Honest, Humble. Healing. Those are three words well-suited to describe Michael Blanchard’s 12 years of sobriety after decades of alcohol addiction that increasingly took control of his life and came close to ending it.
Michael, who recently spoke at MiraVista is now an award-winning author of two books of essays, “Fighting for My Life: Finding Hope and Serenity on Martha’s Vineyard,” and “Through a Sober Lens: A Photographer’s Journey.” Sharing his stories of struggle and success with the disease of addiction, he said, has been therapeutic for him as well as pairing their narratives with landscapes his camera captures, under nature’s different illuminations, on the Vineyard where he lives.
His work has earned him loyal followers on Facebook, countless visitors from all over the world to his Crossroads Gallery and accolades from such celebrities as actress Jamie Lee Curtis who is 24 years in recovery.
During a 90-minute phone interview, his dedication to sustaining the clean life he now lives is clear from the stories he tells, sometimes with humor and always with insight even when they involve judgmental feedback on social media around his own recovery.
Achievements in terms of wealth and prestige no longer define him. He could have remained a corporate executive in health care for those rewards, he says, overseeing laboratory services to an extensive network of medical facilities. Instead, he is gratified that, in taking up the life of a writer and photographer on his recovery path, he finds himself helping others who see their own lives echoed in his stories and photos.
These include individuals with addiction, family and friends with loved ones lost to the disease or struggling with it, and professionals working in the field of addiction services. Some buy his books for inspiration, his photos for comfort and remembrance and some attend the engagements, like his upcoming one at MiraVista that is free to the public with registration, where he is asked to speak about the impact of addiction and what individual recovery looks like.
“I get a wide variety of folks at these events where my goal really is to keep things simple and to help at least one person who is sitting there,” Michael said. “I try to share the stories and words people need to hear to take action and do something about it.”
His MiraVista talk will include a slide presentation featuring the quote from French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Photos to be shown include that of a towering rock facing a grey expanse of ocean on the cover of his book, “Through a Sober Lens,” that holds a particular significance to what his life was and where it is now. It is also featured on Jamie Lee Curtis’ website that raises money for various charities and where Michael has donated the proceeds from the book’s sale there.
“When I started to live on the Vineyard, at first part-time, 12 years ago, there was this giant cliff, basically a hillside of mud, that the sea gradually pushed back to leave this rock of sandstone that I thought would shortly disappear, too, but lasted four more years through snow and the pounding of waves and this was inspirational and a symbol of perseverance to me,” Michael said.
“I had this ego or shell that everyone saw, but that wasn’t who I really was. When all my mud was washed away through the pounding of losing almost everything and getting ready to end my life, then I truly showed up for the first time. The rock crumbled about a year and a half ago. It was hard to go back to that beach without it, but the realization became what we really leave behind in persevering on this earth is in the hearts of the people that we have impacted by being there.”
Three years ago, Michael completed a master’s degree in the field of psychology with a concentration in substance use disorders, but his approach at his talks is not that of clinician. It is as an individual with lived experienced who continues to work on his own recovery.
Prior to being hospitalized for detoxification in his early 50s and then a three-month program for rehabilitation, Michael, now 65, faced the possibility of incarceration on drunk-driving charges, and planned to take his life to end the control of his addiction.
“If you hear someone openly telling their story and you are concerned about the stigma and shame associated with what you are going through and suddenly that person openly expresses it, there is an immediate bond or connection,” Michael said. “I am proof to the addicts and alcoholics that you can get to a real low place and still make it back and that there is no time lost that involves productive struggles in recovery.”
He added that he stresses to those with addiction that his turning to writing and photography in recovery as a way to connect and not be isolated within himself is just one of many paths.
“Common themes in the recovery process are about helping others and coming out of isolation whatever an individual’s mode is,” Michael said. “I will ask people who say they can’t do what I am doing in recovery, ‘Are you a kind person? Are you using your experiences to help others? Are you taking care of yourself and going to support meetings so you don’t withdraw? If so, case closed. You don’t need to tell your story to thousands of people on Facebook.’ I have one story and that contributes to the body of the village that it takes to reinforce recovery.”
Michael said that it is important for his talks to offer peer support, but also that his target audience involves “those supporting, or affected by, the addict or alcoholic.”
“I almost spend as much time talking with parents and family members and this is very rewarding in terms of educating about addiction as they often are in a place where they don’t understand what the person who they are supporting is thinking,” Michael said. “Sometimes, you hire a thief to catch a thief, meaning I am kind of the thief hired to explain what is going on in the minds of people with the disease. I am also an example to them as well that their loved one can be in a real low place and can come back.”
Similarly, he added, he wants “the clinicians to know that the work they do means something to people.”
“There can be a lot of burn-out in the field of addiction counseling as it is a hard job and clinicians need to hear what they do, and stand for, means something,” Blanchard said.
He added he has plans for a third book for which he will travel the county in a conversion van to meet and photograph individuals in recovery. He said Anne-Marie Bell, his partner of five years and a nurse practitioner, are “happy together” and own a modest Vineyard home where the gallery is located and open during the summer.
“We are happy together and have a dog and a cat,” said Michael who has two children from previous marriages with whom he says he now has a “strong” relationship.
The interview ends with him noting the importance of self-care even for those in long-term recovery.
“We all go through places where we think we got it and suddenly we start feeling down,” Michael said. “Recognizing and taking action is the important thing. I have a therapist who is a licensed addiction counselor and I have a small group where we share stories and help each other and a have a sponsor whom I meet for breakfast once-a-week.”