I consider this one of my best pieces. Enjoy, and I'd love to hear your comments.
Shmuel fidgeted nervously with the top button of his collar as he opened it. He took a deep breath, and almost choked on the heavy black smoke billowing out from the bus behind him. It didn't faze him, though. He just shrugged his shoulders and continued staring into nothingness. He noticed a half deteriorated sparrow lying inert in the gutter. At least some cat's going to have a decent supper, he thought. Lucky cat.
At the thought of food, even if it was nothing more than a twisted and bloody sparrow fit for a cat, Shmuel's stomach started rumbling, and he realized, with a start, that he really was hungry. It had been a long time since he had sat down to eat a real meal, at a table, with a knife and fork, surrounded by his family. For months now (was it only months? It seemed like forever) his meals consisted of nothing more than hot dogs and instant mashed potatoes, and, for Shabbos, some canned gefilte fish, cold pastrami and, if he remembered, and had the money, a bit of store-bought cholent. Sometimes, when he was completely broke, he would eat nothing but day old bread and a bit of margarine.
He tried to picture the last time he had actually sat down to eat. Mushroom soup, thick and heavy with pareve cream, freshly fried turkey schnitzel and green beans, oh, and chocolate mousse for desert. His mouth watered at the memory. It had been two and a half months ago, when life was still normal. Before the ultimatum. Then, he had money, a home — everything he ever dreamt of. Now, all he had was debts and a vague feeling that things could have — should have — been different.
For the umpteenth time – for who could possibly count such things? – Shmuel relived the events of that night, the night that Rena had told him that he must make a choice. "This time," she warned him, "it's for real. No false promises. As much as you want to keep them, you can't. If you don't go to a rehab facility and get treatment for your addiction, then that's it. We're finished. I can't continue this way." He shuddered at the memory of the tears coursing down her face, tears that belied the assertiveness of her words
"Don't you trust me?" His question was tinged with anger. "I promise never to set foot in the casino again. I know that it'll take time, but I promise to pay back every penny of the money that I borrowed, and I'll never, ever gamble again — ever. I promise. There's nothing more important to me than you and the children, and I want to be a good father to them, to be part of their — of our — lives." But although these words were uttered with painful sincerity, he knew, deep, deep down, in the deepest recesses of his being, that they were false. His addiction was holding him tight in a suffocating hug, and despite his promises, he knew that he was incapable of extricating himself from its golden tentacles.
He recalled how Rena had looked at him with a sad, wistful smile, trying to appear strong as she blinked rapidly to contain her tears. "I wish I could believe you," she said. "But I can't. You've tried too many times, and I see that you can't possibly do it alone. You need help."
The honking of a passing car brought Shmuel back to the present. He noticed that an ugly black cat, with half an ear and little more than a stump of a tail, had picked up the sparrow's carcass and was carrying it away in its mouth. In the distance, he could see his bus coming. He slowly picked himself off the bench and started to walk along the platform. He was so, so tired.
Rena walked into the kitchen and counted to ten. She was so, so tired. The kids were finally in bed, but the house looked like a tornado had hit it. And she was hungry; although it was after nine, she still hadn't eaten supper. After nursing the baby, giving the older children supper, their baths, helping them brush their teeth, getting their clothes ready for the morning, reading them a story, saying krias shema, giving a good night kiss, and then lights out, another glass of water and an extra blanket — there was very little time left for her.
Rena began cleaning up the mess. Avrumi had finished only half his egg; almost mechanically she gobbled up the other half. Rivki had barely touched her yogurt; Rena finished it, as she deftly piled the dirty dishes into the sink. She washed her meager supper down with three half finished cups of lukewarm cocoa. Once the table was cleared, she poured herself a cup of hot coffee, and took the box of cookies down from on top of the refrigerator. Half an hour later, the cookies were almost finished. She thought “I really should cook myself a normal meal.” But she was so tired, and there was so much to be done. And besides, she hated to sit by herself to eat. So she made do with cottage cheese and whole wheat crackers. At least that's not fattening, she thought.
Rena felt old and beaten, like a cast off piece of wood. Life was a dull, overcast gray. Without realizing what she was doing, she twisted her wedding ring off her finger. Her mind flickered back to that day —almost ten years ago — when she had returned home after her first date with Shmuel. Racing up the front steps, she had tried to hide her smile as she walked through the doorway. Her parents were sitting in the living room, pretending to read the paper as they waited for her to return home.
“How'd it go?” her mother asked, focusing her eyes on the unread newspaper.
“Yeah, he's nice. I had a good time,” was her noncommittal reply. “I guess I'm willing (willing? She was hoping against all hope...) to see him again.”
Shmuel was also willing. Two weeks later, Rena couldn't believe that she — the plain, ordinary girl who blended into the wallpaper, the sweet girl that no one ever noticed — was a kallah. And to such a boy! He had a special way about him; when he spoke, everyone automatically paid attention. Her mother described it as “charisma.” Whatever it was, she knew that she was really lucky. She had won the jackpot! He was so sincere, so real, so sure of himself — everything that she wasn't, everything she wished she could be.
The first year of marriage was idyllic. Rena was on cloud nine. Shmuel was so polite. He bought her beautiful presents. She felt so important driving through the neighborhood in his brand new sports car. Although he almost always slept until close to noon, missing morning kollel, she knew that it was because he was a real masmid, a tzaddik nistar, who spent his nights immersed in limud haTorah — well at least that's what he wanted her to believe.
Rena's parents, however, were confused. They enjoyed it when Rena and Shmuel came to visit. He knew how to tell a great story when the younger children became rambunctious at the Shabbos table, and when to break the tension with a well placed joke. He sang every song in perfect harmony and he always thanked Rena's mother for the delicious meal. He was slick and polished and knew how to behave. But although she couldn't put her finger on it, Rena's mother was worried. Something didn't seem right. If he was learning in kollel, how could he afford a fancy car? And why didn't her husband ever see him at shul in the morning? A few times she had even found the courage to question him about these things, but his responses always sounded plausible and she certainly didn't feel like playing private detective.
Shmuel succeeded in maintaining his charade for three full years. Rena's dreams were rudely shattered shortly after the birth of their second child.
It all began with a telephone call.
Rena heaved herself up from the rocking chair, gently placed Motti in her cradle and raced across the bedroom – almost tripping on Avrumi's brand new fire engine - to answer the phone before the automatic answering system picked up the call.
Before she even had a chance to say hello, a brusque voice asked, "Is Mr. Shmuel in?"
"No, he's not. Can I help you?" she responded, wondering who in the world would call her husband ‘Mr. Shmuel’.
"This is Rick. Tell him I called, and that he'd better bring me the $3000 he owes me, or else…"
At first, the phone calls were few and far between. But eventually the trickle became a torrent, and Rena found herself trembling each time the phone rang. It didn't matter who it was – Bill, Jack, Harry, John – to Rena, they all sounded the same and they always left her shaking with a strange combination of fear, fury and pain. After every phone call, she found herself walking, robot-like, to the cozy comfort of the kitchen to calm herself with a chocolate bar.
The first few times she confronted Shmuel about the phone calls, he just laughed them off and told her not to worry her pretty head with such nonsense; it was just a jokester playing a weird practical joke. Then he'd quickly mumble something about having to get back to his learning and race out the door, leaving her feeling confused and, strangely enough, humiliated.
But then the calls became more frequent – and more threatening. And then it wasn't just Bill, Jack and Harry; men with names like Dovid, Shimon and Yechezkel were also calling and politely asking her to please inform Shmuel that they had called, and that the loan he had taken from the gemach was long overdue, and that if he didn't come in to take care of it, they'd have to request the money from the guarantors. For some reason, she found these polite phone calls even more jarring than the threatening ones.
Rena either numbed her fear with chocolate or escaped into the world of fantasy, staying up until the wee hours of the morning reading novels. Occasionally, she dived into her housework with a vengeance that left her dizzy. She couldn't face seeing her dream — her life — shattered into shards. So she continued to pretend that everything was normal. But she knew it was a farce. She wasn't just scared, she was petrified.
Shmuel and Rena continued to pretend that everything was normal for over half a year. Then — it was so sudden that it almost seemed unexpected — the bubble burst. Shmuel left in the evening, as usual, to learn, but he forgot to return home. Rena was hysterical. She called the kollel. No, he had never arrived that evening, but then again, why should he? He hadn't learned there for over a year…
By the time Shmuel appeared at the front door two days later, armed with a crazy story about how he had been so immersed in a question on an Akiva Eiger that he lost all concept of time, Rena was no longer the gullible girl he had married. She had spent the last two days making innumerable phone calls, and she was shocked at what she had discovered.
That night was the first night in the close to four years of their marriage that Shmuel actually spoke — but really spoke — with his wife. When he told her how much money he owed — money that he had borrowed to cover his gambling debts — she let out an involuntary gasp and broke into tears of anger and frustration. He cried, and he pleaded, and he promised that he would never, ever gamble again — ever. He assured her that he would find a job and start paying back all the money he owed, and that although they would have a few rough years ahead of them, eventually they'd get back on their feet. He was so sincere, so real and so sorry for what he had done, that she believed and trusted him.
Rena didn't realize that gambling is an addiction. It's a disease, and once a person is infected, without professional help, all the good intentions in the world won't cure him of it.
After that conversation, Shmuel seemed to turn over a new leaf. He found a job and managed to hold it down for close to eight months. But then, the lure of easy money, the excitement, the adrenalin-rush, beckoned him and he was helpless. He had to gamble again.
As he walked through the automatic glass doors of the casino, he was overwhelmed with a strange, almost euphoric feeling. He had no doubt that today would be his lucky day. I'll just make enough to cover my debts, and then I'll stop forever, he promised himself. As he entered the cavernous coat room, he removed a twenty dollar bill from his wallet and transferred it to his back pants pocket. "This is for tzedakah. Please Hashem, for my children's sake, for my wife's sake, and for my own sake, let me win," he mumbled. Now that he had made sure that Hashem would be on his side, he quickly hung up his hat and jacket and strode to the betting tables.
This time, it took him four days to return home, minus his car — he had sold it for cash, which he had gambled away. Rena was devastated at his betrayal. "But you promised," she kept on repeating. "How could you do go back on your words?"
Shmuel tried his best to placate her. "I don't know what came over me, but I was positive that Hashem would have rachmanus on me and that I'd win enough to make up for all my previous losses — and then I'd never have to gamble again. It was stupid of me, and I was wrong. I promise that I'll never, ever enter the casino again." With those last words, Shmuel's voice broke and the tears started to flow. How could he live without gambling? But when Rena saw how bad he felt, she forgave him, and took him back into her life and heart.
Shmuel found a seat on the bus and sat, staring out the window with unseeing eyes. The streets of
were gritty and black, the building facades lining the streets smudged with graffiti. The icy, drizzling rain outside mirrored his emotions; he had put them on ice, like a capped volcano, rumbling within him, waiting to explode. New York
Whenever he wasn't there, at the gaming table, watching the lighted wheel spin round and round, that horrible scene when he had said goodbye to his wife, his children, his job, normalcy, would play over and over again in his mind. And then, to drown his longing and pain — a deep, searing pain that took his breath away in its intensity — he'd somehow find some money and run — no, race — to the betting tables. There, at least, were people who appreciated him and looked up to him – at least until his money was gone.
Deep inside, he realized that Rena was right for giving him that ultimatum. How many times could she forgive and forget? Yet, although he knew he was wrong, still, he was angry. He needed to gamble, he needed his family, and he wanted to have it all.
The bus veered to the left. Shmuel, still slightly unsteady from an all night fling, almost landed in the lap of the man sitting next to him. "Excuse me," he half mumbled under his breath. I might be a nebach, but I'm still a mentch, he thought to himself. The man, wearing an immaculate black overcoat topped with a yeshivah-style hat, smiled politely and continued staring straight ahead.
Shmuel recognized him immediately – it was his old friend Chelky. They had gone to the same yeshivah ketanah, and then continued on to the same yeshivah high school. Shmuel felt something sharp twist inside of him. Chelky was always so — so — plain, so simple. Definitely not "shpitz" material, like Shmuel was. Shmuel always felt superior. But now, the tables were turned. Chelky was married and had a good job at an accounting firm. He had seen Chelky's name in conjunction with various tzedakah funds, and had heard that he was a "macher."
Shmuel quickly got up to move to a different seat, before Chelky would recognize him.
@ @ @
Levi Bernhard strode ten steps across the room, pivoted on his left foot, and then strode ten steps back. Back and forth he paced, waving his hands for emphasis as he talked. "The whole situation is completely ludicrous, totally, one hundred percent ridiculous. We can't just abandon him like this. It's a crime; it's not right. If we don't help him, then who will? We're his parents, after all." At the word "parents", Levi stopped for a moment and banged on the side of the bed for emphasis. "He's our bachor. We can't not help him and just leave him to flounder. We must do something for him. He can't starve!"
Yocheved Bernhard looked at her husband and sighed. This discussion had been going on since last week, when Shmuel had phoned — again. "Ma," he began. (Oh, how her heart melted at those words; her beloved bechor). And then he began crying, sobbing actually. "Ma, I'm sorry," he repeated over and over again. "I promise that I'll never do it again — ever. But now — I promise, it'll be the last time — I need a couple of thousand dollars to cover a debt. I don't even have money to buy food. I'm starving."
Yocheved had felt her heart breaking, but it had been broken so many times before. It was always the same story, the same promises, the desperation, the tears. And each time, when Shmuel had ended up gambling their hard earned money away, she felt as if someone had taken a knife and plunged it into her heart. As much as she wished it could, her heart refused to turn into stone.
It didn't make any sense. But then again, nothing made sense anymore. How could anyone take money and just throw it away? How could an intelligent, successful person be so stupid? She felt so sorry for her daughter-in-law, Rena. But she was so helpless. There was nothing she could do. Absolutely nothing.
Last week she and Levi had gone to Benny Reichman, a counselor specializing in gambling. They had hoped that he would give them some type of a plan – something, anything, to hold on to. They had tried so many things. They had given Shmuel money with conditions, stipulated in writing; they had given him money for his rent, his food, his carfare — and each time, they were shocked anew to discover that all the money they gave him was used for gambling.
The counselor had told them that they could — and should — do nothing. "That's right, Mr. and Mrs. Bernhard,” He repeated when he saw their shocked faces. “Nothing. The greatest help is to let him solve this problem himself. Every time you bail him out, you're teaching him that he doesn't have to take responsibility for his actions; that there's someone there to pick up the pieces. He must hit rock bottom; reach a point where he's so low that even he realizes that this is the end, or — and for this we can only pray — the beginning of a new life. Then we can help him get into a good rehabilitation program."
"But what if he falls so low that he'll never be able to pick himself up?" Yocheved asked.
"It's possible that that might happen. But if you keep on helping him, you're just making it worse by abetting his addiction. And if you keep on helping him, he'll never get out of it, ever. Letting go is your only chance."
Yocheved and Levi listened, and argued, and listened some more. Finally, they understood what the counselor kept on telling them: their son – their talented, charismatic son -- was addicted to gambling. All their rational arguments, all his promises and sincere pledges, it was all worthless as long as he was under the influence of his addiction. "He's got to really, really want to get better; to realize that recovery is a matter of life and death— which it is. And as painful as it is for you, his parents, to watch your son suffer, he'll only come to that realization if you allow him to actually hit rock bottom."
It made sense, at least in theory. But now, it was different. It was their son – their son! – who so desperately needed them. How could they let him go hungry? How could they let him be evicted from his tiny rat-infested apartment? His creditors were threatening him; his very life was in danger. The situation was desperate; there was no way he could possibly climb out of it. Yet – the very realization brought a sharp pang of pain to Yocheved's heart – no matter how bad the situation, he always managed to find money to gamble.
As difficult as it was, Yocheved understood that they would have to let their son find his own way, that they could not continue to help him. She walked into the next room and returned with two small white pamphlets – sefrei Tehillim. She handed one to her husband. "Only He can help. Let's daven that our beloved son makes the right decision."
· * * *
Shmuel got off the bus and started walking home. Home? How could he call that dingy, one room flat a home? Last night, two men had appeared at his door and warned him that he had better pay them the money he owes. He had called his parents in hysterics, explaining that his life was in danger, but instead of offering to pay his debt (okay, they always made lots of conditions, but in the end they came through) they told him that they were very, very sorry, but they could not give him any money. Shmuel was furious, and started arguing with them. "You call yourselves frum?" he screamed. "What frum person would refuse to help a starving Jew – and especially if that Jew happens to be their son?" But strangely enough, this time his parents didn't respond. Instead, his mother spoke slowly, with a strength that he had never heard before. "The only help we'll give you is to help you get into an addiction facility."
"I'll go to a facility. I'll get the help I need," Shmuel promised. "But I can't possibly overcome my problems when I'm drowning in debt."
But the counselor had warned Yocheved that he'd probably respond that way, and Yocheved refused to fall into the trap. "I'm sorry, but we can't help with your debts. You'll have to do that yourself. The only help we can give is to help you get into an addiction facility." With that, Shmuel had heard the phone click.
Shmuel was frightened. The world was closing in on him. Everywhere he went, he met people who wanted their money — now. And he couldn't even turn to his parents for help.
* * * *
Rena stared at the dishes. She felt so alone, so taken advantage of, and so, so, so fat. The kids needed clothes for the morning, and she still had to prepare their lunches for the next day, and finish cleaning up the supper dishes. She wanted to crawl into her bed and never leave, but she couldn't. She had much too much to do.
Without thinking, Rena mechanically took another chocolate bar out of the cupboard. Then she looked down at her housecoat that barely closed; it had been loose when she bought it just a few months ago. "I can't go on like this," she whispered. Somehow, she found the courage and the strength to leave the kitchen and collapse in bed.
With shaking hands, she called her best friend, Sarah Friedlander. "I can't go on anymore," she began. And then the tears came. "I can't control myself. I can't control my husband. I can't control my eating. I can't control my life. I'm a loser – except when it comes to my weight, of course – and with those words she giggled despite her tears –I feel that I'm on a rollercoaster that's speeding out of control, that there's no way out. I'm trapped."
Sarah listened quietly. There was so much pain hidden within each and every word. She wanted to hug Rena and tell her that everything would be all right, but she intuitively understood that that was not what she needed. Rena didn't need magic; she needed something real. And so she waited until Rena was finished, and then she talked.
· * * * * *
Shmuel felt that the world was falling apart; there was no way out, no place to escape to. He was terrified: terrified that his creditors would find him; terrified that he would spend the night sleeping on the street, hiding under a dirty, old newspaper; terrified that he would end up starving to death. He was startled to realize that even greater than all these nightmares was the fear of not having the money to gamble. It was a fear worse than death, and even as he shook from terror, a tiny voice of sanity within him told him that he had gone mad. And that was really frightening.
Yocheved glanced at her husband. His knuckles were white from grasping the small paperback sefer, his face was red from concentration. She was so immersed in her tefillos that she wasn't at all embarrassed by the hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Time seemed to stand still. She had never felt such despair, and yet, amazingly enough, it was intermingled with a sliver of hope. For the first time in her life, she was praying with every fiber of her being. As she gently closed the sefer Tehillim, she suddenly started speaking to Hashem in her own words, begging the only One who could help her son, to put it into his heart to ask for help.
Rena listened, and she was speechless. When she finally got her voice back, she said incredulously. "You mean to say that the reason why I'm not coping is because I'm trying to cope, that the situation really is too difficult for me? And that instead of trying to manage on my own, I should start asking for help?"
"Yes," her friend replied. "That's exactly what I've been trying to tell you for the last half hour, but it seems like you're a bit of a slow learner…" She heard Rena laugh. "Rena," she continued, suddenly serious again, "you're collapsing. You're in an impossible situation, and you can't do it alone. You have to reach out and get help."
"But that would be saying that I'm no good, that I can't manage. People will think that I'm a failure."
"Who ever manages? And why is success or failure defined by what other people think of you?"
"I guess… well, yeah, you're probably right," Rena somehow managed to get the words out, to admit that she's human. "I certainly can't continue the way I'm going. And you know, Sara, it suddenly occurred to me that here I am, telling Shmuel that he had better change his life around; get help for his addiction, and yet, I can't even stop myself from eating chocolate. Whenever life gets to be too much for me — the kids start screaming, I'm too exhausted to continue —I turn to it. I must be a chocoholic… a real chocolate addict…" by now the two women were laughing hysterically at the crazy comparison. "Do you think there's a rehabilitation center for chocolate addiction. Who knows? Maybe Shmuel and I can go to one together… wouldn't that be sweet… how, how… well, how… it'll be like being newly weds all over again…"
But even as she shook in laughter, Rena felt another emotion welling up within her: hope. "Sara, this is going to sound totally insane…" But really, it just occurred to me, maybe… maybe if I try to change something about myself, then somehow it'll give Shmuel the koach to also make changes. I mean, we are married; there's a deep spiritual connection between us, even if he doesn't live in the house with me. I can't force him to go for help, but just the mere fact that I’m willing to get help, to admit that I'm not perfect, maybe that will give him the strength to get the help he so desperately needs.”
"Okay, Rena," Sara said. Rena could hear Sara's smile over the phone. "Tomorrow I'm arranging for some Bais Yaakov girls to take the kids to the park so that you can get some rest. It's impossible for you to anything when you're so exhausted."
Yocheved was exhausted. For the first time in her life, she had prayed with a painful intensity that sapped every drop of her energy, and yet, strangely enough, left her feeling both refreshed and hopeful. She pushed herself up from the plush, deep cushions of the sofa and walked to the other room to wash her tear stained face. It was late, and they hadn't eaten supper yet.
Twenty minutes later, over scrambled eggs and toast, Levi and Yocheved were still so exhausted from the intensity of their emotions that they ate in comfortable silence. It wasn't until Yocheved stood up to clear the table that Levi finally spoke. "We've done whatever we could. Now we just have to accept that it's not in our hands and…" his voice broke, "continue davening."
At the thought of gambling, Shmuel felt the adrenaline surge through his body. It wasn't that he wanted to gamble, he needed to gamble. But he didn't have a penny to his name. He was standing outside a hardware store. A crazy thought flitted into his head: I'll walk into that store, pocket a few gadgets and sell them on a street corner. It's not stealing – I'm just borrowing it until I win. Then I'll return it, and I'll give twenty percent to tzedakah."
Look at how low you've fallen, another, quieter voice piped up within him. Look at how far you've fallen! You're nothing more than a common thief.
Shmuel gasped. The realization of what he was about to do – what he was aching to do – hit him so hard that he turned sharply around and started running. He had to get away, quickly, he knew that he couldn't hold out much longer before the compulsion would overcome him and he wouldn’t be able to escape.
Right now, the only way out was up.
"Mrs. Bernhard, you must understand that your husband is sick. It's not about you, or the kids, or your relationship. It's about him and his sickness. He needs help, and when, someday — hopefully sooner than later — he asks for it, you are going to need to help him. I'm not referring to giving him money for food, or letting him back into your life; that's actually counterproductive. I'm talking about real help; forcing him to face his problem head on, and to begin taking steps toward recovery. And for that, you have to be strong, and happy with whom you are."
Rena's friend, Sara, had encouraged her to speak with Dr. Tahl, a world famous addiction specialist. At first she had balked at the idea. Shmuel was the one with the problem, not her. Eventually, she allowed herself to be persuaded to go and hear what he had to say.
"But Doctor," she interrupted him, "sometime he tells me that he has no money for food, or that his creditors are going to kill him, or that he'll end up in jail. It's all so, so terrible. I can't let him starve, or go to jail…"
"What will happen if he goes to jail?"
"It'll be terrible. He'll be stuck there. How humiliating…"
"Is that any worse than what's happening now?" The question was sharp, but the tone was gentle, and the eyes radiated compassion.
She didn't answer, but her silence said it all.
"It's possible that he might fall that low, and if he does, it might force him to face his problems. But hopefully, it won't get to that point. Mrs. Bernhard, you're a religious woman. You believe in G-d. Put your faith in Him and pray that your husband reaches out for help. And when he does – and not before that – stretch out your hand to help him climb out of the abyss."
When Shmuel stopped running, he was gasping for breath and could barely stand from sheer physical exhaustion. He had never been so frightened in his life. And the source of that fear was an ominously dark side of him that threatened to drag him lower and lower, to a place where he knew – and he shuddered at the very thought – he would never be able to pull himself out of.
His hand automatically went to his front pocket, to his cell phone. But then he remembered; last night he had sold it for a few more dollars – enough to play one more round at the casino. He didn't even bother opening his wallet. He knew it was empty.
Shmuel looked around and saw that he was lost, and the very thought made his lips turn up into a half-smile. "I'm really lost," he muttered to himself. "Really, really lost. But I'm goin' to find my way home…I'm really goin' to find my way home." At the thought, his smile became real and he started to chuckle. He was going home! Home, to Rena and the kids and a normal, happy life! For the first time in months, he walked with firm, strong steps, hoping that he'd soon find a recognizable landmark to begin the long trek back to where he belonged.
Levi Bernhard gulped down the last of his coffee and with a thump, banged the empty mug on the blue and yellow checkered tablecloth. Yocheved looked up from the magazine she was reading. She had been married long enough to know that when her husband put down his coffee like that, he was really upset.
"It's totally ridiculous," he began.
There was no need for him to explain what was ridiculous. For the last two months almost every conversation revolved around Shmuel and his addiction.
"I also feel helpless," she said. "But what can we do?"
“Nothing," Levi almost screamed the word. "Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!" he repeated, pounding on the table for emphasis. "So here we are, sitting in our lovely home, enjoying ourselves, eating delicious food, and… and watching our son slowly commit suicide — and our hands are tied. But is he coming around? No! Is anything different? No! Yocheved, we can’t leave him like this. It's crazy."
Yocheved sighed. How many times had they rehashed this? When, oh when, would Shmuel finally reach rock bottom? And when he did, would he actually try to climb out of the abyss?
"Levi, we have no choice. We just have to wait for him to come back, and when he's finally ready to go for real help, to be there for him; to support him on his journey toward recovery. To give him the things he needs – love, support, commitment – rather than the things he wants."
Levi couldn't help but smile. "You'd make a great therapist, Yocheved; you sound exactly like that addiction counselor, what's his name? Oh, Benny Reichman. But seriously, how long can we wait? And what about our tzadekes of a daughter-in-law; she needs a husband…and our precious grandchildren…" his voice cracked, "how long can they be without a father? It can't continue like this. It can't…"
Rena was enjoying the quiet. The supper dishes were soaking in the sink, thanks to the Bais Yaakov girl who had helped her with the evening bath and pajama routine. From her easy chair in the living room, she could hear Avrumi and Rivki giggling in the bedroom. "I must call Sara and thank her again for sending these girls to help me," she reminded herself. Life was looking good, and she was startled to realize that she was actually enjoying being alone. And that that moment of clarity was, in itself, exquisitely painful.
Shmuel slowed his pace and thought, I'll call my parents and tell them that I don't even have money to get on a bus. They'll help me. They'll never let me starve. At the thought of money, his heart began pumping faster, and his palms became sweaty. Money! The solution to all my problems. With money, I can do anything. With money, I'll be a somebody. He looked around him at the crowded sidewalk, and held out his palm.
The phone rang. Yocheved jumped out of her chair and rushed to answer it.
She'd recognize that voice anywhere. Shmuel.
"Ma, it's me. Shmuel."
Yocheved looked at her husband.
"Shmuel?" he mouthed. She nodded her head.
"Yes, Shmuel. How are you?" Remember what Benny said. Don't enable him. Don't give in to him.
"Ma, for the last two weeks I've had nothing to eat but stale bread and hard boiled eggs. I don't even have money for a bus ticket. I'm beyond miserable. I can't go on any longer. Please help me, Ma. I'm desperate."
Yocheved took a deep breath. "What type of help are you asking for?"
"I need a couple of hundred dollars, for groceries and bus fare. I promise, mamash promise, that I won’t use any of it – not a single penny- for gambling. I want to find a job, and start living a normal life. Go back to my family. But I can't do that if I don't have anything. I can't walk around looking like a beggar. It's not…"
Yocheved grasp on the telephone was so tight that her knuckles had turned white. "I'm sorry, Shmuel," she interrupted him in a calm, cool voice. Benny would be proud of me, she thought. "Tatty and I can't give you money. I'm so, so sorry. But you're always welcome to vis…". She stopped. She was talking to herself. Her son had hung up on her.
Shmuel walked out of the phone booth in disgust. He felt this insane urge to walk into a store and pocket something- anything. Instead, he stood on the corner and held out his palm. With a start, he realized that he was trembling.
"I hope I did the right thing. How could I…" The tears were coursing down Yocheved's face, but she didn't even bother to wipe them. "Who knows what will happen to him now?"
Levi tried to smile. "Right now, there's only one way he can go – up."
@ @ @
Three hours later, Shmuel plopped down on the curb and began counting the money – thirty seven dollars and seventy five cents. Not bad. He separated the bills to fit them neatly into his wallet, and discovered among the green notes was a smudged sheet of paper, carefully folded into eighths. It was a letter.
I know what you're going through, because I've been there too. Then someone gave me this number, and this guy, Arnie Wexler, really helped me pull my life back together. I want to pass on the good deed, so from one gambler to another, call 1-888-LASTBET (1-888-527-8238) and begin the road to recovery.
From someone who understands and cares about your welfare.
Shmuel gave a short, cynical laugh as he crushed the letter into a tiny ball. With a vengeance, he thrust it into the deep recesses of his pocket.
But two days later, after losing the thirty seven dollars and seventy five cents at the casino, despite his promise to himself to move forward, begging on the street for more, losing that, and then spending the night on a dirty park bench, wondering how he'd ever make his way to his dingy one room apartment – he refused to call it home — he managed to beg a few quarters from a passerby and started walking toward the bus station. Then he remembered the letter.
Arnie was just about ready to jump into the shower when the phone rang. It was the hotline. "Hello," he boomed in his warm, welcoming voice. "Thank you for calling. This is Arnie. How can I help you?"
"I... uh.... I got your number," Shmuel began. "I heard you help people stop gambling," he continued, feeling strange and silly.
But twenty minutes later, he somehow found himself agreeing to meet the following day with Arnie and some Rav cum psychiatrist. And when he hung up the phone, he was surprised to find that his cheeks were wet.
"You know, Sarah…" Rena was sitting on her favorite easy chair in the living room, one hand wrapped around a steaming hot mug of lemon tea, the other holding the telephone receiver to her ear. "I really feel that I've grown over the last few months. I'm not the same person that I was just half a year ago. I used to think that my whole being – my entire identity – depended on what other people thought of me, especially on what Shmuel thought of me. This nisayon has really shown me just how strong and capable I really am, and that I don’t need that confirmation from others. I can get it from deep within myself.”
Sarah’s happiness was genuine when she said. "You know, Rena, you're a pretty great you! And I have no doubt that when Shmuel gets over his problems, he'll be pleasantly surprised to discover what a wonderful woman you've become. You're strong and happy with yourself and you'll be able to share that optimism and strength with him. "
For the first time in months, Rena felt more than a faint glimmer of hope.
Shmuel was shocked. Arnie looked just the way he thought he would; clean shaven and balding, his face lit up with a warm, gregarious smile. But the psychiatrist — with a wispy gray beard and peyos, looked more like a Rosh Yeshivah than a shrink.
When Arnie stood up and extended his hand, his face crinkled into an even wider smile, much to Shmuel's astonishment. "Arnie here," he said, his handshake firm. "And this is the psychiatrist I told you about, Rabbi Abraham Twerski. He's a world-renowned expert on addictions, and he's helped hundreds, if not thousands, of people like me and you."
Shmuel gave a nervous cough. "I'm not an addict. I just like to gamble It's not as if…"
"Have you ever tried to stop?" Rabbi Twerski interrupted him.
"Of course, but…"
Rabbi Twerski didn't let him continue. "Did you?"
"Yes, for a while. But then…"
Rabbi Twerski looked directly into Shmuel's eyes and asked, "Shmuel, what has gambling done to your life?"
Shmuel didn't answer; he couldn't.
"Here, take a look at this," said Arnie, handing him a sheet of paper. "Does any of this sound familiar?"
A compulsive gambler is someone who:
1. is preoccupied with gambling (e.g., preoccupied with reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next venture, or thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble)
2. needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement
3. has repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling
4. is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling
5. gambles as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression.
6. after losing money gambling, often returns another day in order to get even ("chasing" one's losses)
7. lies to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling
8. has committed illegal acts, such as forgery, fraud, theft, or embezzlement, in order to finance gambling
9. has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling
10. relies on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling
Shmuel found himself nodding as he read the list. "That's me all right," he admitted.
"Shmuel," Rabbi Twerski began, his expression suddenly very serious, "Addictive gambling is a degenerative and very dangerous disease. Without treatment, you'll either end up in jail, or dead, and in the process, you'll end up ruining lots of other people's lives too. Even if you want to stop, without professional help it's impossible, yet no one can help you unless you really, truly want to get that help. It's only once you realize that you're powerless over gambling, and that your life has become unmanageable, that you can begin the road to recovery. You have to know what you're dealing with; it's a compulsion that's much greater than yourself."
Shmuel nodded. Rabbi Twerski had articulated what he sensed to be true.
Arnie grasped Shmuel's hand. "You know, Shmuel. I've been there. It's a slippery slope leading straight downwards, but as much as you want to stop, you can't. You have no control over it."
"Shmuel," Rabbi Twerski looked straight at him. "Gambling is an addiction, just like any other addiction. As time goes on, your body needs it in greater amounts to experience the thrill it experienced before." He paused for a moment, before continuing, "T hat's a medical fact. So just like an alcoholic can never become a social drinker, and a drug addict has to swear off all drugs, a compulsive gambler can never, ever, ever gamble – even a seemingly harmless game of Bingo can trigger the compulsion." As Rabbi Twerski spoke, Arnie slipped out of the room.
"So what you're telling me is that there's nothing I can do? My body craves that high, and I'll end up a slave to that compulsion forever? There's no way out?" Shmuel felt depleted; worthless.
"That's the paradox," Rabbi Twerski continued with a twinkle in his eye. "You can't recover until you realize that you can't. It's so simple; you can't – it's much too big for you — but Hashem can. Stop trying to be in control, turn it over to Him, and then get the help and the support that you need so that you won't end up a slave to your addiction. It's simple, but it's far –very, very far - from easy."
Rena had almost finished with putting away the last of the laundry when the phone rang. She quickly finished pairing the last of Avrumi's socks and raced to answer. She didn't recognize the number.
"Is this Shmuel's wife, Mrs. Bernhard?" a stranger asked.
Rena felt a wave of fear and despair. Not another debt, another warning, she thought.
"Yes," she replied. “But Shmuel doesn't live here anymore." And I'm not responsible for his behavior, either.
"This is Arnie Wexler," the man continued. She could sense the care and empathy in his voice. "My colleague, Rabbi Twerski, is speaking with your husband right now. He's hit rock bottom, and now he needs our help in climbing the slippery road to recovery."
Rena plopped down on the edge of the couch, stunned and confused. This is what she had been davening for, but, was she ready? "Wh…what do you want me to do? Am I supposed to accept him with open arms, after everything he's done to me and our children? How many times can I have my hopes dashed when he returns to gambling, after giving me his solemn promise that he would stop?"
"Mrs. Bernhard, no one is asking you to accept him with open arms. But he has to know that you care for him, are cheering for him – and most important of all, that you are praying for him. He's probably going to have to spend about half a year in a rehab facility, and when he comes out, he'll have to continue going to meetings and support groups for the rest of his life. It's not going to be easy – not for you and definitely not for him – but if you're strong, he'll sense that strength, and then, with G-d's help, I'm positive that you'll both succeed."
"It won't be easy."
Shmuel had to lower his eyes from the intensity of Rabbi Twerski gaze.
"You're going to have to rip open your innermost being and rebuild it from the bottom up. But when you're finished, you'll be a different man. You'll realize your shortcomings and try to correct them, and you'll do what is necessary to stay clean of gambling. Shmuel, I have no doubt that you can do it!"
Rabbi Twerski began leafing through an address book as he looked for a phone number. "Shmuel, if you agree, I'd like to call the treatment center and ask them to admit you. But I can't do that without your permission. Are you willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to free yourself from your addiction?"
"You bet," he responded, with a twinkle in his eyes.
And he won the bet.
The author would like to thank Rabbi Abraham Twerski and Arnie Wexler for their reviewing the manuscript and providing their professional input. Arnie Wexler can be contacted at 1-888-527-8238.