April 24, 2008
House of Repentance: Where no one is beyond redemption
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"This has been a life-changing experience for me. Life-affirming. The connection with the others is the important thing. Becoming part of a living, searching community. The people here are teaching me all the time: how to live life, and how to live a Jewish life."
Part of the therapy at Beit T'Shuvah is the very fact of living communally -- being responsible for cleaning and other chores. It forces those who have been self-obsessed to think about others. As one of the counselors said at a group meeting: "If you assume that we're part of a team, an organic unit, then someone not doing his share becomes an impediment to everyone."
A resident, call him Jake, passes by. He and Bret nod warmly to one another. "This is my brother," Bret says. "I don't mean we have the same parents -- we don't -- but here we're all brothers. We've all had different experiences before coming here, but what binds us together is our weakness and the recognition of that weakness."
Jake, in his mid 40s, is originally from New York. He's short, husky, strong, lots of tattoos. He says that he started using drugs when he was 9 years old. "Cocaine, alcohol, LSD. I sold drugs and lived a life of crime. By the age of 15, I was selling coke at Studio 54 and made lots of money. I was into all sorts of crime and violence.
"I look back at myself, how I used to be ... I was a broken man. Emotionally bankrupt. There are no words to describe the level of humiliation I felt about myself. I had no hope. None. I felt I had two choices in life: running away or killing myself."
Jake's life reached a crisis last year when he was busted with 10 kilos of marijuana in his possession. "It was either go to jail or come here, so I chose to come here," Jake says. In fact, many residents are at Beit T'Shuvah because a judge offered them that option instead of prison.
"I never had any sympathy for Judaism until I got here," Jake says. "I walked into Beit T'Shuvah for the first time during the High Holy Days last year. Appropriate, isn't it? New Year, new beginning. I had the chance to leave my old life behind and that's what I've done. Now I lay tefillin every day. Every day.
"On Friday mornings we go to Venice Beach to do it, early in the morning. I stand on the sand at Venice Beach and lay tefillin and I feel close to my ancient relatives. My ancestors." After their prayers, some residents go surfing.
Does he ever miss his old life? Jake smiles gently. "I can't hold on to any of those old ideas about myself, who I used to be, the world in which I used to travel ... because if I get involved in crime again, I'm going to die. There is no wiggle room on that."
Beit T'Shuvah uses a three-pronged approach to sobriety: the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step model, psychotherapy and Jewish spiritual teachings. All three are equally important. Psychotherapy provides a framework for undoing past mistakes, the 12-step program is a way of dealing with the present, and Judaism gives a coherent path for the future.
The AA 12-step model has been around for nearly 70 years and has helped a great many people stay sober. Essentially, it's a spiritual/psychological program that involves group sessions in which the addict/alcoholic agrees to follow certain steps. Among them are: admitting that one has made terrible mistakes; acknowledging that one is powerless in the face of addiction; pledging to turn one's life over to a "higher power," however one perceives that power. Other steps include carrying out a "fearless" psycho-spiritual inventory of oneself, making a list of persons one has harmed and trying to make amends, if possible.
At Beit T'Shuvah, a resident's day starts early and ends late, going from group to group, with chores in between. Each day, each group repeats and reinforces the fundamentals of recovery.
"Cal," 62, is tall, bearded and tough-looking, with shaved head and large, strong hands. He first came to Beit T'Shuvah as a resident five years ago. Now a counselor, he leads groups, his moral authority buttressed by his own past bouts with addiction and recovery.
In all groups at Beit T'Shuvah, residents are asked to relive the depths of pain and shame that addiction and alcoholism led to, and to conduct a truthful self-examination. Cal lists the lies addicts tell themselves. "Here's one: It can't get any worse than this." And the truth is? All of them know the answer: "It can get a whole lot worse."
How much worse? "I woke up in a strange city, on the floor, wallowing in my own vomit and [feces]." "I stole money from my parents, went to a casino and gambled it all away." "My girlfriend O.D.'d and died in my arms and I was busted for heroin possession."
Cal's group ends by providing some hope. "Remember," he says, "and this is important: The biggest lie is that you can't change, that you can't get better. Because the truth is that you can. You can get better." Cal thinks for a moment, then adds: "Another lie is that we aren't our brother's keeper. Because we are. The truth is, we are our brother's keeper."
There are women at Beit T'Shuvah as well. "Miriam" is 28 and has been at the center for eight months. She started doing drugs at the age of 15 -- "mostly meth." Her father used crack and heroin, and after her parents divorced, she was brought up in Hollywood by her mother. In high school, she was kicked out of several schools, including a private Jewish academy.
Later she went to art school, where she "needed speed to function." Working off and on for animation companies, she got into a vicious cycle of losing jobs and stealing money from her family, while living with her boyfriend, who happened to be a drug dealer.