30 Days After Yom Kippur: Are We Still Sober? Lessons From Addiction Recovery

Treatment for addiction is a rigorous process that essentially involves learning a whole new way of thinking and behaving. Yet, for many, it is after the intensive treatment phase has ended that the challenge truly begins. 

These first few months of “early recovery” is a particularly fragile time. The staggeringly high rate of relapse during this period is a testament to the many risks and vulnerabilities that continue, even after one has become sober. 

Just over 30 days ago, as Jewish individuals we too experienced the rehabilitative process of Teshuva.

On Yom Kippur and the 40 days prior, we introspected, prayed, and fasted. We acknowledged that growth was needed, and resolved to overcome habitual behaviors that we recognized as toxic to our spiritual and emotional well-being. 

During our own period of “early recovery,”  there are several key lessons that can be gleaned from the treatment and recovery process that perhaps bear relevance to us all:

  1. Have we designed a “maintenance plan” to continue our spiritual rehabilitation?

As important as the initial treatment period itself, it is ultimately the “aftercare” plan that is pivotal to sustaining recovery. What will the person’s program of recovery look like after treatment?  What measures are taken to preserve the progress made? This critical period, known as the “maintenance stage of treatment,” all too often can be neglected. One common deception that those in early recovery can easily fall prey to is believing that achieving sobriety, and similarly, that being educated on principles of recovery is enough. Yet, the high rate of relapse associated with addiction is testament to the critical need to keep one’s recovery at front and center even after the treatment phase is complete:  

“it is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe” (Alcoholics Anonymous). 

As sincere as one may be in his or her desire to stay sober, there are many ongoing obstacles to face. Battles against physiological cravings, fluctuating emotions, external influences, limited skills for coping with challenges (or even minor discomfort) without the addictive substance or behavior, and the list goes on.

Long-term recovery takes work: ongoing awareness, vigilance, and self-evaluation of one’s daily routine and emotional, mental, and spiritual fitness. As it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous,  

“Elimination of our drinking is but a beginning. A more important demonstration of our principles lies before us in our respective homes, occupations, and affairs.”

For real, lasting change to be made, one needs to constantly review, as well as diligently and concretely apply the skills learned.

“White knuckle sobriety” (or “dry drunk”) a term known all too well by those in recovery and professionals alike, is the practice of remaining passive in one’s program of recovery. A person may now be substance free, but he has not become a truly changed person. If he does not continually and actively “work” a solid program of recovery (such as a 12 step program or otherwise), he leaves himself vulnerable to regression and relapse, regardless of how much will-power he may believe himself to have. 

In our own process of spiritual growth we too run the risk of “white knuckling.”

We may believe that the work is done now that we have gone through the prescriped treatment “program.” We said Selichos, and heard shofar on Rosh Hashanah. We self-reflected, prayed, and fasted on Yom Kippur. We genuinely and sincerely resolved to grow.  And yet, are the resolutions and goals we set for ourselves during the High Holiday period still at the forefront of our minds? Am I still working toward them daily? Have I reverted back to the same habits and behaviors as much as I intended to change? 

2. What happens if/when we fail? The importance of a “Relapse Plan”

One of the most key lessons ingrained during treatment is the ease by which a relapse can happen and the importance of remaining on guard. Over the course of treatment the individual is assisted in identifying specific scenarios, thought patterns, emotions, or relationships that could continue contributing to this addictive cycle if not addressed (“triggers”). 

Before completing the treatment program, a “relapse prevention plan” for avoiding these triggers is developed, and every angle of this plan reviewed to ensure that there are no gaps or vulnerabilities overlooked. 

It is this relapse plan that is regarded as his armor and protection from reverting back to his old patterns. In this real battle with such a dangerous threat lurking, all potential scenarios need to be strategized, and contingency plans set well in advance. “Winging it” just does not suffice. 

During the Yomim Noraim (High Holidays), we carved out time and space to sincerely assess ourselves and truly felt inspired to change,  but did we form concrete plans for avoiding the “triggers” that could push us to spiral backward after this period came and went?  Did we make contingency plans for what should happen if we were to “relapse” into old behaviors. 

3. Are we doing it all alone? The importance of “fellowship”

Given the premium value of surrounding one’s self with positive influences, it is not surprising that among the most fundamental elements in a program of recovery plan is “fellowship”– finding a strong recovery community to connect with.  For those in a 12-step program, finding a trusted sponsor to guide one through their steps and consistently check in and share challenges with, as well as attending meetings with a group of fellow peers in solid recovery are vital. 

This support system is in the trenches with the individual and readily accessible. They are there to call-out one’s  blindspots and provide critical support. 

After Yom Kippur has come and gone, have I thought to share my “Kabbalos” (resolutions for change)  with others who can continue to hold me accountable throughout the year? Did I merely whisper them to myself quietly under my talis or head buried in siddur, leaving me subject to my own changing whims. Or have I built into place a means by which I can be held accountable by trusted people in my life.  

Along similar lines, addiction treatment is a family affair. For addiction treatment to be successful the entire family needs to go through a change process. This is vital, and too often we see people complete world class treatment programs over many months and quickly revert back to old destructive behaviors, in part because they are going back to unchanged family systems. In our own spiritual recovery as well, we need to bring our families on board. Enroll them into our change process. Ask them for feedback, give them the tools to limit their enabling of our negative behaviors, agree to being held accountable by them, and also live in a household that is supportive of change in general. 

Lastly, and perhaps most essentially, those in long-term recovery often come to develop a reliance on God that is alive and palpable. Trust in a “Higher Power,” and believing in His active role in our daily affairs, is the very foundation of a 12-step program of recovery. The importance of turning directly to God for assistance to help us keep up our progress is not relegated to recovery.  As taught in The Path of the Just (Mesillat Yesharim), “even if one is watchful over himself, it is not within his power to save himself without the help of the holy One blessed be He.” 

The High Holidays with its built-in intensive Tefillot have come and gone. Yet, as modeled by those in a program of recovery, continuing to “improve our conscious contact with God” (Step 11) as a source of strength for continued success in our growth is in and of itself transformative. 

Addiction, in its various forms, is a serious and complex problem that is unimaginable to those not ensnared by it (the nature of which is well beyond the scope of this article to explore). Nonetheless the tireless, all-encompassing effort toward sustained, continued growth embraced by those dedicated to recovery can offer us inspiration. 

As we have now all passed into the “early recovery” period after the Yomim Noraim, we have an opportunity to evaluate our own “aftercare program” and in turn, set a solid foundation for our long-term spiritual recovery.

About the Author
Devora Shabtai, MSW, MSc is a therapist at Transformations Treatment Center in Delray Beach, Florida which offers evidence-based, individualized substance use and/or mental health treatment including detox, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs. As Program Manager of the Jewish Track, Devora collaborates with the clinical team in providing opportunities for our Jewish clients to draw upon their individual spiritual, cultural, and religious identities throughout the course of treatment. In addition to clinical work, Devora has an interest in empirical research and has co-authored several peer reviewed articles and book chapters on relationships between Jewish spirituality and psychological well-being. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in the psychology of religion in the University of Warwick's Center for Education Studies. Devora lives in Boca Raton with her husband and daughters
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