At our third session, the adolescent psychologist came out to the waiting room, and said to my husband and me, “Please come in my office. Your son has something to share with you. I ask that you only listen and don’t respond.” It was the summer of 2006. Our son had returned a few weeks before from a teen trip to Israel, and we knew something was off, prompting the visits to the therapist. However, nothing prepared us for the list of legal and illegal substances he confessed to taking. Until that moment he had kept these activities well hidden, but it became pretty clear pretty fast that this was beyond experimentation. Although we felt like a tsumani hit our family, we summoned the parental strength that comes from the deep well within when your child’s life is in danger, springing into action to get him help.
Navigating Rough Seas
How we functioned those first days, weeks, and months, and even years, I don’t know. We were shocked, confused, and scared. I remember thinking, “My life is over. I will never smile again.” We didn’t know then that for the next decade plus, we would navigate the turbulent and murky waters of addiction alongside our son.
Those who have also been on this journey with a a loved one will recognize the fleet of competing emotions that flood in at the beginning: fear, grief, hopelessness, sadness, feeling like a failure, anger, resentment, shame, and emabarrassment. And when you can think straight for a minute, love, compassion, and empathy for your family member caught in the grip of addiction can break through the other emotions. It all comes in waves while you’re dealing with sleepless nights, exhaustion, buckets of tears, and imagining worst case scenarios.
It took some time to get educated about substance use disorder, a term that wasn’t even used in 2006. Eventually, we gained the knowledge that it is a disease, that our son was not doing this on purpose or to hurt us, that it wasn’t personal, and that he wasn’t a bad person trying to be good, but a sick person trying to get well. Still, it was hard to internalize, and the anger, resentment, and shame continued as if anchored in place. With the lies, false promises, relapses, betrayals, and maniupulation, those negative emotions kept bobbing up and down like buoys. The judgment of others and the harsh percepton of addiction in our culture as a moral failure only exacerabated and prolonged these feelings.
After enduring many years in these rough seas, how do you forgive your loved one for causing all that pain, and how do you forgive yourself for responses or missteps you regret? As we entered Elul, the Hebrew month set aside to prepare for the Yamim Noraim, our High Holy Days, a season of reflection, teshuvah, and forgiveness, I found myself thinking a lot about this.
Forgiveness for an Illness?
Before diving into how Jewish traditions, texts, and practices can help turn the tide and bring healing, I need to share a realization I came to during some quiet time reflecting on forgiveness. It’s almost an absurdity that we are talking about forgiving someone for having symptoms of an illness, and that’s what all the problematic behavior of someone struggling with addiction is - symptoms.
Would we expect someone who has cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or multiple sclerosis to make amends and ask our forgiveness because they are ill? Would we have had as much anger, resentment, and frustration if our family member was suffering from another disease? No, we wouldn’t. But because of the unique symptoms that come with substance use disorder, forgiveness is an integral part of recovery and repairing relationships.
Charting a Course for Forgiveness
My compass for forgiving our son and forgiving myself came largely from working a 12 Step program. As I did this, like so many others, I recognized the parallels in Judaism. And nowhere were these parallels more evident than in how we approach and celebrate our High Holy Days. During this time in the Jewish calendar, we ask for forgiveness for deeds we have done that have hurt others (bein adam le-havero), we grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us, and we ask God for forgiveness for transgressions that are between us and God (bein adam la-Makom). This takes preparation, and we are given the month of Elul to reflect on our behavior, to take a Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. Only then can we make a sincere effort to seek and give forgiveness.
As we own up to our own lapses, it softens us to forgive others when they seek our forgiveness. Our inspiration for forgiving comes directly from our relationship with God. Nehemiah 9:17 says, “But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and You did not forsake them,” referring to the forgiveness that was granted when the Israelites made a molten calf to worship instead of God. During the Yom Kippur afternoon HafTorah, we read, “Who is a God like You, forgiving iniquity and overlooking transgressions…” (Micah 7:18) and “God will take us back in love; God will cover up our iniquities, and hurl our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). The Talmudic commentary on these verses from Micah is: “Whose iniquities does God tolerate? A person who forgives the transgressions of another” (Rosh Hashanah 17a).
I believe our capacity to forgive ourselves is directly related to our ability to forgive others, and that is the place to start. We cannot give away what we don’t have. Dr. Kristin Neff, author of the book Self Compassion explains, “Having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness, and the more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all of your fellow humans in the experience of life.” A rabbi friend shared with me that when he recites the Al Chet, the list of sins we confess ten times during Yom Kippur services, instead of hitting his chest with a clenched fist, he uses an open hand and gently massages his chest as an act of compassion towards himself.
Judaism is a religion of action. In pursuing forgiveness, we are instructed to humble ourselves, admit our wrongs, ask for forgiveness, and then translate our remorse into changed behavior, a return (tehsuvah) to mitzvot, and consideration and kindness toward those we love. As this year’s High Holy Days draw near, I’m grateful that our son is sober one day at a time, and that the wisdom of Judaism and recovery has guided us in restoring a loving relationship based on mutual respect.
May all of us be inscribed in the Book of Life for good, G’mar Chatimah Tova!
Marla Kaufman is the executive director and founder of Jewish Addiction Awareness Network (JAAN). She believes that while we don’t have control over many of the things that happen to us in life, we do have a choice in how we respond. Her son’s struggles with substance use disorder motivated Marla to become an advocate for addiction and recovery issues in the Jewish community.