By Keith Mills
Once again, the addiction monster has claimed another victim, one that is no stranger to its often-devastating pull.
Former quarterback Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 pick in the 1998 NFL draft behind Peyton Manning, was arrested twice in three days last week in his hometown of Great Falls, Montana, for stealing prescription narcotic pain medication.
Police say Leaf was arrested on Friday, March 30, for stealing the pain medication oxycodone from a friend's house. He was released on $76,000 bail. He was arrested again three days later, on Monday, April 2, for breaking into another home and stealing the pain medication hydrocodone.
It was the latest in Leaf's ongoing battle with drug abuse -- a battle that included a 10-year probation sentence three years ago, when he was also arrested for breaking into a friend's house and stealing drugs. The battle also included two years of apparent sobriety and a book Leaf wrote called 596 Switch, which documented his 1996 Rose Bowl loss to Michigan, his failed NFL career and subsequent battle against drug addiction.
It has been six years since I was arrested for also breaking into a neighbor's house and stealing prescription painkillers. Six years since I was placed on nine months' house arrest. Six years since I was fired from my job at WMAR-TV. Six years since I humiliated and embarrassed myself and lost the respect of my children. Six years since I decided to actually do something about my addiction to narcotic pain medication, instead of giving lip service to it for three years before that.
And it has been six years since Stan Charles ignored my legal issues and hired me to write a high school column for PressBox ... and six years since Jeff Beauchamp, Mark Miller and Ed Kiernan of WBAL Radio did the same.
Not one day goes by when I don't give thanks to two things:
One, that my addiction became public and I was forced to deal with it honestly and openly. Though it initially caused a great deal of personal and professional hardship, in the end it proved to be the proverbial blessing in disguise. Had it not become public, had the addiction not dropped me to my knees, who knows what might have happened? Would I be working today? Would I even be here today?
And two, that both Charles and WBAL showed faith and confidence that I would be able to both manage the addiction and become a productive member of society.
The last six years at WBAL have been one of the most satisfying periods in my 32 years in local television sports broadcasting. I do both television and radio now, and being part of a station that is considered one of the best in the country has been incredibly humbling. The Orioles returned to the station last year and we have been fortunate to be a part of the four straight Ravens playoff runs and two AFC championship games.
But it's the personal relationships that have evolved at WBAL, and the support that the management there and here at PressBox have consistently showed me since my arrest, that I will never forget.
That has played a huge role in my staying clean and regaining the trust of my family and friends, not to mention doing what I love to do: flaunt Baltimore sports and all of the many wonderful men and women, boys and girls who play and coach.
I have not had a drink or taken a pain pill since my arrest. I don't say that out of cockiness or arrogance, but out of sheer gratitude to everyone that has given me their unending support along the way. I don't know of many addicts or alcoholics that go through treatment and have success in staying clean without honest support.
At WBAL, Beauchamp originally pulled the trigger in hiring me, while Miller was unbelievable in his support of both my transition from television to radio and my recovery from drug addiction.
Both Miller and Charles spoke a great deal with Dana Hendrickson, my house arrest coordinating police officer at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center. Together, they helped me get a through a difficult time and remain close to me to this day.
Through it all, like Ryan Leaf, I battled an addiction that didn't care one bit about who I was or what I did.
Both Beauchamp and Miller are no longer at WBAL, though Kiernan still remains from when I was first hired. So is television news director Michelle Butt, who has also been incredibly supportive these last six years.
Kiernan has become more than a boss. He's a major influence in both my personal and professional life, and one of the reasons I wake up at 2 a.m. every day to get ready to go on the air at WBAL AM 1090, 98 Rock and WBAL TV News 11.
Never once through the hiring process or my early tenure at WBAL did he, Beauchamp or Miller ever require me to take a drug test or even question me about my recovery. Amazing, because there had to be some natural anxiety and concern as to whether I was able to stay clean and be productive.
With that came a tremendous amount of responsibility, a focus every day to manage the recovery process and stay clean. There's no magical formula to sobriety. If followed, it's a process that works. It takes a daily understanding and admission of just how powerful the addiction is, how quickly a relapse can occur, and a daily understanding and admission that using even the smallest narcotic or alcoholic substance could trigger a relapse, which in my case would be a disaster.
Every day I wake up, I think of how lucky I am to have gotten a second chance. Others are not as fortunate. But I am well aware that if I relapse, the consequences would be severe. Jail time is certainly an option, not to mention once again losing the trust of my children and family, and losing my job.
They are all fierce motivators for me to stay clean. So is justifying the faith of everyone that stood by me and gave me that second chance. And so is quality of life. One of the drugs Ryan Leaf took when he was arrested last weekend was hydrocodone, the drug I used for seven years.
Initially, I took it to deal with some severe back issues. Later, I took it because I simply loved the way it made me feel. Later, I took it because I had become addicted and I needed it to function. Ultimately, my abuse of it led to my arrest and job loss, not to mention the slow physical and emotional damage it had done.
Now, I spend my time not obsessed with obtaining and using hyrdocodone and having it control my life, but working with some truly remarkable men and women, nurturing my relationship with my kids (now 19 and 21 years old) and savoring every day for what it is: 24 hours to be a positive influence in the community and do things that I want to do. I was given new life, so to speak, and I would be a fool not to take advantage of it.
I spend a lot of time now speaking to drug and alcohol groups about what I went through, and talking to high school and middle school students and their parents about just how dangerous and brutal prescription narcotic pain medication can be if abused.
In fact, if I had a dollar for every time a parent in my Linthicum community asked me to speak to one of their kids that was abusing pain killers, I couldn't refinance Ray Rice's new contract, but I could make a couple of car payments.
It is, in my opinion, an epidemic.
Leaf is 35. I am 54. We have the same disease, the disease of addiction. It doesn't magically go away. And regardless of how many times he gets arrested, how many times he relapses or how far he falls, I will not judge him. I can relate to what he is going through. It is brutal. The stigma of drug abuse says he's a weak person who doesn't care. Who should be able to just walk away from the substance and never use it again. Who should be able to quit cold turkey, just snap his fingers and be done with it.
That's not reality. In fact, it doesn't mean he's a weak person or a bad person at all. It means he has a disease that he is struggling to manage.
His latest arrest may end in a significant amount of jail time, or it may not. I hope it does not. He doesn't need jail time. He needs counseling time, and time with trained professionals, who, if allowed, can help.
I wish him only the best and hope that he can find the same support and peace of mind that I have been blessed to have these last six years. In fact, I would love to talk with him one-on-one to offer the support and perspective of being clean for six years.
Maybe one day we will.
Posted April 7, 2012