Most of the residents here are familiar with Joey Zaza (better known as just “Zaza”), but they might not have known that his signature catchphrase was actually meant to be half polite. “I would tell people to ‘F*** off’, and then say, ‘please, thanks.’ Because I didn’t want to be rude about it, I hoped they’d think, ‘that was rather rude, but at least he said please and thank you.’” Although Joey Zaza has been a resident since July of 2012, there has never been a spotlight featuring him. This is a shame, because Joey’s development throughout the years is also peppered with insights into what he perceives as the qualities that make Beit T’Shuvah exceptional.
Growing up in West Hollywood, Joey experimented with alcohol and marijuana as early as eleven years old, but did not begin using in earnest until the age of 24, calling himself “a late bloomer”. He preferred cocaine and large quantities of alcohol, but nothing was off the table. He tells me he’d use “anything I could get my hands on to get out of my state of being – because nobody wants to hang out with somebody who’s miserable and depressed”. For a time, substance abuse fit the bill. “Drugs and alcohol were fun, until they weren’t,” Joey tells me. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun, before everything went to shit.”
Eventually, he’d pushed away the people he’d longed to connect with. “I was getting blackout drunk and waking up in humiliating situations, making a fool of myself, and then eventually alienating and isolating myself from the friends I thought I had. That’s when it lost its charm,” he says. At the age of 29, he recalls a situation where his problem was evident even to him. He and his brother were attending the birthday party of a family friend, where they got in an argument, which Joey is careful to stress was “something stupid, it could have been anything”. After storming outside, he chugged the “biggest bottle of vodka” he could find in under 20 minutes. In retrospect, he recognizes that interactions between alcohol and his prescription medications could have easily made this situation fatal, along with many others like it.
Before he chose to get help, the decision was made for him. Joey’s therapist had received word that his client’s drinking and drug use had gone off the rails. Joey’s therapist posed to him an ultimatum: “either I call the police and they take you to Los Encinas (a mental hospital), or I pick you up and take you myself”. Reflecting on this, Joey jokes that “as much as I like to create a scene, I didn’t want my neighbors to see me get taken away by the police”. After a long “battle”, going back and forth with his therapist, he agreed to allow his therapist to pick him up and take him to Los Encinas, a stay that lasted him about two weeks (“there was nothing fun about it,” he comments).
He talked to his brother, and they talked about where Joey was going to go after he left Los Encinas, both in agreement that living on his own wasn’t working. His brother mentioned Beit T’Shuvah, a place their family had been tied to for several years. Long before Joey officially joined that community at Beit T’Shuvah, Joey’s brother, Sammy, had been a resident. Throughout the process of investigating Beit T’Shuvah to assess whether it would be a good fit for their child, Joey and his family attended Shabbat. Joey became enamored at the magic present within Beit T’Shuvah’s walls – the singing, the dancing, the music. He would even sometimes come on his own, taking the bus, just to hear Rabbi Mark speak. The gratitude he heard in the birthday speeches and the T’Shuvah portion of Shabbat impressed him deeply. He privately wished he could become a member of the community himself, but never with any consideration that it might actually happen (“be careful what you wish for,” he adds humorously).
But during their conversation several years later discussing the possibility of Joey attending Beit T’Shuvah, Joey reacted with some skepticism. His biggest hangup was that he felt this place was only for the most extreme of diehards, heroin addicts on the verge of death. He thought he wasn’t a “severe enough case” to get in here – a prospect he finds ironic in retrospect, but was very real back then. Joey and his mom got in contact with Harold Rothstein, who was in charge of admissions back then. Joey describes him as both very nice and very serious, impressing upon Joey that, “You have to really want this. If you’re in, you’re in”. There were no beds available at the time, so in May of 2012, he became a day patient. He had to take the bus, and back then, Torah study started at 7am. He’d have to be up by 5:30am to make it to Beit T’Shuvah, and he so did every day. In July of 2012, Joey formally became a resident. He says that came as a result of “working my ass off” to prove to Harold that he truly wanted recovery and everything Beit T’Shuvah had to offer.
On a phone call, Joey’s mom once said to him, “Beit T’shuvah has brought out the best in you, and has tolerated the worst.” “Which,” Joey says, “Is an understatement”. Joey admits he was “absolutely toxic” when he first got here, “yelling, screaming, cursing out any resident or staff member,” though he adds, “I was smart enough not to do it to management”. Joey says, “there are so many times where they could have kicked me out, or they were going to kick me out, or they should have kicked me out, but they always gave me the benefit of the doubt”. Eventually, the benefit of the doubt became an ultimatum, to either rise to the challenge of changing his habits or leave Beit T’Shuvah. Joey picked the former, buckling down and redoubling his efforts. He marks this as one of the moments where he truly decided to take responsibility for his impact on the community, gaining the self-awareness to see the consequences of his actions.
It’s hard to say if he would have been able to do this without the guidance of Rabbi Mark and Harriet. “Rabbi Mark used to tell me, ‘you have the right to be angry, but not the right to take it out on other people’”, Joey recalls. As he was frequently angry, he kept this in mind in order to be conscious of when he unduly lashed out at other people. Back then, Rabbi Mark taught ethics, and the virtue of having humility was a message Joey was able to internalize. According to Joey, Rabbi Mark would often tell the residents, “you like to think you’re so tough and so smart, but apparently you’re not, because you ended up at a Jewish rehab”. Joey appreciated Rabbi Mark’s point. It gave him the ability to take direction and see that when he did something wrong, he wasn’t being reprimanded for who he was, but rather for his actions, and only because Beit T’Shuvah sincerely cared about him.
He regrets an instance where he questioned that. Joey once told Rabbi Mark, “I never realized that you cared about me that much”. Rabbi Mark wouldn’t see him for days afterward. Rabbi Mark had been angry, but eventually, Joey realized that behind that anger, Rabbi Mark was hurt. At that time, Joey says he was too stuck in his victim mode and “terminal uniqueness” to understand why Rabbi Mark had gotten so upset.
At Beit T’Shuvah, Joey first learned the phrase “terminal uniqueness” from a group with Harriet. He laughed, because it was so easy for him to identify that in himself. Throughout his life, Joey had been too busy feeling sorry for himself, “to the point of oblivion”, he says, even though an oblivion of that extent easily could have killed him. He recalls the big book quote, “we drink to die”. Beginning to break down those barriers of “terminal uniqueness’ and connect with the community that loves – and yes, cares about him – is what gave Joey a true opportunity to grow, change, and ultimately live.
“I still have what I like to call my famous ‘Zaza moments’,” he tells me. But the biggest thing he’s learned is that despite those moments, “I have to learn to walk away and evaluate the situation and ask myself what my part in it is”, he says. “I know I have my dark side,” he admits, “but I have to question, is that really who I am? Is that really who I want to be anymore? Yes, Beit T’Shuvah has brought out the best in me and tolerated the worst, but I have to learn to tolerate it myself”.
His hope for himself is, yes, that eventually, he’ll leave, but more so, that he will always maintain his sense of gratitude and his connection to his community. “I know that my family loves me unconditionally, but what I have learned, now more than ever, is that my community loves me unconditionally. I’ve become this icon here,” he says with a hearty laugh. Although we are all struggling with ourselves internally, Joey says that “we are never alone, there is always someone to talk to if you choose to”. Now more than ever, amid a global pandemic, we have each other. Joey jokes: “the following countries have done a phenomenal job handling the current pandemic: South Korea, Taiwan, and Beit T’Shuvah.”