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Jacob & Lisa Hillman

Mother and son talk about how families need to deal openly with drug addictions at JCFS program
Over the past ten years we have published numerous articles on the subject of addiction, both within the Jewish community and the community at large.
A very high proportion of the articles we have written were inspired either by a program mounted by Jewish Child and Family Service, or by someone working for Jewish Child and Family Service.



As JCFS has continually adapted to changing needs in society, the problem of addictions has taken on ever-more increased importance in terms of how JCFS has been redefining its role.
Thus, when JCFS presented a program on Monday, November 25, at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue that was titled “Secret No More”, it came as no surprise that the manner in which the subject of addictions was handled was direct, with no punches pulled.
Naming the program “Secret No More”, as JCFS Executive Director Al Benarroch explained to the very large crowd gathered in the downstairs lounge (in which the temperature seemed to have been turned up to 30˚ C. for some reason), was the result of one of the special guest speakers, Lisa Hillman, having written a book by that name about her own family’s dealing with their son, Jacob’s, addiction issues.
As Benarroch explained, the subject of addictions follows a series of programs that JCFS has mounted in recent years that have dealt with some pretty heavy issues, including depression, grief, anxiety, and gender identity.
Each time JCFS has presented a program on one of those subjects, Benarroch added, the “focus has been on families, how they can cope, and how they’re affected.”
As well, since to a very large extent, young people often deal with these issues without knowing where to turn for help, Benarroch noted that JCFS has been focusing an increasing amount of its attention on “helping young people navigate the challenges in their lives”.
The two guest speakers, Lisa and Jacob Hillman were introduced by Dorist Kosmin, who is an addictions counselor at JCFS. In her remarks, Kosmin referred to Lisa Hillman’s broad experience as a journalist, as a member of the boards of numerous organizations, and as having run “four capital campaigns” that combined have raised over $100 million.
Since “Secret No More” was published two years ago, Kosmin said, Lisa Hillman has addressed more than 60 groups, often accompanied by her son, Jacob.

Following are some snippets of what was said:
When Lisa Hillman took to the podium, she demonstrated her talent at communicating by, in turn, addressing the audience without referring to any set remarks, but also reading excerpts from her book occasionally when she wanted to make a particular – and often somewhat startling point.
She explained that “Secret No More” came about as a result of her having kept a journal for over ten years.
“If you’re in a crisis,” Lisa said, “it’s helpful to write things down.” (When she made that observation I couldn’t help but immediately think about an article I had recently written about another individual’s struggle with addiction – Henriette Ivanans, who also kept a meticulous log of her day to day abuse of a myriad of different drugs – and alcohol. It turned out that Henriette was in the crowd this particular evening, along with her husband, Kevin McIntyre. Also in the crowd was Ian Rabb, about whom I had also written when he spoke to the Remis Speakers’ Forum last year. I introduced Ian to Henriette after the meeting, telling them that they were both powerful communicators whose message was important for others to hear.)
Lisa Hillman noted that, when she came to realize that her son was addicted to drugs, she began “to read everything I could get my hands on.”
Unfortunately, as Lisa was to discover after poring through thousands of pages, there were only two kinds of books about addictions: ones either written by “addicts” themselves, or by “clinicians”.
“But,” Lisa continued, “I ached for a story that ended in hope – the kind of story I wish someone had given me.”
“The story,” Lisa said, “ begins for me 12 years ago when I heard from a counselor at Jacob’s school that Jacob was drinking and doing drugs.
“My reaction was ‘That’s not my kid’, “ she told the audience.

When she confronted Jacob about what the counselor had told her, of course “he (Jacob) denied it and said: ‘Who’s the kid who turned me in?’ ”
“I knew then there was a problem,” Lisa observed. But, like almost any other parent in a similar situation, she “was hoping he could get over it.”
But then Jacob went off with a group of other students from their home city of Annapolis, Maryland to a “beach week in North Carolina,” Lisa explained.
“I got another call – this time Jacob was arrested – on the beach, with drug paraphernalia.”
Lisa continued: “I was hoping that people at College Park (the high school Jacob attended) could fix my son.”
“What I wanted was someone to give me the words that I could say to my son…but where was the script?”
“I made all the classic mistakes a parent makes…I asked for a cure. After his freshman year, Jacob was asked not to come back (to College Park).”
“I was still in denial (when Jacob was kicked out of school). I was so afraid someone would find out my son was using drugs – what would that say about me?”
“I was unable to face the facts…When I went to parties, I would do a quick scan of the room to see who might ask me about Jacob, so I loaded myself with facts about their kids” (so she could avoid having to talk about Jacob).
“But, it was up to me to get him some help,” Lisa admitted. “The counselor at Jacob’s school said ‘Your son really needs to go inside (a treatment centre) for treatment’.”

“We (Lisa and her husband) gave him an ultimatum: ‘You can continue to use – but you can’t do it under our roof – or, you can take treatment.”
“He took treatment. He came home after being kicked out of the treatment centre.” (At that point Lisa explained to the audience that she, herself, was on the board of another treatment centre. There’s some irony in that, isn’t there?)
“He (Jacob) came to the treatment centre where I was on the board,” she said.
A counselor there said to Lisa: “Your son is going to have his program. What are you going to do for yourself?”
So Lisa joined Alanon, she noted. “I still go every Thursday evening.” (Note: “Alanon is a 12 step program for the families and friends of alcoholics and/or addicts.”) “Alanon saved my life,” Lisa added.
Yet, even while Jacob was in the second treatment centre, Lisa said, “He phoned me and said he’s used again.”
“I said to him: ‘Jacob – take care of yourself. You’re the only one who can’.”
Altogether, Jacob was in treatment centres three times, Lisa said. “I was told to say to him (just before he went into the third treatment centre over seven years ago): ‘Jacob, this is the last time’.”
“On Saturday (November 23) he celebrated seven years and seven months of sobriety, ” she added.
Still, Lisa admitted that “I don’t know what got him clean. There is a saying: ‘Addicts are angels in the making’.”
“No one knows what tomorrow will bring,” Lisa said. “Today is all we have.”

In conclusion, Lisa offered the following three pieces of advice to any parent whose kid is an addict:
1. “Don’t hide (the fact that you know) when you know” that your child is using.
2. “Find someone you can trust and tell them.”
3. “As long as your child – or loved one, is still alive, there’s always hope.”
At that point, Jacob Hillman took to the podium. In the leaflet handed out to audience members, it noted that “Jacob Hillman is the CFO and co-founder of Sober Living by Tiffany, a company currently operating eight upscale living facilities throughout Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in South Florida…Both professionally and personally, Jacob serves his community in any way he can as tribute to his rigorous program of recovery.”
Jacob began by saying: “I’m Jacob – and I’m an alcoholic…I didn’t know I needed a solution…Growing up my life was great. There wasn’t anything in my life that made me drink or use drugs…All that I know is that if I see someone leave a glass of wine on the table (without finishing it) – I think that’s strange.”
“Once I start, I can’t stop,” Jacob continued. “I went to treatment and got high in treatment.”
At that point Jacob began to talk about his childhood. “I was fulfilled for the first 13 years of my life – with Judaism,” he said.
“ But (after his bar mitzvah),” he noted, “I needed something ‘to take the edge off’...I don’t know where that came from.”
“It wasn’t until I went through the 12-step program that my life changed,” Jacob said.
“It gets you back to being a human being. I was rocketed into the fourth dimension of existence.”

Now, if you’re having a little trouble understanding just what the heck Jacob was talking about, here’s how he explained it: “The 12th step is a spiritual awakening as a result of having followed the previous 11 steps.”
“I was never able to accomplish much of anything,” Jacob observed, “while I was using or drinking.”
Just before ending his remarks – and Jacob came to the end of his relatively brief talk abruptly by saying he didn’t have anything else to say – just after he had spoken almost without taking a pause, Jacob acknowledged that he wouldn’t have been able to make it to where he is now without his sponsor. Later, when I was talking with Henriette Ivanans, I asked her whether she’s still in touch with her sponsor from Los Angeles – who saved her life. Henriette said she is, then she added: “But my sponsor is back using again.”

Following Jacob’s remarks, there was a panel discussion which featured, in addition to Lisa and Jacob Hillman: Ginette Poulin, Medical Director, Addictions Foundation of Manitoba; Kate Evans, Youth Services, Addictions Foundation of Manitoba; and Sharon Harms, Certified Counsellor. The panel was moderated by journalist Bryan Borzykowski.
Bryan posed this question to Jacob Hillman: “How do you stay sober?”
Jacob answered: “I pray,” although, he acknowledged, “the last thing alcoholics want to hear is: ‘the answer is God’.” He continued: “I meditate. There’s no advanced recovery; it’s basic.”
Lisa Hillman added: “I’m not hiding. People ask me why do I go to Alanon? Because it’s a lifelong threat.”

Bryan asked Ginette Poulin: “What is addiction?”
She said: “It’s very complex…a combination of family issues, genetic predisposition, the environment, life experiences.”

Kate Evans was asked: “What do people get wrong about addictions?”
She answered: “Thinking that an addiction is a choice. No one wakes up thinking ‘I want to be an addict’.”
Sharon Harms added: “It’s that feeling that something’s not quite right with me inside” combined with “access to something that might make me feel better.”
She added that, based on scientific studies, “it’s possible that one-third of people who suffer from addiction have attention deficit disorder.” (You can see how a discussion of the sort that was going on touched on so many different subjects – but it’s frustrating to be able to have only a cursory discussion of so many subjects within such a short time – when each observation raises so many additional questions.)

The subject turned to stigma. Bryan asked Lisa “How should we deal with stigma?”
Lisa answered: “We associate addiction with homeless people. The word ‘junkie’ comes from people going into junk yards looking for things to sell” to feed their habits.

Bryan asked her: “What did you say to friends” (about Jacob)?
Lisa: “I didn’t have friends at the time he was in treatment.”

At that point, Ginette Poulin engaged the audience in an interesting exercise. She asked anyone in the audience who had ever used alcohol to put up their hands. Practically everyone did. She then asked anyone who had used cigarettes to put up their hands. Then she asked about cannabis, then cocaine.
As fewer and fewer hands went up, Ginette then asked: “How many of you were reluctant to raise your hands because you were concerned what others would think?” (What better way to show how concern about stigma affects most of us?g By the way, a number of individuals did put up their hands in response to the question about cocaine – in case you were wondering.)

Bryan wondered about cannabis use among young people. Did anyone on the panel have any comments?
Sharon Harms said that “alcohol causes far more problems with young people: but, she claimed that “one of every 20 hospitalizations in Manitoba is related to cannabis use.” (Again, I wish there had been further expansion of that point. I don’t understand what exactly she meant by that.)

Kate Evans added: “When kids are struggling with pain or anxiety, that’s the time to try and get them help – before they begin to self-medicate. She also noted that “Manitoba has a huge focus on alcohol compared with other places where I’ve lived.” (I thought to myself: This event is happening right around the time that the Blue Bombers’ Grey Cup victory is being juxtaposed with one long celebration centering around drinking.”)

Bryan to Jacob: “How did you know you were an addict?”
Jacob: “I’d been using Oxycontin for a year.” (By the way, that was the first time Jacob actually named a specific drug he had been taking. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience wondering about that.)
“I thought it was making me happy,” he continued, “when all that it was doing was making me numb.”

Bryan to Lisa Hillman: “When you came to realize that it (Jacob’s addiction) was an issue – was it too late?”
Lisa: “Every parent will beat themselves up wondering whether there was something they could have done…Also, look for signs: Are they withdrawing? Is money missing? Is there a genetic predisposition?”
Ginette Poulin added: “My patients have taught me to impose boundaries...We love you, we support you, but you have to show responsibility.”
Lisa stressed the importance of a parent sharing what they’re going through with someone they trust –and who can offer support.
“Isolation is dangerous,” she said. “But,” she granted – “there is gossip. You should say to someone: ‘I trust you, but I don’t want you to share with anyone else’…You have that right to ask for support” (especially from your loved one), Lisa added.

Bryan wondered about Jacob’s spirituality. “Does everyone (who’s an addict) have to go through that? “ he asked.
I’m not sure who answered the question. My notes don’t say, but here’s what someone said: “People would love to have a secret ingredient, but there’s a spectrum of variability…Atheists can have a meaning and purpose in their lives, too. But, when people are in the midst of a major addiction cycle, those things are neglected.”

Someone in the audience brought up the JACS program (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) that JCFS used to run in Winnipeg, but apparently no longer. (I have to admit, I never knew what JACS stood for. I had to look hard to find a definition.) The same audience member suggested that “Jews have a problem with Judaism and recovery.”

One of the panelists observed that because of the stigma attached to addiction, it’s “really important not to define ourselves by our addiction. If I had cancer, I wouldn’t define myself by my cancer.”
A question was posed to Lisa Hillman: “Did you ever feel guilty that you had a son who was an addict?”

Lisa answered: “Constantly. That’s why it’s important for other family members to offer support,” especially in light of what Lisa referred to as “caregiver burnout”.
She went on to describe the three C’s that Alanon stresses: “I didn’t Cause it: I can’t Cure it; and I can’t Control it.”

Toward the end of the program, there was a particularly poignant moment when a woman approached the stand microphone at the back of the room, which was there for audience members to ask questions of the panelists.
She said she wasn’t Jewish and she wanted to express her frustration at not having the necessary resources to deal with her drug addicted son. “As a mother,’ she said, “I would have a lot more hope if there was a lot more funding. Unless you have three jobs – and remortgage your home (all of which she said she’s had to do),” you just can’t cope. “Is there self care for a mother who’s exhausted all day long?” she asked.
“Nobody wants to listen. I come home and find out he’s on the substance again – just after he’s been released from a facility…This is the reality of a mother who’s struggling to save her boy.”
Bryan Borzykowski wondered – after having just heard from that woman, “What do you do when you don’t have the resources” to put your kid into a private recovery program – as Lisa and her husband were, fortunately, able to do – three times, with Jacob? “How do you cope?” Bryan asked. Unfortunately, there was no answer given.

The final question asked was: “What can we, as a community, do to confront the stigma” surrounding addiction?
Lisa answered: “I think we’re doing it – through programs like this. If we’re talking about it, we’re not living in isolation…Addiction is universal.”
To which, Jacob Hillman added: “Bring it out into the light.”

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