Ryan Botwinik stepped inside and closed a large, glass door, sealing himself off from East Baltimore Street. The sounds of midday traffic and sidewalk chatter dissipated, and a cluster of seated men turned their heads simultaneously in his direction.
Mr. Botwinik strode confidently into the weathered former bank building — adjacent to the onetime home of the Baltimore Talmud Torah school, now the headquarters of the Helping Up Mission — and waved to the men lounging in the main area, before slipping into a darkened corner. He waited for another man to finish speaking about upcoming events before walking up to the front of the room.
Mr. Botwinik wore a tweed sports jacket over an all-black outfit, while the men were dressed casually in jeans, T-shirts and shorts. He immediately asked everyone to bow their heads and recite “The Serenity Prayer”: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Mr. Botwinik then looked up, rubbed the errant whiskers on his chin and smiled, a large cross consisting of shards of jagged stones hanging on the wall behind him.
“Good mornin’,” he said, his voice booming, as if wanting to ensure that everyone in the room — and maybe even the ghosts of the old Talmud Torah pupils next door — could hear him. “How’s everyone doin’? Feelin’ good? Happy to be alive?”
When his listeners responded in the affirmative, Mr. Botwinik said, “We’re gonna be talkin’ today about the history of AA [Alcoholics Anonymous]. What is AA? Is it a group? Is it a religion? Is it a club? Is it a cult? Do they sacrifice virgins?”
With a comic’s timing, he grinned knowingly and waited for the laughter to subside. “I don’t think so,” he said. “There are no virgins in AA.” More laughter ensued, with one man turning to another behind him, saying, “That’s cute, I like that.”
Pacing around and sipping from a styrofoam cup of coffee, Mr. Botwinik offered an overview of the organization’s origins, alluding to an early incarnation of AA in Baltimore called The Washingtonians, which he said formed around 1840 on Chase Street. At times, he seemed to speak with an almost Southern accent — dropping his g’s — and used street terms to reach his largely African-American audience, of whom Mr. Botwinik commanded undivided attention. When listeners raised their hands to ask questions or make comments, he usually leaned against a lectern and responded, “Yessir,” if not calling them by their first names.
In between his rambling history lesson and occasional humorous asides, Mr. Botwinik stopped suddenly and shifted the mood in the room. He placed his hands firmly in his pockets and, in virtually a whisper, as if speaking tachlis, honestly and seriously, with a confidant, said, “How many of us are here to help you? Remember, back when we were using, remember, we always used to ask for all the wrong help. Now, when we’re in treatment, we’re just not askin’ for help at all. We’re too proud or somethin’.” He paused and stared into his audience, and said, “Guys, we’ve got to ask for help. We’ve just got to.”
While some audience members cast their eyes down, others nodded quietly and gazed back at Mr. Botwinik. A heaviness filled the room.
You might call this a “Ryan Botwinik moment.” At least with some of his listeners, with an expert dosage of levity and honesty, he reached deep into their souls and reminded them of how drug addiction utterly decimated their lives and that they need to be unerringly proactive and consistent about treatment and recovery. And he did it with a sense of sincerity and empathy that can only come from knowing where they’ve been and where they can go.
Later, in his office at the Helping Up Mission, Mr. Botwinik took on a different persona. Unlike his public speaker persona, he tends to be soft-spoken and contemplative in one-to-one conversations. But his commitment to the mission’s recovering substance abusers and addicts remains just as unwavering.
“I look at this place as a giant monastery, and I try to be a role model,” said Mr. Botwinik, rubbing his close-cropped, brown hair. “I try to always practice what I’m preaching. I can’t tell the guys to do the things if I’m not doing them. They keep me on my toes with my own recovery, about keeping appointments and going to meetings. A lot of these guys want to prove you wrong. In some of their minds, I’m the bad guy because I’m the authority, I’m the enemy to them.
“People, when they get sick, don’t accept it at first and take care of it,” he said. “But once you gain acceptance, you do what you have to do. Empathy is important here. I can imagine what it was like to walk in your shoes. I might have grown up in Pikesville, but I spent a lot of time in poor black neighborhoods. They see I understand. But empathy is not sympathy. You have to turn the corner, or as I call it, have ‘the rude awakening.’”
For some in the Jewish community, learning about Mr. Botwinik’s personal journey — from self-described Pikesville misfit to Fells Point bohemian wannabe, from prowling-the-streets-of-West Baltimore junkie to recovery therapist/12-Step poster child — might be a rude awakening of sorts.
And when you consider that he’s a Jewish guy who teaches techniques and practices stemming from Buddhism and other Eastern faith systems in a Christian-based milieu, he becomes even more of an anomaly.
Mr. Botwinik, 36, a 1991 Pikesville High School graduate who became a bar mitzvah at Liberty Jewish Center, admits his life’s path has been an often circuitous and treacherous one. He has been drug-free for more than seven years and working at the Helping Up Mission as a clinical coordinator, counselor, case worker and facilitator for over two years. In fact, Helping Up is where he finally became “clean” after so many other programs and outfits failed with him.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle in so many ways. I took the year off [between high school and college] that became 12,” he said, chuckling. “I had a fear of not being accepted in society, and I became angry at the world and myself. I lived in upper-class Pikesville and I didn’t feel accepted. A lot of the kids seemed richer than me, and synagogue seemed like a strange place. So I embraced the punk rock scene, and that’s where I got into drugs.”
On Mr. Botwinik’s office wall, there is a poster bearing the image of one of his idols, Yoda — someone whom he says is a fountain of wisdom and insight (“Yoda is kind of like a Buddhist master, and Obi Wan Kenobi is like a rabbi”) — with a quote from the “Star Wars” character: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Mr. Botwinik said the quote is something he now lives by and advocates to his clients.
“Those of us in recovery, we have a certain lingo or openness. We’ve been through a war and we’ve become more spiritual beings,” he said. “That’s where we get that common bond.
“I now have a relationship with God, the God of my understanding. I feel fulfilled here [at Helping Up], to be able to take a place and add to it. I used to party and never stopped, and I needed a place like this to get clean at. Do I have regrets? Yes, but I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve found inner peace, and nothing else, no drug, could ever do that.”
Looking For Acceptance
Paul Botwinik doesn’t know where to begin. “If anyone went through what I went through, they could write a book,” he said of his son’s years of abusing alcohol and drugs, and subsequent unsuccessful treatment programs and even incarceration.
A retired businessman and Baltimore Gas & Electric employee who lives in Greengate, he attributes Ryan’s freefall into substance addiction to the 1998 death of his mother, Ruth. “Ryan took my wife’s passing hard and it put him over the line, and he became a drug addict,” Mr. Botwinik said. “He sold anything in the house he could put his hands on [to raise money for drugs]. I never gave up on him, but it was a tough road. I prayed a lot and got a lot of help from the Lord.”
But Ryan Botwinik, who is single and lives in Hampden, believes that his road to addiction started long before his mother’s passing. “I was using heavily before she died,” he said. “I think God took my mom when He did because He was sparing her. He didn’t want her to see me fight addiction and go to jail. She couldn’t see that.”
Part of his descent, he said, stemmed from his own insecurities and vulnerability as “the fat kid” growing up and not fitting in with the popular crowd, and some of it was simply living in a community where drugs were (and are) pervasive and the pressure to succeed in life intense. He also feels that he lacked any kind of spiritual foundation, and even harbored antagonism toward Judaism because he said a traditional family in his childhood neighborhood in Upper Park Heights would not allow their youngsters to play with him because his family was secular.
“I think in the Jewish community, it’s looked upon as, ‘Go, sow your wild oats but come back,’” Mr. Botwinik said. “But some of us get strung out. I knew guys who did coke and weed, but then they woke up and straightened out. Not all of us can do that. We have the disease of addiction.”
When he first started drinking alcohol and using drugs as a teenager, Mr. Botwinik said he feels he was trying to fill a deep void in his life. “I’d say, ‘Hey man, what’s missing? What’s really going on? What are you really searching for?’” he said. “I was lost and confused. I was searching for some peace and I found it. When I was using, I wasn’t the fat dork with the ‘Star Wars’ obsession anymore. I was looking for acceptance.”
After graduating from high school, Mr. Botwinik worked at several delicatessens around Northwest Baltimore. Then, he began working as a busboy at a bar and restaurant in Fells Point and became immersed in the underground culture there, including hard drugs.
“It was amazing,” he recalled. “I was around 20 and leaving a sheltered existence for Fells Point. It was, boom! I embraced that alternative scene, the music and the art. I had long bangs, nose rings, a shaved head, you name it. To me, Fells Point in the ’80s and ’90s was like Greenwich Village [of the 1960s]. I felt like I fit in with the beatniks and poets. I thought it was spiritual, and I wasn’t the fat kid who got picked on anymore. I was a punk rock kid.”
But the drugs got harder and the addiction more all-consuming, and Mr. Botwinik spent years of his life trying to score the best drugs and get the next high in some of the seediest places in Baltimore. (At one point, in 2000-01, he also spent 6 1/2 months in the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson for shoplifting and possession of narcotics.) These lost years, he now says, helped prepare him not only for understanding the power of addiction, but also made him well-acquainted with some of the desperate circumstances from which Helping Up’s clientele comes.
“Put me on Greenmount Avenue or in a homeless shelter or in jail rather than in the Gucci Giant in Pikesville any day,” Mr. Botwinik said. “I’m just more comfortable in those places. I feel more at home. Put me with gang members and prison mates, not suburban people. I don’t know why. I was never a gangster or thug myself.”
To maintain his habit, he drove as a hack driver and performed other odd jobs before turning to shoplifting and assorted forms of thievery. “I used to lie, steal and cheat [to obtain drugs],” he said, “and I used to hang out in some really tough neighborhoods. I didn’t want to go back to the restaurant industry. I just wanted to get high. I was strung out for 10 years.”
Eventually, Mr. Botwinik went to several drug rehabilitation and treatment programs (some of them quite pricey), all of which did not work for him. “I put him in many programs,” said Paul Botwinik. “They got drugs out of his system, but not out of his mind. It was a rough time.”
Ryan Botwinik said one Baltimore County substance abuse counselor once even told him, “You’re a waste of money,” because of all the programs that were unsuccessful in helping him kick his habits.
“It was probably a tough-love thing,” Mr. Botwinik said. “If I saw him now, I’d probably shake his hand and thank him. That did motivate me a bit.”
But the greatest motivation of all turned out to be absolute and unadulterated fear — of returning to prison. In March 2002, Mr. Botwinik shoplifted from a Record & Tape Trader store and an eyewitness spotted his license plate and reported it to authorities. His “rude awakening” moment came a few hours later when Baltimore County Police officers came to his father’s house in Greengate.
“I was hiding under the basement steps, like a frightened rabbit,” he recalled. “I saw the police officers’ flashlights and said to my father, ‘Why did you let them in?’ He said, ‘Son, it’s the only way you’ll get off drugs.’”
Paul Botwinik admits that handing over his son to the police was emotionally draining, but “I was glad they came. I could’ve lied, but I knew at least he’d be off the street this way. He was one day away from being shot or OD’ing. He needed in-house, long-term treatment to get off the streets. [Going to jail] was the best thing that ever happened to him. It was a blessing in disguise.”
As it turned out, Paul Botwinik soon played another pivotal role in his son’s eventual recovery. Shortly before Ryan’s arrest, the elder Mr. Botwinik attended an event at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in East Baltimore and parked in a nearby lot. When he came out, he discovered that the parking lot was locked up behind a gate. He soon found out he had mistakenly parked in the lot of the Helping Up Mission, which is footsteps away from the museum, and learned about its 12-month residential recovery program. (The son of a coddie company owner, Paul Botwinik grew up a few blocks away, near Little Italy.)
After bailing out Ryan from the Baltimore County Detention Center — where he had been locked up for three weeks, facing a possible sentence of five years of incarceration — Mr. Botwinik took him to Helping Up and enrolled him in the program. Because Ryan immediately began thriving there, the authorities eventually placed him on probation and waived prison time.
The younger Mr. Botwinik says the program changed his life and got him off drugs for good, partially because the 124-year-old mission — although it is a Christian-based outfit — introduced a sense of spirituality into his life.
“I’d never had a real spiritual foundation,” he said. “I wasn’t trying religion. I didn’t appreciate my own heritage. I was just so rebellious against any kind of faith. Here, I’ve learned to embrace all of the different kinds of spirituality. My spirituality began here, and my spiritual quest came through the 12 Steps. You need to believe in a power stronger than yourself. Even an atheist should look at life like there’s some kind of meaning or purpose or plan. You still have to figure out what the universe is saying to you.”
Susan Weis, owner of Hampden’s breathe books, said Mr. Botwinik is a “regular” there. She said he has bought books from her on everything from mindfulness and Buddhism to meditation and yoga.
“He comes in looking for different books to reach people from all kinds of different backgrounds,” she said. “He’s determined to give them the spiritual growth they need while they’re in recovery. When I first met him, I thought, ‘Jewish addict in recovery? That’s interesting.’ But that was a lesson for me, that addicts come in all shapes and sizes and religions.”
Mr. Botwinik said Helping Up’s Christian underpinnings do not particularly disturb him, especially since he says there is no proselytizing or heavy-handed religious orientation there.
“I’m a universalist. I’m open to all kinds of things,” Mr. Botwinik said. “Spirituality is water; religion holds the vessel. My goal is to appreciate the vessels where we can all become one, or at least appreciate the differences. I put all of them in a sifter and shake them around, but I don’t forget where I come from. I look at Jesus as an amazing teacher and avatar.”
Part of the reason why Mr. Botwinik feels Helping Up benefited him while other programs did not was because of his own particular time of life.
“I think I was ready for a change,” he said. “The others were good programs, but I’d hit bottom. I believe I was brought here to show me what I’d become if I continued using. I needed a place like this to get clean. Coming from jail to here, I was so grateful. I worked at the thrift store. I folded clothes and drove a truck. It gave me a sense of responsibility. I didn’t feel judged here.”
“OK, now, so where are my heroin addicts?”
At a recent class on meditation and breathing techniques with approximately 40 clients at Helping Up, Mr. Botwinik attempted to make a point by asking for a show of hands from a particular segment of the audience. No one hesitated to raise their hands.
“We spend a lot of our time wantin’ to do nothin’, right?” he said, drawing laughter. “But this particular exercise gives us a chance to relax and also be more physical.” After leading the men in inhaling and exhaling deeply in a “chair yoga” technique, he asked, “What you guys think of that? Wanna hug a tree? Can you levitate yet?”
At one point, a participant raised his hand and said to Mr. Botwinik, “It really works. You can feel it — like Jesus.” When Mr. Botwinik asked, “What you mean?” the man responded, “He fills that emptiness in your soul, right there.” Mr. Botwinik merely smiled politely and laughed. Then, watching another man stretch, he said, “Rudy, does it make you hungry? That’s the most work you done since you got here.”
At the end of the class, after reciting passages of soothing words (“You are a rainbow, your colors go out everywhere”) to his meditation devotees, Mr. Botwinik explained the meaning behind all of his techniques.
“Meditation helps us not only spiritually but physically,” he said. “Not all of us are into weights or jogging. Meditation gives us a chance to stretch and relax. Now, let’s take a moment of silence for the still sick and sufferin’.”
In his role at the mission, which has a staff of 40, Mr. Botwinik, a certified substance abuse trainee, provides one-on-one counseling (for a caseload of 75 men), leads two relapse-prevention classes daily, assists in managing the clinical program and serves as a facilitator for group home clients from Johns Hopkins Hospital. Meanwhile, he takes classes in addictions counseling at Baltimore City Community College and plans to graduate next year.
“To me, an important quality for a counselor is the ability to be a good listener,” he said. “Our population has been silenced for so long. They just want to be heard and understood. Because of my own story, I know I can be self-righteous at times. But I have to remember that just because I did it this way, that’s not for everyone.”
Mr. Botwinik said he discovered his gift for leading classes and discussions as a client at Helping Up. “There was an evening class, and a guy asked me to read from a book,” he said. “So I just started facilitating the class, and people later said I was pretty good up there.
“I love what I do. I get paid to talk and listen. My job here is to plant the seed of recovery and it’s their job to water it.”
Tom Bond, Helping Up’s program director, has known Mr. Botwinik since they were clients themselves at the mission. He said the latter’s personal and professional transformation has been nothing short of miraculous. He recalled one client who told him he was ready to quit the program but stayed on and graduated after he happened to chat with Mr. Botwinik while they had a cigarette break outside.
“Ryan’s fantastic with the guys,” Mr. Bond said. “He’s smart, he knows his stuff and he’s funny. The guys appreciate that. Most importantly, he’s been there. He knows what they’re going through. … And it helps that he’s off-kilter. He’s got his comics and his ‘Star Wars.’ He’s anti-conformist, an offbeat guy. He’s authentic, genuine, a huge asset for us. Guys in this environment don’t appreciate pretenders.”
Canton resident Chris Modell, who met Mr. Botwinik through a Narcotics Anonymous group and is his “sponsee,” described him as “a shining light. He just has a lot of positive energy and he’s very serious about recovery. A lot of people drift away from it, but Ryan is always vehemently working the Steps. He has the ability to talk to people from all levels of society, whether they’re coming out of jail or homeless. He knows how to break down the barriers. He gives hope to people who are hopeless and broken down.”
Mr. Botwinik admits he’s encountered some tough characters since first coming to the mission. “It was a little scary at first,” he said, “but most of the men here come because they want help. There’s rarely an incident here where it gets physical.”
Through meditation and chanting — much of which he has learned about by reading dozens of books — Mr. Botwinik said he has been able to help clients with the anxieties and anger issues that led them to substance abuse. “In meditation, we can get rid of those distracting thoughts and get to what we really want to learn,” he said. “Take a spiritual mantra — just say love, or ‘The Serenity Prayer’ or Psalms — and with breathing techniques, you get new meanings. For me, it helped me concentrate on what God wants me to do. When you have a guy who’s killed people or shot up dope for 20 years and he’s doing breathing techniques, it’s amazing to me. I can’t believe I pull it off.”
Mr. Botwinik said he expects the substance addictions epidemic in American society to accelerate as people continue to experience economic hard times.
“I see a program like this one will have to focus on more than the poor and homeless,” he said. “A lot of people are going to need this.”
He said although the local Jewish community has several programs dealing with substance abuse, it continues to largely operate in denial about the problem.
“The Christian organizations will take in everyone,” said Mr. Botwinik, noting that he has counseled several Jewish clients at the mission. “In the Jewish community, they’ll help each other, but not others. I think we’re too inclusive. I do think there are some good Jewish recovery programs now and it’s being more widely accepted. But we still need to see it’s a problem that affects everyone and be more open to reaching out to the non-Jewish community.”
Mr. Botwinik admits that some clients are beyond his reach and will likely return to their addictions. “Everyone has their own dharma [duty or pathway], their own life,” he said. “I can’t live your life for you. Some people won’t get it. Some people will remain stubborn and angry. Some people struggle and struggle, and then die. It’s sad.
“I’ve had my heart broken a few times. But we’ve had our success stories. We call it the grace of God, hitting that moment of clarity, becoming willing to do the things we need to do to stay clean.”
It’s those people whom he helps reach “that moment of clarity” that make it all worthwhile, Mr. Botwinik said. Not long ago, he said, a man came up to him after a speaking engagement and said, “You know, Ryan, when I first saw you, I thought to myself, ‘There ain’t nothing I can learn from this white boy!’ But I found out I was so wrong, and that we’re all going through this together.”
“You’ll see the new guys coming in and they’re rough and beat-up, and to see them change from a dusty zombie to a human being is just amazing,” Mr. Botwinik said. “My favorite guys are the ones who haven’t been hugged in years. You just have to go up and hug them, give them some respect, give them a soda or a cup of coffee.
“Just listen to them. Just care.”
Are You Using?
Ryan Botwinik’s tips for recognizing and dealing with substance abuse issues:
- “Look at what it is you’re doing. What are you looking for? Who are you hanging out with? What are the positive consequences of using?”
- “How can we be clean and feel accepted? That’s where spirituality comes into play. We need that guide, someone to get you through it. When you walk into NA [Narcotics Anonymous], you should feel part of it.”
- “You need to build friendships and relationships. It took a while for me because I’m shy to a certain extent, but eventually I did take a chance and found friendships.”
- “Go to a program. Meet people who have been to the same place as you.”
- “Demons can come up. It’s how we cope with them that counts. A lot of people like to play the blame game. I try to figure out, what does God or the higher power want to tell me about me?”
The Helping Up Mission is located at 1029 E. Baltimore Street. For information, call 410-342-3154 or visit community.helpingupmission.org/Page.aspx?pid=183.
Also, for information about Jewish Recovery Houses (House of Hope and Tova House), call 410-585-1223 or visit http://www.jewishrecoveryhouses.org/ .
For the Narcotics Anonymous Service Center, call 410-566-4022. The Towson Addictions Center, at 102 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Suite 306, is at 410-337-8191.
The Drug Rehab & Alcohol Treatment Center Referral number is (toll-free) 877-235-0400.
- Favorite Celebrities and Pop Culture Figures: Shazam, wrestler Ric Flair, Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol, outlaw poets and junkie guitar players
- Favorite Films: “Star Wars,” “300,” “Batman: The Dark Knight,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Casablanca” (“I love old Humphrey Bogart movies.”)
- Favorite Musicians: AC/DC, David Bowie, Slash, the Ramones, the Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls
- Personal Heroes: “Jimmy K” (founder of Narcotics Anonymous), cartoonist Jack Kirby, writer Charles Bukowski, rockers Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and his parents, Paul and Ruth (“A lot of my morals and values and views on the world I owe to them.”)
- Hobbies: Yoga, drawing comic books, and writing poetry and short stories
- Last Good Movie He’s Seen: “Azumi” (“It’s a Japanese film about a girl who becomes a samarai.”)
- Last Good Book He’s Read: “The Dharma Bums,” by Jack Kerouac