45 Years Clean

A few weeks ago, my mother, Frances Gimbel, passed away at the age of 95.

She was a wonderful women who gave much of her life to her family and to the Baltimore Jewish Community. She, along with my amazing family, saved my life from heroin addiction and a life of crime and despair. I share my story so that other Jewish families realize that there is always hope and recovery.

I danced with death lurking nearby for many years — heroin being my partner. My entire life was consumed with acquiring the drug to inject three to four times a day.

But I am alive to talk about addiction. Many others are not so lucky. With nearly 45 years (as of Oct. 1) of being clean, I am now free from the all-consuming grip of that deadly drug.

I distinctly remember what my life was like being addicted to heroin — a drug that turned me from a decent human being into a raging animal, willing to do anything to get the drug or the money to buy the drug.

I stole from my parents, family members, friends and anyone else who allowed me to get near their money or expensive items. I would rob, sell drugs and hustle money in order to pay for my heroin addict.

That is what a heroin addict does to survive. I was not afraid of overdosing, getting arrested, getting HIV or hepatitis C. I had no fear of death. All I wanted was to get as much heroin as I could afford.

I did not start out using heroin. Growing up in a nice middle-class Jewish family, I wanted to fit in with the athletes and started drinking at 14. I quickly moved up the ladder to marijuana, pills, cough syrup and prescriptions drugs. Drug use became my image and reputation.

By 11th grade at Milford Mill High School, after using most other drugs, I graduated to heroin. My habit grew as I started stealing to support it. By the time my parents found out, it was too late. I was hooked. I was busted several times, in and out of jail, mental hospitals and treatment centers. I had drug dealers looking to kill me, and they almost succeeded. I finally left Baltimore and entered a long-term residential drug treatment program in Santa Monica, Calif.

It was Oct. 1, 1972. That day will live on in my memory as the day I started saving my life. It was the first day of being clean and the first day of the rest of my life. So here I am 45 years later, watching our children and grandchildren doing the same crazy behavior with a much more dangerous drug.

My life is a miracle. I should have died numerous times, but God kept me alive to help others, and I take that gift very seriously.

I am sharing my story to help others understand that the behavior I described is not going to respond to billboards, public service announcements, hotlines or any overdose reversal drug. It will respond to long-term, drug-free residential treatment programs, where we can get the addict off the street and into a safe environment to live without the pressure to continue using.

The Baltimore Jewish community is not immune to this problem. We have lost many of our own and will lose many more if we don’t pressure our politicians to open — and in the case of Baltimore County, reopen — a long-term treatment facility.

I thank my entire family for helping to keep me alive. Now we need to help others.

Mike Gimbel is a substance use consultant, TV host and former director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse.

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