Moishe Chanin
Certified Life Coach, Recovering Addict, Community Activist

Self-Harm & Addiction: What’s really going on?


On Shabbos morning before this past Rosh Hashanah, I came to shul and saw a man. I didn’t know him too well, but there was a strong, deep connection. As soon as I saw him, I hugged him tightly, longer than usual, and when we pulled apart I said, “I think we both needed that hug.” He was davening and couldn’t speak, so instead of responding verbally, he opened up a sefer of Chassidus he had next to him, Likkutei Torah from the Alter Rebbe. He pointed at words expressing that Rosh Hashanah is the time of gathering the entire body of the Jewish people, as families unite and communities come to shul to join with Hashem and come back to our purpose through “teshuva”, “return”.

At that time, I was going through a personal challenge, where despite my desperate need to connect, I felt a part of me wasn’t allowing myself to engage in a relationship that is deeply important to me. Every time I tried to build this relationship, a part of me withdrew even further – no matter how much I desperately wanted to be there.

I looked at this man and asked, “What if there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to gather to the others, to return?”

All he could do was point and spell it out using the Aleph Beis of the Siddur. He showed me, “If a part doesn’t want to return, and teshuvah can’t happen, it’s important to inquire – what’s really going on?”

I looked at him again, and said. “I can tell you that. This part is in pain. It’s been hurt enough times, and doesn’t want to go back and return, only to be hurt again.”

This time, he spelled out the word compassion. I knew he was saying I should use empathy to understand that this part of me is in pain, and hope that by feeling that compassion coming from a deeper place inside of me, it would eventually return.

But I wasn’t having it, and said, “No! No! Even with compassion and empathy, no matter how much I try, I am feeling resistance. The hurt part of me says, ‘Thank you very much for your compassion, and for understanding my pain, I appreciate it, but there’s no way I’m going to go back there, it’s just not worth it.’”

Finally, he looked at me with his big warm smile he said, clearly:

“Well then, you just need to be with it. Sit with it.”

I turned to him with surprise. “So you’re saying – no work?” 

“Nope,” he shook his head.

I shrugged. “Weren’t we put into this world to work?”

Looking at me before turning back to his davening, he finally said,

“Moishe, that is the work.”

Tears were streaming down my face, and I jumped up and hugged him tightly.

I finally understood.
We have such a need to fix ourselves, to fix others, to imagine that if only things are fixed it will all be okay. And yet, it takes a lot of work to not try and fix things. To be okay with them as they are, broken or whole.

After davening, we continued the conversation. Up until then, with only a few pointed pages and some mouthed words, he had communicated a new world to me. And now, he explained it.

Sometimes, he said, we just need to sit with what is. 

We need to practice that as a meditation, a way of sitting with what arises without trying to change it. I learned that this is a practice people do in silent meditation, which can help with anxiety and the desperate need to fix. It helps us concentrate on what’s inside, rather than always putting the focus on how the outside can change to help us.

Rat Park – Connection

It was the culmination of a search I had been on for a while by then, a search to understand the root causes of addiction. I am a big fan of a famous Ted Talk given by a man called Johann Hari, who describes a study from the 70s that was trying to understand drug addiction, called ‘Rat Park’. In the experiment, the researchers found that rats who lived alone in cages were more likely to be addicted, while rats who lived in a space where they had access to other rats would drink plain water, instead of the addictive substance. The main point of the entire thing is that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety”, which is how we talk about it, but “that the opposite of addiction is – connection!”

I think about this a lot, and that’s because it’s been my experience. I am an addict in recovery, a community activist, and now a practicing life coach teaming up with those looking to improve areas of life.

One thing I notice is that when people come to talk to me about somebody else, the focus is always on the behavior. That makes sense, because it’s what we see. If we see others behaving in ways that are self-harming, that makes no sense to us – because why would you do that to yourself?

The problem is, though, that what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Underneath the surface is the underlying need that is being masked by the behavior. Somewhere, there’s a part of the person that is in deep pain, and the behavior is just a painkiller. When we see the tip of the iceberg – anything such as drugs, alcohol, self-harm, eating disorders, anger, kids misbehaving, or anything, really – all we are seeing is the behavior. 

We have no idea what is really lying underneath.

So if we’re looking at Rat Park as a model and realizing that the opposite of addiction is connection, then the opposite of these behaviors is not behavING. It is diving deep below the surface, looking at the entire iceberg to see what’s really needed, and finding that when we’re engaging in these self-harmful behaviors, what we are most often seeking is real connection.

Connection shows us that we no longer need to engage in these harmful behaviors. When I undertook the Twelve Step program, I was able to use the process of taking inventory and seeing where I’ve done harm to others to look at what I was avoiding that lived below the surface, to examine the whole iceberg. I found my resentments, my fears, my anger and my shame, and I saw that in actuality, they were separating me from others. The twelve steps process helped me strip away the layers that were separating me from others, leaving me with connection – what I was seeking in the first place.

The twelve steps is not only about connecting with other people, but most importantly with G-d. When I have a healthy connection with Hashem, and know I can rely on Him, there’s no need to drink or use.

In the 12-Step program, there’s also fellowship with other people, so I get to spend time together with others whom I feel safe to show my true colors and they get me – accept me, which fulfils my need for connection. There are many other programs aside from 12 Steps which help to satisfy this underlying need, and as a result, can have a huge positive impact in shifting behavior.

As a community, we need to understand from others that connection is what they need. When we blame and shame people for being addicts, we fuel that disconnection. In fact, it has been shown that in places like Portugal, where addicts are given a safe, controlled environment for drug-use rather than sent to jail, the overall effects of drug abuse on society are significantly lowered. That’s because people are given the opportunity to deal with their addiction at its core, rather than being criminalized, penalized for their behavior, DIS-connection, which perpetuating the cycle.

It’s hard to imagine, but this method means we don’t cut people off because of their drinking, or kick somebody out of the house because of their drug use. We don’t treat the symptom with a band-aid – we look at the underlying core, and help people find the support they need to counter the emptiness inside. On a community level, we don’t isolate or ostracize. The shame is lessened, and real help can come.

Drugs, alcohol, eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors might seem like a way of seeking pleasure, something that we look down upon as an ‘easy way out’ for others. But what if we recognized that addicts are actually dealing from a deep sense of pain? What if all they are looking for is a way to numb themselves from that pain for even a moment – and we have the opportunity to give them that, through alternatives like real connection, strong long term meaningful relationships, and supportive community?

G-d’s Partners

When I realized that stronger relationships are the answer, I started to think about which relationships are the longest-lasting for people in their lives. It made sense to me that number one is family – those we are related to by blood.

Of course, mentors, counselors, teachers, therapists and close friends are all meaningful, supportive and can be incredibly long-lasting. But at the end of the day, our parents are the ones who have known us the longest, the ones who brought us into this world, and the ones who we are connected to whether we like it or not as long as we live. It seemed to me that this is the longest relationship and most significant connection a person would ever have.

Once I started focusing on parents, I thought about the amazing impact that can be created when parents decide to be open, love and most importantly accept their child unconditionally – no matter what age they are, even to adulthood. I’ve witnessed this myself through the Torah based –  Twisted Parenting ideas of Avi Fishoff, and seen how much healing can happen from tremendous trauma when someone learns that they are not only loved, but also accepted as they are. 

Parents are the people who brought us into the world, and hold a certain koyach as partners with Hashem that nobody else has. They have G-d’s power of creation within them, and can activate this from potential into reality by reconnecting with their children on a deeper level, below the tip of the behavioral iceberg.

That means that the pyramid I described above, of underlying needs at the bottom of the iceberg, is layered with the need for all types of connection: General social interactions higher up, then more meaningful connections, and finally the most meaningful connection – our parents. 

Once I understood this, I found myself at my next question in this process: What happens as a result of this connection? Why is it so important? What am I missing when I don’t have it, and what am I getting when I finally have it?

I thought about it deep and hard, and finally the words came:

I matter.

Words I’ve heard a million times, but this time they struck a chord differently than before.

It means that when I have a long-term, meaningful relationship with someone, where they invest in it through time and effort, and tell me that they love me because I matter to them, then every time we invest in the relationship, through time and effort, I receive that as a message that I matter.

We can get the feeling of significance, that we matter, from all kinds of places. Some people get it from healthy places, like their family, community, shul, school, workplace, or a 12-Step community. Some people work long and hard and are able to feel that from within, a sense of G-d caring (which we will come back to later). And yet also, many people find it from G-d forbid, unhealthy places, like the feeling of being drunk or on drugs, an unhealthy relationship, or being a workaholic. The belief is that if someone is putting effort into me, or if I can’t feel the pain of not mattering, it means I matter.

Of course, the most important, longest-lasting relationship is not with the parent, it’s with God, and that is also something that is emphasized in the 12 Steps. I know countless people who are all sober today, from all kinds of dangerous addictions, simply because they were able to build a strong, healthy relationship and connection with their higher power, which is what we call Hashem – G-d. As we say in the Yomim Noraim davening, Hashem waits with open arms, even up until the moment of our passing, for even the briefest indication that we will come back to Him.

I remember reading Rabbi Simon Jacobson saying that when we are born, it’s God’s way of saying that we matter. 

So if our parents are partners with God, then surely it is their job to deliver that message, to make sure each and every one of us knows that our being born wasn’t an accident, but something that matters, truly!

From the day children are born, they need to matter to their parents – after all, now, Hashem has said that this child matters, and so the parents are responsible to fulfil that by creating a healthy environment for the child to grow into, fostering that feeling of belonging, of significance, of feeling like they matter.

Trauma can develop in children from very young, simply from those moments when they feel they don’t matter. If a child is crying or they don’t feel safe, and nobody helps them to feel safe or process those emotions, the message arrives: I am not important. And decades later, that pattern will perpetuate. If I have an opinion and try to share it with my parents, but they don’t give me their attention for even a moment, the belief will sink in that I don’t matter. These effects can last a lifetime – or at least decades, until we go to therapy and try to work on it.

Start With Why

As a life coach, I have many clients who I work with on achieving their potential after dealing with addiction or trauma. So often when they present their goals to me, I ask them: “why? Why do you want to do this?” No matter what it is – from writing a book to building a skyscraper – i find that after peeling back the layers, it very often comes down to a family member, somebody who we want to feel like we matter to them. 

It is an opportunity, a responsibility, and actually a great zechus for parents to nurture the inherent significance of each precious child who comes into the world, because a child is a gift from Hashem, and we are partners with Hashem in bringing this child into the world. We are granted an opportunity and also a heavy responsibility to fulfil this mission, in partnership with Hashem, of making sure Hashem’s message is heard, that each and every child is important.

This need can be so influential – how can we make sure it drives us only in healthy directions?

My Purpose

This brings me to my Erev Rosh Hashanah conversation with this man. Could it be that there was no more need, no more work, just the work of recognizing that the need is there – and being okay with it?

After our conversation, I experienced a paradigm shift.

I’d heard this perspective before, but it had never struck me so deeply before, or been so relevant. It was Rosh Hashanah, and then came Yom Kippur, and I found myself starting to share this idea, singing it from the rooftops. One night on Sukkos, at a farbrengen, I was sharing this point for the umpteenth time, when it came to me.

I thought of the dvar Torah that each of the Arba Minim represents a type of Jew. If we were to take one ‘type’ of Jew, an arava, and ‘fix him’ into a hadas; or take the lulav and ‘fix her’ into an esrog, we wouldn’t have the mitzvah anymore – we wouldn’t have all four kinds. We are here to have each person as they are, to grab them, hug them, pull them into our community and just be with one another. That’s how we fulfil the mitzvos of Sukkos; when we come into the Sukkah with mud on our feet and dance with the Torah no matter how much we know. Our goal is to reveal the depth of the person, without focusing on anything external other than that we are all a part of Hashem, a chelek eloka mima’al mamash, and that Hashem doesn’t need any fixing.

That is the purpose of why we are here: To make a dirah b’tachtonim, and to bring Hashem to the surface, the real consciousness of G-d inside us into our reality.

It brought my questions full circle, because I learned that this goes even deeper than wondering whether or not I matter; or waiting for a friend or parent to tell me that I do.

Because once I ask the question, it means I’m still holding the need to matter, to be something significant.

And of course, many people will agree that we need to matter in this world because that’s the reason to live. 

But what if it goes deeper than that? What if we can recognize the “I” who needs to matter? What if we can ask the “I” why it needs to matter?

Sitting with a friend, we searched for the “I”. He asked who it was, and I said it was my neshama.

He asked: What is your neshama? If it’s a piece of G-d – does G-d need to matter? Does G-d need validation, or fixing, or caring? 

G-d doesn’t need to matter to anybody. G-d simply is. 

And so if G-d just is, and I have a piece of G-d within me, and the whole existence of the whole world is really G-d, then my true identity is the true I – is G-d – and G-d doesn’t need to matter to anybody, or know that G-d matters at all.

It means the part of me that worries about mattering is not the true I, it’s just the ego part of me, the one that worries about my parents or my siblings or my community and what they think – which might be important, but isn’t responsible for the actual part of me that matters.

Because I am the true I, and G-d is the true I. And if I am a part of G-d, then of course it means I matter.

About the Author
Moishe Chanin had been working with individuals and families conflicted with alcohol and substance abuse and addiction since 2012. Born and raised in New York, he shares his personal journey with addiction so that others can seek the appropriate services necessary to lead powerful lives by overcoming their challenging circumstances. As a professional certified life coach with the International Coach Federation, and a team member of the group Moshe uses his training to guide individuals towards peak mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
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