NORTH JERSEY — As the country continues to be in lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, forcing millions of Americans to stay at home to help curb the spread of the potentially deadly virus that has to date touched more than 3.4 million people and claimed almost a quarter of a million lives, another serious pandemic should not be overshadowed: addiction.
While the City of Hackensack hosts its annual Light the Night for Recovery every September to honor the gains members of the community suffering from addiction are making in their valiant efforts towards sobriety, as well as remember those lost to the disease, now is especially a time to shine a bright light on the struggle for addicts to stay clean and out of the quicksand of addiction.
According to DrugAbuse.org, there are 2,583 deaths in New Jersey in 2018, and almost 90% of the 2,900 reported drug overdoses deaths involved opioids.
That same year, 89,629 Garden State residents were admitted for substance abuse treatment, 44% of which were heroin users, according to Sunrise House, American Addiction Centers.
In a recent interview with U.S. News and World Report, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told the news organization that recovering addicts are more inclined to relapse given a “catastrophe” like the coronavirus pandemic, in order to cope with the mounting anxiety and depression over this highly contagious killer virus, which has resulted in feelings of loneliness, frustration and apprehension.
Tim Ryan, a recovering heroin addict and host of A&E’s 2017 documentary “Dope Man,” has a message for those struggling to get clean and those in recovery who may be finding it hard to resist the temptation to pick their habit back up during this insufferable time in history: don’t. Following his own lifelong battle with addiction and his son’s passing from a heroin overdose almost six years ago, Ryan has made it his life’s mission to help as many addicts as he can, suffering from the “disease of more,” overcome it and find peace.
“Alcohol sales alone are up 250 percent,” said Ryan. “A lot more people are using sleep meds or anti-depressants [which are] up 38 percent. There are opiate overdoses. Some towns said, ‘we’re not going to revive people with Narcan because people are worried about getting Covid. It’s a pandemic within a pandemic.”
For the individuals looking to sustain the gains they’ve made in their recovery efforts during this pandemic, Ryan, a recovery advocate at Rehab.com, said website traffic has seen an uptick of 383 percent with people navigating the site to seek treatment options.
But the site isn’t just for addicts. Ryan noted the slippery slope of otherwise healthy people who have been unwittingly hitting the bottle while they’re spending most of their time indoors since the stay-at-home orders were issued by Governor Murphy nearly two months ago.
“Take your average person,” Ryan explained. “They come home, have a couple of drinks, they might have had a couple at noon, now at 10 in the morning. People walk that thin line and pick up a drug or alcohol dependency in isolation.”
For those who are turning to drugs and alcohol to ride the tide of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ryan is urging people to be cognizant of their behavior and stop before they develop a problem.
“Tell on yourself,” said Ryan. “If you’re seeking help, go to Rehab.com, call a friend or family member and ask for help. It’s easy to stay numb, but you’re only as sick as your secret. I suggest people get involved with online support groups through Zoom, pick up your phone and call people and reach out, but share your secrets and let people know: ‘I had a thought of drinking today, I’m lonely, I’m feeling anxious,’ because for someone in recovery, an idol mind is a devil’s workshop. This is the only disease that will tell you you’re cured.”
Heroin had Tim Ryan in its grip for 12 years before he got clean, an ordeal he likened to a living hell of destruction that devoured a precious chunk of his youth.
Ryan grew up in Crystal Lake, Illinois, a picturesque city 45 miles northwest of Chicago. He first dabbled with drugs and alcohol in his teens, which were wrought with mental health problems that included ADD and a learning disability. His proclivity to experiment with drugs was compounded by alleged physical abuse from his brother and sexual assault from a nanny.
“Everyone with addiction has some form of trauma, and uses it to mask their emotional pain,” Ryan explained. “When I drank, I liked what it did to me. I had learning disabilities, my older brother beat me up, I was molested by a babysitter. I compartmentalized everything. I stayed numb. At first it was fun, but very quickly turned into addiction.”
In college, Ryan began experimenting with ecstasy, hallucinogenic drugs, and cocaine before his drug use got him kicked out of college. He checked into a treatment center for the first time in 1990 at age 21 after it “got out of control.” But his initial visit to rehab wouldn’t be his last. His addiction eventually led him down the slippery slope of a $500-a-day heroin habit in his 30s that ravaged his relationships, self-worth, and inevitably, his self-control.
In the early 2010s, after overdosing on heroin, he got behind the wheel of his car, hit two vehicles, and almost killed four people. It was in the walls of his prison cell vomiting and self-defecating — in which he landed to serve a seven-year sentence following the near-fatal car accident — that he looked up and made a promise that forever changed his life: “God, please take away this obsession and compulsion to use, and I swear I will turn my will and life over to you.”
While finishing up his prison sentence, Ryan made a pact with his cell mate, a former gang chief, to drop their addictions and enter a drug treatment program at the Sheridan Correctional Center where they were jailed. The two got busy reading the Bible and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous in between penning the business plan to A Man in Recovery Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to helping heroin and opiate addicts and their families.
But just as Ryan was making gains with his sobriety after his departure from prison, his son Nicholas, who was also a heroin user, wasn’t as lucky. He succumbed to his addiction at just 20 years old following a heroin overdose in August 1, 2014, ironically, on the day that marked Ryan’s 21-month anniversary sober.
As any doting parent, Ryan says he blames himself for his son’s death. While Nicholas was growing up, he’d assume the role of the cool dad, allowing Nicholas to drink and smoke marijuana in their family home in Illinois before father and son eventually took heroin together. Since that fateful day, Ryan has dedicated his life to helping addicts regain control of their lives and kick their dangerous habits for good. To date, he makes it his duty to eliminate the stigma surrounding drug abuse and spread awareness about the thing that addicts may be too scared to do — raising their hand and asking for help.
Over 100 people, he says, die from addiction a day. The youngest heroin addict he’s helped was a 12, and the oldest, 78. On “Dope Man” — a documentary produced by Actor Jason Harvey that chronicles the everyday lives of people in the throes of addiction and Ryan stepping in to rescue them — Ryan talked a young man into getting sober for a year in exchange for a job offer. Quitting, he said in the documentary, would create a new life filled with “dreams, happiness, and serenity.”
After the young man agreed, Ryan tugged at the cross from around his neck and thanked God and and his son for giving “another kid a shot at life.” Since filming “Dope Man,” Ryan, who is now 51 and seven and a half years sober, has directed over 3,000 people into treatment, and sadly attended 110 funerals since his son’s passing.
When the documentary was released, it caught the eye of the founder of Rehab.com, who praised his efforts in helping those without resources or insurance. He was then asked to be an adviser to the site.
“It’s the only portal someone can go to find treatment and search for substance abuse, mental health, and find facilities available,” he said. “One of the hardest things for people to do is navigate good treatment.”
Apart from the documentary and the website, Ryan has told his story as a speaker for TEDx Talks in his native Naperville Illinois and published a book “From Dope to Hope: A Man in Recovery” detailing his lifelong struggles with addiction and his commitment to stay clean since his prison sentence.
“I’ve never had a thought of using since then,” said Ryan of his time behind bars while undergoing a painful detox. “My mission when I walked out of prison was to be fully transparent. I had this secret called addiction. When I came out I had a big voice, it held me accountable. You can’t be out talking recovery if you’re not in recovery.”
He admonishes, however, that users don’t have to hit rock bottom like he did before they decide to ask for help.
“I live a life of recovery. People don’t have to go to the depths that I went to,” he said. “If you think someone is starting to drink too much and it’s affecting your work relationships, emotionally, mentally, and financially, you’ve got an issue.”
Aside from committing himself to helping others, Ryan is also a proponent of psychotherapy.
“People that eat too much or sleep too much or work out too much, it turns into an addiction very quickly because they’re masking motions and trauma,” he said. “If you get sober and take away drugs and alcohol, feelings come up to the top. You have to do the work internally.”
He continued, “I looked good on the outside. I had the Harley, the boat, the jeep, the wife and kids, but I was a shell of a person on the inside crying to myself because I didn’t know how to stop because of my ego and pride, and couldn’t put my hand up and ask for help so the journey can begin.”
While he says his son’s passing is his hardest challenge on his recovery journey, he will always choose sobriety.
“You’re either in recovery mode or relapse,” he said. “Drinking and using wasn’t a choice, and it’s never going to be a choice in my life. The road to recovery is a hell of a journey, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
During the pandemic, Ryan and his wife have been keeping active on Facebook interacting with people in recovery via Zoom and Facebook Live. He also goes on leisurely walks, eating healthy, journaling, meditation and binge watching his favorite TV shows.
When asked about his advice to people who are feeling vulnerable during the pandemic and thinking about hitting the bottle, lighting that joint, or grabbing a needle, he summoned the words of dope man.
“You don’t need to do this,” he said. “Pain is an isolated factor. Put your hand up and ask for help. You’re worth it.”