Mike Griswold’s cell phone rings and he apologizes for answering it, but it’s his son’s school calling. A social worker is following up on some concerns Mike has had about 8-year-old Jameal’s fine motor skills and the two make a plan to meet the following Monday.
To someone who doesn’t know Mike’s history, the exchange may seem unremarkable. To someone who does, it is a small miracle. It wasn’t that long ago that Mike, 44, was in the throes of addiction, sleeping under a highway in Boston. Today he’s a devoted single dad living in Everett, with a burgeoning career as a motivational speaker.
Loss has been a theme that threads through Mike’s life. His father abused his mother and walked out of their lives early. His mother struggled with addiction, and unable to care for him, gave custody to his grandmother and grandfather. Then, when Mike was 11, his grandfather abandoned the family. He had been a positive, paternal presence in his life—Mike has sweet memories of him taking him to Red Sox games—and eventually Mike’s life took a “turn to the left,” as he terms it.
Mike’s trajectory for the next few decades was as predictable as it was tragic: Acting out in middle school, hanging out with the wrong crowd, drinking followed by blackouts and dropping out of school in the tenth grade. Occasionally Mike would work—at Burger King or other minimum wage jobs—but as soon as he picked up his paycheck he’d blow it on alcohol. Then at age 26, life turned a shade darker. “I was staying with someone and he said, ‘try this,’” recalls Mike. It was cocaine and Mike got addicted immediately. “That’s when I was real bad—in and out of jail. I was running real hard.” December 3, 2005, was the day that finally ended his down- ward spiral. Mike was living under I-93 where it intersects with the Mass Turnpike. He was emaciated, with badly blistered feet. It was about 11 in the morning and he was lying on the ground feeling ill, wrapped in a grey blanket. Another addict he knew passed by him on his way to get high and stopped. “Mike, are you OK?” he asked. When Mike told him he wasn’t, the man went to a nearby shelter to retrieve a wheelchair. Then he wheeled him to a detox facility about a mile away.
After detox, Mike worked as a janitor and lived in a studio in the South End. One day, he got a call from a Boston hospital telling him his son had been born. The mother, who struggled with addiction, lost custody of their baby at birth and he went into foster care. Social workers from the Department of Children and Families told Mike they were willing to give him full-time custody if he proved he was a fit father by fulfilling a raft of requirements, including regular drug testing and attendance at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. “The offer caught me off guard. I was scared,” admits Mike. “But I was told that if I lost custody, I’d get two pictures a year. I already had a bond with him. There’s no way I was going to let that happen.” So Mike went above and beyond what was required and gained custody of Jameal when he was 18 months old.
While living in the South End, an acquaintance told him about St. Francis House’s Sullivan Family Moving Ahead Program (MAP) and in the fall of 2009, he enrolled. Mike worked hard and thrived. “I didn’t know how to interact with people, including my son, and MAP taught me how,” recalls Mike. He soaked up knowledge from the mock interviews, became comfortable with computers and mastered the “soft skills” that held little currency on the streets, but were so critical in his new world: making eye contact, timeliness, sitting up straight and good grooming. He learned to identify his strengths, goals and obstacles and for the first time, felt comfortable in his own skin. He loved the support of staff and fellow students. “It was deep,” he says simply. “Mike was humble, he listened, he asked questions and he was diligent,” says job coach Ivor Edmonds. “Everyone else would have left the classroom and he’d still be on the computer. After graduation, he continued to come back to engage with us, working on his housing, his mental health, his resume. There were always things he was working on to better himself.”
At Mike’s MAP graduation, he stood in front of guests and families and spoke, for the first time realizing the power of his story. Since then, he has taken that story to hundreds of people around the state and beyond, inspiring people at detox facilities, jails, courthouses and Department of Children and Families offices, where he speaks to its employees about his arduous climb out of addiction and his reunification with his son. “I love helping people, giving back. Since I’ve been on the other side, I can relate,” says Mike.
Being a good father to Jameal is one of Mike’s proudest accomplishments. Ironically, it was his own father, with whom he reconciled shortly before he died, whose words continue to inspire him as he confronts the challenges of raising a son alone. “Don’t do to your son what I did to you,” he told Mike. “Be a good father.”