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Talking about addiction in Jewish spaces

Denying addiction doesn't actually prevent it. To help those struggling with substance abuse, we need to fight the stigma, and start talking about it openly
Opening up the conversation about addictions at Retorno. Used with permission of Retorno.

If a family member or someone you know is struggling with addiction, do you know how to have a constructive conversation about substance abuse? Are you aware enough, and open enough, to recognize that people are struggling with addiction in your family or your community?

Unfortunately, addiction is a very real problem. Substance abuse is present in the most stringent Haredi communities, among yeshivish and Hasidic groups, Modern Orthodox, the most liberal, and the most secular Jewish communities. It affects the most prosperous and the poorest, it affects men and women, and likely is present in your school, your community, and even in your extended family.

People who abuse alcohol, opioids, or other substances are often in denial. Community leaders and members, however, can be in denial as well. Despite addiction rates within Jewish communities mirroring the wider society, most people don’t even realize there’s a problem. In a recent conversation with Eitan Eckstein, a rabbi and social worker who is the founder of Retorno (residential and community programs for the prevention and treatment of addictions), he repeatedly stressed that talking about addiction in Jewish spaces is the first step to developing the skills to recognize and support people struggling with substance abuse and behavioral addictions.

Within the Jewish community, substance users themselves might not be the only ones who are in denial

Key points

  1. Jewish spaces tend to avoid talking about addiction because of shame, stigma, and denial.
  2. Lack of awareness about the prevalence of addiction within the Jewish community perpetuates stigma and makes it harder to deal with substance abuse.
  3. You can learn how to start a conversation about addiction.
  4. Tackling addiction as a community strengthens the whole community while helping those struggling with addiction.

The reasons people don’t talk about addiction

SHAME AND EMBARRASSMENT: Individuals struggling with addiction usually feel tremendous shame and embarrassment about their addictive behaviors, being unable to control their compulsions, and also how they’ve behaved either when under the influence, or when driven to feed their addictions.

STIGMA: People struggling with addiction find it difficult to be open, even with themselves, about their addiction, The social and community stigma around addiction raises the barrier to asking for help and receiving help.

DENIAL: Many addicts rationalize their behaviors, and those around them may ignore or discount the extent of the problem. Sticking your head in the sand is not a solution! Denial enables addiction to continue and deepen. Don’t wait until the situation becomes critical, or tragedy occurs. Having an open dialogue is key to early intervention so that it doesn’t become critical.

How do we improve our ability, as families and communities, to deal with addiction?

If lack of awareness is a problem, let’s build community understanding.

If an inability to talk about addiction is prevent us from taking effective steps to address addiction, let’s learn how to have those conversations.

a large portion of the North American Jewish community views alcoholism as an illness, has a strong fear of alcoholics, and blames individuals with addictions for their condition
—Journal of addiction, 2015.

Lack of awareness

One research study involving Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and  Significant Others (known as JACS) which operates throughout Canada, the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Israel, reported that rates of addiction within Jewish communities are similar to those in the wider society. However, there is a widespread tendency to deny that addiction exists within Jewish communities, to minimize the extent of addiction, to fear addiction, and to blame the addicts instead of providing resources and help.

Lack of awareness feeds denial, and denial perpetuates stigma and further isolates individuals within our communities who are struggling with addiction. People who struggle with addiction tend to already feel socially ostracized for having failed to live up to social norms or expectations, for experiencing mental health issues, or for having other challenges that might well have contributed to their addiction in the first place.

To help those struggling with addiction, we need to increase community understanding of addiction. We need to create awareness that they’re turning to substances to alleviate their pain, not to be delinquent. The most effective way to increase awareness is by talking about it.

The ½ day “understanding addiction” workshop for students and educators at Retorno is one step that you can take to provide students with the tools that they need. Parents, school programs, and community professionals should become better educated about drug and alcohol abuse in Israel gap year programs,

How to start the conversation about addiction

There’s something humbling, and also strangely liberating about admitting that you don’t have the answers. If someone you know is struggling with addiction, you can expect that having a conversation about it will be uncomfortable, but that not having the conversation is far worse. Having the conversation shows that you care.

Try these tips to maximize your chances of a successful conversation:

  1. Find a quiet time when both of you can be present with minimal interruptions or distractions.
  2. Use “I” statements. Show you care, from your perspective, expressing your concern in a non-accusatory or judgemental way. For examples:
    • I’m concerned about your drinking and how it seems to be taking over your life.
    • I worry about how hard it is for you to function the day after you’ve been drinking.
    • I care about you and I’m concerned for your safety. I want to help you get through this.
  3. Don’t judge or criticize. When any of us feel judged or criticized, we tend to resist even well-meaning attempts to help. We can act obstinate, defensive, or even downright defiant. But if you chose your words carefully and keep showing your care and concern for their well-being, they’ll be more likely to reach out to you as soon as they’re ready to start recovering from their addiction

Become a resource and an active partner in their healing journey. Do research for them, accompany them to meetings, join your own support groups, and read up as much as you can to feel equipped on how to help them. Articles about recovery and addiction on the Retorno site are great resources for information and personal stories.

Don’t let your fear of not being able to deal with addiction deter you from having the conversation

An aerial view of the Retorno recovery and rehabilitation community where people struggling with addiction get practical tools and help to address the underlying issues that power addiction. Image © by Retorno. Used with permission of Retorno

If someone you care about is struggling with addiction, you might avoid having the conversation because you don’t think that you can handle the repercussions of their addiction. In actual fact, you don’t really need to do very much to support someone who has an addiction. You mostly just need to be there with them and show you care, while professional addiction counselors trained in addiction take the lead in guiding their recovery.

While there is obviously an emotionally demanding component to supporting a recovering addict, your physical presence is really all that’s needed to show them you care. Counseling, support groups, and information available online can support you through the process.

The e realization that your support can truly be life-changing can be life-changing for you and for your family. And, of course, your support can help struggling individuals transform their entire life.

Tackling addiction as a community strengthens the whole community

To raise awareness about addiction, community education is key. There needs to be a wide-scale effort to break down the stigma around addiction, which both empowers communities to confront the issues and also creates a safe space for those individuals who are suffering in silence, to reach out for help.

Increasing community awareness about addiction allows individuals to get the help they need and strengthens families against the strain of struggling on their own. This in turn reinforces the community by fostering an atmosphere of collaboration and cohesion, where people feel comfortable asking for help, and those who can provide it are driven to fill that need.

In this way, tackling addiction should not be an individual struggle at all, but rather an initiative to strengthen the community as a whole. But that will only happen if you start the conversation.

About the Author
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