It’s that time of the year again. After a busy day rushing around, you collapse into bed, looking forward to catching up on some much-needed rest and relaxation. Just as you begin to drift into a delicious sleep, a thought pokes its way through your consciousness, startling you awake.
You forgot to count the omer.
Clumsily you fumble out of bed, reach for your siddur, and recite the bracha. Mission accomplished, you fall back into bed and are asleep before your head hits the pillow.
For many of us, the omer is simply a nightly counting ritual, a time to let beards grow and listen to a capella. Our awareness of this time period is limited to the nightly alerts on our phones reminding us which day to count. Unfortunately, many of us go into Shavuot unchanged.
A time for reflection
The omer is a time for introspection and reflection about our relationships with others. Through studying the sefirot, we learn that every trait can manifest itself in a productive or destructive way. For instance, the sefira of chessed, compassion, or giving, can be channeled into generosity and kind words. However, a distorted form of chessed, misguided compassion, could lead to giving too much, in a way that is unhealthy for ourselves or the recipient. Chessed needs to be balanced with gevurah, i.e., strength and the ability to set boundaries.
The 49 days of the omer is an ideal time to examine how the sefirot manifest themselves in our own lives. Are we balanced in the way we treat others? Do we swing too far in the direction of gevurah, being overly harsh and judgemental? Or are we employing too much chessed, giving too much of ourselves in a way that is unhealthy?
Misguided chessed and addiction
As part of my work as an addictions counselor at Retorno, the world’s largest Jewish organization for addiction prevention and treatment, I have witnessed numerous cases of misguided compassion among family members of addicts. Although their intention is to help, these family members end up enabling the addiction.
For instance, some time ago, a young couple walked into Mifgashim, Retorno’s outpatient division for addicts and codependents. The wife, visibly pregnant with their first child, had caught her husband gambling away their savings to the point of considerable debt.
After some questions, it was clear that her husband required inpatient treatment, a long and intense program. As the social worker recommended the program, the wife bolted out of her chair, screaming, “What?! Are you crazy? I’m pregnant with my first kid, and you want him to be out of the house for seven months?”
The social worker leaned forward and told her, “Yes. He’s very sick, and this is what he needs to really change.”
And she just sat there, shaking her head.
The social worker looked back at her, knowing, without any doubt, that she wouldn’t agree to let him go, and that this guy was going to keep gambling.
Are you enabling an addict?
If I were to ask any family member of an addict whether they want their loved one to keep using, of course they would deny it. Yet in reality, family members often have a part in contributing to the addiction. Somehow, it serves a purpose for them.
In order to understand this, we need to explore the idea of codependency. Addiction is a game that the whole family plays together.
Let’s take for example a mother and son. We had a case of a 17-year-old boy who spent 18 to 19 hours a day on his phone. The mother called us, despairing of him ever having a life or doing anything other than sit in front of a screen again. Of course she wanted him to stop, but her behavior continued to enable his addiction. How?
Whenever the mother saw her son on the phone, she nagged and asked him how long he’d been on the phone and what he was doing. The son consistently gave her the answer she wanted to hear, that he had just sat down or that he was doing research for a school assignment. And the mother believed him, because she had no way to force him off the phone, and even when she succeeded, he was impossible to deal with, picking fights with all of his siblings and riling up the entire household.
Being a responsible and well-meaning mother, she tried to limit his screen time, to which he countered “Fine, I’ll just go use my friend’s phone.” This scared her even more, because this friend was in an even worse state than her son, and at least if her son was home she could keep an eye on him.
As painful as it was for the mother to see her son waste his time, it also served her, because as long as he was busy with his phone, he was quiet, home, and safe. Letting him use his phone was easier on the whole family.
When the mother finally came to Retorno’s outpatient program for help, she didn’t want to believe her son was addicted. Every time her son had insisted, “I promise you, it’s the last time!” she wanted to believe him with her whole being. It was too hard for her to admit that he was out of control, that he wouldn’t or couldn’t quit.
Just like the gambler who says, “Only one more time and everything will be fine,” and just like the alcoholic who says, “Just one more drink is all I need,” she also said, “This last reminder,” “This last deal,” or “This last promise – that’s all I need.” Every time was “the last time.” So she let him play on his phone for just one hour, because that was all he needed, and in the end, he stayed on his phone all day. And the next day. And the next.
The need to be honest with ourselves
We all want solutions, easy answers, and quick results. When there’s addiction – whether you’re the addict or the one in a relationship with the addict – we want it to be resolved NOW. Therefore, every time there’s a promise it won’t happen again, we fall into the trap of believing things have turned around.
But we need to understand that addiction is not something that is going to get better on its own. Addiction is bigger than us. It’s something we simply are not equipped to handle.
So nothing will change – until the wife, or the husband, or the mother, comes in and says, “I don’t know how to deal with this problem.” When she does that, then she’ll be ready to get help. She’ll be ready to really establish boundaries, and she’ll learn the tools to maintain them. She’ll stop believing empty promises and she’ll learn what the truth really is.
True introspection: are we enabling the addict?
Family members and loved ones often believe they are doing everything they can to stop the problem, and without knowing how, they are actually enabling the addict. This is the quintessential example of misguided compassion, chessed that has become unbalanced.
For instance, I have seen many wives cover their husbands’ debts and take out loans for them. They do it out of fear, because their husbands borrow money from the wrong people and they’re scared for their husbands’ safety. They do it because they want to keep their husbands out of jail. These are all good reasons that actually enable the husband to keep doing exactly what he’s been doing, making the problem bigger and bigger.
How can we help?
Does it always require professional intervention to help the enabler get the addict into treatment? No. Very often the wife or the mother can rally some support and get the addict into treatment. But she will need follow up, because otherwise when he does come back home afterward, she’s likely to accidentally fall back into old patterns. Just as he needs to learn how to live differently, so does she. She needs someone to teach her a new, more balanced way to react.
So what can you do if you know someone who is enabling an addict? Forget the addict! Get the enabler the help she needs. Find her a therapist who is trained in treating codependency, who can help her understand what it means to live with an addict, who can show her how she’s getting drawn into his game, his drama, and his issues. She needs to become stable and empowered.
Only then, when she stops saving him from himself and lets him feel the consequences of his own actions, he will also begin to suffer. And when he cries out because of his problem, she can say, okay, you are suffering, how can I help? From a sane, stable place. Not believing his empty promises, but by getting him the professional help he needs.
True chessed is not letting an addict engage in harmful behavior. Often, chessed tempered with gevurah, clear, healthy boundaries, is the most loving and effective way to reach the addicts in our lives. Let’s use the omer as a period of reflection, to think about what we can do better to truly help those in need.
*Even though this article generally portrayed the husband as the addict and the wife as the enabler, the roles are often reversed. The author tried to keep the genders consistent for readability sake.