Our Stories: Gary Katz, Clinical Social Work/Therapist


On Self-Discovery

I've always wanted to just feel better.  When I was a kid,  I'd go and lock myself in the bathroom and cry. I had this prayer booklet from my father and step-mother's wedding. It was all in Hebrew and I had no idea what it meant, but I remember taking it to the bathroom, which actually you’re not supposed to - it’s not respectful - I was crying and praying to God, not even knowing what that meant. I don't even remember what I said, but I just felt broken. For me, part of self-discovery started by looking at religion and Judaism. When I was 14, I went to go live with my father and step-mother, who are Jewish. My parents divorced when I was 7, my mother was Protestant and my father was Jewish. When my father and step-mother met, they became reformed Conservative Orthodox, and they became more and more observant over the years. My mother raised my sister and I both Protestant and Jewish. We were really snobby and ate a lot of weird bread. When I decided to live with my father in 9th grade, I continued in public school. We celebrated Easter and Christmas and went to youth group when I was with my mother, but that was really it. My father pushed me to go to a weekend youth group; I was really moved by a ceremony on the Sabbath, with the candle and singing. The spirituality of it really moved me, so I transferred from a public school of about 3,000 boys and girls to a private school of thirteen boys in my grade. It was a culture shock, but I liked learning about it. It gave me guidance and helped me understand myself. A year or two later, my father retired and moved to Israel. I stayed there for 7 years, even though they moved back only after two. I went to this really strict rabbinical School with the black hat and everything. I felt like it gave me a sense of purpose. It helped me be more spiritual. It helped me to learn how to be a better version of myself. It helped me to want to help the world.

The word 'rabbi' means 'teacher' and that's what I wanted to do, but I still also felt different. First of all, I had only been learning Hebrew for a year and a half, and all of a sudden, I’m in rabbinical school, so that was like way behind and made me feel less than. Plus I had all these experiences growing up that none of the other people in school had: Christmas, Jesus, eating non-kosher food and a really hot girlfriend in ninth grade. You weren't even allowed to talk to girls in this school, so I just felt less than. I wasn’t close with my mother and I felt guilty for leaving her to live with my dad and other reasons. Being half across the world made it easy. After two years, my father and step-mother moved back to Chicago. It was time to go to college and I was like, "Im not going to college. I see the light. I know the truth. I’m not wasting my time."  We had a huge fight over that - he cut me off and I had to be self-supporting. I started teaching when I was in rabbinical school, but I felt very lonely. I wasn't close to either set of parents. I had some really wonderful mentors, rabbis who were very caring. One rabbi told me that one of my life trials is my relationship with my father; another rabbi gave me an open invitation to their house for dinner on Friday nights, so I could see what a family looks like and to see how a marriage works because I didn't know. 

I got married at 19 - I waited. (laughs) It was the first girl I dated since that girl in ninth grade because you aren’t allowed to talk to girls, and I had all this shame about that too. My rabbinical school was in the neighborhood in Jerusalem that had all the girls' seminaries, so if I walked down the street to go buy some food, there were all these girls around. I remember saying to my rabbi, "I can’t focus on studying. I’m thinking about these girls." One rabbi said, "walk on the other side of the street. Don’t look. Look down". I was like all right. Another other one said such a beautiful response, "Thank God you’re normal," and that was so de-shaming. I was really lonely and I felt like if I get married, first of all, I can start my own family, instead of dealing with my fucked up family, and if I get married and she loves me, I’ll be okay. We were married for about 7 years. I got ordained when I was 21. I got back to the States and I got involved in opening Jewish schools and helping them develop around Vancouver, Seattle, and Edmonton, especially the West Coast, but I still felt that loneliness - she couldn't fill that. It was hard to form friendships. I taught kids and all the adults I was dealing with were way older than me. I had to play the role of Rabbi Katz. I was never Mr. Katz. It was always either "Gary the student" or "Rabbi Katz." I think that when you get your first job, it's a big growing up process. It gives you a sense of self. My first job was running a school in Vancouver. It was hard, and I changed a lot. I started to get a little self-confidence and feel myself as an adult, but the woman I married, we had nothing in common. She was the first person I saw, and I thought it was a healthy decision. We had two boys. We separated and we got divorced. Over time, I still didn't feel okay inside, and my religion didn't feel like it was filling the void. It felt good when I was teaching or helping people, but as soon as I stopped, it all came roaring back.

Eventually, I just started hanging out with people using drugs. I moved back to the East Coast. I was in New Jersey and I didn't know what to do with myself. I went to this bar, and I was drinking a lot. The bar closed around 4 and the guy was like, "You gotta leave. We're closing down." This was on the Upper West Side, and I was like, "Where do I go?" He told me that there was an after-hours bar in the East Village on this corner, so I drove my car drunk all the way across town. I was in sweats. I was sick. I had been at home. I was living with someone and we had gotten into an argument because she blocked my view of the television, and she told me to get out. It was at 10 at night, and I left. I was in Jersey, so I came into the city. I was drinking the only liquor I knew how to drink, which was what my uncle would always give me, Crown Royale, because it wouldn’t make me cough, and I didn't know any other alcohol to order. Anyways, I’m in my sweats. It's like 5:30 in the morning in the East Village. I was like “Do you guys know where the after-hours club is?” I was like out there looking for the sign and stuff because no one told me in rabbinical school what an after-hours club was. I thought it was a neighborhood bar with neon lights. Finally, this couple says, "How come? Do you want to party with us?" I went back to their apartment and it was the first time of many times that I walked through a doorway and had no idea what was on the other side. I stayed there for three days. They introduced me to crack and we got high. I stayed there until my money ran out and I couldn’t buy them drugs anymore. Then I went home. I later found out when she said get out, she just meant leave the bedroom. Now I always caution, when you’re in a fight and the person says to get out, you should say, "Let's slow down. Do you mean out of the line of sight? Do you mean out of the room? Do you mean leave the apartment and come back?" It's good to clarify these things. I mean you learn lessons. (laughs.)

I was a little scared that I had smoked crack for three days, so I called a friend of mine, who is this sober Hasidic Jew, because I think deep down I knew, this is not good. He was like, "Gary, I’m really worried about you. You sound like me, and if you’re like me, you’re going to do it again." I was like, "Get out of here. I'm not going to have a problem. I was having an experience. I tried something. People do yoga, and I smoke crack in the East Village. People go to India for self-discovery."

It took a couple months, but that feeling came back. This tension in my chest. I didn't know how to handle stuff. I didn’t know how to cope, and I didn't know how to relieve that anxiety and tension. You don't know how to handle calling John’s mother and tell her that her son’s not the greatest? Go get high. The frequency just became more often, and it felt good but it didn't leave me satisfied. I still felt lonely, and it got worse and worse until it almost became daily. I ended up living in a men’s boarding house. I had no idea what to do. With all the alcohol and drugs also comes hanging out with women who used alcohol and drugs or hookers who will sell themselves for alcohol and drugs.  I remember talking with a friend, and I was embarrassed. She’s like, "Why do you do it?" She kept pressing me and pressing me and I was like, "I just want to feel loved." She said, "Do you think that getting high and having sex with someone that you’re paying in your car probably for like ten minutes is love?" It was like I got hit across the face and I was shocked. The need to feel love was so strong, I was blinded.

Eventually, I got sober. I just remember feeling that my life was over. I just felt like I didn't like myself and I didn't want to live. A couple of times, I just remember sitting there looking at a knife wishing I could just do it. I couldn't do that to my boys. I felt like the divorce hurt them enough. How could they recover from that? When I got sober, it was all about self-discovery and learning all these things I felt about myself that weren't necessarily true. This woman I dated hated Florida, so I hated Florida, but I realized kind of liked Florida. Just realizing I didn't have any of my own opinions made me have to relearn what I liked, who I am. It began a long journey. It led me to things I didn't expect. Both of my sons came to live with me when they hit high school. I was a full-time parent. It made me have more of a spiritual connection than what I got in rabbinical school. I’m not saying that you can’t but that’s what it was for me. It made me have to figure out another relationship with God, because the one I had while I was in rehab made me realize I thought in God’s eyes, it was like Hitler, Stalin, and Gary Katz. I mean it was stupid, but I carried that shame around. I really thought, because of religious teachings, I would drop dead before I was 40, so I had to like change all that. I didn't know where I would go. I didn't know what I would be. My religion tells you how to tie your shoes: you tie the left lace and you tie the right. Everything was prescribed and here, there are instructions and suggestions, but it was much more fluid, and that was so much more freeing. I could make a mistake and have progress, not perfection. It took me like seven years to realize I didn't want to live that level of observance in Judaism. I get most of my spirituality from recovery and being connected to people, so that's really what it was for me.

I once went to speak at a meeting when I was maybe four years sober, and at those types of meetings, they have three speakers and then you’re done. There was no sharing and the other two speakers didn't show up and it was like finally! I get to be the main attraction. This is like a dream come true. I can talk about me for the whole time. I realized that I was still sharing how i used and drank and acted out and all these behaviors and how I got sober, not right away. About how I got arrested and went to jail and I had to live in a homeless shelter and all this stuff, but I wasn’t sharing about the majority of my sobriety: after three months, I didn't have the urges to drink or to use. I really had to think, what was it all about for me? It was all about learning to be okay with myself, like emotional sobriety, learning to be okay with feeling uncomfortable. Learning how to have relationships with people or myself or with a higher power and that's what it is for me today. It's like constant learning. You think you figure it out and you get knocked over the head with something like how did I miss that? Then you feel embarrassed and pick yourself up and keep moving and use it as a learning situation.

For me, I guess self-discovery is trying to keep an open mind. I learn from whoever I can, and I learn from my clients a lot and the friendships I have are the ones where they can tell me the things that they're embarrassed about and know that I'm not going to walk away and that it goes both ways. To me, that's really like self-discovery. Learning through my mistakes, learning through other’s mistakes, learning to take risks, learning about all the different ways that I will be self-protective and put up walls. 

On What Self-Care Looks Like Now

When I was active and using, self-care meant snorting heroin and getting high and sleeping after three days. Self-care for me today means a lot of different things: making sure that I get enough sleep or if I know that i can get up and exercise, maybe go to a meeting, have coffee with a friend and I’m set for the day. It gives me what i need. It connects me to my others and myself. It connects me to my body, but it’s a struggle. At one point, I realized I was working all the time. At the time, I was teaching and tutoring, running two different youth programs at two different synagogs, I had a summer camp. It’s easy to get busy and ignore your self-care. I realized I had to slow down. I remember two years ago, I was seeing clients from 8 am to 9:30pm straight every day and on Saturdays, I was seeing clients for about four hours and teaching Sunday morning Hebrew school, then I saw clients the rest of the day in New Jersey. My friend was like, "Gary you’re gonna burn out." I used to roll my eyes at this teacher who would teach about self-care in grad school. She would come in with her granola and yogurt and sit and teach in the yoga position. Like why can’t you sit in a chair lady? It was actually created for that. Why do you have to sit on the desk, does that help? (laughs) I was an adult. I didn't go to grad school at 23. I went in my thirties, and I was like I know how to get by here. I was burning out. I decided to quit Monday mornings. I got someone to teach me to surf and I would get up at 4 am and drive to the Jersey shore and surf and do yoga on the boardwalk and stuff my face at a diner. Then I'd go to work. Self-care can be something like that, surfing or exercise. It can be taking time to slow down and just have quiet time. I like to do stuff, like go out and see the city and hang out with friends, but I also need time that's quiet to watch stupid sitcoms.

Eating right, and sometimes not eating right is self-care. I was upset the other day and I knew it. I’m going to go get something, I’m not hiding from. It will help me, and I’ll go deal with it later. I cut myself some slack instead of beating myself up. I remember when I was getting sober, I couldn’t open my car. I was locked out of my car, and the front door locked automatically, so I was locked out of my apartment too. I had to call work that I was going to be in late. Then I waited for a tow truck to come and open the car and a locksmith. I was just so mad at myself. I tore myself up so much that I had to go to bed for the rest of the day. l was just distraught. It took the guy half an hour to get there and I could have made it to work, but I was just a mess. I couldn’t handle that I made that mistake. For me, part of growth is how do I handle it when i make a mistake.

On the Best Thing In His Life Now & What Has Exceeded All Expectations

I love my job. I went back to school later in life. I had to still work while back in school, and I was teaching full time and doing and internship and school. They say it takes years to develop your own practice, and it just happened. I love my work, and that's my favorite thing, whether it's individual counseling or couples or running groups or surf therapy. Surf therapy helps people get into their body and out of their heads and have some really powerful sessions on the water or on the beach. The truth is that's my favorite thing. My kids also.

On Something He Still Struggles With

I’d say relationships. They’re hard and sometime, they suck and sometimes, I suck at them. It's trying to find the balance between do I need to adjust myself or do I need to ask this person to adjust themselves or maybe this isn’t the right fit. Do I want a partner or do I want a project? Sometimes I tend to go toward projects instead of partners. Sometimes I'd rather take care of someone else than have them look at me. Trying to find out how to have a healthy relationship is hard. It's the best part, but also scary.

On Dealing with Difficult Emotion or Circumstances

Being able to sit with difficult emotions, not forcing an action just because I want to get out of the discomfort, is important. Connecting with others about something I'm struggling with and letting my guard down and being vulnerable to friends. Developing friendships where I can call and say I’m really having a hard time. Making sure I'm keeping perspective about how important it is.

On What Drives His Work

When I taught kids, I wanted to help kids. I wanted to teach in Judaism because I thought that was a way to help people, but I saw that people had emotional issues that blocked their abilities to learn academically. I thought I needed to deal with things on a deeper level, because I had too much stuff rolling around on a deeper level. Being able to offer people that, makes a qualitative difference in their life, because it made a difference in mine.

Check out his website: garykatzcounseling.com
Follow Gary on Facebook and Instagram: @garykatzcounseling
Pronouns: he/him