By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli
A few months ago a lead story on the front page of a number of daily newspapers in our larger community supported the headline “I forgive you!” It was the words expressed by the son of a highly respected woman who was killed by a highly respected doctor on the North Shore who drove home under the influence.
The son addressed the judge, the court and the doctor on behalf of his family. He said, “you are still a good man and you are still a good doctor.” He went on to express that the physician needed to move forward with his life and continue to do good for others. “That is what our mother would want.”
The doctor expressed profound regret and remorse. Allegedly all who were in the court that day were powerfully moved. The judge was so moved by the victim’s family’s compassion and forgiveness that he sentenced the doctor to a much lighter sentence than he had initially intended.
This family’s compassion and call for forgiveness is a powerful challenge to all of us. When we are victimized, our initial reaction is to be vindictive and/or get even; forgiveness rarely makes it to center stage.
So many drug- and alcohol-related tragedies are not calculated but are caused by reckless decision-making. Reckless decision-making does not always equal a bad person. A growing number of extraordinary young people are making poor choices that are very costly. They must be held accountable. However, long jail sentences are not the answer. They do not rehabilitate the person; too often they merely reinforce negative behavior.
Long-term incarceration for nonviolent drug and alcohol offenses are not cost-effective or helpful. We spend thousands of dollars to warehouse human beings that need treatment and rehabilitation so they might grow from this tragic circumstance and not become recidivists but rather become productive contributing members of our community.
Recently I presided at the funeral of a young man from a fine family from Nassau County who overdosed on heroin. He was 28. I worked with him in treatment a number of years ago.
TJ had battled addiction since he was 15 years old. He started using at the end of high school. In his early 20’s, his drug use was out of control. With great reluctance, he finally agreed to long-term treatment, after countless short-term programs did not work.
As a broken young man, he found his way to a long-term, nontraditional residential treatment program. He finished his formal treatment in 18 months and elected to stay for an additional two years. His friends and family said those three years were the best years of his life.
After he left that community, his journey was fraught with chronic relapses. His last relapse took his young life. While he was in long-term treatment, he was diagnosed with a depressive and anxiety disorder. He reluctantly agreed to take medication, which helped greatly, but he hated the stigma that came with that decision. When he left treatment, he stopped all his medications and hid behind his smile, his compassionate heart and his generous spirit.
It has been my experience that a growing number of hard-core heroin addicts suffer from the additional affliction of a variety of mental health disorders that unfortunately go undiagnosed and untreated.
The heroin epidemic is a national health crisis. Our traditional approach to treatment is failing miserably. Too many insurance companies are sentencing our young adults to death because outpatient treatment for most opiate addicts does not work — they fail because they die!
Our political leaders at every level of government express so-called concern about the severity of this national health crisis. However, they continue to hide behind their rhetoric that provides great photo ops but no additional money or beds for long-term treatment.
Let’s demand that they deliver on their empty promises!
Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.