Families… they have messy, complicated, and nuanced dynamics. They’re often full of love and unity, as well as button-pushing turmoil and codependency. Just as addicts might partly blame their families for the way they turned out, they sometimes get blamed as the sole reason for the family discord. Like I said: complicated. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle, and Beit T’Shuvah strives to shine some light on that with the help of their Family Program Manager, Elena Bahar.
Elena grew up in Iran. Almost seven years ago, she won the Green Card Lottery—an international raffle where millions of people apply for US citizenship and only a few thousand win. “I took that as a sign from the universe to come [to the US] and start over,” she explains. So, she packed her bags and set forth on a journey all on her own. “It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but in hindsight, I’m deeply grateful for every moment of it as it led to me growing tremendously as a person,” she says. Elena emigrated to the U.S. seeking a fresh start but soon found that she brought her problems with her. Determined not to fall prey to old patterns, Elena joined a women’s support group that focused on self-love and self-care. She started seeing a therapist who encouraged her to go back to school. She enrolled in graduate school at National University to get a Master’s in Counseling Psychology. “It changed my life. [My therapist] helped me gain so much self-awareness about who I was and what I was looking for in life that I decided if I could do that for one person in my entire career, that would be my purpose,” she says.
Three years ago, Elena saw an online ad for Beit T’Shuvah. She came in for an interview and was brought on as a trainee. From there, she became an intern and was eventually hired as a clinical therapist and the Family Program Manager. She sees clients and runs workshops for local families dealing with addiction. Every three months, she facilitates a three-day intensive Family Immersion where families travel from all over the country to heal with their loved ones.
Having just finished her seventh immersion, Elena explains that one of the main focuses of the program is to teach families that addiction is a family disease. “In the therapy world, we call the addict the ‘identified patient.’ Families think ‘it’s the user’s addiction, and I’m here because of them,’ but then we try to explain that addiction is a systemic disease. We look at the family as a system and how the addiction has impacted different parts.” The program also teaches families how to draw boundaries, advocate for their needs, understand codependency and enhance their communication skills. “The first day of the event, families are random strangers, and by the end, they are very close, and they bond a lot because they are sharing a very vulnerable experience. It’s very powerful. I get an enormous amount of personal satisfaction and enjoyment by being a part of a family’s journey of growth.” Elena explains.
During immersion, families look at the past. They embrace the mistakes and hurt caused by one another. They then look to the future, seeking ways to relate to each other differently, grow individually, and thrive as a unit.
This work has given Elena a strong sense of purpose in her new life. “This is more than just a job for me,” she explains. While Elena might not demographically fit in—not being American or Jewish— she knows she belongs here. “It took me a lot of years to realize that I can change my core narrative on the inside. The fact that I finally decided to take ownership over my life circumstances granted me a great deal of empowerment, I finally tapped into the power I always had in me and Beit T’Shuvah played a big role in that.”
At the beginning of 2019, Elena became a US citizen. Officially stepping into her new life, she took some time to create a new identity and decided to change her name to reflect who she is now rather than who she used to be. Elena isn’t her birth name. She grew up as Zeynab (or “Z” for short). Elena means “shining light” and Bahar means “spring” which reflects the season of her birth as well as the transformative journey she has embarked upon. It seems so fitting that her name would now represent a source of light as she brings understanding and compassion to those who have been lost in the dark for so long.