My Past Doesn’t Define Me – It Strengthens Me

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By Ryan Skinner

Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” As a recovering addict given a second chance at life, I have been given the opportunity to pay forward my reversal of fortune to help others struggling with the disease of addiction. Every day I ask God how I can be of service to others using the talents He’s given me, and I have learned that the true measure of success is found in how many people you bless. It may sound ironic to be grateful to have gone through something so horrific, but I thank God now that I can help people experiencing the same nightmare.

I do this as a sponsor to younger recovering addicts, and by sharing my personal story with people from all walks of life. I speak regularly to high school students and recently started a program for people incarcerated at the Middlesex House of Correction & Jail in Billerica, MA based on Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. I focus on overcoming life’s toughest obstacles and tapping into the spirit of God. It brings me great joy to hear people who have been in prison for years for terrible crimes choosing to change their lives and reciting The Lord’s Prayer with us.

I was raised Irish Catholic and for years believed God was in the sky and I was down here, and I only felt His presence when I screwed up. As a result of my journey and recovery, I found a way to tap into what I believe is God inside me and the realization that my past doesn’t define me, but strengthens me. My journey into and slow burn out of a hell of multiple addictions taught me that with deep faith, the encouragement of loving friends, sponsors, mentors, family and an effective 12-step, anything is possible. Things could easily have ended in tragedy.

My descent into heavier addictions crept in slowly, with those “harmless” stress-relieving drinks at lunch and after work, which developed into alcoholism. I was a functioning alcoholic, but inside my soul was dying. Pills were another factor. In my early 20s, I had hand surgery and developed a small addiction to Percocet. My job related stress, combined with the drinking, led to a painful esophagus condition known as the Mallory-Weiss tear, between the stomach and esophagus. I bled out and lapsed into a coma, but a stomach surgery saved my life.

The painkillers led to deeper addictions, with my Oxycotin intake peaking at 1600 mg per day. This escalated into a full blown heroin addiction, and I quickly lost everything – my business, money, pride, self esteem. I became destitute. I began waking up in places that were unimaginable. Over time, as it is with most addicts, I ended up with legal issues and suicide attempts. 

Looking out of the window of my Cambridge jail cell, I saw my old office across the street – and the parking lot where I’d parked my nice comfortable car during my best days as a financial advisor. I felt a profound spiritual presence overtake me, and I pleaded, “God, if you give me one more shot, I will never drop the ball again.” The recovery happened over a long period of time, yet all of a sudden.

My sponsor Billy played a key role, adopting me, putting his hand out, visiting me in jail, loving me. He was a successful professional who had once been where I was. He was the type of man I wanted to be. And he taught me how to live. He told me if you do these things right, God will step into your life and you will achieve anything you set your mind to. I didn’t believe yet, but I believed he believed, and that was the first step in opening to the love and grace of God. With Billy’s help, I began taking stock of who I was. I had fears of not getting what I wanted and losing what I had. These fears fueled the addiction. Now they are a strength, because the fear of failure drives me to be successful in my business.

Making a difference in people’s lives is what drives me every day. It’s like a ripple effect. If you do the right thing, you can’t help but make someone else’s life better. What was once the curse is now my blessing. Essentially, I had to fall to gain it all.