On The Beach
With Beverly Baxter
Let’s Talk About It
For quite some time, I have wanted to address an issue that, while it permeates our immediate local culture, it is rarely openly discussed except in a kind of quiet hush behind closed doors. It isn’t a very “sexy” topic like Dunes, No Parking, and Green Malls that have ripped our communities apart; yet it is an issue that has ripped families apart, forcing them to suffer in private, leaving only wreckage in its wake. With the recent controversy over the Oprah Winfrey-inspired New York Times Best Seller, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, I feel it an appropriate time to bring the issue of Alcoholism out onto the front porch, a place where many of us have found loved ones clamoring in the obliviousness of that “good night”.
When I first came to Rockaway nearly sixteen years ago, I felt I’d made a magical discovery. Like many others, I had roots here and grew up hearing stories of this fabled place by the sea; but while many in my family ventured out to Long Island, I made a reverse exodus and “found” Rockaway where I met and married a remarkable Irishman and where I was immediately charmed by the Irish culture, the wit and warmth of its people, and the sense of community that so eluded me in my childhood growing up on the tony North Shore. Although I felt, like Columbus, that I had made such a magical discovery, what I would ultimately discover would be the ravaging effects of a disease called Alcoholism.
Of course, Alcoholism is prevalent in other cultures. Whether you are Jewish, Polish, or Protestant or were raised in affluent privilege or abject poverty, Alcoholism ignores all of that. While it runs in every culture and within every family, it gallops more blatantly in others. You could say that growing up in an isolated seaside community far from the maddening mainland would be the perfect breeding ground for the disease and that beach and beer go together like the fife and drum; however, it isn’t all about geography. While drinking beer on the beach or in many of the local pubs is a seemingly innocent rite of passage for many of our youth, why is it that some remain glued to its grip while others can merely have a “few” and walk away? Why is it that for some one is too many and a thousand are never enough? And just as importantly, why is it that an issue that effects virtually every single family is stigmatized with contempt and shame. Would you ignore or be in denial about a loved one who is suffering from cancer? To ignore or marginalize the Alcoholic or to deny the existence of the problem is to ensure death.
The most baffling nature of the disease of addiction is its ability to hide itself from itself, from the addict, and from the medical community. Walk into the Emergency Room of our local hospital and you will find that if one delved further, they would find that while the immediate cause of admission is a Subdural Hemotoma (blood clot to the brain) sustained by a fall, the real diagnosis is Alcoholism. We treat the immediate effect with the best of technologies and sympathetic intentions; yet have little knowledge of or compassion for the Alcoholic. He or she is often put off in some remote corner of the E.R. to “sleep it off”, then sent home only to return again—and again. Although like certain cancers and diabetes there is no cure, there is only a sustained day to day program of recovery. But first, the disease must be properly diagnosed—and that diagnosis must be accepted by the Alcoholic and the family.
What does an Alcoholic look like? An Alcoholic can look like an everyday Joe with a great career, a glamorous Mrs. Jones, or in its later stages, a skanky Maryanne. You may even find the Alcoholic looking back at you in your very own mirror.
You will find the disease in the most talented, most brilliant, or most ordinary of people. The disease doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t have a particular preference; yet when it has you, it keeps you and it wants you dead. Many of us witnessed the tragic advanced effects of the disease in John Trainor, one of of the Beach 116 Street “corner boys” who became a most recent casualty of the disease. What many of us didn’t see was that John was an enormously talented musician from a “good family”.
Perhaps its most frightening nature is its ability to hide itself from even those within the treatment profession. Take a 6’2 strappingly handsome 42 year old man who, after a five week stay in a treatment facility is dead within 46 days of discharge from that facility. Loved ones, fellow patients, and therapists are shocked because he “appeared and seemed to be doing so well”. The disease is that deceiving. They are also surprised to learn that it was “simply beer”, and not hard liquor, that did it all.
While loved ones begged the facility to keep him, stating that he was a danger to himself as well as to others, the current laws don’t allow for the keeping of a person against one’s will, even if the disease is of the will itself. The man was “not ready to leave, but he was not ready and willing to stay”. And after two five-week stints in two rehabs, on both occasions the man drank the moment he got home. While many of his relationships with family and friends had long been defeated and exhausted, he was still able to find a Maryanne to keep him company and assist in his suicide. Alcoholism, like water, seeks its own level.
Statistics show that merely 15% of Alcoholics make it in recovery. While the book by James Frey is a compelling read on the rapaciousness of the disease, the problem I had believing in its validity is revealed in the author’s conviction that the disease can be conquered through self-will. The Alcoholic will be the first to tell you that it’s a disease of one’s will and that will-power alone and proclamations of “never again” are only guaranteed to last ‘til the “next time”. It’s only through a day to day working belief in a power greater than oneself that one stands a chance—one day at a time.
If you or someone you love is mercilessly struggling with Alcoholism, get it out into the open. To deny it, is to ensure death. Confide in your Doctor or contact your place of worship. There is enormous support within our midst.
***Happy Birthday wishes to Pat Delaney.
See you...On the Beach!