The role of religion and spirituality in recovering from addiction was the focus of ‘Finding Spirituality the Hard Way,’ a discussion hosted by the Jewish Studies Department on Tuesday.
Rabbi Jay Siegel, a former addict who is now an associate rabbi at the Jewish recovery center Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles, led the talk. Siegel, who was invited to speak by Jewish studies department coordinator Jody Myers, recalled his personal journey toward recovery and understanding spirituality.
Siegel began with a detailed account of his youth, using the clarity of hindsight to trace back his struggle with addiction to its earliest roots. Growing up in a ‘normal’ family in Houston, Texas, Siegel felt that his early life was quite ordinary.
‘I don’t see myself as being different from anybody else, although I was Jewish in the Bible Belt,’ said Siegel.
His conception of addiction, like his understanding of religion, would not come until later in his life. Looking back, Siegel remembers receiving a poor report card in the fifth grade. This seemingly familiar and innocuous occurrence compelled him to adopt a mindset that he said would be the foundation for his struggles with addiction and alcoholism.
‘I had this idea that if you just put your mind to it, you could do anything you want; that I didn’t need anyone to help me. I could do it alone,’ said Siegel.
Over the next few years, from middle school and well past high school graduation Siegel began huffing butane, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, drinking alcohol, dropping acid, snorting cocaine and shooting heroin. All of it was for what he said was an escape.
‘I am a seeker. I will seek in any way to feel right, to feel okay. So that I don’t have to feel,’ said Siegel. ‘I sought through a lot of things. Even in the fifth grade, I sought to get by on my own. It was empowering. But when that didn’t work I sought through outside factors like drugs.’
Although he did not know it then, Siegel said he was searching for a deeper, more meaningful connection.
‘Drugs and alcohol were a spiritual solution to a problem,’ he said. ‘The drugs and alcohol did for me what I really couldn’t do for myself, which was to feel okay and to come to some kind of terms with living.’
Deeper into his addiction, Siegel said he had to be high to deal with almost anything, recounting family illnesses, deaths, and times of strife that would have been unmanageable without drugs or alcohol. His life continued in this way until something went terribly wrong. The drugs stopped working.
‘Drugs I had been taking for years didn’t do anything. I couldn’t smoke marijuana without getting paranoid. I could drink but I wasn’t getting drunk. I was doing cocaine and I wasn’t getting the rush I wanted anymore. Cigarettes were just like nothing to me and the heroin was just keeping me even. That’s how I was living for a long time,’ explained Siegel.
In his desperation, he sought help through Alcoholics Anonymous. Siegel had checked in and out of rehab centers and short-term detox programs several times. He had even tried to replace drugs with religion but found it uninspiring.
‘I bought books on religion to try and find a way out, but religion was not my answer. It would get to a point where I couldn’t relate to the religion and I would just move on and condemn the whole thing,’ he said.
Now 11 years sober and married for three years with a seven-month-old son, Siegel has realized that his battle with addiction will be a life long struggle. His completion of rabbinical school and his work helping others struggling with addiction at Beit T’shuvah seems a far cry from his not so long ago past.
As for his sobriety, it is something he is not willing to take much credit for.
‘Having been who I am, I know I am living on borrowed time and I know that I probably shouldn’t be here,’ said Siegel. ‘So I truly believe that if it wasn’t for other people, for a loving community, for those who care about me, and me being willing’mdash;you can call it God or whatever you want, I call it God because I understand that’mdash;that’s why I’m here today.’
In relating the role of spirituality to his recovery, Siegel describes spirituality as something that cannot be found in a single definition but instead, in asking the right questions honestly. He said as soon as we try to define spirituality, we have lost it. Instead, it is an attempt to understand and connect to others through their experiences.
The realization for Siegel that there was a world filled with people who spoke his language, who could help, and that there was somewhere to go to deal with the difficulties of life was a spiritual awakening.
Some use drugs to achieve this comfort, some turn to religion, and others feel a deeper spiritual connection to something larger in the world. Regardless of where it comes from, it is the latter perspective that Spiegel believes saved him.
Myers said she has asked Siegel to speak at CSUN for several years now.
‘I teach contemporary religious thought and we begin the course trying to understand spirituality,’ she said. ‘The 12-step program introduces this idea in an interesting way.’
The role of spirituality and religion in addiction recovery remains controversial. Some feel that without these religious or spiritual elements, healing from addiction wouldn’t be possible.
Maribel Marin, a psychology major enrolled in Myers’ contemporary religious thought course, feels that without something larger to turn to, namely spirituality, addicts would be unable to break the cycle of use.
Conversely, some individuals, including those still struggling with addiction feel otherwise. A CSUN philosophy student, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the incorporation of such direct religious overtones in recovery programs ‘can alienate struggling addicts and essentially replaces one dependency with another.’