"It is enormously difficult to organize one's traumatic experiences into a coherent account- a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end." - Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
As we enter into a period dedicated to commemorating our nation's traumas and catastrophic events, and to integrating these experiences into a coherent and purpose-driven narrative, we can draw inspiration from those in addiction treatment and recovery about how to undergo this process.
These are three lessons I have learned from working with individuals struggling with substance use disorders that I am hoping to draw upon as inspiration for a more meaningful Tisha B’Av experience this year.
Lesson #1: The Therapeutic Value of Being Asked to Recall Painful Memories
Those in recovery understand the significance of recalling the story of one’s past. It is when this history, however painful it may be, becomes forgotten that one becomes at risk of relapse once again. In treatment we purposefully seek out and explore the story of one’s “rock bottom” because of the power that this very memory can hold.
In sobriety it is the clear memory of that “rock bottom” that allows one to stay focused. To prevent the spirals of ongoing misery from occurring. I have been taught this lesson over and over again by my clients like Mark*.
Mark, a tough looking 40 year old veteran, turned to drugs to escape the pain he brought back with him from war and now working toward recovery: “Whenever I start slipping, I look down right here,” he pointed to the tattoo on his forearm which read the numbers 12-07-2018 in scripted bold black letters.
This is the date I came so close to losing it all in an overdose. My wife, my daughter. By the grace of G-d I was saved. And it was that day I decided this time had to be my last. I don’t think it hit me how bad things were until I was lying there on that stretcher and realized I cared about living after all. I wanted to see my little girl again. I didn’t want this to be it.
I tried to hide my own wet eyes at the sight of this muscled veteran, whose eyes watered and voice cracked as he shared from such a real place within: “Whenever I feel myself start to slip I look right at this date and what I almost lost.”
On Tisha B’Av we, too, defy every natural tendency to resist and escape the memory of the pain that we as a nation and as individuals have experienced.
On Tisha B’Av, we learn how to properly utilize the “rock bottoms” in our nation’s history. And, perhaps not too dissimilarly, rather than numb ourselves and drown out this pain, we do everything in our power to ensure we don’t forget.
We sit on the floor, tearfully reciting the book Lamentations recalling in painstaking detail our nation’s past tragedies. Not leaving out any of the gory details. We speak of our holy temple’s destruction and our nation’s history of exiles.
Contrary to our instincts and habit of shying away from discomfort, we deliberately choose to remember, relive, and re-experience distress.
It is only through confronting and experiencing these memories that we become acutely aware of that which is missing. We become reminded of the tear that exists in our spiritual life on the national and personal level, and we become moved to use these reminders as a call to action and growth.
Lesson #2: Moving Out of Pain Toward Healing Requires a Sustained Process
The treatment process for addiction is not quick or easy. It requires sustained commitment, motivation, and effort. It is strategically designed with different phases of intensity.
Those struggling with substance use (and perhaps to varying degrees all of us) have become so accustomed to numbing pain that engaging in a process where one is now tasked to directly confront, speak about, and sit with this distress (without access to the various forms of self-medication he or she has been habituated to using) is not a simple feat. Yet it is the only way forward.
Our Sages understood our natural tendency to avoid pain.
In the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, we are instructed to engage in a process that is strategically designed to stir up feelings of grief and sadness: “When Av begins, we lessen our happiness” (Mishnah Ta’anit 1:7).
Throughout this month, we are tasked to avoid specific pleasurable activities and to purposefully act as mourners: “All the restrictions that are observed during shiv’ah are observed on Tisha B’Av” (Ta’anit 29b).
We are asked to fast, refrain from bathing, intimacy, and socialization. We stay away from any act that might serve as a comfort, or even a temporary distraction from the tension. No music, no frivolity. No drowning out, repressing, or dulling the pain. Rather than seeking an escape or solace, we are asked to push ourselves out of numbness and then sit with the discomfort.
In order to realign ourselves with our collective and individual missions, we must first allow ourselves to feel the acute sense of pain caused by the spiritual gaps of what we have lost. In order to achieve this we must first engage in a prescribed process.
By spending time recalling and processing painful experiences, we become capable of moving forward.
Lesson #3: The Redemptive Power of Pain
Those who have confronted the profound challenge of addiction often share the greater sense of strength, self-knowledge, and spiritual connection that they have uncovered within themselves through the process of struggle and healing. Consider the following words spoken by members in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous:
“[Almost any experienced A.A. member] will report that out of every season of grief or suffering, when the hand of God seemed heavy or even unjust, new lessons for living were learned, new resources of courage were uncovered.”
“Adversity truly introduces us to ourselves.”
“Pain is the admission price to a new life.”
While the pain preceding, during, and in the wake of addiction is all too real and devastating, those in recovery have experienced firsthand the therapeutic value of finding a way to make meaning of and to build resilience through this pain.
Sit in a therapy group or session in rehab, 12-step meeting, or recovery fellowship and you will undoubtedly find people rediscovering and reigniting personal goals, values, and sense of identity. You will see people on a mission to use their painful histories to help or inspire others. You will find people in the pursuit of growth and deeper connection with themselves, others, and their Higher Power.
While ordeals are certainly not sought, a process of treatment and program of recovery can equip a person with the tools to integrate painful experiences into a broader picture of oneself. In the words of Victor Frankl, “suffering presents us with a challenge: to find our goals and purpose in our lives that make even the worst situation worth living through.”
As Jewish individuals, we possess a profound therapeutic resource at our disposal- the capacity to transcend and grow from struggle and adversity.
We are reminded in our classic Jewish texts such as Mesillas Yesharim that one of the primary goals of life itself is to “withstand the tests one faces.” Challenges, our Sages explain, have the power to bring forth strengths that had previously been hidden or dormant.
Rising up from painful challenges, and utilizing adversity as a springboard for personal growth, connection and reliance on God is a cornerstore of our nation’s history and our Judaic worldview: “Had I not fallen, I could not have arisen; had I not sat in the darkness, He would not have been a light for me” (Midrash Tehillim).
On the 21 day period of mourning leading to Tisha B'Av, we- as a nation and as individuals- remember that there is a meaningful reason to carve out space for our painful experiences and struggles, and are guided in how to do so.
As modeled by those in addiction recovery, it is when we give vent to the pain that we have gone through, process and explore how these experiences helped shape us, and how they fit into the greater picture of our lives, that we can then redeem these painful experiences. And move forward into deeper levels of purpose, connection, and joy.
*Name and information changed