My mother would never talk to me again if she knew I had a tattoo.” Shawn McLaughlin smiles as he says this. “She’s not happy about it somewhere.”
It’s impossible to miss McLaughlin’s body art. Extending from his forearm to his shoulder, the meandering mural represents a 40-hour labor of love, created over 18 months. Judy McLaughlin never saw her son’s masterpiece. She died on March 9, 2007. This milestone, inked on Shawn’s bicep, would become central to his descent into alcoholism, and his decision to attempt recovery—and rebirth.
We meet in the offices of Maine magazine, where McLaughlin is a member of the sales team. He is 34 years old today, and his phone buzzes with birthday wishes from friends and family. When prompted, he explains the features of the tattoo he had created in Judy’s honor: the Virgin Mary and her rosary; 6/26/54 (his mother’s birthday); the words faith and hope, intertwined.
Unfailingly earnest, McLaughlin is more than willing to share the story of his 18-month sobriety. He believes the experiences that brought him to Portland from his hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, were exactly the ones he was meant to have.
When McLaughlin was 13, his mother was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. A tumor of the brain and nervous system, neuroblastoma is typically found in children, and treatment for adults is still experimental. “We didn’t expect her to survive, and she did. It was a blessing,” says McLaughlin. “After that I didn’t take her for granted. We had an amazing connection.”
McLaughlin met with success during his teenage years. He attended high school at Austin Prep in Reading, Massachusetts, where he was a standout lacrosse player and named MVP of his baseball team. A few years later, McLaughlin was accepted into Westfield State University, where he studied criminal justice. He thought he might become a court officer in the footsteps of his father, Mike, so he accepted a job with the sheriff ’s office after graduating. Like his father, the younger McLaughlin was very good at his job, and quickly moved up the ranks. Everything was going well. Then his mother got sick again, and his world fell apart.
For 15 years, Judy’s cancer had been in remission, then a rare infection set off a tragic chain of events. In preparation for her daughter Erin’s wedding, Judy decided to have surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital to repair a drooping eyelid, caused by radiation and previous surgeries. She wanted to be able to see better. “It took five minutes,” says McLaughlin. “I held her hand the whole time. She was fine.”
Two weeks later Judy began having complications. “She started talking crazy, and we went back to the hospital,” says McLaughlin. Judy’s confusion was caused by a severe infection. She had methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in her spinal fluid.
Once the body is infected with MRSA, it can be hard to eradicate: this strain of bacteria does not respond to traditional antibiotics. In addition to that, Judy’s cancer had returned. Over the next two-and-a-half years, Judy would undergo 13 surgeries, followed by stays in intensive care. The specialists tried everything they could think of. In the end, “We sat around the table with doctors from Johns Hopkins and experts from everywhere else, and they said, ‘We’ve failed you,’” remembers McLaughlin. “‘There is nothing we can do.’”
Stunned by his mother’s illness, McLaughlin began to question the nature of life. He won- dered why Judy should be cursed with such devastating circumstances. He watched his father care for the woman who had been his high-school sweetheart. It seemed unfair. “I remember the night I gave in, because I stopped wanting to deal with things,” says McLaughlin. “I started drinking a lot and taking pills. My friends were shocked: I was never that guy.”
Judy McLaughlin was 54 years old when she finally succumbed. “I read the eulogy at her mass,” says McLaughlin. “I’d like to tell you that I was there for my family and stepped up, but that wasn’t the reality. I was already trying to escape.”
McLaughlin moved in with his father, and quit his job with the sheriff ’s department. Immersing himself in a scene that offered him comfort and diversion, he began working at a local bar. After being named one of Boston’s best bartenders, he took a position with a prominent vodka company. Meanwhile, his demons continued in full force. “I had a $2,000 suit and a brand new car,” says McLaughlin. “My friends told me I had really made it. In my heart, I knew that wasn’t who I was. I was a fraud.”
Appearances had always been important to McLaughlin. He cared, deeply, about what others thought. He saw that his substance use was starting to affect his job and his relationships. In 2010, he told his friends that he was going on an extended vacation. Instead, McLaughlin went to a 12-step retreat program in Plymouth, New Hampshire, where individuals receive support in dealing with addiction issues by utilizing the “twelve- step” program.
The twelve steps are a set of principles first used as a means of recovery by the creators of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith founded AA in 1935. Both alcoholics themselves, they found that the most effective way to quit drinking was through self-examination, behavior change, and spiritual reflection. The steps begin with: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
“I went through the program and didn’t do drugs and alcohol for six months after that,” continues McLaughlin. “By that measure, I should have started to feel better, but I actually felt worse.” He started drinking heavily again. “I was spiritually bankrupt,” he says.
McLaughlin returned to Plymouth House in the spring of 2013. This time he embraced the twelve-step approach. “I was out of options. I did it my way, and it didn’t work. Now I did it their way.” He admitted that he had a problem and he dove into his fear. He took inventory of his life and began apologizing to the people he had hurt.
After a month, McLaughlin was asked to stay on as a mentor and help others who were new to Plymouth House. He was paid a small stipend, and remained there—still working on his own issues—for three months. On July 1, 2013, he moved to a sober house on Congress Street in Portland.
One of the requirements for staying at the Congress Street house was meaningful activity, including regular volunteer work. McLaughlin began helping out at Preble Street. Preble Street assists area residents who are experiencing homelessness, hunger, and poverty. After a month at Preble Street, kitchen manager Sue Ellen Sevigny suggested that McLaughlin work there full time. “Part of our recovery program is accepting that the next right thing will be revealed to you,” says McLaughlin. “I had the feeling this was where I was supposed to be.”
Despite this, the situation had its challenges. “I’m cooking pancakes and eggs for 350 people and emptying trucks all day,” says McLaughlin. “It’s August, and I’m coming home to a tiny room with no privacy, a room- mate. and no air conditioning.” McLaughlin continues, “I asked, ‘Is this what it is really supposed to be like?’” But over the eight months he spent at the Preble Street kitchen, it became, in McLaughlin’s words, “The best job I ever had.”
After a year of sobriety, McLaughlin was asked to become the co-manager of a new recovery house in Portland. He has now lived there, along with 16 other men, for five months. He affectionately calls the men his “kids.” “Nothing I’ve ever done compares with seeing someone completely broken, like I was, getting back together with his family or finding his self-respect,” says McLaughlin. “It’s a gift to be in a position to do this.”
For McLaughlin, recovery is ongoing. “I have moments of complete gratitude and serenity, followed by moments of anger, sometimes almost immediately. It’s up and down—I’m a work in progress,” he says. “I do what I have to in order to get through the day in good spiritual condition: spend time praying, meditating, helping other people, being mindful. If I do that, I’m OK.”
McLaughlin continues to grapple with his spiritual condition. “I struggle with the idea of a higher power,” he says. For McLaughlin, this “higher power” comes from someplace internal. He has found that, “I was brought up Catholic, but
God wasn’t revealed to me that way.” Buddhism, with its focus on compas- sion, resonates with him. “Our Buddhist teachers tell us to pray for obstacles and difficulties, so that our hearts will grow with compassion. When I look at my life, my pain has taught me the most,” he says. McLaughlin regularly commutes to the Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies in Medford, and has arranged to bring his housemates with him once a month.
McLaughlin’s internal power keeps him moving forward at a brisk pace. He con- tinues to help out at Preble Street (often with his housemates in tow), is an AA sponsor to many, and speaks frequently about addiction for local organizations, such as Day One. He remains close to his family, especially his niece and nephews.
Last year, McLaughlin reached out to longtime friend John Woods, the chairman of Share Our Strength (SOS) in Maine. Woods is best friends with McLaughlin’s uncle and father and used to take McLaughlin to Boston College hockey games when they both still lived in Massachusetts. McLaughlin soon began volunteering with SOS, an organization whose stated mission is to end child-hood hunger. Woods also facilitated a connection with Maine magazine, where McLaughlin swiftly became a valued part of the team.
McLaughlin wears his view of life on his sleeve. Or, more accurately, on his arm. The words “forever grateful,” are prominent within the tattoo that honors the woman who gave him life, and whose death spurred him to rebirth. “I lost my mother, but I’m still thankful for the time I had with her,” says McLaughlin. “You don’t have to change the way you look at things because they ended. I try to live in the present moment. I appreciate things for what they are.”