Special Report: Substance Abuse
September 14, 2007
From Eternity To Here
"We are a bereavement support group for parents who are facing and overcoming the pain and grief of a child's death as a result of substance abuse. We will hold meetings so we can receive comfort and support as we find our new direction for our grief without judgment. As we share our multitude of feelings, we will strive to learn from each other how to adjust, move forward and bring meaning into our lives as we celebrate and forever remember our beloved children."Phil Jacobs
— Mission statement of Eternity, a Jewish Addiction Services sponsored self-help group offering friendship and understanding to bereaved parents whose children have died from substance abuse.
Nikki Perlow, 21, loved ranch dressing on her spaghetti noodles. She loved the TV show “Golden Girls,” and she loved riding horses. Twenty-year-old Brad Berman’s favorite movie was “Happy Gilmore.” He played ice hockey and lacrosse, and was a wrestler. He played the guitar and saxophone, and his favorite color was green.
Jared Seiden, 22, loved watching “The Sopranos” and “South Park” on television. He would devour a good cheeseburger.
For Adam Fox, 30, it was his mom’s home cooking. But if it couldn’t be that, he’d scarf down a plate of eggs and bacon from Suburban House.
Nikki, Brad, Jared and Adam — all young adults from loving, comfortable, Jewish families, died of drug overdoses. They were people you’d see at the bookstore, at the JCC, at an O’s game or at Starbucks. They simply had no predisposition for drug abuse, but they became all too well-acquainted with opiate-based painkillers such as OxyContin, and then moved on to heroin.
Their parents learned that heroin was not something one had to drive down to the deepest reaches of the city to purchase, that it could be had for $10 a shot near homes of the well-off in Stevenson, Greenspring, Pikesville and Owings Mills.
And those drug deals are happening regularly. A pill will run upwards of $40 each. A shot of heroin is much cheaper.
On a stormy August night at the Beth Israel Congregation chapel, parents Amy and Cliff Perlow, Rozzie and Richard Seiden, Richard and Susan Berman and Ellen Fox invited a reporter in to their twice-a-month, 1 1/2-hour support group. The focus of the group was their deceased children, their own well-being, their surviving children and almost anything else one wanted to talk about.
There’s a code in the room, a language all of their own. When asked how many children each parent had, the answer was always, “We raised two or we raised three,” including their deceased child.
There was some bitterness in the Beth Israel chapel towards Judaism, there were some times when a parent was so overcome with emotion that he or she just got up and left until ready to continue the conversation. And it was almost as if the Torahs, sitting in the ark behind the participants, were straining to listen, but to also offer comfort.
As far as anyone there knew, this was the only game in town for Jewish parents who had lost their child to drug overdoses to come and find someone who “really understood” what they were going through. If anything, they knew they could count on one another, and that anything said was in the spirit of no wrong answers.
What they were “going through” was, it’s safe to say, more than anyone could rightly imagine.
The conversation that night at times was random, out of order or chaotic. It could go from hopeful to sad. The box of tissues was kept on the floor within easy reach of all the participants.
“You have no idea how hard it is to have a child who is a drug addict,” said Mrs. Seiden. “People you’ve known for years look at you and you can tell they’re asking to themselves, ‘What didn’t these parents do to prevent this? What kind of household do these parents have?’ The stigma of having a child die of an overdose is unspeakable.”
“Our kids weren’t bad kids, they were good kids.”
Amy and Cliff are the relative newcomers to the group. Their daughter, after spending 17 months in successful recovery in Phoenix, Arizona, overdosed and died in early July.
The surprise in all of this was that she had been “clean” for those 17 months. And it only took days to get hooked again.
“It’s an insidious disease,” said her dad, Cliff.
Her mom, Amy, fighting back the tears quietly remarked that her daughter once said that many Jewish young adults were “doing it.”
Nikki’s observation is truth; addiction affects the Jewish community at a rate similar to the general population.
“When a kid dies, and that kid is from Pikesville,” said Richard Berman, “we feel that the rest of the community looks at us with disdain.”
Their son, Brad, was in training to become a plumber. He was found deceased in his bed.
Richard and Rozzie would attend Al-Anon meetings, get-togethers for families and friends of the addicted. They complained that the only place locally where they’d find other Jews was at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation-based meeting.
The feeling among everyone in the room was that the stigma behind addiction within the Jewish community led many Jews to churches in other parts of Baltimore City and County. In other words, there is a concern about being seen by one’s Jewish neighbors. That stigma, emphasized the Seidens, typically doesn’t come from close friends. To the contrary, they said, “Our close friends, family and community always supported us, even through Jared’s active addiction and after his death. What is important to note is that the general question that runs through most people in the community at large is that the community questions to themselves what we didn’t do to prevent this.”
The lack of self-help resources within the community, at synagogues, at the JCC and Jewish schools aggravates this concern. If there are no resources within our community, then it must not happen here, right?
The group also had another factor in common. While they were sitting shiva for their child, so many visitors to their homes would ask them for advice or help, because they were concerned over the fate of their own children.
At Jared Seiden’s packed funeral, a look around the Sol Levinson and Bros.’ sanctuary saw many young adults, perhaps some in recovery themselves wondering, “If but for the grace of God, go I.”
“We wanted our child to be clean and healthy,” Amy would say. “This is a disease with no cure. I see these kids come to AA. She did everything we asked of her. She did not want to die, she did not want to be an addict.”
According to Cliff, many addicts end up with heroin for a practical reason — it is simply cheaper. An OxyContin capsule can cost up to $40 a pill. Hydrocodone can also get pricey, especially if one is taking many pills a day. Heroin can be injected for around $10 a dose.
Ellen Fox said in an earlier interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times that there are two sights that a Jewish mother should never see: one –– “your child in shackles, the other, your child in a coffin.”
She saw both. It’s not uncommon for children, who are addicts, to steal from their parents, relatives and friends. Most of Ellen Fox’s most valuable family heirloom jewelry was stolen and pawned by Adam so that he could afford a fix.
All four of the kids seemed to be in and out of colleges and working jobs while they were working their recovery.
Jared was clean for 11 months, but he was, according to his parents, suffering from some sort of depression. He lived in the House of Hope (Jewish Recovery House) for a while. He was dating “a nice Jewish girl.”
“Jared was smart,” said Rozzie, “a senior in college, and was extremely popular. He loved music, had a keen wit, had a great sense of humor, the biggest smile, and he gave everyone hugs.
“It’s been within the walls of our support group, Eternity, that we learned that we could talk about Jared,” she continued. “And that we could continue to focus on us and our daughter in the land of the living, with new promise and new hope and new beginnings.”
It’s been five years since Brad Berman died. His mom, Susan, said that she wants other hurting parents to know that this group is there for them and that “life can go on. You can join the ranks of the living again. There is hope for a good life.
“Grief is work,” continued Mrs. Berman. “You will eventually feel good again.”
Or as her husband Richard added, “It’s OK to enjoy life again. It’s good to support one another.”
“The stigma of addiction is complicated for these families by our discomfort with death,” said Eileen Katz of Jewish Addiction Services. “Uncomfortable with death and not knowing what to say leads otherwise well-intentioned family and friends to make some rather insensitive remarks. These seven parents have heard them. Comments — from ‘Have you gotten over it yet?’ to ‘Get over it’ to ‘When are you going to be normal again?’ — create distance and indifference at a time when these families most need connection and compassion.”
As Roz responded with quick wit, “I don’t want to roll up in ball,” she said.
“This has left a big void in our hearts,” said Amy, “I don’t know how we’ll get through days like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
So where was Judaism or God during all of this in their lives? The reaction varies from somewhat bitter to hopeful.
Richard Berman recounts how Brad died on a Friday night erev Sukkot.
Ellen Fox said it was a connection she made to Temple Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Steven Fink that helped her through some of the worst times early on.
“God received Adam,” she said. “I don’t think God took Adam away from me. But I do know I started going back to shul because of Adam.”
For Cliff Perlow, there was as he put it, “one level of anger. I mean, how could God do this? My hope was gone. Amy finds peace now in nature, riding her horse or walking in the woods.”
“My faith was challenged,” admitted Rozzie Seiden. “He took Jared. But God didn’t tell me His plans. I don’t feel strongly about the High Holidays. I feel like we’ve been made to suffer.”
For Susan Berman, there was no real Divine plan in any of this or any reference to the Book of Life, one that we make so often during this time of year.
“I think their deaths are random,” she said. “Our children did something stupid. It isn’t about the Book of Life. No one is chosen, no one is not chosen. I mean, I do believe in God. But, I also believe I choose to live another year. We’re human, our acts are often random.”
As Rozzie Seiden added, “I think their craving for the drug is so strong, there is almost a cavalier attitude that overdose isn’t part of the possibility.”
The parents were then asked one last question, “What would they say to their children if they could see them one more time?” Most said they would say, “I love you and I miss you.”
But Mrs. Seiden had something very different to say. Rozzie and Jared had such a close relationship and bond, and they had talked often about such a dire consequence such as death. Because Jared had known someone who had died 10 years earlier, he had often expressed, through his “pact” with Rozzie, that he would never, ever be another statistic.
“We love the child,” said Rozzie, “but we hate the disease of addiction. The addiction was so strong that he lost his battle to it, just as if he had cancer.”
The Eternity program started last winter as a result of Ms. Fox literally not knowing where or to whom to turn after Adam’s death. “Groups such as Compassionate Friends and Bereaved Parents are wonderful resources,” said Mrs. Katz. “They come from a Christian frame and mostly attract parents whose children have died from medical problems where there is no stigma, no feeling of shame. The parents that I’ve worked with do not feel comfortable openly sharing the cause of death in these groups. That is why Ellen approached me about starting this group.”
With the help of Ms. Katz, a bereavement support group for Jewish parents whose children had died from addiction went from idea to reality. JAS gave its professional guidance and helped produce the group’s brochure.
“I am proud of our group and really do not want many to join, but I know there are many of us out there,” said Ms. Fox. “We are losing too many of our children to addiction. No one should be in our shoes.”
Ms. Fox said that to her knowledge, Eternity is the only support group of its type in the country. JAS, she added, has put Eternity on its Web site and is getting hits to inquire how to create similar programs in other parts of the country.
Eternity is open to all people of the Jewish faith, from Orthodox to Reform to unaffiliated.
“Our wish is to honor and to give voice to all of our children who lost their struggle against this disease,” said Ms. Fox. “Each of us have our stories –– painful ones, that will change us forever, but we are here to learn to begin again.”
And as the parents emphasized, the real essence of this group Eternity is that it is a support group to help others rejoin the living and that life can go on.
Meets first and third Monday every month from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills.