Executive in Recovery Becomes Prolific Photographer
By Luke Schmaltz, VOICES Newsletter Editor
Former COO Michael Blanchard captures stunning images of the natural world through the lens of a man who has been to the edge and back. A successful career in business was temporarily derailed by substance use which led him to discover photography as a way of occupying his spare time. Fascination grew into obsession which soon revealed a talent for creating images that touch people in profound ways.
Blanchard ascended the ladder of success in a deliberate, well-planned fashion. What he didn’t plan for, however, was a second career as an artist. “It really came out of nowhere,” he says. “I had no intent, zero desire, and on top of that I had a feeling I had no artistic ability whatsoever.”
A Life in Chaos
After being arrested for DUI three times in three months, Blanchard was at rock bottom. The final episode took place after he had purchased a considerable amount of Xanax pills, intending to wash them down with alcohol and check out.
Instead, he was chased down by authorities and taken to the ER. His condition led staffers to place him in a psychiatric hospital. After three weeks of treatment, the medical director of the facility paid him a visit. The doctor leaned over his bed and said, “Michael, I used to be you. I made it back and you can make it back too.”
“It was the first time I didn’t feel alone,” Blanchard says. “It turns out he worked for the same healthcare system as me. He then went to my employer and convinced them not to fire me. The three-month rehab in Atlanta saved me.”
“I was sober and about two years in,” Blanchard continues, “My wife at the time got her master’s degree. I went to the ceremony, and there was a woman there speaking about finding one's passion and she said something to the effect of, ‘I want to tell you a story about a bipolar, alcoholic businessman who found connection and peace through the taking and editing of photographs.’”
The speaker had described Blanchard with precision, so the idea stuck with him. “I didn’t have the slightest inclination to take photographs in any way but for some reason I bought a camera. This was in 2012 and I became obsessed with it. I had to learn everything about it. I was like Richard Dreyfus in the movie Close Encounters. I didn’t know where it was going to take me.”
“I used to hate coming home from work between five and nine at night and not being able to drink, and that [photography] became my playground. I learned there was this whole world out there of clouds and stuff so I couldn’t wait to get home to go take pictures. Over a whole year, that’s a lot of nights where you’re having fun instead of just trying to get by.”
“But it wasn’t enough, so I was compelled to go on social media and to start writing stories and attaching them to the photos,” Blanchard says. “I don’t know why I did it. It was a way of getting it out of my system, I suppose.”
People began responding to Blanchard’s social media posts and replying with positive feedback. “When you take the right picture and the right words and you put them together, there’s this magical power that happens. When you see a powerful photo and you hear the story that went with it, your brain can visualize the situation but the words lead the person to understand what you were feeling. If they have felt the same thing or if they are struggling with the same thing there’s a huge amount of power. I didn’t know that at first, but it took off. Over time, I decided to write a book called Fighting for My Life. That sold out so then I wrote another one called Through a Sober Lens, which received numerous awards.”
Blanchard’s burgeoning popularity gave him the ability to make significant contributions to charity while creating a space where fans of his work can meet, network, reflect, and grieve if necessary. “I opened an art gallery,” he begins. “I rented a space initially but now I’m on Martha’s Vineyard and we have the gallery attached to our home. It is a meeting place. I don’t advertise. I’ve raised about $50,000 over the last six years for nonprofits with a calendar that I make every year.
“I feel so grateful that I didn’t die,” he continues, “I’ve been given so much that I could have never expected. I almost feel like I can’t give back enough. There’s still plenty of things I have to work on in my recovery, which is coming up on 13 years.”
Through his storytelling and images, Blanchard has touched many, especially people grieving the loss of loved ones to substance use as well as those in recovery. “I’ve been in touch with a lot of families, mothers and fathers, who have lost their kids. I have people that come into the gallery from all over the country and in some cases all over the world such places like Germany and Ireland. There was a guy who came into the gallery, he knew of me and my story and saw a picture on the wall and started crying. I didn’t know him but I said ‘Can I help you?’ He looked at the picture and said, ‘That’s where we just spread the ashes of my daughter after she died of a heroin overdose.’ So, I sat with him and listened.”
An Inside Perspective
Blanchard relates how in this instance, as in many others, he is able to give grieving parents an inside perspective on the nature of addiction and to understand that their child’s condition is not their fault. “I’m in the middle of a lot of conversation with parents who are struggling with their kids,” he says. “People want to talk because I’ve been open about addiction and it’s given them a window into what goes on in the brain of an addicted person and given them a sense of connection because they had no idea what was going on. It has attracted a lot of people to come talk to me.”
“If it was just standing there and selling art prints all day I don’t think I’d do it. I had a priest come in and tell me that I had developed my own ministry. He said, ‘Your ministry is to use your photos together with your words to deal with the disease of addiction and mental health.'”
Blanchard offers tried and true advice for people in recovery. “The isolation is what kills you,” he says. “My job is to advocate for a connection to your higher power or spirit through the arts. People will send me notes from Los Angeles, or Oregon, or Texas saying ‘I’m in trouble,’ and I say, ‘I want you to go find one person in your sphere of connections and tell them you’re struggling, because you’ve got to come out of that isolation and to know you’re not alone.'”