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.

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John Q. Public
Fri, 07/24/2015 - 10:37pm
I am not moved. It's amazing what swell fellows politicians become after leaving office. Why is it that when they hold office they never show that side of themselves, and just practice all manner of treachery in their exercise of power? DeRoche may well be bright, capable, and have a wonderful family. Were you (the average reader, not the author) to examine the legislation and causes he championed while in office, though, I doubt that "decent" would be among the first ten adjectives to pop into your head.
Cathy O fo tog
Mon, 07/27/2015 - 2:47pm
John Q. Public, I must concur with your assessment. DeRoche was so new (so Young), when elected Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, the Clerk of the House had to conduct classes to teach him how Parliamentary Procedure and Legislating was done ( I happened to be at the Capitol that day, seeing the proceedings in the House chambers), alas, no photos! Could part of former Speaker DeRoche's problem have been, he was elected to an office of great responsibility at too young an age? Another of the (unintended?) consequences of the Chamber of Commerce's Term Limit fiasco. There is an adage about obtaining great wealth at too young an age can warp a person and not in a good way. There must be an analogy for obtaining Power at too young an age. Obtaining the Power as the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives at the age of 35 and then to have it wrested from your hands after a mere 4 years at the age of 39. To be turning 40 and you are a has been politically, the job you have been doing for the longest part of your adult life. Cathy O
Sat, 07/25/2015 - 1:17am
Not exactly a stellar record while in the Michigan House. Of everything he introduced, the overwhelming majority of it was House Resolutions (read: fluff bills that members introduce to honor someone or something, instead of focusing on the actual business of running the state). The few actual bills he did introduce, among them was a bill to hike the Michigan Gas Tax: HB-4575 of 2007 (how very "republican" of him) along with about a dozen other bills on various unrelated and unremarkable issues. One other important note: Rep. DeRoche didn't exactly leave the legislature, he was termed out. His voting record along with his not-so secret drinking issues would not have lent itself to a successful campaign for anything after that point.
Steven C Lyman
Sat, 07/25/2015 - 9:09am
I found this to be an interesting read by Tom Watkins about Craig DeRoche (neither of whom I know personally). However, I was more impressed with what I subsequently read in the two (thus far) critical comments. It is always a positive to hear tale of someone successfully conquering their substance abuse addiction, but that does not absolve them of their previous failures or perceived wrongdoings.
Conservative Dude
Sat, 07/25/2015 - 3:17pm
I actually read some of this book. Spoiler alert: it isn't about the gas tax or House resolutions - it is about addiction, family, God and finding purpose in life. I remember DeRoche when he was speaker a little differently than those comments too. He was the guy who stood up to Granholm and passed two budgets under the rate of inflation without tax increases. This is something that wasn't done for 47 years before him, and last I checked with the "conservatives" in power today - since. In googling what he is doing now - it is clear to see his message is about helping people who have made mistakes and bad choices into people who overcome them and contribute to society. This is a positive message and he is authentic with his own failings in what I read. Not sure if the critics here have ever done something wrong in their life - but if they did, are we supposed to judge them on this alone?
Sun, 07/26/2015 - 12:31am
Thank you for saying it better than I could have. Whether or not one approves of DeRoche's actions while in office, it's hard not to be moved by the message of redemption. One thing for sure... it's easier to sit back and judge than it is to take on the demon and and wrestle with it daily, as recovery from addiction requires.
John Q. Public
Tue, 07/28/2015 - 9:59pm
I'll tell you what moves me, Carol: sober legislators trying to serve the citizenry, not self-serving addicts who have their "come to Jesus" moments only after reaping the pecuniary rewards of deliberately screwing us. As to Conservative Dude's question: We shouldn't judge a person solely on his failings, but neither should we ignore them--especially those of lawmakers whose actions are seldom other than calculated toward a specific end, and frequently at the expense of the very people they swear to serve. The narrative of plutocratic America--deliberately forwarded to skew perceptions--is: "Better to have an addiction and battle it, than never to have been addicted at all." .
Tue, 07/28/2015 - 2:17pm
Oh, I've heard this "message" before. I've heard it numerous times before from achies who felt that after their actions have adversely affected my family and friends due to their driving. It's a shame that epiphany and subsequently "Finding God" occurred after their all too brief stint in jail. Feel free to buy into the happy message Rep DeRoche and Mr. Watkins are shoveling. I just happen to know better!
I am one!
Mon, 07/27/2015 - 8:00am
This disease doesn't give a damn about you, your family, your career, your political leanings, your age, your sex or anything else. It is patient and powerful. It will whack you harder than a baseball bat across the bridge of your nose when you least expect it. Sober one minute, driving to a liquor store the next--totally out of control. You are encouraged to drink in movies, tv shows, magazines, liquor stores,your friends, social events, commercials, billboards and on and on. You can't hide! Bravo to any one person who can stand up,admit they are powerless over this disease-addiction-allergy-problem-lack of will power or whatever you want to call it.
Anne Nelson
Mon, 07/27/2015 - 11:07am
Just another corporate shill. Does he feel bad about that? I haven't heard anything positive about the former speaker from his constituents in Novi.
Cathy O fo tog
Mon, 07/27/2015 - 8:50pm
Anne Nelson, and it must be pointed out, Craig DeRoche was Speaker of the House and leading House Republican when after losing the Majority and the Speakership, the Republican Majority repealed the Michigan Business Tax, leaving NO funding in place for the next fiscal year, when the Democrats would be in charge. The next Speaker of the House was, Democrat, Andy Dillon of Redford, Mi. He and his Majority Floor Leader Steve Tobocman, as well as Andy Meisner and the rest of the Democratic Caucus, had to Fight to pass a budget that last weekend of September 2007 with a call of the House.
Mon, 07/27/2015 - 12:49pm
Whenever you hear of someone overcoming events that have taken control of there lives it brings hope for others. It seems we hear much about the recovery, but little to about the path to that loss of control and loss of lives. What I would like to hear more about is the path to that loss of control. The story that others can learn from to identify the warning points for others to recognize and take action so there will not be loose control and lives. I thikn we could gain more fram a description of actions the the individual on the path and those seeing them in that spiralling journey to a bottom could take. I have seen the alcohol spiral at work and been involved in addressing it. One where the spiral could not be stopped even with employer support, another where the supervisor gave a choice, recieve treament [employer provided] or loss employment [coworkers were very outspoken against it, but it worked]. It is the Early Warning signs and action plans that we can gain more from then hearing the rare recoveries of lives that give hope.
Tue, 07/28/2015 - 2:30pm
I will not judge. I am addicted to money and spent time in prison because of it. I'm torn by this story. I understand the importance of telling the tale because while we aren't proud, it is important to share our testimony. My frustration is that people around the Speaker knew, it was not a secret. So there were people in Lansing enabling this man to affect policy discussions. At some point our leaders need to be held to the same standards as the citizens. In my case the judge was allowed to wear a tether on the bench for drunk driving while sentencing other addictive behaviors more harshly then he was treated. Hum, not sure how I feel about all of this.