“By the grace of God I was sent to Sheridan prison.” Who says something like that? A drug addict, at the end of his rope, whose lost his family, was clinically dead twice from overdoses and, but for prison, would now have a needle sticking out of his arm just so he can feel normal.
Tim Ryan is now National Outreach Director for Transformations Treatment Center and Executive Director and Founder of A Man in Recovery. He speaks all over the country, is a regular on radio talk shows and as a “talking head” on TV, and has written the book From Dope to Hope: A Man in Recovery. He is now also starring in the A&E reality TV show entitled Dope Man. This incredible man and his astonishing transition is also the force behind thousands of lives saved and more than 1,500 interventions. Thank God for prison.
Tim’s life in addiction is a familiar story. He started drinking heavily in his early teens and graduated to cocaine just a couple of years later. But, it was the 1980s, the drinking age was only 18 (and loosely enforced), drinking and driving was socially accepted and drugs were glamorized not criminalized. Ecstasy was even legal in the state of Texas until 1985, which presented an enterprising business adventure for young Mr. Ryan who started running drugs in college to make some money. The only thing that money did, though, was fuel his addiction to an ever growing buffet of drugs. He never made it to class, sabotaged all of his relationships and eventually got kicked out of college. He was always the last guy at the party, and it was a party that never stopped.
Somehow, along the way, he became functional in his addiction, incredibly managing to start a successful business, get married and start raising a family. The problem was, it was a fragile sense of responsibility that ebbed and flowed with his permanent addiction to heroin, which was the beginning of the end on many levels.
You see, While Tim tried his best to hide his addiction and keep it to himself, that wasn’t realistic. One day, while puking in his bathroom at home, he lashed out at his son Nick who asked if he was okay. “What do you think, you idiot? I’m dope sick.” Undeterred, his son promptly returned to his rescue, throwing two bags of heroin on the counter. “Not any more dad. Today’s your lucky day.” A concerned Tim later approached his son, fearful that his son would turn out just like him. However, Nick allayed those fears, “don’t worry dad, I’m just selling a little. Besides, look at you. You’re a successful drug addict.” Despite the shame, Tim took that as a compliment and was glad his son wasn’t using. Unfortunately, that fallacy quickly faded as they began using together a few months later.
In the meanwhile, Tim was still doing drugs and describes his second to last overdose as his worst drug experience ever. His dealer warned him it was a new batch, but Tim was in no mood to wait or take things easy. He pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot on the way home to shoot up and then started driving. That’s when the drugs kicked in. He hit two cars and put four people in the hospital, including a 9 month old baby. Tim had no vital signs for three to five minutes and it took five shots of Narcan to bring him back from the dead. Astonishingly enough, that wasn’t enough to stop him. It took one more overdose, another near-death experience and entering prison at a gaunt 158 pounds (for his 6’1” frame) for him to finally face his demons.
He crapped and vomited for two weeks straight. There are no nurse’s aides to help you detox when you go to jail. It’s straight, hard, on your own, cold turkey. No one even cleans up after you while you’re locked down 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was in that pit of hell that Tim first learned how to surrender. He was fortunate enough to then get placed in one of Illinois’s only two (out of 28) prisons with a drug program. While he left his family in dire straits, he knew it was vital to get himself right first if he was ever going to be of any use to his family again.
Tim got out a changed man 14 months later, focused on rebuilding his shattered life. Now clean and sober, he began speaking about his addiction and started touring the country. At this point, his son Nick was bouncing in and out of treatment himself with the hope of joining his dad on tour in newfound sobriety. Sadly, Nick’s story also involved jail but did not take the same positive turn as it did for his dad. Nick died of an overdose. At this incomprehensible moment of incomparable sorrow, Tim Ryan now had two choices. Most people would have elected to get high but, thankfully, the only thing on Tim’s mind was the 6pm NA meeting.
This entire experience, of course, left Tim searching for answers, as he dealt with his grief. He became ever more involved in his crusade against addiction and began examining his life. For the longest while he had no idea what drove him to addiction. However, he gained tremendous insight from a lecture given by Dr. Gabor Mate’ at a conference in Chicago, at which Tim learned the tremendous impact that trauma has on addiction. A light bulb went off in Tim’s head. “I had learning disabilities growing up, my older brother was narcissistic and abusive, and a female baby sitter molested me when I was 12.” He was also adopted which exponentially increases the odds that someone will develop addiction. Frankly, with all that emotional baggage, it would have been a miracle had Tim not become an addict.
The benefit of that knowledge helped Tim deal with Nick’s tragic death. He still accepts blame for his role, but he’s importantly learned to forgive himself and use the pain as a motivating force. Addiction is a disease triggered by circumstance, for which there is still no cure. Our only weapons in this battle are treatment, support and a will to survive. Tim is out there every day to impart this critical message. He is a “Hope Dealer. Most people struggling with addiction want help, they just don’t know how to ask for it.” Tim provides that solution to help them start on the path.
So, the self-described “happiest person to walk through the gates of prison” refused to let jail define him. He’s re-written the story of his life, which by all rights could have ended just like it did for his son. This stark contrast of events stands out as a compelling example of what could happen to any one of us. Choose life, meaning and purpose, or succumb to our disease. Tim Ryan’s life mission demonstrates the immense value of living a rewarding life in sobriety and it’s a gift he wants to share with every struggling addict he meets along the way.