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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 16, 2009

“Damn proud”
Alcoholics go public

By Philippa Stasiuk

Almost everyone who is recovering from the disease of alcoholism has a tale to tell about rock bottom. Nora Sanchez hit bottom when her daughter Niki, who was 9 at the time, worked up the nerve to ask her what she had done to make her drink again. At the time, Sanchez was only allowed to drive with her kids if the Breathalyzer test her children administered came back negative.

Joseph Sabatino hit bottom when, after spending the decade of the 1990s in his basement with daily quarts of liquor, he had a seizure and woke up three days later in a hospital bed. His doctor said if his wife hadn’t found him he would be dead.

For Ed Biittig, it was standing before Judge Patrick Maney for drunk driving 35 years ago after totaling five new cars in one year. In one of those crashes, his infant son had been in the back seat but had not been hurt.

“Judge Maney didn’t think the first thing he should do is punish me. He said, ‘I don’t know what to do with you,’” recalled Biittig. “He told me to imagine what would happen if a drunk driver hit my car with my son in it. Maney said, if he saw me in the following year, I was going somewhere and, I don’t know why, but what he said changed me.”

For Sanchez, Sabatino, and Biittig, their common thread is not simply a shared disease. It is the overwhelming gratitude they have in being alive when they feel like they should be dead. It is also a desire to be as public as they can about their alcoholism in an attempt to help others in combating the disease.

“If I don’t tell you that I’m an alcoholic then you won’t ask me about it,” said Sabatino.

Sanchez agrees. “I’m damn proud of what I’ve overcome and who I am today and there’s no use in hiding it. I think we should be proud of what we’ve gone through. Telling someone it’s easy, that’s a lie.”

Last year, Sanchez, Sabatino, and two others founded Friends of Recovery Capital District. The small non-profit group says it celebrates sobriety and is described by Sanchez as a sort of advanced recovery social networking group. (Its website is www.forcd.org.)

“Through Friends, we want to get rid of the stigma that’s associated with alcoholism,” says Sanchez. “For so many generations, nobody would talk about it. People view it as a moral issue, as a weakness. It’s so difficult to stop drinking and our loved ones get so mad at us. So many people feel that it’s a choice. The only choice we have is that first drink. People wouldn’t get so mad at somebody with cancer or diabetes.”

Friends of Recovery Capital District is a young organization, said Sanchez, and its members are currently brainstorming for future events.

“We’re considering things like a Captain JP cruise,” said Sanchez. “We were thinking about a non-alcoholic one of those and we could get people who don’t necessarily have problems with alcohol but those that don’t need it or don’t care about it. Maybe families who want to bring teenage kids who don’t want the alcohol. All we’ve done, we do with families because we feel that’s huge. So many families get destroyed by this disease.”

Anonymity outdated?

Sanchez said they created Friends of Recovery Capital District partially as a response to the primary support group available, Alcoholics Anonymous. Founded in 1935, AA is a loosely associated web of approximately two million members worldwide. A self-described informal society, AA bases its meetings around 12 traditions relating to its informal nature, the recognition of a higher power, and the need for anonymity. Its only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

AA members progress through a 12-step program, now adopted by many other groups as well, through which they admit they are powerless over their addiction, they believe in a greater power to restore their sanity, they make amends to people they’ve harmed, and they help others who suffer from the same addiction. (Local AA meetings are posted online at http://www.aa.org/lang/en/meeting_finder.cfm?origpage=29.)

While Sanchez, Sabatino, and Biittig all agree that AA has an important place in beginning recovery, Sabatino says he felt like AA’s focus on anonymity was an outdated approach to eradicating the stigmas associated with alcoholism.

“When people look at alcoholics, you know what they picture: a wino under a streetlamp drunk as a skunk with no place to live,” says Sabatino. “I volunteered at SPARC (St. Peter’s Addiction Recovery Center) every week doing impact panels. I’m from an old world Italian family. You don’t do that in public. I had one aunt say to me, ‘What are you doing with these gooks?’ I looked at her and said, ‘I’m one of those gooks and you need to get used to that.’”  

Sanchez agrees. “It’s time for people to say it’s a disease. The anonymity is one of the unfortunate things about AA. It’s been good in the past but it’s time for people to say, ‘I’m an alcoholic and I’m not ashamed.’ We also wanted to live a sober life that’s full of fun. We decided that we wanted to move on from sitting in a church basement talking about the drudgery of it.”

Due to its informal nature, there is no spokesperson for AA and even the 12 steps are written as suggestions. AA states its reasons for anonymity in various publications. First, AA says anonymity is needed to foster an atmosphere of trust and openness necessary for admitting that one is an alcoholic. Secondly anonymity is, according to AA, spiritually significant as it is meant to discourage personal recognition or profit.

Bill, a self-described drunk in AA who said on Monday he had not had a drink in 10,761 days, gives another reason for the anonymity. “The problem is that people come in and publicize being in AA and then they get drunk. That has nothing to do with AA; they just picked up a drink.

“The fact is also that who you are and what you do is insignificant. We have an equal opportunity program. Whether you’re coming from jail or Yale, it’s an equal opportunity disease and an equal opportunity recovery.” (The Enterprise is withholding the last names of the AA members in keeping with the organization’s philosophy.)

Fred, who has been sober for five years after a relapse that shattered his sober life in 1985, has another interpretation of AA’s anonymity. “It’s helpful in reducing the size of an individual’s ego, which I’ve come to realize is my biggest problem — my big fat ego. One of the main characteristics of the disease is we are incredibly self-absorbed people. It’s all about us. We don’t realize there are other human beings out there.”

In contrast, to celebrate his defiance of anonymity, Biittig almost literally wears his heart on his sleeve. Tied to his lapel is a rectangular slate with the date 2/14/74 written from top to bottom. It is his “clean slate” — the day that he stopped drinking. He almost pounces at the chance to tell people about it.

“I went to Burger King and this girl behind the counter asked me what this was for,” Biittig says, fondling the pin. “She said she’d tried since 1986 to stop drinking and fell off twice but she’s fine now. She wants to share that. When I talked to Joe and Nora and got their message, this was a message I had locked up in my home. I had been sober a long time but what good did it do other people? All of a sudden I’m able to tell people I’m happy with my life and the reason was I stopped drinking.”

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