Rhythm of recovery: Friends use past struggles with addiction to found music festival

For The Baltimore Sun

Jesse Tomlin hit a low point five years ago, alone in a hotel room, struggling to find sobriety from the depths of an addiction that had dogged him since he was 18. Just moments after shooting up he thought, “This is miserable.”

He got sober, but after relapsing a third time, the 29-year-old Westminster resident ended up in a jail cell this past March. There, he decided he had to do things differently.

That decision led him to become a co-founder, along with his sponsor, rap artist Brian McCall, of Carroll County’s first independent recovery music festival, which will feature musicians in recovery as well as several speakers this Saturday.

McCall provided guidance as Tomlin, now part of the Carroll County drug court program, worked the 12-step program many use to gain sobriety. The two had been friends since Tomlin had first entered recovery five years ago.

McCall could understand Tomlin’s aloneness. A decade earlier, he had also sat in jail, isolated from the general prison population where he might otherwise have been able to score drugs. Just 20, he’d been in and out of jail several times for robberies and petty thefts used to fuel his habit.

He found himself disconnected, grieving for the death of his father from an overdose just a few months before. Recovery meetings followed after he was released. There he discovered a new community of people with similar stories who would support him as he learned how to live a different life.

McCall, now 30 and living in Westminster, channeled his experience with using drugs and recovery into a music career as rap artist B-RAiN.

As McCall and Tomlin discussed McCall’s new album release and how it could be used to raise awareness about addiction and recovery, an idea bloomed.

A flurry of activity followed and, in just a little over a month, the pair created the Addiction and Recovery Awareness MusicFest 2017.

The kid-friendly festival on July 15 at 4 p.m. at the Carroll County Agricultural Center will feature eight music acts from the Baltimore metro area, all in recovery.

Performances range from rap artists Prospekt, REM ONE, Ridge Long and McCall performing as B-RAiN, to acoustic musician Matt Stout and a set of electronic dance music by DJ Elefunk and DJDL.

Four guest speakers will share their personal stories.

It comes at a time when the state and the Baltimore metro area are facing a steadily increasing rate of overdose deaths. According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2,089 people died from overdoses in 2016, an all-time high for the state and a 66 percent increase over deaths in 2015.

More than half of those were from the Baltimore region, which includes Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties.

Headlining the speakers is Brandon Novak, a professional skateboarder noted for his time on MTV’s “Jackass” and “Viva La Bam.” A best-selling author of the addiction memoir “Dreamseller,” Novak grew up in Baltimore and returns frequently.

Tomlin reached out to Novak on Facebook, and he readily accepted the invitation to speak.

“This isn’t an epidemic, it’s a pandemic,” Novak said. “I don’t know exactly how I can change the war on drugs, but what I do know is I continue to say ‘yes’ and I let people know that recovery is possible. I want people to know that there is a solution and it doesn’t have to be that way. There are resources available and most importantly, if you’re breathing, it’s never too late.”

Novak speaks from experience. After sobering up in 2010, he relapsed again. By mid-2015, he hit bottom while living with his mother in Little Italy.

“I had nothing,” Novak said. “In theory and on paper I was a very successful individual, but my worldly possessions consisted of eight scarves, two jackets, three socks and a stick of deodorant.”

That time, Novak found support and help from others in recovery who offered to pick him up and stay with him until he could enter treatment.

It’s that central message, that there are others recovering from addiction and living full, fun lives, that McCall and Tomlin want to bring to a wider community than those who know about the 12-step programs.

“The epidemic is so bad right now. It’s positive for the community and it’s helping people get into treatment, those who need help who can’t afford it. And it spreads awareness that we do recover,” Tomlin said.

Proceeds from the music festival will benefit Rising Above Addiction, a Carroll County-based nonprofit co-founded by Tammy Lofink. She started the organization in September 2015, just a year after her 18-year-old son Rob died of an overdose after he’d emerged from rehab.

Rising Above Addiction sends and pays for people to enter treatment centers immediately, bridging a gap that is a barrier to treatment for many struggling with addiction.

“We can typically get a person in that day, if not the day after,” said Lofink, who says the Carroll County State Attorney’s Office refers to the organization as “detox on demand,” because of the group’s swift action. “If they go through the health department or other places, it can take a week to 10 days to get a bed.”

“That window of time that people [who have] overdosed or say they want to go to treatment, that window is not very big,” McCall said.

Last year, Rising Above Addiction sent 36 people to treatment; this year, the nonprofit has helped 35 people. The organization recently launched a sober house, transitional housing for people new to recovery.

Tomlin reached out to the nonprofit, which had helped many of his friends.

Traditionally, 12-step programs require anonymity, though individuals can choose to disclose their addiction. With 18 overdoses in his past, and with 10 of his friends having died from overdoses in the past two years, Tomlin has started sharing his journey.

“I feel like it’s important for people to hear my story and what I’ve been through so other people don’t have to go through that, and so that people who are struggling know there is a way out,” Tomlin said.

“And it’s also along the lines of breaking the stigma, too,” he said. “Showing that people in recovery do have fun. That we’ve changed our lives and that we come from every level in society and that we do ...”

“That we do positive things,” McCall finished for him.

It can be hard to find the positive in overdose numbers that are increasing by double digits year-over-year, in large part because of the increasing use of fentanyl to cut heroin.

But the bright spots are there. Tim Weber, drug education and treatment liaison for the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office and himself a recovering heroin addict for the past 14 years, sees the music festival and the attention it will bring as one of those.

“The festival is not just one particular recovery program. It’s [all the traditions] encompassed into one,” Weber said.

“If there’s any positive out of it, it’s bringing all the fellowships and the communities together to try to solve [the addiction problem]. And it’s opening up everybody’s eyes that this could be my neighbor or the person I go to church with.”

Ultimately, it’s the stories of hope, redemption and recovery the group wants to share with the audience, whether they’re in recovery, have a family member or friend struggling with addiction or just want to hear new music.

Tomlin and McCall are envisioning it as a yearly fundraiser for Rising Above Addiction.

“It helps me stay clean,” Tomlin said, “being a part of this [festival] and being a part of the solution. Because I think that’s what the 12 steps are about – carrying the message, helping the next person.”

If You Go

What: Addiction & Recovery Awareness MusicFest 2017. Eight musical acts and four speakers headline this family-friendly event, which includes games and a moon bounce for children.

When: 4 p.m. July 15

Where: Carroll County Agricultural Center, 706 Agricultural Center Way, Westminster

Tickets: $10 at the door; children under 10 are free.

Buy tickets online at risingaboveaddiction.com/events.html

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