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Josh is a writer and photographer at Creative Matters. This article is republished from jewschool.com
You do not know me, and you do. While we have most likely never met, I could very well be your son, brother, or friend. I grew up in Washington DC. I went to Hebrew school. I even had two bar mitzvahs—one in Israel and one at back home. I smelled the same air as you, experienced the same world events as you, sat in the same traffic as you, prayed the same prayers as you and most likely had a similar upbringing as you or your children. Except the main difference is that by the time I was 35 years old, I was a junkie with a needle in my arm.
I am an addict and while I am nervous to share my story with you, it is my hope that I may be able to shed some light on the stigma surrounding addiction. A stigma that extends into the Jewish community — upper-middle-class Jews from good families can’t be addicts, right?
You see, it doesn’t care who you are, how much money you have, what color your skin is or what your religion is. Addiction affects us all. If you’re lucky enough not be an addict, then you probably will know someone in your lifetime who suffers from this affliction.
How I became an addict is a story fraught with numerous twists and bad decisions at key moments in my life. It’s too lengthy to get into, however, I will say that two crucial components in my journey into the abyss lie with my ego and my departure from spirituality.
I grew up believing I was special. I was “smarter than”. I was a gift to this world and I should have been treated as such. However, as I grew older, the world didn’t really care who I was as I hadn’t really done anything worthy with my life. A palpable fear grew inside me and panic set in. My anxiety and depression were screaming so loud, and I didn’t know how to sit with myself. My sensitive ego, which once told me I was this special snowflake, was now telling me I was worthless. So, I turned to drugs and alcohol to quiet my head and to feel validated. The drugs made me feel alive and they told me I was special.
Because of my upbringing, how I look, and how I speak, I was able to convince myself that I wasn’t an addict but just someone who enjoyed the party… maybe a little too much. Addiction is a slippery slope. Where is the line that separates the excess drinker or user who is having a wild couple of days and the addict who can’t stop? On top of that, addiction whispers in your ear that you can stop whenever you want. I had crossed the line and didn’t realize it for many years until I almost died from my addiction.
I never really liked God. I grew up Jewish and was told to believe in Adonai so I fell in line. But it didn’t ever really resonate with me. I couldn’t stand the version of God from any religion as a vengeful and angry sky-daddy who bade his creations to kill their own children because of a deep insecurity. I clung to the hypocrisy of religion throughout the ages as my ammunition as to why I was “woke” and not going to be fooled by this ancient means of controlling the general public. As you could imagine, I quickly became an atheist (I would later call myself a hopeful nihilist because I thought it was cheeky).
Atheism became my identity. Everyone following a religion was an idiot; sheeple ruining the world with their archaic traditions and homophobic and hypocritical bloodlust. I touted my sarcastic belief in The Flying Spaghetti Monster to anyone who wanted to talk about God. Nihilism became a blanket I would wrap myself in to keep me warm and snug at night. Since there was nothing greater than myself and all humanity was a random accident in the cold dark void of space, it made sense to carpe the diem and to yolo hard. It was my excuse to get high. After all, nothing mattered.
Then, The Universe/God/Earth-Mother back-handed me across the face. I was 12 hours away from certain death because of my drug use. I can’t tell you why I went to the hospital that night but something made me. Something greater than me. If left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have gone. It’s not that I actively sought death, but the pull of addiction was so strong that I just didn’t care if I lived or died. Something, somehow, intervened.
I was hospitalized for a month. During my stay, I met a rabbi who ran a treatment center in Los Angeles. I told him I didn’t believe in God. He told me he didn’t care what I believed but that he could save my life. I clearly hadn’t done a great job living on my own, so I gave it a shot.
Nothing could have prepared me for this treatment center. It was part rehab, part synagogue, part sober living and 100% a beautiful kingdom of misfits, knuckleheads, and spiritual warriors. We had Torah study every day at 8 am and, as you can imagine for an atheist, that was hard. But over the course of my 11 months there, something shifted in me. I can’t pin-point what it was exactly. Perhaps it was all the writings I read by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Perhaps it was my discussions with rabbis who encouraged my belief that God wasn’t a man in a toga on a cloud, but the universe and nature around us. Perhaps it was when the head rabbi sat me down one day and told me “the only thing the Torah tells you is ‘don’t be a dick; the rest is metaphor.’” Or perhaps it was the Friday night services that had so much dancing, live music, life lessons, celebrations of sobriety, community, and love.
Whatever it was, my soul, which had dimmed so much over the course of my life, was reignited. Today, I am proud to call myself a Jew. I still don’t subscribe to the version of God taught in Sunday school, but I pray, every morning. I pray to my version of a higher power because I know I can’t do this life thing alone. I trust my higher power and I am now learning how to enjoy the awe and splendor of this magical ride called life. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Heck, I’m in even a 7 am Saturday morning study group where we discuss Jewish philosophy. 7 am… on a Saturday. And I dig it.
I lied to myself for most of my adult life. I was convinced I wasn’t an addict… I mean, upper-middle-class Jews from good families can’t be addicts, right? Denial, an overblown ego and a lack of faith almost killed me. Acceptance, humility and the return of faith has given me a second chance. Today, I have almost two years clean. That, my friends, is God/The Universe doing for me, what I cannot do for myself.