“I’m a typical bad-boy Jew,” joked Gary Hendler, “who did well, luckily.”
As a teenager, the Philadelphia native admitted he wasn’t a “momma’s boy” like others in school, nor was he a good student.
Hanging out with the wrong crowd and working in the music industry didn’t help either.
“In the music business, I had anything I wanted — and I mean anything I wanted,” he said. “It was drug-fueled, and in the end I had nothing.”
But now more than 35 years sober, Hendler has made a name for himself, specifically as the voice of recovery.
Hendler created Clean and Sober Broadcasting along with Steve Martorano. He hosts a weekly radio show, Clean and Sober, which airs live on WWDB-AM TALK 860 Fridays at 3 p.m., and replays Sundays at 10 a.m. on 610 SPORTS and Mondays at 2 p.m. back on WWDB-AM.
The issue of drug abuse is highlighted during the month of September, National Recovery Month. On Sept. 6, the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs will kick off the month in Harrisburg, with Hendler as the emcee.
Gov. Tom Wolf will make an appearance, along with Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Acting Secretary Jennifer Smith and Department of Health Acting Secretary and Physician General Rachel Levine.
“I am looking forward to spreading the word that people do come out of addictions; they do get into recovery. It’s not always a dead end,” he said. “Recovery is possible. Don’t give up.”
Hendler was introduced to drugs in the music industry. His first encounter was with marijuana at the age of 14.
He later became addicted to prescription medication — quaaludes became his drug of choice, which peaked his addiction in 1974.
Hendler graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism, but was kicked out of two law schools for not being able to complete his courses because he was always high.
As a freshman, he was seen driving around town in his Bentley. Three years later, he was living in his mother’s car.
By 1982, it was the law that convinced him to get clean.
“I was arrested many times for a lot of drug charges,” he said. But he went into treatment with an open mind — and so it would look good for the judge when he was sentenced, he admitted.
“After I got in there, it was like, ‘I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough. I surrender.’”
He gave into recovery and, shortly thereafter, he started one of the first AA meetings in a synagogue: Main Line Reform Temple, of which he is still a member.
Hendler said only one in 10 who need treatment receive it.
“Can you imagine people with cancer or diabetes, only one in 10 had access to treatment?” he countered.
He started Clean and Sober four years ago — a broadcast that opens with a verse from “Bottle of Wine” — which reaches about 200,000 people each show.
“We discuss all aspects of addiction and recovery, and I have real high-profile guests,” he said, some like Tony Luke or Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts. “They talk about what their lives were like, and now they’re clean and sober.”
He’s found other ventures, too: Hendler started his own real estate company, and he serves as a board member on the Pennsylvania Advisory Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
He said his greatest accomplishment will always be his recovery.
He often tells his listeners, “You have to go after treatment. They don’t deliver treatment. There’s no drive-ins to get treatment. You have to want it and you have to go get it.”
The kick-off event allows addiction and recovery to no longer be a “back-room secret,” Hendler added, something that has often been perceived as one by the Jewish community.
“Growing up, and when I started the AA meetings, ‘Jews don’t drink to excess, and Jews certainly don’t take drugs,’” he recalled of the community’s perceptions. “The Jewish community was and partly still is in denial, but it’s getting a whole lot better.”
Living the life he is now in light of the national opioid crisis makes National Recovery Month that much more significant for him.
“You could say my show is really good timing — unfortunately, it’s really good timing,” he joked, like the many high-energy quips he often uses on his show. “It’s not just the person that’s using. The families, the employers — everybody is affected by this or will be at some point.”
But his message for the kick-off event is also a simple one that resonates with his own path to sobriety.
“You can live an incredible life once you get clean and sober,” he said.
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