At 83, Father Martin still speaking to pain of addiction

June 29, 2008|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun reporter

His comeback was the worst-kept secret at Ashley.

After a six-month absence, an ailing Father Joseph Martin returned recently to what has been called the Betty Ford Clinic of the East Coast - Father Martin's Ashley. Arriving in his wheelchair, he waited for the applause and standing ovation to yield before speaking to 80 patients at the addiction treatment center he co-founded near Havre de Grace.

One more time, the 83-year-old priest spoke of the symptoms of sobriety - the ways patients know they are getting better. Recognizing that everyone is in pain. The return of one's self-esteem and humanity. No more living a lie. Father Martin spoke of his own drinking, his own "island of pain and self-hatred." He thanked everyone for their prayers. "I'm going to go home shortly now. That took all the steam out of me."

This has been a milestone year for Joseph Martin. Together with his partner, Mae Abraham, they watch over the addiction center they opened 25 years ago this spring.

More than 30,000 people have been treated there, including supermodel Niki Taylor, pro football player Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, the late Michael Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, and the late former White House aide Michael Deaver. Lynda Carter Altman, TV's former Wonder Woman and an Ashley alum herself, performed before 540 guests who paid $250 a seat to attend a silver anniversary gala last month.

Father Martin marked his own milestone this month: It was 50 years ago that the young Baltimore priest entered treatment. He has congestive heart failure now and endures dialysis three times weekly. His blood pressure sinks dangerously low. Takes a week of energy to decide to belch, as Father Martin says. Public appearances are seldom.

"I pray for him every day," says Mary Royals, 49, of Bethesda. "He has an immense amount of compassion because he is one of us. He gave people back their lives."

In 2003, Royals, once a serious binge drinker, spent a month at Ashley, which is about the prettiest place for the ugly business of getting clean. Bald eagles, wild turkeys and osprey inhabit the grounds of the former estate of Sen. Millard Tydings of Maryland. While there's nothing idyllic about detoxification, a patient's road to recovery is paved with creature comforts at Ashley.

"At Ashley, I found people who had been in situations similar to mine. The disease had no prejudices. It is a great equalizer, whether you are in the public eye or not," Deaver wrote in his book, Behind the Scenes.

For $20,800 for 28 days, patients undergo a regiment of instruction, therapy, fellowship and something about having to get up at 6 in the morning. "This campus is routinely inspected by detection canines," says a sign in the lobby of the nonprofit. The only permitted "contraband" is candy. A media blackout is imposed; no cell phones, no BlackBerries, no TV - except during Super Bowls and World Series. Sixty percent of the patients are men, after all.

Until a few years ago, Father Martin regularly visited and welcomed patients with his trademark: "The nightmare is over." He held court afternoons in the sunny dining room, as patients gathered around.

To know Father Martin is to know his penguin joke: A police officer spots a drunk walking down the street with a penguin. Tells the man to take the penguin to the zoo where he belongs. The next day, the officer sees the same drunk walking the same penguin. Thought I told you to take him to the zoo. "I did," the drunk said. "He loved it. Today, we're going to the library."

The joke, emblematic of Father Martin's disarming approach to addiction, is immortalized in Ashley's chapel, where a 1-inch figure of a penguin was inserted in one of the stained-glass panels. The penguin is part of a tour of Ashley, as are the hundreds of nametags stuck on the ceiling of a waterfront gazebo by patients on their last day at the facility. Along the fence line above the Chesapeake Bay, markers still remain for Molly and Bonnie, Father Martin's Labs that once escorted patients on walks and chronically retrieved balls.

Adorning the walls of Ashley's rooms, portraits of Father Martin and Mae Abraham hang inseparably. Mae still speaks there every month, while Father Martin has stayed home. He watches the news, waits for her return, and steels himself against more dialysis.

"I live tired," he says.

But he's not alone.

At the Abraham home

At Mae Abraham's Havre de Grace home in early June, no one is enjoying the pool - too hot for that. Her manicured gardens feature plants just high enough, as she points out, to avoid the urinary wrath of the Labradors, which her 52-year-old son, Alex, field trains. The home was built out in the back to make a bedroom for Father Martin. A crucifix hangs over his crisply made bed, where a stuffed penguin hogs a pillow.

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