Pain and Redemption

The Baltimore Sun

In a cramped broadcast studio on Television Hill, in the shadow of a 1,000-foot transmitter that rises to the heavens like the stern finger of God, Keith Mills searches for redemption.

Once he was a high-profile sports anchor for WMAR-TV, but he figures there's no sense crying about that anymore.

Now he wakes up each morning at the ungodly hour of 2:45, when even the muggers are sleeping, and goes off to his new job as the morning sports guy for WBAL-Radio and sister station 98-Rock, delivering reports with his trademark can't-wait-to-tell-ya enthusiasm and a Bal'mer accent thicker than the humidity.

But here is the thing about redemption: Mills knows it comes from more than just a paycheck.

So he goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three or four times a week. He checks in weekly at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center. He gets drug-tested, and when a man submits to the indignity of handing a cup of urine to a jail employee, the desire for redemption becomes even more overwhelming.

These days, when Mills takes calls from his two teenage kids or his sister or his agent, and they ask how he's doing, he tells them: "I'm doing well. But you know how that goes."

And he is doing well, especially for a guy on house arrest. But that's right now. And without getting all Dr. Phil about it, Mills doesn't want to think much beyond right now.

The main thing is, he wants people to know he's trying.

Mainly what he's trying to do is not repeat the events of that Wednesday evening seven months ago, when a bottle of prescription painkillers sang a siren's song and his whole world collapsed - again.

Some said he got off easy, but it sure doesn't feel that way to Mills.

"I'll never forget the humiliation of that night," he said. "It plays back in my mind every day. I think about that every day. And believe me, that is a very strong deterrent."

How could it not be?

For Mills, 48, that evening was another astonishing fall from grace, only this one was like tumbling from the top of the Grand Canyon and hitting every jagged rock and scrub pine on the way down.

Two years after receiving probation for phoning in a fake prescription for hydrocodone - and admitting an addiction to narcotic pain medicine - he was arrested for something that sounded like it came straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

This time it was for stealing the painkillers Oxycontin and hydrocodone from a neighbor in Linthicum, the woman who lived next door.

Worse yet, she was a cancer patient. The police said Mills let himself into her house when she was away. They had it all on videotape, courtesy of a surveillance system the woman's family had installed. Then the officers set up a stakeout and watched him take a bottle of her pills, and arrested him later at his home.

Not long after, they led him in handcuffs and leg shackles in front of a court commissioner in Glen Burnie. And when the commissioner asked whether he had a drug or alcohol problem, Mills replied: "Prescription pain medications."

That night he was all over the TV news: Keith Mills, popular Channel 2 personality, doing a perp walk in front of the cameras after his arraignment.

They showed him heading, grim and ashen-faced, to the car of his ex-wife, Elizabeth Barillaro, the camera lingering on him for what seemed like forever as she fumbled to unlock the passenger-side door.

It was so painful to watch for Scott Garceau, Mills' friend and broadcast partner at WMAR for 19 years, that he sat in stunned silence "with a knot in my stomach."

It was so painful to watch that Diane Bennett, Mills' sister, couldn't. She stabbed at the "off" button on the remote in her Severna Park home.

She was still reeling from an earlier phone call from her mother, informing her of Mills' arrest. "It literally took my breath away," she says. "I doubled over."

It was so painful that longtime Channel 2 cameraman Preston Mitchum, shooting his old friend outside the courthouse, told colleagues "it was the hardest thing I ever had to do."

So much pain, so much embarrassment, so much guilt. Nobody felt it more than the man who caused it all. Try living with that weighing you down every day.

That's why a man awakes hours before dawn and goes looking for redemption.

The beginning

How did things get this bad?

How did a guy from Brooklyn Park, a star athlete in high school, a fixture on the local sports-media scene for years - including co-host duties on a weekly TV show on WMAR about high school sports sponsored by The Sun - a man in an ego-driven business who was widely admired because he was so down-to-earth - such a nice guy - develop a jones for prescription meds?

Mills says it started in 2002, with a degenerative disc problem in his back. He went to a pain management clinic. They prescribed hydrocodone, a powerful painkiller.

"I took the medication as prescribed, and gradually I started taking a little bit more, because my body was adjusting to the medication," he says. "And then before you know it, I was addicted to it.

"And I was afraid, obviously, to tell anyone, to do anything about it. I didn't know what to do."

After that first arrest two years ago - after which he was put on probation - Mills told The Sun the medication "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."

Although the drug initially gave him a rush, Mills says, he became dependent on the drug mainly because it took away his back pain.

"Then, slowly, you've got to take more and more to function," he says. "Then, a year and a half goes by, and you realize this is a problem."

A couple of times, he tried to detox all by himself - with horrible results.

"Your body feels like it's falling apart," he says of those attempts. He felt tense, anxious. He felt like his skin was literally crawling.

"So, you know, you take another pill, saying that 'I'm just going to take one to take this feeling away,'" he says. "And, before you know it, you're taking six, seven more. And the whole cycle starts over again."

Terrified, desperate, he tried to phone in a prescription for hydrocodone to a Glen Burnie pharmacy in November 2004, identifying himself as a "Dr. Temple."

The police charged him with obtaining a controlled dangerous substance by fraud. He knew he needed help. So he went through a three-day detox period at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, then a 28-day stay at Father Martin's Ashley, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Havre de Grace.

Seeking help

A divorced dad, Mills tried to be strong for his kids on the drive to Father Martin's. But when they pulled up to the center, his son, Nicholas, then 11, saw his father cry for the first time.

"That was tough," Mills says. "... I can remember that moment like it was yesterday."

Father Martin's was a godsend, he says. He rested, exercised, attended counseling sessions, met others afflicted by the same demons. He learned that addiction was a disease. He wasn't a bad person, he was sick, that's what the staff told him over and over.

After a short time there, he says: "I became almost euphoric. Because I had the drugs out of my system, and for the first time in two years, I felt like me."

At the same time, he acknowledges, he was tuning out one of the most important things they teach at Father Martin's: the danger of relapse.

"When they talked about the relapse process, I just kind of shrugged it off like 'That doesn't pertain to me,'" Mills says. " ... When they said that 70 percent of the people that come into treatment the first time are going to come back, I'm thinking I'm one of those 30 percent that isn't coming back."

This was a huge mistake, he says.

And after going back to work in January 2005, he made what he says now was another huge mistake: He had surgery on his left ankle, a procedure called "subtalar joint fusion" designed to clean out painful arthritis, bone chips and dead bone.

Worried about sinking into addiction again, he decided not to take any of the pain medication that was prescribed, giving the pills to his sister for safekeeping.

Within a few days of the operation, he was back at work. But the post-surgical discomfort - that's what the doctors call it, everyone else would call it "pain" - lasted a long time.

Weary of the pain, frustrated by how long the ankle was taking to heal, he stopped going to AA meetings as frequently.

"And by [last] fall, looking back on it now, I was relapsing," he says. "Even though I hadn't used any pain medication - I went a whole year without using any. And I felt - it's hard to describe - 'Man, what I wouldn't do to take some of this pain away.'"

Finally, the craving for relief proved too much. He took a few of the pain pills that had been at Bennett's house since the operation.

Six weeks later, he was caught stealing the bottle of painkillers from his neighbor's house.

"I was afraid to ask [a doctor] for another prescription," he says, and he was uncomfortable asking Bennett for more pills, too.

Mills is reluctant to talk in detail of the events leading to that arrest, saying he has put his neighbor through enough.

Of the day he took the bottle of pills and was arrested, he says: "It was almost an obsession, you know? It wasn't so much to take it. It was almost to have it - in case I needed it. You know, I didn't know how to go about getting it, and I was too ashamed to [say to] anybody: 'Hey, I'm hurting again.'"

After the arrest and the long night of soul-searching that followed, Bennett, a former principal at Crofton Meadows Elementary School in Crofton, and her husband, Steve Bennett, drove Mills the next morning to the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson to talk to the counselors at Partners in Recovery, an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment facility.

They suggested he attend an AA meeting going on upstairs. But Mills balked.

"I stood outside the doorway for five minutes thinking: 'Man, I don't want to do this,'" he recalls. "I'm feeling miserable anyway. I'm humiliated, I'm embarrassed for what happened the night before. I'm a wreck.

"So I went in and - you know this [saying] 'things happen for a reason?' A couple of guys came up to me who had seen in the [newspaper] what happened, and they immediately said: 'Whatever we can do for you, let us know.' Guys I had never seen before!

" ... But that kind of show of support changed my whole outlook. My hair was standing up on my arms. I almost started crying. And I'm thinking: 'Maybe I've got to give this a second chance.'"

Partners in Recovery also recommended that, instead of going back to Father Martin's, Mills fly to the Caribbean island of Antigua and check into Crossroads, the renowned drug and alcohol treatment facility established by rock legend (and former addict) Eric Clapton.

But Mills balked at this, too. He knew he needed treatment. But he didn't want to leave the area.

He didn't know whether he was going to be fired from WMAR, for one thing. And he felt he'd be leaving his family to take all the media heat after his arrest while he escaped to some sunny tropical isle.

But after a heated family discussion with the Bennetts, and his parents, George and Mary Mills, he left for Crossroads. Upon arriving, he placed a phone call from the nurses' station to Drew Berry, WMAR vice president and general manager, to see if he still had a job.

Berry said a decision had just been handed down by Scripps-Howard, the station's parent company. It was letting Mills go.

Reeling, Mills felt the walls of the nurses' station closing in on him, he says.

"So I stood up and told those people, 'I'm out of here. I just lost my job. I gotta go home,'" he remembers.

But call it fate, call it an eerie coincidence, call it whatever. In the midst of this panicky outburst, something stopped him from calling a taxi and rushing out the door.

"Right at that particular time, I notice this guy staring at me," he says. "And he looks at me and goes: 'Do you know who I am?' I have no idea. He goes, 'You did a story on me when I was in high school.' He was a lacrosse player."

The man introduced himself. Mills was frantic, despondent. But the man said quietly: "Take a couple minutes. Walk outside and regroup before you do anything."

Mills did just that. A few minutes later, a Crossroads counselor persuaded him to spend the night. He did and spent 28 more nights there, too.

"And it was probably the most important thing I've ever done in regards to managing this disease," he says. "Because this time, I really listened to what the relapse process is all about."

As he had at Father Martin's, he again rested, exercised, ate healthy meals, attended lectures on depression and cross-addiction, on the causes of relapse and treatment options.

But it was a single solemn pronouncement by a Crossroads counselor that had the biggest impact on Mills.

"Here's the bottom line," the man told him. "Strip everything away and when, or if, you have the urge to take another pain pill, think of the consequences that it's going to cause.

"Think of what happened [after his arrest] two weeks ago. Think of the pain that you've caused your family. Think of the physical things you're going to go through [by being addicted]. And you had better be able to recognize those consequences at that point."

Renewed, invigorated, determined to stay clean, Mills flew home at the end of his stay. At the airport, his sister almost didn't recognize him.

"I walked right by him, he looked so wonderful," Bennett recalls. "He was tanned, he'd lost weight, his hair was cut a little differently.

"He was so excited to be home."

The road ahead

In the living room of Keith Mills' cozy rancher on Cheddington Road in Linthicum, the TV is tuned to ESPN. Nick is playing in the basement. It's 1:30 in the afternoon, and Mills has just returned from Ravens training camp in Westminster, after a long morning spent doing eight sports reports for WBAL, and another three for 98-Rock.

This is one path to redemption, Mills has decided: Work hard, stay busy, keep scheduled. It's redemption via a plotted-out Day Planner.

"Everybody in the newsroom respects his work ethic," says Jeff Beauchamp, WBAL vice president and station manager, who says he hired Mills because of his extensive knowledge of area sports, and because he was convinced Mills could beat his addiction.

But a man sentenced to house arrest also has lots of time to think. And in the past, it was those hours of downtime that proved to be Mills' undoing, when the pain in his body seemed to intensify and the addiction demons scratched at the door, demanding to be fed.

Now, he says, he reaches out to others, Diane and Steve Bennett, Garceau, his agent, Tony Agnone, when he's anxious or frustrated, or just needs to hear a voice when it's dark.

Elizabeth Barillaro, his ex-wife, declined to comment for this article. But Mills says she and his kids, Alexandria, 15, and Nicholas, now 13, have been "incredibly supportive."

"The thing that scares me with the kids," he says, "is there's a lot of hidden anxiety, frustration ... they're worried about me. Am I going to relapse again? You know, 'Dad did well once before, for the first six, eight months. ...'

"[But] the thing I'm most embarrassed about throughout this whole thing is: I took the disease for granted the first time I got out of [rehab]. I totally disregarded the severity of it. ... And I let a lot of people down who had put faith in me up to that point and trusted what I was saying.

"I was saying: 'Hey, I'm doing well, I'm doing good.' But I wasn't."

There are some who say Mills got off easy after that second arrest because of his celebrity. Some of the critics were callers to sports talk shows, some were faceless bloggers.

Mills' sentence for the latest arrest was nine months of home detention, with time off for good behavior, meaning it could end Sept. 19 if he gets in no further trouble. He also faces an extended probation and is to have no contact with his elderly next-door neighbor.

He can leave home for work, AA meetings, therapy for the ankle. Otherwise, he's confined to his rancher, which is not exactly like doing time in Jessup, as his critics point out.

They wonder: Would a guy from the city with a drug problem, who was hit with a burglary rap like Mills was, be treated so generously?

Did he catch a break because of who he is?

"See, I don't think that at all," Mills says. " ... The court system is well aware that substance abuse is a major problem and addiction is a disease that needs to be treated. ...

"I was totally oblivious to what house arrest was, but I'm very respectful of what this is all about. Because this is a serious thing. And if I were to violate this contract ... I'll go to jail."

Ross Hildrup, Mills' sponsor at Partners in Recovery, is more blunt. What Mills needs to do, he says, "is just be totally aware that everything he's gained back he can lose in a millisecond by taking just one ... [pill]."

For his family and friends, for his new bosses and colleagues at WBAL, for the hundreds of well-wishers who called and e-mailed him during the bleakest time of his life, Keith Mills knows he has something to prove.

This summer, his agent urged him to break his silence with the local media. So each day for three days in a row, Mills stood in front of the cameras and told his story to a different TV station.

The reaction was overwhelming. In calls and e-mails to the stations, and to him personally, viewers said they were struck by the honesty and humility he showed in discussing such a difficult problem.

But Mills says he did it for the same reason he wakes up at 2:45 each morning, gets dressed and points his car toward the twinkling lights of the soaring tower on Television Hill.

"I was just trying to show people I'm OK, and I'm back on my feet," he says quietly.

"And it was a chance to say I was sorry."

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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