My name is Caren and I recently celebrated three years of sobriety from alcohol and opiates. I’m also Jewish, a wife, mom, business owner, granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and a flower growing enthusiast. Just like being in recovery from substance use disorder is not my sole identity, I have availed myself of many methods to reach and maintain my sobriety. I am a firm believer that there is no one set way to recover. Utilizing multiple pathways in my recovery allows me to live my best life.
In my opinion, my approach is a very Jewish one. Let me explain.
Take What You Need
Judaism offers multiple pathways to engage with our tradition. There are various denominations, and even distinct groups or sects within some denominations. We can find meaning in the joyful ruach-filled practice of Hasidism, the study of mystical Kabbalah, and intellectually tearing apart a Jewish text. We have Shabbat, holidays, and rituals. I take full advantage of all of this by belonging to a Conservative synagogue and being involved with our local Chabad community.
My recovery mirrors my Jewish experience; it consists of a variety of approaches and programs and is constantly evolving. I follow the 12-Step saying, “Take what you need and leave the rest,” and apply this to all possible recovery options.
Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) has been the foundation of my recovery process, and I utilize the drug, Vivitrol. MAT can be a lifesaver in early recovery from opioid use disorder (OUD). More on this in a minute. I also have a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous with whom I do 12-step work, I attend SMART recovery meetings, and I am a founding member of a Facebook community of sober moms.
Combatting Misperceptions about MAT
There are many misconceptions about MAT, and since learning is a Jewish value, I’d like to shed some light on MAT for those who don’t know much about it. Opioids alter your brain chemistry and rewire your neurotransmitters to seek them out. After extended use, your brain begins to function normally on opioids and abnormally when opioids are not in your system.
Once you quit using, those effects don’t reverse automatically so it would be naïve to think that everyone with OUD could quit cold turkey. MAT has the highest success rate for OUD for a reason: It allows your brain the chance to heal without being harassed by relentless, obsessive cravings during the process. And by the way, you can’t get high from Vivitrol; however, it does allow you have a functioning life again.
As someone whose life has been saved by MAT, it hurts to see the myths about MAT perpetuated, and especially hurtful to witness the controversy and even hostility that many in recovery communities have towards it. There are too many people in recovery, in general society, and even some medical professionals who believe people using MAT are not sober or in recovery.
Pikuach Nefesh and Harm Reduction
Back to Judaism. Judaism values life above all else. When we toast at a happy occasion, we say L’Chaim (to life!). There is a special prayer we say when we come through a life-threatening situation. And, the Jewish law of pikuach nefesh instructs us to do whatever is necessary to save a life, overriding any other law.
Everything changed when fentanyl came on the scene. Fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, can be found cut into all kinds of street drugs. Now when someone uses, they are playing Russian roulette with their life. It is live or die every single time so whatever we can do to mitigate potential overdose, needs to be done.
The answer is a concept called harm reduction, a secular form of pikuach nefesh. People only stop using when they are ready. So until that day comes, we have to meet them where they are at. We need to keep them alive because dead people can’t recover.
Different Paths, All Deserving of Compassion
There are many paths to recovery, and each person’s journey is different. Here, once again, we can learn from Judaism. Judaism is a religion steeped in debate. Rabbi David Wolpe said, “…debate is a kind of Jewish sacrament,” and noted that “Name-calling and epithets are not debate. Increasingly there are certain arguments one is simply not permitted to voice, because they offend or disconcert others.”
As Jews, we have a time-honored tradition of allowing ourselves to consider opposing viewpoints like the various interpretations in our oral Torah texts. As Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
We need to stop thinking we have all the recovery answers or that there is only one right way to recover. Because whatever method(s) we choose, one thing is certain: we cannot recover alone. Community and connection are two essential components to practicing and growing in recovery, just like they are in Judaism.
For people in recovery, no matter what pathway(s) they are employing on their journey, the commonality they share is their desire to be sober and live their best life. In both recovery and Judaism, it’s connection that bonds us, holds us accountable, and nurtures improvement in our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Simply put, we need each other.
Caren Lowrey holds a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice and Sociology and is a former social worker in Philadelphia and their prison system. Currently in recovery from drugs and alcohol, Caren is vocal about ending the stigma of addiction and advocates for M.A.T., harm reduction, and ending the drug war. She resides in Allentown, PA with her husband, three young children and their mini labradoodle where she owns a coffee and water service company with her husband and is still actively addicted to caffeine. You can follow Caren on Instagram @care_n_bloom.