WHITE PLAINS, NY – The scourge of alcohol dependence and drug addiction is not relegated to the prototypical “Skid Row bum” or the down-and-out drifter panhandling for spare change to support an addiction to cheap wine. Nor is it confined to the underclass or inner-city dwellers battling economic hardship that invariably leads to unbridled drinking or to a heroin habit. Alcohol abuse and drug addiction are insidious in their collective guise of “normalcy,” where the respected community leader who is a powerhouse in public becomes a slave to intoxicants after hours, or where the promising student drops a full grade point average not due to over-scheduling but because of a raging addiction to a controlled substance.
In short, addiction is wrenching not only in the pain it causes its victims and their families, but in its seeming ubiquity. Sometimes obvious but often obscured or ‘blamed’ on other factors, addiction cunningly wends its way into the lives of its victims, wreaking havoc along the way. It is, after all, a disease, and like cancer or hypertension, it demands active treatment in order to save lives and keep families together.
Bronxville resident, Joan Bonsignore is committed to helping individuals and families to understand and overcome the powerful disease of substance abuse and addiction. As Executive Director of the Westchester chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in White Plains, Ms. Bonsignore presides over an organization that is profoundly dedicated to its mission of education and prevention, while making important referrals to treatment programs across the region. Over the years the Council has reached out literally to thousands of individuals in the Westchester County community struggling with drug or alcohol dependence. It has done so with a warmth and compassion that only comes with first-hand knowledge of and experience with the disease, and the importance of intervention and embracing action and programs that save lives.
“This is not a moral issue,” Ms. Bonsignore says of substance addiction. “It’s a disease. No one ‘wants’ to have it. And these people need help.”
This “founding mother” of the NCADD/Westchester, Ms. Bonsignore is credited with resurrecting the local chapter in 2001. Her passion for wanting to see the program revived emanated from a very personal place. “The Council saved my life,” she states deliberately.
It was in 1988 when Ms. Bonsignore experienced both personal catastrophe, and resulting epiphany. That year, she relates, brought the depths of addiction, and redemption. Years of alcohol abuse and addiction to prescription pills finally caught up with her. “I bottomed out,” she explains. “I was almost dead in a psych ward.” Nearly every aspect of her life seemed in upheaval. “I was desperate and lost; I had no idea how to survive,” she recalls. “I couldn’t live, and I couldn’t die. No doctor could help me. But I was able to rebuild myself through the grace of God.”
Also in that year Ms. Bonsignore was awakened by the message promulgated by Betty Ford, the former First Lady who struggled for years with alcoholism and whose recovery prompted countless alcoholic Americans to seek help and attain sobriety, many at the respected Betty Ford Clinic. “Betty Ford’s story lead me to seek an evaluation at the National Council on Alcoholism/Westchester,” she says. “Her story opened my eyes to the fact that we had the same problem.
“My life, I feel, was saved through this evaluation,” Ms. Bonsignore shares. “I am here today, and I am supposed to do this work.”
The “work” at the NCADD/Westchester is multifold: focusing on educating the community and affected families; providing information on determining who is at risk for addiction; recognizing the signs of addiction; making referrals to medical and therapeutic professionals; and helping to remove the stigma attached to substance abuse. Prevention is key, as is accurate detection and evaluation of the symptoms of alcoholism and drug addiction.
Education plays a major role at the NCADD/Westchester as well. The CASAC (Credentialed Alcohol Substance Abuse Counselor) program is a 350-hour course that enables students to graduate and become licensed substance abuse counselors. The second class graduated in mid-July. “It’s the best program,” Ms. Bonsignore states. “It’s quite a feat in itself.” The course is held at Mercy College in White Plains.
Ms. Bonsignore explains that NCADD/Westchester visits private and parochial schools throughout the county to provide education on substance abuse to both students and parents. Reaching out to young people is an important part of the group’s overall mission. “With substance abuse, the soul of the family is destroyed,” she says. It’s her ardent contention that educational programs enlighten the young and old alike, and serve as a powerful deterrent to addiction.
NCADD/Westchester casts a wider net as well in its multi-tiered mission. The organization provides leadership through crafting public policy issues related to alcoholism and drug abuse, and works with politicians, educators, community leaders and members of the media to disseminate information, corral support, raise funds, and spread the message of help, and hope.
“It’s a very strange illness,” Ms. Bonsignore explains. “It drives you, you don’t drive it.” And like many diseases, early detection is a huge first step toward healing. “Early-stage addiction is the best time to catch it. And because this is such a pernicious and insidious disease, it’s crucial that people not wait until they’re at a stage where they can’t hear us.”
NCADD/Westchester is a not-for-profit organization that relies on the support of individuals and corporations for much of its funding. According to Ms. Bonsignore, the impetus for her dedication to prevention, intervention and support is a simple one: “We’re helping people to get their lives back,” she states. “My journey is to be here, and to do this work.” When it comes to addiction and finding a pathway toward healing, one tenet is particularly accurate. “The truth,” she declares, “is what sets people free.”
About NCADD/ Westchester
Founded in 1944, NCADD works at the national level on policy issues related to barriers in education, prevention and treatment for alcoholics and other drug dependent persons and their families. With a nationwide network of Affiliates, NCADD provides education, information, help and hope to the public and operates a toll-free Hope Line (800-NCA-CALL) for information and referral and a National Intervention Network (800-654-HOPE) to educate and assist the families and friends of addicted persons. For more information, visit: www.ncadd.org.