Wednesday, January 23, 2019

On Sunday evening, April 22, my husband and I, along with Amudim (a not-for-profit organization that assists individuals and families struggling with addiction), arranged and hosted an awareness event to focus communal attention on the issues around substance abuse and addiction. We had no idea what to expect. We had asked some friends to come and support us (it isn’t easy baring your souls in front of an unknown audience), so we knew we’d have at least some of the chairs filled. When the media ran the story (in various iterations) the week before, and it unexpectedly made the front pages of the Link, the Jewish Standard and then the Bergen Record, we were slightly more confident that we would fill a few more chairs as a result.

Even before the event, people started opening up to us—people who had lost loved ones (too many of those, sadly), people who have loved ones currently struggling or being treated and people themselves in recovery or whose loved ones are. Many were people we had known for years; they had no idea about our situation, nor we about their struggles. We were approached again and again with story after story, some tragic, some hopeful and many a work in progress.

Our motivation to organize this event and start a dialogue on the subject was born from knowing there must be several other people out there with challenges like our own, but who weren’t talking openly about it due to the stigma and misconceptions around addiction. The result of the articles in the media opening up the door (and then the event itself opening up the floodgates) to allow people to step forward was rewarding in and of itself. The fact that over a dozen families have turned to Amudim since the event to get professional help with current crises is downright remarkable.

What astounded us the most was that so many people came that night. Everyone may have had different reasons for being there, but the fact that they came and filled all of the chairs…and then the room, and then the hallways, and then the stairwell, was overwhelming and empowering at the same time. We heard there were literally traffic jams just trying to get to TABC that night. There are also many who didn’t or couldn’t attend and who have told us that they watched the online videos because they felt the topic was so important, they must.

I understand my task here is to put our reactions and feelings into words for you, the reader, but words fail to adequately express the gratitude, the support and the amazement we felt that evening. People sat and listened and were silent (the absolute quiet was striking as well) throughout the entire presentation. Every speaker shared information and a critical perspective on the subject. My husband closed out the evening speaking about our personal experience. He began by saying that we had always feared that the first time we would speak publicly about Elana would be at her funeral; we have been told that many people audibly gasped at that comment. One good friend said it was like being hit in the head with a two-by-four. That profound fear and the unpredictability of it all, however, is the sad reality of loving someone who suffers from addiction.

The reactions and personal accounts continue even now. We have been approached at soccer games, in the grocery store, at a restaurant, at a simcha, and each time we were thanked. We were thanked for opening up this dialogue and, too often, we were told another story of another person suffering or who suffered from addiction. One person told me that they left the event feeling not so alone (they have a loved one in rehab), and that is exactly what we had hoped for at the outset of this effort.

This was not an easy decision as we have only shared our long-standing challenges with close friends and family; it was completely outside both of our comfort zones to stand up (well, for my husband to stand up) and reveal our struggles to hundreds of people (and hundreds more who have viewed the videos). We thank you for caring enough to hear about our situation, for reaching out to us to tell us about your own circumstances, for approaching us and telling us we did the right thing, but most of all, for continuing this critical dialogue and making our community more aware and sensitive to these issues.

There has been a lot of feedback since the event; it seems that we stirred up a hornets’ nest. We can assure you this was not a one-and-done occasion. We are currently working on several initiatives that will continue to address this issue, hopefully educate us all, and bring greater awareness and increased support to our community. We are thankful to have Rabbi Rothwachs, a longtime friend and preeminent figure in our community, who has openly spoken about various mental health issues in his role as a communal rabbi and teacher, to help us continue to work together and focus on this issue.

Our first initiative (but not our only one) is a peer-to-peer support group for any family member whose loved ones are suffering (or have suffered) from addiction. The group will be facilitated by clinicians specializing in addiction counseling and will be held every other Wednesday evening, starting May 8, at 8 p.m. You can email [email protected] for more information and the location of the meeting. In general, if you need help, just want to talk or even want to assist in furthering these efforts, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Our goal was to break down barriers and reduce the stigma associated with addiction in order for people to be able to talk more openly about this issue, to get the help they need and to find support from within our community. We have hopefully only just begun.

By Lianne Forman