I consider a testimony, a journey, a story, like “How did you land here, Mike?” So I’ll just walk you through it all.
I grew up in Drexel Hill, PA and was the third of six kids. We were pretty poor and my faith really depended on my parents. They sent me to Catholic school and, over the years, I became to know God as a God of guilt and fear.
Part of my “dark world” really started when I was 14 when I started drinking and drugging. Throughout high school, I partied a lot – like way, way too much. Growing up I was insecure and I just found that I could disappear through alcoholism. My problems continued when I went to Temple University and got into a really bad fight with a guy – a fight that eventually led to me dropping out of college.
After dropping out, I got into the real estate business and got married. I was only 21. My ex-wife was 20. But my life was going nowhere because of the alcoholism. I made my ex-wife’s life miserable – many nights she didn’t know if I’d make it home. I made a habit of blackout drinking all the time. So my marriage was a wreck, my health was really bad, and I was $50,000 in debt, and my life was crumbling.
But Super Bowl Sunday, 24 years ago was my last drink. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember vividly holding my ex-wife’s hand, walking around the block, promising her I’d not have more than four beers. From the bottom of my heart, I meant it, but in the back of my mind, I also knew I wouldn’t have to work the next day but she would leave the party early because she would have to work in the morning.
The next thing I realized, it was 2:30 in the morning and I was in my brother’s garage, weeping about how my life was a complete and total trainwreck. I then headed home and stumbled into my backdoor and had what seemed like a revelation – although I was incredibly intoxicated, I just had this conviction on my heart that if I wanted to get my life together, I had to stop drinking. It made no sense for me to think this way, considering the alcohol, but I now realize it was God.
I called my older brother and asked to go to an Alcohol Anonymous meeting with him (he had already been in AA). I had always been stubborn about going, refusing so many times before. I went and again I didn’t want to be there. But it was a new beginning for me. They had a saying that “God led me to AA and AA led me back to God.” And after a while, through AA, my faith started.
Originally, when I landed there, I was very anti-God. I wanted nothing to do with praying and god-talk. One time I told this guy named Bob, huge guy, lots of tattoos, “Hey Bob! I have a drinking problem, not a God problem! So don’t give me any of that God stuff!” And Bob just smiled and said, “Mike just keep coming back.” And what happened was that I slowly came into the belief. At AA, marriages were being restored, people were recovering, and after a few years, I found that I was still miserable. My own marriage had collapsed and my life wasn’t going anywhere still. So I gave in and one day decided to give up and just pray. And the shadow over my heart and over all the struggles I had started to disappear.
My kids moved in with their mother nearly an hour away from me. I remarried after meeting my current wife at a 15 year high school reunion. Things are going well. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still face hardship.
The second part of my story is my son Patrick’s story. He is currently in the state penitentiary. Patrick is 31, I have a 28 year old daughter, and a 17 year old from my second marriage.
Patrick was a normal public high school student, enjoying playing on the wrestling team. He switched to a catholic high school And that’s when things started to go downhill, not because he went to Catholic School but because he was taken out of his comfort zone. He entered a school where he didn’t fit in with anybody and so he almost immediately fell into the wrong crowd. He started drinking, drugging, and over time did pretty much everything but heroin. By the age of 24, he had wrecked five cars, rolled three. He had been in four rehabs, a couple of detoxs, and I lived for years scared to death that the phone would ring at two or three in the morning and I’d receive news that he was in jail or in the ER.
One day, I received such a call. It was Patrick’s girlfriend. She was completely hysterical, barely understandable, screaming, “Pops! Pops! I think we’ve lost your son! Call me, call me!”
By the end of his addiction, he was taking sixteen OxyContin a day, which would have killed most people. He was dealing drugs out of North Philadelphia and selling them in Bucks County. His habit got so bad that he couldn’t afford it… One time a drug dealer put a gun to his head. He owed the guy $16,000.
Patrick ended up robbing four banks and a drug store, which is armed robbery x 5.
He was arrested by the FBI. You never want to get a call from the FBI, especially about your son. There was a period of about five days where we couldn’t talk to him. Thankfully, he admitted to all of his crimes right out of the gate. He waited in prison for sentencing.
It took a year to get to the sentencing. And that was a long, long, long painful year – talking to lawyers, but mainly seeing him in prison. There’s nothing worse than seeing your son in a jumpsuit, handcuffs behind his back, shackled at the ankles, and watching him walk to a phonebooth, to talk to him for 20 minutes with cuts and bruises on his face, knowing the pain he must be enduring from getting beaten-up in prison.
I crashed and burned that year, hard. I badly wanted to drink again – drink like I hadn’t in 24 years. I eventually stopped going to the gym. I stopped going to AA meetings. I stopped praying. I hurt my back twice and I was also diagnosed with depression. I loved to barbecue, I loved to fish, I loved to play in the yard, but I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move off of my pillow – it was just so painful.
When the day of the sentencing came, I just wept. The judge sentenced Patrick to 7 ½ to 25 years in prison. It’s hard to say that even today. But the good thing was that the sentence was not stacked – they were concurrent. And really, we made out good. Had the FBI kept the case, he would have been sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison.
I’ll never forget what a man named Craig said to me. He pointed out, “He’s in there for at least 7 ½ years and this is a marathon, not a sprint. Many, many prisoners go away and their family and friends forget them. Don’t ever, ever, ever let him feel forgotten.” So I said that day that I will never, ever let him be forgotten.
But that wasn’t easy. Patrick was moved five hours away from me to a western Pennsylvania prison. Earlier in the process, they promised he’d been moved to a prison close to home, but something went wrong and he landed nowhere near me. I was speechless, numb, and so upset, and I thought, “How can I physically do this?”
It’s been six years and I’ve had 109 trips out there. Sometimes I go by myself, sometimes with friends and family; I’ve watched every rest stop on the turnpike be rebuilt, I’ve been through storms in western Pennsylvania I didn’t think could exist. And it’s all been worth it. I’ve seen Patrick go from a skinny, scrawny drug addict, fighting in prison to a man with morals and values.
It all came down to really surrendering him to God. That’s hard when you want to have control of your own son’s life, but big changes came when I did.
There’s a guard who “adopted” my son. He got Patrick a job, watched over him, and hooked him up with a good counselor. The guy just rocks. He called me once when the prison was locked down just so I didn’t have to waste a trip out there. That’s how good of a friendship he had with my son.
Patrick now is a committed member of Narcotics Anonymous. He’s in college now (in the prison) and wants to get to Associate’s Degree before he leaves. He’s an avid runner. And I couldn’t be more proud. I once wrote him off for dead, but God has taken him through so much. And there’s hope. I asked him a couple of months ago where he’s at with God, and he said, “Dad, I got on my knees and prayed today. I’m not quite sure what it’s all about. But I’m praying and I’m believing.” To me, that’s God showing up.
We hope to see him released in November.