Who do you look up to? Maybe it’s your parents, your boss, or your sponsor. Growing up, we amount to very little more than impressionable sponges that imitate our local role models. For some, those are grand and honorable figures who live lives we’d all be lucky to live…but for others, their role models are anything but. Michael “Ginger” D. grew up without a positive influence—under the influence. 

Born on a shower curtain in his home in Idaho, Michael’s upbringing was anything but normal. His parents divorced when he was two, splitting his time between his parents. When he was eight, his mother brought him out to Los Angeles to pursue his career as a child actor. Michael was instantly a star. The camera loved him and he loved the camera. His acting career continued until the age of twelve, through all of this going back and forth between his mom in LA and his dad in Idaho. After being on shows like Two and a Half Men, CSI, and Awkward, Michael had a chance to go onto Jimmy Kimmel Live. Right before his appearance, “My dad convinced me I wasn’t funny and that I should just go live with him. So, I did.” 

Once back in Idaho with his father, one of his father’s friends, a man Michael thought was very cool—a role model—was listening to Metallica. Michael was convinced that Metallica was the greatest band of all time. “My dad smoked weed all through me growing up. One time, my dad’s friend said ‘It smells like a Metallica concert in here!’ So, then I thought, at that moment, that weed must be chill. Before that, I thought weed was bad.” Between that comment and pop culture that promoted weed as a fun drug to do, Michael decided to steal some of his dad’s and start smoking. One puff became two and two puffs became a lifetime of daily use. Michael, being the stoned seventh-grader he was, thought it would be a good idea to steal an iPod one day. Once his dad found it, rather than have his reputation tarnished in the small town they lived in, he told his own son that he had to leave—kicking him out of his home and sending him to live with his mother in LA.

Now in California, Michael began to get close with his sister’s boyfriend who worked in the weed business. Seeing him as a successful man to be admired, Michael wanted more than anything to follow in his footsteps. So, by eighth grade he was professionally growing weed, living in grow houses, and working in sketchy dispensaries that had no issue hiring children. “I used weed as my higher power for a very long time.” Before his eyes, his childhood disappeared in favor of joining a marijuana child labor force. 

The neighborhood Michael lived in was riddled with gang activity. Although never formally pleading his allegiance, he saw them as “the cool kids” and spent a lot of time hanging around them. By the time he was in ninth grade, he was taking five Norcos a day, snorting cocaine, and doing any other drug he could get his hands on. “I was doing everything I wanted to do. My mom let me make all the rules. She was working three jobs. She just wanted me to stay out of trouble. So, I made up my own formula for how to live. When I was in Idaho, I would look up to pro-snowboarders, but when they weren’t in my life anymore, I would look up to these guys with money and cars and girls and they were all in the weed community. They were all into pills and coke and acid.” 

At 16 years old, Michael was making enough money growing pot to move out of his mom’s house and live on his own. This two-story house in Van Nuys was filled, floor to ceiling, with pot plants. On top of this, he had his own illegal weed grow in a warehouse in Burbank. All of this, under the tutelage of his advisors in the weed community. “The growers raised me more than my parents did.”

Michael started dating a girl that he described as “the pretty popular girl from high school.” Before long, he got her pregnant. She could not stop smoking weed and cigarettes while pregnant and on Michael’s 21st birthday, she had the child stillborn. Broken, he fell down the dark well of opiates. When returning from his grow house, one day, he found that she had taken everything out of his apartment, the car he bought her, and left. “Since I didn’t have any real friends at the time, only business associates, I became extremely depressed. I lost my son and my girl at the same time.” The only option he saw for himself was suicide. So, he started doing heroin and then fentanyl as a way of killing himself slowly. A few years and children later, that girl tragically took her own life as well. In the cave of his addiction, unable to see his hands in front of his face, the business he worked on since he was practically teething started to fall apart. 

At the end of his rope, one of his friends—his last friend—dragged him to a music festival. Michael loved it. “I went to this music festival, took acid, changed my name, and hitchhiked for six years to different music festivals.” At these festivals, he would sell jewelry he would cast. This helped support his habits and festivals. Once new music he didn’t like started coming out and new people to go along with it, Michael left the tour life and returned to LA to get back into growing weed. His addiction got so bad here that he wasn’t even getting high anymore. Michael would sell weed to buy fentanyl and then “I wasn’t even getting high. I was getting well. If I didn’t do it, I couldn’t work, but if I did it I couldn’t stop.” He was trapped in what seemed like an endless cycle that could only be stopped by his death—his ultimate goal from years prior.

Michael, as proven by his vagabond festival past, loves music. His favorite artist is a rapper named Lil Peep (who mind you is now dead of a fentanyl overdose). One day, while buying fentanyl (just like his idol), Michael went to a parking lot to meet up with his dealer. Across the parking lot, he saw a group of people congregating outside of a building. One of these people was Lil Peep’s producer. Michael approached him and started telling him how much his music meant to him and the producer told him to come inside and join them. It ends up that Michael was buying drugs in the parking lot of an AA meeting. This would lead to his first short stint of sobriety, but, as per the name, the stint was indeed short. 

After running around getting high for a few more years, he knew he had to get clean once more. So, he spoke with a family friend, Andy Besser, who brought him to Beit T’Shuvah. “I thought BTS was like any other rehab. So, I partied that day and showed up very very high.” For obvious reasons, Beit T’Shuvah turned him away. Following that, he went to a few other treatment centers that didn’t pan out. “I thought I could get rid of the bad parts of my old lifestyle while retaining the parts I liked.” While still getting high, he went back to Idaho with the promise of taking over his father’s business. This ended up being an absolute delusion. Upon arriving, Michael was abused, told he was useless and stupid, and forced to cook and clean. Stuck in Idaho with no hope, he quickly formulated a plan. 

Step one: Sell his father’s collectible clocks. 

Step two: Buy a car at auction. 

Step three: Drive that car across the country, park it around the corner from Beit T’Shuvah, and call every day until they let him in. 

If that isn’t dedication, I don’t know the meaning of the word. Eventually, after proving through action that he was willing to change his life, BTS decided he could return if he went to detox first. Having burnt his bridges with every detox and treatment center in LA, he had a hard time finding one that would take him. Finally, he got accepted to a place he had been kicked out of earlier for selling coffee. Yes, just coffee. “Whenever you are somewhere like Tarzana Treatment Center or Claire, transferring to Beit T’Shuvah is like transferring to Harvard.”

At Beit T’Shuvah, everything has changed for Michael. The drug-dealing role models he once had have now been replaced with people like Andy Besser and Ted Greenberg. Ted became a strong role model to Michael when Michael became a Music Department intern. Since then, he has looked to him for guidance and support—a mentor—a father figure. Since arriving here, the growth from Michael is something that simply cannot be ignored. The life he used to live, that he was clinging onto at every other treatment center he had been to is now out of his grasp. The light in his eyes is back. A light that I don’t even know if he remembers the last time he saw. “I am a person who has been seeking the acceptance of his peers and family his whole life, who has finally learned that it is a lot of work being cool and it is a lot easier just to be yourself and be okay doing so.”

Maybe this isn’t your story. Actually…unless you are Michael reading this right now, it isn’t. But maybe your story isn’t close to this at all. You may have had wonderful people to show you the way around this world—not all of us did. Today, Michael is a sponsor in AA, has over seven months sober, and is an active leader in our community, striving every day to be a better version of himself. After everything he has been through, persevered through, and survived, anyone in this community, regardless of how long they have been sober or how old they are, can agree, that he is someone we should all look up to. Michael “Ginger” D. is a role model.

Spotlight on Michael ‘Ginger’ D. by Jesse Solomon

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