Addiction or Old Wisdom

The Problem of Addiction
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Shalvah, Outreach on Addiction

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by his story, we are saddened like everybody, but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or anther, who did not make it.

It’s hard to watch the news because it’s clear from the information sources that so little is understood about addiction, how a person with twenty plus years of clean time could die that way, why couldn’t he just stop, etc., didn’t he have enough help, all these shadow questions that are the wrong questions.

It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient, when you have it bad you have it for life, and it requires vigilance daily, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone, that’s the first truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.

You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances; with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, with – you name it. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict.

The perennial wisdom of the recovery model is we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. You meet the real problem of addiction in the mirror.

At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose, we call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out, so to speak, and we call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom.

Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word spirits to indicate substance. The problem has a physical component, and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, as it were, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to encounter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.

It begins with a person taking responsibility. This is my problem and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery. There is plenty of help once one realizes that. No one can do this for me, and no amount of help will do this for me, and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him or her what he has to do for herself.

You can do too much for the suffering addict, and when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: responsibility. This is my problem, my responsibility, I have to take action. This is my problem, not yours, mine. There is what to do when you live around addicts that will help the addict come to that place; but the person must take action him or herself.

I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person makes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding; what we say is: all you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your entire life.

Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole, whole, so to speak.

I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense; every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].

Only Everything is everything.

Rabbi jsg runs a program called Shalvah, “serenity” in Hebrew, that meets every Thursday night at Congregation Neve Shalom, 7 PM. It was founded in 1981 by Rose Mass and jsg.