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  • Jul 11, 2023

Michael Ryan's Recovery Story

CHA Recovery Coach, Michael Ryan, reflects on his recovery journey and how peer support groups helped him through his struggles.

Dark Days

My dark days lasted for eighteen years and were a downward spiral from the time I was once respected in my community. This really took off after I was discharged from the military with a medical diagnosis of Grand Mal seizures (Epilepsy). I was young and didn’t realize how important /  useful  good self-care skills are. I didn’t have the skills to control the seizures and I didn’t find medication helpful, which led me to having frequent seizures and multiple hospitalizations –  I can only imagine how scary this was to my family and friends.  I ended up isolated and alone. 

My dark days included homelessness, hospitalizations, arguments with the police, substance use, losing touch with my family, daughters and childhood friends. Through those 18 years, I experienced unexplainable situations, anger, depression, including attempted suicide, also being committed to State Hospitals by the Commonwealth of MA, being on locked wards at Veteran Hospitals. Most times I was happy to get committed, because part of me knew I wasn’t doing well and I didn’t have living skills or coping skills. My safest place was living outside along the banks of the Merrimack River, but I have lived in cardboard boxes, tents, abandoned buildings, and dumpsters.

How I got better

Nothing I tried seemed to be working in my hometown and coming to Boston was a new opportunity for me to change my life -  I didn't know it at the time, but after years of trying unsuccessfully, I finally found hope in AA. I came to Boston in 1998 -  in hindsight it was with the hope of obtaining recovery.  My first meeting was in Brookline, Massachusetts and I was scared going in there - I was meeting new people, I was fresh off the street and didn’t realize yet I needed living skills.  What happened there in my “home group”, was that they loved me until I could love myself. People in that AA meeting and others were kind, thoughtful, generous, patient, and friendly.  

 I went to different meetings every day of the week. I did what they suggested and I was amazed. I managed to not drink for a day and that turned to months / then years. I had a sponsor and I worked the 12 steps and continued to go to a lot of meetings. I was beginning to be really happy, I had help getting employment and went to church weekly. It was helpful to get around Boston at the time using the trolleys and the buses which allowed me to go to a lot of meetings. I continued to meet a lot of new people, who didn’t experience the lifestyle I had, as I looked for a place to fit in. The Veterans Administration had a program that gave me a place to live, employment opportunities, therapy, which I am so grateful for. After being homeless for 18 years, I had to learn how to live inside again. 

The time I spent in the VA program was a helpful living experience, I had to deal with a lot of the wreckage of the past and expand my horizons. I went to school and had a few good jobs. I worked hard. I was a good worker. I was becoming dependable and responsible. I was learning how to take care of myself with positive coping skills and found out in recovery that it is an ongoing life process. 

Therapy at the VA was very important. I learned that my drug addiction was covering up a lot of trauma experiences. Over the years, I used drugs and alcohol as my primary coping skill and I wasn’t experiencing personal development. My experience in recovery was teaching me something new. I learned about eating right, getting plenty of sleep. I was applying the benefits of my running experience that I started  when I was first getting sober to my life, like time management, self-discipline, and devotion. I exercised several hours a day, which turned into an educational experience in self-care for myself and on occasion helped  influence others.  I met a lot of people running road races, it increased my social skills and is a way to give back to the community. Being positive helped me see I needed to replace some of the old behaviors which takes time, and learn to communicate my needs and identify with other people’s needs. Navigating life isn’t easy and everything doesn't necessarily turn to gold. I’ve lost my thumb in recovery, broke my back and ended up with 14 staples in my head. I’ve experienced discrimination, stigma, and unfairness. Having resilience in life is important because God makes his sun rise for the just and unjust. (Matt. 5.{45}

Life now

I am now a Certified Peer Specialist for Urgent Care and RISE at Cambridge Health Alliance. Right now I’m living life from the benefits of going to AA, utilizing therapy, church groups, volunteering and more. I built daily living skills that put emphasis on my self-care. I still get plenty of sleep, and pay close attention to nutrition &  hydration. I have a place to live, and my connection with family and friends has changed. I have a job that helps me with my professional development and growth. I am growing as a person, which includes being able to help others with substance use and mental health issues, get connected to resources, instill hope and combat stigma. Anyone who can identify my story, or even if they can’t, is welcome to visit me here or grab a cup of coffee.

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