Mike Gimbel is known for many things in Baltimore County and Maryland. He was Drug Czar for Baltimore County for 24 years, and has been the host of Straight Talk, an educational program about addiction and recovery, for 35 years.
But life wasn’t always so rosey. Gimbel struggled with Alcohol Use Disorder and addiction for most of his early life and teenage years. He finally got clean 48 years ago on October 1.
“It’s unbelievable, because no one thought I’d be 48 years old,” he said.
Gimbel started drinking alcohol in eighth grade, in the mid-sixties. His family had recently moved to the suburbs, and drugs were just making their way there. Gimbel, who was an athlete with a slight frame, didn’t find his place on the high school sports teams. He jokes that when his friends went varsity playing sports, he went varsity doing drugs.
“When I started getting drunk all the time, it made me feel accepted,” he said. “I started to get involved with marijuana, pills, and anything else I could get my hands on.”
During the summer between his junior and senior year at Milford Mill High School, Gimbel became hooked on heroin. He often missed classes in his final year, because around 10 am each day he began to feel withdrawal symptoms. He’d cut school, find a way to get money, and run down to the city to get his fix.
Although he graduated, after high school Gimbel’s drug use accelerated. He got arrested several times, and drained his parents of money to cover his lawyer fees. He found himself in fear for his own life after he ripped off a local drug organization for $5,000. That’s when his father intervened.
Gimbel’s father was a drummer who knew several musicians that had struggled with and recovered from alcohol and drug use disorders. They went through a program called Synanon in Santa Monica, California. Before Gimbel knew it, he was on a flight to Los Angeles.
Upon arriving at the facility–after nearly getting arrested for being intoxicated outside of the airport–Gimbel said that “something clicked;” he finally embraced a life in recovery. That day was October 1, 1972.
After getting some recovery under his belt, Synanon offered Gimbel a job at the treatment center. He worked there for almost 6 years. When Gimbel left Synanon, “after they turned into a religious and violent cult,” he said, he returned to Baltimore where he helped create a treatment center in Randallstown where he worked as a counselor.
Unlike many people in 12-step recovery, who greatly cherish their anonymity, Gimbel became recognized for his work in the community by sharing his story with local media outlets.
In 1980, then-Baltimore County Executive Donald Hutchinson appointed Mike Gimbel as the first, and only, Drug Czar for the county. He was responsible for implementing treatment services, as well as drug prevention and education programming.
“During my interview, Hutchinson told me, ‘If you help one person, you’ve earned your salary,’” said Gimbel. “I had that position for 24 years. It started out with a $50,000 grant. When I left, we had a $13 million budget. Drug programs across the country and the world have used my programs as a guide for building their own.”
In the mid-1980s, Gimbel teamed with local news station Fox 45 and began the educational addiction and recovery program Straight Talk; it is still on the air in many television markets now, more than three decades later.
In Gimbel’s personal life, he developed a new addiction: running. He has run in 18 marathons, including the Boston Marathon eight times. While working as Baltimore County Drug Czar, he combined his passions for recovery and athleticism by creating consulting programs for sports teams.
“I’ve always believed in playing safe, fair, and sober,” he said. “That program was adopted by the NCAA, which oversees all of college sports.”
Throughout his career, Gimbel has made such an impact by candidly discussing his own story of drug use and recovery. He has seen the stigma regarding drug addiction diminish over the years, which he views as a positive step.
“Before drug treatment really became a business, the biggest thing we had was Alcoholics Anonymous and the alcohol 28-day model,” he said. ”But what makes AA work is anonymity, so not many people knew who was in recovery. More and more people started telling their stories and they were praised, not ostracized. I didn’t care. I needed people to know I was a recovering addict, because that was my degree, that was my diploma.”
Six years ago, Gimbel was cured of Hepatitis C, an infection he developed through using needles during his drug use. He credits his life–and recovery from Hepatitis C–to his recovery from drinking and using.
“Staying clean has not only saved my life, but if I were to have continued EVEN A LITTLE bit, my hepatitis C would have killed me years ago,” he said. “Being clean kept me alive until I was cured of hep c when I was in my sixties. Somebody’s looking out for me.”
In 2018, Gimbel teamed with TruHealing Centers, a network of treatment facilities whose mission is to bring premier substance use treatment and education to everyone who needs it, regardless of economic status. Gimbel first met with the Amatus Health partners in 2017; he saw in them the same mission he had for himself as Drug Czar of Baltimore County.
“I have a lot of the staff come on Straight Talk to tell their stories. I’ve been so impressed with their ability to tell their stories and why they are part of this business,” Gimbel said. “Even though it’s in the private sector, I feel like I’m doing public service. They believe in it.”
After a long career, where Gimbel has helped educate and bring countless individuals into a life of recovery, he remains humble and ready to do the next right thing.
“I made a deal with god years ago,” he said. “I said, ‘you keep me alive and I’ll keep doing the work.’”