Coming Clean

Posted on July 13, 2009

One Man Who Has Been Through the Pain And Shame Of Addiction Can Identify With Ryan Leaf’s Plight

By Keith Mills

Once again the headlines told the story of the fall of another high-profile athlete.

"Ryan Leaf Arrested, Charged With Drugs, Burglary"
"Leaf Wanted On Drug Charges"
"Ryan Leaf Arrested At Border"

And all over the country fans greeted the news with a collective sigh.

"Oh well," they said, "just another jock who couldn't handle the fame and fortune."
"Just another spoiled, rich prima donna who thought he was above the law."
"Just another young millionaire who couldn't say no."

I reacted in a different way -- a much different way -- because three and a half years ago, I was Ryan Leaf.

It has been that long since I, too, was arrested for walking into a neighbor's house and stealing prescription, narcotic pain medication. In Leaf's case, it was the apartment of a friend who played football and was taking the painkiller Hydrocodone. That was the same medication I took back in 1999 when I was first treated for severe back pain. It manifested into a full-blown addiction. The addiction eventually led to two visits to 28-day rehabilitation facilities, my arrest and the ultimate loss of my job at WMAR-TV.

So I could relate to Leaf. Not the All-American quarterback at Washington State or the No. 2 pick of the 1998 NFL draft. Or the NFL bust who threw 36 interceptions and just 14 touchdowns in his abbreviated four-year career that included several run-ins with coaches and teammates.

No, I related to Leaf who lost a handle on what probably began as an innocent treatment for the many injuries he suffered playing football and escalated into an addiction and a disease that spun out of control. It's a disease that takes no prisoners, shows no mercy and certainly shows no bias or prejudice.

I've never met Leaf, but I'm sure I know what he's feeling now -- shame, humiliation, embarrassment. If not, he has very little chance of beating the addiction that led to the burglary and controlled substance charges in late May. Reportedly, Leaf sought treatment for his addiction at a facility in Vancouver, British Columbia. When he returned to the United States, he was arrested at the border on drug and burglary charges. He posted $45,000 bond and pleaded not guilty.

Only Leaf knows for sure if his use of the drug is out of control. If it is, he needs to deal with it because it will not magically go away.

***

I've been asked many times to write a book about my experience. If I ever do, it will be called "The Mirror Never Lies."

There were many times when I looked in the mirror and realized I was addicted, that I was physically and emotionally dependent on the pain medication. I would put on a bold front, take enough medication to function in my job and around my family, but inside the guilt and shame of allowing it to happen was killing me -- not to mention the physical and emotional trauma it was causing.

Every day I looked in the mirror and the mirror never lied: I had a major problem, but I was totally oblivious as to how to combat it.

At first I assumed it would just go away. But whenever I tried to abstain from the medication, the physical discomfort of withdrawal was too much. As an athlete growing up, I broke a collarbone, pinched nerves in my back and neck, and suffered countless ankle sprains. The back issues that eventually led to my use of Hydrocodone were so painful that on one occasion I went to the hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack. Other times I literally could not get out of bed because the pain was so intense.  

Still, that pain was nothing compared to the discomfort of withdrawal. Brutal. Absolutely brutal. So, to avoid that discomfort, the addiction is fed, kept active by taking more medication. Sometimes the medication is obtained legally, sometimes it's not. That's the enormous power of this enemy. It controls you and you don't even know it. 

Then there's the public perception of a "drug addict." Society has little or no tolerance for anyone who abuses drugs, whether it's hard-core narcotics such as heroin, or legal, narcotic pain medication such as Hydrocodone prescribed by a doctor.

What do you think of when you think of a drug addict? A guy sitting in an alley with a needle in his arm? A homeless woman smoking crack in an abandoned row house?

What about the mechanic who takes Vicodin because a tire jack fell on his leg and the pain is so intense he can't even talk, much less tune up your car? Or the single mom who undergoes a minor operation and takes Tramadal in order to take care of her two young children? And how about the millions of high school and college students who take a pill at a party and end up addicted two months later because they love the high and are unable to get out of the trap?

No needles, no crack pipes, just little pills -- just as dangerous and just as addicting. And they are legal, prescribed by doctors and given to millions of patients each day.

I was one of them and now, it seems, so is Leaf. Once a star quarterback, he must now come to terms with his addiction and convince a judge he has a handle on a disease that has spun out of control.

***

In the spring of 2006, I was damaged goods. I had just returned from Eric Clapton's Crossroads Substance Rehabilitation Facility and while I felt equipped to deal with the disease of addiction, I was out of a job with no clue as to what to do next. And then the phone rang. Not once, not twice, but three times.

I only hope Ryan Leaf is as lucky.

The first was from Stan Charles, the founder and publisher of this newspaper and a longtime friend. One year earlier, we had discussed the PressBox project and here he was, when few others would even return a phone call, asking me to write for his newspaper. Amazing!

And then John Maroon called. The spokesman for Ripken Baseball and former Orioles public relations director was forming his own PR firm and though I was unable to work for John, I will forever be in his debt for the faith he showed in me.

The third call was from WBAL Radio's Jeff Beauchamp, whose support along with that of Mark Miller and Ed Kiernan, has literally helped turn my life around.

In fact, the staff at WBAL Radio, and later Michelle Butt, Jordan Wertlieb and Charles Stroble of WBAL-TV, and Kevin Byrne, Mark Burdett and Dick Cass of the Ravens, gave me a chance when no one else would. They ignored the risk and potential public relations fallout and showed a faith in me I probably didn't deserve. 

***     

I don't know when Leaf last took a pain pill. For me it was more than 42 months ago, a few weeks before I was actually arrested on Jan. 25, 2006.

There are many reasons for that: 12-step meetings, a caring sponsor, an understanding and healthy respect for the powerful disease of addiction and two factors that have been crucial in my return to a clean and sober life -- the enormous support of family and friends and the equally enormous consequences if I were to relapse.

I will never forget the look my son and daughter gave me the night I returned home from the Anne Arundel County Police Station. It was one of sadness and complete confusion. I had totally violated their trust ,and they were crushed. That very instant I knew regaining that trust would be my top priority. My personal agenda, even my own health and fitness, would take a back seat to making sure my kids could trust their father again.

Deep down, I knew I was going to lose my job at Channel 2, and I knew my life would change dramatically. I had made a huge mistake.

Regaining the trust of my kids became a huge motivator. So would justifying the faith of so many friends who stood by me when many others did not.     

There's an old saying: "You find out who your true friends are during times of adversity."

I would be shocked if many of Leaf's so-called friends didn't bail on him when he was arrested. It's human nature. I went through my share of that. To this day people still give me a somewhat jaded look as if to say: "Oh, there he is. There's the drug addict. There's that TV guy who broke into his neighbor's house and stole her medication. What a shame."

But there is nobody to blame but myself. More than three years later the recovery continues. It never ends. It can't. There is too much to lose.

The support I received from my immediate family, who were obviously devastated with what happened but who educated themselves in the recovery process, has been inspiring.  So has the unconditional support from friends such as Scott Garceau, Tony Agnone, Mike Gathagan, Joe Hamman, Bonnie Downing, Tim McMullen, Ken Kazmarek and Dan Krimmelbein. Then there is the incredible faith shown in me by Stan Charles, John Maroon and the management of WBAL Radio and Television, who have helped me resurrect a career that was all but over. 

Again, Ryan Leaf should be so lucky.

Issue 139: July 2009

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