Fighting the Demons of Addiction

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Fighting the Demons of Addiction
By Rabbi Lynnda Targan

Happy New Year! Horns blowing. Champagne flowing. Party time. Good-bye old year. So long yesterday. Here’s to tomorrow–to possibilities… A symbolic clean slate. A rare opportunity. An awesome challenge, particularly if you’re a recovering alcoholic, teetering on the edge, living life one day at a time, step by step–like my friend, Mark.

For 26 years now, Mark has remained clean and sober. No easy task for a person who had spent more than a decade tanked on high octane drugs and alcohol. Consuming, and consumed by massive amounts of marijuana, barbiturates, Quaaludes, cocaine and LSD, amalgamated in creative chemical combinations, chased down the hatch with a burst of booze–all in search of the “ultimate high.”

Mark was a nice Jewish boy, handsome, funny, smart and personable, the product of a broken home in an upscale Chicago suburban neighborhood. He was the son of a well-known physician who provided a privileged lifestyle, but, according to Mark, “no basic values,” and a mother with a melange of problems. Both parents drank, and a mere nip or two could provoke either into abusive behavior. Even sober, neither parent was affectionate or loving. To compensate for their lack of nourishment, and to gain peer acceptance, Mark began drinking to fit in–somewhere.

Drugs and alcohol were extremely popular, readily available and relatively inexpensive in the early ’70s when Mark was a high school student. Pretty soon he was smoking marijuana, inhaling large quantities in frequent intervals. From pot he graduated to more serious drugs until, he said, “It felt kind of normal to be high.”

But high was never high enough. Nothing changed. The emotional pain persisted. The habit accelerated. The first year of college was a blowout. Too stoned to attend classes, he flunked out, developing epilepsy along the way. Still, nothing changed. He was powerless over the siege of drugs, lost in a world over which he had no control, using mind altering poisons to bury problems deeper and deeper.

Despite his history, Mark, “lucked out” and landed a job in a men’s clothing store, which was coincidentally where my husband shopped. With Mark as our salesperson, purchasing a wardrobe for my husband, usually a thankless chore, became an enjoyable shopping event. Mark was an amazing salesman, exceedingly talented at matching fabrics, putting together marvelous ties with tailored shirts, the right belt with the appropriate pants, making great outfits, guiding the tailor into pinning the garments for a perfect fit. He was also funny and charming, a likeable actor behind the drug façade.

We became friends, and my husband and I watched the parade of women march in and out of his life, never comprehending the depth of his drug involvement, nor understanding why he couldn’t make a relationship work. His first marriage died less than three years after it began, a catastrophe of inattentiveness, poor communication, a by-product of continuing drug use. More faltered relationships followed. More failures. For Mark, an altered state of mind became the status quo.

Then cocaine emerged with a vengeance. It became a way of life, expensive with its own cache of paraphernalia, scales and spoons and nasal sprays. Weeks without eating or sleeping. From a strapping 210 pounds, Mark quickly became an apparition at 150 pounds, unable to function without coke. Headaches. Blackouts. Another unsuccessful relationship. Selling coke to by more coke.

On October 22, 1981, he pulled an all-nighter, drinking alcohol, snorting cocaine, until he was near death. It was the last time he used drugs. Dragged by his employer and a girlfriend who would eventually become his wife, Mark was admitted to an in-patient drug rehab center, which he credits for saving his life. For 28 days, eight hours a day, he submitted to physiological and psychological treatment to combat his cross-addiction to drugs and alcohol. Mark was forced to take stock of his life, face the demons and make the necessary changes shortly before his 27th birthday. It worked.

Once released from the treatment facility, he attended a nine-week “after-care” program twice a week, and everyday he attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, depending on group members and his assigned sponsor, a recovering alcoholic further along in the process, to counsel him through challenging times. Learning to live and work through AA’s 12-Step treatment program required enormous time and energy to reverse years of negative patterns. Daily meditations from the “24 Hours a Day” book helped Mark stay focused and in touch with his “higher power.”

On one occasion, I attended an “open” AA meeting with Mark in the basement of a small church. In the cavernous setting with echoing walls, I was struck by how vulnerable we all are. How easy it is to stumble and keep rolling downhill with ever increasing speed. How alcoholism and drug addiction is a non-discriminating and non-denominational disease, crossing all racial, demographic and socio-economic barriers. How we crave community support and faith to nourish our existence.

Twenty-six years later, Mark continues to be connected to the faith-based AA programs, and reads his daily meditations for sustenance. Drug free, he’s a new person, a winner, a man who permitted me to tell his story publicly and use his name to inspire others.

Currently, Mark continues his career as a men’s haberdasher in Lincolnshire, Illinois on Chicago’s North Shore. He and his wife Annette, an entrepreneur, and successful businesswoman in her own right, have recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. The couple has two lovely daughters, Marni, who has a career in public policy in Washington DC, and Jamie, a junior at the University of Illinois, who is pursuing a career in education. Mark is grateful for the blessings of his family.

Still, every day, Mark has to make a conscious effort to avoid drugs, to not “pick up” his first drink, to stay in touch with his emotions, to continually confront the haunting demons of drugs and alcohol and to continue to grow and learn as a person.

He says, “AA is an excellent program. I go to meetings, follow their precepts, and don’t use drugs. I now know that I have a controllable disease, that I’m not alone, and that many people care about me.

“During the holidays it can be very easy to lapse into melancholia, feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t party like the rest of the world. But then you look again, acknowledge your assets, thank God for your blessings, and move forward one day at a time.”