Her formal title is Dr. Elizabeth Berry, Ph.D., but she calls herself the "Bath Salts Queen."
Berry, a 60-year-old chemical dependency treatment specialist at Crouse Hospital, changes the lyrics to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” when she sings it to herself. “Whenever I put in ‘Bath Salts Queen,’ it makes me laugh,” she said. This is a lighter moment in Berry’s dedication to educating the community about dangerous drugs.
With a career in clinical psychology spanning three decades, Berry has become a sought-after “bath salts” expert in Central New York. Bath salts, a class of dangerous, neurotoxic drugs that target the central nervous system, have become popular in the Syracuse area. The Upstate New York Poison Center has seen a 1,300 percent spike in bath salts-related symptoms in the past year, Berry said. She has received calls from as far away as Ohio to lead public forums and administer training on synthetic “designer drugs."
“I’ve always been the go-to person for them,” Berry said.
She said she sympathizes with Dan Avery, a 49-year-old Watertown man who made the news when he was charged with two felonies after smashing items in a headshop because he said the business had sold bath salts to his son. Berry hopes the charges against him will be reduced. As a mother, she understands a parent’s instinct to protect.
“I probably wouldn’t do that myself,” she said. “But I think he was very frustrated, because at that point the legal system really wasn’t doing much about it.”
Berry has two children — Michael, 25, who just finished acting in a touring production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, and Alyson, 27, who works as an engineer for National Grid. Berry described how she would react if she found out one of them had tried bath salts.
“My children would never,” she said, shaking her head. “From the time they were little, I told them I would spiral-break their fingers if I caught them smoking cigarettes or using drugs.”
She described exactly how to “spiral-break” someone’s finger. “You pull it out and you twist,” she said, miming it with her own hands, with a laugh.
Though Berry said she raised her children to have “a healthy sense of fear,” she is close with them. She said her best moments in life have been watching them do things that make them happy.
She recalled seeing her son in Spamalot for the first time. “One of my close friends said to me, ‘You just lit up the theater [with] your smile.’ I was so proud of him,” she said.
On a table in Berry’s office, nestled between a yellow origami paper crane and a star-shaped paperweight that reads, “Thanks for Making a Difference,” sits a framed photo of Michael and Alyson smiling alongside former President George W. Bush. She said the photo often prompts people to ask if she is married to the previous commander in chief.
“Do you think I would be working here if I were married to George Bush?” she said, again laughing.
The photo was snapped at ground zero on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which hold personal significance for Berry. Her younger brother, Billy Burke, was a captain on Engine 21 of the Fire Department of New York. He died on the 27th floor of the north tower after ordering his own men to safety and attempting to rescue two civilians.
“He chose to stay behind, which I thought was very heroic,” Berry said. “It’s a really lovely story.”
For more than a decade, Berry has worked to keep her brother’s memory alive.
“It’s been about 11 years now, and I still miss him,” she said. “I think about him frequently.”
With her family’s help, she created the Captain William F. Burke, Jr. Memorial Scholarship at SUNY Potsdam, Burke’s alma mater. She also attended the 9/11 hearings at Guantanamo Bay. And on Sept. 30, Berry plans to run in the Tunnel to Towers Run/Walk — a 5K established in honor of fallen firefighter Stephen Siller.
Otto Feliu, director of Crouse Hospital’s Chemical Dependency Treatment Services, is a good friend of Berry’s. “We certainly have shared her pain and her pride in her brother,” he said.
Burke’s death compelled Berry to finally display family photos in her office. Before then, she had kept her work entirely separate from her personal life.
“It’s Dr. Berry,” she said of her work persona. “It’s not Liz.”
She even refrained from wearing her wedding band on the job. That’s what psychologists were trained to do, she said.
“It wasn’t about you, so you kept yourself very separate, and people knew very little about you,” she said, adding that in recent years she has loosened up a bit.
Berry said she treats her patients with respect: She shakes their hands, she introduces herself and she walks them to the door. She asks her coworkers to do the same.
“People seem to notice what I do and how I do it,” she said.
Robin Eaton-Novak, a therapist with Crouse Hospital’s opioid treatment program who has worked with Berry since 2006, said Berry is a role model in behavior and attitude.
“She helps us to see a side of the patient that we don’t,” she said. “She has a wonderful ability to see into people’s personas.”
In order to explain how she perceives people, Berry referenced the 1984 film The Muppets Take Manhattan.
“There’s a line in it … ‘Peoples is peoples.’ And I think that’s what is kind of my belief system,” she said. “People are basically the same, regardless of race, color, creed, income [or] location.”
When she’s not at work, Berry likes to walk her three dogs — a Yorkshire terrier and two Great Danes — in Elmwood Park. She said she thinks she resembles her Yorkie, but said she also thinks she has the mellow, easygoing personality of her Great Danes. She loves to swim and read, and she frequently visits the theater.
“I like quieter things,” she said, in contrast to the pastimes of husband and her children, who all ride motorcycles.
But quiet doesn’t mean boring. Berry recently took up running and signed up for scuba-diving lessons.
“I’m into change,” she said. “I’m always trying to change and grow.”
She said she deliberately signs up to teach seminars on topics with which she is unfamiliar, so she is forced to learn something new.
“That’s why I’m the Bath Salts Queen,” she said. “It was here, it was a new drug and I had to learn about it.”