For two years, I had been attending Al-Anon and Nar-Anon meetings, specifically groups within those categories that offer support and help to those affected by someone else’s addiction. At most meetings, I was the only Jewish person present. I was there because recently, the novel I wrote about being the Jewish daughter of a heroin addict caused me to revisit repressed childhood traumas that were still haunting me.
To publicize my book, and to convey its message that Jewish addicts no longer had to suffer in secret the way my father had, I lined up a speaking engagement with a prominent Jewish group. I knew that in the past Jews, as a minority community, had been in denial that alcoholism and drug addiction were problems in their midst, but I didn’t expect the situation would persist today. And yet, at a conference of more than one thousand attendees, only ten people showed up to hear my talk. The fliers about my presentation had been quickly removed by the conference organizers, I later learned. When I spoke about the value of Twelve Steps for helping addicts save their lives, even those who came to listen to my talk were reluctant to hear my message. They confronted me with the question: “Aren’t the Twelve Steps Christian?”
Well, yes. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob S., the co-founders of Twelve Steps, were influenced by the Christian Oxford Group, but they consciously created a program to save the lives of alcoholics based on universal spiritual values. Nar-Anon and Al-Anon meetings for family members and friends of addicts convey an important lesson from which I have benefitted as a Jew: I didn’t cause the addict’s dependency, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it. My responsibility is to take care of myself and to respect the addict’s potential to save his or her own life from addiction.
In my opinion, these lessons conform to basic Jewish values. That we are responsible for caring for ourselves is conveyed in the well-known message of Hillel, the great Talmudic rabbi and sage: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” So self-preservation is a high Jewish priority, but we must also care for others—without encouraging them to depend too heavily on us. From the Twelve Step perspective, if we encourage the addict’s dependency, we become codependents, caught in a cycle of addiction from which neither we nor the addict can be liberated.
Still, the program’s move towards a more universal of approach didn’t reach my dad in time. I wish my father could have attended a Twelve Step meeting with me. He died of a heroin overdose the same year he had a negative experience at a Twelve Step program. It was 1963, Twelve Steps were just being introduced for heroin addicts in New York City, and my father, raised by first-generation Austrian/Polish observant Jews, couldn’t relate to the Christian atmosphere. A doctor of a methadone clinic led the meeting as if it were a fire-and-brimstone service. Probably, The Lord’s Prayer was read, which was typical of early Twelve Step meetings, before the more universal Serenity Prayer was adopted.
Yet despite my father’s tragic experience, Twelve Steps have helped me heal my irrational but lingering wound―my feeling responsible, sometimes guilty, for not having saved my father. Steps Two and Eleven, especially, have helped me understand why my father was unable to save himself: Step Two, “We have come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity,” and Step Eleven, “We seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the God of our understanding.”
These steps helped me reflect on what was missing in my father’s life. I vividly recall my father trying to save face by repeatedly saying he would stop taking drugs when he was good and ready, as if he were in total control. But he wasn’t.
I’ve often been comforted by a fantasy that my father is sitting next to me at a Nar-Anon meeting. In that vision, both of us are in recovery and smiling when someone courageous shares a true-to-life experience that feels familiar. I hope Jewish people suffering from addiction can reach out for recovery, whether through Twelve Steps or another method that works for them, by realizing that it can also be Jewish process, even a form of T’Shuvah.