Listen in to the man for whom a cellmate in prison was the springboard to sobriety. Follow his journey back from the depths to true love and a decorated career as an advocate for the recovery community. Hear his thoughts on how to reform current attitudes, how to reach our youth, and how we all can make a difference.
“Strength of the Titans”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
[beginning of recorded audio]
Introduction [00:00:12]: Welcome to Rubber Bands, an Avenues Recovery podcast, conversations about the push and pull of addiction and recovery. And now, here’s your host, Shlomo Hoffman.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:00:26]: Hello everybody, welcome to Episode 10 of Rubber Bands, conversations about the push and pull of addiction and recovery. We continue to shed light on the world of addiction treatment by talking to the people who make up its heart and soul; those who have gone through it and those that have helped them get through it, sharing their experiences and insight on how people can find their way back from the darkest places and light up the world for themselves and for those that love them. Today we are joined by famed recovery advocate Tim Ryan, Founder and Executive Director of A Man In Recovery Foundation. Noted author, interventionist, drug policy activist, he told his story in his book “From Dope to Hope: A Man in Recovery” and his work has been highlighted, among other places, on the A&E series, Dope Man. Tim’s own experiences with addiction and childhood trauma has given him a window into how to reclaim a life filled with meaning and he has dedicated his life to giving back to the recovery community. We are very grateful that Tim has set aside time today to share his story and his message. Tim, thank you so much for joining us today. How have you been?
Tim Ryan [00:01:16]: Thank you so much for having me on the show. I should have you do my PR because that intro was spot-on, I love it. Thanks. So what’s going on?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:01:28]: Good, so your story is interesting. You’ve obviously – a lot of people know your name and you’re obviously very dedicated to recovery. So I want to start from the beginning. You obviously had your brush with addiction before you – tell us a little bit about where that was, how that started, what your childhood looked like.
Tim Ryan [00:01:46]: Yeah, I’ll give you the short version. You know, I didn’t come from a bad family. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Illinois in a town called Crystal Lake on a lake. My parents couldn’t have kids, they adopted four kids, so my older brother is two years older than me, then I’m 53 and I’ve got a little brother and sister that are three-quarter Chippewa Indian Native American. So I grew up with a lot of racism, protecting my brother and sister, because there were no Hispanics, African Americans, I had a very dark-skinned brother and sister, so they were called a lot of derogatory words. I was the kid that struggled with learning disabilities, school. I think my grade point average in high school was a 1.4. I took the ACT five times; I received an 11 each time. When it comes to verbs, pronouns, adjectives, I don’t know what they are. School didn’t interest me; all I cared about was water skiing. And unfortunately, at 14, alcohol came in, at 15, cocaine came in, and very quickly my life revolved around alcohol and drugs.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:02:57]: Was there a history in general? Was there a history in your family? Zero.
Tim Ryan [00:03:01]: None. Well, you know, us being adopted too, I don’t know. My brother and sister, their biological mother had ten other kids, gave birth to them. My older brother doesn’t have any issues. But there’s definitely, in my biological background, 1000% addiction.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:03:20]: And how did you get to – at such a young age, where was your stuff coming from? Where were you getting product?
Tim Ryan [00:03:26]: Well, you know…
Shlomo Hoffman [00:03:28]: How does a 15-year old get cocaine?
Tim Ryan [00:03:30]: It was a different time when I grew up. I graduated high school in ’86, so in ’82 I’m a freshman, my best friend was a senior in high school. We were both blonde hair, blue-eyed, and 6’1”, and the drinking age in Wisconsin was still 18. So as a freshman in high school, I’m going to Wisconsin drinking every weekend and no one was getting DUIs and getting killed, and at 15, I was at a party with some older kids and me and two buddies split a quarter gram of cocaine and I did one line and I fell in love with it. And I went up to the guy and I said, “Do you have any more?” and he said, “Yeah, do you have any money?” and I said “No.” He said, “Well, I’m going to front you some, pay me on Friday.” So the first time I did cocaine I had it fronted to me and that was it. But, you know, I managed, I got through school, I went to college in Louisiana. I went down to college in Monroe, at the time it was called Northeast Louisiana University, and I went down there because they had the best intercollegic water speed team in the country. I was a competitive water skier, but I never got on the water ski team because I was a liability; I partied too much, I didn’t show up, you know.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:04:39]: Was that on scholarship? Or you walked onto the team?
Tim Ryan [00:04:42]: No, I could have probably got one, but I never even made the team because the dean at the time said, “You’re a liability.” And my whole world was around having fun, and I dropped out of college and got into smoking cocaine and dealing it. And at 21, I checked myself into treatment for the first time, 1990. You know, I just turned 21, I’m checking myself into treatment. When I went into treatment –
Shlomo Hoffman [00:05:05]: I want to ask you – I’m going to stop you there, because that’s interesting to me. You’re a 21-year-old kid, you’re having fun, life of the party. You’re post-college – did you graduate college?
Tim Ryan [00:05:13]: No, I dropped out.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:05:14]: You dropped out. What pushed you? Where did you have this come-to-God moment, like I need to go to treatment? How did you mature enough?
Tim Ryan [00:05:23]: Because my whole life revolved around cocaine. I was working at a place called Fretter’s selling stereos and TVs and all this bullshit. And every – almost every night I was doing cocaine and me and this guy Roger would go to Chicago, we’d pick up two ounces of cocaine, we’d sell one, and we were smoking an ounce of coke a day and I’m just – I got in the phone book at work and I looked up rehabs and I called this place, Parkside Lodge in Mundelein, Illinois, and I showed up there on a Friday. And I can remember they were trying to run my dad’s insurance, I sat in on a group, they couldn’t get ahold of my parents, I had 400 bucks in my pocket, and I said, “You know what, I’ll be back.” And I ended up coming back a week later.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:06:10]: Wow. Did your parents know – were they aware of how deep in you were?
Tim Ryan [00:06:13]: No clue. No clue. I was actually – my mom ran a company and my dad was a stock commodities trader downtown and they had no clue. But, you know, like when I graduated high school, I had a case of beer, a case of Heineken. We lived on a lake, so you brought boat gas, you brought booze, or you brought the girls. It’s as simple as that. But like I said, there was no consequences. They didn’t know I was doing cocaine and things like that. But then I started stealing checks from my brother and my mom’s business account and cashing them at my buddy’s gas station and the cat was out of the bag. But it’s like I wanted to get caught, I just didn’t – I didn’t know how to put my hand up and say look, I’m struggling, this happened because I was fearful of my parent’s reaction, I didn’t want to hurt them, whatever. And I told them and my brother drove me and I bought him a case of beer and drank a six-pack on the way to rehab and I went there.
But when I went to rehab, I went with the thought pattern, I just want to quit doing drugs and I want to figure out how to drink like a normal person. That was my philosophy.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:07:21]: Sort of like the California sobriety type of deal.
Tim Ryan [00:07:23]: Yeah, but you know, I didn’t know and I liked treatment. I can remember a couple days before getting out a guy came in and did H and I and spoke and he looked at us, there was 38 of us, and he said, “One of you will be sober in a year and a quarter of you will be dead.” And I put up my hand and I said, “Excuse me? What did you say?” He said, “Listen to me, kid. One of you will be sober in a year and a third of you will be dead.” I said, “What do I do?” He said, “Don’t drink, get a sponsor, work the steps, and go to meetings.” And that’s what I did. And I started water ski school and an asphalt seal coating business, but I was the guy that could do step one and 12: I could admit I was powerless and I could tell everybody else what was wrong with them. But I never got a sponsor. I never worked the steps. I thought I could get sober through osmosis. And then I went back to smoking weed and drinking and drugs, and that’s the way the cycle went. And I was in and out of recovery for 30 years.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:08:07]: Wow. How many stints of treatment?
Tim Ryan [00:08:13]: One. That was it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:08:16]: That was it. That was the only time you went to treatment.
Tim Ryan [00:08:19]: That was it. I went to a detox in 2006 and got my ass out of there in three days, but then I ultimately didn’t get sober. I used November 1, 2012 as my sobriety date because I was ultimately sentenced to prison.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:08:36]: What did you go to prison for?
Tim Ryan [00:08:38]: My third DUI aggravated, I overdosed on heroin, went on a drive, and I hit two cars, almost killed four people, by the grace of God, they were all okay. But it was my third DUI aggravated, my fifth driving on revoke. They found the spoon and syringe and charged me with possession of heroin. They charged me with one-tenth of one percent gram of heroin. But that ultimately got me seven years in prison. And I needed to go to prison. I was 44 years old. You know, I had got married, I adopted my girlfriend’s son at the time, we got married, we had three other kids. You know, I worked in the technology space, built a beautiful house. My life was good because I got sober. And I was sober for 14 months, and then I met a guy at a meeting, took him to Chicago a few weeks later to move out of his apartment and as I’m moving him out, his roommate pops out of the bedroom and says, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” I said, “I’m Tim. I’m helping your roommate Joel move out.” I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Heroin. You want to do some?” “Sure.” And I tried one bag of heroin. Well, that turned into a 12-year habit ultimately at about five grams a day.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:09:41]: So at 44 was the first time that you had heroin, or…?
Tim Ryan [00:09:45]: No. I did heroin – my first time was 32, but I had struggled with heroin for 12 years and ultimately got that third DUI and that’s what sent me to prison the second time and that’s when I finally got sober.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:09:58]: So this was a full-blown relapse now in Chicago at 44.
Tim Ryan [00:10:02]: Relapse, fuck, I’ve never been – I had never been truly sober. I mean, even when I had 14 months, I was clean; I wasn’t living a life of recovery. Huge difference.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:10:12]: Gotcha. Did your wife – was your wife aware of…
Tim Ryan [00:10:16]: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Christ, she – you’ve got to realize, this is really before the internet and how to find treatment. I mean, my former wife was going to send me to live with the Buddhist monks in Tibet, literally. They had some throw-up technique to get you off opiates. You know, I turned her into my enabler to co-sign all my bullshit. But when I went to prison, she finally divorced me, which I don’t blame her for and needed to happen. But I needed to be sat down. I could have went to treatment again. I was in and out of the rooms of recovery for 30 years. Hell, I’d go to meetings and shoot heroin in the bathroom and go chair a 12-step meeting. That’s how screwed up and delusional I was, because I was clean from alcohol but I was doing heroin. I mean, it’s so poignant. But when I walked the Cook County Jail to go to court after 21 times fighting my case for almost a year-and-a-half, when that judge sentenced me to seven years in prison, you know, I weighed – I’m 6’1”, 197 pounds right now. I’ve been as heavy as 250. When I walked into prison, I weighed 158 pounds. I was skin and bones; I was walking death. I kicked in a prison cell, defecated and vomited myself for two weeks straight, and that’s where I kind of looked up and said God, higher power, Allah, Buddha, Fred, whatever is out there, please take away this obsession and compulsion to use and I swear I will turn my one life over to you and please let me get into Sheridan Prison. And the next day, I was transferred to Sheridan Prison. And in Illinois, there’s 28 prisons, two with therapeutic drug treatment programs, and I got into one. And it was run by a program called West Care. A big perk, my former Chicago gang chief Celly and Sheridan Prison and the Big Book and Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life. I needed to be sat down. I needed to lose everything. My wife divorced me, lost our home in foreclosure. But I did 13-and-a-half months and it gave me 13-and-a-half months to work on myself. I read probably 300 books on business, spirituality, cosmic healing, karmic energy, the Bible, Napoleon Hill, Think Rich Go Rich, Tony Robbins. I wanted to better myself. And I wrote a business plan for the non-profit, A Man in Recovery Foundation and we ran for over six years. We donated about a million and a half away, we paid for people to get into sober living and long-term faith-based or 12-step-based programs.
The prison aspect was the first time I went through the 12 steps. I wasn’t there to do push-ups for noodles and get swole; I was there to change.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:13:06]: What were you saying about your celly?
Tim Ryan [00:13:09]: So it’s kind of a crazy – can I swear on here?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:13:12]: Yeah, go ahead.
Tim Ryan [00:13:14]: So Sheridan Prison, you do 30 days in a seg building, then they send you to the orientation hall where you do another 30 days, and then you get sent – you could stay in one of the halls, but I got into one of the little buildings in back. And I walk into my cell and there’s big Black guy, 400 pounds, all muscle, sitting on the bunk, reading an AA Big Book. So I kind of walk in the cell and he looks up at me like I bothered him. I say, “Hey, what’s up?” And he said, “Hey Whitey. You into recovery?” I said, “Yeah, why?” He said, “Because if you’re not brother, this is all we do in this fucking cell so you better be prepared to recover or go ask for a cell change.” I’m like, “I’m into recovery.” He said, “Good, I’m Big Perk, nice to meet you.” I said, “Hey Big Perk, I’m Tim.” He said, “Tim, I think I’m going to call you Powder.” I said, “You can call me whatever the hell you want.” Big Perk was a Chicago gang chief with one of the most ruthless gangs for 25 years on the west side of Chicago, he had been to prison ten times, that man helped save my life. We went through the steps, from AA to NA to reading the Bible and no TV. All we did was group three hours a day, five days a week. We walked the yard, we had a meeting. We sat in the day room at night, we had a meeting. And that gave me the foundation to change and I walked out of prison 13-and-a-half months later, for the first time in my life 13-and-a-half months clean and sober. My former wife picked me up. Her and my mom had found a little townhouse, all our furniture was moved in because my former wife and four kids were living with her mother-in-law. And I went back into the technology space for about three months, didn’t want to do it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:14:52]: Do you still have a relationship with Big Perk?
Tim Ryan [00:14:54]: Oh god, he’s my best friend in the world.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:14:57]: Where is he now?
Tim Ryan [00:14:58]: He’s in Tennessee. Doing great. Sober. Living life.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:15:03]: Unbelievable.
Tim Ryan [00:15:04]: Over ten years sober. Yeah. It’s amazing and you know, the crazy thing is, working in the healthcare industry and the treatment industry and everything, some of the most kindest and caring and compassionate people I ever met, real and authentic, were in prison, bar none. The real deal. And four of those people I still talk to on a weekly basis.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:15:25]: Why do you think that is, off the top of your head? What is it about that?
Tim Ryan [00:15:30]: Because it’s real. There’s no candy coating, there’s no social media. It’s real. See, the prison I was in, it was a therapeutic community, but it was structured. There was 28 people on our pod and I was the minority. I mean, there was me and another white guy, a couple of Hispanics, everybody else African American. So we were the minorities, but if you had an issue, they put you in the integrity chair. And you could call me out on whatever, Tim, you need to structure up, you’re screwing off, whatever, and every other member gets to light me up and I don’t get to say anything for 24 hours. So the next day, you come back to group, then I can address everyone, and nine out of ten times, you’re like hey, thanks for pulling me up, I appreciate the input. But it was real talk and I think today, too many people are babying people lost in addiction and that’s why we’re burying so many people. I think this stuff needs to be more real talk, real solutions, and let’s quit babying people because we’re just going to keep burying them.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:16:34]: Right. Well, there is a point – I just want to make a point, this is an interesting discussion to me. You were a little bit older at that time. You were in your 40s, so you did have life experience, you were mature enough to sort of deal with that. Do you think that this kind of thing could work – you know, we’re dealing with a lot of youth. We’re dealing with 20-year-olds; we’re dealing with 18-year-olds. Are they ready for this kind of back-and-forth for real talk?
Tim Ryan [00:16:57]: Absolutely. You know, that’s a great question. Really a good question. If you look at society today, most of the kids are freaking lazy and they want to be a multi-millionaire overnight, they think they’re going to be Instagram-famous. Kids today don’t know what hard work is. And I’ll even use my 20-year-old daughter who is going to college in South Florida, she’s an honor roll student, doing great. But she picked my wife and I up from the airport the other day and she was complaining that on Sunday night she had to work a double-shift, and oh god, I’ve got to work ten hours, and I’m like, Abby, ten hours is nothing. I mean, if you go make $100, you’ve got $100 in your pocket. But my point is, these kids today need structure, they need accountability, they need discipline, they need connection and purpose. So yes, to answer your question, a lot of younger people can get sober, but they’ve got to change every aspect of their life and get away from – my son that died, my son died August 1, 2014, on my 21-month sobriety date from an accidental drug overdose.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:18:07]: Wow, so he was also dealing with addiction.
Tim Ryan [00:18:09]: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, been to treatment six times and all this and had relapsed and used again and died. I always had good insurance, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I sent my son to the same treatment center five times, 20 minutes from our house, he’d do his three weeks, get out, and all he did was have more drug contacts. If I would have known I could have put him on a plane and put him in a 90-day to six-month program, then get him in a long-term, year-long structured sober living where he could have worked on his career, his education, and been surrounded with a great group of people, he would have had a great ticket for success. I just didn’t know what was available. So that’s what I try to do now, is just educate people on what’s available and what if you don’t have insurance.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:18:53]: It’s interesting that you say that because one of our – here at Avenues, you know, our recovery organization, one of our big points of emphasis is really pushing extended care. You can’t change your life in 30 days, just wrap it around, go to some luxury location, and that’s it, you come back 30 days later and you’re back where you started. You’ve got to really work it. You’ve got to really learn skills, change your attitude, change your outlook. Extended care I think is really important. I don’t think it’s addressed enough, to be honest.
Tim Ryan [00:19:28]: I agree. I actually – you know, I had worked for treatment centers for probably five years. I don’t work for any treatment centers now. But the nice thing is, I’m able to say there’s 35,000 treatment centers out there. There’s probably 25 good ones. But you’re absolutely right. Take me. I was 44, going to prison. What if I was going to treatment at 44? I would have gone to a three, four-week nice place and been right out. I had been using drugs for 30 years. You think three, four weeks and I’m cured? Recovery is a lifestyle. It is a way of life. I mean, my wife who is coming up on 16 years sober, two-and-a-half years ago said, “Tim, when’s the last time you talked to a therapist?” “It’s been a while.” She said, “Well, why don’t you talk to this friend of mine?” And I went in with an open mind and my therapist is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me because he’s able to take me in different directions. So I’ve got my 12-step sponsor, I’ve got my therapist; I have a tribe of people that I am surrounded with. And that’s what we need to do with these people that are going in and getting into the extended care and then getting them connected with their tribe and finding their connection and purpose, and anyone can be successful. But guess what? It’s not easy. Yeah, you’re going to be a little uncomfortable. You might not get everything you want. But people have got to shift their thinking. I had to put recovery and my relationship with God number one. Without it, I don’t have anything. No wife, no kids, no career, nothing. It’s all taken away.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:20:56]: So extended care, aftercare, basically it’s setting yourself up for life. This is a different way of life and that’s it, you’ve got to really put yourself in the best position for success long-term.
Tim Ryan [00:21:09]: Absolutely. But the people have to put in the work. You know, I look at these kids that go to meetings and they go to treatment and they all sit in the back row and joke around and I’m in the front row. And I want to be around the people with 10, 20, 30 years sober. I want what they have. So it’s all connecting with the right people. It’s as simple as that.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:21:30]: It’s really interesting, the concept that you’re talking about, the prison concept, the therapeutic prison. Are we doing enough of that?
Tim Ryan [00:21:37]: No.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:21:38]: We hear about prison, prison in America is really a horror story, to be honest.
Tim Ryan [00:21:43]: It is.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:44]: How do we get prisons to do more of what you’re talking about? You know, instead of just locking the guy up…
Tim Ryan [00:21:50]: So it’s interesting, like where I lived in northern Illinois, Ron Hane, Cane County Sheriff; Bob Berlin, State’s Attorney in DuPage County. I mean, you go into their county jails, they’ve got culinary arts programs, GED programs, welding programs, haircutting, plus recovery. They bring in therapists to work with you. They have MAT programs set up. But then when the inmates are getting out of county jail, they’re connecting them with jobs and treatment out of the gate. So we need this happening on a county jail level more. But yes, I think it’s in Italy, I’m not sure, but in Italy, if me and you lived in Italy and we robbed a bank, but we were robbing a ban to support our drug habit and we got ten years in prison, our entire ten years we would be in a treatment program prison, we would not just be – so they’re working on you the entire time you’re there. We have to. I mean, you look at – I use Chicago. Cook County Jail is the largest mental health facility in the United States of America. There are more people with mental health locked up in Cook County Jail than anywhere in the United States. Do you think they’re getting any help? Absolutely not. But here’s where I don’t – I had a family reach out to me three years ago in Indiana. Some guy reached out and he says, “Hey, my buddy is going to court, domestic battery, whatever, DUI, and I need you to come speak on his behalf.” And I said, “What?” and I said, “Well, I do speak as an expert witness and here’s my fee,” and he said, “Well, what do you mean? You’re not going to do this for free?” I said, “So you want me to hop on a plane, go to Indiana, go testify in court on someone I don’t know, I’ve never spoken to, because they did drugs but they got assault and battery and this and that?” I said, “No, I don’t do that.” “Well, what do you mean?” “Your buddy, he probably needs to be sat down, and then from there we can get him into something.” People always want the easier, softer way. Some people need to go to prison. I needed to go. But yes, when I had that therapeutic community, I chose to get involved and it saved my life.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:24:15]: That’s what I’m saying, you know, you were fortunate enough to get into a prison that was actually going to do something for you in terms of…
Tim Ryan [00:24:23]: Yep.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:24:24]: And I just feel like a lot of times when people are going to prison, they just get into this cycle. The prisons are not giving them what they need, and they get out whenever they get out. We have to change that on a – I know that you’re involved in drug policy and reform and that kind of thing. Is a prison a place to start, or it’s impossible?
Tim Ryan [00:24:42]: Yeah, absolutely. But here’s the problem: we have the wrong people that are involved with drug policy reform. We don’t have people that were opiate addicts, were former lawyers and are sober or whatever, in that position. We need people outside of [unclear 00:24:59], no offense. It’s like I’m speaking in Illinois three or four years ago and I’m with the lieutenant governor. And it was me, her, and Randy Grimes, former NFL pro-football player who’s sober, and –
Shlomo Hoffman [00:25:10]: He played for the Dolphins, right? Did he play for the Dolphins?
Tim Ryan [00:25:14]: He played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the starting center for ten seasons, never missed a game. Look him up, he’s got a hell of a story. I mean, he spent his last two years in pro-football – he played in a complete blackout.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:25:28]: Wow.
Tim Ryan [00:25:29]: Yeah.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:25:29]: Maybe we can get him on the pod one day.
Tim Ryan [00:25:31]: Absolutely. Absolutely. But the lieutenant governor says we’re cutting edge on opiates and we have all this money and we have a state-wide coalition and we’re opening methadone clinics in the rural communities and oh, we’re getting narcan anywhere. And I got up to speak and I said, “Lieutenant governor, I don’t mean to be rude, but everything you’re talking about, you’re completely wrong about.” And that’s just the way I am. And I said, “First off, you have a statewide coalition.” I said, “How many people in recovery are in that coalition?” And none were. And I said, “That’s your first problem.” I said, “You have a bunch of politicians trying to talk about the opiate epidemic and addiction, you have no one in addiction there.” I said, “Now you’re going to get Narcan everywhere.” I said, “Narcan is everywhere. You can walk into any pharmacy and get it.” And I said, “Now you want to open up methadone clinics in the rural communities.” I said, “What are you going to do when Johnny gets up to 100mg of methadone and wants to get off?” She says, “Well we’ll put him in detox.” I said, “Failure number three.” I said, “Nowhere in the state of Illinois will they detox you off of methadone unless you’re at 25mg or less and there’s only two places with a 90-day waiting list.” I said, “That’s your solution? It’s an utter failure.” She says, “Well, what do you suggest?” I said, “You get people like me on your coalition, but we build a couple detoxes, one in Northern Illinois, Central Illinois, Southern Illinois, and we build full-blown, year-long, peer-driven programs where we can get people sober, connect them with jobs and this.” The problem is we have the wrong people in the wrong places making the wrong decisions and we’re constantly chasing.
Yes, if people were coming out of prison and they had jobs and transitional living and this, but you’ve got to understand a lot of people don’t want to change that are in prison. I remember being in Cook County Jail and the guys joking around about “When I get out in 30 days, I’m going to have an extra $400 on my link card and I can go buy crack.” You know, some people won’t get sober and that’s okay. But if we offered more within prisons, yes. But if you want to stop all of it, you start with prevention. It starts with education and prevention in the schools. And I’m talking six, seventh, eighth grade and up. And you don’t go in once a year for Red Ribbon Week, every quarter you’re having people come in and educating. These kids today are experiencing so much divorce, abandonment, addiction at home, trauma, bullying through social media. These kids are lost today and if we don’t start addressing them, this is just going to get much worse, which it’s doing right now.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:28:14]: Incredible. You, yourself had experiences besides your addiction. You had experiences with childhood trauma, is that correct?
Tim Ryan [00:28:21]: Yeah. Yep, yep. I didn’t realize – five, six years ago I saw Dr. Gabor Mate speak at an event and he’s all about trauma. His attitude is this has nothing to do with diseases and choices, it all has to do with trauma, either emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, or sexual. And when he was speaking, I said, “I don’t have any trauma in my life.” And then he says, “How many people in the audience are adopted?” About 20 of us put up our hands. He said, “Do you realize you’re 48,000 times more susceptible to become an alcoholic or a drug addict due to the abandonment issues?” And I was actually talking with my therapist about it, and I said, I knew I was adopted, blah, blah, blah. But he said, “Yes, Tim, you were also abandoned after being grown in a womb for nine months.” And I’m like, well, I’ve never looked at it that way. So that. I had an older brother that was a narcissist, he beat me up every day for probably six, seven years. I had the learning disabilities. And then I was molested by a babysitter when I was ten years old. Alcohol and drugs became my coping mechanism to bury all that trauma.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:29:33]: Without even knowing what you were doing. Right.
Tim Ryan [00:29:36]: I didn’t know it was trauma. My mom – and I talk to my mom every day. I love my mom and dad more than anything in the world. My mom did not know I was sexually molested until she read my Wikipedia page.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:29:49]: Wow.
Tim Ryan [00:29:51]: And she’s crying and going, “Why didn’t you tell me?” and “How did this happen?” I said, “It’s when you and dad went to Europe and I was staying at my buddy Jeff’s and the babysitter and…” I’m like, “Mom, I didn’t know I was supposed to tell you.” I didn’t know. But it is what it is. And the one thing on that, my wife, Jennifer, says everybody is a trauma survivor in some way, shape, or form. Everyone has experienced trauma. But quit living through it and quit letting it define you. Own it. Accept it. And move forward. But it is your responsibility to get the help for your trauma and it’s up to you. So if you want to get the help, you can have a phenomenal life. But if you choose – there’s a lot of people – take the family that loses a loved one to an overdose. A lot of families live through the day their child, husband, wife died. They lived through that day and they’ll never get through the grief. I celebrate my son’s life. I celebrate the 20 years Nick was on this planet. I don’t live through the day he died. And unfortunately, a lot of people get caught up in that, and then they want to blame everyone. They want to blame the drugs, they want to blame the treatment center, they want to blame the sponsor. I mean, I had a family who wanted me to speak at an event and they said, “You can’t speak about the 12-steps.” And I said, “Why?” and they said, “They killed my son.” I said, “How did the 12-steps kill your son?” and they said, “Well, it didn’t work.” I said, “Did your son ever get a sponsor? Did he work the steps?” and they said, “Well no, he went to meetings.” And I said, “Of course it didn’t work.” That’s like me going to a car wash and putting soap on my car but not applying water and cleaning it. You know, you have to do all the work. You know, it’s a…
Shlomo Hoffman [00:31:26]: I know that you’re very involved – you were very involved in, or still are, in interventions. Is that something that you’re still active with?
Tim Ryan [00:31:35]: Yeah, my wife and I, we shifted more into speaking. We do speaking events nationwide, international, to corporations, colleges, high schools, middle schools. It’s real talk, we leave solutions, we do interventions, my wife still does acting, a couple magazine covers, we run a podcast. We just kind of do what we do, a little consulting here and there, and just help people. I mean, I still probably field 30 phone calls a day and 29 of them are people that don’t have any resources. And it’s just getting them connected and call here and do this. There’s avenues to get help. I got sober in prison with the Big Book. So anybody can get sober if they’re willing to change what needs to be changed. And if not, I get it, I’ve been there too.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:30]: If you are somebody that wants to run an intervention, you have a loved one that’s struggling, etcetera, what’s the number one thing that you would say that they should know?
Tim Ryan [00:32:40]: Get help. Don’t try to do it on your own. There’s a lot of interventionists, but it’s getting – people think doing an intervention is coming and getting Johnny or Susie to go to treatment. That’s not what an intervention is about. Because when Johnny and Susie go to treatment, it’s getting the family well too because if the family doesn’t get better and Johnny and Susie come back to that toxic environment, they’re going to use again. Doing an intervention is, you know, working with the family and getting the loved one the appropriate care, but then working with the center and the person while they’re in there and getting the families the help they need too and then trying to bring everyone together. It’s usually working with the family for six-to-twelve months.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:33:19]: I hear you. So it’s a long-term thing. It’s not an hour on a Sunday type of deal.
Tim Ryan [00:33:24]: Christ, no. It’s a lot of work. And it’s taxing and it’s grueling. I’ve had them take 20 minutes, I’ve had them take 18 hours, and you know, we’ve had a few people not go. It happens. But yeah, it’s a lot more detailed. But it’s rewarding when that person says, “Hey, I’m 90 days sober. I’m a year sober. I’ve got my family back.” That’s what it’s all about.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:33:52]: Right. What was it like to share your story so publically? You had a TV series, you wrote your book. Was that therapeutic? Was that scary? Was that intimidating? Was it something that you really embraced? How did it work for you?
Tim Ryan [00:34:06]: I’m going to give you kudos. You ask really good questions.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:34:11]: Thank you.
Tim Ryan [00:34:12]: You’ve done your homework. When I – if you would have asked me eight years ago, or whenever the hell I walked out of prison, I would have never thought in a million years I’d be doing what I do. I didn’t plan to do this. I was asked to start a Heroin Anonymous meeting by my friend Bob Butler and I did, and two weeks later, a kid showed up on Xanax and I let him stay, and then a mom showed up with her kid, and it turned into this family support group and got my non-profit, stumbled into treatment, and then my son dies. Then I’m on the front page of this paper and that and I did the book and A&E. All I wanted to do was help people. But what has baffled me is the amount of hate in this industry, social media, whatever. I've never seen more people bash people for wanting to help someone. And I get it, people die. I mean, I’ve been to 150 funerals. But when you go and help a loved one get into a treatment program and they die three months later and the family wants to blame me? I mean, it’s insane. I scratch my head. I’m going to be honest with you. If I could go back in time, I would have never got into this industry. Not in a million years. It is the most dysfunctional, disgusting industry I have ever worked in. I do not respect 90% of people in this industry because they’re all full of shit. What I would like to see is people actually come together. And I’m all about people making money. It’s great to make money and people should be able to do that, but there’s also a threshold. Because I look at some of these bigger treatment centers that have multiple locations and you know, why aren’t you scholarshipping a minimum of 15% of your clients? What are you doing to give back? And I don’t care if people make ten, twenty, $100 million a year, but give back, too. That’s what I tried to do. I ran a non-profit. I never took a salary. We never had any employees. But then I would have people saying, oh, you worked for a center so you’re paying for people to go to your center through your nonprofit and it’s all BS, but the amount of hate in this industry, it really hurts my heart because people will put out false things on someone. But what if a family wanted to call you for help but they read some bogus article that some hateful mom put? Now their kid dies. That’s what bothers me. But it is what it is.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:36:38]: Right, there’s repercussions to that hate.
Tim Ryan [00:36:45]: Heck yeah. And with social media, anybody can be a keyboard cowboy, and you can do whatever you want to me, I don’t give a shit, I’m a grown man. But what bothers me is how it affects the youth today. You know, me and my wife spoke in this high school and there were 2,500 kids. We left there, 800 direct messages my wife received on Instagram. And answering these kids, and the last kid was Lily at 2:30 in the morning, 11 years old, and my wife said, “First off, Lily, why are you awake? Why do you have your phone? And why are you messaging me at 2:30 in the morning?” She said, “Because you spoke my story today. You’re the only person that heard me and I just want to thank you.” This is an 11-year-old girl. Where are the parents? You know? And they have no one to talk to. That’s what hurts me, is how this all hurts the youth today.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:37:41]: What’s it like working with your wife? You met her through recovery, is that correct?
Tim Ryan [00:37:46]: You know, yeah. Well, we had been following each other on social media.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:37:52]: There you go, there’s a thumb’s up for social media.
Tim Ryan [00:37:55]: Dude, thank you. Thank you. So I leveled up. I originally reached out to Jennifer because I had been doing some speaking events and I was having women come up to me and spew all their trauma, and I said, look, I’m just a speaker but I can connect you. And I’m like, you know, I should partner with a female. So we started talking. I’m like, we could open a treatment center, we can do sober coaching, we can do interventions, yada yada. So about six weeks in, I flew to Florida and I told her I’d meet her here, but I got busy on business and I flew out. And about six weeks later, she’s like, put your money where your mouth is. You keep telling me we’re going to get together. So I bought a ticket, I flew down and met her, it was strictly business. And when I met Jen at the airport, she gave me a hug, it’s like we’re instantly connected, and it was love at first sight. I was not planning on being – I was four weeks away from my second divorce and six months later we’re engaged. We got married December 31, 2019, Beverly Hills at the Justice of the Peace, and my life doesn’t suck. But to answer your question, it’s good. There’s a balancing act because we’re both Type A personalities. I do different things than she does. But it's communication. It’s having date nights. This afternoon we’re going to take the afternoon off and go to the beach, do some self-care. It’s amazing. I finally found my purpose and connection. I found my rock. I found why I was put on this planet. And it’s to be with Jennifer.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:39:33]: Incredible stuff, incredible stuff. What’s your – going forward, we’re talking a lot about you found sobriety with the 12 Steps, the Big Book, in prison. I’ve been talking to a lot of people in this podcast, in general, in this industry. Everybody has sort of a different journey, a different path. Everybody has to figure out their path and find their path. But in terms of what we’re doing treatment wise, even in the government levels, where are we going? What can we do better on a community level?
Tim Ryan [00:40:01]: That’s a great question. We need to quit mismanaging money. I mean, it’s like I keep going back to Chicago. I can get a phone call right now and I can refer someone to Haymarket Lutheran Social Services, the share program, they can get in today, detox, res, with no insurance. I don’t want to go there. What do you mean you don’t want to go there? Well I was thinking of South Florida. Well, you don’t have any insurance. Yeah, but can you get me a scholarship? Look, I got sober in a prison cell. You can get sober wherever you’re at. And it doesn’t have to be the 12 Steps just because my wife and I do them. Here’s what I suggest to people. When I ran my support groups, I’d have parents there and their kids, family that were addicted, I had 300, 400 people. And I’d say look, you can come here high on methadone, Suboxone, I don’t care. But if you’re open to looking at getting some tools to live a better life and maybe we can ultimately get you off opiates or give you this or this, we can give you the foundation. Look, I’ve got buddies that smoke weed that were ex-addicts or whatever and go to meetings. I don’t care. Do what works for you. If you’re living a good life, you’re not controlled by your drug of choice, whether it’s alcohol, heroin, whatever. I know people who drink occasionally, whatever. If you want Christian-based 12 Step, get a therapist, work out, if that works, do it. Do whatever works for you to better your life. My suggestion is I’d go through the steps, I sponsor a few people, and if you choose not to, you’ve got some good tools. And I’m constantly adding a little bit of more – I’ll take some of this, take some of that, and do what works for you.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:41:47]: Great stuff. So what’s next in the hopper for you?
Tim Ryan [00:41:54]: Oh, I don’t know. Jen and I have always dug our hands in a few different things. I think I’m going to be pushing to do a boutique health and wellness center that my wife and I will run, run it small. We still speak; we love speaking, we love getting in front of the kids and the colleges and the corporations and law enforcement conferences. We did a conference a couple years ago to 1,200 judges. And when you’re able to educate the judges – we just spoke in April to 4,500 doctors. And we’re having to educate the doctors in the state of Ohio because they have 28,000 people on workman’s comp that are all addicted to opiates and they don’t know what to do with them. You know, unfortunately doctors, through all their medical training, take one hour of substance abuse training. That’s it. So we really need better education, education, education.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:42:53]: I mean, you were talking about people that are dealing constantly – I mean, that’s probably one of the number one conditions they’re dealing with in the people they interact with. That’s incredible that it’s only one hour.
Tim Ryan [00:43:02]: Absolutely. So you know, we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. We live between Florida and Los Angeles. We’re doing interventions and speaking and some consulting and our podcast, I mean, it’s going really well, we just had Lisa Lang and Tom Moore and Tom Sizemore. We’re having fun. We want the second half of our life to enjoy and to be happy. And it’s not about making a ton of money. I’ve got a roof over my head, clothes on the back, food on the table, my beautiful wife, I’m good to go.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:43:37]: And you’ve got the beach real close, so that’s good too.
Tim Ryan [00:43:40]: We’ll be a three block walk.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:43:43]: Because here in Jersey it doesn’t look that nice.
Tim Ryan [00:43:47]: Yeah, I love Jersey but I love to visit and get out.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:43:50]: Yeah. Well, next time you come to Jersey, we’d love to have you stop by our offices and meet you personally.
Tim Ryan [00:43:54]: I’d love to.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:43:55]: Yeah. Tim, any final message?
Tim Ryan [00:43:58]: You know, for anyone that’s listening out here, just believe in yourself. Believe that we believe. I stole that one from my wife and she’s going to scold me for it. I’m going to steal this one from my wife too: quit trying to make everything look shiny and pretty on the outside when you really need to work on the void on the inside. Put your hand up, ask for help. It’s a we program, we do this together. And I thank you for the opportunity to come carry a little bit of message of hope, and I thank you for helping all of the people you help on a daily basis.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:44:25]: Thank you, Tim. It’s been an honor talking with you. Everybody, this has been another episode of Rubber Bands, conversations about the push and pull of addiction. Tim Ryan has been gracious enough to share with us his experiences. Thanks a million, Tim. Everybody, listen, rate, subscribe, whatever else it is you do with podcasts to make them popular. Thank you everybody for listening, this has been another episode of Rubber Bands.
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