From dope to hope
Tim Ryan, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict, gave a presentation at Tomah High School on Friday discussing the dangers of drug and alcohol use. While introducing himself he said, “I also go by R68915. That’s my prison number.” He added he was unable to get clean and sober until after he was sent to prison.
Ryan questioned students to put their hands up if they had friends who smoked marijuana, or who’ve drank alcohol, or used drugs or painkillers. These questions were met with laughter and a large amount of students put their hands up in the air.
When Ryan addressed the students asking them to put their hands up if they knew someone who had died of a drug overdose or who had committed suicide, the laughter subsided, as there were still hands in the air.
“That’s the reality of what we’re talking about today. This is real life,” he said.
Ryan grew up in Illinois, adopted and raised by good parents he aspired to become a professional water skier and stuntman. He said he never wanted to be an alcoholic/drug addict.
Over a year ago, Ryan saw a doctor speak at a conference in Chicago who said when he works with individuals who struggle with addiction he doesn’t ask them, “Why the addiction?” he asks them, “Why the pain?”
According to Ryan, everyone who struggles with alcoholism or addiction has some form of underlying trauma. Trauma can come in many ways. It could be emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, mental or many other forms.
“I guarantee there are people in this audience who are struggling with anxiety. There are people who are cutters. There are people who are bulimic or anorexic and there’s kids in here right now struggling with substance abuse,” he said. “There are also people who aren’t struggling, but they have family members who are. I want you to know if you are in this situation, you did not cause this. One of the hardest things for you to do in life is to put your hand up and say, ‘I need some help.’”
Ryan also discussed bullying. In an effort to defend his younger siblings and himself who were picked on in high school, Ryan became a bully himself.
“Mean people suck and if you’re a bully knock it off. If you see someone bullying someone be a leader and say something,” he said. “Most people in life are followers. It takes a lot to be a leader.”
Due to being bullied, Ryan started hanging out with older kids and he started drinking because it took away the pain from his trauma of struggling with a learning disability, enduring abuse from his older brother and being molested when he was 12-years old. He was a sophomore in high school when he did his first line of cocaine.
“The first time I tried cocaine, I fell in love with it,” he said. “Instead of dealing with my trauma, I masked it with drugs and alcohol.”
He struggled with drug abuse throughout college, having no ambitions or goals. He was searching for happiness through drugs and alcohol, when in hindsight he admits they caused all of his problems. At 21, Ryan’s friend snitched on him for his cocaine addiction and he wound up in treatment. Eventually, he started using again and for many years went back and forth between being clean and using.
After speaking about his lack of ambition, he questioned the students saying, “How do you think you’re going to get anywhere in life without having any goals? Do you think those goals are just going to flourish in your head?”
As an adult, he was very successful in his professional life. He said, “I was the best at what I did and I destroyed it because I let drugs and alcohol come back into my life. I’m the guy that was a follower not a leader and I’m the guy who couldn’t put my hand up and ask for help.”
He met his wife at work, who had a son named Nick from a previous relationship. They were married and proceeded to have three more children. When his wife realized he was an addict, he got clean and stayed sober for a year. One bag of heroin later he spent the next 12 years of his life as an addict.
“I have overdosed on heroin eight times. I’ve been clinically dead three times. I’ve had two heart attacks,” Ryan said. “Statistically I should be dead or in prison right now. I should not be standing here over five years clean and sober talking to you. That one bag of heroin ravaged my world.”
He overdosed while driving and hit two vehicles, putting four people in the hospital, one being a nine-month-old baby. Paramedics administered Narcan to him five times and he was clinically dead for eight minutes.
His oldest son Nick was 17-years old when he walked into the bathroom while Ryan was “dope sick” and threw two bags of heroin at him. Nick had followed in his footsteps to become an addict too.
“In my son’s delusional mind he thought because I functioned I was a successful drug addict. Three months later my son and I were doing heroin together,” he said. “That’s where the disease of addiction takes you. That’s how my son and I bonded, getting high together.”
In October 2012, Ryan was sentenced to seven years in prison. While he was in prison, his wife divorced him. He wrote the business plan for the non-profit organization he now runs called, A Man In Recovery. He got himself clean and has been clean for over five years.
At 20-years old, Ryan’s son Nick was in treatment for the sixth time. He told Ryan he wanted to start speaking in high schools all over the country, telling their story. In 2014, Nick died of a drug overdose.
“My next thought was it was my fault and I wanted to go get high. I went to a meeting and I never looked back,” Ryan said. “I will be the first person to stand here and say, I helped kill my own son. That’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life. I can’t change the past all I can change is things moving forward.”
Since his son died three years ago, Ryan has assisted over 3,000 people into treatment. He started his own non-profit, he published a book, he works at a drug treatment center and he speaks all over the country.
“I couldn’t care less about any of that. What I care about is if you’ve got a heartbeat you have hope, to believe in yourself and to be a leader. Don’t be a follower and if you need help put your hand up and ask for it,” he said. “One bad choice will flip your world upside down. We have things in life called choices and that one bad choice can set you down the road of destruction forever.”