“We have heard from you that balancing our professional and personal lives is one of the biggest challenges of rabbinic life. Being in the public eye is not easy. This is especially true when we are facing all too human circumstances such as physical pain, family trauma, mental illness and alcoholism. We know that there are rabbis who are struggling with alcoholism and addiction. We have held workshops on addiction and ‘Friends of Bill W.’ meetings at CCAR convention for many years. Above all else, it is the support and embrace of colleagues traveling the same road that can help us feel less isolated and alone.” — Rabbi Betsy Torop, Director of Rabbinic Engagement and Growth
Shame. That’s the only emotion I was feeling as I frantically searched the library where I was sure I had left my book. The book I had used when I met with my sponsor. And now it was gone – not to be found anywhere. I worried what I would do if a congregant found it. I’d be exposed . They’d know my secret. They’d know I was an alcoholic. Okay, I’m a recovering alcoholic, but it still felt shameful to me. I knew what I had to do. Even after I found my book. That experience showed me I had to make a decision. I had to come clean. I couldn’t continue to feel this way. I ripped up the sermon I was going to give on Yom Kippur and wrote a different one, one on mental illness.
I admitted my struggles with alcohol and drugs. I confessed that I used and abused substances to make me feel better. Alcohol was my friend, my confidant and my lover. It helped me do impossible things. But one day it turned on me and I had to get help. I struggled with getting help. I didn’t know how I would live in a world without my vodka. Alcohol had been such a crutch for me.
But getting the help wasn’t as hard to I had thought. As soon I as I reached out, someone was there to walk with me – to guide me through the trials and tribulations of sobriety. I worked and struggled a day at a time, but eventually I found solid ground. And now it was time to share this struggle publicly.
I was afraid to admit I was an alcoholic to my congregation, afraid of their reaction, but I was no longer willing to live in shame and fear. I thought maybe I’d be asked to leave, but instead, that sermon was a turning point in my rabbinate. It opened the floodgates – and my congregants came in droves to see me to tell me about their spouse, child, parent, boss, and friends who also struggled with addiction. I was no longer afraid and ashamed. I had become a real person to my congregants and my relationships with them improved. I gained the trust of my community. Today, I do not have shame about being found out. And I’m here to help you.
Rabbi Andrea Cosnowsky provides Alcoholism and Addiction Response and Recovery Support for CCAR members. If you think you have a problem with alcohol or drugs, please reach out to her. All calls are confidential. Rabbi Cosnowsky is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Etz Chayim in the Western suburbs of Chicago.