John Wolohan would like employers to know that recovering addicts make good employees because of their commitment and unique strengths. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Men like John Wolohan are, simply put, the best physical evidence for why Guiding Light Mission matters for Grand Rapids.
In a city that is becoming widely known for its craft beer scene, Wolohan is one of the few 20-somethings who won’t taste a drop.
Wolohan, the program administrator for the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit’s substance abuse program, is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict — and a successful product of the very system he now runs full time.
“What we do here is really different. I think it’s the best free rehab in the state — possibly in the country — in terms of what it offers,” he said.
“I never set out to work in the rehabilitation industry — I don’t believe in the rehabilitation industry. I believe in what we do here, which is completely free of charge to the client.
“I know people who have been to like 20 to 40 rehabs, and it’s hurt them. What an addict needs is transformational recovery, and you need a long time. That’s why our program is six months long. You’re not going to find anywhere else in the state that is six months for free, and private.”
Wolohan, who is originally from Saginaw, started drinking and doing drugs when he was 16 years old and in high school. He quickly became addicted to both. The first time he was hospitalized for drinking was when he was 19.
Although hooked on mind-altering substances, Wolohan remarkably still managed to get good grades in high school and do well enough on standardized tests to be accepted at the University of Notre Dame where, in 2011, he received a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with a concentration in philosophy.
“College was a blur. … I had several professors ask me at different points if I was alcoholic, but I never admitted it,” he said.
“I remember saying on several occasions, ‘I used to be one.’ During my junior year, I stopped drinking for an extended period and just did drugs. During that time, I got much better grades.”
After college, Wolohan briefly returned to Michigan before moving to Chicago to live with his uncle. While there, he went “off the deep end,” he said, drinking about two fifths of gin per day and smoking crack.
He tried a few rehab programs but found them unsatisfactory.
“I did IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program), which is a joke. I did some detox,” he said.
“Insurance is a joke with this rehab stuff — they usually only cover a 28-day stay. Twenty-eight-day rehab is absolutely useless if you look at the data.”
Wolohan moved back to central Michigan, where he lived with his aunt and worked at her law firm until she’d “had enough” of his behavior. That’s when he returned to Grand Rapids and “by chance” ended up at Guiding Light Mission.
“I was technically homeless. I had no other place to live. I was crashing on my brother’s couch. My father brought me here (to Guiding Light) on a recommendation of a man … who knew one of the employees here,” he said.
“It was either going to be here or Salvation Army, and I just ended up here. I’m glad I did.”
Wolohan first walked through the doors of Guiding Light Mission in late September 2013. He was admitted into Guiding Light’s rehabilitation program Oct. 1 and lived at its downtown facility, 255 S. Division Ave., until he completed the program.
On June 2, immediately after finishing Guiding Light’s program, he moved into the mission’s transitional housing facility, Iron House, located at 540 Andover St. SE in Kentwood. In August, he was asked to join the staff as program administrator of the substance abuse program, partly because of his young age and having completed the program himself. His computer skills and writing ability also factored into his selection.
He has now celebrated one full year of being sober.
“One of the best, most fruitful lessons I have learned since I have been sober is that commitment is the foundation of a good life. Today, I am committed to different practices, to a routine and to a lifestyle,” he said.
“Another lesson I have learned — and I can’t overstate the importance of this — is that a life lived in a spirit of gratitude is a very good life. Living life like that is a constant source of free gifts and beautiful surprises.”
Life at Iron House has so far been a successful experiment in intentional community, Wolohan said. He pays rent, has a roommate, and is the second youngest of the 12 or so men currently calling Iron House home. The men who live there, most of whom are middle-aged, can be randomly drug tested and breathalized at any time.
The Iron House is outside the temptations of the city, but Wolohan said he doesn’t believe his sobriety is dependent on geographical location.
“Grand Rapids has a number of housing (options) for people with substance abuse problems, but the problem with a lot of them is that they are rife with drugs and drinking. No one in our house is using drugs or drinking, and most of the guys there have one year of sobriety,” he said.
“It’s a great idea to put people together because alcoholics need structure and community, and they need sober relationships. Now, it’s important if somebody slips … (that) they be removed from the environment. But having them together sober is a good thing.”
Since his time in recovery began, Wolohan said he’s learned there are a number of myths and stigmas about addicts. One of the most pernicious myths, he said, is that not using drugs or alcohol is about exercising willpower, but addicts are often actually extremely strong-willed, he said.
“I’m of the opinion it’s mostly a medical phenomenon. Both of my parents’ families are full of alcoholics. I don’t think that’s coincidental. Four of my friends would split a bottle, and I could drink my own and still be less drunk than them.”
He said there’s also a false perception the business community, in particular, has regarding recovering addicts as being unfit workers. But Wologan said he knows a number of Grand Rapids professionals who are extremely successful but feel the need to hide their participation in rehabilitation for fear it would hurt their careers.
People who are openly in recovery make excellent employees, he said, adding that he encourages employers to think strongly about hiring recovering addicts because of the many strengths they must possess simply to have gotten to where they are.
“Recovering people have unique strengths as employees. If someone is truly in recovery, they live a structured life. They believe in commitment, they are all into their program of recovery, and those qualities make them good employees at work, as well,” he said.
“You’re going to find someone who knows how to be in a group and talk to people, someone who might know a thing or two about conflict resolution, and someone who is grateful.”
Wolohan can stay at Iron House until June of next year. Although he doesn’t see himself working at Guiding Light forever, he isn’t sure yet what he’s going to do next. He thinks about his future occasionally, but right now he’s taking his life the way recovering addicts are taught to take it: one day at a time.