One man’s triumph: 'What you believe, you will become'

The news is filled these days with young people losing their struggle with substance abuse and addiction. Mike Croke, a 27-year-old Milford man, has a story of moving beyond alcohol abuse and jail time to become a thriving businessman and community advocate.

Croke says his problems started when he was young and experienced depression. As a pre-teen, he wasn’t open to talking to others about the way he felt. He started to “self medicate.”

Alcohol was his vice.

“Alcohol was a huge part of my downfall as a 17-year-old,” Croke said. “It was Dubra and grain alcohol. I was a troubled youth who drank excessively, broke the law and learned from that extensively. Being depressed and feeling ashamed to talk about it only fueled my teen drinking, because I internalized it as ‘something must be wrong with me’.”

He thinks a lack of discipline at the time and lack of clear direction on how to make himself better all contributed to his downward spiral.

“You need to be able to have a point of contact if you are struggling,” Croke said.

His mother, Marcella, loved him, no doubt about that. When Croke was sentenced to four years in jail at age 17 for injuring an older woman during a purse snatching — all part of that alcohol-infused spiral — his mother was his anchor, his support system. She visited him constantly. She told him that she was proud of the efforts he was making to overcome his demons and become a better person.

She died in 2010, and Croke made a promise to himself that he would work hard so that, looking down on him, his mother could really be proud of her son.

And that may have been part of the impetus for him to break free of alcohol, to fight to control his depression and to steer himself toward a brighter future.

“And a good part of the reinforcement was coming home to a strict father, who made me pay rent and pay for food,” Croke said about his father, Michael Croke. “He’s retiring soon, and where he is, is where I aspire to be — a self-sufficient man with a goal.”

Consistent hard work got this young man moving in a positive direction. He lamented the pain he had brought upon his family and others and was determined to make things right.

He worked several jobs, one for a friend who had a landscaping business, Dan Thornberg.

One day while working at the landscaping business, Croke picked up a rock. Envisioning his future in a white collar world, he picked up the rock and put it in his pocket. “I said one day I’ll have this rock on my desk,” he said.

Thornberg then started another business, Aced My Interview, and Croke asked him to give him a chance there, too. Thornberg gave him that chance. And Croke has been managing sales for the growing company since 2016.

“And this rock,” he said, cupping it in his hand as he sat in his office, “has been on my desk ever since.”

He volunteers extensively in the community, with the Boys & Girls Club and the Beth El Center.

“Giving time to volunteering is a priority because I owe it to my community, my family and my mother,” Croke said.

Wendy Gibbons, program director at the Milford Prevention Council, is very impressed with Croke.

“Michael has overcome significant hardships in his life and has taken those obstacles and turned them into quite a success story,” Gibbons said. “The greatest stigmas Mike faced were not so much in his active use but when he began to dream of something more for his life, something big and without substances.

“The judicial system, employers, community members and people on the Internet have confronted Mike and judged him based on these stigmas, the same stigmas that made it hard for Mike to seek help or understand it was okay to be struggling with addiction,” Gibbons continued. “Mike has beaten the odds one day at a time and dedicated his life to bringing hope that recovery is possible and how critical it is to break down the stigmas and shift our thinking about addiction.”

Croke said that for people struggling today, the important thing is that they have someone to talk to. He said he’s willing to talk to anyone who could use his help.

“People should help others, even a stranger,” he said.

Positive reinforcement is also key. People struggling with addiction and depression need to know they are loved and that they have attributes that are good and honorable.

He also thinks there may be too much focus on “gateway drugs,” and not enough on the more dangerous drugs, the opioids, that shatter lives. Change starts when a community acknowledges that the serious drugs are there and that people are using and abusing them, he said.

Peer pressure, thanks to social media, is more potent than it ever was before, and social media is causing millenials to lose the conversational skills they need to thrive, Croke added.

“Have dinner with your families. Put your cell phones away,” he said.

Today, jail is six years behind him and Croke has put in an application for a pardon.

Gibbons said Croke has an important message.

“Although Mike’s life story is about his struggle with substance abuse and recovery, his message is so much stronger, so much more,” she said. “It’s about making life choices; it’s about handling trials, tribulations and success; it’s about becoming the best you can be; it’s invigorating, challenging, and even difficult to hear. He has a strong passion and desire to empower students. He connects with the students and his passion for people is astonishingly real. Mike’s devotion to giving back to the community is astonishing.”

Croke talks to students about the risks of teen drinking, and opioids — opioids because his best friend died from using them.

But mostly, he talks to them about having the strength to become the best they can be.

“I speak about powering through depression, and refusing to let others define who you are,” Croke said, adding that he has recovered from the labels and predictions people once made about his future.

“I want other kids that may be struggling with depression to know they can be whoever they choose, and I choose to be the best version of myself possible. I am living proof that what you believe, you will become.”