"There is no such thing as a “Jewish alcoholic”…That repetitive, but erroneous assertion kept me drinking and drugging for years!"
My name is Arnie and I am an alcoholic. I didn’t know that I was one for a very long time because I grew up hearing and believing that there is no such thing as a “Jewish alcoholic”. Even in the beginning stages of my recovery, I had an Orthodox Jewish therapist tell me there was no such thing as a Jewish alcoholic. He simply sent me to a doctor to get anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills.
When I finally made it to detox, a patient came over to me (back then I had a long beard and wore a black hat and long black coat on Shabbos) and told me I must be a plant from the management because there was no such thing as a Jewish alcoholic. That notion alone kept me struggling and in denial with an inability to see the true nature of my alcoholism. That repetitive, but erroneous assertion kept me drinking and drugging for years!
Programmed from a Young Age
So, where do I start? I grew up in a modern Orthodox, middle income family that was totally dysfunctional (a word I learned after I got into recovery – I thought the family I grew up in was totally normal). My father was a rage-aholic and my mother a co-dependent, fearful woman. My brother and I were physically abused when we were kids. We never knew when or why my father would lose control, or which one of us would get beaten. We were never allowed to express anger, fear, or disappointment because we were terrified it would upset our father. My mother was incapable of stopping him. Based on the TV culture we were exposed to, we thought this was normal. I say all this only to give you some idea of my background and not to determine why I became an alcoholic.
When I was 11 years old, I went to Shul one Shabbos morning and, after Minyan, one of the old men called me over at the kiddush and told me to “have a glazel of schnaaps and a piece of herring.” That morning my life changed. Instantly, I loved the way it made me feel. I thought “wow, this is what life should be like.” At once, I became taller, more confident, better-looking, and braver. I could talk with and talk back to adults without fear. I felt I had found the solution to life and all life’s problems.
On the way home from Shul, I only wanted more.
The first time I got drunk was when I was 14 in Yeshiva at a Purim Seudah. My Rebbi kept giving me drinks until I turned into the class clown and passed out under the table. I was dragged back to my room. But when I came to, I ran back to my Rebbi’s apartment and begged him for more.
Alcohol and the Cycle of Misery
I didn’t start really drinking regularly until I was on my own and married. I was told and felt I needed to get “used to drinking,” so I “practiced a lot.” These were some of the red-flags warning me about the path that I was on, signs I did not understand or heed. I thought that I was just a guy who liked to party and have a good time - I just needed to learn how to drink.
"I honestly couldn’t understand why others were moving on and advancing their lives and I was always stuck. I couldn’t understand why I was always having problems with life and relationships. I couldn’t understand why I always would rather be alone than be around others. I couldn’t understand that it might be related to the alcohol."
Somebody told me that I may have a problem with drinking, so I decided I would stop. When I did, it resulted in others making fun of me and pushing me to drink with them. Once I started again, I always ended up drinking more than what I wanted to.
What used to be a good time starting to turn really bad. I was getting physically ill for days on end. I also developed the shakes and the only thing relieved it all was another drink. I stopped paying my bills, got into car accidents, had fights with family, and had very few friends left. There were so many bad consequences to my drinking and, yet, when the few friends I had appealed to me to stop, this only resulted in my going out and drinking (and drugging) more.
Stigma and Barriers to Getting Better
Somewhere along the way someone suggested I go to an AA meeting. I felt ashamed and disgusted with myself. There was so much stigma associated with alcoholism. I went, but I didn’t get much out of the meetings and, after a few weeks, I stopped going and just reverted to old behaviors.
There was a seed, however, that was planted in my head. It that took me a few years to understand and start believing that I have an abnormal reaction to alcohol, an allergy so to speak. This “allergy” creates a physical craving along with the delusional obsession that I can safely drink once I start, that I could control my drinking if I wanted to. The truth became clear: I had little to no control over when or how much I drank.
It took me three more years to hit bottom, go to detox, rehab, and eventually, to finally start my recovery. Even months after rehab, I stole two bottles of alcohol from a friend of mine and drank them both in three days. I got ill…really really ill. I was trembling uncontrollably for over two weeks. For some reason I had started a diary at the time, and I remember having a moment of clarity within all the misery and I wrote “MAYBE, just MAYBE, those people in AA are right and I have a problem with alcohol.”
The Sun Always Rises After the Dark
This was the beginning of a journey that goes beyond anything that I have ever imagined. It took me five years from my very first AA meeting to entirely stop drinking. Not only have I gotten physically sober, but I learned what alcohol and alcoholism is about. One of the sayings in AA is “we come for our drinking and stay for our thinking.” I can now deal with my feelings honestly: To feel them and experience them instead of running from them. In my recovery, I also started looking honestly at how I became the person I did and can now use that as a beginning for gradual change.
"My life today is one of being of service to all, especially to those with whom I am closest. I am aware of those around me. I am able to be sensitive to all. I am aware of old behaviors and do my best to stay away from them. Today, my world is one full of hope, faith, and trust!"
Just as importantly, the relationship I always wanted with God now exists. On a day-to-day basis I “plug in” to ask for God’s will for me and then ask for the courage and power to carry that will out. I have been able to provide hope to those who (like me) thought they were hopeless.
Most importantly, the life I always looked for in the bottom of the bottle I now receive by doing the things that are suggested in AA, by my sponsor and by being of service, particularly to my family. That same feeling I got as an 11 year-old drinking for the first time, I now get through sobriety and service to others. I am taller, braver, more hopeful, and rely on faith rather than fear. Today, God and service to others are the solutions to life and all of life’s problems.
H.O.P.E: Hold On, Pain Ends
This is, by far, a very limited scope of describing what I was like when I was using, and an even more inadequate description of how grateful I am and how wonderful my sober life has become. If you are someone who thinks they may have a problem with alcohol, please know that there is plenty of help out there.
Hope and recovery are possible. If anyone feels they need help, I can be reached at any time at (917) 776-7574. I am here for you.
Arnie Goldfein, has been in the “Jewish” recovery world for close to 35 years and is in a unique position to understand the feelings of stigma, hopelessness, remorse, shame, guilt, and fear associated with Substance Use Disorder. He 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 (CPRC) he has helped hundreds of people to get their lives back on track to live a long-term, self-sustained, healthy life.
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