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The Fruit of the Vine

Judaism helped me get into drinking alcohol—would it now help me get sober?

Sarah Link Ferguson
July 30, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
This article is part of Addiction.
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My first memory of consuming alcohol was at a Passover Seder. I was about 13, and my mom was converting to Judaism in an effort to rediscover herself after her divorce from my dad. This was my first taste of Judaism, and I loved the ritual of the evening—the storytelling, the symbolism, and the singing. But what I loved most was the little bit of wine I was given. When the buzz from the wine hit me, I felt a dizzy euphoria. The terrible anxiety, which I lived with every day, lifted, and I remember thinking, “This is what I’ve been missing.” The next day, when I thought about the elation I had felt after drinking, I got terrified. It was as if my adolescent mind saw what this substance could someday do to me.

I didn’t drink again until college. I attended a large state university, where drinking felt as imperative to the college experience as the freshman orientation we all had to attend. And just as I remembered from the Seder, alcohol lessened my ever-present anxiety. So I began consuming it regularly. And compared with my peers’ championship drinking, my drinking didn’t feel problematic. Still, I often encountered the same trepidation I had felt at 13. It would come in the morning, along with the hangover.

My senior year, two life-changing events occurred. The first was marrying my husband the August before classes began. We were impulsive 20-somethings and couldn’t imagine waiting any longer than the two years we had been dating to marry. Despite our parents being concerned, they saw what a genuinely good match we seemed to be, and it was an incredibly happy day for everyone. I’m glad that we married when we did, because just three months later the unthinkable happened: My younger brother ended his life.

Ben was my only sibling, and he had struggled with mental illness his entire life, even expressing suicidal ideation starting at age 5. Even though I knew about his mental health struggles, his death was the most severe shock of my life. Grief opened up like a chasm within me, and I did whatever I could to quell the pain. I tried support groups. I read The Year of Magical Thinking. And, in the evenings, I drank wine.

As I navigated my grief that first year after my brother’s death, I watched from afar as my mom’s Jewish faith provided her with a framework to process her grief. I was especially amazed by how her congregation, a small Conservative congregation in the suburbs of Kansas City, enveloped her with love. It was like nothing I’d seen in the Presbyterian church in which I’d been raised with my dad. I was painfully aware that I had nothing like this in my own life, and I eventually made the decision to pursue conversion.

My mom’s experience stuck with me, and about three years after my brother’s death, I began researching local synagogues and rabbis for myself. I found a tiny urban congregation in Kansas City with a strong dedication to social justice and a rabbi who welcomed me warmly. More important, when the rabbi and I met, he listened as I explained how the loss of my brother brought me to Judaism. He didn’t offer platitudes or minimize my pain. I remember that he noted that “one thing Jews definitely get right is the grieving process.” I would later learn that this was one of the reasons that he’d become a rabbi, to help people navigate this difficult but inevitable life event. Confident I had found the right rabbi, I began the formal conversion process.

The rabbi and I began meeting regularly, and I began attending a community conversion class on Thursday nights. The problem with the class was that it got in the way of my drinking, which, since my brother’s death, had become a balm for my anxiety and insomnia. I did my best to abstain from alcohol on Thursday nights, but sometimes my resolve would crumble and I would drink a few glasses beforehand. My inability to always make it to class sober showed me that the scales had tipped: I was in a losing battle with alcohol.

In May 2016, after about a year of study, I formally converted. The whole process felt beautiful and sacred, although, wracked with guilt over my drinking, I could hardly enjoy any of it. My husband suggested that I cut back several times, and I could tell he was growing frustrated with my pattern: binge, abstain, moderate, repeat. At the time, I was thankful that he never gave me an ultimatum to give up alcohol, but looking back I wonder if he should have. Then again, I had become pretty good at hiding how much I drank and deflecting any criticism that came my way. He may not have known how much I was drinking, or maybe he was in denial about how bad it was. What it seemed like neither of us could admit was that, sometime after my brother died, I had lost control over my alcohol consumption.

Over the next year, if I wasn’t drinking, I was thinking about when I could drink next. I had become a slave to my desire to obliterate my pain, and the only way I knew how to do this was drinking copious amounts of alcohol. It was the darkest period of my life since losing my brother, and I was terrified that my drinking was going to cost me my marriage, my job, and everything that I loved. Still, I didn’t know how to stop.

Then something miraculous and unexpected happened: In January 2018, I found out I was pregnant. While we had decided to start trying to get pregnant, it had only been about a month, and neither of us thought it would happen this quickly. I was thrilled and terrified. I’d slowed my drinking some, and I quit entirely as soon as I got a positive result from a home pregnancy test. And in those nine months, my life changed. Despite difficulty managing my anxiety without alcohol, it seemed like the longer I was pregnant, the better my life got. When we found out we were having a girl, we chose the Hebrew name Eliana, meaning “God answered.” For me, my daughter was a literal answer to the prayer I seemed to be constantly uttering: “Please help me get my alcohol use under control.” She halted my self-destruction when I couldn’t do so myself.

But the halt was only temporary. A few months after giving birth, I had picked up where I left off, unable to control my drinking—but now with a child to care for. Despite loving my daughter more than anything in the world, I couldn’t bring myself to stop drinking each night. I’d start right after dinner, and by the time I fell asleep at 10 o’clock I’d had half a bottle of wine or more. And I hated myself for it.

It became clear that I had two options: I could get sober, or I could lose everything. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the alcohol started affecting my relationship with my daughter. I had seen friends who had struggled with their parents’ addiction, and I’d watched as their relationships crumbled. I knew that if this happened, I would never forgive myself. I wish I could say it was an easy decision to stop drinking, but it was emotionally fraught, and it took time. I never discussed this internal battle with my husband, but he knew that I was drowning in all of my new responsibilities as a working mom with a drinking problem. He did all that he could to support me at home, but he couldn’t save me from myself. Ultimately, I couldn’t decide to quit drinking for anyone else: I had to value my own life enough to make the decision to quit.

On Christmas evening, after opening my second bottle of wine, something within me broke. I had finally reached the limit of what I would tolerate from myself, and I finished what I knew would be my last glass of wine. What ensued in the days and weeks following was an indescribable discomfort. While grief is a sharp and acute pain, withdrawal and sobriety felt like a steady dull ache. My nerves felt raw and exposed, and more than anything, I just wanted something to help me cope with this dysphoria. But my go-to coping mechanism had long been alcohol.

One of my first calls after getting sober was to my rabbi. He knew me well and probably knew about my substance abuse. Still, I told him what was happening. I begged him for advice, but in true rabbi fashion, he gave me no straight answers. What he did provide was his support for my decision to pursue sobriety. As I began to open up to more friends about sobriety, many of my Jewish friends rallied around me and shared how impressed they were with my decision and that they fully supported me in my pursuit of a sober life. I saw then that I had gotten what I had yearned for years before: a faith community to surround me in times of crisis. I just didn’t expect the crisis would have been one I created.

I wanted to cling to my faith in recovery, but I was running into so many logistical issues. For instance, services were on Friday nights—a huge trigger. Though I drank most nights, I drank even more on the weekends. Now, Friday and Saturday nights filled me with a mix of dread and longing for the relief I used to get from wine. Maybe going to services would have helped me, but in those early months of recovery, I really didn’t venture far from my house when I didn’t have to.

I wondered if there were any resources specifically for Jews in recovery, so I started researching the topic. Unfortunately, I found that very little existed in the way of Jewish resources for addiction recovery, especially if you didn’t take a 12 Steps approach to sobriety, which I didn’t. The 12 Steps felt too Christian to me, even though I was constantly reassured that Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t affiliated with any one religion. I went another direction entirely, choosing a program, Tempest Sobriety School, created with women and minorities in mind. Tempest offered a more holistic approach to recovery, encouraging its students to build their own recovery “toolbox” of coping mechanisms to use in place of addictive behaviors like drinking alcohol and to build community with people who shared the same struggles. Since I’d primarily used drinking to cope with my grief and anxiety, I felt that this might actually work.

For the first time in my life, I met others who had the same issue controlling alcohol or other substances in their lives. Tempest also helped me stop berating myself over struggling with moderating my alcohol use. I started, instead, to question this deadly yet widely consumed substance and the culture that promoted it, rather than what I’d seen as my deepest character flaw, my lack of willpower.

After discovering a program that worked for me, I gave up searching for a more “Jewish” approach to recovery, I also recalled what one rabbi told us in the conversion class, that although wine was a constant in most Jewish ceremony, drunkenness was prohibited. Maybe addiction wasn’t a Jewish issue, and this was why I was struggling to connect my Judaism and my recovery? If that were the case, what would this would mean for me and the identity I’d built as a Jew?

After about a month of white-knuckling it, I was shocked to discover something that actually provided my nerves some relief: meditation. It had come up again and again in my recovery program and the new recovery circles in which I found myself, so I eventually gave in. I downloaded some meditation apps and began my practice. I hated it at first, and wondered why being alone with my thoughts would help me feel less anxious when the very idea used to drive me to drink.

But over time, I saw that learning to sit with my discomfort provided me one of my greatest learning opportunities, as well as a healthy coping mechanism to deal with anxiety. My meditation practice was simple, just 10 minutes here and there using a meditation app to guide me through what at first felt completely unnatural: sitting still, observing my thoughts.

As I repeatedly saw that nothing bad happened when I removed distractions and focused inward, I grew less anxious. And I found that the more I meditated, the more in touch with my spirituality I felt. Meditation was a daily reminder of how finite my knowledge was compared to God’s. It was awe inspiring.

As my days sober hit the triple digits, most aspects of my life were getting better. Life wasn’t perfect by any means, but instead of having my emotional baseline set at low-grade agitation, I was relatively happy most of the time, and my anxiety was the lowest it had ever been. My husband was my biggest cheerleader, and my daughter remained my biggest motivator. I rushed home from work each weekday to play with her, rather than to compulsively open a bottle of wine. Using healthy coping mechanisms like meditation was unquestionably harder than draining a bottle of wine, but it had a lasting impact. It decreased my pain, rather than just numbing it temporarily.

I realized that although I feared I wouldn’t connect with my faith in recovery, I’d been getting in touch with my spirituality through meditation for months. I had also received so much support from my rabbi and a few friends within the Jewish community, so I stopped worrying about whether my recovery techniques were specifically Jewish.

When I began my recovery journey, I assumed that the only way I could access God and my faith was through regularly attending services or finding Jewish recovery resources. What I saw, however, was that I had been encountering God and growing my spiritual practice for months. Throughout life, I have repeatedly expected God to show up where I expect God to, and I am constantly disappointed when that doesn’t happen. But often, I don’t encounter God until I release my expectations of who God is or what God’s capabilities are. My spiritual practice may not look as traditional as I expected it to, but it has brought me closer to God and Judaism, during a time when I desperately needed both.

Sarah Link Ferguson is a mental health worker and recovery enthusiast. She writes about her recovery on her (former wine) blog and on Instagram.