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Stop sweeping addiction under carpet, say recovering addicts



Brian, 47, describes himself as a “grateful alcoholic”. He has been sober for 18 months, and considers himself a frum Jew.

“Mine was a steady decline from the great heights of success to abject failure in which I eventually faced two choices – one was intolerable, the other was recovery,” he says.

A successful businessman, husband, and father, Brian (not his real name) describes his life growing up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg as “easy”.

“I was born into a traditional dysfunctional family. My parents were affluent. They were in the hotel and restaurant business, so alcohol was a common feature. We grew up in a warm, open household with an abundance of everything. My dad was a loving and kind man when sober, and an abusive drunk when not. My mom drank more than her fair share to cope.”

When Brian’s father passed away in 2021, he returned to South Africa from Los Angeles.

“I drank moderately in Los Angeles, mostly on any day that ended in a ‘y’. I had all the characteristics of an alcoholic, but still I didn’t believe I was one. To the outside world, I was financially successful, good-looking, a husband, and the father of four amazing children. I became desperate to be the person everyone saw. Alcohol abuse was coupled with my inability to tell the truth. Lying was the oxygen of my addiction. I never intended to hurt anyone, but it took a lot of lying to keep up my façade. I lied to everyone, including myself.”

In “having it all”, Brian felt lonely and unfulfilled, and his yearning kept growing, eventually taking him down some dark paths.

Brian recalls his addiction councillor telling him that if there were a pill to cure addiction, addicts would want to see what would happen if they took two.

“My faith has been a pillar of my recovery. In my opinion, Bill Wilson, the author of the 12-Step programme, plagiarised all his ideas from Jewish mysticism and ethics,” he jokes.

“Many addicts prefer to take the easy route, clinging to sobriety for brief periods, believing they can do it on their own, that they have it all figured out, that they’re the ones in control. This is called ‘the white-knuckle approach’ in recovery circles. But recovery is unattainable if you try and control it. Real recovery involved a radical transformation of my character, but above all, it required a more meaningful relationship with G-d.”

Lara B has worked as an addiction-recovery counsellor in Johannesburg for the past five years. She’s a 52-year-old mother of five, soon to celebrate a decade of sobriety.

“I always thought of addicts as ‘junkies’, the kind you find strung out on a park bench drinking alcohol from a brown paper bag or with a needle sticking out of their arm. But I quickly learnt that addiction doesn’t discriminate, there are many addicts just like me that live within our tight-knit and sheltered community.”

Lara says the biggest problem in dealing with addiction in the Jewish community is denial.

“While the addict denies they have a problem, the family remains stuck in its own denial by enabling their loved one or making excuses for their behaviour. I have seen the ugly claws of addiction rip families apart, leaving marriages and relationships in ruins.

“Addiction is a family disease and in spite of what many may think, it’s not only the addict who suffers. But stigma and fear of judgement often get in the way of seeking help.

“Only 3% of addicts recover,” says Lara, “which is why it’s vital to be open-minded and vocal about it. Addicts who really want recovery will seek it out and do the work, but it’s up to us as a community to offer a more educated, inviting, and nurturing environment in which to reach out.”

Alan Freeman, the director of Freeman House Recovery, says when he initially opened his rehabilitation facility in 2022, 40% to 50% of his clients were Jewish.

Alan was the previous owner of many popular bars and nightclubs in Johannesburg. “My identity was based on drugs and alcohol until I was drinking three bottles of alcohol a day, hadn’t eaten properly for six months, weighed nothing, and was experiencing an early onset of dementia of sorts,” he says. Today he’s grateful to have been given the opportunity to turn his mess into a message.

“Many rabbis and a lot of men from our frum community have been here for treatment for addictions from alcohol and illegal street drugs to prescription dependency, gambling, and sex addiction.”

Pointing out that “alcohol plays a big part in our Jewish world”, from Shabbos to simchas, Alan says the community shouldn’t sweep the problem under the carpet. Rabbonim need to be better educated to spot the early signs of struggling members in their community, be it the alcoholic at the shul brocha there for the free booze, or a struggling youngster who is too scared to speak up. Rebbetzins, too, need to be unafraid to ask the right questions of women in their shiurim. It shouldn’t be taboo to address the issue if a marriage may be suffering. There are always signs. They are simply not being addressed strongly enough by our spiritual leaders.

In more secular communities, it’s up to parents, school principals, and teachers to create conversations about underage access to alcohol and marijuana among their children, he says.

Recovering addict, Mark (not his real name), 49, admits, “I drank more than was available at most functions. I drank the plane dry on my way to business conferences. I’ve had to bury six friends and my own sister.” Mark has been sober for eight years, but when he found himself in the intensive-care unit of Linksfield Clinic with failing kidneys, a swollen liver, and pancreatitis, he had hit rock bottom.

Mark describes addiction as a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease.

“It doesn’t care about your age, race, or religion. It doesn’t care who you are, who you know, how rich or successful you are. The power of this disease is its raw insanity in expecting a different result while carrying out the same actions over and over again.

“A major fear among addicts in our Jewish community is in admitting that we’re spiritually defunct,” says Mark.

In facing this fear, he says, “I could finally put my big bag of resentment down and take the time to find out who I really was.”

Alan says asking for help is the bravest thing a person can do.

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1 Comment

  1. Sylvia M Dort

    June 23, 2024 at 2:17 pm

    Amazing Stories I myself am I recovering alcoholic and drug addict so I do understand all this and I’m on this journey of progress not perfection and I can only do this with Jesus Christ he has been my doorknob to hold on to thank you all for sharing your stories they’re uplifting and remember you are somebody cuz Jesus does not make junk have a blessed day

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