Real Leaders

From Heroin to Hope Dealer

“But Dad, you’re a successful drug addict.” Those words spoken by my teenage son, Nick, chilled me to the bone. The charade I’d lived for more than a decade was crumbling. My son was following in my footsteps, using a drug that could kill us both.

I need to do something before one of us went to prison – or worse. But first, I need to snort the two bags of heroin he just left me so I won’t be dope sick.

You can’t read the news without hearing of the opioid pandemic sweeping our country. You may wonder how it starts – and who an addict really is. My name is Tim Ryan and I’m an alcoholic and drug addict. I know addiction better than most, because I lived it for 30 years. You name it, I’ve done it – booze, LSD, angel dust, cocaine, crystal meth, amphetamines and heroin.

But if you saw me years ago, you wouldn’t peg me as an addict. Addicts aren’t world-class barefoot water skiers or six-figure tech recruiters with office space in downtown Chicago, right? Addicts don’t own large houses in the suburbs, marry beautiful wives, and raise four kids. Yet that was my world and I was in control – until I wasn’t.

Most boys grow up wanting to be a rock star, pro athlete or firefighter. Not many dream of becoming a felon with drug charges. But I thank God daily for the prison where I started to recover my life. It was here that I outlined a business plan for my non-profit, A Man in Recovery Foundation. I shared a cell with gang leaders, humbled and grateful for another day to breathe.

When I left prison I got busy helping anyone I could. I started groups for addicts and formed one where loved ones of addicts could join to get support and talk openly. I met with law enforcers and legislators, creating programs to put people into treatment instead of prison. I got calls from the media and was on national news.

And for the first time in my life, I acted like a parent to my children – and not a friend. Nick, my son that I introduced to heroin, bounced in and out of jail and treatment centers as he continued to battle his own demons. Visiting him at a center, I saw him experience a small taste of recovery. He said, “Dad, once I get clean, we’ll go on the speaking circuit together and save lives.” 

Addiction affects and involves entire communities, and as an addict, I knew that we were short on solutions and hope. As an addict speaking to addicts, the world started to listen.

As my recovery strengthened, Nick’s began falling apart. When I got the call that he’d overdosed, I flashed back to his words: “Dad, you are a successful drug addict.” I wanted to respond, “Nick, there is no successful drug addict.” But it was too late. When I saw his cold, lifeless body on a hospital gurney with tubes coming out of his mouth, my former self would have reached for the drugs. Instead, all I could think was, “I need to get to a meeting.” Some people let their losses bury them. There are moments I want to do that. But I can’t. I’m relentless in my pursuit of finding solutions to the opioid epidemic, because I couldn’t save Nick. And I’m living, breathing proof that recovery works. I’ve attended hundreds of funerals, and as sick as I am of burying people, I will attend hundreds more if I can guide one person into recovery. Addressing our opioid epidemic starts with helping the addict next door – or yourself. We cannot hide from this problem, because it touches us all. Reach out today.

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