COVER STORY: Rock Bottom to Recovery — Jewish family hopes to shed stigma of alcohol addiction

Max Kurland was a teenager when he took his first drink of alcohol — just a year after his bar mitzvah. Call it peer pressure, call it experimentation; his friends were all doing it, too.

But while his friends drank sporadically at parties, it wasn’t long before Max’s drinking took a different turn.

“The times I was drinking grew closer and closer together,” he said. “I was really skinny, and [yet I] had a huge tolerance. The turning point came when I took the step to drink by myself.”

Max, now 21 and a junior at the University of San Francisco, told his story with remarkable candor, in his parents’ Palo Alto home recently. His mother, Debbie, stayed upstairs. It still upsets her to hear him talk about it, although they both do so now, frequently, in order to remove the stigma and educate other families about addiction — that it can happen in “nice Jewish families” like theirs, that it is a disease and nothing to be ashamed of, that it is beyond their control and can happen to anyone.

Addiction to drugs and alcohol will be the topic of a scholar-in-residence weekend Saturday, Dec. 12 and Sunday, Dec. 13 at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, where the Kurlands are members.

There’s a longstanding myth that Jews don’t drink. Two studies last year bolstered the view that Jews don’t imbibe as much as other Caucasians, which researchers attributed to a genetic mutation that is found in a much higher proportion among Jews than among other whites.

And historically, Jews have tended to have fewer problems with addiction than the general population, which is estimated at 10 percent, according to the New York-based JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.

But that is no longer the case.

Pale, with faint freckles and light blue eyes, Max Kurland still looks like a teenager but has a maturity way beyond his years.

A shy and reserved teenager, he had been a decent student, but his grades slipped as his drinking increased.

Vodka was his beverage of choice. He’d drink enough until he blacked out, every night, but not be hung over.

“I didn’t tell anyone, but I knew it wasn’t normal,” he said. “But my friends definitely noticed. People at school would tell me I smelled like [alcohol].”

Meanwhile, Max’s parents began to take notice, too. Neither Debbie, a medical social worker, nor Fred, a COO of a biotech company, had a history of alcoholism or addiction in their families. But Max was adopted, and his doctors said Max has a genetic predisposition to alcohol.

Debbie says they knew about Max’s drinking almost from the beginning. And, of course, she blamed herself. “Initially I thought I’m a terrible mother,” she said, “that our family was not the family I thought it was.”

She is now fluent in recovery-speak, but when she was first thrown into the world of addiction and recovery, “I basically felt like I landed on another planet,” said Debbie, who speaks for the family on how the addiction impacted them, with full support of her husband.

There are no statistics available on the prevalence of Jews with addiction problems, according to Dr. Barry Rosen, CEO of the Redwood City-based Sequoia Treatment and Recovery Center, where Max was treated. But Jews are often harder to treat nonetheless.

“There are certain cultures where drinking is part of the culture,” said Rosen. “Traditionally, there has been a real disparagement in Jewish culture for drinking. You wouldn’t hear a Jew being proud that he drank someone under the table.”

But the more Jews have assimilated into American culture, which encourages drinking and drug use, he noted, they are being cornered by the same pressures that push some to abuse alcohol and drugs.

After his parents confronted Max several times, they sent him to a psychologist.

“But I was so closed down,” said Max. “I would lie to him or try to convince him that my parents were crazy.”

The therapist believed him.

“I knew I was hurting myself both physically and emotionally,” he said. “I knew I was doing great damage but I never thought I could stop. I had an indescribable need to keep doing it.”

It was during his senior year of high school that Max finally hit what is known in the recovery world as “rock bottom.” His parents came home one night to find him convulsing on the floor. He was taken to the hospital.

He could have died.

Max’s doctors confirmed that most people with the blood alcohol level he had that night would have. “A 125-pound 16-year-old like me shouldn’t be able to drink that much,” he said.

Though alcoholism does run in families, other factors can contribute to addiction. Those who start young — drinking heavily before they’re 21 — have a much greater chance of developing a problem.

It wasn’t until his six days detoxing in the hospital that Max could admit he needed help. Max was admitted to Hazelden, a 28-day treatment program for adolescents in Minnesota.

Max heard speakers talk about how alcoholism is a disease, he shared his struggles with others, and he had individual therapy. When that program ended, he went to a halfway house for another three months, and he finished high school.

Simultaneously, Debbie and Fred attended a program for family members, where they became educated about addiction. They were then able to talk to their two other children about it, who — believing Max could stop if he really wanted to — were equally hurt and confused by what he was putting the family through.

“It was there that I came to realize that it’s not our fault,” said Debbie.

Max returned home that April, but everything was different. His friends were still in high school, and the 12-step meetings he attended and his new alcohol-free lifestyle created a great void between them.

After two months, a depressed and lonely Max bought a bottle of vodka. “I thought things would be better if I drank.”

This time, it only took three days for his parents to give him an ultimatum.

“I was in denial, but part of me knew I needed more help,” he said. “Whatever denial I was hanging onto broke apart.”

According to Rosen, “people are susceptible to different illnesses due to a number of different factors, and when Jews do become addicted, their denial is supported by the perception that Jews don’t get sick. It’s like it’s beneath them.”

Max subsequently entered the Sequoia Treatment and Recovery Center — he was the youngest person there — then spent an additional year in an aftercare program, living in a house with others in recovery. He also continued to go to 12-step meetings, up to four a week.

Then, something happened to Max: He found a way to connect to his spirituality in a way that he never had before. It was an insight experienced by most addicts in recovery.

“I definitely have a concept now of what my God is,” he said. “I went from having nothing to having a whole lot of belief, though it made me more spiritual in a recovery sense, not in a Jewish sense.”

Many Jews tend to not have a strong spiritual connection, said Rosen, and are more connected to their Jewishness through culture and family. That creates problems when they encounter the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar treatment programs for which a belief in a higher power is fundamental.

Debbie says there was nothing she and her husband wouldn’t do to help Max. But while she quickly became versed in the language of recovery, she felt there was something missing when it came to Jews.

At Al-Anon meetings, the 12-step group for family members of addicts, Debbie would wonder, “‘Where are all the Jews?’ And they often meet in church basements, which can be off-putting to Jews.”

She flew to New York to consult with Rabbi Abraham Twerski, an expert on Jews and addiction. It was he who helped her place it within a Jewish context, and she did exhaustive research on the Internet. “I had a lot of people I could talk to, and whose information helped restore me to sanity.”

One of those was Sarah Graff, the assistant rabbi at Kol Emeth, who had interned at Beit T’Shuvah, a recovery center for Jewish addicts in Los Angeles (see sidebar).

Debbie said she never felt judged by anyone in the Jewish community.

A study the JACS conducted two years ago found that chemically dependent Jews who seek help “are often unable to find the help they need within their own communities.”

Debbie, as gregarious as her son is introverted, said that as long as Max agreed, she knew she had to speak about the ordeal her family went through.

“If we didn’t talk about it, we’d be giving in to the stigma part of it and being ashamed,” she said.

If their story can motivate an addict to seek help, and in so doing avoid a death, then it’s of value, she indicates.

“We want people to know that no one can do this alone. The user needs information, compassion and faith.”

Both Debbie and Max are using their experience to help others by participating in prevention programs, both on a national and local level, and trying to get more information about addiction in the high schools.

Studies show that 75 percent of teenagers are known to use alcohol, Rosen said, and while many of them will not become addicted, some inevitably will.

“I think the [general] community is finally coming out of denial,” says Debbie.

She also notes that “there’s something very Jewish in taking the pain you’ve been through and turning it into something positive. That’s what our religion teaches us.”

And as painful as it is for Max to be outspoken, he’s said he’s willing to talk about it because it might help someone.

Like many people, Max’s image of an alcoholic was someone passed out on a park bench. “The whole time I was drinking, I never heard of [teens] being alcoholics,” he said. “But if somebody sees this and connects to it, and it puts something in their head that maybe they have a problem, then it’s worthwhile.”

Max said he’s grateful for the support he’s gotten from the Jewish community — not to mention his family. “It could have been a lot worse if I didn’t have support. I couldn’t have done it on my own.”

Rosen, who said sadly many families are not as supportive, agreed that Max was fortunate to have such caring parents. “Why he is alive today and got into recovery is because his family got on it. They scoured the country to find out what to do. They were not going to let this kid die,” Rosen said.

Max now lives with two housemates, also in recovery, in Redwood City. He doesn’t hang out much with his fellow college students; most of their socializing occurs around alcohol. And he still attends 12-step meetings. He said he never thinks about taking a drink now.

Debbie’s thankful to have made it through the tough times, including a spiritual search of sorts.

“I went through my own grief process,” she says. “You see your kid suffering, and that’s a big part of your pain. It’s very hard as a parent to watch and not be able to make it better.”

And she has total admiration for her son.

“Max is my hero. His courage, his strength, his desire to make a difference at such a young age, to break his anonymity, is rare. He is a very sensitive young man, and for him to put it out there is beyond anything I could ever have imagined,” she said.

Related Story: A long, hard weekend look at addictions

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."