Sen. John Velis faces alcoholism one day at a time
Westfield lawmaker, in recovery, seeks to help others
IF JOHN VELIS has a drink, he can’t stop. Not at one drink, or two, or three. The end doesn’t come until he is blacking out, crazy drunk, the kind of drunk where you wake up the next morning needing another drink.
Yet it took two decades of drinking before Velis was ready to confront the truth about who he is. Velis is a Democratic state senator from Westfield, a US Army Reserve major, and the nephew of a retired judge. Velis is also, he now will say, an alcoholic.
To get to this point, he first faced a grim reality. “For me, alcohol is going to lead me to one of two places: dead or in jail,” Velis said he realized. “Simple as that.”
Velis chose a third path: recovery. He last had a drink on February 19, 2017.
Until now, he has told his story more quietly, when it is important: To some of his colleagues in the Legislature and to those suffering with addiction who he is now trying to help. Going public is a step Velis took nervously, after considering it for more than a year, but one he hopes will let him be a resource for others struggling with the same issues he has confronted.
“If it weren’t for any number of people in my life who took the time to meet me for a cup of coffee, took the time to hear me on the phone, to just fill in the blanks, I wouldn’t be sitting here today on this Zoom as a sober man,” Velis said.
Velis, who is 40, had his first drink as a high school student in 1997, at a house party in Springfield. He loved the feeling alcohol gave him. “I was kind of a shy kid. The next thing you know at that same house party I’m the center of attention, talking to all the young ladies I was too afraid to talk to sober,” Velis said.
For the next two decades, once he started drinking, Velis said, “I could count on two hands the number of times that I didn’t black out.”
Though it carries the stigma that some see it incorrectly as a personal failing or character fault, alcoholism is actually a chronic medical disease, and a complex one. Yet it is treatable, says Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield and expert in addiction medicine and recovery.
Roose described addiction as a chronic illness that often has “biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations,” and said recovery is possible when those elements are addressed. Fundamentally, when someone has an addiction, their brain compels them to use a substance even knowing that it has negative consequences. Roose noted that changing one’s behavior is always challenging – picture trying to lose weight – and when someone has an addiction, the pathways to their brain are impaired in a way that can result in strong cravings to use a substance.
When he was younger, he could easily sleep off a hangover. But alcoholism is a progressive disease. Velis’s drinking got worse when he attended Suffolk Law School in Boston. He would go out with friends for an “appetizer and drinks,” or a “couple of drinks.” “The next thing you know, the bar is closing and… I’m blacked out and waking up with a headache that Tylenol wasn’t doing the trick for,” Velis recalled.
Velis knew his drinking was affecting his grades and his relationships. Yet he did it again, and again, and again. “The insanity of my alcoholism is that I would do everything that I would do while I was intoxicated, sober up, then make a decision to go out and drink again,” Velis said.
He kept drinking as he progressed in his career as a lawyer, a US Army reservist, and a state representative, where he earned a reputation as a blunt-talking, straight-shooting lawmaker who is in the centrist wing of the Democratic Party.
He would drink instead of preparing for a court appearance or going to an extra event in his district. “I’d look at my calendar and say I’ve got nothing for the next two or three days…and I would drink,” Velis said.
To satisfy his father, Velis once saw a psychologist, but the therapist had no addiction experience and couldn’t help him. While deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, Velis said some contractors invited him to have some drinks, contrary to military rules, and he said no. For years, he used that refusal as proof to himself that he did not have a drinking problem.
After Velis was elected to the House of Representatives in 2014, he knew he needed help. He cold called Walsh, who has been open about his own struggles with alcoholism. Walsh not only called him back, he told Velis to call him regularly to check in.
“I thought I was fucking doomed. And Mayor Walsh gave me a sense of, ‘Hey, you can beat this thing, man,’” Velis said.
Walsh said Alcoholics Anonymous is jokingly called “the club,” because it is made up of people who support one another. Walsh said he would have returned the call from anyone struggling with alcoholism or addiction, but in supporting a fellow elected official, it is possible to talk through situations other people may not encounter.
Velis said when he worried what constituents would think if they learned he was seeking help, Walsh invoked a popular Westfield pub to frame his response: “What do you think your constituents would be more upset or curious about – you at Tavern Restaurant slurring your words clearly incapacitated or you trying to get yourself better and admitting you have a problem?”
Walsh said the approach he takes, and counsels — a hallmark of 12-step programs — is the same regardless of someone’s job. “It doesn’t matter if you’re mayor, state representative, or you drive a bus, you still have to live your life a day at a time,” said Walsh, who said the key is to keep sobriety “front and center.”
Despite Walsh’s support, it took Velis until late February 2017 to feel ready to confront his addiction.
Velis can’t pinpoint what changed that day. He was tired of feeling like a hypocrite for delivering remarks about good character at events and having parents praise him for being a role model. He would return to his car after these events and think, “If you only knew.” Velis says he never drove drunk and never got in trouble with the law. But his addiction was breaking him.
“I was just sick and tired of the way that I was feeling. I knew if I went down this path, it was a ticking time bomb before something really bad happened,” Velis said.
Velis called Jack Griffin, a retired addiction specialist from Springfield who has now been sober for 38 years, and asked for help. The two had met briefly at a political event, when Velis was a state representative and Griffin was running for sheriff. Griffin, who still refers to the now-40-year-old senator as “a good kid,” and calls him “Johnny,” admits that he was caught off guard. But, he said, “When anyone anywhere reaches their hand out to me concerning a recovery process, I want my hand to be there.”
Griffin recalled that he told Velis that if he addresses his alcoholism, “other things will open up to you.” Griffin said over time, the two talked about the recovery process, how to avoid using a substance, and how to bring the values of recovery – like serving others and being part of a fellowship –– into daily life.
“My little piece in it is to keep him centered as far as his own recovery process,” Griffin said.
For confidentiality reasons, Velis won’t give specifics about his recovery process, but he says he relies on peer support from “a growing group of like-minded individuals who struggle with the same thing.”
Medically, said Roose, the Mercy Medical Center addiction specialist, connecting to a recovery network – whether a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous or another model –– is an integral part of virtually every alcoholic’s recovery. “It connects people directly to support, helps reinforce that people are not alone in this,” Roose said, emphasizing the internalized shame and guilt that often come with addiction. “It also helps provide people in many cases helpful tips or strategies to cope, as well as be a source for, in some cases, giving back and providing service.”
Nearly four years sober, Velis has learned the truth of the maxim spoken by many in recovery: “My worst day sober is far better than my best day drunk.” “It’s been the best time period of my life,” Velis said.
He learned to watch Patriots and Celtics games without a beer. He learned how to deal with the ups and downs of life without a drink. He became a better son to his parents and a better partner to his now-fiancé. Griffin said he has seen Velis become a more empathetic person.
“Because he’s addressed his own illness, he’s more compassionate to others going through a hard time, whether alcoholism, drug addiction, or not,” Griffin said.
As a legislator, Velis uses his personal experience to mentor others. Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi said Velis has visited his civil commitment facility – a place where men are involuntarily confined because they pose a danger to themselves or others due to addiction – probably half a dozen times.
On one visit in the summer of 2019, Velis sprawled on jail-issued furniture, surrounded by a group of men, talking seriously and openly with them, and looking as comfortable there as he does with his Beacon Hill colleagues. The struggles these men have faced are not much different than his own, he said afterwards.
Cocchi said Velis immediately makes that connection clear. “He starts off the conversation, ‘I’m not just a guy on Beacon Hill that wants to believe I know what the solution is. I’m recovering myself.’ And he tells his story,” Cocchi said. “When someone’s sitting down with John Velis, what they’re looking across the table at is a state senator, but they’re looking at hope. They’re looking at their future.”When he was elected to the Senate in a special election in May, Velis told Senate President Karen Spilka about his recovery and asked if he could sit on the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, a request she granted. Committee chair Julian Cyr, to whom Velis also confided his background, said lawmakers make better policy when an issue is personal. “He will provide a voice of lived experience as it relates to addiction and living in recovery that will be a very powerful one,” Cyr said.
Velis said he hopes his public profile will let him help those still struggling with addiction, to pay forward the kindness that has been shown to him. Velis said, “When that hand of addiction comes calling and someone’s in a bad place, if the mayor of Boston can take the time to talk to me, a guy he doesn’t know, I can take the call to talk to anybody.”