Behind drugs, stories of pain

June 29, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

The life and death of Nicole Sesker - stepdaughter of Baltimore's previous police commissioner, drug addict and homicide victim - emerges now as the central image from a tragic tableau 40 years in the making, a vast crowd scene with thousands of weary faces.

Sesker's death stands out to some because of its irony: Her stepfather was Leonard Hamm. But most who know better, who know that addiction and alcoholism infests the best of families, look past that and see something familiar: the end of a life of pain.

"It's the pain," said Paul Martin, a counselor at the Baltimore Station, a transitional shelter for men in South Baltimore. I had asked Martin to explain the prevalence of heroin addiction here over the past four decades. "It's what takes away your pain and suffering. If it was paint chips that worked, it would be paint chips that we abuse."

Someone once tried to quantify the amount of pain-relief sought daily in Baltimore.

Ten years ago, it was estimated that the city had a heroin-cocaine addiction base of about 65,000 residents. But no one could verify that number or even identify its original source. Since then, surveys of experts and an examination of records suggested that 40,000 might be a better number - roughly one out of every 16 Baltimoreans. Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, the central authority for treatment funding in the city, says it serves 23,000 addicts annually. (BSAS also says the city has a "substantial unmet need" for treatment and that funding has been cut during the past four years.)

I've had hundreds of conversations about drug addiction here, in an effort to understand its scope and its grip. Why did so many get into heroin, then crack? Why is the disease so chronic? Most crime is related to drugs. The prisons and detention centers are full and expanding. There aren't enough treatment beds. Baltimore Station, in an old firehouse on West Street, is doubling its size to keep up with demand for housing and for addictions and vocational counseling.

Friday evening, after supper with the residents there, I asked Paul Martin about Baltimore's epoch of drug addiction. He's 49 years old and has lived through all of it. A former resident of Baltimore Station and a recovering addict, Martin serves as a counselor and a manager of the shelter. A kitchen-trained chef, he wants to develop a catering business with the residents in the next few years as the shelter grows. (They'll have a booth at Artscape next month and sell a jerk chicken "recession-buster" special for $7 a plate, plus beverage.) He is a big, eloquent man with a powerful story. This is a good time of his life - he just received his associate's degree from Baltimore City Community College, one of four former residents who received degrees this spring.

I asked Martin about the pain that he'd mentioned. What's it all about?

"Our pain is about our dreams," Martin said. "It's a painful process not to be able to achieve your dreams. I had a vision of myself as rich and good, top of the world, draped in fur coats. But when reality sets in - that reality where I see myself cold and hungry and dressed in rags, and not as I've seen myself in my dreams - it's painful.

"When you're a young man and your dreams go away - only one present under the tree - well, that's when I go sell a bag of weed. I saw people in the subculture getting it, getting money, and I wanted what they had."

He spent 33 years in the life. Nowadays, clean and clear-headed, he tries to get others to look inside themselves, understand their pain and take responsibility for their lives.

"We think we lost our home, lost our car. We think we lost our wives to another man," Martin said. "We didn't lose those things. We gave them up, gave them away. You have to take responsibility for that."

I asked Martin about his boyhood.

Grew up in lower Park Heights, he said. Never knew his father. Birth mother gave him up, and a couple adopted him. And his adoptive father killed his adoptive mother.

"What?"

Martin's tone changed here, into something like somber, as I listened to his story.

It was 1963, he said. His adoptive father shot his adoptive mother as she sat in a car, a white Chevy Bel Air, in front of a beauty shop. Martin can still recall and demonstrate the rhythm of the shots.

"Where were you at the time?" I asked.

"Sitting on my adoptive mother's lap," he said. "I was 5 years old."

I have heard stories like this before. Some kind of violent tragedy seems to be a common fact of life among the addicted. So is poverty. So is unemployment, tied directly into the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last 40 years. Fatherlessness comes up, too. Dropping out of school. Getting into the juvenile system. You hear these things a lot.

It's a lot of pain, a lot to overcome.

Not an excuse. Just an explanation.

"I see so much of me in the people I serve here now," Martin said of the men who live at Baltimore Station. The walls on both sides of the first floor, where the men dine, are covered with large mirrors. The men see themselves frequently that way, Martin said, and they're reminded that the answer to their problems - to their pain - rests within.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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