Fay Zenoff is the executive director of the Center for Open Recovery.
Fay Zenoff is the executive director of the Center for Open Recovery.

Q&A: This recovery leader is very open about her addiction

Name: Fay Zenoff

Age: 50

City: Larkspur

Position: Executive director, Center for Open Recovery

J.: You have been with the Center for Open Recovery (COR) for four years, but when you came on board it was called the National Council on Alcoholism and Other Drug Addictions–Bay Area. What inspired the name change last year?

Fay Zenoff: In 2015, we changed our focus from prevention and treatment to championing long-term recovery. For the past six decades, we, like hundreds of other Bay Area nonprofits, operated as a community-based organization, offering direct services, such as DUI classes and drug-diversion programs. But we recognized over time that our services weren’t aligned with our recovery mission and that they were often misunderstood as an extension of the criminal justice system. We changed our name to draw attention to the solution of recovery and away from the problem of addiction. The name change was also a provocative invitation to see things differently for those who thought addiction recovery should be addressed discreetly and anonymously.

Today, we focus on empowering an ignored, invisible and silent population — the more than 500,000 people in the Bay Area living in recovery from addiction. We do this work through advocacy and education, via media campaigns and transformative experiences. We want to shatter negative stereotypes that lead to shame, stigma and backlash. We model ourselves on other social justice movements, focusing on mobilizing people in recovery from substance use disorders to come forward and say, “I will not be dismissed. I deserve respect, protection and dignity. I am not alone.”

COR ran a campaign on the sides of Muni buses —“This Is Recovery” — that showed the many faces of people who have successfully dealt with substance disorders. Why is this messaging so critical?

It’s important to show people, including public officials, that people with substance disorders can recover and rebound. We want our government to create programs and invest in research and resources that support recovery. There’s a burgeoning movement across this country to add momentum to this message. We know that there are tens of millions of Americans struggling with alcohol and other substance disorders. But there are also about 23 million Americans in recovery.

One of the best-known programs that helps people achieve recovery is Alcoholics Anonymous, which along with its offshoots, including Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, is based on anonymity. Do you see conflict between your call for openness and these organizations’ core philosophy?

Not at all. There are many paths to recovery, and 12-step programs are incredibly effective. The request for anonymity has to do with public identification of membership of those in the fellowship. It is not about being silent about our [own] recovery. We all have freedom of discretion, in terms of how much we want to share. We have the right, on a personal level, to come out of the closet about our recovery from substance use disorders so that others know that recovery is possible and that they can live without shame.

There was chaos inside me, and I threw alcohol at it.

You have been quite candid about your own struggles. Would you share some of your own story?

Food was my first drug. I was 13 and living with my family down on the Peninsula — we were members of Temple Beth Am in Los Altos Hills — when my brother, Victor, who was one week shy of 18, died in an accident at Yosemite. I remember eating an entire crumb cake at the shiva. I didn’t have any skills to deal with the loss.

I learned that alcohol and boys means you were never alone. But because I was not a black-out drinker, I was able to “pass,” because I did not pass out. I was always high-functioning. I went to Sarah Lawrence College, spent my junior year in Israel, earned an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, got married, lived in Israel for five years, had two daughters, worked in high-tech and had great corporate jobs.

But after I divorced, I made some very bad choices. I didn’t have an off-switch. There was chaos inside me, and I threw alcohol at it. Finally, I said, “God, help me.” I got clarity about my drinking. It took three years for me to rebuild and to hold up my head without shame.

Do you think it’s harder for Jews to acknowledge substance abuse — in themselves or close family members?

It goes back to stigma. To admit you have a problem is an indictment of character in our culture.

What are you doing to advance recovery in the Jewish community?

As a member of Congregation Kol Shofar, I am part of an ad hoc committee creating a recovery community there. I am helping to organize our first recovery service [Serenity Shabbat], which will take place on Friday, March 23.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected]

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.