After battle with homelessness and alcoholism, veteran feels 'like I’m 17 again'
By CORLYN VOORHEES | The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. | Published: November 11, 2019
BROCKTON, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — When Navy veteran Mike Ryan checked himself into detox to recover from alcoholism, he said, he blew a high enough blood-alcohol content reading in a breathalyzer to kill a man his size.
He had been drunk for four months straight, he said, after escaping a bad relationship, which lasted until a neighbor stepped in.
"My neighbor, who I ended up staying with a while, said either get on living or get on dying," Ryan said.
So that night, after getting a ride to detox, Ryan chose the former.
Several years later, Ryan, 57, lives in a studio apartment in a Father Bill's and MainSpring shelter in Brockton. He's in a steady (and healthy) relationship, he said, and is working two jobs. He's made a 180-turnaround on his health, he said, by not drinking, switching to a plant-based diet with intermittent fasting and regularly exercising.
He's more in shape now than he was when he joined the Navy at age 17, he said.
Elements of his service and his family are scattered throughout the apartment he's occupied since the shelter opened last December. A picture of his father, Paul, and him from when he was a child hangs on the wall in a frame he made himself, he said.
Military service is the story of his life, Ryan said. His father served as an aviation mechanic in the Marine Corps and Ryan was born at Cherry Point, a military base in North Carolina where his father was stationed. He also has his father's Zippo lighter, which features the U.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier that his father served on prior to his eventual death during the Vietnam War.
The most notable memento of Ryan's service is the giant American flag that covers an entire wall inside his apartment. The flag was displayed on USS Truxtun, the ship he served on, he said.
"I was a signalman and we managed all the flags on the ship," he said. "This is my pride and joy."
After he got out of the service at age 21, he was a construction worker for a bit, he said, and went to school for air conditioning and refrigeration. Then, based on an urge to leave, he became a truck driver in 1989, which he did for almost 30 years.
He eventually made his way up to Quincy from Florida after a friend moved to the area, he said, where he fell into alcoholism and then found himself homeless before seeking help.
"I had to say to myself that alcohol is killing me," he said. "Not only did I stop drinking alcohol, but I turned everything around."
After he got out of detox, he was referred to A New Way Recovery Center in Quincy for treatment.
"That's available to anyone who wants it," he said. "There's a bed available. If you walk in there and want to get sober, they'll find you a bed to go to. And the hardest part is leaving that facility and starting over again. I don't know how I did it ... But I did it."
It was staff at the center that found him housing through Father Bill's and MainSpring in a Quincy shelter, he said, where he lived for about 16 months.
"For anyone, vets included, that want to get sober, their doors are always open," Ryan said. "That's what saved me. They got me to Father Bill's."
While he said he was able to overcome his alcoholism, he knows of veterans continuing to struggle with substance use that aren't reaching out for help.
He's met veterans who have gotten addicted to heroin after being prescribed painkillers for combat-related injuries, he said, and knows of people turning to alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms for mental health issues and PTSD.
His best friend, who got housing through Father Bill's, overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl in April 2018, Ryan said.
"The ones who fall through the cracks aren't the ones who are speaking up for themselves," he said. "If no one reaches out, I think there's a gap there."
The problem, he says, is veterans not wanting to seek out help because they've lost hope.
"They really, truly believe no one gives a s--t about them, that the only reason the shelter is there is to get them off the street so they don't get hit by cars and stuff and that's a hard thing to sleep on every night," he said. "... I think they don't care anymore. 'I'm at the end of my life,' these guys are telling me. I'm like, 'No, no effing way. I feel like I'm 17 again.'"
But services, like A New Way Recovery Center and Father Bill's and MainSpring, are available, he said. Currently, Father Bill's and MainSpring operates more than 80 housing units for veterans across Southeastern Massachusetts and also offers services or connects people to services like substance use treatment, said Father Bill's and MainSpring CEO John Yazwinkski.
"When I came to Father Bill's in 1996, one of the first people that was homeless I ever met was a Pearl Harbor survivor," Yazwinski said. "At Father Bill's and MainSpring, we're trying to end veteran homelessness and we're trying to end homelessness for everyone. Anyone who's fought for our freedom should never have to stand in line for a homeless shelter."
The past administration really put an emphasis on ending veteran homelessness, Yazwinski said, and according to Housing and Urban Development statistics, the total number of veterans experiencing homelessness has decreased by nearly 50 percent since 2010. Last year, Father Bill's and MainSpring provided shelter to 222 veterans, with a portion of rooms specifically dedicated for veterans.
"We know the answer is housing," Yazwinski said. "We need more housing ... for everyone that's experiencing homelessness."
And that housing, coupled with the other community supports, helped Ryan to turn his life around, he said. He's in the process of saving up to buy a reliable vehicle, he said, and is applying for a state voucher to move out of the shelter into a one-bedroom apartment. He has plans to use the bedroom as a photography studio and turn his photography hobby into a business venture.
"I can't describe how I feel now," he said. "Complete? Whole again? That's stretching it, maybe, but I feel wonderful. If I can help someone, I will."
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