Michael Liimatta’s Spiritual Journey

I grew up in an alcoholic family. Both my father and my mother came from alcoholic homes, too. Because I grew up in such a very chaotic home, I was running the streets from an early age.

My first drinking experience was when I was just twelve years old. I was “turned on” to pot at age fourteen, and went to jail twice for selling marijuana, hashish, and LSD before I was eighteen years old.

In 1974, my life began to unravel. God used “the law” to get my attention. It looked like I would be “busted” for selling drugs for the third time. The fear of a long prison sentence finally brought me to the end of myself. I became so desperate that I started listening to those “Jesus freak” friends of mine. Does anybody remember Jesus freaks? They were former hippies who came to know Christ. As far as I was concerned, they were really kind of spooky people who floated around and were all smiley and they weren’t doing any dope. Although I could not figure out what they had in their lives, I just knew I needed it, too.

In 1974, I visited a friend I had known in the drug scene who had become saved. He was living in a Christian commune in Chicago called Jesus People USA. While there, he explained how I could know Christ, myself. I had a tremendous spiritual experience when I prayed with him to surrender my life to the Lord. Yet, once I returned to my home, I struggled for a year and a half to quit using drugs.

Much of the problem had to do with the fact that I still lived with my family. Still, God was not done with me. I struggled throughout my first year of college to stay sober with a few periods of success. Then, while working for the summer at a state park, I backslid entirely and spent a month or so in a chemical “haze”. The weekend before my second year of college, I was “partying” with some friends from the park. After a day of drinking and pot smoking, we went to a tavern to hear a popular rock band.

It was there that I had a true “prodigal son” experience. Sovereignly, the Lord spoke to my heart. I “came to my senses” as I looked around this crowded tavern and realized I was holding on to the very lifestyle from which Christ had died to free me. I rushed out of the place in tears. At that very moment, God lifted from me the compulsion to drink and use drugs.

Finally, as I began my second year of college I made some vital friendships with some sincere and committed Christians. With God’s help and theirs, I began to live for the Lord. I went on to study for the ministry, got involved with working for God, and even started a licensed alcohol and drug treatment center before I really got into recovery myself.

Looking back on all this, I can honestly say that my spiritual journey of recovery had two very distinct phases. The first phase was the initial surrender of my life to Christ. Tentative though it was, this was really the beginning of my journey into recovery. This eventually led to getting chemicals finally out of my life. So, I began to grow in the Lord and walk with Him. But, stopping drinking and living sober are two very different things. Quitting the active use of alcohol and drugs was easy compared to the past twenty years of trying to live a sober and satisfying life. For this second part, I am thankful for the counseling I have received over the years and for the opportunity to be involved with support groups.

When I was married, in 1984, the second phase of my journey began. Through my attempts to live in a committed and growing relationship, I discovered many unresolved issues in my life and in inner “woundedness” that were the consequences of growing up in an alcoholic family.

My problem was simply that I lacked the inner resources to deal with my own feelings in a healthy way. But it was about that time that we had some friends who knew us quite well and said, “Hey, we think you really need to look at your life.” I came to understand that, as an adult child of an alcoholic, I had many issues from my family background that I would have to overcome. So, I became involved with family therapy and counseling. I thank God for giving me the grace to “stuff” my pride and get the help that I needed.

For over ten years I served as the founding director of a residential treatment program committed to services that were both therapeutically and Biblically sound. One of the interesting ironies of all this is the fact the building out of which this residential treatment program operated housed a tavern for almost eighty years. As a matter of fact, it was the very same tavern where I had my “prodigal son” experience in 1975!

Since 1990, I have worked as an educator and do a lot in the field of addiction and recovery. For 17 years, I worked with an association of Christian organizations that help the homeless who are addicts and alcoholics. From  2008 to 2015,   I worked with City Vision University, an accredited online college with a degree program for addiction counselors.   In 2015 I became the CEO of Connecting for Good. (now part of the PCs for People network). That led to a year in Washington DC managing a digital inclusion project for HUD called “ConnectHome” during the Obama Administration.

In 2017, I returned to Kansas City and became Executive Director of Footprints, which provides outpatient treatment and recovery housing. Since 2020, I have served as Chief Operating Officer for Healing House, I am back where it all began; helping men and women and those who suffer from substance use disorder. Since 2002, Healing House has provided recovery housing and support that assists both men and women to experience long-term recovery from substance use disorders. We operate safe and stable recovery residences and offer programs that provide opportunities for spiritual and personal growth. Nearly 200 individuals on any given day reside in our thirteen private homes and two apartment buildings.

I continue to be grateful for all of the opportunities I have had to touch the lives of hurting people. Most of all, I am grateful that God reached out to me, personally, to bring me out of the downward spiral of addiction. That is still the main reason I do what I do. To God be the glory!


Hear the “Unshackled” broadcast of Michael’s Testimony

See more current information “About Me and My Life’s Work


When is a Client Truly Ready to Move On?

client-300x225-GI am convinced that our goal in any recovery program is to “work ourselves out of a job.” Or to say it another way, we ought always to be helping program people to become stable and growing believers who can experience God’s power and guidance for themselves. This is the exact opposite “missionizing people” — the rescue mission version of institutionalization. I am referring to the problem of teaching people how to live in the confines of the mission, but not equipping them for life outside. This is usually the case when program people seem to doing fine but end up crashing and burning a day after they leave the program. We’ve taught them to live in our little protected world and not prepared them for life out there.

Here’s a few principles to keep in mind:

A. The program is a “greenhouse” — My perspective is that a mission program is a lot like a greenhouse where troubled people begin to experience a little new sprout of new life within. A well-functioning residential program provides a protective nurturing environment for that little shoot. Our job as staff members is to nurture it and grow it. Then finally it becomes strong enough that we take it out of the greenhouse and plant it in some good soil out here where it can grow and mature and bear fruit.

B. Aftercare Planning is Essential — It’s essential that the mission program be the sort of nurturing environment where new life can gain ground and put down some roots. We also need to be thinking carefully about where the “good soil” is out here and how to transplant program graduates out there without tearing all the roots out, or planting it in soil that’s not going to allow it, the growth to continue. No one should ever graduate from a rescue mission long-term program without a solid, detailed written aftercare plan in place. The plan should include information about housing, employment, church involvement, participation in additional counseling and support groups, as well as some specific information about the services offered by the mission that will still be available to them. To do this well, the mission program must develop a comprehensive list of community resources. Additionally, mission staff members must take time to assist graduating residents to access those outside services that they will need.

C. Make Sure A Solid Relational Network is in Place — Besides doing all they can to heal past relationships, all mission clients also need to establish healthy relationships within the church and the recovery community. This process should begin while in the program. Until these are in place, a person is simply not ready to graduate.

D. Lay the Foundation for Recovery — The word for “recovery” is the theological term “sanctification.” While the term means an initial “setting apart for godly purposes,” it is generally used to refer to our life-long journey toward become more Christ-like. . It’s a process. I really believe honestly that in our work with our clients, we need to realize that we are starting them off on a process of recovery and that ideally our real job at a rescue mission is to lay a foundation for a lifetime of recovery.

The best way to lay the foundation is through a providing a very organized process that involves specific verifiable goals and objectives that a participant will accomplish while in the long-term program. These should include both general goals, objectives, and activities that will be expected of everyone in the program, as well as, very specific, personalized goals and objectives that address the special issues of individual participants. As I have previously discussed, when considering the time for graduating, effective rescue mission programs worry less about the calendar and focus more on determining whether a participant has made significant progress on their written goals and objectives (or recovery plan).

So, how do we know if a person is truly ready to graduate from our program? We’re not going to take somebody and fix them 100%. As a matter of fact, we’re going to send them out of our doors as struggling baby Christians. I might add, we send them out as struggling baby Christians who know how to access the help they need from both God and other people.

The healing environment of the recovery program combined with the spiritual and material resources we provide are the essential elements of providing them with a foundation in the Word of God. Life skills we impart will equip them to succeed when they leave our protective environment. The new supportive relationships they developed before leaving the program will become more important than ever.

Winning the Battle Over Addiction Conference Talks

michael“All in the Family” was the theme for the 2013 Winning the Battle Over Addiction Conference held on May 10th at Palm Beach Atlantic University and sponsored by the Road Less Traveled. I shared two talks with several hundred Christian workers and professional counselors to help them better understand addiction in the context of family systems.

Session One: “How Addiction Affects the Family”

The first session is an overview of the impact of addiction on individuals and their family members. I share some person reflections of my own journey in recovery along with some basic principles intended to help Christian workers better understand the issues faced by recovering addicts and their families.

Download PowerPoint for this Talk  

Session Two: “Healthy Boundaries in People Helping”

The second talk was aimed at people who work with alcoholics and their families. Most of the principles shared focus on ways that recovery workers and friends can avoid becoming overly involved with addicted and dysfunctional people and how to become more effective in our their people helping efforts.

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