Mike Borash is a veteran alcohol counselor who has seen every kind of drinking problem, but he still gasped as he read through the file of a woman named Janet.
"Oh, boy, she's got it," he said. "Alcoholism. It's an inherited illness and with her family history she was set up for it. She doesn't know what's going on. She's looking for help."
Janet, whose file showed that she is wrecking her life with liquor and tranquilizers at the age of 31, was about to find herself at the center of a little drama that is played out each week in a dingy apartment at 1500 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
There, Total Health and Education (T.h.e.) Counseling Centers Inc., runs the "Driving Under the Influence Diversion Program" for the D.C. Corporation Counsel, providing analysis, therapy and education for a selected number of those arrested in the District on drunk-driving charges.
Only first-time offenders who were not involved in an accident that resulted in injuries and had a blood alcohol content of .2 percent or less are eligible for the voluntary program. Most sign up. The reason? If they enroll, they don't have to go to court -- and risk up to six months in jail.
About one quarter of the approximately 3,500 individuals arrested for driving while under the influence each year qualify. Since 1979, when the program first was offered, more than 1,300 of them have signed up. Few drop out because of the alternative: they would have to stand trial.
According to the program's creator, Deputy Corporation Counsel Geoffrey Alprin, the city's chief traffic prosecutor, the program was started because: "A.) it was the appropriate and humanitarian thing to do and, B.) in fact, processing and handling of most cases led to no justifiable result."
"Few people went to jail; not that they should," he said. "We felt we could lessen the burden on judges and on our office and still retain a judicial process."
There is another aspect of the program that appeals to a financially-strapped city: the program costs the District nothing. Instead, the participants pay for it themselves. Each pays $90 for the first classification screening and then $10 for every class or therapy session. The worse the problem, the more treatment the individual needs, and the more it costs.
In Janet's case, she was arrested for the first time after she ran her car into another. But it was clear from her file that she was fortunate not to have been arrested before, because she gets very drunk almost daily. Like many of those who enter the program, say Borash and Dr. Burton Grace, the director of T.H.E., Janet clearly was an alcoholic in need of immediate treatment.
When she came in for her screening, she found herself in a group with three men. While the men insisted to Borash that they had drunk "just a few beers" or drank only once a week, Janet held nothing back. She revealed terrible truths about herself with no prodding at all.
Asked when and why she drinks, she checked every possible answer on the form: alone, with friends, at home, in bars, after work, at parties, to relax. She said her average daily intake is "four mixed drinks and 11 beers." She described herself as "frightened of the future" and "angry" and "concerned about money and job."
Separated from her husband, she had tried Alcoholics Anonymous and dropped out. Both of her parents were "problem drinkers." Throughout the screening interview, she twisted her hands and smoked incessantly as she fidgeted on a hard chair.
"I'm glad you're here," Borash said gently. She smiled briefly as he read her file.
"Janet, it says you are taking Valium. Why?"
"Nerves. I went to the doctor and he said it was just nerves."
At his request, she fumbled in her handbag for her vial of the popular tranquilizer. He held it up in front of her and asked, "Have you ever read what it says here in red? You take these while you drink and you could wake up dead."
"I know," she said sheepishly. She offered no explanation, but she volunteered the information that she did not consume hard liquor every night. Some evenings after work, she said, she just buys a six-pack of beer on the way home, "and when that's gone, that's the end." The men in the group whistled softly and rolled their eyes as Borash made her repeat aloud what she had said on the questionnaire about how much and how often she drinks.
"You said you've been told that you drink too much," Borash observed. "Do you think you need help?"
"I guess so," she said.
It was clear that Janet was going to need prolonged treatment, perhaps even treatment in a hospital for detoxification, but her case defied easy classification. Borash instructed her to make an appointment with "our doctor."
"What kind of doctor is it? Is he a psychiatrist?" she asked.
"Yes," said Borash.
"All right," she said meekly. The doctor's report would determine what her program would be. The minimum would be 24 weeks of group therapy, plus mandatory attendance at four Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Grace and his staff of psychologists and therapists are not preachers. They make no moral judgments.
"There is absolute unanimity in the whole world medical community," Grace said. "Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive disease, with known symptoms. As long as we have alcohol, a certain number of people will become addicted to it."
Participants in the program must follow whatever regimen is ordered by Grace or his staff. If they fail to do so, they are referred back for possible prosecution.
"Non-problem drinkers" are required only to attend one session a week for eight weeks of "Alcohol Information and Driver Improvement school." The classes consist of lectures about the physiology and history of alcohol, the causes of alcoholism, and the consequences of drunk driving, graphically depicted in gory films.
The purpose of these classes is education, not therapy. At one recent session, the students chuckled appreciatively as the lecturer told them about "Indians and firewater. The Indians were sitting ducks for alcohol. It wasn't Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson who won the West, it was Jim Beam and I. W. Harper."
Unlike milk or juice, he said, "it isn't necessary and it doesn't taste good, but there are internal and external pressures to try it. Custom dictates it. We educated our kids to do it. Eventually we drink at weddings, at wakes, on holidays, at celebrations, on feast days, fast days, Mondays, Tuesdays . . . ."
Some participants regard these sessions as a waste of time, imposed on them by the bad luck of having been arrested for an indiscretion. Outside of class, one woman belittled "the people who actually participate in these stupid conversations."
To Borash, however, such hostility is a natural response.
"People come in here, they have been humiliated. They are defensive. They are angry," he said. "I try to get them to drop their defenses and let us come in a little bit."
Deputy Corporation Counsel Alprin believes T.H.E. has been successful.
He said that of some 1,300 people who have participated in the program, only "a few" have been rearrested.