“I was flying through life, appearing successful on the outside, but drinking and taking 20-30 painkillers every day. That was my life for 10 years,” recalls Steve.
He was working for a major furniture systems manufacturer/dealer in West Michigan, watching his salary climb higher and higher as a successful salesman and knowing inside that he was killing himself as an addict. “I was drinking and using from morning until night. One time my boss found four empty vodka bottles in the drawer of my desk,” he recalls.
Steve, 46, was born in Zeeland, MI and grew up in Jenison, MI. He is the youngest of three children and the only son with two sisters. “Looking back on my childhood, unlike many men in the program, I have no sad stories. I had a great childhood. I spent my early teens on my family’s sailboat enjoying water sports at our cottage on Lake Michigan. In high school, I was a member of the football team. I was also on the college football team at Wheaton College in Chicago. Along the way, like a lot of kids, I drank a bit and smoked marijuana,” he admits.
“After college, I moved to the Washington D.C. area where I interned with a U.S. Senator and volunteered for Prison Fellowship. After two years there, I married and we lived in Chicago where I worked at the Mercantile Exchange. It was exciting but I determined it was not the career for me. We moved back to Washington, D.C. and I began a career in sales in the office systems furniture industry. I worked there until we moved back to West Michigan to work for a West Michigan dealer. I enjoyed a very successful career in sales. The only difficulties were back pain from years of traveling and too much drinking while entertaining customers. To combat the pain, in 2002, an associate introduced me to prescription painkillers, “says Steve.
That became a lifelong addiction that in his own words, “took over my life.” He recalls, “At first it was a few pills from friends. Then I would manipulate doctors to write scripts. When that supply was not enough, I began buying them mail order and later from illegal dealers. Surprisingly, my career was going well and I was given a lot of autonomy. My boss knew I drank too much but the sales results were there, so he didn’t really care. For over 10 years, I was taking 20-30 painkillers a day and washing them down to vodka.”
“It is no wonder that a crisis came in 2012, when I experienced the greatest pain I could imagine. I was diagnosed with pancreatitis and hospitalized for a week. My family was worried about my losing my very life at this point. I got through that experience but still continued to use. I began to feel like my body was shutting down. I lost my job. I would discover bruises all over my body because I was falling down often. I had become a slave to prescription drugs and alcohol. This went on for two years. My sisters became so concerned for my life that they staged an intervention,” Steve shares.
“At that point, I cut down on my use but continued to use. I was feeling that I could handle things but then I was to blame for an auto accident. I was consuming two fifths of vodka a day and out of touch with reality. I didn’t know day from night. My mother came to my apartment one day and gasped at what she saw,” he recalls.
“Things began to move fast. I was taken to Pine Rest for detox, then I began the Drug & Alcohol Recovery Program at Guiding Light. From spring, 2016 until the end of August, I worked hard to overcome addiction through Guiding Light Recovery. After I completed the program. I wanted to begin a new life, clean, sober and of service to others. I was offered the opportunity become a counselor at Guiding Light, which I accepted,” he says.
“Along the way, I was divorced after 19 years years of marriage and two daughters, ages 11 and 12. I am working at restoring relationships with those I have hurt through the years as I create a new identity for myself – sober Steve. I have developed the daily spiritual practice of devotions, prayer and journaling. These practices have provided me with courage and calmed me. My faith has traveled from my head to pierce my heart, and that has made all the difference.”
“Today, I feel blessed. I feel like I am watching miracles every day as I initially see a lot of pain in the eyes of the men who come to Guiding Light. As they progress, I literally see them come back to life. For me, there are times when I see the face of Christ in them. I see raw joy as they begin to realize that they might make it through to sobriety and a new life. I’ve never seen that kind of joy anywhere else,” concludes Steve.
Robert, age 47, fought personal issues most of his adult life. By his own admission, he lived an unhealthy life and was unable to maintain employment. He felt like his life was spiraling out of control in a negative direction. “I was talking to a friend and shared that I just wanted to be healthy in every way – physically, mentally and spiritually. He put me in touch with Chaplain Larry who serves Guiding Light. That was when real change began to happen for me,” he recalls.
Born and raised in Dowagiac, Michigan, Robert will return there for Christmas this year. It will be the first Christmas with his family, including his mother, brother, two nieces and a nephew, in six years. Upon returning, he will move into a new transitional housing opportunity provided for men who have completed the Back to Work program. Three men will move into a three bedroom, two and one-half bath townhouse. “God is blessing me. My Mom always said ‘When you do good, good will follow,'” shares Robert.
“I needed a fresh start and found it through the Back to Work program. I came to Guiding Light for a safe place to live, and I worked with The Job Post to find employment. I found respect and a place where people let me be myself yet I am held accountable. I definitely found what I was looking for,” he says.
Robert works as a Quality Inspector of car parts for Spectrum Industries. Through this housing opportunity, he will pay rent in full and on time monthly. He will receive an Alumni Card which provides two meals a week, use of the Computer Lab and continuing counseling.
He wants to stay connected to those who have helped him so much. “I told Mr. Ray that I would like to volunteer, so if anything needs to be painted, cleaned or fixed, he knows to call me. I am still a work in progress, but I am at a point where I want to live a peaceful life and give back. I am humble, grateful and truly blessed to be where I am today. I am beginning to build a healthy life. God has seen me through and answered my prayers,” Robert concludes.
Jonathan grew up in Holland and always had stable housing. Last year, however, he was living with a friend, who was evicted from his apartment. This left Jonathan with nowhere to go. He called around, and talked to his pastor at church. His pastor recommended a few organizations, one of which was Guiding Light.
Jonathan visited Guiding Light and spoke to our intake manager, Jeff. He felt at ease and was accepted into Guiding Light’s Back to Work program. From here, he applied for jobs, worked with Guiding Light’s internal staffing agency, The Job Post, and soon was offered a full-time position as a security officer.
From Jonathan’s perspective, one of the most valuable parts of the Back to Work program was the safety and security of the building, and in his new job as a security officer at a local apartment complex he is able to provide this same service to others in the Grand Rapids’ community.
Jonathan has continued to work full-time for the security company and he has since moved out of Guiding Light and into his own housing. He wants to thank all the donors and volunteers who make Guiding Light’s mission possible and who helped him get back on his feet!
I’ve been in the Back to Work Program for just under a month. I’m here because I broke my arm falling down an icy stairwell and had eight screws and a plate put in. I couldn’t draw social security unless I was disabled a year. Consequently I got evicted after being only $500 behind on rent.
I spent two weeks on the streets in Holland. I bathed in Lake Macatawa in 55 degree water and worked 30 hours a week. I had to sleep during the day with my only possessions in a bag I wrapped around my neck and used as a pillow. When people on the street know you have money, they flock to you and you have to find ways to hide so
they don’t try anything.
Now my arm is pretty much healed and I’m back to work. It took me all of fifteen minutes to get a job in the Back to Work program. A doctor called up and needed some work done around his place. He’s 92 years old and takes care of his wife. His yard hasn’t been touched in five years. I happened to be out in the lobby putting my things away and they asked me if I’d be willing to do it. I said sure, I can help the guy. I gave him a phone call and he offered to come pick me up. It’s not a full-time job but it was work right away. It happened that fast. I helped him clean up his giant yard, put in flower beds and cleaned out his garage. I didn’t think I’d be good at doing something like that, but hey, I’m happy working for him. He needs the help and I like helping him.
I’m starting a full-time job working nights beginning this week, but I’ll help the doctor during the days if he needs me.
The Back-to-Work program is perfect for someone like Arron. Until a couple months ago he was working, living at home with his wife and three kids. But a steady addiction issue finally crept up and caused some problems.
“It’s kind of overwhelming in a way, because I’ve never even had a speeding ticket,” says Arron. “Some of the guys here have tethers or been in prison before. It’s different than what I’m used to.”
Faced with an impending divorce, mounting child support and having to move out of his home, Arron is now doing everything he can to get his life back to normal.
After going through some emergency rehab services, Arron was referred to Guiding Light. “Everyone is expected to stay sober here and they’re not afraid to give people breathalyzers or make them take a drug test.” This helps keep Arron accountable and focused on getting healthy again. “When I walk in the door, I know that everyone here is sober… and that helps.”
Arron is still stunned that he’s even here. After all, technically, he’s still considered a homeowner and a husband. Employment has never been a problem for him, let alone homelessness. But he’s a living example of how someone can be knocked off the track by addiction and divorce. And like the good man he wants to be, he’s addressing these issues as best he can.
“My kids know I’m taking care of some stuff,” he says.
Arron is a very smart and capable person. Two weeks into his new job, he was promoted to a manager position. “I’m a people person, so the more people I deal with, the better.”
Looking down the road, Arron is confident that he’ll get back on his feet, save some money and own a house again. And because of Guiding Light’s savings program, 75% of his paycheck is being saved for him. “I’m hoping to have about five thousand dollars saved up by the time I leave here.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Charlene Strong recalls the first time her fifteen year old son came home with alcohol on his breath. Rusty was almost two hours past curfew. “I waited and waited for him. I knew something was wrong.” Finally when Rusty was dropped off, he smelled of alcohol.
“I couldn’t believe it. I smacked him so hard across the face.” Seeing her child inebriated at such a young age was traumatizing. It was this night that kicked off well over a decade of worry and dread of what would become of her son.
It became a regular occurrence that Charlene Strong and her husband Russell would smell alcohol on their son’s breath or catch him drunk, forcing them to be constantly searching for disciplines that would stick. They would yell at him, lecture him, forbid him and take away his car. But nothing seemed to work. Russell and Charlene would identify possible culprits. They’d team up and say, “Well, you’re not hanging out with them again,” as if there were others that deserved the blame.
It all came out of the blue, really. It was never meant to be this way. Having a teenage drinker was never part of the plan. As their two young boys, Rusty and Kevin, were growing up, Russell and Charlene offered as much love, guidance and adventures as they could. Russell got them involved in many different things: motorcycles, water skiing, snow skiing, baseball, football, golf and hockey. Definitely hockey.
The boys grew up with hockey sticks, jerseys and their own equipment. Dad regularly brought them to see the Muskegon Lumberjacks play. When Rusty was ten years old, Dad got the idea to convert the backyard garden into a winter ice hockey rink. “He was a really enthusiastic person and got really excited about stuff like that,” reflects Rusty. “He rented a backhoe and went to work. When he got something in his head like that, he had to see it through.” For years during the winter months the sentiment was “Hey everyone, come on over to our house!” Neighbor kids, friends from school and parents would flock over to the Strongs and practice on the ice and then relax in the heated garage with snacks and pop. At night, Dad would set up floodlights and blast the music. All the kids loved Russell and they called him ‘Big Russ’. It was common to hear kids mumble, “I wish I had a Dad like yours.”
When he couldn’t practice in his backyard, Rusty played on a local hockey league with friends from school. “We grew up like a band of brothers. All my friends played hockey. We became like a family.”
As Rusty entered high school, he was considered popular, likable, and a decent student. His Mom always thought of him as a nice, quiet boy, very mild mannered, and not loud or obnoxious. Even the older students liked him. During his Freshmen year, he was invited to social events and parties. And that’s where it all started.
“I suppose I drank to feel more comfortable. Being drunk made it a lot easier to talk to girls.” But his consumption amped up rather quickly to marijuana, LSD and mushrooms. “It was something I did because it took away my insecurities and my fear and so I’d go to these wild parties and think, ‘this is it, this is how I want to live!’ I thought I was Mr. Cool, you know?” In Rusty’s eyes, it was just something everybody did. “You know… kids will be kids, that kind of thing.” Since he was a B-average student, the problem was somewhat masked.
But Charlene knew better and tried to stop it. When Rusty was sixteen, his car was regularly taken away, but then he couldn’t get to school or hockey practice. So the punishment didn’t stick. “There were consequences,” Rusty says, “but they were also patiently waiting for me to grow out of it.”
“It’s what everybody did.”
On the hockey rink, Rusty and his teammates saw a big win. Their Mona Shores Hockey team won the State Championship. The parents and kids celebrated by traveling to Cancun, Mexico. It was there that Rusty amped it up, yet again. “I sought out cocaine for the first time.” He was still only sixteen.
After high school graduation, Rusty’s parents forced him into his first 30-day rehab program. Two days out of it, he was using again. That Fall, he completed one semester of Community College, then quit to work at the family-run furniture store, where his family could keep an eye on him. At twenty-two, Rusty’s uncle encouraged him to join the military, to get some structure in his life. He joined the Air Force, but soon his own captain forced him into rehab. But with the military’s regular drinking culture, his sobriety was short lived. His troubles earned him a discharge, albeit, an ‘honorable’ one.
The rest of his twenties were plagued with problems. Growing up in downtown Muskegon, finding the next big narcotic was easy. He was arrested multiple times, he passed out in strange places and wouldn’t show up for work at the family businesses. When Rusty’s dad and uncle started a hunting and fishing store in Grand Rapids, he started stealing big ticket items and pawning them off for cash. “We wouldn’t notice it right away, but certain large inventory items would come up missing,” Charlene recalls. “At the time, we didn’t understand it.”
The big blow to the family came in the fall of 2009, when Russell Strong, enthusiastic father and business owner, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “It shattered my whole world,” Rusty reflects. “I wasn’t capable of dealing with it in any constructive way.”
Charlene recalls the time her husband took their oldest son aside and spoke words of forgiveness for his then fourteen years of drinking and drugging. “He said, ‘Son, I don’t want you to feel shame for the rest of your life. I know you’ve done a lot of things you’re not proud of, but I forgive you for everything.’ ”
Russell C. Strong passed away in January, 2011, 13 months after being diagnosed.
“After my dad passed away, I felt really hopeless,” recalls Rusty. Six months later he was in the emergency room with a serious heroin overdose. He should have died on the table but doctors revived him. “That’s when I really had to look in my Mom’s eyes and see the pain I caused her.” This was the point when Rusty realized he no longer wanted to be a drug addict.
“It’s a battle you feel like you’re never going to win,” Charlene says. “I did think I would bury my son before I saw his recovery. I didn’t see a way for him to get out of this.”
Rusty tried several rehab programs, with varying degrees of success, but relapses and broken promises were the norm. He was burning bridges and losing friends. He was stealing from the family business. He was always in denial. He borrowed money and wouldn’t pay it back. He was unpredictable and moody. Charlene couldn’t take it anymore and had to let go of her son. “If love cured this disease, there wouldn’t be one. Love does not cure alcoholism or drug addiction.”
“I loved working with my family, but I just couldn’t be trusted,” Rusty admits. “They told me I couldn’t come in the store anymore.” With no job or family support, Rusty lost everything and everyone around him. It was only just a year ago that he experienced homelessness for the first time in his life. And then he experienced God for the first time.
“I am not religious at all. I question everything,” says Rusty, “but I prayed for the first time for God to help me.” After dabbling with the services of Muskegon Rescue Mission, Rusty was staying in a cheap motel, not sure what to do next.
Then his cell phone rang. The person on the other line was not any of his known family or friends. Instead it was an acquaintance from five years previous—a chance phone call from someone he met at a rehab many years ago. The familiar voice inquired rather innocently, “Hey man, I was just thinking about you today. How have you been?”
“I was so baffled by that phone call,” says Rusty. “I kept trying to figure out how he knew I needed help. It just didn’t make sense.”
He was a random person from the past. They weren’t close at all and had no mutual friends. The man just remembered him and wanted to check up on him. Once the caller realized Rusty was struggling, the conversation changed.
“Do you need help?” the friend asked.
“I do, yes,” Rusty answered. “I need a ride to Guiding Light in Grand Rapids.”
When Rusty was picked up the next day, he kept pressing his friend. “Seriously, how did you know to call me?”
“I don’t know,” his friend said, pointing to the sky. “I guess it was my ‘higher power’.”
Rusty recalls that moment as his proof that God exists. And to this day, it’s still something he’s figuring out. “I don’t see Him as a punishing God anymore. Now I see Him as a loving and forgiving God. And I definitely feel His presence now.”
During those first days at Guiding Light, he was still feeling withdrawal sickness from his opiates. It made him realize that the only way to recover was to admit he needed to stay sober and clean for the rest of his life. “All those years, I wasn’t ever ready to admit I had a problem. I’d go to treatment centers to get patched up, but I wasn’t fully convinced that I had to live my whole life sober. No way. Only after admitting that, did I actually begin to have hope.”
His time at Guiding Light wasn’t like other rehabs. As soon as he was there, he had strict structure. They had him up early in the morning and active. They gave him chores and responsibilities. They made him accountable to meetings and had him find an AA sponsor.
Rusty’s chores gravitated toward helping refurbish a couple of apartments for Iron House, Guiding Light’s transitional housing. It put him in contact with the guys living there and gave him something to look forward to for his own next steps.
Back at Guiding Light, it was becoming clear that Rusty had great potential. So when a maintenance position opened up at the Mission, they suggested he apply for it. He got the job.
Charlene was relieved when her son had steady work and when he moved into Iron House. “He has a safe place to live now and he has accountability,” she says. “Once these guys go to Iron House, it’s not a charity case anymore. There, they pay their own bills and they all have jobs. They regain respect for themselves.”
Most, if not all, of the guys at Guiding Light would agree—that when in recovery, being surrounded by people who are sober is the cornerstone of staying sober. All their struggles are personal, yet similar. They understand each other.
Rusty is attending college now, too. He’s taking some business classes at the local community college. He dreams of someday starting a family business with his brother. “We worked together growing up and I want to do that again.”
For Charlene too, this is the first time in her life that she’s experiencing her eldest son as a sober adult. It’s like she’s getting to know him again. Or rather, having his old self back again. “Guiding Light gave me back my son. Someone that I haven’t had for a lot of years.”
These days Rusty likes being called Russell.
He wants to be like his dad. He wants to someday have a family. He wants to be a person that others can count on. He wants to keep moving forward. “For so many years I wasn’t in charge of my life. Now I am. Now I wake up with passion and drive. Realizing my dreams is an amazing feeling again.”
Russell Strong is back. And we’re happy to have him.