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Five Stories of Overcoming Addiction

Peace of Mind“I want you to know that I never considered your father an alcoholic because his drinking never interfered with his job,” my mother-in-law confessed to her sons at the end of her life. Until that day, she had never spoken the dreaded “A” word.

Alcoholism was the metaphorical elephant swept under the rug in my husband’s family. Over the course of four decades, no one ever acknowledged the problem that haunted us all. Luckily, one day my father-in-law stopped patronizing the local saloon. The reason was never discussed, but we were all grateful–wary, scarred, but grateful.

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that twenty-two million Americans over the age of eleven are dependent on alcohol or other drugs. Studies suggest that each addict affects, on average, ten other people emotionally, physically, and economically.

In my father-in-law’s generation, alcoholism was regarded as a moral failing, afflicting only those who lacked the strength to manage their drinking. Today it is understood as a complex disease that affects the structure and function of the brain–but one that can be treated and managed with the help of health care professionals.

In Washtenaw County, no one did more to implement that change in thinking and approach to addiction than the late Ron Harrison, a social worker who pioneered drug rehabilitation counseling here. Generations of clients credit their success in beating their addictions to Harrison’s guidance and support. At the time of Harrison’s death in 2011, Jim Balmer, president of Dawn Farm treatment center, said, “Nobody helped more addicted teens in this county.” Dale Yagiela, who trained under Harrison and now runs the Growth Works rehab program in Plymouth, added, “Ron helped thousands to treatment and recovery. Society typically judged addiction from a moral standpoint; Ron considered addiction a behavioral health disorder. That attitude changed the course of counseling and therapies.”

Sadly, many addicts never break free of their self-destructive habits. But as proof that it can be done, five people who successfully overcame addictions with Harrison’s help agreed to tell the Observer how they did it–and how they help others fight the same battles today.

“My story begins when I am six years old” says “Tom Smith.” “I pick up a box of Marlboro Reds. I find some matches, puff, and immediately feel–lightheaded and woozy. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This is cool.’ I liked being in an altered state.”

Like several other people interviewed, Smith, twenty-nine, asked that his real name not be used because he now sponsors other addicts in treatment programs committed to confidentiality.

Smith’s path to addiction started early, and his recovery was long and rocky. As a child, he found access to drugs remarkably easy. A friend’s father kept marijuana in a bedroom drawer. The six-year-olds filled a Pop-Tarts box full of the stuff, headed outdoors, and lit up. “I puked for five hours–it was horrible–but I loved the feeling it gave me so much that I kept smoking,” Smith says.

By sixteen, he was addicted to alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes. “Alcohol was harder to get than weed, but we’d take young girls with us to the liquor store, and they always convinced the clerks to sell to us,” he says.

Distracted by her crumbling marriage, Smith’s mother didn’t catch the warning signs. When she moved her children from Macomb County to Detroit, Tom discovered “a supermarket for deviant things,” beginning with Ecstasy and moving on to heroin. “Heroin made me feel the way I always wanted to feel: as if I could conquer the world,” he says. “It made me believe I had become the person I always wanted to be. Until then, I never felt I fit in anywhere.”

To afford his increasingly expensive habit, he sold drugs and stole equipment from construction sites. At nineteen, he was spending $200 a day on drugs. That was when he called his mother and confessed. “I’ll never forget her voice that day. She completely broke down,” Smith says. “It killed me. I knew I needed to get better.”

He checked himself into the Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center in Macomb County. “It was a great experience for me, though I didn’t stay sober,” he said. “It introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous, which paved the way to my recovery later.”

Shortly after his first stint in rehab, he returned to his old friends and old ways. “I felt as if I had a huge gaping hole in my chest that only alcohol and drugs could fix. My drug use got really, really bad.” He started cheating the people who bought the equipment he stole–leading to several potentially lethal confrontations.

Convinced he had to try again, Tom returned to the clinic and then moved into a program that combined housing with intensive outpatient treatment. He worked with therapists and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings nightly. After three sober years, however, he fell back into old habits. “The next thing I know, I’m sleeping on the couch of a guy named Murder with a needle in my arm, looking at his clock, and hoping I don’t wake up ever again.

“I go wild when I’m around alcohol and drugs,” he says. “But that changed when I met Ron Harrison.”

When he was twenty-two, Smith attended an AA meeting at the Ann Arbor Community Center. Harrison sat at his table. “When he spoke, it soothed me and calmed me down enough to think clearly,” Smith recalls. “That night I asked him to be my sponsor. He became a lot more to me than just my sponsor. My father had left my mother and me when I was very young. I didn’t have grandparents. Ron filled those roles for me.”

The therapist and the twenty-two-year-old became close friends. “He modeled a willingness to give, to be there for others,” Tom says. “He taught me how to live and enjoy life, how to focus on helping others. Now I try to be the best person I can be.

“I’ve seen hell. I truly believe that only people who’ve been to hell understand true happiness. We see and appreciate the love and beauty in the world so much more.”

Many young people dream of living Ben Wilson’s life. As keyboardist for the band Blues Traveler, Wilson, forty-seven, spends much of his working life on the road, entertaining fans and hearing riotous applause. But “as you can imagine,” he says, “this environment isn’t easy for someone who is addicted to booze and drugs.” He joined the Austin-based band in 1999, after another musician died of an overdose of heroin, cocaine, and Valium.

Raised in an affluent Ann Arbor family, Wilson dates his addictions to his parents’ divorce. “Divorce shows kids their parents’ insecurities, which adds to their own insecurities,” he says. “For kids, parents are their whole bedrock. When the family is ripped asunder, kids feel as if they’re gasping for breath.”

By seventh grade, he was using alcohol and marijuana. “At first I was reluctant, but two friends harvested massive amounts of marijuana and made it available.” He shudders. It was “horrible stuff,” he says, but “all the kids I knew were partaking.” Gradually, he experimented with more powerful drugs.

To support his addictions, Wilson and his friends stole prescription drugs, money, and LP records from neighbors’ homes. They bought The Pill Book to learn which prescriptions could produce a high. His parents noticed his increasing surliness but didn’t realize the extent of his problems until a friend and fellow addict confessed to his parents. They alerted the other parents in Wilson’s circle.

Wilson’s parents knocked on Ron Harrison’s door. “In those days, he was the man on the scene for adolescent drug problems and dependency,” Wilson recalls.

“Ron was instrumental in enlightening my family–and many others in the area–about how addiction affects not just an individual, but the entire family,” Wilson says. “He supported my family throughout the recovery process, introducing me to Growth Works and even driving me so I could return the money and records I had stolen. He was very clear and firm in his directions. I knew I couldn’t sneak anything past him–there was freedom and relief in knowing that.

Ron and Dale Yagiela of Growth Works helped me craft the person I would become, teaching me how to tap into my own strengths. They taught me to take responsibility for what I did, own it, and then move on.”

Three decades later, he credits his “incredibly supportive” family and friends in rehab for helping him kick destructive habits. “In treatment, I learned to express the sense of loss in my life–which has been my lifelong theme,” he said. “Drugs and alcohol had become my way of dealing with the abyss in my life. I needed to learn how to deal with life very differently. Drinking is just a symptom of something. Once you clear it away, you discover what drives the desire. Then you can deal with it.”

Wilson earned a U-M degree in psychology and sociology with the intention of following in Ron Harrison’s footsteps, but he soon discovered that “living with my own alcoholism was enough.” At thirty, he faced a career crossroads. He chose music.

Wilson talks openly about his past with his stepsons, whose father is an alcoholic. And “when my eight-year-old gets older, I’ll tell him the stories. I’m a recovered alcoholic. I like that about myself.”

“John Jones” dresses like a university professor. You’d never know that he was once, in a friend’s words, a “gay drug kingpin.”

Like Ben Wilson, Jones, forty-five, grew up in an affluent Ann Arbor family with an addictive history. In high school, he struggled with his sexual identity. “I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin, so drugs and drink made life seem easier,” he says. “They made me feel funnier, smarter, cooler.”

As a U-M undergrad, he enjoyed “college craziness.” “I could’ve, should’ve, gotten in trouble. But somehow I didn’t,” he marvels. After grad school he moved to a large city with a thriving gay scene. Juggling work in the theater and real estate, he worked hard and played harder. But while he made “a lot of money,” by 2000 he was HIV positive and struggling with depression.

Then a doctor he dated offered him crystal meth. “Meth quickly takes over your life,” he says. “It made me lose my inhibitions and perception. It made me feel energized and empowered. My life quickly became sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.”

Soon he was supporting himself solely with drug sales. “I was dealing good drugs, so I convinced myself that I was actually helping people,” he recalls. “You won’t believe the people I sold stuff to–some of the biggest names in entertainment, staying in the fanciest, most expensive hotels in the world. I walked right through the front doors and up to penthouse suites.”

His family staged an unsuccessful intervention. “You can’t force someone into recovery, though sometimes an intervention gives a good nudge,” Jones says. He did agree to check into a luxurious residential treatment program in Tucson, telling himself, “‘If I quit meth, I’ll be OK.’ But as soon as this Jewish boy was introduced to the twelve-step program, I said, ‘That’s Christian, and that’s offensive.'” His stay lasted ten days.

After that, his life rapidly spiraled out of control. As he watched friends die of AIDS and others get busted, Jones used “pills as a downer, meth as an upper.”

In February 2007, John’s world came crashing down. The police raided his home, finding huge caches of drugs and money. “Deep down I knew that one day I’d either die or end up in jail,” Jones says. “I ended in jail. It was an awful experience-everything you’d imagine, but worse.”

He detoxed from meth in jail, and thanks to a brilliant attorney and a national expose of shady police practices, he was released on a $500,000 bond. [what ultimately happened to the charges? How did the expose help him?] He immediately returned to Michigan and entered Brighton Hospital’s rehab program. There he learned about the physiology of addiction, the tools of recovery, and “I finally surrendered, recognizing that I was an addict through and through.”

When he left Brighton, friends connected him with a program that combined housing with intensive outpatient treatment. “My life was scary at that time,” he recalls. “I was HIV positive. I needed surgery for eye problems. My short-term memory was shot. I couldn’t sit still long enough to watch a movie.” He attended ninety AA meetings in ninety days, adhered to the twelve-step process, read everything he could find about recovery, and called his sponsor for support every day.

Gradually, Jones found purpose and meaning in life. He now serves as an administrator in a local recovery and rehab program. “Recovery means learning to be ethical, learning to live a good life,” he tells addicts he sponsors. “It’s about giving up self-absorption and self-centeredness. Instead, you help others.

“Before, I had all the money in the world, and I was miserable. I hated myself. I thought I’d die a terrible death. Now … I have purpose in my life. I truly have peace of mind.”

“Ryan Brown,” forty-four, was raised in a family with a strong history of addiction. Former hippies, his parents routinely smoked pot and drank. When he was twelve, his father deserted the family, and the boy’s troubles began multiplying. By fourteen, he had stolen and crashed his mother’s car after a drinking spree, and his life was spiraling out of control. When he was caught rolling joints in the bathroom at Huron High, his mother kicked him out of the house.

In desperation, he moved in with his father. “Dad had some morals left–he didn’t share his drugs,” Brown says. “But I’d steal marijuana and coke from him.” Brown rarely attended school and faced repeated legal troubles for theft and robberies. “When I think of those days, I’m amazed I survived. I felt suicidal, in despair, embarrassed, and desperate for drugs. I wasn’t courageous enough to take my own life, but a few times I drank with the purpose of not waking up–and I came close.”

His father finally took him to Ron Harrison, who sent Ryan to a residential treatment program in Cleveland. “My life had completely gone to shit,” Brown says. “That program turned me around. After a week, I asked them why Dad wasn’t there. They called and told him to ‘do something to help yourself.’ And he did.”

Ryan’s sobriety date is July 30, 1986. His father’s is August 6.

After completing the program, Ryan transferred to a long-term care facility and returned to Huron High, attending recovery programs at night. Harrison encouraged him to work hard enough to graduate on time. “For the first time, I was able to focus,” Ryan said. “I understood the concept of completely reworking myself. The question was if I had the willpower and desire to do the tough stuff. Ron Harrison helped me do that.”

Brown studied psychology in college, earned a master’s degree in counseling, and is completing his doctorate in counseling education while he works with addicts throughout southeast Michigan. “I can’t imagine taking another path in my life,” he says. “I believe I needed those early experiences. Otherwise I would never have reached this place.”

“Lou Fields,” thirty-nine, grew up in a blue-collar, hardscrabble home in a small town near Ann Arbor. Marijuana was stashed in his father’s bedroom drawer, and papers and lighters were stored under the living room couch. His father was a violent man; his mother was “a raging codependent”; and his grandfather wsa an alcoholic who routinely offered beer to young grandchildren.

By the age of twelve, Fields says, he was working two jobs and spending his earnings on Southern Comfort and weed. “I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t see a way to change the path I was on.” In high school, he was in constant trouble with the law and failing most of his classes, but there was no attempt at intervention, even after he was expelled for drinking tequila at school. “Either the high school was extremely naive or they didn’t care … They had no reason to invest in me from an academic or athletic standpoint.”

It was his boss at a local restaurant who told him, “You don’t have to do this anymore. You don’t have to live this way.” But when Fields went to his school guidance counselor, the counselor insisted on calling his parents. His father was furious and threatened the boy. That night, when his parents left him with his younger siblings, Fields took his anger out on his little sister. “I realized I was treating her the way my father treated me, and I felt sick,” he recalls. “I looked at the second-story window, considering whether I should jump and end everything.”

His mother had insurance that would cover his stay at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital’s rehab center, and he eagerly agreed to go. “I remember doing the intake, confessing what my consumption was. There was some godlike moment of clarity for me.” But when he returned home, he quickly realized that nothing–neither his parents’ drug abuse nor the physical abuse–had changed.

When his after-care counselor insisted he move out, Fields became emancipated at sixteen. He dropped out of high school and spent the next five years struggling to put his life in order, although he never again touched drugs or alcohol.

Realizing he was at a crossroads, one of his AA sponsors introduced him to Ron Harrison. “We became much more than patient and therapist. We became great friends,” Fields says. One of his biggest challenges had been to accept the frequent references to God in AA’s program. “I was raised with a Catholic God who was damning and eager to send me to hell,” Fields explains. “I never felt I could be good enough for God. But Ron suggested I write a want ad for the god I hoped to find. I wrote the things I thought were important in a higher power. And that worked for me.”

Fields married a recovering addict, with the understanding that if either one relapsed, they would be cut off from the family and finances until rehab was successful. “It’s awesome how well that agreement has worked for us,” he says. But twelve years ago, he was seriously injured by a drunken motorist.

He had to give up his work as a house painter and learn to walk and talk all over again. Since then, Fields has cared for his three young children. He also teaches spin classes, volunteers in the schools, works with his church youth program, and recently started taking community college classes. And he sponsors three recovering addicts in AA.

“Ron was only the second male in my life who did not hurt me in some way,” Fields explains. “He modeled what I want to give my kids and my community. I’ll never be able to repay my debt to him. But I’ll try.”


In the March, 2015 issue, Ann Arbor Observer