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Waterfront Program: Alcohol, Drug Abuse : Former Longshoreman Ed Torres Is Helping Dockworkers to Combat Addiction Problems

April 04, 1986|JAMES TARDIO | Tardio lives in San Pedro. and

Ed Torres remembers when his friends were dying in parking lots and fleabag hotels. He remembers how they had no one to turn to for help. He knew that alcoholism had almost destroyed his life, and he was sick of seeing it ruin the lives of his fellow longshoremen.

Torres, 56, a recovered alcoholic, decided to start a program for Southern Californian longshoremen who wanted to recover from alcoholism or drug addiction. With the cooperation of the Pacific Maritime Assn. and the executive board of the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union, Torres established the ILWU-PMA Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program.

"We talked about how the ILWU is the most democratic union in the country," Torres said, "yet we didn't have an alcoholism program. We had good men on the waterfront who could no longer work because they had progressed into alcoholism." Since beginning in 1979, Torres estimated he has aided in the recovery of more than 500 alcoholics and drug addicts.

"It wasn't an easy beginning," Torres said. "I was working nights on the docks and trying to run the program during the day." But in 1979, Torres was selected to be trained as a counselor. Shortly thereafter he was appointed the Southern California representative of the program--a position that pays him a salary and allows him to devote all of his time to the program.

'I Was Really Hooked'

Torres' relationship with alcohol began long before that, however. "I drank for 30 years," he said. "I left school and went to sea when I was 15 years old. I started drinking there and continued when I was in the Army. By the time I became a longshoreman I was really hooked."

In 1972 Torres decided to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, and in 1974 succeeded in staying sober. "That was all right for about a year," Torres said, "but I got tired of just going to meetings. Something was missing so I started working with other drunks."

Torres finished high school in the Army, and later studied psychology at Cal State Long Beach.

The recovery program itself works as a referral center and a family counseling service. A longshoreman who has an alcohol or drug addiction problem comes to Torres. They discuss the problem and Torres directs the addict to the appropriate treatment center, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. While the addict is undergoing treatment, Torres counsels family members and prepares them for his return. Once back in circulation, the recovering patient begins the real struggle--staying free of alcohol or drugs. Torres conducts weekly meetings and daily individual sessions to aid in this struggle.

I Needed Help'

Rick, 35, is an addict who has been recovered for nine months. He came to Torres because ". . . I was slowly dying. I had to come to grips with myself. Other users told me I wasn't that bad, and that's when I knew I needed help."

Like most addictions, Rick's began when he was young. "I guess I was born with an addictive personality," he said. "I was 14 or 15 when I started using, and it got worse in high school. When I was 18, I started working on the docks. It's crazy because the waterfront used to have this tough-guy image and I wanted to fit in. With drugs and alcohol I thought I did. I was empty inside and using filled that void. I stayed like that for 10 years."

Rick said that longshoremen didn't go looking for help then because they weren't considered men if they couldn't handle their own affairs. "The hardest part for me was asking for help," he said.

Another recovering addict, David, agreed. "It was tough before because longshoremen went to work with a hook in one pocket and a bottle of booze in the other. I drank to fit in. Pretty soon alcohol quit working for me and I turned to drugs."

But David said he feels the attitude on the waterfront is changing. "We have a lot of young, intelligent people down here now. It feels good to be able to talk to them about normal things, instead of trying to find out where I could score some coke."

Pilot Program

Three years ago, Torres began a pilot program that deals exclusively with drugs. Don, a recently registered longshoreman, is glad he did. "Most programs cater only to the alcoholic," Don said. "I was addicted to drugs, any kind or any combination of them. I stole from friends to buy cocaine. When I didn't have money I'd steal relatives' prescriptions. Being high on the job was no problem to me. Oh, I'd get fired for the day once in a while, but most bosses looked the other way, or some friends covered me. Finally, I realized I was endangering others besides myself. I contacted Ed Torres out of desperation."

According to Torres, the success rate of the drug and alcohol program is 75% to 80%, second only to Alcoholics Anonymous. Various individuals have branched off and started their own support groups for drugs, alcohol and even over-eaters. Torres himself has expanded his territory to cover longshoremen in the ports of San Diego and Hueneme.

Treatment for ILWU members is paid for by the employers. "We don't have coverage for dependents yet, but we recently negotiated to cover our pensioners. And I feel good because other industries have modeled their programs after ours," said Torres as he pointed to a plaque on his desk from the National Council on Alcoholism, awarded for the best industrial program in Southern California.

Although Torres is proud of his program, he knows that the real test of drug or alcohol recovery is staying clean.

As one addict put it, "I know I'll never be well. It's a lifelong struggle. But if I can hang on to the way I feel today, everything will be all right."

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