Jewish Alcoholics

Yes, Virginia, There are Jewish Alcoholics (and Addicts)

By Maxine Uttal

Few diseases destroy souls the way the disease of alcohol and drug addiction does. And few communities make it more difficult to recover than the Jewish community does.

Jews struggling with the physical, mental, social and spiritual destruction of addiction often find little comfort or support from either their religion or their co-religionists. Yet, Judaism is rich in sources of comfort and teachings about the possibilities for change. When it comes to the social ills of our own, however, we often seem to prefer denial.

Chemical dependency, whether to alcohol, pills or illicit drugs, does not discriminate. It affects Jews as frequently as any other group. An addict who also is Jewish must deal not only with the isolation inherent in the disease, and the social stigma in the world at large, but also with the longstanding myth that few, if any, Jews suffer from addiction - that "the shikker [drunk] is a goy." Although the last twenty years have seen great strides in raising awareness in the Jewish community, we still have a long way to go.

In addition to denial, another big challenge for both rabbis and Jews in general is the notion that we are to be a "light onto the nations." That mission both feeds our denial about the problems in our community, and encourages us to ignore them in our need to fulfill that role. Just as the flight attendant advises those accompanying children and invalids to position their own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else for obvious reasons, we need to be a light unto our own nation, before we can be an example to others.

Another complication comes from the view that chemical dependency is a moral weakness, requiring no treatment except willpower. But addiction is no less an illness than hypertension or cardiovascular disease. Like those conditions, it is a product of the relationship between biology and behavior. It is our responsibility to ensure that its sufferers are given the opportunity to recover.

The Solution

Treatment, mutual support and scientific research are the three legs on which recovery from addiction must depend. As Jews, we must be in the forefront of the battle to ensure that all three become critical components in the battle against addiction.

Science has proven that addiction is a disease that begins in the brain. It is time to go after the problem like we go after cancer--attacking the illness, not the people who struggle with it. There is finally a comprehensive research project in progress sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, designed to study the biological influences on alcoholism. Once the genetic basis of alcoholism is established, researchers may begin to develop preventive strategies, and effective diagnostic tests and medications. General support for this research depends on our acceptance of the disease model of addiction.

Whatever the cause, chemical dependency exacts an enormous emotional and physical price both from its sufferers and from those who love them. Treatment for the illness can relieve the pain, but for many people  treatment is not an option. Private insurers have been allowed to place restrictions on treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction, creating caps and deductibles that are not imposed on the treatment of other illnesses.

The Substance Abuse Treatment Parity Act was introduced in Congress by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.). This legislation is designed to ensure that alcoholics and drug addicts receive adequate medical treatment when they need help getting well. It is essential to get Congress to recognize that addiction must be viewed like any other major illness in the context of health care.

In the past, the struggle against the ravages of alcohol and other drug addiction seemed unsolvable as people fell into the abyss of hopelessness, despair and death brought on by their baffling inability to stop using and abusing on their own. Then in 1935, two men got together and started what became one of the greatest social movements of this century. Emphasizing spirituality, personal responsibility and fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous made recovery possible for millions of addicted people over the last several decades.

But this miraculous mutual support network is often inaccessible to Jews. Most of the meetings are held in church basements, causing many Jews struggling with addiction to believe that only Christians are addicted, or are the only ones considered worthy of recovery. Our synagogues and Jewish institutions must open their doors to the meetings of 12-step programs like AA. Only when those Jews see a significant number of synagogues on the meeting lists will they understand that they are not alone.

While science, treatment and mutual support are necessary in the battle for recovery from addiction, too many people think that recovery doesn't works, because they don't see people who recover from this disease. As the late U.S. Senator Harold Hughes once said: "By hiding our recovery, we have sustained the most harmful myth about addiction disease - that it is hopeless."

Recovering alcoholics and addicts are traditionally prohibited from publicizing their involvement 12-step programs by the 12-step "Traditions. " They also have to contend with a community that often does not acknowledge the "recovering" side and only recognizes the "addict" side, opening themselves up to all manner of discrimination. This leaves many people Bowery bums guzzling rot-gut whiskey or junkies shooting up in alleys as their only frame of reference when they hear the words "alcoholic" or "addict." But fortunately, more and more recovering people are bravely coming forward to demonstrate that recovery works.

The next time you are sitting in synagogue or at a meeting in the Jewish community, check out the person sitting next to you. She may not only be an upstanding member of the community, but also one of the lucky ones in recovery from this disease of addiction. Work to raise awareness of addiction issues in your community.

If you are a Jew struggling with addiction, remember that you are not alone. Recovery is possible.

For further information, contact:
JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others (including links to a wide range of recovery, treatment, and Jewish resources)
Phone: 212-397-4197 Fax: 212-489-6229

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