Dealing with his demons

Sexual abuse led to addiction, and eventually to redemption.

"Big Mike'' Gondelman (photo credit: PR)
"Big Mike'' Gondelman
(photo credit: PR)
The only thing that stopped the repeated sexual abuse by an educator in “Big Mike” Gondelman’s elementary school was him moving on to junior high. About the man who sexually molested him between the ages of eight and 12, Gondelman said, “This guy ruined me.”
Like many victims of child sexual abuse, Gondelman, now 40, developed a serious substance abuse issue as a result of his trauma. Once he was clean and sober, he came on a Taglit-Birthright trip and experienced Israel in a powerful way. For eight years, he lived in Israel on a student visa, studying at Jerusalem’s Ohr Somayach yeshiva and beginning his career as an addictions counselor.
Originally, he worked with gap-year students from America who hung out in Cat Square (also known as Crack Square) in central Jerusalem. In March 2012, a few years after making aliya, he opened the Jerusalem Sober House, a 12-bed inpatient facility that combined the support of a drug rehab facility with that of a halfway house.
Over the years, Gondelman estimates, his work touched thousands of lives. “When I got raped, there was no one to protect me. I wanted to make sure no one ever felt that. I pushed myself in my work to take care of others. I was so driven because I didn’t want anyone to ever feel like I did.”
He says there are plenty of people with four and five years of sobriety as a result of their stays at Sober House. He speaks with pride about two former clients who are now working as dorm counselors in a sober house in New York.
Sadly, all that is in the past. After telling his story at an event two years ago, he got retriggered and “had a breakdown. I couldn’t work anymore. That talk brought everything back to the surface.”
Now, Gondelman is once again dealing with his own demons. “I’ve been dealing with this for 32 years. It’s driving me insane and I did things I regret.” Recently diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, he suffers from irrational fears, flashbacks, constant nightmares, insomnia, agoraphobia, unstable emotions and panic attacks.
“From my experience, it’s very common to see those who experienced child sexual abuse have difficulties decades later. The impact manifests in different ways for different people. What we’ve seen is repeated instances where the link is clear between child sexual abuse and long-term effects, such as having thoughts of suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse and more,” asserted Manny Waks, author of Who Gave You Permission? The Memoir of a Child Sexual-Abuse Survivor Who Fought Back and CEO of Kol v’Oz, which works to prevent child sexual abuse in Jewish communities globally.
“Child sexual abuse impacts everyone in different ways. We need to ensure that we look after those who have been impacted. They need to know that the community is behind them,” Waks said.
The Gondelman family recently left Israel in an attempt to get Big Mike the help he needs.
“We didn’t want to leave Israel. We were forced out. I was trying to get treatment. The healthcare system in Israel is great for people who are physically sick. When it comes to mental illness, there’s really not so much help available,” Gondelman explained. “I wasn’t able to get the help I needed, so I couldn’t stay.”
He was able to get some limited assistance from the Shiluv Institute in Jerusalem. He met with a therapist he called “one of the top trauma guys in Jerusalem.”
Although the family was living on disability with four children, the municipal social work department was unable to assist. “They have money to take the kids away and put them into foster care but no money to help in the home,” Gondelman said regretfully.
The family spent 17 months trying to get help in Israel. During that time, Big Mike attempted suicide several times. He was hospitalized in Soteria House in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound under the care of Dr.
Pesach Lichtenberg. Gondelman also credits Jerusalem’s Ohr LeNefesh for providing mental-health support during his final months in Israel.
“If I stayed in Israel, I probably would be dead. I’m suicidal not because I want to die. I want to live! But I want the pain to end. Every single moment of every single day, I worry about getting triggered. I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I have panic attacks. I’m compelled to do it. It becomes a vicious cycle,” he explained.
Today, the family of six is staying with Big Mike’s brother in Tampa, Florida. “We have to go through this process to get me on disability. I get food stamps now. I have Medicaid, but it doesn’t cover everything that’s needed. I tried to go back to work in construction, but I couldn’t work.”
The Gondelmans’ research uncovered a treatment facility in Central Florida, an hour north of Orlando, called The Refuge, which specializes in the kind of care he needs. But it doesn’t come cheap. Gondelman was advised that his best chance is to commit to three months of inpatient care at The Refuge. Total cost for the intensive, prescribed treatment is $120,000.
Everything is focused on getting him into treatment.
Having no choice, Big Mike turned to the Internet to try to raise the money he needs to get treated. “It was a last resort to go public and tell my story on The Chesed Fund site.”
He is humbled by the outpouring of support in response to his openness. “It’s amazing the responses that I’ve gotten. Many donations are made in memory of someone. Three people from the Anglo community in Israel died from addictions in the last week. One was a friend of mine.
“There are so many people in the industry who are trying to help. They are busy 24/7 working with drug addicts. They are making the time to help me, even though they are so busy with their own caseloads. We have a place for me to go. It’s really all about the money at this point.”
Besides his own recovery, Gondelman is deeply concerned that his wife and children be taken care of as well. The family needs a permanent place to live. He credits the rabbi of Young Israel of Tampa with trying to help his family. “On the one hand, I’m feeling encouraged because there are people here who are really showing me caring and warmth. But at the same time, I’m discouraged because I’m still going through all the same things.”
Looking to the future, Gondelman said, “I want to be able to go back into the work I was doing, saving lives.
Once I get out of this, the idea is to get a job and support my family and eventually have enough money to get back to Jerusalem. I love Israel. Israel is my home, but I can’t live there now, because I’m not healthy.”
In response to his public crowdfunding campaign on The Chesed Fund site, Gondelman has received plenty of private messages. “Putting myself out there like this, I found there are so many people who are in the same position. Me putting myself out there is giving them strength.”

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