The following is the final installment of the four-part “Journeys in Recovery” series to honor the memory of and in the z’chus of the neshamah of HaRav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel ben HaRav Yaakov Yisroel, zt’l—Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski. This story is presented anonymously. It is published in the hope that it serves to expand awareness around the issues of addiction in our community, as well as the hope of recovery. The stories in this series were collected and edited by Menachem Poznanski, LCSW, director of The Living Room, a division of Our Place in NY, Inc. Participants filled out surveys about their lives, and their responses were adapted to create this narrative. Keep in mind that to protect anonymity, ancillary facts were changed, but all the details of stories are true events in the lives of our community members. Menachem wrote the section titled “Lessons from Recovery” to help illuminate what we all might learn from these spiritual messages.

Hi, my name is Zev and I am an addict. Today I am clean and sober for three years. Over that time I have addressed issues related to substance abuse, drinking, and gambling, but I have also experienced a complete transformation of my life. I am simply not the person I was back then. Misery has transformed to happiness, purposelessness to the meaning of serving others, and hopelessness to a faithful joy for life. The end of my road in active addiction was really scary and sad. When I showed up to my first recovery meeting I was skeptical that I could find help there, but, at the same time, desperate for help. As skeptical as I was, I was equally wishing that this might be it. While sitting in that first meeting, I felt a tremendous identification with those random strangers around me. I felt like the people there understood what I was feeling. They understood in a way my therapist did not. It was clear that they had been where I was and had found a way out.

Let me tell you, though, how I ended up at that meeting. I grew up in a frum/yeshivish home. I always felt like a bit of an outsider, like someone who didn’t belong in my own skin, let alone with my family. I remember when I was in high school trying to explain to my friends that I knew intellectually that they cared about me, but that emotionally I was empty. For obvious reasons, they couldn’t possibly understand what I was talking about. I didn’t even understand myself until much later.

When I left yeshiva, after four years of beis medrash, I felt pretty lost. I didn’t have a direction in life and was pretty broken. I took a job in construction, but I didn’t find anything fulfilling in it. I used to look forward to when I would come home, have a friend over, and we would smoke weed in my backyard. I wasn’t happy about it, I didn’t think it was good for me, but I didn’t have anything else to do. I quickly progressed from smoking on the weekends to smoking every chance I got. I lost the ability to choose when to smoke and when not to, and I was really unhappy about that. I sought out help in therapy, and even though my relationship with my therapist is so vital and important to me, and throughout therapy I made some progress in other areas, I could not make any real progress with my substance abuse issues.

At some point I also turned to gambling and my overall addiction became completely unmanageable. I would drive in to the city at night and play from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on a regular basis. I would tell myself, I’m not putting more than $500 on the table, but by the time I was finished, I could be down $1,000 or even $1,500 in a single night. It had to stop and I knew I needed help. Eventually I was encouraged to try out the programs of recovery. It was in those rooms that I truly found help. It was in those rooms, with those people, who had been where I was, that the insight I gained in therapy and the knowledge I learned in yeshiva took hold and real change started to happen. It was there in the rooms of recovery that I found a life that adds up to a sense of fulfillment and to a true feeling of happiness.

Today I know that life isn’t perfect, and that’s great. I still struggle with motivation and feeling fulfilled. Thank G-d, I’m more stable than I used to be, but there is still plenty that I’m trying to figure out. I work hard to stay connected to my family and friends, spending time with them and focusing on being helpful when I can be. I’ve been learning to do things that are good for me, even if in the moment I don’t want to do them. I try to eat healthy, exercise, pray, and work with a healthy balance.

A guiding principle that has become vital for me to accept is that even when life isn’t easy it is still incredibly meaningful. There aren’t any shortcuts that I’ve found and there won’t be any. I’ve learned to take my growth and life one step at a time, never focusing too much on where I’m lacking. I have learned to accept my shortcomings for what they are. I’m learning to love myself for who I am, working on becoming the best I can be.

My message to anyone who is struggling is: “I’m not alone, you are not alone.” There are plenty of people out there willing and able to help. They can’t solve my problems and sometimes they don’t have the exact advice I need when I’m struggling, but the comfort I receive from knowing that people care about me is what helps me to walk through whatever challenges I encounter. Having other recovering people by my side helps give me the strength I need to stand up and take on my own challenges. When I know that there is a large group of beautiful people who know how I feel and are rooting for me to figure it out, I can face anything that comes. I’ve also learned how to ask for help. I have learned that whether the perfect help comes or not, having the humility to ask for help, in and of itself, has helped me to become the person I was always meant to be.

Lessons From Recovery

People who experience addiction are just that—people. Like many types of mental illness, the challenges they face are perhaps more exaggerated than those of others, but they are regular human problems nonetheless. Since their problems are human, the spiritual solutions they find in recovery are human solutions and therefore useful to anyone.

The message of never being alone is a critical message for all of us to hear. As humans, when we experience challenge and pain, our tendency is often to tell ourselves that we are alone, that no one could understand, that no one has the answers we need. Yet, if we open our minds and hearts, reach out and let others know we are suffering, perhaps we will find that we are wrong. Perhaps we will find that there are others who have been through what we are experiencing, or felt exactly what we are feeling, and made their way out. Then, as we find these gracious others, and when we ourselves help others in need, we are quite suddenly surrounded by a community of love and understanding. No doubt there are those who would judge, criticize, and accuse; yet, we have the power to direct our attention away from negativity and toward those who accept, love, and help. Suddenly, we find that we are neither alone nor are we helpless.

This closes out our series of articles to honor the memory of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski. As we come upon the shloshim of this remarkable tzaddik and personality, it is meaningful to reflect upon the incredible impact he had in just this one area of his professional and personal life. By humbly looking to learn from those he saw and met in recovery, Rabbi Twerski became a forefather of a movement of Jewish recovery that has literally helped tens of thousands of people, perhaps more. As that good flowers outward in the service each person in recovery offers another, that impact grows incomprehensibly.

When Rabbi Twerski was in a meeting, he wasn’t a rebbe or a psychiatrist, he was Abe, a fellow traveler on the journey toward wellness and fulfillment. By opening his heart with vulnerability and empathy, he tore through the denial that has held so many of our people back for so long from receiving the help and support they need.

We hope and pray that in some small way this gesture honors his memory in a way befitting such greatness. It is with gratitude and love that we bid our farewell to you, Rabbi Twerski, with a hope that you continue to look down upon your recovery family with the kindness and love you always gave. From here on out, we honor you by continuing to carry your message and by sharing our own with those who need. 

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