/SPECIAL FOR THE AJT/
Statistics show that roughly 11 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some kind of addiction. That figure is mirrored here in Atlanta.
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And while many Jews continue to believe addiction doesn’t exist in the Jewish community, others argue the rates are no different. What we know for sure is that the number of calls JF&CS receives from local rabbis and directly from congregants who are struggling with this disease and don’t know where to turn.
In response, JF&CS inaugurated H.A.M.S.A. — Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse — in the summer of 2012. A program of the Counseling Services – Tools for Life division, H.A.M.S.A. focuses on recovery and prevention through initiatives like Sober Shabbat and school-based programs.
How is this for a surprising statistic: more than 15 percent of teens today meet the criteria for alcohol and drug abuse. In fact, the average age of first use is reported to be from 9 to 11 years old.
Erica Katz is H.A.M.S.A.’s coordinator. She works closely with Jo Abney, JF&CS’s substance abuse counselor. While Katz works on prevention and awareness, Abney helps clients assess where they are vis a vis addiction and choose the path they need to take.
These are the stories of their own journeys to recovery.
Katz says she was an alcoholic before she ever picked up a drink. “I always felt there was something missing that everyone else had. It always seemed that for others, things came easy, like school and friends. I always felt ‘less than,’ like I didn’t get the manual for life.”
She had her first drink in high school at a cousin’s bar mitzvah. An older cousin gave her a Sea Breeze.
“For the first time, I didn’t feel anxious,” she said. “After that, I started drinking pretty quickly regardless of consequences.”
Drinking changed Katz.
“I wanted to get rid of the self-hating feeling I had all the time. That’s what alcohol did for me. It was so much more important than whatever consequences came socially or with school.”
Katz’s drinking defined high school. Her grades suffered. Her mom and step dad grounded her frequently, so she snuck out of the house at night.
“I was hanging out with other kids who drank. Drinking every day became normal. That’s how I rationalized my behavior – by comparing myself to the cast of misfits around me.”
Junior year, her parents told her to get herself together. And she did. She stopped drinking and really focused on school. It was easy; by this point, she had no social life.
“Most of my friends hated me. So I threw myself into school.”
She excelled and got accepted to Purdue University. “Things were good. At this point, I had stopped drinking, focused on school and really achieved something for the first time. But when I got to college, I found a crowd that was partying hard, and I jumped right into it.”
During the first few months, Katz got involved in an abusive relationship. By then her sense of self was so compromised, she didn’t feel she deserved any better.
It threw her into a terrible depression. She couldn’t go to class and started drinking whenever she was awake. “I completely checked out.”
When she got home that December and her parents saw her grades, they moved her back to Detroit, where they were living at the time, put her in therapy and sent her to a local college to keep an eye on her.
She hadn’t told anyone yet about the abuse she had endured. She kept drinking away her emotions. In school, she had a mix of A’s and F’s. She couldn’t figure out how to balance it all. Her parents tried to help, but she kept telling them nothing was wrong. She didn’t want them to get in the way of the one thing working for her – alcohol.
Katz decided she wanted to move back to Manhattan, where she grew up and her father still lived. She worked in his office and took some classes. Then she got involved with a guy who liked to party.
“I was a mess, partying Sunday through Thursday, sleeping Friday and Saturday
She cut her mom off because she was always nagging her about her lifestyle. She estranged herself from her father as well, so she had no way to support herself.
At 20 years old, Katz ended up homeless, staying illegally in an apartment and not paying rent. So it should not have come as a surprise when she came home one day to find the landlord had locked her out.
All of her things were inside. She called her mom, to whom she had not spoken in a year, and asked her to pay the rent until she could get a job. Her mom refused but offered to settle the debit if Katz would go to treatment.
Katz decided that was better than being homeless. So on Sept. 20, 2006, she flew with her mom to Arizona and checked into a treatment center. That marked the start of a long journey for Katz, who has been sober ever since.
After a month in Arizona, she moved to Atlanta and continued treatment. By fall 2008, she was ready to live on her own. She got an apartment, started working, joined a support group and made lots of friends.
“At 22 I finally figured out how to be sober and like myself.” Still, life could be complicated at times, especially with people who didn’t know her story. She also felt like she had a lot of catching up to do.
“When I first got sober, most of my friends were graduating and getting jobs. I felt a little like a failure. But knew I didn’t want to be back in school, and I realized it’s OK to have an alternative path.”
She started building relationships and learning skills. She got involved in Jewish communal work. She found that even without a degree, she could make something of herself. She also started dating, which was a challenge at times.
“It makes a guy nervous when you don’t order a drink with dinner. When you’re in your early 20s, it’s such a big part of the social dynamic.”
But love can come when you least expect it. By 2012, Katz was working at Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. She was in a meeting and met a woman who decided to introduce Katz to her son.
Sixteen months later, the two are planning a March wedding.
“I’m pretty much living the dream,” she said. “I have the most amazing partner, I’m involved in the community and I have the perfect job with JF&CS.”
And her mom?
“She’s my best friend. We talk every day. She moved back to Manhattan with her husband. She had also gotten involved in peer support to figure out how to help me and our family, because alcoholism is a family disease. It affects everyone.
“Different members of my family have required different things in order to mend the damage I caused. Today, I have a good relationship with everyone, a great relationship with some of them. They don’t have to worry about me. I used to be a liability. I have become an asset.”
Unlike Katz, Abney never sought treatment for what she said was an “absolute addiction to several substances.” She was able to come out of it with the help of friends and family, and the decision to start a new life.
Abney started doing drugs before she was even in high school in South Carolina. She started partying heavily in high school and then into college. By the time she was in her 20s, she was a full-blown addict.
“I moved to Atlanta from Wesleyan College and that’s when my partying escalated,” she said. “But even though I always knew I wanted to perform well and had a good grade average, there was no doubt I was addicted.”
She tried to quit a few times and had some relapses. But then things changed. “I knew it wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted.”
The turning point came when she met her (now late) husband.
“I had wanted to cut back, but there wasn’t the motivation. He had been down that road before. But when he got custody of his kids, he knew he had to stop.”
She knew she had to stop too. They married and moved to another county. She got rid of all the phone numbers of old friends.
“I completely reinvented my life. It wasn’t easy. But I knew I didn’t want to go back to that life.”
For more information about Sober Shabbat or any other H.A.M.S.A. programs, contact Erica Katz, coordinator, at (770) 677-9318. For information about addiction counseling, call Jo Abney, substance abuse clinician, at (770) 677-9308.
Myths and Facts About Drug Abuse and Addiction:
(Note: if you are short on space and want to just run the myths part, feel free)
Myth: Overcoming addiction is a matter of willpower. You can stop using drugs if you really want to.
Fact: Prolonged exposure to drugs alters the brain in ways that result in powerful cravings and a compulsion to use, making it extremely difficult to quit by sheer force of will.
Myth: Addiction is a disease; there’s nothing you can do about it.
Fact: While it is a brain disease, you are not a helpless victim. Addiction can be treated and reversed through a number of therapeutic interventions which may include medication, talk therapy, exercise and other treatments.
Myth: Addicts must hit rock bottom before they can get better.
Fact: Recovery can start at any time—and the earlier the better. The longer drug abuse continues, the stronger the addiction becomes and the harder to treat.
Myth: You can’t force someone into treatment; he or she must want help.
Fact: Treatment doesn’t have to be voluntary to be successful.
Myth: Treatment didn’t work before, so there’s no point in trying again.
Fact: Recovery is a long process that often involves setbacks. Relapse is common but does not mean you should quit.
Maintaining sobriety can be challenging — especially when you’re out and surrounded by others who are drinking. Among the many programs of H.A.M.S.A., our monthly roaming Sober Shabbats offer those in recovery and their families a safe place to enjoy the start of Shabbat.
“Sober Shabbat and H.A.M.S.A. saved my son — and me,” said Lynne, who didn’t want to give her last name. Lynne’s son was an addict, and without telling him about it, she convinced him to go to a dinner with her. They haven’t missed one since. “The people there are our family. They accepted us right away, and my son trusts them. He has turned a new chapter in his life.”