Born and raised in Pikesville, Maryland, Mike Gimbel found himself in the grips of addiction at an early age. Eventually, he found his way into recovery in California and then back to Baltimore, where he found his life’s work and purpose to stand for and speak for those individuals and families impacted by addiction. Mike can be loud, controversial, and combative at times, but Mike is nothing if not concerned about those individuals and families suffering from addiction. He is passionate and dedicated. And although the last few years have seen an influx of media stories and nationwide fixation on the impact of the rising opioid epidemic, there is one thing that can be said: For the last 30+ years, Mike has been the one person that has consistently shown up, spoke out and raised his voice to speak for those many people afflicted by addiction that couldn’t speak for themselves.
“I danced with death lurking nearby for many years—with heroin being my dance partner. My entire life was consumed with acquiring the drug to inject three to four times a day”.
Forty-six years later, I am alive to talk about my addiction. Many others are not so lucky. With over four decades of being clean, I am now free from the all-consuming grip of that deadly drug.
I distinctly remember what my life was like addicted to heroin—a drug that turned me from a decent human being to a raging animal, willing to do anything to get the drug or the necessary money to buy the drug. I stole from my parents, family members, friends and anyone else who allowed me to get near money or expensive items. I would rob, sell drugs, and hustle money in order to pay for my heroin habit. That is what a heroin addict does to survive. I was not afraid of overdosing, getting arrested, contracting HIV, or Hepatitis C. I had no fear of death. All I wanted was to get as much heroin as I could afford. I lived for that one purpose.
I did not start out using heroin. Growing up in a middle class, Jewish family, I wanted to fit in with the athletes and started drinking at age 14. I quickly moved up the ladder to marijuana, pills and cough syrup. Drug use became my image and reputation.
By eleventh grade, after using most other drugs, I graduated to heroin. My habit grew as I started stealing to support my habit. By the time my parents found out, it was too late- I was hooked. I was busted six times and was in and out of jails, mental hospitals and treatment centers. I finally left Baltimore and entered a long-term residential treatment center in Santa Monica, California.
That day was October 1, 1972. That day will live on in my memory as the one when I began my efforts to save my own life. It was the first day of the rest of my life and here I am 46 years later, watching kids engaging in the same, crazy behavior with much more serious and dangerous drugs and the same destructive and often fatal consequences. I believe the mortality rate for addiction is growing rapidly and that is why I believe in continuously speaking out regarding addiction and treatment.
I am sharing my story in an effort to help others understand that the behavior I described above is not going to respond to billboards, public service announcements, hotlines, or the drug overdose drug Narcan. It’s certainly not going to respond to “safe drug spaces” or other harm reduction methods. All these things are important and helpful to society and I certainly believe in keeping people alive, but regarding recovering from addiction and leading a sober, healthy life, these efforts are not solutions. Today’s health professionals, politicians, the media and other institutions need to understand what motivates a person suffering from heroin addiction or any other addiction. These people are trying to solve our current opioid epidemic with ideas such as “safe drug spaces”, Narcan and medically assisted treatment programs. These ideas make sense on paper, but not out on the streets, where the addicts live.
I am not against the use of Narcan. It is certainly a miracle drug that saves lives. And we need to save lives. However, once we bring an overdose victim back to life we must get them into a long-term residential drug treatment facility immediately or they are going to use and overdose again and again until they do die. Narcan without immediate treatment is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. It’s like a band-aid on a gunshot wound. It’s not the magic bullet that our politicians and health experts want us to believe it is.
Our nations inner cities have been dealing with a heroin epidemic for the last 50 years and the only solution we have come up with was to put addicts on the addictive, synthetic heroin called methadone. Does methadone keep people alive too? Yes. But while some have been helped by methadone, the majority either have abused the drug, sold the drug, or stayed addicted to methadone for decades. It keeps people alive, but it still keeps them in the chains of addiction to one degree or another.
Now that the new heroin epidemic has hit middle class white America, we cannot come up with new medications and new solutions fast enough. Society is scrambling for solutions. We need to make sure that our inner cities begin to offer long term drug free residential drug treatment just as we are pushing so hard for those impacted in the suburbs and rural communities.
We need to accept and teach people the fact that changing the behavior of a heroin addict is not about giving the addict more drugs but rather it’s about providing long term, residential, drug free treatment—on demand. It’s about dealing with the issues they have that drive the addiction. It’s about therapeutic services that support a change in thinking and a change in behavior. This form of treatment gets addicts off the streets, out of their drug using neighborhoods, and into a safe place to begin to change their behavior and their life.
The problem is that we don’t have nearly enough drug treatment anywhere in this country, especially for those without the resources to pay.
I was very fortunate to be named the first and only “drug czar” for the government in Baltimore County, Maryland. I proudly held that position for 25 years and my top priority was to increase the availability of treatment for all. My greatest accomplishment was taking several old buildings on the grounds of the closed Rosewood State Mental Hospital and turning them into a long-term residential drug treatment facility for all Baltimore County residents, regardless of their ability to pay. We ended up with nearly 300 beds and were able to serve both males and females, and even had a child care service for children. It was affordable and successful. Many people now are living happy, productive lives because of the services we were able to provide. Currently, we have hundreds of closed facilities like this, as well as closed military bases across the nation. Our politicians and health officials need to duplicate what we did in Baltimore County across the nation (or at least throughout Maryland). We currently spend over $40,000 a year to house a prisoner, with a recidivism rate of over 70%. This money needs to be shifted into building long-term drug treatment facilities and we will see a dramatic reduction in drug overdoses and crime and an increase in recovery. Our politicians need to focus as hard on drug treatment on demand as they do on harm reduction methods, that have continually proven to be an access point to recovery but ultimately a failure because of lack of follow up services.
I am a very blessed person. I have survived my addiction and recently was cured of Hepatitis C, which I contracted during my days of injecting heroin. I have been given many different platforms to fight for more drug treatment for all addicts who need and who want help. It has been my life’s work and will continue to be my life’s work because I am grateful every day that I am still alive, and that God has helped guide me to help others.
I often get frustrated by the lack of urgency by today’s politicians and health officials when it comes to providing real long-term residential drug treatment —on demand. Watching the numbers of drug overdoses and addicts increase year after year is extremely difficult to watch. Watching families torn apart by addiction and feeling lost at where to turn or where to go for help is devastating to me. I yell and scream about the need for more treatment, but it sometimes feels that the people who have the ability, the power and the resources to make a difference, are either not listening or simply don’t understand to core issues of the overall problem and how to fix it.
I hope and pray every night that we can do more to help people. I know that there are many people like myself who feel the same way.
No matter what happens, I will continue to do as much as I can to help people 24/7, because that’s what I feel is my responsibility and what grateful, recovering addicts should do.”
Mike Gimbel is the former “drug czar” of Baltimore County, Maryland. He is 46 years clean and sober. For 35 years he has hosted the syndicated educational television show “Straight Talk.” He is the President/CEO of Mike Gimbel Associates and a consultant with Maryland Addiction Recovery Center. He is a educator and trainer in the substance abuse programs for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA.) He is an 18 time marathon finisher, including the Boston Marathon 8 times.
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