Michael Gimbel went from serious user to serious educator

November 10, 1991|By Randi Henderson

In the 11 years he has directed Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse, Michael Gimbel has assumed an increasingly public role in addressing the problems of alcohol and drug abuse.

He's taken his anti-drug message to teenagers, their parents and to radio and TV.

So it's not surprising that he is sometimes recognized when he goes out.

"I'll be walking in the mall, or someplace, and I'll see a group of kids looking at me," he says. "And then I'll hear somebody say, 'Look, it's the drug guy.'

"And I have to laugh. Because I'll say to Trish [Gaffney, his wife], 'Hey, that's what they called me in high school.' "

*

Flashback to Milford Mill High School, late '60s:

Drugs are beginning to hit the high school scene in a big way, and Mike Gimbel is quickly earning a reputation as the biggest druggie at Milford.

He'd started when he was still at Johnnycake Junior High, hanging out with a group of tough kids, drinking cheap wine and sniffing glue.

"I'd want to fit in," he remembers. "If they're going to drink, I'm going to drink. I would usually end up in some sort of fight. But I'd wake up the next morning and feel I belonged."

By the time he got to high school he was smoking marijuana and popping pills. "I found out, hey, I could be cooler if I ate more pills than anyone else. And the other guys would go, 'Wow, man, look at Gimbel, he's wasted.' I was accepted."

Even though he was getting high every day he didn't have too much trouble pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting parents.

"He was a wonderful kid," says his mother, Frances Gimbel. "He was the youngest of our four sons and we doted on him. He was bar mitzvahed, he was on a straight track. . . . I was so unaware and so naive."

Frances and Milton Gimbel, a paper products salesman, still live in the Randallstown apartment they moved into when Mike was a teenager and his troubles forced them to sell their house. "He drained us financially," she says now, not a trace of recrimination in her voice. "We lost the house, he wrecked two cars that were not paid for. There were lawyers, there were psychiatrists."

Today Mr. Gimbel speaks with pained regret of the trouble he caused his parents and with gratitude for their unswerving support. "I don't know what I would have done without them," he says simply.

Mike Gimbel turned a corner in the drug world in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school when he first shot heroin.

"It gave me this incredibly euphoric feeling," he recalls. "I immediately got deeply involved. This was my image of myself, that this was the next thing to do. There was always the need to take the greater risk."

*

In a way Mike Gimbel, 39, is still taking risks, but now it's professional and he calculates a payoff before taking a plunge.

Now, instead of track marks -- faint remnants are still visible on his arms -- he has a track record that speaks for itself.

He gets increasing opportunities to present his views, including his newest enterprise -- hosting "Straight Talk," a monthly half-hour show about substance abuse that will debut Nov. 24 on Channel 45. And he tapes "Steering Clear," a five-minute spot for CNN that runs daily.

He is also getting more and more recognition from the community -- an example is his most recent award, the FBI Director's Community Leadership Award for Maryland/Delaware region, which he received Nov. 6.

But most importantly, he has built a $30,000 shoestring operation into a $5 million program that factors in most of the major components of county government: education, law enforcement, health services, criminal justice.

The risks he takes, however, don't seem to carry over to his personal life, which seems remarkably placid after his tumultuous drug years. He has been married for nine years to Ms. Gaffney, a therapist who works with drug abusers; they met when she was a counselor at one of the county programs he supervised. It is his second marriage. There are no children from either one.

With his street vernacular and frizzed hair, he could easily slip into the mold of aging hippie, but the high he once sought from drugs, he now gets from athletics, he says. An aerobics session five times a week "nourishes that part of my brain that requires a chemical." He also goes regularly to an acupuncturist "to deal with stress and keep myself centered and balanced," and recently started meditating.

But don't interpret that to mean he leaves his work behind at the office, says his wife. "He's so enormously dedicated to his work that it goes everywhere with him," she says. "It takes a conscious decision to put it away. He tends to think in terms of his work, and that can get in the way of personal life."

Mr. Gimbel occasionally attends AA or NA meetings, sometimes as a speaker, sometimes simply as a participant. "I try to do things for my personal growth and spiritual growth," he reflects, "because the job can sure be lopsided."

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