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Addiction and Recovery: 8 Lessons from a Relapse

When an addict in recovery relapses, the return to sobriety offers important lessons.

Smiling woman looking with hope into horizon during sunset at beach

Every morning, i look in the mirror and I like the guy I see. My mother and God are the reasons for this.

Every day, I give thanks for being alive, for having two children I love, for having a woman I love, a job I love. When someone asks how I’m feeling, I usually say, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

I’m a comedian, an actor and a motivational speaker. I’ve done street comedy, stand-up, television, movies. I’m supposed to say funny stuff.

Except now I mean it. That’s also because of Momma and God.

Seven years ago, I was a hard-core crack addict. I’d smoke rock all night, then come home at 3:30 a.m., feeling crazy and exhausted. My wife would be in the bedroom, having fallen asleep waiting up for me. I’d sit beside her feeling sick and guilty. Then I’d go into the bathroom and smoke another rock. That’s the life of a crackhead.

I used crack for 23 years. But I was a functional addict. I worked, made money. I was successful. Everybody thought I was hilarious. Inside, though, I was a mess.

How did I stop? They say addiction runs in families. My dad was an alcoholic. He drank a fifth of booze a day and died of a heart attack when he was 51.

Thanks be to God, recovery runs in families too. I never told my momma about my addiction, but she knew. Of course she knew. Momma always knows. More than anyone else, she inspired me. She loved me, prayed for me, never gave up on me. The rules she taught me growing up—love God, be kind, respect yourself and others—formed my foundation. I leaned on that foundation in recovery. Momma’s love came from God. At last that love reached me and helped me get clean.

Growing up, I never knew that my family and I were poor. When everyone around you is poor, you don’t know what you don’t have.

I was raised in the Robert Taylor Homes, a 16-story public housing project on the South Side of Chicago. When we moved there in 1962, most families saw the projects as an improvement on the falling-apart places they came from. That’s how it was for us. We were on an upward path.

We would have stayed on that path if my dad hadn’t drunk all the money he made. He was a tailor who could alter and press a suit to perfection. The minute he got paid, he took that money and bought a case full of booze. Whatever he didn’t drink, he sold on Sundays when liquor stores were closed.

Lucky for me and my four older brothers, Dad wasn’t an angry drunk. He just got funny and sentimental and then passed out. He was always the life of the party, the guy everybody wanted to be around.

He and Momma fought, but they agreed on how to raise kids. We had rules and were expected to follow them. Momma was a devout Catholic, and she prayed all the time.

I loved my dad, but I swore I’d never become a drunk like him. Though I always knew he loved us, I also felt the effects of his alcoholism every day. The instability. The fights with Momma. I wanted no part of that.

Still, I was a lot like him. I was always the funny guy, a storyteller like my dad. In high school drama class, I realized you could make a whole audience laugh, not just your friends.

A friend encouraged me to try comedy on the streets. I told him he was nuts—until I saw how much money he made doing a routine on State Street. I gave it a try. People gave me money! For telling jokes!

The first winter after I started doing street comedy, I noticed something. Snow and biting wind would keep my audience away. So I loaded up my stuff in my 1967 Buick LeSabre and headed out to Los Angeles, the show business capital, where it’s summer all year long.

I did comedy on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Right away I drew lots of tourists and locals. It was a diverse crowd, and my comedy tackled issues like racial prejudice. Word spread, and soon I was being dubbed the King of Venice Beach.

Movie stars came to see me. So did producers. I got invited to audition for TV and films. My career took off.

So did my party life. I’d never become like Dad. I could handle a drink. I knew how to have fun with drugs.

Then someone introduced me to cocaine. It was like electricity coursing through my body, giving me boundless energy and confidence. More of that, please!

“You like that stuff?” a friend of mine asked one day. “Then you’ll love this.” He handed me a glass pipe that had a small white rock inside it. I held a lighter under the pipe and inhaled.

Wham! A cocaine high like I’d never experienced. The high didn’t last long.

“Give me another,” I said.

And so it began. For a long time, I told myself I had everything under control. I only smoked rock at parties. I wasn’t like those crazy crackheads on the street.

In fact, I was an addict—just like Dad. I didn’t control crack. Crack controlled me. I found myself getting high in strange motel rooms with sketchy people just because they had rock. One time, I was in an alley buying drugs. I reached toward my pocket, and the dealer must have thought I had a gun. He pulled out a real gun and pointed it at me.

“Get out of this neighborhood,” he said. I did. Fast.

I told myself I wasn’t a real addict because I still had a house, my wife had spending money, and I kept landing roles. But after I started turning up high for auditions, the roles dwindled. My wife gave up trying to make me quit. Eventually our marriage ended.

Being an addict is exhausting. All you think about is getting high. Whenever I talked to Momma back in Chicago, I tried to make it sound like I had everything together. She knew otherwise. Mothers always know.

Then she got breast cancer. I wanted to be sober for her. I was tired of living the way I did. I tried to quit. I just couldn’t. The craving for that high was too intense.

Momma died before I got sober. I was devastated. All my life, she’d been my foundation. In her eyes, I saw myself as I really was.

At last I broke down and contacted a group called Cocaine Anonymous, a 12-step program that’s modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. I got clean, had a serious relapse, then got clean again. I’ve been sober ever since—seven years. What a gift.

Many addicts don’t stick with recovery. The odds were against me. I work in an industry where alcohol and drug use are common. I’d been addicted a long time. And I am my father’s son.

I loved my dad. I don’t want to make him sound one-dimensional or blame him for my addiction. But it’s a fact that addiction runs in families. If I’d known that earlier—really known it, believed it, acted on it—maybe I would have been more careful. Maybe I would have pushed away that glass pipe when it was offered to me.

Like I said, recovery runs in families too. Even for those of us who have addiction in our genes, there is hope. The hope comes from God.

For me, that hope was delivered through my momma’s unwavering love. It was her love that raised me with a strong foundation. Her love in the prayers she prayed for me every day. Her love in the example she set and the inspiration she provided.

Today I’m traveling around the country doing a one-man play. It’s a show with a message. And that message is: Through determination and hard work, you can overcome whatever challenges you face—especially if you put God first. Right up there with your momma. (I think God will understand.)

The show is called Michael Colyar’s Momma. That was her message to me. Now I’m sharing it with the world.

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