Addiction and COVID-19: The Parallels — Speaker Series featuring Tzvi Heber, CEO of Ascendant New York (interviewed by Laurie Watter, APN Lodge’s Director of Family Relations)
Laurie Watter: I’m Laurie Watter, the Director of Family Relations at All Points North Lodge. And today, I have one of my favorites, Tzvi Heber. He’s the CEO at Ascendant New York. How are you, Tzvi?
Tzvi Heber: Hi, I’m great. How are you?
Laurie Watter: I’m great. This is like East meets West, right?
Tzvi Heber: Yes, ma’am.
Laurie Watter: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into your present role.
Tzvi Heber: Great. First of all, thanks for having me, and I don’t know. I always say that. I don’t know how I came along this path. Obviously, I’ve had an interesting life, to say the least, but I got to this current position because I was running a detox out in LA called Serenity Recovery and Detox. I had some great relationships with people in the community. One person, in particular, Heather Henretig, who I was super close with, was working for an organization called Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach. It specialized in eating disorders, mental health, and substance abuse. They opened up a detox in New York, and she asked me to go to the open house because they were looking for someone to help run it. I went down there and met with folks, and it just felt right. There was a little bit of hesitation, you know, I’m not a New York guy. I was born and raised in Miami, so there’s all of that, but I was very blessed to be offered to come on board. Since then, we’ve really developed it into something special.
Laurie Watter: It’s funny because when that was happening, it was literally the talk of the town. Right? It was a freestanding private detox opening in New York, and that was what everybody was talking about in my little world. It was pretty exciting.
Tzvi Heber: Yeah. While everyone was talking about the work that was being done in Florida with all your trauma patients. So they both were pretty high-level conversations.
Laurie Watter: Yeah, it was pretty cool. I remember going to the open house when you had it, and it is just a beautiful looking program. You do take excellent care of your clients. I’ve personally had the experience of seeing people come through there and do so well and have rave reviews. And you yourself are a rockstar. So I’m so happy you’re here. I’m happy to know you, and I’m happy to learn from you. I feel like you’re such a good guy, and you’re always looking out for what I’m doing and what I’m up to, and I appreciate that.
Tzvi Heber: Well, I’ll tell you some more exciting news at Ascendant. Charlotte just got promoted to Clinical Director this week.
Laurie Watter: Shout out to Charlotte!
Tzvi Heber: Yeah, our team is growing, and she has been nothing but a rockstar. Charice also got promoted to Chief Operating Officer. So yeah, we’ve grown. It’s been hard. Through COVID, I can’t believe it, but last week, we turned away fifteen patients due to being full. It’s been painful for us, but we’re grateful to have such great partners across the bridge in Jersey. And obviously, we’ve worked a few cases with you guys and with a few cases in Connecticut. So it’s really been a pleasure. It’s nice seeing people want to get help through this time. It’s been quite special.
Laurie Watter: That is a testament to the work that you do because these are not easy times. Kudos to you guys, that’s great.
Tzvi Heber: Thank you, thank you.
Laurie Watter: So the last time we were live on social media, you brought up a topic that I thought was so interesting. And our team actually thought it was so interesting too and said, “Get him back, and let’s see if we can hear more about how you compare recovery to COVID.”
Tzvi Heber: So, yeah. First of all, I want to say that my wife was shocked when I told her that you guys wanted me back. She said, “Usually, you get kicked out of places, and they don’t want you back.” So thank you for having me back.
Laurie Watter: Ha. Yeah, we want you back.
Tzvi Heber: So there is so much to unpack there, right? Like there are so many good analogies and lessons being learned. I know the last time we were on, we discussed that amazing analogy, and I’m sure I have to put it in some context for the people who didn’t get to see it. So maybe I’ll put that in context, and we can go a little bit further in.
So there is this pandemic and disease that is ravaging. And about three months ago, we were told as Americans that we should watch out. You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen or how bad it’s going to infiltrate us, but we know it’s going to hit our country. And once it did, we were told, alright, we’ve got to shut down. We’ve got to figure this thing out.
And what we learned very quickly is this does not care about region, ethnicity, age, demographics, or race. All it cared about was affecting any human being that it possibly could. And we were told about 10% of America would be diagnosed at one point with COVID. We were also told that there was no vaccine or cure for it. When I heard that originally, my mind went straight to this thought, “As an alcoholic, this sounds way too familiar. Outstandingly familiar.”
And then a couple of days later, they came out with some recommendations and a few simple steps that were suggestions. They weren’t mandatory. But we were asked to wash our hands, put on a mask, wear gloves, social distance, and kind of stay inside. The crazy part about that is the solution that I learned very early on in AA is that science hasn’t accomplished anything within addiction to date – at least that was what was represented to me. I know there are things out there like medication assistance that I respect and believe in. I believe that for the right person, they can be perfect. Same with AA.
The thing that resonated with me within a 12-step program is that those four steps that we need to take are all too familiar with some of the 12-steps that we need to take in recovery. One through nine, the saying is “cleaning up the wreckage of your past.” That’s the phrase when describing one through nine. And what better way…your past…you touch everything. Your actions are done with your hands. When I talk, I talk with my hands; I’m that guy. So when I clean my hands, it’s like the analogy of washing your hands – cleaning up the wreckage of your past.
Then there’s the idea of wearing a mask, and how could I correlate that to step 10. Step 10 is “Continue to take personal inventory and when wrong, promptly admit it.” That idea of step 10 is that in the 12 and 12, it says watch your tongue and pen. What better way to watch your tongue than to literally have something over your mouth?
We talk about how your actions are done with your hands. And step 11 is sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God. I was told that it’s not sitting there in a meditative state, saying, “How do I get to this unrealistic mentality of something that’s unobtainable.” Really, what’s obtainable is bringing God into all of your actions, and when you’re praying and meditating, is asking God to come with you. It’s like building another layer of skin, a godly skin, and really covering your actions with the idea that the thing above, whatever you believe in, is watching over you. And watching over you is like wearing gloves. It’s like protecting yourself from the way you want to behave like an alcoholic.
And lastly, the essence of step 12 is service. That could be taking a guy or a lady through the steps or helping someone walk across the street. Social distancing is the essence of service. As somebody who is in recovery, I’ve learned what service is about. I get to do a lot of service. Thank God. But the hardest part about service is that when you get that recognition, it feels so good that you end up chasing that recognition for your ego rather than to build that connection with something bigger than yourself. I’ve had the privilege of having both sides of that in my recovery – yearning for that but at the same time understanding that it can be kind of like using again to chase that instant feeling rather than allowing that to develop.
And social distancing is the essence of that. No one’s coming to my door. I’ve been in my house for three months now, and no one has yet to come to my house and give me a box of cookies or a plate of brownies or flowers and said, “Thank you so much for saving my family’s life. They’re next door to you, and because you didn’t leave your house, my grandmother survived.” No one’s doing that.
So what I learned very simply is that if you have a program of action, if you have these mentalities, these spiritual principles, as we say, in your lives, this should have been much easier than it is for the general public. There is so much to delve into there, but that’s the basis of what we talked about last time.
Laurie Watter: And it’s so brilliant, and it makes so much sense, right? I mean, even that social distancing is one of the most loving things you can do, and nobody’s going to come up and pat you on the back for doing it.
Tzvi Heber: One hundred percent.
Laurie Watter: I mean, it’s just doing the next right thing. And it does, it makes so much sense. I did go to APN Lodge last week, but I’ve literally been in my house other than that for three months. The time has been flying by, the days go so quickly, and there’s just so much to be grateful for. We can focus on the negative sides of it, but it’s pretty hard for me to find any at this point. I do feel pretty grateful for a lot of what we have been experiencing.
Tzvi Heber: Yeah, and I gained a lot of weight when I moved to New York. Pizza and bagels in New York do not do me justice. And the last time we spoke, I wasn’t clean-shaven, but I cleaned up because my wife was telling me, social distancing or not, I was out of the house if I didn’t. But she also did encourage me at the beginning of this, because it was really easy to come here to the office, sit at my desk, eat really good food that she cooked, and sit on my tush all day. After a week and a half of it, I was as miserable as can be. So I took in some health regiments that really made sense to me – things that I could take out after this experience.
So at this point, there are so many pros to this. Obviously, when you’re looking at numbers like 100,000 people that passed, there’s very rarely a pro that could come during that point in time. But from a personal perspective, and that’s just how I have to look at it for my family. At the beginning of COVID, I got this text from a friend. It was literally as we announced the idea of social distancing and what was going through. I got it on March 18th. It said, “Most young kids will remember how their family homes felt during this coronavirus pandemic more than anything else specific about the virus. Our kids are watching us and learning about how to respond to stress and uncertainty. Let’s wire our kids for resilience, not panic.
I took that to heart. I mentioned her name a few times, but my wife does most of this. I just get to be a participant in this, and I’m very grateful for that. My children, I’ve just seen them grow up to a point. What this experience has given them (and more me) is the ability to see their mom and dad in action on a daily basis. Seeing their response to us shows me that we’ve met with this with resilience and not panic. I’m very proud to say that I don’t believe COVID hurt my family in a mental health way at all because of the unity we brought into it. So yes.
Laurie Watter: It’s so important, I did read something like that, that for people that are home with their children, what their children are going to remember is all of the time families have spent together, the things that they’ve done, the homeschooling, the meals and conversation and games, and whatever it’s been taking. And part of what I said is, “All I’m being asked to do is stay home.” We don’t have children in our home. It’s just the two of us, and we’re both working, and we’re healthy. All we need to do is stay at home. Compared to the tragedy of this virus, I feel like it’s asking so very little to wear a mask. If you go out, wash your hands. But if you don’t go out, stay home, practice gratitude, and find the beauty in everything. I do feel like I can’t say that it’s been difficult. It’s been okay.
Tzvi Heber: And in some regards, this is how I correlate it even more so to addiction. With addiction, a lot of people that have their arms open to help, they help in the way they were helped or the way the family was helped and are very closed-minded to other options. This is what works because it worked for someone that I knew. There’s no real solution. Just like they’re talking about masks only being effective sometimes. You’re protecting someone else from yourself, you’re actually not protecting yourself from someone else. So the way it’s being explained and portrayed – it has similar issues that we have within our position within medicine right now.
I can make this joke because I’m a born and raised proud Jew, but they say if you get two Jews in the room, you have three opinions. It’s very similar. It is. I want to go to that person who isn’t wearing a mask and say wear a mask! But try to get a mask on a three-year-old kid going into Yogurtland after a bike ride. You know, we had that experience this week. We tried to go on a bike ride on Memorial Day to Yogurtland. We said we were going to eat outside. We just went to get some yogurt, and my son didn’t understand it. Now, what I think is because there is a lack of explanation, we probably should have done our job explaining it prior to that. That was one of our first times going out. With anyone who’s not doing that, I don’t think it’s coming from a place of malice. I think it comes from a place of ignorance. And usually, when you’re met with someone that’s ignorant on a subject, getting angry with them is not going to do the trick.
I feel like there are two sides. There are always two sides to everything in our country, and there’s never that middle ground. As we work in recovery, we learn patience and tolerance so that we can be effective. I think that’s what I’ve been striving for. Sorry, I’m going to go off for a second. My daughter had a birthday last week. She turned eight-years-old, and she said it was the best birthday of her life. What we did was a drive-by ice cream truck where all her friends drove by our house, and they like they got to pick between ten different ice creams. It was amazing. She had a great time.
And you know what, we saw one family let their kids out of the car, and the other one kept driving when they saw that. There was this confusion of, “What extreme do I go to and where do we lie?” It has been difficult. It’s been conversations we’ve had here, but without educating yourself, you can’t really get anywhere. We have to educate ourselves on why it’s important to do that and then protect the person next to you. Hopefully, people care enough to do so.
Laurie Watter: Right. And because we haven’t really experienced anything like this in our lifetime, I feel like, for the most part, we’re doing the best we can with what we know. It’s been such unprecedented times. And the social distance is interesting because we can’t physically be in each other’s presence, but we can still stay very connected and support each other.
Tzvi Heber: One of our close friends (I will say who off of the zoom chat), his mother is in her late nineties and was diagnosed with COVID. She ended up having bronchitis, and because of it, she ended up getting a stroke in the hospital. She survived. She’s home, and she’s obviously a stroke patient at ninety, so her mobility is not necessarily there yet. Hopefully, God will protect her and get her healthy as soon as possible. She has survived the Holocaust and all of these different things. And her passion through this has been, “You know, everybody’s going to get sick at one point. At least I survived.” She has this survivor mentality.
And when she was in the hospital, the stories I heard were that the health care workers were so supportive and loving and caring. That’s what we get with what we also do. As I said, there are so many correlations. Like we talked about last time, I think being a nurse in detox is hard enough. Being a nurse in a detox in New York during COVID, you have to be a rockstar to be able to work through that. I try to learn lessons from people like that and people around me that allow me to learn those lessons.
Laurie Watter: Right. Experience, strength, and hope. Talking about COVID, tonight, I’m facilitating our first family support group across the country. It’s pretty crazy. It’s so rewarding when somebody says they want to hear your experience because it’s so helpful to us. I remember feeling so incredibly lost, and like there was no manual for addiction treatment and mental health treatment, being the parent of an adult child who is struggling. It is so important. I do think a 12-step philosophy just gives us a framework to live by that’s so helpful. I love the way you made this analogy here with recovery and COVID.
Tzvi Heber: And just like AA or any 12-step program could have that, you also have to think of it like this. God forbid I get diagnosed. My kids and my wife are then super affected by it, and it has the same result as AlAnon or any other family support network in that way of learning how to cope with that. Sometimes when someone has it, it can affect the family worse than them. Some people are asymptomatic, but they can’t see their kids for two weeks because they need to go somewhere to not expose them.
You could go on for days with analogies. It’s the hidden disease, right? It’s something that you can’t see, something you don’t even know if you even have sometimes. You may have to self-diagnose a lot of times because of testing shortages. There are so many different pieces that come together. I think in this time, we can either … Netflix is not coming out with any new shows. I caught up on all my Netflix, so unless I want to go back years and years because I’m really searching to get out of myself that way, I have a choice to get in myself this time and really look within myself. It’s so important. I feel like this time in history is either going to affect families positively or negatively in many different capacities. And I hope it does not divide us even further, because as we know, there has been quite a divide recently, and I was hoping this would bring us closer together.
Laurie Watter: Yeah, and I think in some respects it has. And you’re right, I think we always have to be cognizant of the people that are really struggling at this time because they don’t have the support and being cooped up with somebody is not a healthy place to be and not a safe place.
Tzvi Heber: There are so many divorces. It’s all about communication. We no longer can text our wives goodnight. We actually have to be home. We can no longer somehow stay busy enough to not be home for dinner. There are all these things. People are really good at avoidance, everyone, and even me being one of them. It’s very easy for me to be running a detox 24/7. I could avoid a lot. But the lessons that have been learned have just been tremendous.
Laurie Watter: I’ve definitely been using COVID to not go to the dry cleaner. I just don’t want to be anywhere.
Tzvi Heber: It’s funny. Our dry cleaner called us a few months ago because I had a bunch of clothes there. She said, “When you want it, let us know. We will open up for you for the day. We know people need it.” I was thinking, “Are you kidding me? I’m not going to wear a button-down shirt for the next two weeks.” Now it’s been 12 weeks, and I’m sitting here in a golf polo, thinking there’s nothing better than this.
Laurie Watter: Yeah, a nice shirt and sweats have kind of been the routine. Sweats and slippers.
Tzvi Heber: Yeah, I wear shorts and a polo and make it seem like I’m ready to go out on the course and hit a ball or two.
Laurie Watter: And you do look so good. I was looking, and I was like, “Why does every wrinkle show on my face? And why does he look so smooth and young? Did he get his hair cut or…?
Tzvi Heber: Yeah, it’s the lighting. I actually have a barber who we had helped get sober years ago. He’s been my barber for the last six or seven years, and he’s been awesome. So he comes and cuts my kids’ hair and my hair. Then he got COVID. Two weeks in, I texted him saying, “Hey, if you’re quarantining, in a week or so, I could use a cut. And we are quarantining, so we should be okay.” He was like, “Yeah, I got diagnosed yesterday.” So, we waited like six weeks to text him again. By then, he had the antibodies, so I said, “Come on over, buddy!”
There’s so much confusion with this, just like recovery. I hear all of the time, “Why can’t my family member smoke a little pot or drink a little bit?” Just like there is ignorance there, there is a lot of ignorance on the fact of the antibodies and what they mean. It’s a very positive thing, when someone has antibodies, to be around them. We still don’t know if they can get it again, but what we’ve been told is the majority of people, from the studies that they have done, is that they can’t. So it’s that balance of understanding that, yes, the information isn’t all there, but based on the info we have right now, let’s be smart about it.
Laurie Watter: Right, It was so nice to talk with you. You’re so easy to be around, even socially distant. I loved having you. Can you tell everybody how to reach you or how to reach somebody at Ascendant?
Tzvi Heber: One hundred percent. So anyone can call my cell phone personally if you need anything: (818) 267-0704. AscendantNY.com is our website. Our Director of Admissions and Marketing is amazing. Everybody loves him. His name is Harold “Junior” Greenberg. His office is (917) 262-0003, and either one of us can be reached at any time if anyone needs help.
I’ll say one last quick piece. We’ve had the privilege of working with APN Lodge and you, Laurie, for the last six months intensely in terms of multiple cases going back and forth. The feedback we’ve gotten in the transition part, the communication between our teams, aftercare when they’re following up with us to let us know how they did, and then the patient feeling so confident in where they went after discharge. It makes it really nice to know we have such a strong partnership when it comes to that type of stuff, especially when it comes to that type of trauma work.
I think that as COVID starts opening up and all the industries start opening up, I think there will be more and more people who have triggered their trauma. You guys couldn’t have established yourselves in that realm in a better position currently, because if you do have trauma, there are very few places that I would put in the same category as APN Lodge. I’m just very grateful to have you guys.
Laurie Watter: Thank you. That means a lot coming from you. I’m super proud of the program and super proud of the work that they do around trauma, so I appreciate that.
And if anybody wants more information on our Speaker Series at APN Lodge, you can go to apnlodge.com/speaker-series. If you want to be a part of this, just reach out and let us know. We would love to have you be a part of it. Thank you so much, and I can’t wait to see you in person again.
Tzvi Heber: Thank you. Nice talking to you.