2007-01-12 / Columnists

On The Beach

Betty Ford, Eric Clapton And You!
Commentary By Beverly Baxter

BEVERLY BAXTERBEVERLY BAXTER The New Year was marked by the passing of former President Gerald Ford and much was said about the significance of this beloved President during the week-long funerals that began in California, then Washington, DC, and culminated in Grand Rapids Michigan,

I could not help but be awed by the inner mettle of his now, obviously, frail widow. Betty Ford's candid contributions to our society were mighty and revolutionary as they pertain to alcohol and substance abuse. When the Ford's were in the White House in the 1970's, in the wake of the tumultuous, revolutionary and chaotic 60's, it seemed that America had returned to a more sedate time, more reminiscent of the 50's.

Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had overdosed and campuses were exploding in protest to the war. With President Ford's healing, calm demeanor, all seemed quite and calm. Betty Crocker had put her bra back on and all seemed right and sedate. Little did we know just how sedate a First Lady we had. Here we had a quintessential First Lady, in ladylike A-line dresses and Ferragamo shoes, who, not only took up the not-so-very chic cause of substance abuse, but a First Lady who actually came clean and spoke about her own addictions. Betty Ford candidly told us that she was a drunk. She has dedicated the later years of her life to the Betty Ford Clinic, which she founded and which bears her name.

While her husband was eulogized as a humble everyman, I think Betty Ford's most powerful message was that she is an every-woman or an every-person who suffers from the disease of addiction. Her candor and courage was breathtaking. Whether you live in the White House or a Rockaway Beach house, come from the poor side of town or the more Breezy side of the road, are a celebrated MVP at Xavier or attend public schools, the private suffering of those who struggle with addiction is

the common denominator. If Betty Ford and Eric Clapton sat down to talk or compose a song, it would be about their shared demons of addiction.

We all remember the heartbreaking service announcements by Carroll O'Connor, in the wake of his only son's drug overdose, begging the American public to do all you can that is humanly possible to get your kids off drugs. His message was so powerful partly because of his persona as Archie Bunker, the intolerant "if anything's wrong with you, meathead, it's 'cause you're a degenerate" and all that it implied. It was the height of the hippie drug-culture; and then you had Archie Bunker brought to his knees as a parent of a child who died of a drug overdose. For Carroll O'Connor, it was too late.

While Rockaway has seen many signs of improvement in our quality of life, with dumpsters on every block and construction everywhere, it won't matter how many million-dollar homes and communities we build as long as there is a surging drug epidemic that continues to erode the very core of our community. Kids are dying. The local bars are rethinking their existence, and other once-thriving businesses are forced to close due to the drug population that has taken over our streets. Kids are forced to sell their souls for the next fix, and they are not somebody else's kids from some other part of town. They are the west end kids. They hail from hallowed places like Belle Harbor and Breezy Point. The drug epidemic has reached every fiber of our community, piercing through every zip code.

In response to the recent overdose deaths during the past year of several youths from Breezy Point and Broad Channel, leaders and clergy from both communities reached out to Daytop to come into their communities and offer Straight Talk sessions to parents and their children. The notion of a Daytop van coming into the insulated community of Breezy Point, where life is beautiful all the time, must have been a welcomed cargo of hope for those who are desperate and struggling with addicted kids, many of whom have gone to a place where they can no longer be reached. The parents feel exhausted, defeated and helpless to this ever-escalating epidemic that has pierced the gates and held hostage the drug-addicted child in its grip.

According to Dr. Peter Guiney, Director of Peninsula Hospital Center's Family Practice Residency Program and Medical Director of Daytop who has been invited to conduct the Straight Talks, "In the ten years that I was in the ER and the ten years that I have been working with patients at Daytop, it has become increasingly frustrating to stop the problem. Liam O'Connor, who is the Director of Adolescent Re-Entry, and I continue to be motivated to go up stream and catch these little fish before it's too late. In addition to alcohol and pot, we're seeing more and more prescription drug abuse. Kids are experimenting with these drugs that they find in their own parent's medicine cabinets. They are making the fatal mistake of mixing a couple of Vicodin with alcohol and then it's lights out. They think it's safe 'cause it's in mommy or daddy's medicine cabinet. They're playing Russian Roulette and they're dying. There is an abnormally high incidence of drugs and alcohol in Rockaway and we're seeing a higher rate of heroin use."

Unfortunately no one entity can cure the problem. It takes a village. According to Dr. Guiney, "There has to be a triad approach to the solution, a collaborative effort between Peninsula Hospital, Daytop and the community. One way of reaching out is to post signs in the ER referring those who suffer from addiction and have used the ER as a revolving door where they go to detox for 5 days and then are released to their own addicted devices, only to return again and again, that Daytop exists in the community to help. We need to build the community's awareness that if needed, we are here and when we are called, we will come and speak. One of our most successful Straight Talk sessions was when we brought some of our clients to speak to and share with the kids their own experiences. Young, vibrant, red-haired and freckled faced, they were able to strike a common cord and share their experiences, strength and hope with those kids who are struggling with abuse and give warning to those who may yet become addicted."

Many of those who work at the facility are Rockaway residents and have a stake in improving the dire situation. Margie McNulty, Daytop's Head Supervising Nurse, describes parents pulling up to Daytop's doors on a daily basis with their drug-addicted teenagers. "They are exasperated and helpless. They beg us to please take and help their children. And no one is turned away regardless of whether one is insured or not. In fact, nearly ninety percent of our clients are uninsured. They are carefully screened medically and followed by social workers and psychiatrists. All of their needs are addressed and taken care of. All the patient has to focus on is working on recovery. They reside here for two to four weeks and then, if needed, they are sent to our long-term residential therapeutic community upstate. When they are ready to return and begin their lives in recovery, we are here to help them with the transition."

We all want to live in a safe community where our children can flourish and reach their individual potential. We can't do it for them. What we can do is lead the way by our example and by pointing them toward the right direction where help is available. We've come a long way in changing our culture and its attitude toward addiction since the days when a pregnant Lucille Ball smoked Lucky Strikes on TV; and it was only out of heartbreak and despair that a group of suburban mothers banned together to form MADD and succeeded in changing legislation; and then along came a First Lady named Betty Ford who brought the issue of substance abuse out on to the White House lawn. Hope has a place for the youth in Rockaway who are addicted and it's called Daytop.

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