Shame. Fear. Denial. Silence.
Familiar territory in the life of someone struggling with addiction, as well as for family and friends. In an effort to reduce that stigma and encourage open dialogue, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville recently held an addiction education program, “Not in MY Family: Substance Abuse in the Jewish Community.”
Scores packed the school’s Mintzes Theatre the evening of March 29 to remember those lost to addiction and cheer those sharing their stories as recovering addicts. What emerged from those painful, but hopeful stories was the call to pull addiction from the shadows. Shadows that some in attendance said are particularly opaque in the Jewish community.
“I come here tonight just to tell you a story,” Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg said. His story was his eldest son’s odyssey with drugs and addiction that began in high school — he attended Pikesville High — after watching a film about the effects of LSD. “He liked what it looked like,” Wohlberg recalled. “And that was the start.” As his son struggled with addiction, Wohlberg realized there was no magic bullet. Grateful now that his son is in recovery, Wohlberg takes no credit. “It’s only because I lucked out. It can happen to anyone, and it does,” he said. “Don’t depend on mazel. It doesn’t always work.”
A frank discussion about addiction in the Jewish community is what program organizer Rochelle Sullivan, Beth Tfiloh’s high school counselor, had in mind.
“This is an epidemic, a scourge and an issue we all need to bring out of the shadows. To help kids to not be afraid to come forward,” Sullivan said.
Although addiction and its collateral damage touches many communities, Sullivan said the stigma can seem deeper within the Jewish community.
“I think that it comes from a feeling of invulnerability. Of ‘not us.’ That’s why we called the program ‘Not in MY Family,’” Sullivan said. “When I was a kid I was told, ‘Nice Jewish kids don’t do that.’”
Sullivan noted that contrary to how addicts are treated, people are not sent into hiding when they have diabetes or high blood pressure. “We are bringing them in and helping them and giving them life-saving medical treatment,” she said.
“But I don’t think we’re unique,” Sullivan added. “It doesn’t matter, your race, religion, socio-economic background. You are not safe from this.”
Stephen and Susan Seidel know well the vulnerability of young people to addiction. Their son, Corey, a 2009 Beth Tfiloh graduate, died last year of a heroin overdose. He was 24. The program was dedicated to him.
“Addicts are liars. They’re the best liars in the world,” Susan Seidel said. “We have to look at our children and look at our children’s friends and their friends and see what’s going on.” Through a 12-step program, Susan said she and her husband learned they were powerless over their addict. “As much as we gave him love and support and caring, it didn’t matter. Because what he knew most was drugs and drug addiction,” she said.
Stephen Seidel asked parents to face the reality that there is no utopia for raising children. His son’s downward spiral began with smoking marijuana soon after his bar mitzvah. “From that point forward, our living hell takes off,” Stephen said.
Corey moved on to cocaine, OxyContin and heroin, went through multiple drug rehab programs in multiple states, eventually becoming homeless. Last February, Seidel said they got the phone call they had been dreading. His son had died.
Stephen went on, visibly shaken, his voice breaking. “He laid in his apartment decaying to such a point that I couldn’t even see him one last time,” he said.
“What you have just heard is what you need to take home and think about and talk about every day,” said Beth Kane Davidson, Addiction Treatment Center director at Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Suburban Hospital in Rockville.
Stress, peer pressure, curiosity, boredom and mood swings can all contribute to children experimenting, she said. Along with social pressures and emotional changes, young brains are still evolving. The prefrontal cortex, which controls thinking, planning, organization, problem solving and impulse control, develops last, Davidson said.
Preventing adolescents from trying drugs and alcohol is key. “Delay, delay, delay,” Davidson said. “You can’t get addicted to something you don’t try.” She urged parents to educate themselves, to know their teens, their friends and what they’re doing. “Be nosy,” she said. “You’re a parent, not a pal. Get in front of them with the possibility of addiction.”
An anxiety disorder that started in college led Mitchell Singer to marijuana. He moved on to harder drugs and pain medication. “For a few years I lived in a daze,” he said. Inpatient rehab didn’t work. His recovery didn’t begin until he finally admitted he was an addict. “At that point, my life changed,” he said. “I was able to ask for help.”
Six years ago, Dr. Gary Manko’s son died of a heroin overdose. “It took a long time to grasp that I could not fix him,” he said. Support groups, such as Al-Anon, helped him recognize the difference between helping his son and enabling his addiction. “We learned to give up our expectations that he would want the life we wanted for him,” Manko said. “We stopped worrying, and we started living.”
Corey Seidel and Adam Fishman (who died three weeks ago of an overdose), were close friends of Lizzy Solovey. She read a piece expressing her fear, anger, anxiety and desperation she felt losing them to addiction. “Love is not enough,” she said. “No love is stronger than the drug in the end.”
During the Q&A session, Adam Fishman’s mother, Alison Hartman, said she realized her son had an addiction problem as a teen and pursued therapists, rehab facilities and interventions.
“I tried to get on that runaway train and tried to stop it,” she said, adding she eventually walked away with unconditional love. “And I saved my own life in the process.”
Corey Seidel and Adam Fishman will live on through their stories, said Zipora Schorr, director of education at Beth Tfiloh. She called on people to love and support each other. “And may we not have to be mourning, but instead celebrating our beautiful children,” she said.
After the program, Mitchell Singer’s wife, Laura Singer, and his sister and brother-in-law Jenna and Jeremy Sperber said talking openly about addiction eases the stigma.
“A lot of people feel ashamed,” Laura Singer said. “Easing that shameful feeling that they’re not alone, they’re not a bad person, would make it easier for them to come forward.”
Jenna Sperber went to school with Corey and Adam. She said people need to see addiction as a disease, not a choice. “They don’t wake up saying, ‘I’m going to be an addict today.’”
For Mitchell Singer’s mother, Wendy Quartner, the stigma is real. “In the very Orthodox community it’s even more of a stigma and much more secretive,” she said.
Jeremy Sperber agreed. “In the Jewish community there’s a sense of ‘it’s not going to happen to us’ because there is such a sense of community in the Jewish faith that those things don’t happen,” he said. “But, obviously, that’s not true.”
For more resources, visit jcsbaltimore.org, helpingupmission.org, marylandaddictionrecovery.com and bha.dhmh.maryland.gov/Pages/Maryland-Certified-Treatment-Directory.aspx.
Susan C. Ingram is a local freelance writer.