The Jewish New Year, or “High Holidays” is a period uniquely designated for reflection and spiritual renewal. In just a few days, individuals in Jewish communities across the globe will come together for a day of prayer and self-examination. A day designated for assessing where one stands in meeting his or her spiritual, moral, and personal goals, and taking stock in which areas could use re-focusing.

Each year as sit to chart my own personal High Holiday resolutions, I tend to grow frustrated in discovering, yet again, that my list resembles the one I penned the year before.

While working as a therapist Transformations, I have been deeply inspired to more fully embrace my own period for “Teshuva,” or spiritual return.

Here are four of the major lessons that I have personally gleaned from working with our heroic clients firsthand:

1. What taking stock really looks like

Soon after a client walk through our doors, he or she sits for an in-depth assessment and is asked to share glimpses into various domains of his past and present life. The list of substances used, prior sobriety attempts, snapshots of major life events and challenges- his full history shared.

Using this assessment, the client and therapist work together to uncover the key areas that need to be worked through in hoping to make and sustain progress toward sobriety. A step-by-step guide for moving forward in treatment is then formulated. Clear and specific therapeutic goals, assignments, and target dates for each are charted out from the very beginning.

In order to create authentic change, there are obstacles and core issues that must be addressed. Individualized work that must be done to avoid a return to old behaviors. And it all starts by formulating a purposeful, clear blueprint that takes his full picture into account.

In hoping to make lasting, permanent changes from my own High Holiday list, have I taken the time to methodically and fully spell out the fuller “history” of my past year? Have I assessed and developed clear and targeted goals so that I can form a thorough and measurable plan forward?

2. What putting forth an effort to change really looks like

Sitting in any therapy session, it is abundantly clear that clients differ tremendously in their levels of insight into the severity of their problems (we call this their “stage of change”). The same is true for their degree of motivation, and how ready they are to take concrete action towards real change. Some lean in their chairs, arms crossed and say “I can stop using whenever I want and don’t really need help”; “my family thinks I still have a problem but I am fine now.”

But yet, when asked to elaborate on how and where things have changed, they have only vague answers to offer.

There are then those clients who are so clearly embracing this program head-on. They readily share the damage that has been caused to themselves and others and the remorse felt over doing so. They acknowledge the tendencies, thought patterns, and behaviors they are battling against. They share which of the “12 steps” they are on, or current treatment assignment working through. And they express determination to continue progressing forward despite the very real obstacles they face.

Much of what occurs throughout a client’s day is noted. Willingness to engage during therapy sessions, behavior during groups, even tone, and body language- all come together to paint a picture of how well a client is progressing toward his sobriety goal. During this critical period, it is not lip service, but concrete shifts in conduct and attitude that reflect whether or not he is willing and ready to grow.

Looking at my list of the goals I have set out for myself, I wonder where I stand in terms of my own willingness and internal readiness to make these changes.

3. What making a plan for lasting change really looks like

Obtaining basic sobriety is nowhere near enough.

Over the course of treatment, the individual is continually asked to reflect upon the main “triggers” for his substance use. He is asked to identify, in painstaking detail, the scenarios, thought patterns, emotions, or relationships that could continue contributing to this cycle if not addressed.

Clear responses are expected to questions such as: What coping skills have been gained for managing a craving? Who does the person have to turn to for support if he should become “triggered?” Numerous clinical groups and individual sessions, therefore, revolve not just around understanding the past but formulating a plan for maintaining boundaries with the “people, places, and things” that have been found to lead him to spiral backward.

The client is told time and again to never rest on the progress that has been made. That he must continue to be on guard. This “relapse prevention plan” is seen as the key to long term maintenance of sobriety. And having a crystal clear picture of his personal “triggers” and vulnerabilities is a key part of the process.

Before completing the treatment program, every angle of his prevention plan is reviewed and questioned to ensure that there are no gaps or vulnerabilities overlooked. It is this plan that is regarded as his armor and protection from reverting back to his old patterns. In this real battle with such a dangerous threat lurking, all potential scenarios need to be strategized, and contingency plans set well in advance. “Winging it” and careless optimism do not have a place when there is such a real fear of harm.

As I enter my personal “day of judgment” have I too spent time forming a detailed “relapse-prevention plan,” or am I comfortable relying on more vague intentions toward change? Have I taken an authentic, sincere, brutal look at not only my wrongdoings but also the underlying “triggers” that keep me vulnerable to these specific behaviors?

4. What immersing oneself in a program for change really looks like

Walking in our halls, one hears words of encouragement exchanged between peers, murmurs from the AA “Big Book,” staff consulting on how to address a problem that has arisen. We are a community of soldiers (or as one client put it, ninja masters) fighting tirelessly for the mission of achieving and maintaining sobriety, being cheered on by fellow peers and caring staff members.

From their 8:00 AM “goal setting” group where they reflect on today’s specific tasks, to their 8:00 PM “wrap up” where they reflect on and share progress—our clients are living and breathing a process of growth and change. Daily therapy sessions, AA meetings and “working the steps,” daily reflections and clinical assignments frame their days.

Standing here, I can’t help but feel I am in more than a physical space, but inside a battleground. For a month or more, these individuals challenge themselves. They spend their days thinking, learning, and sharing. They call each other out when someone isn’t being honest with themselves. They push themselves past the brink of their comfort zones. In seeking and fighting for change, going through “treatment” isn’t a peripheral part of life- “working the program” has quite literally become their lives. The rest of life does not go on until they have gone through this process with every fiber of their beings. They are in this.

Becoming a part of this world has eternally opened my eyes to the meaning of real lasting change.

Substance abuse is a uniquely destructive, severe, and complex problem that is unimaginable to those not ensnared by it. Nonetheless, the tireless, all-encompassing effort toward renewal and growth embraced by those dedicated to recovery can offer inspiration for those who are about to enter their own designated period for spiritual rehabilitation.

Taking stock and setting concrete goals for renewal is not relegated to the recovery world- they are essential goals encouraged for any individual seeking growth and development in any component of their lives. The Jewish faith, too, recognizes the need to annually immerse in an in-depth reparative process called “Teshuva,” or return from the cycles of behavior that have caused various forms of spiritual or moral damage.

As I sit surrounded by people who are so fully immersed in this comprehensive program of rehabilitation, I wonder about my own efforts for change and growth during this period.

While I may recognize the need to change and grow in several areas of my life, have I truly committed to put in the necessary work to make it happen?

Have I, too, built a “support system” and sought to surround myself with mentors or peers to seek support, accountability, and encouragement? Have I sought opportunities for genuine inspiration and motivation to keep progress alive? Have I made a contingency plan for each goal to give myself a real chance at permanent transformation?

The Jewish tradition has designated a period for reflection and repair. They have designed a powerful, “evidence-based program” for identifying and replacing behaviors and patterns that are not in line with who we want to be, or what we want for ourselves. They have not only designed and mapped out a full therapeutic program but also scheduled the therapeutic period. For this “rehabilitative” process to be effective it entails a commitment to the full program that has been mapped out.

As these inspiring clients seeking recovery have modeled, renewal takes serious effort and full immersion. Time must be carved out to sincerely assess ourselves, to map out a targeted plan of action, and to form a concrete contingency plan for the “triggers” that could otherwise lead a person to spiral backward after the High Holiday season has come and gone.

I hope that this year, by taking the time to more fully “work a program,” next year’s resolution list will change along with me.


Our Jewish/Faith-based integrated treatment program powered by Transformations offers evidence-based substance abuse and mental health treatment that is respectful of Jewish core beliefs, values, and traditions. For more information on this program please contact [email protected]

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