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Toda Raba


Toda Raba

(Thank you very much in Hebrew)

At one of my favorite A.A. meetings in Manhattan there are 2 rooms, the front room and the back room. I’d been going to meetings in the front room for months but one day I decided to see what was going on in that mysterious back room. What I discovered was that the 12 step message was the same in both rooms, only the attendees were different. That first day in the back room I was surprised to see a woman in full Hasidic garb sitting there quietly waiting for the meeting to start. I had under a year of sobriety at the time and was constantly amazed at the incredibly diverse types of people I would encounter in A.A. meetings. I think I had expected to see a bunch of pee-soaked bowery-bums, so imagine my surprise when I met people from every corner of society and socio-economic group. From the absolute highest to the lowest and every single thing in between. I had my prejudices though. I see that now. What was she doing here, I thought? Hasidic Jews were not alcoholics. Irish Catholics like me sure, but Hasidic Jews…not so much. But you know what I have learned? There are addicts everywhere, absolutely everywhere. So this woman had come with her cohorts from a nearby rehab in Queens to attend an A.A. meeting. Her name was Rachel and what she shared with me and the group I found hard to believe. She had five children and although she looked quite battle weary and was wearing an unflattering wig, one could see that she was still a young and attractive woman. She was from what was at the time the staunchly Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg and had somehow become a crack addict. How does that even happen, I wondered? How is that even possible? But she was probably looking at me and thinking the same thing. How did she end up in here? Alas, there we were, nervous, twitchy and at our bottoms, together. I didn't have kids yet and didn't know if I ever would because I sure as hell was not having kids if I couldn’t stop drinking for one year straight. That's what I was trying to do, go one year without a drink (which seemed like an impossible feat at the time) and then decide if I wanted kids. Or decide definitively if I even wanted to be sober.

I was skeptical of this woman's story. Choosing crack over her kids? She told us that because of her addiction she had lost custody and visiting rights and had been shunned by her lifelong community. She summed it up by saying "the truth of the matter is that I loved crack more than I loved my children". Despite not yet being a mother I was gobsmacked. After the meeting I spent some time with Rachel and she left an acute impression on me. She was as curious about me as I was of her and we went back and forth with our rapid-fire questions. She stressed to me the importance of getting sober before having children, not after, because if anything will send an addict spiraling deeper into addiction it is the endless tasks and chronic worry of parenthood. She loved being a mother but 5 kids in that many years had sent her over the edge. She explained to me that deep down she knew she loved her children more than crack, but that addiction sometimes screams louder than love and demands to be fed, immediately. And then the shame of having used instead of baking a birthday cake, or helping with homework, or some other motherly duty would be so intense and painful that she would have to use again, to escape from the shame of having used. A never-ending exhausting cycle of using then shame then using then shame then using then shame over and over again. She was trapped in the cycle. As was I. Only our drug of choice was different. She told me a little about herself, her life, her community, and how she wanted to get off. Off the relentless hamster wheel of active addiction. She told me about how the disease would coax her to use and whisper in her ear that she was "fine" she was just "relaxing." How crack became her "reward" for a job well done, for her exhausting, selfless days. Until the crack became more than a reward, it became her entire life. Crack consumed her. I wanted the details. How in the world does a young mother living in a cloistered community get hooked on crack? But Rachel laughed and said that there is more addiction in that community than anyone would care to admit or believe. This disease is everywhere and it is a monster. It tears families apart, destroys lives, rips mothers and fathers from their children and throws relationships and bonds and connections out the window. The disease of addiction has zero boundaries. It can and does go everywhere and affects humanity worldwide.

I hate to admit this but because of my time in A.A. and my conversation with Rachel decades ago I have come to know some harsh truths about myself. I know for a fact, terrible as it is, that if I had continued drinking and had my children anyway I would have driven with them drunk. I would have put them to bed early when they were young so I could drink more. I would have let the laundry pile up and thrown them each a box of cereal for dinner instead of cooking for them. If not drunk while with them I would have been chronically grumpy, snappy and resentful. I would have existed in a fog, either hungover, trying not to drink, or drunk. Three miserable states of existence that I knew quite well. All states in which it is impossible to be loving, nurturing or present, the three things that children need most. As it is I can still be a beast when I've reached my mommy tipping point. But I know my behavior would have been so much more damaging to my children and my family had I continued on my sad downhill path into alcoholism. So this complete stranger changed my life. I realized in our conversation that if I was ever going to have children I had to get and stay sober for a while before I even entertained the thought of pregnancy. Rachel told me the truth, that good parenting and active addiction can never really co-exist.

I never saw Rachel again. Her group did not come back to the meeting when I was there and even though we spent a lot of time chatting that one evening we never exchanged phone numbers. I don't know what happened to Rachel or her children. But she was in the right place. She was working hard to get sober and was desperate to get back to her children and her life. She had what I had at that same time, the strangely glorious gift of desperation. We were both at the end of the road, desperate to get back on track. Desperate to recover from our addictions. Desperate for a better future for ourselves and our loved ones. My prayer is that Rachel got it, for her family, for her community, but most importantly for herself. Rachel and I both saw that our addiction had become a pitiful crutch. Our using had morphed from a wonderful numbing agent into a toxic medication that needed to be ingested daily in order to survive. A "medication" that was killing us and harming those we loved.

I have faith that Rachel is sober today. Because she had faith. Faith in the program, faith in herself, faith that she was going to do the hard work it takes to get and stay sober, faith in her higher power, and faith in a 12-step program. So when my kids drive me nuts as kids tend to do (that is their job after all) and a tall stiff one around dinner time seems like the only solution to my frustrations and woes I think of Rachel and am so grateful for her. Because of her I know that the pull of addiction can feel stronger than a mother's love and that truth terrifies me to this day and helps me to stay sober, one day at a time.

So toda raba Rachel. Toda raba for everything.


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