Written by Joseph Cohen via Jews for Jesus
As with any human struggle, addictions are not always cured instantaneously. Victories may be followed by setbacks. Listen to Joseph Cohen talk about his struggle with gambling and addiction.
I was raised in a Conservative household in Port Chester, New York. We believed in God, but didn’t talk about him. Our religion was about tradition and good deeds. I attended Hebrew school and learned from the books of Moses the history of my religion. At thirteen I had my bar mitzvah. Up until sixteen, I went to temple almost every Saturday. When I got a part-time job and could no longer go, I made sure that I attended services every year on the High Holy Days.
In junior high and high school, I was involved in many different activities. Some were healthy, but one in particular was not. When I was fourteen, I began to play cards after school with some older kids in a friend’s basement. Like everything else, it started out very small; we called it “nickel and dime.” At home, my parents kept loose change in the cookie jar, and I began to steal that money to support my gambling. Over a period of years the financial size of the card games grew quite a bit. While walking to my friend’s home, just thinking about gambling would give me a rush of adrenaline. If the light was on in the basement, joy would come into my heart knowing that I’d be gambling that day.
After graduating high school, I started to sense an emptiness inside. I went to work in the retail business, which kept my mind off that nagging feeling. But one day after work, I was sitting outside a local bar wondering what life was all about. Was I missing something by not joining in the party scene? Did the people in the bar really have the answer to life? They looked like they were having a great time.
Days later, a female customer came up to me at work and asked, “Why do you look so sad? You’re a young handsome man with your whole life ahead of you.” I thought, She’s right. Why do I have so much sadness? So I figured I’d have nothing to lose by entering the world of partying.
I started drinking beer, then eventually wine and hard liquor. When that didn’t satisfy, I turned to marijuana. That led to other drugs, including barbiturates. Through my consumption of these addictive substances, paranoia and depression set in. I got a job as a bartender, and the owner was a drug addict. Many times we went to his home and got high on cocaine and then went to work at the bar and continued partying until early in the morning. This didn’t fill the emptiness. The only security I had was that I was living with my parents. Then something happened which caused me to leave home. Once on my own, my world collapsed and the addictions accelerated.
Out of all the habits that I became a slave to, gambling was the worst. When I made big bets, I didn’t have to put up any money because it was by phone. It was very easy to bet big and not worry until the losses piled up. Then the mental anguish was horrific. I resorted to lying in order to get money to sustain my compulsive gambling. I joined Gamblers Anonymous. But when I started to bet with a bookie, my gambling became uncontrollable. In my mid-twenties I didn’t drink, do drugs and pills every day, but not so with gambling. This addiction consumed my mind day and night.
Now enslaved, I decided to go for help to a trained counselor. His strategy was to build my confidence by telling me I had the power within to change. The day after seeing him, my emotions were different. Feelings of strength, security and hope would fill my mind. But shortly after, my thinking would revert to the negative. After a while I stopped going. Eventually the depression became so bad that I kept the blinds in my apartment shut for months, even on the sunniest of days.
I wrote a suicide note, drank lots of wine and swallowed a bunch of pills in an attempt to end my life. As the room was spinning, I cried out to God. “I’m scared to live, but afraid to die, because I don’t know what happens after death. Please help me!” That was the first time I remember praying to God from my heart.
When I woke up I felt the heavy load that I was carrying had diminished greatly. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this happened after I asked God for help. I then ripped up the suicide note and opened up the blinds for the first time in months.
Soon after that someone sent me a book by a Jewish believer in Jesus. Then one day a friend, Carol, who I used to party with, started to talk about Jesus. I thought she was crazy, and I told her to get lost. Her partying days might be over, but mine weren’t. Every once in a while our paths would cross. I couldn’t help but notice that she was at peace and full of joy. She had what the counselor said I could attain by my own efforts. Receiving the book and seeing the change in her life started me thinking about Jesus.
Meanwhile, Carol gave me a book by Billy Graham called Peace with God. I put the book aside. Then I started noticing bumper stickers on many cars which read “I Found It!” I wondered what that was all about. Soon after, Carol asked if I wanted to go with her to a concert at her Bible college. I agreed and at intermission, to my amazement, I heard many in the group get up and say, “I found it!” They explained that they had found the answer to life through a personal encounter with Jesus.
My sponsor at Gamblers Anonymous was telling me, “Stay in the program and don’t go to or watch sporting events. If you turn your life over to God, there will be a change.” I later learned that he didn’t say, “Turn your life over to Jesus,” because he knew I was Jewish and didn’t want to offend me. I did stop watching sporting events and went to the GA meetings. But the thought of never gambling was scary. That was my natural high and consumed me. So to ease the withdrawal pain, I drank more and did more drugs.
I went to temple for the High Holy Holidays that fall of 1977. During the Yom Kippur service, I actually read the book that Carol gave me, Peace with God, because what bothered me the most was that I had no peace within. At the end of the Day of Atonement, I went to my rabbi and started telling him the things that were troubling me. After listening, all he could say was, ‘Is this my Joey who I bar mitzvahed, so full of problems?” He was my spiritual leader, but he brought me no hope.
Towards the end of that year I had the ugliest sensation come over my body. I felt a heaviness and darkness. On January 1 I celebrated the new year by drinking a quarter of a bottle of scotch for breakfast with no ice and no water. When I looked in the mirror, my reflection looked like death. My liver was very painful, and I was sure that cirrhosis must be setting in. At thirty-one, I had no hope.
Seven days later, while in my bedroom, I said to God, “Show me the truth. I have always believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But if Jesus is the son of God who died so that my sins can be forgiven, show me something today.” I then started to confess things that I knew were sins. My heart was full of anger, bitterness and resentment. As I continued to pray, I started crying hysterically for almost an hour. Then I started getting twitches in waves all over my body, and I realized that God was delivering me from years of stress and tension. Following that, a supernatural warmth—God’s presence, his Ruach ha Kodesh (Holy Spirit)—filled my whole body.
I felt clean inside and experienced a beautiful inner peace. It was scary, but I knew God had revealed himself to me. I got off the couch and threw out all my alcohol and drugs. And, although I cannot explain it other than as a miracle, after that day the pain in my liver was gone. And I no longer had the desire to gamble. One day at a time since that day in 1978, I’ve been set free from those addictions that started out as fun. God also delivered me from the serious control of depression and fear.