HAMSA Helps Jewish Community Battle Addiction

HAMSA Helps Jewish Community Battle Addiction

Leah R. Harrison

Leah Harrison is a reporter and copy editor for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

There is no cure for heroin addiction.

There is no one-stop-shop, easy solution or predetermined path.

As with any addiction, there is recovery. The long road back is as individualized as the person embarking on it.

Photo by Duane Stork Eric Miller brings his own experiences with addiction and Judaism to HAMSA.
Photo by Duane Stork
Eric Miller brings his own experiences with addiction and Judaism to HAMSA.

HAMSA (Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse), initially funded and sustained by grants from the Marcus Foundation, is a service of Jewish Family & Career Services. It is an entry point and resource to combat addiction, as well as an ongoing source for education, outreach and information dissemination to fight the spread of a devastating problem that afflicts the Jewish community just as it strikes the greater community.

Eric Miller sits at the helm of HAMSA. A call to Miller and the HAMSA team is a first response for addicts and their parents, other loved ones and friends so they can map out a customized, realistic and sound road toward recovery from heroin and other substance addictions.

Miller is knowledgeable, empathetic and skilled at guiding people through best steps and available treatment options, but he did not come easily to his position as HAMSA coordinator at JF&CS, nor to his place as a resource for Jewish Atlanta recovery. His is a route no one would willingly take.

He is particularly qualified to deal with addicts and their surrounding circles because it is a journey he has taken.

Understanding the Culture

Referring to his position and place in our community, Miller said: “Everything depends on my sobriety. My job, my relationship, my family — everything.”

Contrary to the sacrosanct anonymity that is a cornerstone of the recovery community, Miller allowed us to shine a light on his battle with substance abuse, his life choices and his steps to the position he occupies today.

As any addict of any substance knows, sobriety is a tenuous place with no guarantees, accomplished with hard work and vigilance every day. No one in recovery takes tomorrow for granted.

But there is another tenet: One addict helps another addict. Those who let themselves be identified, people in our community like Miller and international personalities like Michael Phelps, greatly benefit others by their example, although it puts greater pressure on their sobriety.

“You can’t reduce shame and stigma if you’re not willing to talk about it,” Miller said.

Explore: Trapped in Atlanta’s Jewish Heroin Triangle

He said nobody plans to become an addict. Often, “the thing that set them apart positively is also what took them down. They were the star football player. They tore their shoulder. They got into painkillers. The painkillers stopped being prescribed for them, so they started looking for them on the side. Or they just noticed how it felt.”

Coping with addiction eventually brings an understanding that it crosses all religious and socioeconomic boundaries. The more an addict holds himself out as being different, the further he is from recovery and from the benefit of help from others experiencing similar struggles.

So even if young Jews and their families feel that they need religion-based resources to become comfortable with a program, they should emerge with a deeper understanding of the commonality we all share.

Contrary to popular belief, “there is nothing un-Jewish about the 12 steps,” Miller said about the recovery system used by programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

In part of an Oct. 21, 2005, Atlanta Jewish Times cover story, “Skating on Thin Ice,” about a Cobb County young man who battled heroin addiction with the help of an Israeli program, Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob took on the issue of attaching religion to a 12-step program. After spending time with 10 addicts, he said the 12 steps “ultimately address the issue of personal responsibility.”

“People need to get rid of denial, take responsibility and connect to other people in recovery,” Rabbi Feldman said.

Miller told of the shocking reality that when you get sober, all those “un-sober friends that were previously around are no longer available to you.” They simply evaporate. “All of my ‘dear’ friends, literally, the day after I got sober, disappeared,” he said. “So you have to now create a new life in recovery, which is why the 12-step program was so effective for me.”

As an addict, you might be able to return to your community, but that connection has to be on different terms. A frequent saying in recovery is “The only thing you have to change is everything.”

You have to alter the things you do, the places you go and the people with whom you associate, thereby eliminating potential threats to sobriety.

Asked if it felt like a solitary journey, Miller pointed out that recovering addicts don’t do it alone. You find and lean on a new community of people struggling with similar, even if slightly different, issues.

The upshot is that the Jewish community needs to take a seat at the table. We could benefit from regular NA meetings and family and grief therapy groups held in Jewish settings as an entry point to participation, although they should be open to all, just as the countless meetings held in churches and community centers around the metro area have open doors (www.grscna.com/Areas). Rabbinical support as a touchstone in treatment and recovery, like the spiritual guidance present for other faiths, would also make an impact.

It is time for the Atlanta Jewish community to join in and have a presence in the fight against heroin addiction.

HAMSA Has Vision for More Jewish Future

Now that the education curriculum is in place, HAMSA coordinator Eric Miller is ready to “focus on a treatment plan for the Jewish community. I don’t think we’re ready to have a Jewish recovery center, but I know we’re ready for a Jewish voice in recovery.”

He said he knows of at least three people from the Jewish community who are in treatment facilities without a Jewish component because one does not exist, and at those centers the patients go to church on Sundays.

“I want to work with these people,” Miller said.

“I tell you what: If the rabbis looked and saw that 100 percent of the Jews with this problem go to non-Jews to help them solve it, you know they’d be up in arms about it, and they’d be looking for everything they could to relieve this problem,” he said.

Miller added that he thinks faith of some sort is an important aspect of recovery.

Under HAMSA’s plan, first the Jewish community must expand the network of addiction resources. The brick and mortar can follow later.

The HAMSA road map for battling heroin addiction and other substance abuse in the Jewish community includes:

  • Increasing Jewish recovery group options, targeting narcotics and other destructive addictions.
  • Using the new counseling wing at the Dunwoody campus of Jewish Family & Career Services for enhanced and additional HAMSA programs.
  • Expanding community partnerships to provide, for example, coffeehouse Shabbats with the Marcus Jewish Community Center; Moishe House educational and social programming; a spiritual cleansing ritual with the Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah; SOJOURN prevention programming; and interfaith programming.
  • Adding a Jewish spiritual voice to local inpatient recovery options by having a rabbi as a resource at inpatient recovery, as well as Jewish services and observances among the spiritual elements now typical at many recovery centers. Having a kosher kitchen at a partner facility would be a long-range goal.

To help make any of these expanded programs and new resources available in Jewish Atlanta, contact Miller at 770-677-9318 or emiller@jfcs-atlanta.org.

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