Our Yiddishkeit Changes in Recovery
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski sent us the following question:
The Gemora Brachos 13a discusses whether we will still refer to Hashem as the 'One who took us out of Mitzrayim' when Moshiach comes. The Gemara concludes that it will not make much sense to us to do that. It brings the example of a man who is endangered by a succession of wild beasts and the last one is a snake… after he is saved from the snake he thanks G-d mainly for that. For to him, representing G-d as his savior from a lesser foe seems a trivialization of G-d's power. And aside from that, the Gemora is pointing out a fact of human nature: we find the most meaning in the latest event. Therefore, the Gemora states, “No longer will we refer to Hashem as the 'One who took us out of Egypt', but rather as the 'One who collected us from the four corners of the world and brought the final geulah'."
Similarly, the sobriety and recovery that a sexaholic experiences are often his or her main ‘connector' to G-d. The greatest tragedy of his life, by far, was losing control of himself. This is probably even more true for a frum Jewish addict. So, at least for their first few years of sobriety, it is natural that getting saved from that horror eclipses most gratitudes an addict can have in life. My own wife told me that, in retrospect, the best day of her life was the day I got sober - and the next greatest day was the day we got married (11 hard years before sobriety came). A normal person may not be able to understand that, and that's natural, too. The normal person sees an addict and asks, "Why don't you just stop?"
In sobriety, the fact that a sexaholic happens to be a shomer Torah and Mitzvos can get second billing for a time. This need not be cause for alarm, for a few reasons. Firstly, the above-referenced Gemora explains that this phenomenon is simply human nature. After all, wouldn't it seem a terrible thing for the Jewish People to give Yetzias Mitzrayim second-billing to anything? Yet the Gemora tells us it is not. It's just the way it is for humans. And for the sexaholic, the horror of sinning actually pales in comparison to his personal horror of being a fraud and living a double life. For that factor is what tells him he has no hope - and he is right. The drunk can be sure of only one thing: that he will drink yet again. And now, as a sober man, the miracle of it is crystal clear to him. When the suffering addict finally finds sobriety and real hope for wholeness in recovery, it’s perfectly normal for him to feel gratitude to Hashem for that above all else. Even above his gratitude for Torah and mitzvos, and for his wife and children, for his job, his health, etc. Wouldn't you? At least for a while?
Secondly, let’s not forget this: what of his life of Torah and mitzvos before recovery? Was he living as a frum Jew until now? Was his being a Jew and believing in Torah an advantage - or was it actually a great source of misery for him? It is usually bitterness. We all sin sometimes, but consider this: was the addict just a sinner? No, the addict knows that he or she was a fraud. Perhaps no one is as poor and sorry, as the addict. Perhaps not from his Bar Mitzvah, but certainly from the time his sexual acting out became habitual and obsessive, the sexaholic is an empty, confused person. Whether Jew or goy, frum or not, an addict of any kind is mostly a fake. His dependence on gambling, heroin, lust, or alcohol are all the same, in that they seem to replace his allegiance to the values that he wishes he'd live by. No addict wants to face that - and is certainly horrified to have anyone else accuse him of his bankruptcy. Getting caught is a heartbreaking experience for the addict. He often blames others, including those who caught him, for his debauchery. But it’s not actually the getting caught sinning or drinking that is the killer here. It’s his getting caught being desperate to get something that no one who thinks they know him can even imagine him wanting to do! That’s the shock, for him as well as for them! (You can check out a GYE post called “The Captain Kirk Moment" about this, if you like. See at the end of this article). Actually, in the case of a Jew, the frummer he is, the greater and more complex a faker and liar he needs to be in addiction. 'Meshaneh mipnei haShalom' becomes the rationalization he lives by. Furthermore, many of us look back and see that in some respects we grew to be our very ‘frummest', mainly while our addictive behaviors were growing their very worst. So why do normal people expect the frum addict to appreciate a beautiful life of Torah and mitzvos - if all he had for all these years was pain?
Patience and love born of understanding is needed here. The frum addict needs to be treated a bit like a new ba'al Teshuvah. Patience and love... even though a normal Yid might be frightened by it. Frum Yidden who are secure in their own Yiddishkeit, will be the best able to help a recovering frum sexaholic. They will not misjudge him in his early recovery. Those who are insecure and try to push him now, will end up setting themselves up as the enemy to his return to real Torah observance - and this happens frequently. The addict needs time, for in some respects, he has really not been frum till now.
Thirdly, for the sexaholic, hanging onto the fantasy that he is caught in that epic struggle to do k'vishas hayeitzer and Teshuvah, is the root of his denial all along. It lends some respectability to his struggle, and we pretenders really need some respectability! So we hang on to the lie that we are 'doing Teshuva' even though it cuts on the other end, for we always fail.
For normal people, it is no fantasy at all, for k'vishas hayeitzer and Teshuvah are precisely what they need to engage in. But things get really bad when non-addicts innocently (and sincerely) try to convince an addict that he or she is normal. This just backfires (see ‘The Doctor’s Opinion’, in AA). Confusion grows like a canker for the addict. It’s just as bad as trying to convince a normal person that he must believe he is an addict - and I have seen both of these occur many times on recovery forums. Maslow said that “To the man with only a hammer in his toolbox, every problem looks like a nail.” We all like to get others to try what works for ourselves and we find comfort in other people seeing the wisdom of our approach when they follow it. Nu. But the poor addict who keeps trying tools that were not made for him gets very miserable and stays miserable. He eventually feels convinced that he must just have 'basic emunah issues’ or - though he rarely admits it - decides that he is truly a classic rosho and grows ever more disgusted with himself. That just leads to needing more acting out/gamblingr/drinking. Isolation becomes the name of the game. The feeling that 'No one really understands me,' starts to mold his avodas Hashem as well. His Yiddishkeit has already been twisted enough to tolerate outrageous behaviors for years and years (‘I'm busy doing Teshuvah' - while he is still acting out) and also to protect his behavior by keeping it absolutely secret (because telling anyone who could really help him would just be a 'chillul Hashem’). He thinks he is hiding his behavior because of shame - but really, long ago, he knew that it needs to be protected at all costs. His addiction behavior became his most precious item - and still is. His avodas Hashem grows even sicker and actually fuels his addictive behaviors (see “The Nuclear Reset Button” for one example of that. See at the end of this article). Even though it seems clear to him that when he is being good, he is a true tzaddik - he is sure he is a true rosho when ‘falling.’ The saddest truth is that either way he is just a sick man on a painful spiritual roller-coaster. He is neither tzaddik nor rosho. But who wants to inform him of such a terrible thing? Might it not lead to hisrashlus, damaging his already tenuous avodas Hashem? Who but Shlomo haMelech had the guts to tell anyone, "al titzdak harbei"? No one wants to be ok with a Yid reconsidering his living a lie, if it seems to jeopardize his observance... but what value is an observance whose primary objective was to cover up and enable drinking, sexing and other behaviors? Who has the guts to face that? Few do. Those who try to get the addict to persist in playing the game - just because Teshuvah is working for them - are putting a stumbling block before a blind man. A holy stumbling block is no different than any other kind, of course. It’s bad.
But all this changes when he starts to admit that the elephant in the room is not a Torah or Jewish problem, but a human problem. That he is ill. Now, being sick does not mean he is no longer held responsible for his behavior. As in all diseases, admitting illness is the first and crucial step toward enabling one to start taking full responsibility to do what they must to get well! Finally, his sexual acting out/drinking/drugging/gambling is revealed to be what it really is: far more serious than sinning. It is what the Gemora and Halocha refer to as: "Sakanta chamira me’isura.” Yes, there is a thing that is more serious than sin: a thing that destroys one’s very humanity and sanity. Derech Eretz is truly kodmah laTorah. Sure, when one sins we are told the sinner is subject to a spirit of folly (ruach shtus) - but addiction is far more than that. It’s ultimately a lifestyle based on and tolerant of fakeness and cultivation of insanity. It eventually makes the addict's relationships and avodas Hashem mezuyafim mitochom - filled with falsehood. An addict finally standing at his or her precious Step 1 knows that a double life is no life. If his broken heart and humiliation teach him anything, it is the humility to accept that he has not just failed at controlling his desires, but at living as himself. Life - not alcohol/sex - has become unmanageable (as stated in Step 1). The ruach shtus the Gemora refers to has little to do with addiction. Chaza”l overwhelmingly refer to normal people and their struggle against the yetzer - not to addicts and addiction. This partially explains why Torah, Mussar, Chassidus, TaPHSiC, and even, l’havdil, basic psychological treatment (again, please see ’The Doctor’s Opinion’) often fall flat on their faces for the real addict. Derech Eretz is kodmah laTorah - there is no other way. The addict eventually discovers that he cannot become frum, good, or holy enough to beat addiction. A very painful realization. But this self-honesty is the doorway to avodas Hashem that can be real (please see the first page of ch. 3 in 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions' for a nice description of this idea from the point of view of the alcoholic).
Thankfully, our sanity does NOT have to be perfect in order for Torah to succeed with helping people grow - as RMB”M makes clear in Sh’moneh P’rakim, we are all ill to some degree with what he calls cholo’ei hanefesh. But there is a point where derech eretz - humanity and sanity - are lacking to a degree that Torah and avodah themselves become part of the problem. Where the mind is just too twisted to succeed by 'thinking' - what Chaza”l refer to as ‘ein chavush matir atzmo mibeis ha’asurim.’ Addicts seem to be just such people, and recovery is here for us. Thank G-d, Chaza”l did not waste much time expounding on treatment of the small percentage of sinning people who are actually addicts. Instead, Chaza”l passed on to the whole of Israel, a rich and beautiful Torah sheb’al Peh filled with powerful tools for the overwhelming majority of Yidden through all generations: normal, struggling people. And it continues to serve the Jewish People very well, b"H.
But addicts need something a lot more basic than what they have always had. For we are the 'sh'eino yodeya lish'ol' of the Haggada... though we always thought we were the rosho or tzaddik (as others did, too). Derech Eretz is kodma laTorah, and it is Derech Eretz - openness, honesty, and sanity - that we need most, right now.
Many of the ideas in recovery may sound like Torah madreigos, but they are not. They are just basic sanity and honest living. They are totally new principles for the addict. They are focused on acceptance of truths about ourselves and others rather than just knowing them. Normal people just do not need this stuff to function. We do. It makes it hard for normal frum Yidden to understand us, and they sometimes think we are moving away from Torah, c"v. But I feel that it is only their own insecurity that causes them to see it that way. The quality of faith is squarely faced in recovery - not its quantity or type. What a difference from normative Yiddishkeit! Just see how important appearances are in the community at large. I've got nothing against uniforms and standards of dress and behavior, at all. But see what a bonanza all that is for the professional faker (the addict). He fits into something - even while being a secret fraud. Even his 'Teshuva' was hidden in fake terms - he was never really ready to let it go. He was only interested in 'overcoming it'... letting it all go was unacceptable - like dying. And he knew it inside. What a dramatic and healthy change is honest and open recovery in recovery groups!
As a result of some real honesty, we quit looking for false kedusha in recovery - we keep looking for sanity and honesty. Kedusha will come of it's own, with G-d's help. Returning to the old, grandiose path of 'achieving greatness' will quickly drive the recovering frum addict right back into the same craziness and self-obsession that was part and parcel of his old, familiar 'struggle'. And he will soon find himself acting out or drinking again, even as he ‘grows higher’ in his mind and dreams. The Kotzker would say, "I prefer a rosho who knows he is a rosho to a tzaddik who knows he is a tzaddik." That is just the sad experience of many religious addicts. We do not ever assume we are resho'im, but for us it's finally OK to accept and move on with more humble goals - like realness in our imperfect avoda, and honesty to our family and fellows. Our imagined 'status' as kedoshim or tzaddikim finally becomes all and only G-d's business, not ours. Ours is but to live and do.
So the main prescription for an addict is not 'an overhaul of his Yiddishkeit’; he does not need chizzuk to try harder or smarter; and he certainly does not need to focus on his character defects or on things like 'restlessness, irritability, and discontent' in order to finally surrender his drug and get sober! All he needs at first is to break down and admit he has failed, to admit to safe people explicitly and openly that he cannot continue using his drug, period. Normal people may sin - but for him it is a different issue. Sakanta chamira m'isura. He cannot 'drink like a gentleman', and cannot just re-join the Teshuva merry-go-round any more. He is an addict - not a normal person. He admits that it's not merely his drinking or sexual acting out that he cannot manage, but that it is his Life itself that is unmanageable by him. There is a reason that steps 4-10 (that refer to character improvement) are AFTER sobriety starts, not before. It is only through living sober at all costs, that an addict starts to see his character through honest eyes, at all. Therapists know that if the man in a rehab center is allowed to keep drinking 'a bit' every time the going gets rough in the therapy, he will never make progress, at all. The drug use must go first, in order for the dependency to ever end.
Sobriety is the first big surrender, for him (Step 1). Clearly coming to see that he or she is, in a way, crazy; admitting what he really demands from life, his G-d (and from his false gods, too), is step 2. Recovery of the Good Life begins with Step 3, and step 3 is only actually implemented by working and using Steps 4-12. The drug remains unnecessary, one day at a time. How could Torah and mitzvos have given that to the addict? Frum people who fight this reality are just telling the addict to stop and be like them - but he isn't. And he won't ever be just like them. Addicts - even after they get sober - need to live on a different basis than non-addicts do. We can rejoin the human race and be as frum as anyone, but we need certain basic perspectives to remain there, it seems. When others try to get us to deny it and sweep this under the rug, they are signing our death-warrant and condemning our families. Patience and love is needed here.
The frum sexaholic discovers that all along since he began his addictive behaviors, he was never just fooling other people - he was just as fake inside, to himself. Self-delusion and active addiction go hand-in-hand, like a horse and a buggy. To expect that his Yiddishkeit practices must have somehow escaped the delusional pattern of his life and need no rethinking - is naïveté. And for a non-addict to condemn the recovering frum addict who is questioning his sincerity and struggling to get more honest with himself regarding his Torah observance - is just cruelty born of the observer's own insecurity.
Each case is different, and frum addicts need understanding Torah guides to help them, not to condemn them. We are the liars getting well - normal Yidden are different. Our avodas Hashem will have to change, if our change is real. Boruch Hashem, my own experience has been that the changes led to a deeper, better, and more satisfying avodas Hashem. For it is now built on a bedrock of self-honesty, not on my old basis of just following the crowd.
Dov's "Captain Kirk Moment" post:
There was once an episode of Star Trek in which there was a time travel shtick, and the Kirk of the present, went 10 years into the past. Now, there was another Kirk then, too, right?
That was a big problem. The scientists told him that normally two of the same people cannot coexist. It just does not happen. But as this was an exception (it was a TV show and they were getting paid $15,000 per episode) as long as the old Kirk did not actually meet the present Kirk, all would be fine. However, if they actually met each other, the entire Time-Space Continuum would be 'ripped asunder' (c"v). Under no circumstances could they be allowed to meet!
Similarly, we addicts walk about for years and are tortured inside, for we know the dichotomy we are hiding. We are living two separate lives that cannot co-exist under any circumstances!
Those who got caught by their wives or children acting-out in addiction know exactly what I am talking about. They understand why getting caught was so effective for a time - the desire "to use" left them as a result of getting both personae dragged into the room at the same time. The horror of getting caught with my pants down by a co-worker, son, daughter, or wife is truly intolerable to anyone who has experienced it. Why?
Because the hypocrisy is mercilessly forced to come to a bitter end. The Time-Space Continuum has been ripped asunder. We look frantically for a place to bury ourselves. It's hell.
It is the two Kirks being forced to see each other by a third party - and only a party who knows both personae can possibly do that. Till that happens, we are all players. Lying a bit about the 'real us' to ourselves and to others.
Dov's "Nuclear Reset Button" post:
The "Nuclear Reset Button" idea is about how we often allow ourselves to fall in order to RESET our "state" to that of teshuvah and kedusha once again (similar to what they say in the 12-Step groups: "The only way we know to be free of it, is to do it"). Addicts unfortunately often thrive on that very honest state we do feel after acting-out, but no matter how holy we feel in that state, it is all part of the same sick cycle. The idea suggests further, that since we sincerely crave feelings of pure kedusha and hate the feeling of struggling with lust, we end up falling again in order to get out of the struggle and back into that holy, connected and honest state we often feel after a fall. It's one of the only ways we know of that practically guarantees plugging into kedusha and teshuvah again. It's a dirty cycle in which lusting for avodas Hashem and kedusha lead us to end up acting-out continuously for years and decades.