Accepting addiction as a Jewish issue

Looking back, Carla, a Jewish mom from Chicago's North Shore, knew something wasn't quite right with her elder son, Evan.

First came the less than stellar grades. Then when he went off to college, she noticed personality swings and that he was going through money like water.

But it wasn't until that fateful moment over winter break when her younger son woke her in a panic at 1 am to tell her that he had seen his brother snorting a white substance that she finally had a name for what had taken hold of her son like a dybbuk-Addiction.

"It has been said that, 'The eyes only see what the mind already knows.' If you don't think something is even possible, you won't see it even when it walks right in front of you," said Beth Fishman Ph.D., manager of the Jewish Center for Addiction in Chicago.

But it's time for the Jewish community to see what is right in front of us: Addiction is a Jewish problem.

"The old school thinking that this can't happen to us isn't true. The Jewish community needs to understand that addiction affects all levels of all people of all cultures and all religions," said Carla.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.5 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2014.

And as the opioid epidemic reaches crisis proportions, disproportionately affecting white young adults in the suburbs, the time is ripe for the Jewish community to open its eyes to not only addiction as a Jewish problem but specifically to the addiction happening in our suburban Jewish communities.

For the past four years, the Jewish Center for Addiction, a program of Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS), has worked to educate the community, raise awareness about addiction as a Jewish issue, and support families through sharing information and referrals, according to Fishman.

"One of the most important things we do is to help a family know where to start. The vast majority of the calls we get are from parents seeking help for their adolescent or adult son or daughter. They are so terrified. They don't know what to do. We give them resources for their child, but we always ask about them, as well: What do you need in order to survive this?" she said.

For Carla, the day Evan finally admitted that he had lost his power to drug use was 11 years ago.

Thanks to years of treatment and the support of his family and community, today Evan is not only sober, he received a master's in social work, and now works as a licensed drug and alcohol counselor.

"Our son went from the lowest of the low to contributing to the world and to the people around him. It's amazing," said Carla.

But while theirs is a "story of hope," that isn't to say the story is over.

"Evan's father and I are always cautiously optimistic about him," said Carla. "We understand addiction. People can be 10 years sober and they can still relapse at any time. We feel gratitude for where he is today, but the future is unknown."

As Carla's account shows, addiction is not just one person's story.

"Family members of those with substance use and other addictive disorders are profoundly impacted. Even recovery is a bumpy road, relapse is part of recovery, and everyone is along for the ride," said Fishman.

Fortunately, there are many treatment and support programs not just for the addicted person, but also for those who love them.

Another obstacle facing families with addiction is stigma.

"Often when somebody dies from overdose, the real cause is not listed in the obituary. Very few families are understandably willing to face the potential negative consequences of sharing the truth openly," said Fishman.

That shame brings isolation.

"You look at the those around you and you wonder, why is this happening to us? You don't feel like you can share what you're going through with a lot of people," admitted Carla. 

But that is starting to change.

"Recently, more Jewish families have been willing to say, 'This is our situation,' and many other families are taking comfort from that courage. By willing to speak out they are raising awareness and bringing this discussion out of the shadows into the forefront," said Fishman. 

For those outside the family, there are things you can do to help.

"Being heard without stigma or shame is such a gift," said Fishman. "It is common for families to be afraid to talk about addiction in their family out of concern that people will think they have failed as a parent because their child is misusing alcohol or other drugs."

Listening with an open heart means not denying a person's experience by saying something like, "but your child looks fine."

"Instead, be open to your friend's story. Ask them to tell you what has been going on and continue to be open and to walk this journey of recovery with them," said Fishman.

You can also offer help in the form of childcare, meals, or in any of the ways you would care for a friend dealing with a chronic illness.

 "We need to build compassion and care and awareness education into every part of our community so we can save the lives of everybody in our community who is struggling," said Fishman. 

To reach the Jewish Center for Addiction, visit


For toll-free access to all programs and services at Chicago's Jewish Child & Family Services, call (855) 275-5237.  

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