Merlene Davis: 'An old drunk' turns into godsend for addicts

Ann Roach is a recovering alcoholic with almost 31 years of sobriety. She is a certified drug and alcohol counselor; although retired, who still travels when asked to help others.
Ann Roach is a recovering alcoholic with almost 31 years of sobriety. She is a certified drug and alcohol counselor; although retired, who still travels when asked to help others. HERALD-LEADER

The first time I noticed Ann Roach was a little more than a decade ago when she stood up in Quinn Chapel AME Church and gave her testimony.

"I am an old drunk," she said as a means of introduction and then added, "but I don't drink anymore."

Last week, when I visited her home, she said it again. This time, though, she added that she'd been sober for almost 31 years.

From the time she was 12 and drinking regularly until she was 43 years old, Roach was a functioning alcoholic who finally became a serious drunk, bringing suffering to her children, and embarrassment and fear to her mother.

"My mother constantly denied it," Roach said. "My brothers told her when I was 15 or 16 years old that I was drunk. But my mother made excuses for me."

Maybe that is why she no longer makes excuses for herself and is determined for everyone to know that she bears little resemblance to the kind of alcoholic she once was.

Roach took her last drink on March 24, 1981. Since then, she has earned bachelor's and master's degrees in social work from the University of Kentucky and has become certified as a substance-abuse counselor.

She is an International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and has been for several years. She has worked as a counselor at Chrysalis House, a substance-abuse treatment center for women where she twice was admitted into recovery, and at Eastern State Hospital and at a Veterans Affairs hospital from which she retired.

"I never tell stuff I've really done," she said. "I like to say I'm a drunk and I don't drink anymore."

While that statement encompasses a great deal, the devil is in the details. Roach was born in Chicago 75 years ago. Her parents, Louis and Naomi Roach, owned a restaurant there before moving to Cincinnati and later to Lexington, where they also opened restaurants.

In Lexington, her parents' restaurant, the L&N Restaurant, was where Roach loved to hang out.

It was there that she learned to drink and to smoke. She starting smoking at age 8 when she picked up discarded cigarette butts and finished them off. Her father drank, she said, so she could get alcohol from home or others. Her mother never drank.

Despite that shaky start, Roach became a licensed practical nurse and an operating-room technician, and never had a problem keeping a job for many years.

Her personal life, however, was a bit different. Her first husband, whom she married when she was 20, drank as much as she did. She divorced him after more than two years of marriage and two children. Her second husband was a master sergeant in the Air Force and also a heavy drinker. They were married two years before divorcing. They remarried and divorced again after three years.

"My kids suffered," Roach said, looking back. "Neither one graduated from high school, but they both got their GED."

She signed for her son, Michael Coomer, to go into the Army when he was 16. Years later, he would be her first step toward recovery.

By 1978, her drinking had become a serious problem. She was arrested for public intoxication, which embarrassed her family and became too much for her mother to excuse.

"People used to say I was an amicable drunk," Roach recalled. "But by then, I used to call people dirty names."

Roach's mother called her grandson, who had been in the service for a while, and told him to come and get his mother.

"I stopped drinking," Roach said, "and I got a job at Fort Lee (Va.). But after a couple of paychecks, I drank a beer, and it was all over with."

Her work ethic declined, and she was fired. By then, Roach's daughter, Billie Carol Rodriguez, had moved to Virginia and married. Roach convinced her daughter to allow her to baby-sit Rodriguez's son.

"I came home, and the baby said he was hungry," Rodriguez said. "My mother was passed out on the couch."

Rodriguez called her grandmother and said she was sending Roach back to Lexington on the next bus. Her drinking and behavior worsened. By 1980, Roach's mother, who was growing fearful of her daughter, called Roach's brother in Philadelphia, who came and put Roach out of their aging parents' house.

"I was walking up the street drinking and stopped at a friend's house so I wouldn't get arrested again," Roach said.

The friend called Pat Million, a licensed clinical social worker who had helped the friend's alcoholic boyfriend.

"Pat Million is my savior," Roach said. "God sent her in my life. She is the reason I went into the field of being an alcohol- and substance-abuse counselor."

Roach entered a program at Eastern State Hospital and the Chrysalis House when it was on Third Street. She was doing well until she caught a cold and tried to treat it with alcohol, lemon and honey.

In early 1981, she entered the Volunteers of America Detoxification and Referral Center on East Third Street, and then the Chrysalis House to give recovery another go. It worked that time.

Million, who said she can't talk specifically about Roach's case because of their professional relationship, said it's not unusual for addicts to make more than one attempt at sobriety.

"They can slip any time," she said. "They have to be on guard and surrounded by people, places and things that keep them in good stead."

Slowly, Roach's family grew to accept that she had changed.

"It was a struggle," Rodriguez said. "I was so angry. That was the only parent I had."

But, later, as she typed her mother's essays and term papers, Rodriguez came to understand more about the disease and about her mother's determination to remain sober. Plus, her mother had driven an old Chevy Vega from Lexington to Fort Lee when Rodriguez, being treated for cervical cancer, called for her.

"I never stopped loving her," Rodriguez said.

Loved ones must learn to accept that there is a problem, Million said. Getting angry doesn't change the course of the addiction.

"Family members have to learn to disengage, to let go," she said. "Sometimes, tough love is the only response that gets them anywhere. We try to make the problem ours by jumping in there and trying to figure out what they need to do. But it is a disease and something they will have to do themselves."

Roach agrees.

"There is nothing a human being could have done fore me," she said. "It is divine intervention. Every morning when I crawl out of bed, I'm on my knees first thing, thanking God."