For many Jewish families, alcohol means Manischewitz on Shabbat. It’s four cups of wine at a Passover Seder or a glass of schnapps to celebrate a simcha.
For others, it is a monster, wreaking havoc behind mezuzah-marked doors. Stacy’s family is one of them. Her father, Gerald, had roots in the Milwaukee area – he grew up here and moved back from Florida after he and Stacy’s mother divorced. Stacy was 13 then; her older sister was 18. Both stayed with their father.
By then, Stacy was already an alcoholic, although she would be in her 40s before she faced that reality. In the interim, she caused a lot of damage, to herself and those who love her.
“I probably started drinking around 12 or 13, and it was a problem right away for me,” she said.
Her father had sought counseling for her around issues related to the divorce. But the double whammy of stigma around alcohol abuse and a culture of institutionalized denial in the Jewish community meant the family had no context for addressing or dealing with it.
When Stacy was kicked out of public school, Gerald, through a family connection, enrolled her at a local Catholic school. She completed middle school and started high school at St. Joan Antida High School, 1341 N Cass St., Milwaukee, but dropped out before completing ninth grade.
“I kept running away from home. I hung out with a bunch of older people and met an older guy,” she said. “Back then you could get in a bar when you were 18. He was 24 and I was 17 and he snuck me into the bar all the time.”
At 16, they had a daughter. She and her boyfriend lived in a house on his parents’ property.
“We were real poor,” she said. “I was on food stamps and he didn’t work.”
Still, she said, they drank nearly every night. Then, they’d brawl.
“I’d wake up and look at all the broken stuff in the house and step over the broken glass to go to the bathroom,” she said. “It became normal to not remember what happened.”
Gerald threatened to take his granddaughter away, but it wasn’t until the night she woke up during one of her parent’s fights that Stacy realized something had to change.
“The door was locked from the inside and she was screaming bloody murder,” she said. Stacy, convinced that her boyfriend was the problem, earned her GED, left her daughter with her paternal grandparents and enlisted in the Army.
At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, she mixed days of physical training with nights of drinking to excess.
She swore every time would be the last. Then, afternoon would roll around. She’d tell herself she’d stop after two beers. Which turned out to be impossible, something she knows in hindsight.
It sets it off “and then the obsession kicks in and I can’t stop,” she said, “but I didn’t know any of that at the time and didn’t know what was going on.”
Growing up, Stacy’s immediate family was not terribly observant. Stacy and her sister had also gone to Hebrew school for a few years.
“We knew Hanukkah and Passover,” she said. “We’d go to my uncle’s house and they were very religious, so we were very intimidated.”
At Fort Sill, Stacy began attending Friday services at the base chapel.
“I’d go there drunk, trying to absorb something and get something,” she said.
Her commanding officers became aware of her drinking problem. She was ordered into one-year outpatient treatment.
“They told me I couldn’t drink for that one year, and what I heard was ‘Don’t get caught for that one year,’” she said. So, she took a job as a waitress at a strip bar in town. Within three weeks, she was on stage.
“The money was a benefit,” she said. “I just wanted the free drinks.”
At the bar, she met a warrant officer. The two were in an alcohol-related motorcycle crash, resulting in military discipline. She received an honorable discharge and married the warrant officer.
Her next job was at a biker bar in Lawton, near Fort Sill. There, she discovered methamphetamines.
“I liked it because when I was drinking, it would keep me going so I wouldn’t black out,” she said. When blackout drunk, Stacy got into brawls, went to bed with other women’s husbands or boyfriends and sometimes woke up naked in an unfamiliar setting.
She would drink, use meth, and then take valium when she was ready to sleep. She stopped communicating with her daughter and father. The money she’d been sending home for her daughter stopped, too.
Her drug habit got her fired from the biker bar and torpedoed her marriage. She moved to Oklahoma City. There, she got involved with a man who took her to his home in a wealthy suburb, where he had a meth lab.
“I didn’t know he was in the middle of an investigation,” she said. “The cops came at about 4 a.m. I picked up a gun laying in the master bedroom and threw it under some clothes, and we went into the bathroom until they convinced us to come out.”
She called her father from jail and asked him to find her a lawyer.
“I had hired an attorney once before for $5,000,” he said, “and she never showed up for the hearing,” he said. “This time I got smart and said no.”
Stacy remembers something else her father said during that conversation.
“He said, ‘At least I know where you are,’” she said. Gerald’s comment wasn’t out of line. From the time Stacy had left the Army, she’d stopped sending money home for her daughter; she’d stopped calling her father, daughter or sister.
Stacy was sentenced to 13 years in prison, five in federal and eight in state. She’d been in county jail for a year. Drugs were available. Stacy avoided them, but only because it was too risky to use behind bars.
In federal prison, Stacy became a plumber. It was there, too, where she connected with Judaism in a meaningful way.
While in county jail, she’d been baptized. She started practicing Native American spirituality in federal prison in Texas.
“I wanted to be anything but what I was,” she said.
Then, she met Rita Gluzman, a Russian Jewish woman sentenced to life in prison for murdering her husband. Gluzman was Jewishly literate and ran the prison’s Friday night services.
“I told her, finally, that I was Jewish, like it was some sort of dirty secret,” she said. “I hadn’t told anybody up until then. I believed in God but I didn’t think I really believed in me. I thought I was so bad I was beyond being a Jew, that it wasn’t really an option for me.”
Rita became a mother figure to Stacy, teaching her the Shema, fragments of which she remembered from her brief stint in Hebrew school. She taught her the Aleph-Bet and how to read Hebrew. Stacy started keeping kosher and observing holidays.
She also completed a four-year plumbing apprenticeship. Aside from her daily work on the prison plumbing crew, there was no formal instruction. Gerald bought and paid for Stacy’s books; she was given three hours a week in the learning lab to study.
Her father also sent letters and money, talked to her by phone and played chess through the mail.
While serving her state prison sentence – “the worst experience of my life” – she took the test to become a licensed plumber. She’d spent the prior year studying the exam book the way a scholar studies Talmud.
“I studied morning, noon and night for that test for a year,” she said. “I could quote plumbing code. I was sick with it.”
Gerald wouldn’t hire an attorney when Stacy was arrested. But when officials refused to let her travel the 200 miles to take the test because “a woman had never done it and they thought it was a ploy for me to get drugs,” she called her father.
“He doesn’t get mad very often, but when he does, it’s like, ‘Watch out!’ ” Stacy said.
“I’m probably the only guy in history who paid for two guards to take (someone) to the exam,” he said.
Passing the plumbing exam, she said, was the second-happiest day of her time in state prison. (The first was being transferred from a maximum-security facility where she was unable to get pork-free food, a problem as she was now actively practicing Judaism.)
As a journeyman plumber working in her trade, she was entitled to $100 a month instead of the $7.25 earned by other inmates. In addition to receiving better treatment and more money, Stacy also had an easier time when she was released to a halfway house.
“They make you get a job, and most of the girls worked at McDonald’s,” she said. “I got a job at a heating and air conditioning company and started out at $16 an hour, more money than I’d ever really made.”
When released on parole, Stacy’s employer created a space in the back of the shop where she could live. The second night out, her co-workers took her to a bar to celebrate.
“I really believed as long as I stayed away from the hard stuff I’d be okay,” she said, “because I wasn’t breaking any law and drinking isn’t what got me into trouble.”
She was wrong. The next four years were a cycle of drinking, drug use, suicide attempts and psychiatric hospital stays. During that period, she became active in her local synagogue, studying for and being called to the Torah as an adult bat mitzvah. She attended meetings of a 12-step program for alcoholism, but only as a condition of her probation.
Then, one day, probation was over, and the rest of her life was hers to live.
“I went out and got two pints of vodka and some meth,” she said. “I was in the house I live in now, and I barricaded myself in my room. I didn’t want my dogs in there. I don’t know how long I was in there, but I hit bottom, hard.
“I had planned on hanging myself and I figured that would do it. I cried, and asked God to help me and something, I believe it was Him, told me to go back to the meeting.”
Stacy went to morning minyan, and then to a 10 a.m. 12-step program meeting. After decades of trying, she was ready.
“I had a spiritual experience that day. I felt like I was okay. I had been going there to get my paper signed, but when I went on my own, I think I felt humility but it felt like humiliation because I was beat. I didn’t want to drink again, and my life began to change.”
That was eight years ago. Today, Stacy is 47. She spends her days working and supervising the 13 employees who staff her out-of-state plumbing business, attending daily 12-step program meetings and regular synagogue services, and enjoying her four dogs. She comes back to Wisconsin for visits, to see family.
“My life today is amazing, but I had to relearn everything. They say in (her 12-step program) that the only thing you have to change is everything, and that’s very true, and that’s what you do.”
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About this story
Stacy and Gerald’s last names have been withheld from this story at Stacy’s request, out of respect for her 12-step program’s policy on anonymity.
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