Shining a light on addiction in Maryland

From left, Hagerstown City Councilwomen Shelley McIntire and Emily Keller join Michael Silberman at the grand opening of the Awakenings Recovery Center in downtown Hagerstown.

BALTIMORE — “I never thought I’d get married; I never thought I’d own a home; I never thought I would own a business,” said Owings Mills resident Michael Silberman, 35. “I never thought I’d help people.”

The life Silberman leads these days would be unrecognizable to him 15 years ago. He is CEO and co-founder of Amatus Health, a growing group of regional substance abuse recovery centers offering treatment that includes detox centers, residential rehabilitation, and intensive outpatient treatment programs.

Silberman is uniquely qualified for his position at Amatus Health, which is headquartered in Owings Mills.

Although he is not a care provider, he can relate to the people his company serves, having spent four years of his life as an intravenous heroin user. In July, Silberman will celebrate 14 years of
continuous sobriety.

Last week, Silberman and his partners opened Amatus Health’s 10th facility, called Awakenings Recovery Center, in Hagestown, Maryland. The 51 bed residential treatment center in Washington County is the third Amatus Health facility in Maryland, along with Fresh Start Recovery Center in Gaithersburg, and Foundations Recovery Center in Woodlawn. It is the first of all of 10 facilities that will accept patients with Medicaid insurance.

According to the MarylandDepartment of Health, between January and September 2018, 68 people in Washington County died unintentionally as the result of drug- and alcohol-related intoxication.

That is up from 41 deaths during the same time period in 2017. The same study shows slight decreases in unintentional drug- and alcohol-related deaths in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties during the same period, while Baltimore City and County have also seen considerable increases, with, respectively, 89 and 24 additional deaths.

In addition to substance addiction, more than 27 percent of Hagerstown residents earn wages below the poverty line, compared to nine percent across the entire state.

“We live the intersection of I-81 and I-70. Our asset of transportation has become our liability of victimization and extermination,” said Rabbi Ari Plost, spiritual leader at Congregation B’nai Abraham, the only synagogue in Washington County. Plost’s congregation is less than a quarter-mile away from the new Amatus facility on Potomac Street in the heart of downtown Hagerstown.

“We sit at the juncture of what has been described as the ‘Heroin Highway.’ The dealers are pumping Fentanyl and OxyContin through our arteries and into the veins of our people. Likely, there is not a single faith community in Washington County who has experienced a tragedy related to this disease.”

Certainly, the problem hasn’t spared Baltimore’s Jewish community. Silberman, who was raised Jewish and bar mitzvahed in Owings Mills, said his own use started in the early 2000s, when classmates at Owings Mills High School and other teenagers began recreationally using OxyContin, a doctor-prescribed opioid for pain management. In those days, Silberman was the singer of a locally and regionally successful rock band called VooDoo Blue. In his musical social circle, drug use, even that of
opioids, was “socially acceptable.”

His problems with drug use were exacerbated while the band was on tour. Eventually his band mates kicked him out and continued making music without him. Silberman said being in the band was “his whole identity,” and shortly after, entered into a 30-day treatment center in Northern Harford County to stop using. On two separate occasions, Silberman had to leave the facility early because his family’s insurance would not cover the cost for him to complete the 30-day program. Each time he left, he relapsed almost immediately.

Having been kicked out of a treatment facility for lack of funds, Silberman recognized the need for a Medicaid facility in poverty-stricken Hagerstown. Unfortunately, financial restraints make it difficult for service providers to offer help for Medicaid patients.

“It’s a shame because the reimbursements that the state provides for Medicaid services are just low,” Silberman said. “In order to sustain from a business standpoint, there has to be enough bed space to make it work financially.”

Silberman believes the location of the new facility, on a busy street surrounded by the public library, restaurants, bars and a soon-to-be-renovated theater, will help bring more awareness to the prevalent issue.

Howard Reznick, the manager of prevention and education at Jewish Community Services in Baltimore said the rise is drug-related deaths is mostly to do with the emergence of fentynal, a synthetic opioid that is estimated to be 50 times more powerful than heroin.

“More people started dying because fentanyl got in the mix. It used to be that heroin was mixed with a lot of junk, which was dangerous. But now instead junk to dilute it, there’s fentanyl to boost it up,” Resnick said. “That’s why addiction is front page news again now.”

To raise awareness for addictions in the community, JCS is taking part in a storytelling interagency event called Women & Addictions: Our Unique Risks, on May 22 at the Suburban Club in Pikesville.
Resnick said more than 700 people are expected to attend.

The opening of Amatus Health’s 10th facility comes shortly before what will be a celebratory July for Silberman. There is the aforementioned completion his 14th year of sobriety, as well as the celebration of his second daughter’s first birthday. He said it all feels “amazing.”

“It doesn’t seem real,” he said. “It feels like I dreaming and living somebody else’s life to be completely honest.”

Connor Graham is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of WJW.

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