On August 4th 2003, four months after my daughter was born, I was arrested for possession of cocaine with the intent to sell.
This was the end of a period of time in my life when I had struggled severely with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and the negative consequences of the street lifestyle that I was living. I should note that I am genetically predisposed to Substance Use Disorder and made many decisions in my lifetime that were based solely around finding ways, financially and otherwise, to support my addiction.
“What is a Substance Use Disorder?
Substance use disorders occur when the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs causes clinically and functionally significant impairment, such as health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home. According to the DSM-5, a diagnosis of substance use disorder is based on evidence of impaired control, social impairment, risky use, and pharmacological criteria and are defined as mild, moderate or severe.”
– Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Association (samhsa.gov)
My Substance Use Wake Up Call
Though breaking the law and earning a felony conviction is not something that I am proud of, I am grateful for my experience because it has become the source of my determination to pursue the social work career that I have chosen.
Being arrested and incarcerated for the first (and only) time in my life was a wakeup call that I needed and also became the source of help I needed to receive treatment for my addiction.
Serve 7 Years… or Commit To Changing
I was charged with an A2 and two B1 felonies which carry a sentence of 7 years to life in prison.
Rather than to send me to prison for the possible 7 years to life that were suggested for my initial charges, I was given the option to complete an inpatient treatment program followed by a long term half way house and outpatient treatment.
This opportunity allowed me to learn about Substance Use Disorder and helped me to clear my mind for long enough to realize that I enjoyed my life much more without any substances in my body.
I am eternally grateful for this opportunity. It’s an opportunity that I believe everyone with Substance Use Disorder deserves.
Completing Treatment & Committing To Change
In 2004, I successfully completed the deal to complete treatment in an inpatient facility followed by halfway house and Intensive day treatment, which totaled about 10 months. My actual sentence was 6 months (time served) with 5 years of probation. I was granted successful completion of probation after only 3 years because I was doing the right thing — which is what I have continued to do ever since.
A few months following my return home from treatment, I gained full custody of my daughter and began to raise her as a single father.
The result of my arrest and conviction, along with the birth of my daughter, is what has fueled me into the person I am today.
A few months following my return home from treatment, I gained full custody of my daughter and began to raise her as a single father. I found work to support my daughter and myself, and did what I needed to do in order to provide to the best of my ability within the means of the law and with little education.
In addition to my legal history, I had also dropped out of school in 11th grade and got my G.E.D. I felt hopeless and stuck with little opportunity and became depressed. Any career that I attempted to delve into was dismissed immediately upon the question that was always asked; have you ever been convicted of a felony?
A Change In Me Triggered A Change In Career
After struggling to find a career path that, what society deemed a “convicted felon” was worthy of, I attended Berkeley College and earned a bachelor’s degree in 3 years (through their accelerated program) in Business Administration and graduated with a GPA of 3.72.
However, I was greeted in the business world with the same reception I was prior to my degree, as a “convict”. This led me deeper into depression and struggle, but not to defeat. I knew that there was something that I was meant to do, but I didn’t know what just yet.
I graduated from Berkeley College with a BA in Business Administration with a GPA of 3.72. However, I was greeted in the business world with the same reception I was prior to my degree, as a “convict.”
Pursuing A Career As A Substance Abuse Counselor
After 4 years of the same rejection, I made the decision that I wanted to help people that were struggling with issues that were similar to mine and others who had their own struggles.
At first, I decided to pursue a career as a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor. However, after a short while, I realized that my dreams and my purpose was to help more people in my path and reach people that were going down the same road I crashed on.
Public Speaking and Creating Change In My Community
In 2015, I began to publicly speak about my experiences with addiction and, most importantly, my recovery process. My first time speaking publicly was at the “Opioid Symposium” which was hosted by the Orange County Executive, Steve Neuhaus in October of 2015. Since then, I have spoken in many public forums, one of which was for the County Executive in Orange County, NY.
Other speaking events I conducted were in community forums based upon educating the public on Substance Use Disorder and the current Opioid Crisis in our communities. Following these events, I was honored when students from a local school district asked me to participate in creating a PSA on Addiction.
Orange County, NY PSA – Addiction & Overdose, Including Life Testimony from Michael Balles, LMSW
In 2016, the Minisink chapter of SADD filmed real stories of those whose lives have been altered by substance abuse forever in response to research conducted by the NY Times that found the number of annual overdose deaths in America reached an all-time high of 64,000.
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Choosing to Pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW)
While in graduate school, I interned in a treatment facility to help others living with mental illness and Substance Use Disorder. I received guidance and inspiration from many professors and my field supervisor that helped point me in the direction of my career.
During that time, I facilitated a breakout group at an event at Adelphi University called Social Action day where I spoke about treatment over incarceration. I was awarded NY State Social Work Education’s Student of the Year for 2016, and I utilized my time to advocate for those who live with addiction.
I also met my soulmate, who traveled the journey of school with me. In May of 2017, we both graduated as Masters of Social Work with hopes to change the world as many of us do. I proposed, to my current wife, at our graduation dinner in front of my school staff and colleagues. We were on our way to a life we could have once only dreamed of.
In June, I interviewed for a position as an Opioid Treatment Program’s Clinical Supervisor, and was told that the position was mine, contingent on getting my clinical licensure. I took my licensing exam on the 1st of July, with my nerves nearly getting the best of me.
I fought through the fear, the doubt of whether I was worthy and capable, and the common pressures of knowing that employment would coincide with becoming a licensed social worker. Carrying the weight of all of this, I was able to pass my licensing exam with flying colors. The joy that I felt and pride for my accomplishment was something I had only felt once before, which was when my daughter was born.
The joy that I felt and pride for my accomplishment [passing the CSWE Clinical Exam] was something I had only felt once before, which was when my daughter was born.
My Felony Came Back To Haunt Me… Again. But It Would NOT Stop Me.
However, this joy was short-lived because I faced another difficult time in my life when I was informed — that once again — the felony conviction that I had hoped was finally in my past was preventing me from being licensed at this time.
After waiting the typical 2 weeks to receive my licensing number, I recognized that mine was not being listed and I became concerned. Phone calls began to come from the facility that was waiting for my licensure in order to schedule a start date.
Thankfully, I was honest about my legal history in the interview, and the Site Administrator was supportive. She held that position for me for nearly 2 months, which is unheard of.
I made phone call after phone call to the NY State Board of Education to find out that they had to wait for a private investigator to delve into my history to determine whether I was considered to be worthy of my licensure. After countless phone calls, paying for records to be copied and mailed, having 3 professional letters of recommendation sent, and going through the humiliating process of being fingerprinted and told that my application was in the pile with murderers, rapists, and all other criminals, I finally received my licensure in August of 2017.
After countless phone calls, paying for records to be copied and mailed, having 3 professional letters of recommendation sent, and going through the humiliating process of being fingerprinted and told that my application was in the pile with murderers, rapists, and all other criminals, I finally received my licensure in August of 2017.
My Career As An Opioid Treatment Program’s Clinical Supervisor
I began my career as the OTP Clinical Supervisor on August 28, 2017. I love what I do today.
The population that I serve on a daily basis is one that is stigmatized not only by society, but by their own inner conflict. They deal with the societal opinion of being “worthless”, “junkies”, “criminals”, and countless other derogatory names.
I utilize a strength-based approach to reveal their own abilities to overcome their struggles. I recognize the importance of empowering my clients to facilitate change and growth. There is no better feeling than to see someone come into my facility with no hope, and no one to care for them, then to see those same individuals find a glimmer of hope and begin to turn their lives around. I have the privilege to be a part of countless miracles on a daily basis.
What’s Next For Me?
I continue to advocate for treatment for Substance Use Disorder and mental health issues. My long term goal is to enhance and renovate the treatment of this population and to end the stigma attached to these populations.
I was able to overcome a history that would have ended many in a dead end with no choices, or some just dead altogether. I would not allow my history to define my future. Now, I see a future, a bright one, with limitless possibility, hope, and fulfillment.
This is what I bring to my job every day: Hope.