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Former House Speaker’s alcohol battle carries lessons

It is not about how many times you get knocked down in life, but how many times you get back up. I learned this lesson early in life as a Junior Golden Gloves champ.

For Craig DeRoche, two term Novi City Council member who rose to become the powerful Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, the lesson may have been a bit harder to grasp. DeRoche has been knocked down but he has risen to find ways to bring deeper meaning to his life and others.

Craig was born the day Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose – October 4, 1970. Joplin was a hard drinking, soulful singer who many thought would not withstand the demands she put on her voice and health both on-stage and off. She lived in accordance with one of her better-known utterances: "You can destroy your now by worrying about tomorrow."

The former Speaker of the House drank because, as he told me, it was his solution to problems: "I didn’t know how to digest and work through fear, anger, pride, shame and other problems. I learned at an early age that drinking helped me “solve” the problems in a temporary way. As with any substitute solution, it didn’t work and grew into a permanent problem of its own."

Craig could have left the world as Joplin did, in a contradiction – alone, addicted yet successful and powerful. He has not only survived, but has thrived to write a gripping new book, "Highly Functional: A Collision of Addiction, Justice and Grace," to share his story.

It is a story worth sharing as addiction to alcohol and drugs continues to destroy lives even as discovery, hope, support and restoration and recovery are possible.

Craig and I became unlikely friends in the early 90's as part of the inaugural cohort of the Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP). He was an up and coming young Republican and I, a Democrat just booted from my Gov. Blanchard-appointed job as State Mental Health Director when Blanchard lost his re-election bid to then-Senate Majority Leader John Engler.

Alcoholism is by its nature a sneaky disease. It hides in plain sight. Seeing Craig operate, you would never know he had consumed a fifth of vodka or more only 8-10 hours earlier. Like others with this disease, he hid his alcohol problem from his family, friends, colleagues — and even himself— for years. Yet alcohol has a way of catching up with the souls it inhabits.

Craig left the legislature in 2009 to re-enter the business world. He was arrested twice in 2010 ‒ the first time for suspicion of drunk driving in Saline and the second for possession of a firearm while intoxicated. He pled no contest to the first and contested the second. The second charge was dismissed in January 2011 and appealed by the prosecutor. Craig won on appeal and the dismissal is now case law in Michigan.

He held onto his loving wife, Stacie, and three beautiful daughters during these tribulations and humbly sought forgiveness and redemption. He was asked by a friend to give a speech on addiction and criminal justice in Washington, DC during the summer of 2011. He was soon thereafter introduced to Chuck Colson of Watergate shame.

Colson, an evangelical Christian leader who founded Prison Fellowship after being released from prison for his part of the Watergate scandal, had served as special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973.

Colson, seeing past Craig's alcoholism, arrests and humiliation, put him to work. He rose to become executive director of Justice Fellowship, helping to advance criminal justice reform in America.

Since 2012, DeRoche has worked to create a political movement across ideologies, political parties and demographics to reform criminal justice, so that communities, victims and even criminals can be restored. This movement is now taking hold and we are generating momentum from the strongest base constituencies in politics today. Christian social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, tea partiers, progressives, civil libertarians and liberals are joining forces to advance these values at the federal, state and local level. His mission is to "change the way America talks, thinks and acts on addiction and criminal justice.”

Staying sober, staying focused

When he was a drunk, even DeRoche was amazed about how he was able to juggle his convoluted life. "People ask how I maintained my day job and performed at a high level. The real answer is I was like a frog in a pot of water slowly boiling. I drank to excess most days for nearly my entire adult life, so everything I did and accomplished was done by juggling the task alongside how much and when I could drink alcohol. It was a slavery of sorts. Yes, I could work hard and get things done but, later that night, I would drink more than anyone should on any day in their life."

What keeps Craig sober today? Besides his wife and children, he tells me he has found a "different solution for problems."

"I still have problems,” he says. “The problems didn’t go away, but now I can deal with them in a healthy way." He continues, "For me this is a spiritual solution. God has done for me what I could not do for myself. It is not a theory for me. I have lived it and seen it in a very practical way. I try to share this with others because, for me, it is a miracle."

Craig is an alcoholic. But he is also a bright, capable, decent man with a wonderful family who has helped turn his tragedy into opportunity for himself and others.

He knows sobriety is one day at a time. Today he is sober and adding value to make a difference, one day at a time.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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