because it’s not the solution,” she said. “The solution is what you find in your local 12-step meeting. Rehab is an industry.”
After a somewhat bumpy stint at the rehab center, and a few more months in Israel, Elana went home. “I convinced my parents to get me a plane ticket to come back to school,” she said. “I outlined my whole plan. I said that I had learned this and this and this about myself, and they believed it. And to some extent I convinced myself. But mostly I was miserable, and I would be miserable wherever I was, because no matter where I was I was with myself.”
It was around this time that Elana told Lianne and Etiel that “she was struggling with drugs,” Lianne said. “We met her for her birthday, and she said ‘I am having an issue but I can deal with it.’ We had known that something wasn’t right, but we didn’t know what it was.”
Then the Formans had to figure out what to do. Several years earlier, they had learned a great deal about mental health issues and eating disorders, and they thought that they could tackle this issue the same way.
“We looked for resources, and we didn’t find much in the Orthodox community,” Lianne said; much later, after Elana had already moved to Florida and been to rehab, she found Amudim, which provides case management for families with members struggling with drug and sexual abuse. Its founder and executive director, Rabbi Zvi Gluck, will be at the April 22 meeting.
They had to adjust to an entirely new way of dealing with Elana. “The newest way of thinking about eating disorders and parent involvement then,” when Elana was in high school, “was that your child cannot make healthy choices,” Lianne said. “They are so sick that they would starve themselves to death.” So the family used family-based-therapy, which dictated that the parents make all the decisions; that approach wouldn’t be possible with an adult child anyway.
Now, they went to Nar-Anon, a 12-step program for the families of substance abusers. “You have to understand that this is out of your control,” Lianne said. “This is not your problem. You cannot make it your problem.
Rabbi Zvi Gluck talks with a client at Amudim. “There were so many stories in that room. There was the man with the 30-something son who is in and out of rehab, and he doesn’t know what to do. There is the man who comes home to find his wife drunk all the time, and he feels that he should stay home with her, but he can’t, and he doesn’t know what to do.
“There are people struggling with really big issues.”
It was odd going to meetings as visibly observant Jews, Lianne said. “We walk in, and I’m wearing a skirt and a hat because I cover my hair, and my husband has a big kippah. The 12-step mantra is a little Christian-ish, and there is an opening and a closing prayer. And then we are sitting there and one person asks another person about her daughter’s bat mitzvah. And then almost everyone in the room turns out to be Jewish.”
Lianne found a practice in Jersey City that specializes in addiction, and that practice found a rehab in Florida; Elana went there on her own, and has been in Florida ever since. Once she was done with rehab, she went to a halfway house, and then a three-quarter house; those residences have monitoring and oversight, appropriate for their level of care.
Also, “we got lucky,” she said. “When we were struggling with where she should go, we found a connection, an Orthodox guy in Brooklyn who is a recovering addict and helps families find the right rehab, and helps them with their insurance.” This man, Ezy Finkel, will be at the meeting next Sunday. “He’s an amazing guy,” Lianne said. And it is Ezy who introduced Lianne and Etiel to Rabbi Gluck.
Closer to home, though, she still didn’t find much help. “In the year and a half since we’ve known about this, I have not met another family in Teaneck who is dealing with this,” Lianne said. “This cannot be. There is an epidemic in the whole country. It cannot be that we are immune to it.
“People are not talking about it because there is a stigma attached to it, because the stereotype is that people who do drugs are low-lifes. In the years when we were dealing with mental disorders, I came across other people dealing with mental disorders. At least they were being discussed. I cannot believe that just because I have never come across anyone who says ‘Yes, my friend too’ or ‘yes, my son too’ or ‘yes, my daughter too’ that means that it does not exist in our community.”
Elana still is in Florida; she’s been back and forth, clean and not so clean, but now, she says, she is clean, and she thinks that this time it will take.
She had some severe setbacks in Florida; it wasn’t until after she was in rehab that she shot heroin. “I had smoked it before, but I had never shot up. This was the first time I did, with a needle. It is as physically addictive as anything.
“Even back in high school, smoking weed, I was afraid of needles. People who shot up were scary people, who lived under bridges. They were criminals, in my mind, who stole things. But that same mentality I had before — that if something was offered to me, I’d just say yes automatically — I was constantly searching for the external thing that would make me feel better, but I never found it.
“That’s because it didn’t exist.”
Luckily, Elana stopped shooting heroin before she became addicted physically.
It was around then that the epiphany that she thinks will keep her off drugs happened. “I don’t know how to explain it, but in the program we call it a spiritual awakening,” she said. She found herself in rehab against her will; she’d been so high when she was checked in that she didn’t remember it. “But in those last two weeks, something just clicked in my head.
“Until then, the most important thing to me was me. It was ‘Am I feeling okay?’ And if I wasn’t I had to get high.
“But then it just clicked that the world is not necessarily all about me, and how I feel. There are approximately 7 billion other people in the world beside me, and when I get high to escape my own internal feelings, I am screwing over at least one of them. I’m screwing over my own parents. Why am I hurting them? Why am I more important than they are?
“I didn’t want to be a person wasting away her life anymore. I knew what I had to do to get clean and stay clean.”
She also knows real darkness. “The girl I was relapsing with down here overdosed and died. There was a guy who I did drugs with up north who is dead now. It is crazy to me that I know so many people my age who are dying. I know more people who have died than who have gotten engaged.”
But she is moving toward the light.
“For me, the 12 steps are the solution,” she said. “So I started going to meetings and working a program. It’s not therapy. I don’t do therapy any more. I don’t have to talk about my problems. I have an outline of how to deal with them.
“I understand that God has control of my life. Not me. And I have to accept things as they come and work on myself and keep my side of the street clean. To take things day by day.”
“Now I am in the process of rebuilding my life and myself. I have friends down here. I have a job. It’s not my dream job — I deliver pizzas — but it is a legal job, that I hold down, and I have a car that I bought for myself, and I have insurance that is in my name.