By Batya Ruddell
Originally published in Binah Magazine
Author and Creative Writer, Hamodia Publications
The road upwards is long and winding, snaking through a kibbutz, grape orchards and reservoirs. There are very few cars travelling this route and the absence of bus stops along the way, shows that public transportation is scarce. Everything about the drive through the rugged hillside suggests that it leads to a place of peace, quiet and some form of isolation. At the end of the road, on top of a hill, stands a stone building, probably an old Arab house from years past. At three in the afternoon, the place is quiet, the only sound being the birds in the small sanctuary at the entrance. The residents of the house are taking a typical Israeli siesta and the tranquil atmosphere gives no hint of the turmoil their lives were in. These people, ranging from teenagers to adults married with children, are in the rehabilitation center called Retorno. They are there to make changes, to take time away from the often harsh distraction of daily life and to take a long, hard look at themselves.Community members work harder on themselves in their efforts to change than most people do their entire lives. Like the name Retorno, means in Spanish – they are coming back.
Only a half hour from Jerusalem and a five minute drive from Beit Shemesh,Retorno is unique in that it is especially geared to the needs of the orthodox community. Rabbi Eitan Eckstein established the center in Mexico, where he’d been sent on shilchut, and continued it in Israel. He created it in order to provide a solution for treating substance addiction among religious youth. Noting that addiction was on the rise in general and unfortunately had spilled over into the Jewish population, Rabbi Eckstein saw that frequently the problem of substance abuse was kept secret among religious families and subsequently there was no address to turn to for help.
Mr. Neil Chassid, assistant manager and director of counselors, has been at Retorno for seven and a half years. He arrived there after working for 30 years with young people as the director of the Netanya Municipality Youth Department. “I heard that Retorno was a religious institution that worked with youth at risk and it sounded challenging,” he says.
In Retorno there are two therapeutic communities. The adult program caters to men and women from age nineteen to sixty and the youth community caters to teenagers from age fifteen to eighteen. The adult program caters to up to seventy people; the teenage program, thirty six, although it is due to increase to forty eight beds shortly. There is also an ambulatory facility available in Beit Shemesh that offers shorter treatment for adults, available in Beit Shemesh. The adult program lasts eight months whereas the teenage program is a year and a half.Although both programs are run on the same premises, the two groups are kept separate. And even though the programs are mixed there are very strict rules pertaining to contact with one another.
Neil works with the youth but he explains the difference between the two therapeutic programs. “Usually the teenagers need more time to find out why they got into the situations they did, and the program is generally more tolerant and less demanding. The challenge of those in the adult community is that they been addicted to some kind of substance for much longer. Many are married with children and the effects on their families have to be dealt with, together with their spouses. Sometimes long-term physical effects on their bodies also need to be treated.
There is more emphasis placed on motivation with the adults. If an adult runs away, the staff don’t run after them like we do. Our community is for minors and we are more concerned about the dangers they face. They are bright, normal, charismatic (not psychiatric!) young people who have found themselves in a destructive lifestyle.”
The goal of both treatment programs is to finish with a much higher self- image, general well- being and an extremely reduced pull to substance abuse. This is done through a long process of helping the patients to identify the life events that got them into the destructive behavior they been engaged in.
One of the basic tenants is that anyone who has hurt themselves or others has been hurt himself before, either emotionally or physically, Neil expounds.A particular type of abuse,inside or outside the family, is a common denominator amongst girls and is also on the rise amongst boys.
Esther* was only eleven years old when she started drinking and started using drugs at thirteen. “My mother first noticed a change in my behavior when I was five years old,” Esther relates. “I suddenly became very sensitive and would over-react to things. Of course, it never occurred to her that there was a reason for that.
From the onset of her teenage years Esther acted out and suffered wide mood swings. At age fifteen she left home. “I lived in abandoned houses or slept in the streets or subways,” she recalls. “I would call home occasionally and sneak into the house in the middle of the night to shower and change clothes. My parents begged me to go back but I refused.”
After a tough time on the street, Esther went home on her own accord and underwent a one-month detoxification program in the States, but needed to go to a rehabilitation program afterwards.She would have been the only Jewish girl in the program recommended for her in America, so her parents sent her to Retorno instead. By now, open to change, Esther arrived there for the teenage program at age sixteen. “It was my very first time in Israel. I didn’t know any Hebrew and was in total shock!”
Thirty-year-old Lori* was also traumatized when she arrived at Retorno from America at age nineteen. She entered the adult program was fortunate to have English speaking groups she could participate in.
Throughout my childhood I went through ongoing abuse. By age thirteen I was anorexic and bulimic, cutting myself at fourteen and addicted to pills and alcohol by seventeen. After a disastrous attempt at seminary in Israel, my parents took me back to America where I broke down and told my old high school principal that I just couldn’t continue the way I was anymore and needed help.
Lori’s principal told her about Retorno and her parents agreed to send her. “At first, I had clue what I was doing there,” Lori recalls. “I tried to run away but the care and concern from the staff made me stay. They showed me that they cared about me for who I was and wanted me to get better so I could lead my own life.”
“Retorno’s treatment method is based on the premise that the peer group is the main agent for change,” Neil explains. The system in the community is tough love, meaning a regimented daily schedule with immediate reaction to infringement of the rules, together with a loving, caring, supportive staff.
He gives an example of this. The kids get up at 6 a.m. and the first activity is sitting with the group in a circle and expressing their feelings and hopes for the coming day. It’s the start of a day that is geared to help them speak about their feelings and reflect upon their behavior. Group pressure is applied where the kids don’t abide by the rules of the community, like not getting up in the morning, using bad language, or going off by themselves. For example, if a member doesn’t get up, the rest of the group stands in a circle until they do. During this time, various members of the group will go to wake up the person, and if that fails a staff member approaches them. After a certain point the member receives a talking to in front of the group or a consequence which entails doing some kind of job.
The psychology behind this is that there are results to their actions which affect people around them. The teens are usually woefully lacking in interpersonal skills and having awareness of others. The group interaction is a learning experience that can bring about a gradual change in the way the person sees himself and others.
“There seemed to be so many rules for every little thing,” Esther recalls. “It took me time to learn them, and I was always getting consequences – which meant being sent to ‘the bench.’ I acted out and disagreed a lot. I came from doing whatever I wanted, to a complete structure that was designed to break down my behavioral patterns and then re-start me.”
After several months of seeking negative attention and testing boundaries, Esther reached a pivotal turning point. “I did something very serious in breach of the rules, and the staff wanted to throw me out. But they decided to give me another chance. They put me in ‘isolation.’ This means I had a room of my own and couldn’t participate in group activities. I was given a pen and paper and told to write. I’d been hearing things in the groups and was beginning to share, but every little thing would twist my emotions all over the place. It was while in isolation, though, when I began to write and was completely alone with myself that I started to really ask for help. After that, I got into intense therapy with the social worker.”
“When I arrived, I didn’t want to face things,” Lori says. “I didn’t know why I had come and I hated everybody! I had a deep seated distrust of people and didn’t believe in a single person.It was hard to get over that. Very slowly, I began to trust one of the volunteers and she brought me to a place where I could trust others.”
Neil says that the days and nights at Retorno are very full. “The teenagers have school in the morning. This is an important part of therapy because it enables them to close the huge gaps they usually have in their education, builds their self- esteem and prepares them for life once they finish treatment.”
Both communities are run by the members themselves, from cooking (adult program), cleaning, setting tables and serving meals. In the afternoons there are various activities like arts and crafts, horseback riding therapy, trips (both educational and recreational), animal assisted therapy, and regular one-on-one therapy with a social worker. As well as all this, there are the groups. There is an Encounter Group, in which members have the chance to tell each other about ways others may be hindering their progress. There is a House Group in which members discuss everyday life with the staff. There is a Group for the Individual which is there to help someone who may be having extreme difficulty. He or she has a chance to ask for help and receives advice and support.
Two major milestones that each member passes is, the “Yom Shimush” (Day of Using), where after six months he or she relates the worst day they remember during their substance abuse, and the Life Story, in which after one year, each person relates the story of his life until then, in front of the group.
“The backbone of the therapy is the 12 steps to recovery program,” Neil adds. “This is an extremely effective tool used worldwide for addictions.”
“Following my breakdown and subsequent isolation, I became a leader in the group and took on responsibilities,” Esther continues. :I was aware that I needed to go through the process in order to not go back to my destructive behavior. I got strength from those who had finished the treatment and came back to talk to us. They gave me hope. I realized that recovery was possible.”
“I think the 12 steps helped me the most,” Lori says. “The Serenity prayer that we said at the beginning of every meeting especially spoke to me.” She says the prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
“Also, the love I received – not giving up on me – was something that showed me that there are really people who care and want to help me to recover even when I have given up on myself,” Lori continues. “At Retorno they fight for you. They’ll do anything to help you. At the end of the day it’s up to you of course, but they give you all the tools. Retorno became my family, and till today they are my family. Family doesn’t need to be blood, the feeling inside is much more important. When I’m having a bad day, I can pick up and go to Retorno to get strength and to give.
Esther agrees. “Retorno gave me a second chance. They never gave up on me. When I didn’t believe in myself, they believed in me and gave me the strength until I got back on my own feet.”
Combining the spiritual
“In the teen program, it is not our goal to make the kids religious, but we try to find the positive parts of their religious experience that can be reinforced in a gentle, ongoing way,” Neil explains. “Most come here in rebellion of the adult world, including the religious life style.”
Shabbos and the Jewish holidays are observed as a natural part of community life. A modesty code – skirts for the girls, yarmulkes for the boys – is enforced and Torah classes are given frequently by different rabbis, including Rabbi Eckstein himself. “Our ironclad belief that only through the help of Hashem can there be success,” Neil declares. “All we do is provide the kids with access to what is rightfully theirs – Judaism.”
Lori recalls erev Rosh Hashanah the year of her treatment. “Retorno took us to the Kotel. At the time I was still fighting everything, throwing up and not eating. At the Kotel, I prayed, ‘God help them to help me and help me to accept their help!’ From that day on, I stopped throwing up and began eating.”
Today, Lori is married with three children and is religiously observant. “I came back to Judaism under the chuppah,” says Lori with a touch of awe in her voice. “It just happened as I was standing there. I felt a special connection to God, that can not be explained in words. He saved my life and brought me to a place that I am getting married. I felt I needed to become closer, and I decided from that moment under the chuppah that I will become closer. I used to always put a hood on my head, to keep myself in my own world, and now my husband is covering my face with the veil.”
Esther says she became very spiritual. “I have a relationship with God and I pray, even if not always from the siddur. But I found my path.”
Acceptance and Change
“Today I completely accept myself and my emotions,” Esther says. If I’m sad and I need to cry, I do it, instead of squashing down the feelings like I once did. I will stop what I’m doing and take a few minutes to just cry.”
There was a stage where Esther felt regret about things she’d done, like hurting her parents, for example. “I had to look at that, accept it, love myself and move on.”
“I came to the realization that I wasn’t to blame,” Lori acknowledges. “I had to look at the past in the eyes, deal with it, accept it and move forward. I learned that I was the victim and I am allowed to hurt.”
Esther explains that for her own peace of mind she decided to forgive the person who hurt her and not to carry the anger around inside.
“I forgive myself first,” Lori adds. “You can forgive someone who’s hurt you but you can’t forget. Once you forgive your past you can stop holding onto the pain and sadness, say goodbye to it and move on. And that’s when the change really begins.”
“I’m not sorry about anything I went through, Esther comments. I totally accept that’s what had to happen to bring me to where I am today.” Lori agrees with this. “I needed to suffer in order to be stronger and to help others who are going through what I did.”
Neil has something to add. “It’s exhilarating to see kids who arrive here in great chaos in both their inner and outer lives, make a significant change. Those changes are huge: changing their way of thinking, behavioral patterns, self- esteem and their ability to take responsibility for themselves and others.”
Neil is happy to be part of that. “I was fortunate to realize at an early age that it was God’s plan for me to work with youth and ease their pain,” he says. “The satisfaction I have in helping them in their journey is the main reason I continue to do it.I look at it as a privilege to get up in the morning and try to be effective with these teens who, through no fault of their own, have been severely hurt.”
Both Esther and Lori are married to husbands who have been through experiences similar to theirs.
Esther has been married for three years.”My husband was in Retorno before me and used to come back to speak,” Esther relates. “We have a lot in common, including both coming from religious homes, and we understand each other. At the same time we realized it’s risky for two addicts to be together because if one falls they can bring the other one down. We make sure we have support outside of one another so we have a solid base and won’t become codependent. We each have our own counselors to talk to. In addition, I never allow myself to forget my past. If I don’t relate it to myself I could just get lost in todays reality and relapse.”
Esther works as a kindergarten teacher where she introduces things she learned in Retorno into the classroom. “When a child is sad or crying I don’t just give him a pacifier or a candy, but I get down on my knees, look in his eyes and ask him if he wants to talk. I want the children to be able to express their emotions and not shut them down. It’s like a tikkun for me to give these children the basic tools for being okay with who they are.”
“I live a normal life,” says Lori, “but I’m also aware that I could be on the other side of the line in two seconds. That’s all it takes to have a drink. My husband and I strengthen and support each other but we each have our support systems as well. So long as I know that I’m doing what I have to do – reaching out for help the minute that I stop doing what I need to do – I am in danger. I can never forget where I came from. And I have my children. I only need to look at them and there’s nothing to talk about.”
Lori’s husband works very closely in the field of rehabilitation and Lori has worked as a counselor herself. She has also studied life coaching.
“A big advantage for our graduates in maintaining their recovery is the connection they have with each other, continuing relationships with staff members and visits back to the community on a weekday or for a Shabbaton,” Neil adds. “We never send anyone out without a job, school or living accommodation set up for him. And the main thing is that the kids have one another which prevent them going back to old relationships that were detrimental to them.”
“Retorno is more like a family than an institution,” Neil continues. “The staff lives with the kids in their hearts even when they are not on the premises. I am extremely connected to them all. One Friday night we were sitting in a circle where everyone makes a blessing and says different things they are hoping for. I said that I’d like to thank Hashem, who took me away from my family this Shabbos and took me to my family!”
Blessings of their own
Esther: My prayer to every person alive is that they should not be afraid of who they are and not be ashamed to show who they are. Nobody needs to wear a mask. I wish for people to realize that they are filled with love and good and they don’t need to hide!
Lori: My message to all of you is there’s always hope! No matter how sick a person is, while he still alive and breathing, he can always get out of it. I was anorexic and bulimic for seven years. If I could recover, anyone can. I want people to remember, never give up: the sky’s the limit!
First printed in Binah magazine, September, 2012Please share this post!