It’s no secret that the Baltimore area has been hard hit by the horrific rise in overdose deaths. For the past six years, drug- and alcohol-related deaths have climbed in Maryland, with an all-time high of 2,089 deaths in 2016, a 66 percent spike from 2015. Heroin, prescription opioids and nonpharmaceutical fentanyl were to blame for 89 percent of those deaths, with most in the Baltimore metro area.
In conversations with those affected by addiction, and with drug treatment professionals, substance use educators and public health officials, the same simple concept keeps bubbling up: that the stigma of addiction, including in the Jewish community, could be eased if more people felt safe asking for help and sharing their stories.
BILL (not his real name) is 32 and has been sober for more than two years. He grew up in Owings Mills attending Hebrew and public schools.
“I was 15 when I smoked weed and started drinking for the first time,” he said. “I always thought it was glamorous. And there was freedom in it because of the escape it provided.”
For Bill, alcohol and drug use began while partying with friends but escalated to binging and addiction.
“In the beginning, at least, there was never this isolated, lonely, drink my problems away,” he said. “I was with people. Once I started, the end goal was to get completely trashed. I thought that was normal.”
His drinking accelerated in college, and he began selling marijuana. He made it through college, barely salvaging his grades with a Herculean effort in his last semester.
After moving to New York to begin his career, Bill was arrested and sentenced to six years of probation for a drunken incident, but that did not deter his addiction.
“It never crossed my mind to get sober. Not once. Never.”
During his last year of probation, Bill began using cocaine. Accruing thousands of dollars in debt, he lost his apartment, hurt loved ones and compromised his career. His parents eventually orchestrated an intervention during a family vacation, which included his leaving New York and entering treatment. Bill finally admitted his life was out of control.
“I’m in Alcoholics Anonymous,” he said. “My life has changed incredibly. It’s just crazy.”
He never felt AA ran counter to his Jewish beliefs. Rather, he said, it enhanced his spirituality.
“I have constant contact with God,” he said. “I pray every morning and every night.”
Bill counsels people to seek help. “Whether you want it or not, ask for it. Go to a meeting, raise your hand, say you’re new and see what happens. Your life will get better.”
MARK (not his real name), 22, began using because of a desire to fit in. He grew up in an Orthodox household. His father died when he was 3, and he always felt like an outsider. Abused at a religious event when he was 11, he said he was discouraged from coming forward by a rabbi, which shook his faith. He first tried alcohol at age 12.
“It was at that moment when I felt the way I thought I was always supposed to feel,” he said.
Abused again at religious camp at 13, he then didn’t feel safe anywhere. By 14, Mark began smoking cigarettes and drinking “as much as possible.” He was smoking pot at 16. After changing schools, attempting suicide and multiple therapists and medications, he finished high school and began experimenting with psychedelics. At 18, he smoked heroin for the first time.
“Something inside of me snapped,” he said. “I didn’t want the party drugs, the acid or the mushrooms. I wanted to feel that numb, low feeling, so I started a vicious OxyContin habit.”
He eventually reached out to Jewish friends in recovery. A treatment center phone counselor asked him if he had experienced trauma and got him into a program for PTSD. That was early 2017.
“That was the tipping point for me,” he said. “I was finally honest and started telling my story.”
And though Mark initially rejected the “God” content in AA because of his crisis of faith, he ultimately embraced its spirituality. “A big part of it is finding a power greater than yourself, and God, in whatever religion that might be — Judaism, Christianity, whatever,” he said.
ZACH SNITZER grew up in Owings Mills, attending Park School, Pikesville Middle, Owings Mills High and the University of Maryland. He now lives in Sparks. The 38-year-old co-founder of the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center in Towson (of the JCS Jewish Recovery Network) is himself in recovery. Zach’s addiction odyssey started young, although he grew up in a stable family with no major trauma.
“I started using at 12,” he said. “Mine was social, fitting in. Friends were experimenting, and it took off from there.”
Snitzer tried alcohol and marijuana, quickly moving onto opioids. “Friends had parents who had issues — it was easier access,” he said.
Although revered within his peer group for his using, he still had anxiety and felt uncomfortable in his own skin. “The substances fixed that,” he said.
Following college, and multiple rehab programs, therapists and outpatient treatment, Snitzer rarely sustained sobriety — bailing out of treatment programs and skipping therapy. By 2007, he was told he needed long-term, inpatient residential treatment.
“And for whatever reason, I was like, ‘OK, I’m willing to do that,’” he recalled. “It was a surrender. A giving up. ‘I’m tired of living this way.’”
Snitzer found that the 12 steps blended with his religious beliefs, aiding his recovery.
“Where the Jewishness came in, I was being raised Jewish, going to synagogue, being bar mitzvahed, being instilled with the idea there is something greater than ourselves, we believe in God,” he said. “A lot of people who are Jewish, not everyone, when they get into recovery, there’s this thought process that the 12 steps is Christian, but it’s not.”
While in recovery, living and working in Florida, Snitzer met his future wife and business partner. The treatment model he had experienced worked, but it wasn’t available back home. So in 2013 he and Sam Bierman opened the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, first offering intensive outpatient services, then expanding two years later with an inpatient program and a community extended-care facility.
“Addiction is a chronic progressive illness, but we’ve been treating it incorrectly for many years,” Snitzer said. “Addiction treatment should be a long-term continuum of care.”
That care, Snitzer said, should include detox, then a residential stay for education and therapies while family members start their work. Extended care should follow for three months, at least, for help reintegrating into everyday life within a safe, clinical environment.
“It’s a pandemic. And not just opioids, it’s everything,” he said. “We self-medicate, because we’re dealing with trauma. It’s a long-term process to deal with major issues like that in a healthy way.”
“We have to talk as a community,” he added. “Because if we’re ever going to actually get through this, we need to talk about it and say everyone is affected.”
STEVE and SUE SEIDEL of Pikesville lost their son, Corey, to a heroin overdose 18 months ago. Corey started smoking marijuana at 13 and progressed through ecstasy, hallucinogens, opioids and finally to the heroin that killed him at 24.
The Seidels now help others affected by addiction. Both are proponents of 12- step programs, especially Nar-Anon, a support group that Sue frequents — and often encourages new acquaintances to attend — for those with loved ones dealing with addiction.
“More families are becoming involved because more people are becoming addicted,” Sue said. “It was speaking out that helped me heal and continue to heal.”
“I’ve always been very candid about family issues, personal issues,” Steve said. “It facilitates conversation. Stigmatizing it, sweeping it under the carpet, is exacerbating the problem. You can’t help somebody to get better if you’re not well yourself.”
Sue said mental health is the key — starting with young children. “It’s when you feel [bad] about yourself that you do things to make yourself feel better, whether it’s eating, drugging, drinking.”
As a pharmacist, Steve sees the effects of the over-prescribing, pain-free mindset, which he said is perpetuated by dispensing physicians and pain-management centers, leading to the U.S. consuming more than 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone and 80 percent of its opioids.
Sue agreed. “We don’t realize how dangerous our medicine cabinets are.”
JENNIFER (not her real name) lives in Park Heights. Her husband, now in recovery, had relapsed during their engagement. She knew of Al-Anon but was unsure it would help.
“Finally, a friend told me to stop being stubborn and dragged me to a meeting,” Jennifer said in an email. “To this day, I’m extremely grateful she did that.”
Even though her religious community is working toward acceptance and understanding, Jennifer said it’s not there yet.
“The loss of income, the impact on the family, the fear and secret-keeping make it nearly impossible to have a normal life,” she said. “We have Bikur Cholim that provides meals to families with illness, but for a family with a parent in rehab there isn’t a way to receive those services. This would mean revealing the reason why, and that’s too scary.”
She cited Ahavas Yisrael as being compassionate and supportive. “Without their assistance, we would have been lost,” she said.
Jennifer found an Al-Anon meeting she liked, discovering that the steps didn’t contradict her Judaism. Few meetings are held in area synagogues, and some have closed recently, but she thinks a new meeting starting in a shul isn’t likely.
“There is too much fear and stigma in the Orthodox community for people to be comfortable attending. Additionally, time is a factor as the frum shuls have services three times a day,” she said.
Jennifer now helps other women struggling with the effects of addiction on their lives.
“My relationships are healthier, more loving, more accepting, and it has created the life I never thought I’d ever have but definitely am grateful that I do,” she said. “Thank God [my husband] is in recovery and we are working on crafting the life that both of us want, together.”
HOWARD REZNICK manages Jewish Community Services Prevention Education Services.
JCS answered the question of how Judaism jibes with the 12 steps through an employee symposium comparing them with Jewish teachings.
“The principles seem to be 100 percent consistent with the Jewish/traditional/ Orthodox/Chasidic/Kabbalic understanding of the universe, and especially about changing behaviors damaging to oneself and other people,” Reznick said. “If the god of my understanding is Jesus Christ, these things will be helpful. If the god of my understanding is the Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, this is all consistent.”
The symposium compared the Rambam, Maimonides’ methodology for teshuva, with parallel steps in 12-step recovery. “We did an hour and a half stacking them up side by side, and they’re very, very consistent,” Reznick said.
Reznick is working on a series of podcasts on addiction set for fall release on the JCS website ifIknew.org, an online health initiative for young people. The series will include young adults talking about recovery and parents who have lost children to opioids or whose children are in active addiction or recovery. “These are nice Jewish boys and gals,” Reznick said.
OLIVIA FARROW, a Baltimore City Health Department deputy commissioner, leads a plan to open Maryland’s first “stabilization center” in the former Hebrew Orphan Asylum in West Baltimore. The city earmarked $2 million for the center designed to reduce overcrowding in Baltimore’s emergency rooms and help get people into treatment. With 30 beds and short stays, the center could handle up to about 90 people a day.
A person intoxicated from drugs or alcohol would be picked up by EMS, evaluated and, barring a medical emergency, transported to the stabilization center for hydration, food and a few hours of sleep. A peer advocate would work with the person to see if they are ready for treatment. “And take them to treatment,” Farrow said. “You can’t just hand somebody a [referral] card.”
Other needs would be assessed, but if the person is not ready for treatment, they would be taken home. Caseworkers would follow up for 30 days.
“We’re going to work with people to get them where they need to be,” Farrow said. “We hope that’s the beginning of the path to recovery.”
The center is expected to be complete by next spring or early summer.
Both Baltimore City and Baltimore County health departments offer public overdose education and naloxone training. Also known as Narcan, the drug saves people from overdose death. The two-hour training sessions include a prescription for naloxone, a free naloxone kit and a certificate of completion.
BETH L. HECHT, JCS senior manager of community engagement, said addiction touches everyone. “There is not a family who doesn’t have a friend or someone impacted,” she said.
JCS is offering a community health program on the crisis Nov. 21, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at the Myerberg Center, 3101 Fallstaff Road.
The event will include keynote speaker Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins, as well as people in recovery and their family members sharing their stories. There will be a Q&A session and information on intervention, treatment, resources and support.
“I think people don’t realize how prevalent it is. The scope, the impact, what the causes are,” Hecht said. “There’s also a lot of shame and secrecy, so we’re trying to destigmatize and get people the information that they need.”
Narcotics Anonymous 12 Steps
~We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
~We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
~We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
~We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
~We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
~We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
~We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
~We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
~We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
~We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
~We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
~Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Jewish Community Services Addiction Services:
JCS Jewish Recovery Network:
Alcoholic’s Anonymous: aa.org
Narcotics Anonymous: na.org
Al-Anon Family Groups: al-anon.org
Nar-Anon Familiy Groups: nar-anon.org
Baltimore City Naloxone Training: dontdie.org
Baltimore County Naloxone Training:
Baltimore City Crisis, Information and Referral Hotline: 410-433-5175
Baltimore County Resource, Education and Advocacy Hotline: 410-88-REACH