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Ponderings of a Sober Life

(Reprinted from the Communities Confronting Substance Use & Addiction [CCSA] blog, originally printed on February 7, 2022)

Purim and Pesach are fast approaching – and for those in the Jewish community who struggle with alcohol, the presence of wine and liquor on Purim and the four cups of wine at the Pesach seder can be very challenging. How can they navigate these potential obstacles? How can others in the Jewish community be sensitive to their realities? Join Communities Confronting Substance Use & Addiction (CCSA) for an online conversation on “How Alcohol in Judaism Impacts our Lives” this Sunday, March 6th. To shed some insight on the struggle, below are some thoughts from presenter Arnie Goldfein. – CCSA

My sobriety date is January 4, 1986. During what feels like a lifetime ago, years ago this past January, I wanted to die.

Nothing, absolutely nothing was working for me. I hated my life, my spouse, my kids, my friends, my associates. My health was failing, my business was failing, the IRS was coming after me, collections were coming after me, utilities were being shut off on my various accounts, friends were dwindling, therapy was not helping, and even my Rabbi told me he couldn’t help me anymore!! I was a hermit, living a life of self-imposed and self-perceived loneliness and isolation! And the craziest part: I didn’t think any of this was alcohol related. I wanted the pain, the noise, the shaking, the anxiety, the fear, the guilt, the stigma, the shame, and remorse to just go away. Nothing was working to make that happen. Even the alcohol and drugs, my solution for years, were not working. I knew that the substances were physically killing me, yet I couldn’t stop.

I remember looking in the mirror that day with the fifth of scotch in hand, swearing it would be the last, and wishing it would kill me.

During what feels like a lifetime ago, on a day that January, I wanted to die.

 

Looking Back…

When I look back at my life and history from my earliest childhood memories, I knew something was just not right. I never felt comfortable in my own skin, always anxious and fearful. I always felt like I was the square peg in the round hole. I never knew the right thing to say or do. Funny thing is that people would tell me I was a great guy. I just never felt that great.

At age 11, when alcohol presented itself to me at a kiddush in shul one Shabbos morning, I picked up the glass and while drinking it, I experienced five things:

I hated the way it smelled.

I immediately realized how horrible booze tasted.

I instantaneously loved the way it made me feel.

I felt taller, more handsome, bolder, stronger and in a flash, I was convinced that THIS (the alcohol) was how people got through life. That, this is IT and I had found my solution on how to deal with life!!!

I wanted more.

As I got older, when I drank, things were fun. My friends drank. I could have a good time at social affairs. All my awkwardness and anxiety disappeared. I actually got a lot of attention for all the things “I did last night.”

Yet, things started going from fun to despair. I started getting physically ill and the symptoms were getting longer after each bout. I was incapable of hearing concerned people’s warnings about my behaviors. What started out as fun was the beginning of a journey that took me down a road that almost killed me.

Fast forward 38 years from that point and today I am living the life I prayed for. How did I get here? How did I go from the depths of despair to a life beyond anything I would have ever thought possible, complete with a loving family and blessings galore? What is different??

 

Moving Forward

I crawled back into Alcoholics Anonymous (I had been to AA for a short period three years prior) and I was at a loss as to what to do. I figured if I was not drinking or, at least, not drinking the way I used to, my life would be ok. It took me two more years to finally put down everything because I wasn’t yet convinced that I really had a problem. I stopped mainly out of fear of being sick. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. In the beginning my desire to not hit bottom and be sick, again, was greater than my desire to drink. So, I stayed dry.

Very early in recovery I was blessed with finding JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others – a program of Jewish Family Services). I got involved and did service, lots of service. I was able to identify with other Jews having problems and now had a place to go and talk about our similarities. Topics that were off the table in AA/NA meetings were being openly discussed – like Shabbos, Chagim, and God – from a Jewish perspective.

I was also finally able to talk about all those taboo subjects that I couldn’t talk about in Shul, in Yeshiva, to my Rabbi, or when I was growing up. I met Jews from all denominations and opened my mind to other Jews’ points of view that contradicted what I had always been taught growing up. These were my initial stages in sobriety. I never knew how to do things before recovery. Even with all the progress I had made, I was still anxious, fearful and an emotional wreck.

Eventually, I moved my way back into the real world. I stayed involved with recovery meetings – setting up coffee, taking part in the fellowship… but also got a respectable job, got remarried, started my own business and in my estimation, I was moving up!

We were traveling and cruising, there was money in the bank, bills were paid, we had mutual recovery friends and I thought I was living the life I was meant to live.

 

Overcoming Adversity in Recovery

Then, life smacked me into reality very quickly. My brother died from this disease. My mom became depressed. My marriage was shaky, my business was shaky, and I couldn’t figure out why I was miserable. I was again experiencing bouts of depressiveness, anxiety, loneliness, and fear. I was again blaming “something outside myself” for all my problems.

I prayed about it, talked about it, screamed about it, and cried about it. The answers eventually came from others in recovery. Contrary to what I really wanted to do, I finally started working the suggested 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

This was something that was mentioned to me in early recovery that I was incapable of hearing. I sat down and did a deep, truthful, personal inventory as suggested in the Big Book of AA. For the first time in my life, I began to see the hows and whys of the person that I had become. And I did NOT like me. I discovered I was selfish, self-centered, fearful, full of self-pity, resentful, angry, demanding, egotistical, childish, bitter, and dishonest. In getting to know myself I realized that I also didn’t know how to manage my life. When I completed my inventory, I saw how these attitudes and behaviors were affecting me. When I reviewed the inventory with my sponsor, he said something so deep and profound: “Welcome to the human race.”

About the same time, at a weekend recovery retreat, Rabbi Abe Twerski told me if you want to see the nature of a person look at all the “Lo-Sahsays” (all the do-nots) in the Torah. I then began to realize what my sponsor meant is that the things I did, and my behaviors, were not unique, and this is what human beings do. Almost immediately some of my shame, guilt and stigma left me – never to return to pre-inventory levels again. Starting then, whenever I saw those unwanted actions or attitudes rear their ugly heads, I now had a choice as to how to act. I made amends to ALL the people I had harmed – whether it was physically, emotionally, or financially – or at least I have tried. I changed my behaviors so I wouldn’t have to make amends in those areas again.

 

Showing Up for Others

It has taken a lifetime and I continue to work my way past all those negative traits which tie me up and keep me away from people. My problems are never about what someone else does to me…it’s always about what I do or how I react. My selfishness, my self-centeredness, my fears, my expectations, my resentments, and my disappointments. Today, instead of looking at what I can get from others, I get to be there for others, especially my kids and grandkids – these are my living amends. I work at not creating hurt and fear. I work with others, helping them change their lives and giving them hope. All the things I chased and looked for in the bottom of a bottle, have come to me in healthy ways with peace and serenity. I have what G-d blesses me with. While my alcoholic tendencies have long gone away, my alcoholism – the essence of my obsession to drink, is still a planted seed in my brain. As they say in AA: once a pickle, always a pickle!

I still have to deal with those negative characteristics. Today I use the tools of recovery, the 12 steps, rigorous honesty, peer support, friends, gratitude, service (tons of service) and G-d to help keep me stay sober. Today I am less selfish, self-centered, egotistical, dishonest. I’m present in my role as father, grandfather, and friend. Although currently single, I am not lonely. Although I struggle with life, I am at peace with it. This is but a brief account of some of the experiences along the way. I will say that the growing pains were extremely painful. Pain is a great touchstone for growth, and it created the willingness to do things differently.

Was my path the best way to go? Probably not…yet, it was my experience, and it’s my experience that can benefit others. Today, I am simply here to be there for others.


Arnie Goldfein is a frequent blogger for Communities Confronting Substance Use & Addiction (CCSA) and is a featured speaker at many of their community awareness events. He has been in the “Jewish recovery world” for over 36 years and is in a unique position to understand the feelings of stigma, hopelessness, guilt, and fear associated with Substance Use Disorder. Arnie has served as President of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Person and Significant Others), a program of the Jewish Board of Families & Children’s Services, for over 7 years, and subsequently as Co-Executive Director of Rodfei Shalom, Inc. As a NYS Certified Peer Advocate Recovery Specialist, he has helped hundreds of people to get their lives back on track to live a long-term, self-sustained, healthy life. Currently living in Baltimore, he is available worldwide for consultation, assessment and recovery planning and can be reached at 917-776-7574 or by email at: [email protected].

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