There Is Always Hope: Reducing the Stigma and Isolation of Addiction
By: Brandon Chiat, Digital Media Manager
America is in the throes of a prescription opiate and heroin addiction epidemic and the Baltimore Jewish community has not been spared.
“The undertaker in any community is the canary in the coal mine,” said Mr. Howard Reznick, Senior Manager of Prevention Education at Jewish Community Services Baltimore (JCS). “Sol Levinson's has seen more families who have lost a loved one to overdose and addiction in the past two years than the last six years combined.”
Unable to ignore the crisis any longer, Baltimore families are looking for answers and coming together to find strength in community.
To confront the issue of addiction, Jewish Community Services, Beth El Congregation, Maryland Faith Health Network, and Sol Levinson & Brothers, Inc., have organized a free community event called Families and Addiction (Sunday, February 17, 10:00am – 12:00pm, at Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Avenue).
“We’re going to de-stigmatize addiction by putting faces on the problem,” said Beth Hecht, Senior Manager for Community Engagement at JCS.
Among those faces is Lisa Hillman, author of Secret No More: A Story of Hope for Parents with an Addicted Child, who, alongside Rabbi Steve Schwartz, Sam Bierman, Sue Seidel, Rachel Markus, and moderator Howard Reznick, will participate in a panel discussion during the Families and Addiction event.
“Having gone through the experience myself and having come out the other end, I want to share what I think might help ease other people’s suffering,” said Mrs. Hillman.
The first step in easing suffering is to coordinate a community response.
“Addiction is not something we should push into a closet, but instead discuss publicly, which is why Beth El decided to host this important event,” said Rabbi Steve Schwartz.
However, cultural norms in the Jewish community may complicate addiction awareness and treatment.
“Being Jewish might have something to do with the shame I felt about my son’s addiction,” said Mrs. Hillman. “As a people, [Jews] are high-achievers who value education, family and giving back to the community, which doesn’t leave any room for addiction or mental health disease, so we deny it.”
But addiction doesn’t discriminate. It is estimated that one in every eight people will develop a Substance Use Disorder during their lifetime, said Mr. Reznick.
According to data released by the Maryland Department of Health, 483 people died in Baltimore City from opiate overdoses in the first half of 2018 alone, the highest number of deaths in the state. Baltimore County had the second highest number of deaths at 215.
While those figures may shock some, they are no surprise to Rabbi Schwartz. Often, synagogue clergy has the broadest perspective of addiction’s impact on the community.
“Clergy and synagogue congregations need to be right out front, building awareness so that people know [addiction] can and does happen in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Schwartz. “People need to know there are treatment options and support systems out there. Most of all they need to know they are not alone, and that the Jewish community will support them in their struggle.”
The 12 Step Program, a set of principles designed to guide recovery, describes addiction as a physical, mental, and spiritual disease. The program recognizes that changes in all three domains need attention for long term recovery to occur.
“Spirituality plays an important role in recovery,” said Mrs. Hecht. “For the Jewish community to acknowledge the issue, show compassion, and promote awareness education, reduces stigma and says: we welcome you to do your healing here with us.”
However, just as the individual suffering from addiction needs recovery, so too must that person’s family heal; after all, addiction is referred to as a family disease.
“Families are like mobiles that hang from the ceiling: a change to one piece puts every other part out of balance,” said Mr. Reznick.
To that end, the Families and Addiction program will address the many ways families are impacted by a loved one's substance abuse disorder.
“My son’s addiction affected me to the point of becoming very depressed, isolated, ashamed, fearful, and anguished,” said Mrs. Hillman. “I strongly recommend getting help for yourself through a professional counselor or support groups like AL-ANON and NAR-ANON.”
Importantly, the Families and Addiction program will address feelings of despair and hopelessness.
“We hope people will come away from the event feeling supported and hopeful,” said Mrs. Hecht. “Our goal is to reduce the stigma and isolation of addiction.”
Lisa Hillman is living proof that community response to addiction is effective.
“I cry with you and for you. It hurts, and it's awful, and I hate that you're going through this,” said Mrs. Hillman. “Recovery is possible, and my family is an example of that. As long as your [loved-one] is alive, there is always hope.”