He started out bearing a heavy weight marked by guilt, embarrassment, shame. But after retreating to confront his dilemma over the past month, Keith Mills pronounced himself enlightened and empowered.
Mills, who has spent the past 17 years as a sports anchor at WMAR-TV, will return to the air Saturday, after facing his addiction to narcotic pain medication throughout an administrative leave of absence.
One day after completing a 28-day rehab stay at Father Martin's Ashley, a drug and alcohol treatment facility in Havre de Grace, Mills told The Sun yesterday he has fought an addiction to painkillers for several years.
"I tried to quit on my own. I thought I was mentally tough enough to do it. But it was tougher than me. I lost the fight," said Mills, 47, who has battled foot, back and ankle ailments over the past five years. "I'm looking at things from a very refreshed perspective."
For Mills, a Linthicum resident, native of Brooklyn Park and divorced father of two children, his course became clear after Anne Arundel County police said he tried to acquire a prescription of hydrocodone illegally at a Glen Burnie pharmacy.
Police charged Mills on Nov. 5 with obtaining a controlled dangerous substance by fraud, after he allegedly phoned in a prescription by identifying himself as Dr. Temple. A court date has been set for Feb. 23 in Annapolis District Court.
"That's when I surrendered," Mills said. "It boggles my mind how easy it is to get caught in that trap. Doctors want to help you feel better, and [prescription drugs] are legal. But, like I told my daughter [Alexandria], I was living a lie. I'd be lying if I didn't say that, early on, the rush and euphoria [from the medication] was real good.
"It takes away the pain and makes you feel great. That lasted about six months. Then you go another six months, functioning and maintaining, and you think you're doing good. Then, slowly, you've got to take more and more to function. Then, a year-and-half goes by, and you realize this is a problem."
Mills said, despite repeated attempts on his own, he could not go longer than two days without taking some form of Vicodin. But it wasn't just the degenerative disc in his back or the damaged ankle tendons he was trying to soothe. The withdrawal symptoms - insomnia, diarrhea, and especially the sensation of his skin crawling - were too much to bear.
Finally, after being charged with a crime, Mills called his ex-wife, Elizabeth Barillaro, and they spoke with upper management at WMAR, which Mills said expressed strong support.
Station manager Michael Draman declined to comment on Mills' situation.
Mills then checked into a three-day detox program at Sheppard Pratt Hospital to cleanse his body. From there, he took the hospital's recommendation to continue his healing at Father Martin's Ashley.
There, Mills could see visitors for three hours each Sunday, could barely use a telephone and had no access to newspapers or television. He missed his daughter's 14th birthday. He saw no family on Thanksgiving. He drank water exclusively. He got invaluable rest. He exercised enough to lose 12 pounds. And he met scores of others in his shoes while getting to know himself all over again.
"The first time my son [Nicholas, 12] ever saw me cry was the day they dropped me off at Ashley's [Nov. 10]," Mills said. "Their philosophy is addiction is a disease. You're not a bad person. You're sick. I agree with that. But it's still the choices you make that get you in there."
Mills said he is eager to talk to the public more about his choices and the consequences that followed them. He plans to talk at length on the air about his experiences next week, and is eager to spread his message in Baltimore area schools.
"I'm not going to resist the fact that I can't take narcotic pain medication anymore. I made a mistake. A big one," he said. "Am I OK now? Ten years from now, maybe I'll be able to answer that. But I'm much more aware of what the situation is, and I'm much more able to deal with it. God, is that a relief."