11/22/2012 9:01:00 AM ADDICTION RECOVERY Sober for 38 years,
he's giving back
Mr. Biittig (right) and Ed Frank, coordinator of the Choices 301 program at Beacon of Hope Care Center.
The pendant marking Mr. Biittig’s sobriety.
An incarcerated person whom Mr. Biittig helped wrote: "Thank you so much for talking with me the last time we were in church together at the Schenectady County Jail. I want to be strong like you have been beating your addiction. Watching and listening to you about how hard it was and is to beat your lifestyle has made me want to change my whole lifestyle. I want to work on being on the Lord's team and stop playing for the devil's team. I have you to thank for that and the change that I am going through. I feel almost like you and the other church people are my new family and will stay in touch with me to help me go through this whole ordeal. Your word has given me a new lease on life."
Edward Biittig Sr. had totaled five brand-new cars in a six-month period in his 20s before finally getting arrested for drunk driving.
"I only had two choices left," he said of his life at the time. "I would have been in jail or I would have been dead."
The judge he faced assigned him to an eight-week class at St. Peter's Addiction Recovery Center in Albany; the people there then challenged him to keep coming for a whole year. In the past, he'd only tried sobriety for the 40 days of Lent.
Mr. Biittig added Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to the mix and stopped drinking for good. It's now been 38 years since his last drink. He wears a slate around his neck with the date his sobriety started.
Today, at almost 65 years old, Mr. Biittig has found a home in the Catholic Church and a calling in mentoring others struggling with addiction. He volunteers with the Beacon of Hope Care Center in Altamont, talking to high school students about alcohol, drugs, speeding and other risky behaviors.
He also attends weekly beginners' AA meetings in a nod to the never-ending journey that is recovery, and to be available to people just starting their own journeys.
"Sometimes, that number  scares them," Mr. Biittig said. "I don't want to use it to scare them. I want to show them that it's possible" to stay sober.
Mr. Biittig's own addiction began at the age of 13 in a house of seven siblings and parents who had beer delivered to their home weekly. He snuck bottles, found them on roadsides or drank cider that had turned hard. No one noticed until it was too late.
"If I drank, I didn't stop," he recalled.
When he was a senior in high school, his ex-girlfriend's mother dubbed herself his godmother, keeping tabs on him, preventing him from skipping class and later inspiring him to become a Catholic. He was the first from his family to graduate.
He intended to enter the Air Force, but only lasted 26 days without alcohol. He had about 28 short-lived jobs in his 20s and got married at 21. His toddler son was in the car during one of his drunk-driving accidents, but no one was ever injured in any of the crashes.
Mr. Biittig's Catholicism started off perfunctory. He changed parishes often for decades: "At certain times, [religion] meant a lot," from the 10 Commandments to the 12 steps of addiction recovery, but "I don't know for the longest time if I ever really belonged to the Catholic Church."
When he joined Our Lady of Fatima parish in Delanson for the second time 10 years ago, parishioners asked him to volunteer on the religious education team. A committee member asked him when he'd leave again.
"He knew that along the way over the years, I would find a reason to leave the Church," Mr. Biittig said.
That was a turning point in his faith: "I had not put 100 percent in, [and] that's what I got back."
Now that he does funeral, faith formation and eucharistic ministries and more at the parish, "it all means so much more."
Last year, Mr. Biitting started visiting the Schenectady County Jail with fellow parishioners of Our Lady of Fatima. He receives frequent calls and letters from the incarcerated people he's affected; he estimates he's touched about 100 addicted individuals in some way.
One is Sarah Hughes, a Schenectady resident who was released from the jail last month after a five-month sentence for petty larceny. She told The Evangelist that Mr. Biittig's weekly visits have given her a new resolve to overcome her heroin and cocaine addiction, which has caused her to lose custody of her three children.
"He's inspired me to keep on going no matter what" and proven "that anyone can get through it," Ms. Hughes said. She's been clean for more than five months and attends 14 meetings a week; she intends to regain custody of her children and study culinary arts.
Ms. Hughes called Mr. Biittig an "enormous influence" and said it helps "knowing that there's people out there that love me and care about me. I'm proud that someone supported me and helped me in my life. It might not be the first time it's happened, but it's the first time that I'm accepting it, because it's genuine."
Mr. Biittig says the criminal justice system needs improvement, both inside and outside correctional facilities.
"There's a difference between hardened criminals and people who just got there [because of the broken system]," he said. He tells prisoners that "no matter what you've done, you still have a chance," and that "God has not walked away from them. I think, for some of them, they've never heard that."
Mr. Biittig is retired from 24 years as a telephone installer; he currently writes about auto racing and enjoys watching races. He's been married to his second wife, Betty, for 35 years, and has a son, two stepdaughters, two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
He initially resisted mentoring others out of fear of failing, but has since learned that "I cannot do anything for anyone, actually. [I'm] more of a supporter of a person going on that journey that they have to make. And you have to have God in your life somewhere."
Some of his best moments come while working with young people ("when you have that feeling that they're actually paying attention to you") or when his talks elicit tears.
Then there are the times he speaks to parents who lost their children in car accidents. "When I stand there as a former drunk driver and this person puts their arm around you, you don't even know what to think," he said. "I am so happy with what I do. It's like I'm finally doing something to give back. I owe such an unbelievable debt for what's been done for me."
Catholics have played a special role in his journey - most recently, when the Growing in Faith Together team in Delanson gave him a birthday card.
"The things they wrote about me - I could hardly keep from crying," said Mr. Biittig, who called his siblings to apologize and show them the man he's grown into. "All these things, when you let them, can come together. Life has been very good to me."