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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise January 19, 2012

Convicts say: Alcoholism is a disease — treat it

The Bridge Center, an all-male residential facility that focuses on intensive rehabilitation for alcoholics and drug addicts, brought a group of 15 men to Ed Frank’s Choices 301 center in Altamont last week.

Most of the men have an established chemical dependency, and were mandated to a treatment facility through the court system.

“Many of these people have done incarcerated stints, and what did they get out of it? What did society get?” asked Dean Hale, who works at the Bridge Center. He believes in treatment over jail time, and said, at the rehab center, residents receive individual and group therapy, and participate in a variety of programs, like the one they attended on Jan. 11.

Choices 301 was founded by Frank’s son, Ed Frank Jr., who was a police officer and had a passion for race car driving. Frank Jr. used his own race car, 301, as a tool in a program that taught adolescents the importance of safe driving and wearing a seat belt. 301 was also the younger Frank’s radio dispatcher number for police work.

Frank Jr., as a police officer, saw many accidents caused by drunk driving, and made it his mission to educate youth about the dangers of doing so.

Frank Jr. died at age 45 from bowel cancer, and Frank Sr., his father, took up his son’s cause and built up the program to raise awareness in both youth and adults to refrain from alcohol and other drug use when driving.

“I like Ed’s approach because it’s not a scare-straight tactic; it emphasizes that you have choices, and those choices have consequences,” said Hale.  The Choices 301 program, according to Hale, offers a different perspective on those consequences.

Frank uses visuals to present the reality of the dangers and consequences of drunk driving. He displays hundreds of pairs of shoes at the Beacon of Hope Care Center on Gun Club Road. The shoes represent the number of people who were killed as a result of drunk driving in one year in New York State; he has five coffins, including a tiny one meant for an eight-week-old baby, to represent a family killed in a car crash involving alcohol; the center’s walls are lined with pictures of real people who were killed, and pictures of violent crashes.

Occasionally, Frank brings people who have suffered with from dependency and have lived with the consequences to Choices 301, to talk to groups. Last week, Mike Smith came to address the 15 men who were forced to seek intensive treatment by the court system.

Mike Smith is not his real name. The Enterprise is withholding his name in compliance with Alcoholic Anonymous policy.

“A game-changer”

Twenty-seven years ago, Smith drank and drove, then got in a car crash that killed a little girl. He did not serve any jail time, but was sentenced to five years of probation. He stayed sober for a year-and-a-half after the accident, but eventually took up drinking again.

“The fact that I killed somebody is so hard to deal with, and I tried to drink it away,” said Smith. He said he knew he needed help to deal with the effect the crash had on his mental health, as well as to deal with the alcoholism, but for “whatever reason” he did not seek it.

“I just…didn’t get it,” Smith said.

In 2009, Smith was arrested again for drunk driving, this time on Wolf Road, in Colonie. His blood alcohol content was .17. The legal limit for driving is .08. 

That time, Smith was sentenced to jail, for two years. He was also required to seek treatment for alcoholism.

“I’m thankful that I got pulled over again; it’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” said Smith. Through counseling, Smith said he learned to be honest with himself.

“There is no shame in saying, ‘I can’t drink,’” Smith said. “I don’t know what normal drinking is; I wish I could drink like everyone else, but I can’t.”

Smith said he goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of the girl he killed and it’s “rough.”

“It’s a game-changer; once somebody is dead, you can’t bring them back,” he said. “I’m not going to kill someone again.”

Learning to be a criminal

After Smith finished speaking to the residents of the Bridge Center, Frank asked them if they had any questions or comments.

Several raised their hands and said it wasn’t until they received counseling and treatment that they recognized the error of their ways.

“I was locked up in county jail, and I didn’t learn anything about addiction while I was there. I just wanted to get my time done and get out. When I got into rehab, I learned all about the disease, and you need to learn about it in order to treat it,” said one young man.

“I’m 31, and I can still make something of myself. I could still get a career, a nice house, and achieve my white-picket-fence dreams. I could be someone by the time I’m 50 or 60 if I make it that long,” said another. He called the treatment programs in the jail “a joke.”

Victor O. agreed about the jail’s programs. ASAT, or Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment, was often run or moderated by other inmates, whom Victor said volunteered to make themselves “look good” when they came up for parole.

“It was basically being handed a bunch of literature and then sitting in a group, talking about your experiences with drugs and alcohol,” Victor said. However, rather than being a supportive environment, the group sessions often turned into a competition of bravado; the inmates would try to outdo each other in terms of wild stories of excessive drug and alcohol consumption.

Another thing Victor noted was that, if an inmate struggling with an addiction was trying to get sober, that person could be seen as weak and become an easy target for other inmates.

“You had to walk the walk and talk the talk if you wanted to survive, and you quickly learned how to do that,” he said.

Victor would know, since he has been in and out of jail and rehab for 50 years; he’s 59 now.

Victor started drinking when he was 9 years old; he said he had easy access to alcohol because both of his parents were alcoholics.

“When I was a kid, I connected alcohol with my parents’ going out and having a great time; I didn’t make the connection between alcohol and their fights, and alcohol and my dad’s abusiveness,” Victor said.

When he was 10, Victor was arrested for burglary and went to family court, where his parents had to decide between sending him to reform school or bringing him home and keeping him out of trouble. They chose to send him to reform school, where he stayed for two years.

“I learned how to be a criminal there,” he said. The other kids at the school taught each other different tricks for burglary, and how and where to get drugs, and how to pass drug tests, among other things.

When he got out of reform school, Victor lived on the streets. He started shooting up heroin at age 13. He was arrested again, many times, for robbery. When he was 17, he wrecked his car while driving drunk, but managed to walk away unscathed and without hurting anyone else.

No matter what happened, he always went right back to drugs and alcohol.

“I thought everybody thought it was cool,” he said. “I had low self-esteem, no sense of self-worth, and I was insecure. I wanted to change the way I was feeling, and alcohol and drugs did that for me.”

A lot of potential

In 1985, at age 33, Victor was arrested yet again, and was finally mandated to attend a treatment program. He was sent to Altamont to Father Peter Young’s program. After completing treatment there, Victor stayed clean for 16 years.

During his 16 years of sobriety, Victor got married, bought a house, and had four children. He went to Hudson Valley Community College, and eventually became an accredited alcohol counselor.

“I found that I had a lot of potential, I was a people person, and I really enjoyed what I was doing,” he said.

However, Victor said that, after an extended period of sobriety, he became complacent.

“I cut my support system; I forgot where I came from,” he said. He had begun to think he could manage his disease on his own.

One night, in 2001, Victor met up with some friends from a treatment program in which he had been a patient, and some of them were still drinking. He decided he would be able to have just one drink. He ordered a rum and coke. Afterward, he said, things spiraled quickly out of control.

Victor went right back to drinking and shooting up heroin. He was able to hide it from his family for a while, until his son found him in the bathroom with a “spike” in his arm, after he had used heroin.

In 2004, Victor was once again arrested, and sent to county jail for two years.

“I paid severely this time,” he said. Not only was he incarcerated, he lost his wife, his home, and his relationship with his children.

When he got out of jail in 2006, he stayed sober for one month, and then went back to drinking and drugs.

It is OK to ask for help

“My family and counselors tried to stage a couple of interventions, but I was still using,” he said. He felt his life had gotten so bad that he might as well keep numbing the pain with alcohol and drugs.

His latest wake-up call came when he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and was told he would need a liver transplant.

“I’m on the transplant list, but they won’t do the transplant if I’m using,” he said.

Someone suggested the Bridge Center for his treatment, and he has been there now for two weeks. He has been sober since November.

“I need to repair my relationship with my family. My son won’t let me see my granddaughter until I stay clean,” said Victor.

If he could give advice to the general public – addicts, judges, youth – Victor said it would be for people to acknowledge the devastation alcohol and substance abuse has caused, and to recognize that it is a true disease.

“Education and intervention is the key,” he said. People need to know that there is treatment available, and that it is OK to seek it out, it is OK to ask for help, he said.

“You are not weak if you ask for help; this is not about willpower,” said Victor. He also said that more judges in the court system should be educated in drug and alcohol addiction, and know what programs are available in their counties, rather than just talk about using treatment as a sentencing option.

And finally, Victor said he thinks that children should be counseled to tell an adult if they are aware that their parents are drinking excessively or using drugs.

“Kids are taught to tell an adult if they are touched inappropriately, and I think they should be taught to do the same thing if they know their parents are abusing substances,” he said. That way, children would recognize that alcohol and drug abuse are not “normal” or appropriate behaviors, and they could escape a potentially dangerous situation and break a cycle.

Two sides: clinical and legal

Greg Spencer, a recovering alcoholic himself, works as a clinician in the field of treatment, and has served as a consultant for various treatment programs, including Father Peter Young’s, and OASAS, the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

There are two sides to the chemical dependency coin, according to Spencer. The first is the clinical side, in which addiction is seen as a disease that can be treated.

“Not cured, maybe, but inappropriate and illegal behavior while under the influence can be stopped with proper treatment,” said Spencer. He said statistics indicate that between 70 and 80 percent of people in jails today have substance abuse problems.

A mantra that is used in Alcoholics Anonymous goes like this, according to Spencer: “Every time I drank or drugged, I didn’t get in trouble; but every time I got in trouble, I was drunk or drugged.”

The other side of the coin is the legal system, which dictates that, for every crime, there must be a punishment.

“When you break the law, there has to be a consequence, and it seems like the courts want to use incarceration as a deterrent,” said Spencer. But it doesn’t always work.

“Albany County is particularly stringent on this; the county is rather inflexible,” in terms of mandating jail time for crimes related to alcoholism or chemical dependency, he said.

“You can’t say that one size fits all; maybe some people do need incarceration, but the pendulum, in many places, has swung back to less incarceration and more treatment,” Spencer said.

In many places throughout the state, drug courts have been set up, which have a collaborative approach to treatment. Non-violent addicted offenders become part of an intervention process. Defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment and education providers, and law enforcement officials work together to formulate a treatment plan for the offender.

Often, according to Spencer, being part of a drug court involves counseling and rehabilitation, as well as a weekly check-in with a judge. As of September 2010, there were 179 drug courts across the state, and a survey of six courts showed that the rates at which drug court graduates re-offend is significantly reduced, in comparison to incarceration.

Spencer hopes to see an expansion of the drug courts, as well as the introduction of similar programs for alcoholics. In regular criminal courts, the punishment is up to the judge’s discretion.

“Some are liberal and give the benefit of the doubt, and others are total hard asses,” he said. “I think everyone needs to remember that just because people do bad things under the influence doesn’t mean they are bad people.”

— By Anne Hayden

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