It’s a Wonderful Life

By Maxine Phoenix

Mike J.’s life is full of serendipity, coincidence, full-circle moments. He’s as aware of this as anyone, and has chosen a life path to help others, the full-circle coming again once more. Loops, graceful repetition. From when we first begin our conversation, his story tumbles forth, almost unstoppable, in anecdotes and hard facts, rambling and beautiful stories, snippets of a history. Together, the patchwork of his life. Cinematic: the lows of chronic illness, addiction, heartbreak, rage alongside the highs of true love, a supportive family, parenthood, finding purpose. Mike has experienced the true “Hero’s Journey.”

At the beginning of our conversation, Mike references a recent hip replacement surgery that he’s undergone. After I express condolences, he laughs, brushing it off: “I’ve had about thirty surgeries in my life.” His journey in and out of hospitals began at age three, when he experienced kidney failure. “I was born with nephrotic syndrome,” Mike explains. “I had one working kidney and the other one didn’t want to clock in.” Scar tissue built up in and around that secondary kidney and wouldn’t budge, despite doctors’ attempts to push it away. Medical professionals tried all kinds of treatments, even chemotherapy, and after three months in the Children’s Hospital (Mike fact checks this with his mother, who’s in the background of the phone call), three-year-old Michael J. began dialysis. His journey had some news coverage, a story running on the local station about how he was finally able to go home for Christmas. Mike shares that his family still has the footage, burned onto a DVD somewhere in his family’s home. “My brother was on screen too—the only time you saw us sharing a toy!”

Michael and Lori Hartwell at the 25th Renal Teen Prom

Mike can’t remember as much of that period of his life. He shares snippets of memory: his unibrow (a result of “all sorts of steroids”), his mother learning how to use a dialysis machine, the “amazing staff” at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, including “two Barbaras, a woman named Sunny, and a male nurse named Ray.” With joy, Mike recounts the playroom up on the sixth floor of the hospital with painting, books, and all kinds of activities for the kids to do. Including a punching bag, and Mike cackles, explaining, “there were all these little kids in there with IV in their arm going at it! We can barely move this thing…I guess it was to get emotions out?”

After three tries at a transplant, Mike finally received a working one at thirteen years old. When the second attempt fell through, he recalls crying at the doctor’s office, feeling hopeless. The first two didn’t take. Then, victory! Mike also began a new medication, an immune suppressant, and has been on it ever since. He remembers the doctor asking if he’d be a “test patient” for the drug, and asked, “Will it get me out of here?” The doctor responded with a resounding yes and that was all Mike needed to hear.

This is where Mike’s story differs from the others. After his transplant is where the struggle began. “I entered high school with the mentality of an eight-year-old,” he sighs. “I remember going to my first school dance and seeing people bumping and grinding and wondering, ‘Do the parents know!?’” Mike felt like an outcast at school, trying out different sports and getting whacked in the face. The safety and sanctuary of the hospital was replaced with the all-too-real complicated social dynamic of high school. But around this time, he started to find things that brought him comfort: video games, television shows, movies. It was a point of connection with his older brother, too. Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in particular gave Mike the world in which to find joy and expression, not only in the worlds of film, television, and video games but in collectable figures too. His parents, supportive and encouraging, tried to help—at one point, Mike switched schools and he remembers his dad walking him in to the new one, introducing him to other kids: “This is my son, you should be friends!”

Eventually, Mike found acting. It makes sense, given his outgoing, sparkling way of speaking—he monologues, pauses for laughs, modifies his voice when he’s quoting others. He has charisma, yet the streak of self-deprecation that a lot of performers carry deep inside. In high school, Mike played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his favorite roles, and performed in another play he can’t quite recall the name of where he played a prisoner. “It was the first monologue I did.” After, in college, he strove to continue—but the world proved more cutthroat. Mike attended Glendale Community College, where he’d oscillate between feeling confident and outgoing as an actor, then extremely introverted. “I’d get in my head about social situations, wondering if I said the right thing, what I should say next, and if people were wondering if I was looking at them in a weird way when I was just trying to figure out how to act.” When acting didn’t unfurl the way Mike thought it would, he tried his hand at some culinary classes but once again found himself in an extreme environment. With both passions, the other kids made him feel like he’d been missing out—they had been doing this all their lives, it consumed them, and Mike still held other interests.

College brought about another problem: drinking alcohol. What first started as a balm for the awkwardness of social situations soon became a slippery slope. Mike wanted to have the parties that he saw in the movies—a bunch of kids laughing, dancing, bonding, lives changed in one night. He’d throw said parties at his dad’s house and, admittedly, would get “caught all the time.” It was never what he thought it would be. “You think it’s gonna be this awesome thing and you get the girl…yeah! But then you’re left with cleaning everything up.” During one of the parties, however, Mike connected with his future wife, Heather. They had already been friends from college, running in the same circle of artists. He recalls offering her a drink and she told him, “I don’t drink,” but they still spent the night talking and getting to know one another. After an exchange of numbers—-nothing happened. She was dating another guy at the time, but she and Mike stayed in touch. Years went by, and Heather had a child with someone else. Then, finally she was single.

Michael and his wife Heather at the 25th Renal Teen prom

Mike took Heather to a Christmas parade in La Crescenta and knew when he hugged her that there was a very definite spark. As Santa waved at onlookers, in a magical, movie moment, the couple kissed for the first time. He’d finally “gotten the girl.” But it was a lot more complicated than in the movies. Their “happily ever after” included intense mental, physical, and emotional struggles: Heather was undergoing a custody battle with her ex over their young child, and Mike was beginning his journey of sobriety. “We were fighting a lot—it was bad. We decided ‘we can’t do this,’ and broke up after that.” Mike fondly recalls how they kept in touch via MySpace after the breakup. Just like the years prior to that first fateful date, the two retained a friendship and saw each other go through other relationships. It was a back and forth—one would be single, then the other would be dating. Then, vice versa. When they were finally both single at the same time, Mike and Heather decided, “Let’s do this.” They had worked through their individual battles and came together as grown humans—and it clicked. Love, marriage. And a son! He’s currently two-and-a-half, and his giggles are heard throughout the phone call in the background.

Mike’s journey of sobriety is as much of a roundabout, circular adventure as the love story with his wife. He first realized there was problem when he was at the doctor. The nephrologist, to be precise, for a check-in; they asked Mike if he was drinking and when he said yes, the doctor immediately responded, “You know you shouldn’t be doing that,” and, as Mike explains, his response was to start bargaining. “Well, how much is alright?” Drinking was a comfort, like his “best buddy who was always there,” Mike explains. Whenever something would go wrong, he knew he could turn to a drink to make it feel a little better. Until he got  DUI. Then, Mike began attending Alcoholics Anonymous for about three years, but, he admits, “my head got in the way again. I thought: ‘I don’t need you guys.’’ When he finally did become sober (and, congratulations to Mike, it has been fifteen years!), he thought the worst was over. Then another addiction, one that was a lot more subtle and crept up unexpectedly, came into play. Mike became dependent on opiates and “benzos” (benzodiazepines) which he would procure from hospital visits. “This was my second addiction.” Mike quips, “I can’t understand why people do uppers…I wanted to not think!” Both addictions stemmed from a desire to quiet the mind. To feel more present, to feel a sense of belonging. Mike remembers the first time he tried one of the pills, originally prescribed as a result of a dental surgery, and how he felt like he could finally hear the birds outside of the window. Everything seemed to go quiet. Especially his mind. But it was a way to numb the pain, and listening to that inner voice of fear, panic, and anxiety that he was trying to avoid was the only way to move forward.

“I was craving medical sympathy,” Mike says quietly. “In my childhood, I had all these people caring for me openly—going in and out of hospitals for the pills was a way of getting that feeling back.” He pauses. “I learned that at rehab.” Rehab gave Mike more than sobriety—it brought him life lessons. He grew up. Between the alcohol use and the pills, he went through a traumatic relationship that ended very poorly (Mike references that this did not help the attempt at sobriety) and showed him that he needed stability in his personal life, too. “I was always with either ‘fixers’ or ‘broken people,’ and when I finally got back together with [Heather] I was like ‘she has her own life!’ She was so put together. She had her own car and was living her own life.” After the rehab journey, Mike moved into a sober living facility. And—another full circle moment, incoming—he now works in that space.

Recently certified as a counselor, Mike has made it his job to help people the way he was helped. To show them a way through, to share that zest he so clearly carries for life with those around him. He is truly living the path of recovery, not only in his own choices but in his career. Though there are difficult moments, too. Mike becomes emotional for a moment as he shares how he’ll start to become close with some patients, really help them, and then they disappear. And he’ll learn a month later that they passed from an overdose. But overall, the community gives him endless relief, comfort. Even entertainment. “This could really be a TV show or a movie in and of itself!” Mike exclaims, after I remark how much his life is like a movie. “Treatment and recovery…people are never who you fully think they are. They’re amazing. You see people completely change their lives around.”

Michael at the 25th Renal Teen prom

One of Mike’s mantras that he lives by these days is “Just do good things.” In his marriage, as a parent, in his work—he strives to do good. And he’s already doing good by his son, who Mike shares was recently diagnosed with Autism. Based on his own experience, Mike is determined to be the strongest advocate for his kid that he can be—and that means allowing him to be a kid. Mike’s words of wisdom in general are “don’t just be a patient, be a kid,” and he’s putting that into practice by making sure his son is still treated like a child and can experience the full scope of his youth, despite his diagnosis. “Being ‘the hospital kid’ was my life—that feeling of ‘institutionalism.’ I became addicted to the comfort of being in an institution. It was a secondary addiction, really!” And now, the unlearning of that is finding out how to honor his inner child. A lot of that comes naturally from playing with his son—having a toddler around can make most people feel like they’re a kid again. But Mike prioritizes his joy, freedom, and honesty, the feelings that we can usually experience the strongest in those childhood years.

Closing out the interview, I ask Mike to share his three words to describe himself. Without missing a beat, he responds. And, as one would expect, his first two are honest to the point of being a bit self-deprecating—but real. “Stubborn. Sarcastic.” Then, he shares, “reliable.” The most reliable people, the ones who you can trust with your life, are often the ones who have had their own on the line. Mike has walked many paths, and the ability to not only look back at them as learning experiences but share them so honestly and beautifully is a gift.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, you can call the toll-free Substances Abuse Service Helpline (SASH) at (884) 804-7500 today.



Maxine Phoenix is a freelance writer and she also volunteers for RSN.

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