During his final days, Corey Seidel struggled to overcome his addiction. His parents, Stephen and Susan Seidel, shook with worry and disbelief. They’d sent him to the best schools, brought him up in their Jewish faith. They hugged him and told him they loved him often.
But “it didn’t matter because what Corey felt he wanted most was drugs,” Susan Seidel said. “It’s something no parent should ever have to deal with, but each of us — every one of us — needs to know it could be one of our children. And we’re losing too many kids, and too fast.”
The Seidels watched as their bright son, a 2009 graduate of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, descended onto the slow, hellish path of addiction, with the end result being an overdose that took his life.
They still cherish the days when dreams were young and the horizon of possibilities seemed endless. The sounds of Corey’s electric guitars blasted through the house. At one point, Corey, the handsome, sandy-haired boy at his bar mitzvah, so full of laughter and life, hoped to become a lawyer.
But shortly after his 13th birthday, the Seidels watched as Corey drifted away. He went from dabbling in marijuana as a 15-year-old to quickly moving onto LSD, cocaine and, ultimately, the heroin that killed him.
A few years ago, Corey called his father from Denver, sounding so desperate and sick that his father booked the next flight to Colorado. Stephen Seidel found his son in a room with oxycodone, heroin and an ounce of cocaine. From there, he took him to rehab.
Corey spent 151 straight days in a rehab facility, only to return to heroin within days of his discharge. He spent weeks homeless until he found a small room to rent in Oakland, Cal. When Corey called to ask his father for $325 in January 2016, that was the last time Stephen would ever hear his son’s voice.
Corey died in his bedroom in Oakland on Jan. 26. For 10 days, no one knew where to find him, Then on Feb. 4, Stephen Seidel got the call from the Alameda County, Cal., sheriff.
“He asked if I knew Corey Seidel. I said, ‘Yes, is he OK?’”
“He said, ‘No, he’s dead.’ That’s what I was told. That’s how I was told my son was gone.”
Out of their pain and grief, guilt and confusion, the Seidels have found strength in their faith. Now, they see part of their life’s mission to try to spare other families what they and Corey endured – and what they still endure. So the Seidels created the Corey Seidel Addiction Awareness and Educational Program at Beth Tfiloh. It will feature education, public awareness and regular events to move beyond the stigma and stereotypes about addiction in the Jewish community.
The program kicked off with the recent event, “Not in MY Family: Drug Addiction Education and Personal Stories of Loss and Recovery” at Beth Tfiloh. It featured candid conversations about drug addiction among recovering Jewish addicts, parents grieving the loss of their children, as well as a Johns Hopkins Health System addictions expert.
This effort arrives against a backdrop of growing alarm over the prescription drug crisis in Maryland and across the nation. Last month, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a “state of emergency” after Maryland overdose deaths doubled in 2016 to 2,000. Hogan pledged to increase the $122 million the state spends combatting substance abuse by $50 million over the next five years.
“Not in MY Family” aims to begin to eradicate the stigma that can keep addicts from seeking out treatment.
At the recent event, Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg set the tone with a reminder that addiction can strike any family – even a well-known Orthodox rabbi’s.
Rabbi Wohlberg watched as one of his sons graduated from Beth Tfiloh back when it ended at eighth grade. He attended a Baltimore County public school where he began using drugs. Rabbi Wohlberg vowed that his son would instead attend Beth Tfiloh Dahan High School, a cause for which he raised $6 million to build the school.
“Your father can be a garbage man or a rabbi, and it makes no difference,” Rabbi Wohlberg said. “There are there are no guarantees. I know. It’s only because I lucked out, but all I can tell you is it can happen to anyone and it does.
“And I’m sorry to have to say this, with some of the students in the room,” he said, “but don’t trust your child. No one is immune. If they live in your house, you are entitled to break into their rooms, to open their drawers, to look at their internet and phone records.”
Beth Kane Davidson, director of the Johns Hopkins-affiliated Addiction Treatment Center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, explained that the brain continues to develop until about age 25, and the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to peer pressure, experimentation and lack of impulse control.
With marijuana much more potent today than in past decades, and opioids more accessible than ever, Davidson said it’s particularly important to pay close attention to such warning signs as declining performance and attendance in school, loss of interest in activities that once brought great pleasure, abrupt mood shifts or sudden changes in friends (especially those you suspect may be abusing drugs).
A Balm for Anxiety
Reinforcing Rabbi Wohlberg’s and Davidson’s observations, Joseph, who asked for his last name not to be printed, recalled taking his first OxyContin pill in 2004, as a Beth Tfiloh student.
“All my anxiety just melted away,” he says. “I felt OK for the first time, like everything was OK, like I was good enough. “
All of the awkwardness around his friends, the shyness around girls, simply vanished.
As a young adult, Joseph spent the next four years in and out of eight rehabs, was incarcerated on a DUI charge, and slept in his car some nights.
Joseph told himself he couldn’t have a serious drug problem. After all, he was a law student and working in a law firm. He finally found the help he needed when he admitted he had a problem, at Beit T’Shuvah, a Los Angeles addiction treatment center strongly rooted in Jewish spirituality. Joseph credits the rehab with saving his life.
Susan Seidel said she hopes society will shed the stigma of substance addiction.
“I just hope that by us being open and our coming out publicly, my goal is to reduce some of the shame and stigma that surrounds addiction,” she said. “It’s a disease. To blame someone for having it is like blaming someone for getting cancer. Nobody ever plans to become an addict and, I guarantee you, if they knew what their life would end up becoming, they would never have picked up that drug the first time.”
Gary Gately is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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