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Drinking Led to 'Perfect Life' for This Priest : Alcoholism Expert Revels in Ability to Help Others

February 11, 1988|MIKE WYMA | Wyma writes regularly for Valley View.

Booze has been good to Father Joseph Martin. That sounds like a strange thing to say about an alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in 30 years, but Father Martin himself says it.

"The drinking led me to what I have today, and today I have the perfect life," he declared shortly before an appearance last week in Encino. "Running a treatment house, speaking around the country to help others recover--I couldn't ask for anything more."

Martin, 63, is among the country's foremost educators on alcoholism. The names of Betty Ford and Dr. Joseph Pursch may be better known to the general public, but Father Martin's cherubic face and white hair are familiar to nearly every alcoholic who has been through a treatment program.

The priest said that of the 3,000 hospital and recovery-house facilities nationwide, "maybe six don't use my films."

Martin is a member of the Sulpician Fathers, an order named for a parish in Paris. In an interview, he said he has told the story of his own drinking and recovery "thousands of times" and preferred not to discuss it. But he did say that his career as an authority on alcoholism began almost by accident.

"That was in February, 1972," Martin recalled. "I was a seminary teacher. I had no plan to go into alcoholism treatment. I had some notes I'd taken because of my own recovery and I used them for a talk. The Navy filmed it, and that was 'Chalk Talk.' "

Named for the chalkboard he used to illustrate his points, "Chalk Talk" went on to become a classic on the treatment-center circuit and the first of 15 Father Martin films. The priest also became a lecturer, delivering 150 to 200 speeches a year in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Martin said he has slowed down a little, now giving about 50 speeches a year and devoting the rest of his time to his 50-bed Ashley Center for Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation in rural Maryland. Former presidential aide Michael Deaver completed the program there about a year ago.

A boom in the number of recovery programs over the last decade has resulted in "an awful lot of mediocre ones" coming into existence, Martin said.

"Twenty years ago, hospitals wouldn't look at a drunk, but with insurance paying the bills, now they're courting them," he said. "I know of one treatment center that has four marketing men out on the road getting patients.

"Still, I have three things to say to anyone who is having a problem with drinking: Get into treatment, get into treatment, get into treatment. And the only treatment worth a damn is one that introduces you to the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous."

Martin himself went into treatment in June, completing a 30-day program for food addiction. He said he has lost 41 pounds and kept it off.

"I found out I was addicted to sugar, like a lot of alcoholics," he said. "We get sober and we head straight for the ice cream."

Martin was in the San Fernando Valley to speak at a weekend retreat staged by Valley Women's Center Inc., a nonprofit counseling agency that also runs a 12-bed recovery house in Northridge. The event took place at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center, a complex of dormitory rooms and meeting halls on 10 landscaped acres in Encino.

By coincidence, the Southern California Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous was under way in Universal City at the same time, but Martin had no trouble filling the retreat's 150-seat chapel. Although the three-day retreat was for women, his appearance was open to men also.

Although Martin drew polite applause, some audience members appeared taken aback by his stern tone. The priest criticized many of the New Age concepts of spirituality that are gaining popularity among recovering alcoholics, saying they make him cringe.

These include notions of God as the better self within an individual, or as some sort of energy force that one may tap into, or as a "friend." All are repellent to Martin.

"I'm going to stand in front of Him some day and render an account of my life," the priest insisted, saying that attitudes toward God have grown too casual and that God must be worshiped out of gratitude for His role as creator.

Martin also criticized the idea that guilt is something that the alcoholic can be purged of. One popular notion holds that, by admitting his wrongs and making amends to those he has hurt, an alcoholic can free himself of guilt over past behavior. Some advocates of this view have bumper stickers declaring "Screw Guilt."

"But you don't get rid of garbage; it's locked inside," insisted Martin, saying that God's forgiveness is the best one can hope for.

"Counselors say to make amends, it will make you feel better," he told his audience. "But that's not why you make amends. You don't make them to feel better. You make them because they ought to be made."

He sees a parallel in the matter of church attendance.

"People say they don't need to go to church; they feel spiritual without it," Martin said. "You know why I go to church? It's not to feel spiritual. I go because it's a debt I owe to God."

Despite the hard line on some issues, Martin said "the entire purpose of our lives is to love." When an alcoholic begins long-term sobriety, he contended, it is often because someone has expressed love in the form of a willingness to help.

"Counselors, forget your degrees and your courses," Martin said. "If you would heal me, touch my heart."

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