"It wasn't until I was loaded that I actually felt that I belonged," says Lena, whose family has a history of drug abuse.
At her aunt's request, she finally turned to Jewish Family Service (JFS) for help.
"I was really tired. It was the day after my 19th birthday. I was just sick of it," says Lena of the day she decided to try and quit. "I remember when I first stopped using. It was very hard for me to talk to people... I was very scared of people. I pretended that I hated everyone. Now I can go into a room and I can talk to people. I feel more open and I'm not that reserved."
According to Catherine Bergmann, M.S.W., Lena is typical of what many Jewish teens are facing. For this reason, Jewish Family Service (an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles) recently began its Adolescent and Family Program, a chapter of its Alcohol Drug Action Program (ADAP), with the help of a Jewish Community Foundation grant and financial support from Dr. Irving and Marilyn Gordon Sobel.
"There truly is the Jewish myth that Jewish people don't become addicted, that this is not a problem [in our culture]," says Bergmann, coordinator of the Pico-Robertson-based ADAP. Nothing can be further from the truth. Bergmann's statistics peg the percentage of Jews suffering from chemical addiction issues as the same as the general public -- 10 percent. For our relatively small community that's proportionately very high. Bergmann adds that many of the Jews in their 30s and 40s with drinking problems reveal that their abuse stems from home -- taking part in Jewish customs and holidays.
So how does ADAP's adolescent programming approach differ from other programs?
"We bring in the entire family for counseling," says Jasmina Moore, program director of ADAP, who enlists the patient's siblings and parents to "help the teen stop using and redirect themselves."
"Part of what we want to do is educate the families and the congregations that this is becoming a problem," says Bergmann.
"We want to treat the whole family. It's a holistic approach," says Bergmann, who explains that parents are quick to shrug off their children's issues as their own when, in reality, the dynamic between child and parent is often a part of the problem.
Lena attributes much of her low self-esteem issues to a collision of personal tragedies: her mother died when she was very young, and her father died when she was 15.
"It wasn't a very functional family but we still cared about each other," says Lena.
After many confrontations with her aunt, Lena finally agreed to seek out JFS.
"I really didn't do it to get off of everything," admits Lena. "I did it to get money out of my aunt. I was trying to scam her and I wound up getting enrolled."
Nevertheless, she connected with her JFS counselor because "I knew he wasn't just feeding me crap. I knew he had gone through what I had before. He was there for me from the beginning. He's never turned me away."
Lena remembers being in bad shape the day she walked in to see him.
"I was 70 lbs., really skinny and smelled really bad," says Lena. "It was horrible, and he was nice to me anyway. He didn't treat me like an animal.
"I learned about my behavior," says Lena. "When I failed something, I would act out and I wouldn't be expecting consequences. My counselor pointed that out to me, he let me know that [these feelings] were normal... He didn't sugarcoat anything."
In fact, it was his very approach of not patronizing her or sugarcoating reality that made Lena stick to the program and help herself shape up.
"People are responding to the fact that we are a Jewish program; and there is no other specifically Jewish program that deals with the entire family and chemical dependency in the greater Southern California area," says Moore.
As the ADAP staff realizes, sometimes adolescent behavior and issues do not necessarily end with adulthood.
"The world is very different than when we were adolescents," says Moore, referring to "the availability and potency of drugs and [societal] expectations."
"Children are in a typical adolescent development phase into their 20s, so it doesn't stop at 18. A lot of these drug and adolescent problems show up in college."
Moore emphasizes that the combination of living away from parental structure with the young adult's thirst for exploration of independence can combust like a Molotov cocktail into patterns of chemical abuse and addiction.
The ADAP director also wants people to know that JFS programs work on a sliding scale fee and that they won't turn away anyone in need. She adds that they are well-versed in treating other forms of addiction -- gambling, sex, overeating and codependency, to name a few -- and that people shouldn't feel ashamed about reaching out for help.
As for Lena, despite a five-day relapse in Sept. 1998, she is holding on strong to her sobriety -- 15 months and counting. The JFS program has definitely helped her improve her life for the better and reconnect with the people around her at work and with her family.
"I thought I never was going to have a job. Now people ask me for my opinion. It's kind of frightening," says Lena.
And while her stepmother has had to overcome her own alcoholism, she says that they have recently rekindled their relationship after a period of estrangement.
"She loves me and I talk to her now," says Lena.
If Lena has learned one thing during her recovery, it's that a person's wealth, status or community standing has little to do with deep-seated insecurities:
"I think a lot of people are that way. They just don't talk about it."
ADAP programming works on a sliding scale fee and anonymity is guaranteed. For more information, call (310) 247-1180 or contact Catherine Bergmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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