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Getting Sober.
Photography Provided Healing for Michael Blanchard. Sobriety Helped Him Reconstruct His Life.

By Gwyn McAllister

That was the confession that Michael Blanchard, of Old Orchard Beach Maine and now Martha’s Vineyard, made before an audience of 600 at the 2015 Possible Dreams Auction in August. He had been invited up on the stage to present a $5000 check to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) to help fund their out patient alcohol and addiction program.

Mr. Blanchard began his impassioned speech to the crowd by relating the story of his trip home from a psychiatric hospital where he had undergone a two week stay after a suicide attempt. “My sister wouldn’t even let me have a measly glass of wine. So July 26, 2010 became my sobriety date.”

On that day, after 30 years of heavy drinking and 3 DUI convictions, Mr. Blanchard, the CEO of a large healthcare company in Maine, had put down the bottle for the last time and had begun a one-day-at-a-time journey that would lead to a new outlook on life – and a new career.

The date of the auction coincided with Mr. Blanchard’s sobriety anniversary.

“Five years as of today,” he announced before the crowd, “I am so happy! I am so grateful that I am alive and able to stand here today and talk with you.”

At that point Mr. Blanchard’s speech was interrupted by a two minute standing ovation. Proof that the community stood behind a man who had struggled with a serious problem that was not only jeopardizing his health and livelihood, but had resulted in a very public and humiliating crash and burn.

Now Mr. Blanchard is using his experience, strength and hope to inspire others who are going through a similar ordeal. “My primary mission is to try to minimize the shame that’s associated with the disease,” he says. “I want to do anything I can to alleviate the shame and encourage people to find help.”

From Shots to Shoots
What turned out to be a turning point for Mr. Blanchard was the discovery of a passion for photography. In the early days of his recovery from alcoholism he started spending much of his time on the Vineyard capturing stunning shots of various landscapes, editing them, and posting them on Facebook.

“It was therapy for me to produce them in the first place,” says the photographer. “I actually enjoyed the editing. I found it to be a cathartic experience. It helped me a lot. All I needed was that creative expression. It was all gravy that people liked them.”

Eventually he started combining his images with bits and pieces of his story and his thoughts on sobriety.

“I included snippets of personal experience, challenges that I’ve faced and how I got around them by not drinking,” says Mr. Blanchard.

In each case, he tried to post something that helped express the emotions, memories or feelings of empowerment or encouragement that the scenes evoked in him. He hoped that he could somehow pass along the inspiration he received from the Vineyard landscapes.

The response was very positive. Mr. Blanchard has since developed a Facebook fan base that has now reached an impressive 4200 followers.

“Once I saw that the photos were being accepted I started to float a few things about my story,” he says. “I began putting more and more out there. The response was overwhelming. I didn’t have any intention of being public about it all. I was embarrassed and ashamed, but once I started talking about myself it took off. People were astounded by the honesty in a society where people don’t want to talk about this stuff. People came out of the woodwork talking about their suffering and the pain associated with this.”

Among the dozens, if not hundreds, of expressions of understanding and gratitude that Michael’s Facebook page has generated is the following:

Mr. Blanchard, we have never met. I too have multiple DUIs. My son does not talk to me, my daughter won’t mention anything about them. I have been in recovery for three years. Martha’s Vineyard is her favorite place and she loves your photography. A few moments ago she sent me your picture of Moshup Beach from Facebook and the following sentence. This means the world to me: Dad I don’t often tell you enough how much I learn from and are proud of the person you are. Thank you. I had so wanted to get over there in July. Let’s try to plan for August, ok? And, This man is a photographer of our favorite place on earth, Martha’s Vineyard and his life experiences being such a depth to the photos of “our place.”

“I started seeing e-mails and comments coming in from people who were getting help from my pictures,” says Mr. Blanchard. At that point he realized that he needed to find a way to turn his new enterprise into, not necessarily a business proposition, but a way to help others.

He decided to put together a book of his photos paired with original inspirational quotes, thoughts, memories and short essays. He has donated all of the profits from the book Fighting for My Life: Finding Hope and Serenity on Martha’s Vineyard to MV Community Services for their New Paths Recovery Program, an outpatient program for adults with alcohol, drug and behavioral addictions issues.

“The whole goal is to attach messages or meaning to the photography,” says Mr. Blanchard. “I want to use it as a means of eventfully helping to raise awareness and raise funds.” The check he presented to Community Services at the Possible Dreams Auction has since been supplemented by the proceeds from further sales.

Turning Another Corner
Around the time that the book was being compiled, Mr. Blanchard began taking the first steps towards embarking on a new career.

He commenced the schooling required to become an addiction counselor. Soon, Mr. Blanchard will have earned a second master’s degree in psychology and, through a program at U Mass Boston, he has also completed all of the course work for his license as an addiction counselor. He plans to do the required 200 hours of free counseling with MVCS.

As his master’s degree project, Mr. Blanchard hopes to launch a pilot program with New Paths. “As part of their total program I’d like to add a component that looks at imagery and encourages people to express the ideas they’re having that feed their addiction,” he says.

Mr. Blanchard will soon be giving up his position in Maine and relocating full time to the Vineyard.

“I don’t plan to retire,” he says. “I want to be a photographer and I want to use imagery to help kids and adults recover from addiction. I’ve done a lot of research. There are clinically based studies that show that you can add iPads and iPhones to your treatment program.

Mr. Blanchard has come a long way from that fateful day when he emerged from a blackout in a jail cell to discover that he had been arrested for his third DUI in three months. He credits both the Vineyard and his new found passion for photography for aiding in his journey in recovery.

Now he’s determined to help others with his talent. “It’s not enough for me to just take photos,” he says. “I have to do something with it. I want to give back for all the second chances I’ve gotten and all the help I’ve received. Part of the AA philosophy is that it’s a program of recovery. You have to give back. It’s part of the ideal. God gave me this gift of photography. I feel obliged to use it to benefit others.”