For 30 years, using and selling drugs had been a major part of Albert Smith’s life.
The stranglehold drug addiction had over Smith, who lives in Glen Burnie, caused him to become someone he didn’t like and do things he never would have otherwise done including stealing from people close to him, he said.
On Aug. 16, 2019, Smith woke up on his kitchen floor feeling ashamed and ready for a change. He checked into a drug recovery facility, later spending several months at Gaudenzia Addiction Treatment and Recovery Services in Crownsville.
“I had a spiritual awakening and I just wanted to get help,” the 53-year-old said. “There was no more talking about it. I was doing something about it.”
Gaudenzia is celebrating its sixth anniversary in Crownsville this year and is marking National Recovery Month in September with a series of speakers and events for its clients.
Smith now works at the facility helping other recovering substance users as a recovery support professional. When he was going through treatment, he heard speakers come in to talk to the recovery community and wanted to be that person someday for others. On Friday, Smith was one of them.
“It feels wonderful,” he said.
While Gaudenzia officials say most who come into their facility are not there voluntarily — they’re being kicked out of their homes, forced by a family member or ordered by a court — Smith was a rare case. He admitted himself. Even rarer, he only went into addiction treatment once, for three months. He’s a one-hit-wonder, he said, attributing his success to his mindset of being ready to put the addiction behind him and be a more reliable father and grandfather.
“I really wanted to be out. I’m too old,” he said. “I got to get it right the first time.”
Gaudenzia is one of the largest addiction treatment centers in Anne Arundel County with 175 beds. The space is much needed as the county consistently ranks third highest in drug and alcohol-related deaths, according to the Maryland Department of Health, right behind Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
Between 2016, the year Gaudenzia opened, and 2019, overdoses and deaths steadily declined in the county, from 927 overdoses at the end of 2016 to 855 at the end of 2019, according to the county health department.
The county experienced a notable spike in 2020, which facility officials attribute to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on peoples’ mental health.
By the end of 2020, overdoses had risen about 15% from the year before and fatal overdoses increased by about 18%, county data shows. Cases went back down in 2021 with a 19% decrease in overdoses and 17% decrease in fatal overdoses by the end of the year.
As of Sept. 6, the county has logged 496 overdoses and 90 fatal overdoses, decreases of 22% and 30%, respectively, compared to the same period in 2021.
Gaudenzia operates treatment facilities throughout the mid-Atlantic region, including the Crownsville facility and an outpatient location in Glen Burnie.
Chief of Staff Patricia McKernan, and Kristy Blalock, Gaudenzia’s executive director for the Chesapeake region, said the pandemic had a significant effect on the landscape of addiction treatment, including loss of staff, new virtual-style treatments and fewer court-mandated patients.
During fiscal 2021, 1,856 people entered Gaudenzia for treatment. The following fiscal year, which ended June 30, 3,094 entered treatment, a 66% increase, according to Blalock. Meanwhile, 60% fewer inmates in the Anne Arundel County correctional system were transferred to Gaudenzia’s Crownsville location, a result of the Department of Corrections isolating inmates with COVID and other restrictions, Blalock said.
“More people were getting addicted, and less people were coming into treatment,” Blalock said.
Smith said he struggled with depression and loneliness during the pandemic, but he never considered returning to using drugs.
“I was masking my true self,” he said. “Now I look good, and I feel better.”
McKernan and Blalock weren’t surprised by the increase in overdoses and relapses during the pandemic. Relapse is part of the process, they said. Smith said some people in recovery say seven times is the magic number before recovery sticks. But even as treatment becomes more sophisticated, available and destigmatized, drugs remain a powerful foe. Drugmakers are constantly developing more potent drugs and wise marketing techniques.
One major challenge, is the highly potent drug fentanyl, which is being mixed with other drugs, McKernan said.
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“Managing it in withdrawal and detox can be very complicated,” she said.
Another intimidating drug trend in the mid-Atlantic right now is “rainbow fentanyl,” Blalock said, which is marketed for young people disguised to look like candy. It was seized by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in the D.C. area a few weeks ago, according to news reports. Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, also has risen in popularity, according to the DEA. It’s highly concentrated and easy to mix into other drugs without the user being aware, making it highly deadly.
“It’s terrifying,” McKernan said. “All of it is terrifying.”
Because drugs are being increasingly aimed at young people, McKernan and Blalock said the key to ending this deadly cycle is teaching young people how to identify drugs, the risks they pose and how else to manage depression and anxiety.
“One of the most potent drugs out there is now being marketed to the most vulnerable,” said Dale Klatzker, Gaudenzia president and chief executive officer at a news conference last week. “I can’t begin to tell you how insidious this is.”
Smith, meanwhile, hopes to be an inspiration to the young people in his life: his four daughters and two grandkids. His grandson Collins — that’s Smith’s middle name —turns 2 years old next month.
“He’s my guy,” Smith said, smiling.