Recovering addicts retreat to Harford

Facility: Folks looking to turn their lives around, find comfort in the posh Ashley in Havre de Grace.

March 07, 2001|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano was ordered into treatment for a drinking problem that surfaced in an ugly incident at a Fells Point bar last December, he didn't have to go far for help: a world-famous alcohol and drug-treatment center hidden at the end of a mile-long country drive in Harford County.

When he returned to his city post sobered and contrite last month, Graziano became one of 15,000 graduates of Father Martin's Ashley, a posh rehabilitation facility on 43 manicured acres once owned by U.S. Sen. Millard E. Tydings and overlooking the upper Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace.

Other Ashley alumni include actress Lynda Carter of "Wonder Woman" fame; Michael Kennedy, of the Kennedy political family, who later died in a ski accident; British comedian Michael Barrymore; and Michael K. Deaver, deputy chief of staff for former President Reagan.

Co-founded by the Rev. Joseph C. Martin, a recovering alcoholic who has spread his philosophy of sobriety around the world, the 80-bed center opened its doors to five patients in 1983.

On a scenic parcel called Oakington, the campus' stately granite buildings, with elegant furnishings, plush rugs, marble fireplaces and breathtaking views of the bay, are meant to offer comfort and aid recovery. Patients are treated to gourmet meals and have their laundry done during their stay.

"The designed effect is to have a non-institutional look," said Leonard A. Dahl, Ashley's chief executive officer. "We want you to focus as much as possible on the reason you are here."

The cost of a 28-day stay at Ashley, which has a 10-day to two-week waiting list, is $15,000, similar to what other institutions charge, says Dr. Ronald Hunsicker, president of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, a Pennsylvania-based trade group representing about 190 U.S. treatment centers.

"What is clear is that Ashley has been committed to quality since it opened," says Hunsicker. "It has put together a quality program."

Ashley often has been rated one of the top treatment centers in the country by magazines such as Forbes and American Health. The Independent, a London newspaper, recently listed Ashley as one of 10 top celebrity rehab clinics, along with the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs, Calif., and Crossroads Rehabilitation Center in Antigua.

A Russian treatment center, the House of Hope on the Hill in St. Petersburg, has modeled itself after Ashley, which adheres to the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program. Staff from the House of Hope often travel to Havre de Grace to learn about the center's strategies.

"We have a niche of a market," Dahl said. "The catalyst for everything is Father Martin, who is widely known for educating in the field of addiction."

Over the years, Martin has spoken openly about his alcoholism and recovery. The jovial Sulpician priest, who grew up in Hampden, has been sober for more than four decades.

His road to sobriety began in 1958 when his religious superiors sent him to a treatment center in Michigan for seven months. After leaving, Martin began counseling others.

He developed a lecture, called "Chalk Talk on Alcohol," delivering it to various groups around the country. In 1972, the Navy filmed his talk, which has become a standard in recovery centers around the globe. Martin even received a thank-you note from former first lady Betty Ford, who viewed the film while undergoing treatment for alcoholism.

At 76, Martin, who has traveled to such locales as Turkey, Antarctica and the Far East with his message, spends much of his time at Ashley, sharing his well-known sense of humor and insights with patients. "He's enjoying his golden years," Dahl said. "He lives for the patients at Ashley."

While Martin is the visible presence at Ashley, his co-founder, Mae Abraham - whose maiden name was Ashley - was a driving force in the realization of the treatment center.

A former binge drinker, Abraham met Martin in 1964 at a lecture he gave in Baltimore. The two became friends, eventually deciding to open a treatment facility.

"She had the absolute tenacity to hold onto the dream," Dahl said. "There were a lot of bleak periods in the early days."

As it approaches its 20th year, Ashley is about to expand. Ground will be broken in May for a $2 million, 10,000-square-foot building to house a lecture hall and an archival room with memorabilia.

After patients leave the Ashley program, they are encouraged to seek after-care. Tracking the recidivism of far-flung patients is difficult, Dahl says. But he added that Martin believes Ashley gives patients the resources they need for recovery.

"He tells [the patients], `We give you the best here,' " Dahl says. "The ball is in their court, and we tell them that."

Graziano, who spent much of his monthlong paid leave at the treatment center, declined, through a spokesman, to talk about Ashley. He said publicly after his stay that he had learned to restore "balance" to his life by addressing his drinking problem.

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