Over this past summer, Tim Woitowitz received a phone call in the wee hours of the morning from a frantic young woman on Islesboro who was seeking help for her boyfriend.

Marian Fletcher of Belfast, who works with Woitowitz as an adviser in the locally-based support group known as Making Change, recalled that the young man had “flown off the handle” after taking a substance that he initially thought was cocaine.

Fletcher said the youth did not hurt either his girlfriend or his grandfather, who was also in the home at the time she made the call to Woitowitz, but the young man was screaming in the background and acting in a destructive manner.

Woitowitz said he recognized those behaviors as common reactions to the synthetic hallucinogenic drug known as bath salts.

“I told [the girlfriend] to call 911,” said Woitowitz, who was speaking to the young woman from his home in Stockton Springs.

The young woman told Woitowitz that she was hesitant to call an ambulance because she thought her boyfriend had had too much to drink and that he would eventually calm down.

“Tim had to explain that those are symptoms that are characteristic of bath salts,” said Fletcher.

Woitowitz then called 911 himself and relayed what he knew of the situation to dispatchers at the Waldo County Regional Communications Center.

The youth was eventually transported to the mainland where he obtained medical treatment, Fletcher said. He is currently being held at Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset on charges that are unrelated to bath salts, and Fletcher said he is on a waiting list to begin a drug treatment program.

Fletcher and Woitowitz agree that that incident could have been much worse. Over the last several months, bath salts — and the people who have had bizarre, and in some cases very public, reactions to the drug — have been making headlines across Maine, with many incidents being reported in Penobscot County.

According to accounts from media outlets around the state, a Bangor man was charged with operating under the influence as a result of using bath salts after he allegedly led police on a high-speed chase, crashed his car and ended up standing in the Penobscot River. In August, the same man allegedly became combative as he was being arrested and tried to take a gun from a police officer outside a Bangor hospital.

In July, another Bangor man reportedly took to the streets with an assault-style rifle and ammunition after he became convinced that people were crawling out of his mattress and were trying to kill him. In August, a man who was believed to be on bath salts remained hanging by his hands from the underside of the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge for a couple of hours in an apparent attempt to elude police.

Both Fletcher and Woitowitz say they knew it was only a matter of time before bath salts began cropping up in Waldo County, and both attended an educational meeting that was held recently at Waldo County General Hospital in an effort to learn more about it.

Fletcher said she and Woitowitz both believe that the only way to effectively combat the use of any drug is by educating themselves — that way, they can share what they know with the young people who attend the weekly Making Change meetings.

“People in law enforcement and in the medical community are really trying hard to educate people about it,” said Fletcher, adding that it is only a matter of time before someone who is experiencing the effects of bath salts causes serious harm to themselves or someone else. “… These people get violent, paranoid, and they’re very strong.”

Bath salts and beyond

While bath salts appear to be at the center of the fight against illegal drug use in Maine, Making Change continues to address substance abuse issues of all kinds, just as it did when Woitowitz and Fletcher held the first group meeting in a WCGH classroom five years ago. The group, which is largely aimed at helping teens and young adults, also addresses every subject from problems with the law to relationships and teen homelessness.

For those who are currently going through the court system due to criminal charges, Woitowitz offers moral support, and can also help those in need of community service projects to find places that will provide work opportunities.

Over the years, Making Change has met each Wednesday evening at 5:30 p.m., and usually includes between five and 15 people. Some weeks the conversations are centered on everyday topics like music and sports, while other meetings involve members of the group mourning the loss of a friend who committed suicide, or helping a fellow addict get through the first few days of kicking a drug habit.

In recent years, Woitowitz said he’s received a growing number of requests from married couples who are seeking help for drug problems, or from parents seeking assistance for their children. While the group meetings are reserved for the young people in the support group — Woitowitz worries that the presence of adults might make the youths hesitant to speak openly — he always makes time to talk with anyone who asks him for help.

“We’re here, day and night,” said Woitowitz, whose home telephone number, along with Fletcher’s, is prominently placed on the Making Change posters that are posted around town.

Woitowitz also credited WCGH for being a valuable partner for Making Change, and this year, the hospital was honored with a 2011 Caring About Lives in Maine Award from the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program. Woitowitz, who nominated WCGH for the honor, said the ER staff has helped Making Change prevent nine suicides and overdoses.

Woitowitz said the goal of Making Change — whether someone is coming to the meetings themselves or seeking help from Woitowitz and Fletcher on an individual basis — is and always has been to give people a place to be heard and find support.

Neither Woitowitz nor Fletcher are licensed substance abuse counselors — both, in fact, are recovering from their own past substance abuse problems. Both, however, say that’s why the program works.

“We’ve been there,” said Woitowitz.

And should a problem arise that is too big for Woitowitz and Fletcher to tackle, Woitowitz said they have the resources to find people the help they need.

“We know when we’re out of our league,” said Woitowitz.

Golden moments

Because members of the support group vary in age, Fletcher said, some of the older members have occasionally made lasting impressions on those who have yet to see their problems lead to run-ins with the law. Fletcher recalled one young woman who has been coming to the group for a few years now, and how she recently shared her own story of becoming a drug addict, being convicted on a felony-level drug charge and her subsequent struggle to find employment.

“She totally talked to them straight,” said Fletcher. “She told them that because she’s a felon, she can’t do some of the things she wants to do now because of her past.”

While Fletcher said the first step for many is attending to the meetings, some are not truly committed to changing their lives until they hear a personal account from one of their peers.

“That’s really one of the golden moments of the program, when one young person tells another young person, ‘This is what will happen to you.’ It’s when you can see it click, and you can see that it’s working,” said Fletcher. “It’s wonderful to see a change like that.”

Making Change meets each Wednesday evening at 5:30 p.m. at the Education Center on the WCGH campus. For more information call Woitowitz at 567-3813 or Fletcher at 338-4594.