Updated: Oct 13, 2022
When we think of September, we tend to picture the first autumn foliage, the academic year restarting, and the slew of Jewish holidays that typically fall right around this time. In both the secular and the Jewish world, September is a month of renewal and new beginnings.
Coincidentally, September is also National Recovery Month – a month dedicated annually to celebrating those in every stage of recovery from addiction.
This year, we reflected on a particularly fruitful intersection between the calendar month and its many associations with addiction recovery.
Recovery, of course, is a cycle in of itself, a cycle that clinicians and professionals in the field will often demarcate by a model called “the stages of change.” Although the stages of change is a cyclical model where an individual may move back and forth between various stages, the way recovery is denoted is as follows: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.
Let us look together at how these stages of change may overlap with our collective experiences as we traverse the month of the Jewish high holidays and our own introspective journeys.
The Precontemplation Stage
In the precontemplation stage of change, people may be subconsciously (or even consciously) aware of an issue causing harm, but have not yet made the decision to address it or alter their behavior patterns. This is the stage that many individuals in active addiction remain in. Oftentimes, individuals will linger in precontemplation until the pain is great enough to warrant change. Although they may harbor unresolved guilt and shame relating to their affliction, they are not quite fully ready to address their struggles.
This is also the stage that many of us remain in during the year leading up to Elul and Tishrei.
Most of us are somewhat aware of our spiritual shortcomings, yet go about our lives, often performing the same acts as if on repeat. Sometimes, the problem emerges more eminently – maybe in response to a situation that highlights our faults or hearing a certain rabbi speak on a topic that resonates with us – these moments might force us to confront our inadequacies head-on, but it’s safe to say that most of our time is spent in precontemplation.
"While some might (erroneously) judge someone with a substance use disorder for continuing to use, rather than seeking intervention for their addiction, it is hardly different than any of us who have our own spiritual shortcomings but neglect to address them until we are quite literally “awoken” by the sounds and prayers of Elul to do so."
It is once this layer of denial has been shaken that we can begin to move forward into the Teshuva process.
The contemplation stage marks the beginning of an individual’s decision to make the changes necessary to overcome their affliction. For an individual in recovery, this stage is typically onset by external circumstances. The metaphorical “rock-bottom” of sufferers often includes events such as psychiatric visits, losing friends and family members’ support, incarceration or other legal issues, and physical illnesses.
As one individual in recovery shared,
“I think there were a couple of things in succession that made me hit my rock bottom…Towards the end, I went and had a tooth that was perfectly fine pulled so just that I could get a prescription for a painkiller. I was also put on administrative leave from a job that I really loved because I couldn't show up and kept lying about why..."
"I remember laying in bed completely broken, drunk and/or high out of my mind and thinking things have to get better. I couldn't take care of my dog or even myself. Big chunks of that time are a complete mystery to me…”
As Jews approaching the High Holidays, we experienced these external wake-up calls in the metaphorical form of the Shofar. During Elul, the blasts of the shofar were our literal wake-up call for us to repent.
Aside from the Shofar, external requirements such as the Viduy (the confessional prayer recited leading up to Rosh Hashana, during the Aseret Yemai Teshuva, and on Yom Kippur) force us to confront our spiritual shortcomings. Much like an individual in the contemplation stage, we begin to consider the ways we have fallen short, and become aware that change is needed.
In the preparation stage, an individual will begin physically, mentally, and spiritually preparing to undergo change. In this stage, an individual becomes more dedicated to their own recovery, often thrust forward by internal “rock bottoms.”
As one young woman in recovery describes her preparation stage,
“I finally surrendered because I hit an emotional and moral low. I was more scared to keep living as an addict than I was of dying. I was truly willing to do anything to recover.”
Another describes a similar experience,
“I remember one night, I went to the bathroom and I was afraid to look in the mirror. The person looking back at me seemed so foreign...so alien. Her eyes looked empty. I no longer recognized myself and knew I had to either get help or give up. And I wasn’t ready to give up. At that moment, I surrendered and became willing.”
Others in recovery utilize comparable language, describing the moment when they truly realized they were ready to embark on the harrowing (but rewarding) journey of recovery.
For laymen, this is the stage many of us arrive in during Elul. In Aramaic, Elul translates to “searching.” The last month of the Jewish year was titled “Elul” due to the spiritual searching that the Jewish nation annually embarks on during this period.
As we moved closer to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, many of us experienced fears around the judging, signing, and sealing of our personal fates. After all, the process is designed to awaken willingness in us.
"We experience a month-long process of confessing our shortcomings, listening to the alarming shofar blasts, and beating our chests. Just as our previously quoted young woman, many of us become “willing to do anything” to guarantee a spot in the book of life for ourselves and our loved ones."
The preparation stage is a pivotal moment for those in recovery, as well as all of us. It is the moment where the desire to change becomes internalized. Many of us feel such a moment deeply, but acting on it - and maintaining that sense of urgency - is a difficult and altogether different task.
It is in the action stage that people begin to make concrete steps toward change from unwanted behaviors. In this stage, people are proactively choosing new behaviors and proving to themselves that they can make new decisions. The muscles of change are now actively being exercised.
As one man in recovery states,
“Slowly but surely, I started taking suggestions. When my therapist told me “attend 12-step meetings,” I asked “how many?” When the people in meetings told me to pray every morning and ask G-d how to service others, I did so…even on days when it felt weird. Eventually, these behaviors became daily habits, habits that kept me away from alcohol and drugs.”
Through this Holiday period, many of us have already put into action the resolutions we verbalized. Many of us have capitalized on the excitement and refreshed sense of commitment to act upon our resolutions.
It is perhaps no coincidence that we go right from the spiritual cleansing of Yom Kippur straight into Sukkot, a time where we actively “dwell with G-d” and concretely demonstrate, through leaving our homes and our comfort zone, our trust in G-d.
However, as many of us may already be noticing, the pull back to old habits is all too strong without a solid plan for how we can keep up the momentum. This brings us to the maintenance stage.
“White knuckle sobriety” (or “dry drunk”) a term known all too well by those in recovery and professionals alike, is the practice of remaining passive in one’s program of recovery. A person may now be substance free, but he has not become a truly changed person. If he does not continually and actively “work” a solid program of recovery (whether a 12 step program or something else), he leaves himself vulnerable to regression and relapse, regardless of how much will-power he may believe himself to have.
"The maintenance stage is where these new actions and habits have taken root. And a plan for continuing to sustain this progress is in place and a clear plan for lasting change has been committed to."
It is this critical maintenance period that all too often can be neglected. One common deception that those in early recovery can easily fall prey to is believing that achieving sobriety, and similarly, that being educated on principles of recovery is enough. The high rate of relapse is testament to the critical need to keep one’s recovery at front and center even after the treatment phase is complete. As important as the initial treatment period itself, it is ultimately a person’s “aftercare” plan- or blueprint for continuing to sustain recovery- that is most important.
It is in this stage that a person must ask and answer what measures are taken to preserve the progress made.
Lasting Recovery and Growth
These first few months of “early recovery” is a particularly fragile time. The staggeringly high rate of relapse during this period is a testament to the many risks and vulnerabilities that continue, even after one has become sober. As sincere as one may be in his or her desire to stay sober, there are many ongoing obstacles to face.
Continuing in long-term recovery takes work: ongoing awareness, vigilance, and self-evaluation of one’s daily routine and emotional, mental, and spiritual fitness. For real, lasting change to be made, one needs to constantly review, as well as diligently and concretely apply the skills learned.
"Throughout the High Holiday season we listened to the call of the Shofar blasts and were propelled to action. We introspected, prayed, and fasted. We acknowledged that growth was needed, and resolved to overcome habitual behaviors that we recognized as toxic to our spiritual and emotional well-being. And as this High Holiday period now culminates in the joy Sukkot, a time for celebrating our strengthened spiritual connection, we have an opportunity to ensure that the resolutions and goals we set for ourselves during the High Holiday period will remain at the forefront of our minds."
As we now enter into the “early recovery” period, we all have an opportunity to be inspired by and learn from those who have sustained sobriety and have meaningfully travelled through these stages of change. To evaluate our own aftercare program that we will be taking with us after this Holiday season has come to in end, and in turn, set a solid foundation for growth and change.
Devora Shabtai LCSW, a contributor to the CCSA blog, is VP of Clinical Development at Onward Living, a hybrid addiction rehabilitation program which caters to the specific needs of Jewish men in recovery. Devora lives in Boca Raton with her husband and daughters. To learn more about Onward Living contact her at email@example.com.
Elana (Ellie) Forman is a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist with over three years in recovery from addiction. She is the daughter of Lianne and Etiel Forman, the co-founders of CCSA, and works as CCSA's Prevention Outreach Coordinator. She is also a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, currently researching public health communications and popular culture.
To submit a post to the CCSA blog or to find out more information regarding submissions, please reach out to Ellie Forman at firstname.lastname@example.org