March 5, 2006
Sometimes I'll sit there - in a courtroom maybe, or at a desk with a phone to my ear - or I'll stand on a Baltimore sidewalk and do what they pay me to do, which is listen to people give their arguments, tell their stories and explain themselves, and it'll hit me: I couldn't be a psychiatrist.
I couldn't be a counselor or caseworker. As clients told me their problems, I would too easily surrender to the temptation to blurt out things like, "Are you crazy?" or, "Please, stop whining!"
I am not always the most sympathetic listener, nor am I the most patient seeker of truth, especially when attaining the truth amounts to something like holding the fog in your hands.
This is how I felt when Jim, the recovering drug addict who called here Tuesday to say he was contemplating suicide, responded to my request for a follow-up phone call. We spoke for about 90 minutes in two telephone calls Friday afternoon. It was good to hear his voice again - and this time live.
Jim, who lives in a middle-class community just outside the city, was rational and articulate. He told his story, and it went something like this: At the age of 54, after selling a successful small business in Towson, he got involved with a significantly younger woman who, he came to discover, used heroin. Jim decided to give it a try. He became a speedballer (shooting a heroin-cocaine cocktail into his arm). He claims to have squandered an inheritance on what quickly became a $200-a-day habit. He drove every day from his home in Baltimore County to one of the city's most violent East Baltimore neighborhoods to buy eight vials each of heroin and cocaine for himself and his girlfriend. He says he blew $176,000 over an 18-month period.
You see what I mean?
"Are you crazy?"
Man has a midlife crisis and, instead of buying a red Chrysler Crossfire, he becomes a speedballer. He gets started at an age when most old dopers have finished their long marriages to heroin. He risks his life in two ways - with a daily drive to the corner of Washington and Federal streets and firing a heroin-cocaine mixture into his veins.
This is the stuff that I don't understand.
On an intellectual level, I get it. I've read about it. It's been explained to me. I've interviewed dozens of addicts over the years, and I know many professionals in this field who can summarize, in a sentence or two, all the various reasons why men and women became slaves to opiates and other dangerous substances, feeding the illegal drug trade and ruining large swaths of East and West Baltimore.
We know that thousands of Maryland families have been scarred by addiction. We know that Baltimore and the counties around it are rife with men and women addicted to, or in recovery from, heroin and cocaine. It's a Baltimore factoid. It's our reality. The estimates range from 40,000 to 65,000 addicts, and that's supposedly just in the city. There are more in the suburbs - the customers of the dealers who do so much of the killing here.
So, it's a big problem. It has been for years. We know that.
But, researchers and clinical experts aside, most of us don't really understand such widespread addiction at its roots, and I mean a palpable kind of understanding - an understanding so clear you can taste it.
"I don't think the general public can ever truly understand the complexities of the drug culture," a former caseworker at a Baltimore treatment center commented. "I worked in it for two years, and I barely know anything about it."
His point: Addiction is so overwhelming that it masks the underlying realities.
"What gets lost in the shuffle of violence and statistics is the harsh reality of mental illness," he went on. "Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and any number of diseases and conditions are tough enough to cope with on their own. When coupled with drug addiction, as they often are, these diseases can be insurmountable."
Jim, the middle-aged speedballer, struck me as a confused, depressed guy riddled with guilt (and financial problems) from two years of destructive behavior.
I don't think his problems are insurmountable; I've heard a lot worse this past year, and Jim has already taken steps to recover from his heroin-cocaine-girlfriend binge. He has stopped the daily drives to Washington and Federal. He's completed inpatient treatment. He continues to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
He can get himself out of this mess.
There it is - there's my quick-study, amateurish opinion.
At some point in the conversation, Jim kept repeating that he couldn't get a job because of a suspended driver's license. I told him to stop harping on that and do something about it. We came up with a plan - he's going to borrow enough money from an in-law to pay off motor vehicle fines, reapply for a driver's license, then look for a job. I said I'd help him find one.
I also told him to get professional therapy and referred him to Barbara Anderson, executive director of the Pro Bono Counseling Project (probonocounseling.org), which provides free mental health service to low-income people and the uninsured.
Someone who understands these things better than I do can help Jim better understand himself and stay clean.
There's a lot we don't know about addictions. But maybe it's not necessary that we do. As taxpayers and citizens, we just need to recognize it as a major problem in our midst and keep demanding that it be treated - a smart, well-funded war on addictions, a priority for the next decade. We need men like Jim on the road to full recovery rather than the road to Washington and Federal. Some day again he'll have a better life, and some day again we'll have a better city.
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