Michael MacDonald can still remember the feeling of walking through the funeral home at the age of ten. With little sister Mia in tow, he could feel the eyes of the mourners on him. He could hear their whispers, “these poor kids.” Still in his Oakland A’s uniform from the morning’s Little League game, he knelt at the casket of a man he hardly knew: his father. He had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
MacDonald had been waiting for this man to return to his life for as long as he could remember. Waiting for him to finish rehab. The idea of his return, somehow represented hope. The hope of some stability, some normalcy. A fast moving 18-wheeler driving by the front door of a rehab center robbed MacDonald of that dream. As he gazed upon his father, with his light blue suit and his neatly trimmed beard he understood what the people were whispering about. This was MacDonald’s first experience with profound loss, but certainly not his last.
Today, Michael MacDonald works as a successful real estate agent and a bartender in an upscale casino restaurant.Both jobs play to his strong suit – he’s contemplative and a good listener. The two professions take up most of his waking hours, which he doesn’t mind, in fact he prefers it.
As expected, his phone does not stop ringing and it’s not just his clients asking about an offer they placed or what color they should paint their living room, it’s his sponsees. As a sponsor, in a twelve-step program, MacDonald knows well how important these calls are. They could mean the difference between life and death.
MacDonald has been clean and sober for six years. But a few years ago, MacDonald, now 46, was just trying to avoid alcohol withdrawals by timing his drinks to keep the sickness at bay. He had tried and failed to get clean from alcohol and substance abuse more than a dozen times. In 2017, after the loss of his sister Marisa to an overdose, MacDonald, with the help of a 12-step program, came to terms with a lifetime of trauma and finally got clean.
MacDonald grew up in Woburn, Mass, but his family moved several times in his early years and each move meant a change in school and with that a change in neighborhood. Though he had his share of friends, MacDonald was a frequent target for bullies. Being the new kid at school is hard and when you don’t have the newest clothes and you walk with a limp, it can be unbearable.
But MacDonald was not always alone when a bully set his sights on him. His sister, Mia Pacheco, was often with him and she wasn’t about to standby while her brother was picked on. If you wanted to fight one, you had to fight the other. “I tried to be his protector,” said Pacheco. “We were dealing with a lot of stuff at home. We lived in the projects. As a boy, Michael was awkward and wonderful. He had these long legs. He was very tall and gangly so people made fun of him for that. His foot turned in so he walked with a limp.”
After high school graduation, MacDonald found the Boston club scene. He had spent his whole life up to this point being shy, trying to fit in and now that was the last thing he wanted to do. At 6’4” tall, with platinum blonde hair and wearing the loudest clothes he could find, people flocked to him, not to beat him up, they wanted to meet him.
In 1998, the club became more than just a place that he would go to party and meet people, it became his job. MacDonald became a club promotor for two of the hottest clubs in town. Up until this point MacDonald had dabbled with booze and a little bit of weed, nothing heavy. It just didn’t do it for him, but this was the late 90s and MDMA had made its way to the clubs and Ecstasy was a game changer.
“The more drugs I took the more I drank,” said MacDonald. “I got hired by Club Axis and the Avalon as a promoter. I did my first hit of ecstasy there. Finally, I’m not that kid getting beat up because I walked funny. No more awkward disposition. I’m dropping ecstasy every night. I dyed my hair, I’m wearing velvet pants. Girls want to be with me. In a lot of ways Ecstasy was an amazing drug for me at the time.”
MacDonald eventually traded the club scene for a job tending bar at the Ritz Carlton. An avid Red Sox fan he had an apartment so close to Fenway that he could hear the national anthem being sung before each game. Things were going well at this point, but his drinking was affecting most of his relationships and he wanted a reset, a change of scenery.
He loaded up his belongings and enough alcohol and cocaine to fuel the long ride to Los Angeles. MacDonald got his change of scenery, but along with his expensive clothes and his household belongings, he soon realized that he just brought his problems to a new location, one filled with all the temptations of Boston and then some.
In 2009, MacDonald’s drinking had reached a new level. With his years of experience as a bar tender, he was hired by the Capital Grille in Beverly Hills. Here he quickly fell in with a group of hardcore partiers. They drank and did cocaine during work and at the end of shift the party continued.
On the outside, he was the life of the party, but in reality, his life was in shambles. He woke up sick every morning, his apartment was a disaster, and he was contemplating putting a gun in his mouth. That’s when he met Roy. Roy was a bit older and appeared to have it all together. He had the clothes, the cash, and a daily habit that involved three Kettle One Martinis for lunch. Yet he never seemed worse for wear.
“So, me being a struggling alcoholic, I was just like how does he do this? He has stacks of hundreds and these expensive watches, said MacDonald.” One Tuesday, Roy saw MacDonald sweating and shaking – he looked like death and was in full withdrawal.
“He said to me, ‘I never want to see you like this again. I see you leave at night and go across the street and get your free drinks at the Sofitel. I want you to do me a favor. CVS is right next door, go get some Stoli and keep it by your alarm clock. When you get up in the morning have a couple of swigs of that.’ That’s all I needed to hear, it was off to the races,” said MacDonald.
The next morning MacDonald woke up sick, just like every other morning. He saw the bottle of New Amsterdam Vodka, with its Empire State Building logo on the nightstand. MacDonald grabbed it and took a big swig and just like that, his anxiety went away. The sickness vanished. It was like someone put a warm blanket over him. MacDonald wondered why he hadn’t been doing this all along.
“It started off great,” he said. “Then I realized in about seven hours, I would need another drink. Seven hours turned into six, then six into five. That window soon became three hours. It got crazy, it was just insane.”
2017 was shaping up to be one of the worst years of MacDonald’s life. He found himself back on the east coast in a sober house in Portland, Maine and just when he thought things couldn’t get worse, he received a text message that brought him to his knees. His sister Marisa had overdosed, her body was found at a playground in Taunton, Mass. Immediately he was flooded with a profound sense of guilt – why her and not him. She had a family, children to look out for and he had nothing.
At his sister’s wake, MacDonald had a chance encounter with Pierce Aliberti. Aliberti owned sober houses and was himself a recovering drug addict, who had gotten clean using an intensive twelve-step program.
“Honestly, What I saw when I met him was just basically a skeleton, a shell of a person – he wouldn’t even make eye contact,” said Aliberti. “But what Mike had was what I call, the gift of desperation. He had nothing left.”
Marisa’s death shattered MacDonald and sent him spiraling into a four-day drinking bender. When his brother, Rocco Danieli, showed up at his door, MacDonald knew it was over, he didn’t put up a fight, he didn’t try and talk his way out of it this time, he gathered what little he had left and got in the car.
“It felt hopeless. There were months and years of disappointment, but I never gave up on him. I chose to lead by the power of example,” said Danieli.
When MacDonald arrived at the sober house he was homeless and broke. He had two t-shirts, a pair of jeans and one roll of quarters. Over time the fog lifted and he began to see something in the other people at the house that he wanted, a sense of relief. He didn’t care how he got there, he wanted what they had.
He started off with small steps, just being kind to others and being honest in everything he did. There were real expectations in this program and one slip up could mean the difference between living the life he wanted, or returning to the hell that he was actively climbing out of.
“He didn’t really have a choice. I mean he was going to die. I gave these guys enough rope to hang themselves. They knew if they weren’t ready to do the work they were gone. He was able to adapt to structure,” said Aliberti.
MacDonald was in the right place, at the right time, but he had a lot of work to do. Step four was daunting and time consuming, but he had nothing but time at this point. MacDonald wrote down every resentment he had towards anyone and also noted how he played a role in it. He was forewarned, if he left anything out he would fail at getting sober.
MacDonald filled out 14 notebooks full of resentments. It took twelve hours to read them aloud. It was a long process, but he completed the most difficult step for him. “I felt a relief come over me that I never felt before. In 40 years this was the first time that I felt that everything was going to be okay. I never felt like that in all my life up to this point,” said MacDonald. “Here I am in a bunk bed, with a gentleman above me going through the same program and I finally said to myself, I’m going to be okay.”
The next step was making things right with people that were upset with him, a task that is still going on to this day. Just because MacDonald got sober does not mean life does not throw him curveballs. He does not expect life to be easy, but he now has a process to deal with difficulties. Processes like gratitude, reasoning, making things right and journaling resentments.
But the number one thing that MacDonald took away from the program was step 12, you have to help the next guy. At the moment, he sponsors six people in the program. They rely on him and in turn he relies on them.
“One thing that stands out about Michael is, he lives by his word. If he says he’s going to be there he’ll be there. Recently, he was dropping off a guy at a sober house. Instead of just dropping him off he went in. The next thing you know everyone is around him and he’s telling them his story,” said Julian Miller. “That’s the type of guy he is.”
Today, MacDonald has found success in real estate. While his professional accomplishments are impressive, that’s not what he strived for while going through recovery. What he seeks is to be the type of person that his family and friends can rely on. He is convinced that this is the pinnacle of success. Real relationships and having a positive impact are what drives MacDonald today, not money or notoriety.
“Every morning I wake up I pray for everyone in my life, the ones that are here and the ones that I have lost,” said MacDonald. “I follow that with a short meditation and I reflect. I don’t open the door till that happens. I will not open the door till that happens.”