‘There is Hope’ JCS podcasts humanize struggles of addicts, loved ones

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“Stories of loss, love and most importantly hope” are the words that introduce a new podcast series on addiction launched by Jewish Community Services on its website ifIknew.org. The series tackles the addiction crisis through unscripted conversations with real people about how addiction has affected their lives, whether as an addicted person or as a loved one struggling to live with someone in active addiction.

Although the subject of addiction is broad and complex, “Hooked: Personal Stories of Addiction” sharpens the focus on individual accounts, but the stories aren’t told in isolation. Instead, in each podcast, a small group of people talk about themselves and each other, listening, relating and commenting on the similarities in their experiences. That give and take, sharing and listening and learning from one another is communicated to the podcast listeners — listeners who may feel more comfortable with their own stories and, perhaps, seek help.

At least that’s the main goal of the podcasts, which were produced in answer to a growing number of overdose deaths in the community, according to Howard Reznick, manager of prevention education for JCS and project head.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been in touch with, in the last year or so, a number of families in the community who have lost children,” he said. “We wanted to help give them a voice.”

Screenshot of “Hooked” podcast episodes.

The series includes four episodes: “Hitting Bottom, Rising Up,” “The Struggle of Loved Ones,” “A Parent’s Heartbreak” and “Staying Sober.” Its podcast trailer offers clips of conversations from each episode that illustrate the variety of voices and stories told by the anonymous participants:

A young woman: “I was addicted to a substance and I called my dad, and my dad was just, like, ‘What are you going to do to change? Because you can’t live with me, you can’t live with your mom, you’re homeless, you don’t have a job.’”

A mother: “In one year, he totaled three cars, and he was arrested three times.”

A man: “Nobody understands what it’s like to be a drug addict than another drug addict.”

A man: “When I would stop and think when I was by myself, it felt like I had this cold knife twisting in my gut that I had failed, that I had done everything wrong, I was a terrible father, a terrible husband.”

A father: “There is a very strong genetic predisposition for addiction. Some people can pick up a joint, or whatever it is, or take a pill and never feel the effects. Other people get sucked into it right away.”

A mother: “And then, at the age of 35, he went through a terrible depression, broke up with a significant other, and he overdosed on cocaine and died.”

A father: “I didn’t believe it, because he was functioning very well, he was in school, he had a job. That’s the tragedy of it. But people do recover, and people have to know that it’s not hopeless.”

In the world of addiction treatment and recovery, getting addicted people and their loved ones to talk about their experiences is key and is often the first step in seeking help. Talk therapy, whether with a counselor or within “the rooms” of 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous (or in programs for loved ones such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon), is often a required part of treatment programs, both for the addicted person as well as for family and friends.

“That spark that happens when you have one person say something and the other person really lights up who shares part of that experience too — I was hoping to capture that,” said Reznick, who is a licensed clinical social worker. “I wanted people who have never seen that to get a flavor of that phenomena of, ‘Yeah, I’ve been through that. I know what this person is saying and they just articulated it in a way that I can resonate with.’ I was trying to capture a little bit of that for the listener.”

Howard Reznick (Photo provided)

Reznick moderates the podcasts but only to prompt the participants to share their experiences and feelings, not steer the conversation or conduct formal interviews.

Sam (not his real name), 38, agreed to be part of the project because, as an addict in recovery, he wants to help others any way he can.

“What they teach you in the 12-step programs is just to do. If you are called upon to do something [recovery-related], do it if you can,” he said. “I think it’s a very necessary conversation to have and the more we put it out there and the more we get these conversations out of the closet, the better off we are.”

At 21, after surviving his adolescent and teen years without getting into drugs or alcohol, Sam said he tried cocaine because someone he worked with was able to stay awake all night. He wanted to know how.

“One day, I was shown the secret, and I tried one line of cocaine. That was it, I didn’t put it down for the next eight years,” he said. “First, I was addicted to cocaine, and then crack cocaine. I always tell people, you never know. I had such an addictive personality, I tried cocaine one time.”

When his addiction became obvious, interfering with his work and home life, he tried to stop, but when he began to feel like he needed drugs again, friends introduced him to pain pills.

“The pain pills quickly became very expensive and that turned to heroin. Heroin gets very expensive too, but it’s less expensive,” he said.

Sam was in active addiction until he was almost 30. Then came an ultimatum from his wife: His family or his drugs. He entered an outpatient treatment program and began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He’s been in recovery now for three-and-a-half years.

“I was very angry about having to do it, because I thought my life was over, I couldn’t have any fun anymore. But I got very lucky,” he said, adding that only a few weeks ago a young woman he knew overdosed and died.

“To me, it’s all about finding what works, what feels right for you. It varies person to person. But for me, two to three meetings a week makes me happy and keeps me how I need to be,” he said. “The very main thing for me is that I changed my peer group. I changed the people I hung out with, and I’ve gone to more positive people, people who are not using drugs to numb their feelings. People who are active in life instead of death.”

Screenshot of “Hooked” podcast episodes.

Sam said he hopes people who listen to the podcasts learn that they too can change their lives.

“What I would tell somebody who is in active addiction, who is using drugs, is that it is possible to flip the script. I did it,” he said. “I never could imagine in my wildest dreams that I would be happy without drugs, and I am much happier today. It is possible to make that change, and it’s not only for squares and losers. You can get clean today. If I got clean, you can get clean.”

That is exactly what Reznick hopes listeners take away from the podcast series: There is hope.

“Our main goal is education, and the call to action is that people talk with each other about these things and help people get support. Whether it’s family members getting support from each other and learning what seems helpful for them to keep their sanity, as well as to the best of their ability to influence their loved one to seek their own support and or treatment,” he said. “[Or] for folks who are out there using, or addicted, and who are not currently in treatment, to get a little bit of a taste that, yes, there are a lot of other people who have struggled the struggle and are working together to change their relationship to their drugs, to their current lifestyle and that there is help and hope in that support and treatment.”

JCS is getting the word out about “Hooked: Personal Stories of Addiction” through its websites, email and social media as well as through its in-person addiction education events, such as upcoming programs with Hadassah and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Sam said the conversations in the podcasts are sorely needed in the Jewish community.

“Specific to the Jewish community, it’s not just addiction — we like to keep everything on the hush-hush, because nobody wants to air their dirty laundry, and it’s understandable,” he said. “But I think the more that we can take the conversation out of the home and bring it more into a public forum, the more people have a chance of not going down that path. And if they go down that path, you know that you can reach out to people.”

“It’s got to be really crazy for parents to find out that their kid’s addicted or a spouse to find out that their spouse is addicted,” he added. “But there are places to go, you can reach out and get help. You don’t have to turn a blind eye to it.”

Joan Grayson Cohen (Photo provided)

JCS executive director Joan Grayson Cohen feels the podcasts fill a vital need.

“[We] realize that not everyone may feel comfortable attending a community program regarding more sensitive or personal subject matters,” she said. “So we produced these podcasts to afford people the anonymity to obtain critical information to help them live their best lives.”

Reznick said he would like to produce similarly structured podcasts addressing addiction and other mental-health issues such as depression, anxiety and the effects of abuse, depending on the response and available funding.

“The healing power of telling our story to folks we can trust is not to be under- estimated,” he said. “And last but not least — something I picked up when going to meetings when I first started out — we’re all as sick as our secrets, and when we are able to reveal our secrets to trustworthy others, the healing begins. And part of the podcast is, like with the #MeToo phenomena, saying things out loud. It’s is not for everybody, but saying things out loud puts it on the map and can reassure us that there is help and hope and that we’re not the only one.”

To listen to the podcasts and for a list of addiction resources, visit ifIknew.org or jcsbaltimore.org/get-help or call 410-466-9200.

RESOURCES:

Baltimore Resources

jLINK: Community Resource Database

410-466-9200 or visit jLINKbalt.org

Jewish Community Services: Human services, prevention education, information & referral + access to Jewish Recovery Network

410-466-9200 or visit jcsbaltimore.org

Alcoholics Anonymous of Baltimore: Self-help

410-663-1922 or visit baltimoreaa.org

Narcotics Anonymous of Baltimore: Self-help

Visit fsrna.org

Al Anon/Al-Teen of Baltimore & DC: Self-help for family and friends Visit marylanddc-alanon.org

Baltimore Crisis Response, Inc.: Hotline

410-433-5175

Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore: Comprehension mental health information & resources

410-637-1900

Baltimore County Substance Abuse Department: Assessment & referrals

Visit baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/health/healthservices/substanceuse

Baltimore City Health Department: 

Visit health.baltimorecity.gov/programs/substance-abuse

Maryland Resources

211/First Call for Help: Resource Database

410-685-0525 or visit 211md.org

Help! Maryland’s Crisis Hotline:

800-422-0009

Maryland Community Resource Locator:

Visit mdcsl.org

Maryland Behavioral Health Administration:

Visit bha.health.maryland.gov

National Resources

Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons & Significant Others (JACS): Self-help

212-632-4600 or visit jacsweb.org

Naranon: Self-help for family members & friends

800-477-6291 or visit nar-anon.org/­find-a-meeting

National Institute of Drug Abuse:

Visit nida.nih.gov

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids:

Visit drugfree.org

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration):

Visit samhsa.gov

singram@midatlanticmedia.com

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