Sober, Happily Married and Advocating for Jobs for People in Recovery
Dan Belyea’s work as the chief workforce development officer for the Maine Community College System is even more meaningful to him because he is sober — 17 years and counting — and able to advocate for educational and workforce opportunities for others in recovery.
“When I present nationally and locally on the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce, I always disclose that I’m a person in long-term recovery and that people in long-term recovery are successful,” Dan says. “I’m proud of giving a voice — particularly in higher education — for individuals who have had some bumps in the road. If we offer work opportunities to folks who are in recovery or are justice-involved, they will work harder and they will stay longer. They are especially loyal when they find an employer who understands that if they are in recovery, they have appointments and things they need to do, just like someone with diabetes or with another mental health challenge.”
To get where he is today — not only in long-term recovery, but happily married and at the top of his field professionally — Dan had to deal with childhood trauma, come to terms with his sexual orientation and find a recovery support community.
“I discovered that I wasn’t alone when I joined a community where I could talk about things that were trigger points for me,” he says.
Dan had watched his father struggle with alcohol and related health issues, and he “knew better.” Even so, the night he turned 21, he drank alone and in the dark. “Shortly after that, I knew I wasn’t on a good path,” he says.
“I have clinical depression; it’s hereditary. Alcohol made it worse, much worse.”
He started his career at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, and for a number of his 28 years there he was a “functioning alcoholic.” He thought he had things under control because he didn’t drink until after work, or because on weekends, he waited until noon. He spent every evening at home (to avoid drinking and driving), and he divided his returnable bottles to bring to various places, as if he could hide the quantity. He was too ashamed to talk to his father, who was in recovery, and he gained 70 pounds.
Dan credits his former family physician in Orono, Dr. Michael Bruehl, for setting him on his recovery journey. Dr. Bruehl was monitoring his liver enzymes and his weight and finally said something like: “Dan, you’re coming here every three months and nothing is changing. I really don’t need to see you anymore because I’m not helping you.”
Whether it was because he was sick of being sick, or because his competitive drive kicked in, or both, Dan asked for three months to see if he could make some changes.
He saw a counselor to help deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a sexual assault from a trusted community member when he was incredibly young. He got treatment for his depression and he quit drinking cold turkey.
“I saw my doctor again, and my labs significantly changed,” Dan says. “In another three months, my labs had improved even more. After about a year or so, I admitted to him that I had quit drinking.”
Physically, it showed. Though Dan stayed sober day after day, week after week, month after month, building up to 3½ years of sobriety, he was keeping his alcoholism private. The desire to drink persisted and he was afraid that if he told people he was in recovery that they’d eventually see him fail.
Then, someone invited him to a recovery support meeting.
“The folks at the Bangor Area Recovery Network [BARN}, when I came into the program in late 2009 and 2010, were very good to me,” Dan says. “Telling my story in front of people was very emotional but very healing. The people around me cared and I wasn’t ashamed or alone. It was like this massive weight came off my back.”
The man who had invited him to meetings became his sponsor.
“I now had a set of tools that I desperately needed,” Dan says. “That grounding helped me make sure people around me held me accountable and helped me talk through what I needed to do and what I needed to avoid.”
Because he had those tools, he could see more clearly that he wasn’t living a truthful life.
“I knew in junior high that I was gay, but the only way to survive at the time was to act straight,” Dan recalls. “I wanted to advance my career. I hoped that getting married would make it go away, but it doesn’t because you’re born that way.”
Only once he was part of a recovery community was Dan able to come out, publicly, as a gay man.
“That was hard,” Dan says. “Lots of things happened, including divorce, that could have brought me back to drinking. It was because I had the right tools that I didn’t stumble. I know where I’ve been and where I am today. I know I have people I can reach out to. I know I can go to a meeting. I know my trigger points and why they happen. I’m good with where I am, who I am, and it’s all because I now have the tools to sort through some things in my life that I couldn’t sort through until I got into a community that understands.”
During all of these life changes, Dan met and fell in love with Greg Sereyko. They’ve been married for seven years.
“I remember when I first met Greg, he didn’t understand alcoholism, and he said that I could have a glass of wine every once in a while,” Dan says. “I told him, if I have a difficult day and know you give me permission, I’ll be off and running. No one can give me that kind of permission.”
Instead, on those inevitable bad days, Dan says that he turns to exercise, or reading, or worst-case, a bowl of ice cream. Drinking isn’t worth destroying his health, his marriage, or his ability to advocate for the recovery community through his work overseeing the state’s community college workforce initiatives.
“We’re providing free training to individuals across the state of Maine and will train 24,000 Mainers throughout the next four years in the hospitality, health care sectors and the trades and construction,” Dan says. “We have developed the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce and put together $62 million in workforce training using public and private funds. We have $35 million from Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan and $15.5 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation. Part of our effort within that training is helping folks with skill gaps – particularly those who are unemployed, underemployed, justice-involved, recovery involved, New Mainers or older adults — to get training to access high wages so they can live their economic dream.”
Training and apprenticeships are available for the following sectors: health care, information technology, hospitality, manufacturing, trades, construction and clean energy.
“We are working on a project to train 500 broadband technicians, and splicers are being trained to expand broadband across the state of Maine, training that comes with a possible stipend that could cover the costs of living in a recovery home while getting the skills needed for a great paying job,” Dan elaborates.
He has seen the number of recovery-friendly workplaces grow significantly over the past decade.
“With our workforce shortage, the work that Journey magazine is doing, and the support from the Mills administration, and the Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith, and what others are doing, employers are more willing to work with individuals with gaps in their employment or who have a record. I think that being honest about addiction, that it affects anyone from any walk of life, helps end the stigma.”