"I got back to Baltimore four months and started back up [using heroin]," Holly Botts says.
She is strolling purposefully along the paved pathway of Carroll Park, with maybe 100 other walkers and a few runners, past an equal number of support people volunteering and/or working for the city's drug treatment providers.
It's the 10th annual Recovery Walk, Run, and Rally, a cookout and celebration of sobriety and the struggle to stay that way. Addiction treatment group Gaudenzia is here. People from Marian House, a 30-something-year-old transitional housing provider for women (whose 8th annual 5k race and fundraiser is at Lake Montebello on Sept. 24) is here too.
Old friends greet each other, congratulate each other on months or years drug-free. Workers under pop-up awnings encourage passers-by to take brochures, fliers, and the occasional CD from the Narcotics Anonymous table.
"People don't realize that we have the second largest recovery group in the U.S.," says Patty Craig, standing in front of the NA table. She means the Baltimore NA group is second only to New York in its numbers of meetings and members—an incredible claim given the cities' relative sizes.
But Baltimore, with its population of 620,000 souls, saw almost as many murders last year as New York with its 9 million denizens. Baltimore's overdose rate is harrowing as well. When it comes to drug-related death, the city punches way above its weight class.
There were 393 overdose deaths counted in the city in 2015, plus another 220 in Baltimore County. Statewide the number of opioid-related overdoses increased by about 40 percent between 2010 and 2015. The introduction of fentanyl, a powerful prescription pain killer that's now being manufactured in industrial quantities, has increased overdose deaths to crisis levels across the country.
It's 90 degrees in the park this Saturday morning, with a DJ and an MC on a generously proportioned stage who a few minutes ago was doing Zumba for "warmups." The man at the grill is already working but "you won't get any food until after the walk," the MC told the white shirt-clad crowd before herding them over to the start-finish line with a portable bullhorn. No one seems to know how long this event will go.
"All the way around the park," Botts says she was told.
She heard about the rally at an NA meeting a couple weeks ago. She holds out the flyer. Figured, "why not?" She walks here anyway for exercise.
Botts is blonde, 43 years old, has a couple missing teeth, and is dressed in fashionably shredded jeans with a little belly hanging over. She's been clean six months, she says, and was clean for seven years before her brief relapse early this year. She lives in a transitional home called To God Be The Glory. It's for moms with kids. Her 15-year-old daughter is with her there. She says her 11 year old went back to her dad "because she didn't like my rules."
Botts says she is diagnosed with schizo-affective bi-polar disorder. She is on several medications. She says she had dyskinesia even as a child: "My face twists up." She has a nearly flat affect, the kind of vacant and calm and eerie demeanor displayed by longtime soldiers and war refugees.
All those years. Everything that happened. The pain of being human again. Of waking up to your actual life.
"They found a four-bedroom house for me based on my income," Botts says. She's hoping to get resettled within a month. Her and five of her seven children. Her income is disability insurance, $659 per month. She's fixing to start college again, BCCC, "for my psychology degree." She hopes to get a master's "and do case management and work in the community," she says. "I'm a people person.
"I keep my eye on the prize," Botts says. "I don't want to hurt my kids anymore."
The walk turns out to be short. The whole park is miles across, this is just the inner sidewalk trail. Less than a mile. Maybe a half mile. We're back at the starting line already, and still in the platitude/slogan phase of the interview. Botts collects a high-five from the dude with the bullhorn. We sit on the grass in the shade of a nearby tree and some of the rest of her story comes.
She grew up in Millersville, in Anne Arundel County, and came to Baltimore 23 years ago "because I was introduced to heroin, and living in the city I was closer to what I wanted." A boyfriend brought her here to hang out with the car club guys on Friday nights, lines of kitted-out VW Jettas, and the Mercedes club too, with the big wheels. She was a senior in high school then. Good at sports. Varsity soccer and softball. Her mother left when she was 5; her father "beat me like a man," she says. The cars and the people in them were "so exciting to me," she says. "Most of those guys were in their late 20s." She imagined herself in a Mercedes. "Most of them were big-time drug dealers," she says.
Before long she was their tester. "I'd tell them if the stuff was good," she says, "or if it was ehh." Sometimes it was cut too hard with vitamins or whatever. The high wouldn't last.
She ended up stripping on The Block until she was 28. She walked away from that onto the street. "I spent seven years trickin'," Botts says. She started IV injections around 2006 and caught Hepatitis C.
"I was homeless for three years straight" around the same time, Botts says. "I was sleeping on porches of abandoned houses." This was in Poplar Grove and other west side neighborhoods. It was Bloods territory. "I've been raped several times," she says. "I've been gang-raped. Stuck-up with a gun in my face."
Botts' criminal record jibes with her story. Lots of petty theft, an armed robbery charge way back in the day, arrests for drug possession and prostitution. Once she was busted by Jemini Jones, the Baltimore cop who beat two separate rape charges before going down on a gun charge.
She says her time on Methadone made her want to smoke more crack.
She moved to Salisbury and got clean. She also got health care, a liver biopsy, Interferon. She says the Hep C is gone. The treatments were tough. She dropped out of college. The 13 other women in the recovery house she managed "helped [her] through it," she says. "Without them I would have used again."
The mental health meds caused her to gain weight. She says she weighed 260 a few years ago, flipping through her phone to show photos of her recent self. More than six months ago she ended up getting surgery that took away two-thirds of her stomach. She's lost weight steadily since then.
Her second child's father was Danquel Darden, a six-foot, 250-pound drug dealer two years her junior. Affectionately known as "Big Rude," he carried a gun with the serial number filed off and spent a lot of time in district court facing charges like "urinate in public," "resisting arrest," and "loiter in a school zone."
In 2011, some time after his third illegal gun case, Darden beat attempted murder charges. He was shot to death near 26th Street and Greenmount Avenue in June 2013, on a weekend when 20 were shot and seven others were killed. Botts says Darden got in a fight and a gun dropped, and the other guy got to it first. "The other guy put it in his mouth and blew his brains out," Botts says. "We went to the funeral."
The grass is cool. The DJ is spinning dance music, and people are dancing. The line to the grill is long. Hot dogs, hamburgers, at 11 a.m. Groups of people are setting up football games on the wide field next to the rally. People are smiling.
Botts says her father died several years ago and her mother came back into her life. She's big into church, and they have a good relationship now, she says. Her 15-year-old daughter, the one who lives with her in To God B The Glory, is super smart, and independent, with a vocabulary that sometimes makes Botts feel stupid. She goes to Poly. She's doing all right.
Botts loves the owner of her current house, Rowena Simmons, who she says owns several supportive living houses and came up the same way she did. She wants Botts to train up for management again, and Botts says she's going to do that, and go back to community college.
Eyes on the prize.