Thank God, I’ve been clean each day for twenty-four years since I started attending SA meetings in Adar of 1997. But five years before that (in 1992), I called Rabbi Twerski (from a payphone — anyone remember those?) for help. Of course, the reason I bit the bullet and made the call that particular day was because I had just made yet another round of self-destructive choices (though they certainly didn’t feel like “choices” at the time!) that shocked me…so I felt needed to make another frantic, spur-of-the-moment scream for help. The pain was terrible. And my call was filled with hope.
By that time (in 1992), I had been acting out with inappropriate material, aveiros, and other ways to get high through lust, for about sixteen years, six of them as a married guy learning, giving shiurim, and in school for a trade. By 1992, I had opened up about (at least part of) my problem to three rabbanim and two psychologists… all while succeeding at keeping nearly all my behaviors secret from my wife.
Well, getting married obviously hadn’t helped help me because my behaviors had only gotten worse over the previous four or five years; the well-meaning rabbanim and decent psychologists had surely tried their best, but I was still getting worse, not better. I was beginning to perceive that there really was nothing my wife, my rabbanim, or my therapists could possibly do to save me from myself and my terrible secret problem. But I remembered my ace-in-the-hole, Rabbi Twerski!
By that time, I had already read a couple of his great books (Let Us Make Man being my favorite) and was very impressed. I had also been listening to a “Daily Reflection on Recovery” phone line he had. The phone number was 1-800-45SOBER, as I recall. I discovered the number scribbled on the wall in a yeshivah somewhere. So I called! Every day he had another great one-minute message about addiction and recovery. Sometimes, I played his message over again, because it was very meaningful. And at end of every message, his secretary Kim gave a plug for his latest given book. Her voice was very pleasant-sounding to me, and even though I would occasionally play his messages over again, it was Kim’s messages that I would play over and over…
And twenty years later, when I spent a couple of hours with Rabbi Twerski in his house in Teaneck, I told him all about Kim’s part of his message. He laughed hard, and so did I! Addicts in recovery can laugh about our old behaviors because we are now revealed to be “guilty but mostly stupid” in our efforts. I was never trying to be bad, and we both knew it. I was just totally clueless at how to get by in life, and inappropriate material, lust, and schmutz were all I really trusted! It’s not about whether it was right or wrong, good or bad…it was just a fact. My behavior proved without any doubt what my beliefs were. I wanted with my whole heart and neshamah to be good, but I obviously trusted the excitement of lust more than anything else. I sacrificed so much for it, took so many risks, felt so bad, and kept doing it anyway for so many years… That’s devotion, that’s trust.
The rabbi and I could laugh because we’re “no longer afraid of the past and we don’t shut the door on it” — and we can even laugh about it, at times. We know that we were just doing the best we could, at the time, with our (very) addled minds. Recovery involves lots of behavioral changes (no more lying, no more hiding, etc), but it also involves giving up seeing ourselves as the center of the universe, the narcissistic frum drama of it all. We can laugh again, even at our mistakes. And we can surrender lust and fantasy in a fellowship of other imperfect people doing the same.
By the way, the reason I was at Rabbi Twerski’s house in Teaneck a couple of years ago was because we were discussing his book Teshuvah Through Recovery, which had about twenty pages of my posts on GYE.
I was able to get in touch with Rabbi Twerski in the first place only because this same Kim would always mention that Dr. Twerski worked out of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. I called information from that payphone and asked for Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, eventually reaching the Gateway Rehabilitation Center there, and then Dr. Twerski’s office. And presto, there he was on the phone! I couldn’t believe it. The cavalry was coming in, finally.
Well, I described a great deal of my behaviors to him, there on the street, whispering in fear of the passersby. He told me I’d never get better on my own. At the time, he didn’t really know much about SA. But he obviously heard the cyclical and progressive story I told about my behaviors, he heard what I went through for ten years, then for six years of marriage, and he understood why it didn’t get better, only worse. He was hearing the same story that all the alcoholics and drug addicts tell. And he told me that I had no real chance of success unless I registered with a rehab center for intensive therapy or joined a group of other people getting better from the same problem. (Later, he became a great friend of SA, and I was present in the crowd hearing him speak at SA conferences, as a guest. But back in 1992, he didn’t really know what address to send me to yet.)
Well, I got off the phone after thanking him profusely…and went back to struggling with my lust, inappropriate material, and aveiros for the next five years. Nothing had changed at all.
I was caught by my wife in late 1995. That didn’t stop me, either. I spent about a year with my fourth try with a therapist and even medication, but I continued choosing lust and erotic adventure over real life; getting only worse, not better. I hit rock bottom in early 1997 and finally went to a bona fide lust addiction therapist. I told her my entire story without holding back anything, and she knew how to get even more honesty out of me. And then she broke the bad news to me: She said she couldn’t really help me because she can’t really save any addicts. She told me that what I needed more than self-control was self-honesty. And that the only place I could learn self-honesty was in a fellowship of other sober people getting better from the very same problem I had myself.
Rabbi Twerski’s advice from five years earlier was finally acceptable to me. My own bankruptcy and behavior had convinced me to surrender, to finally give up trying to control this thing… because addicts like us are too ill to successfully use and control our drug. But we definitely can be free of it!
And even if using schmutz were somehow a great mitzvah, I would not be able to control it successfully and would be a hundred percent patur from it. The point is that — unlike normal Yidden (or gentiles) — I am just too ill to successfully control it. And Hashem knows that. For me it’s not about kedushah, not about teshuvah…it’s about survival and being in life, for real… just like it is for alcoholics regarding alcohol.
And when I said this to Rabbi Twerski, he responded, “Of course! What else could it be?!”
I thanked him for planting that seed in my head, even if at the time he didn’t yet understand it fully, himself. We shared a hug, a tear, and a smile.