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Tim Ryan, nationally-acclaimed addiction speaker and A&E’s “Dope Man,” speaks at Foster Park about the drug addiction crisis on Wednesday, September 19, 2018. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

Tim Ryan has overdosed eight times, been clinically dead three of those times and once left a 9-month-old baby, and three others, hospitalized after OD’ing behind the wheel of a car — only to be saved himself by five doses are Narcan.

Those numbers are staggering. Even hard to believe. But Ryan’s story is, at the end of the day, unique in one major way — he’s still alive. 

There are millions of addicts in America, each grappling with a crisis that killed nearly 200 people per day across the country in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

An addiction as deep as Ryan’s is typically a death sentence. Ryan, whose own 20-year-old son died of an overdose in 2014 from an addiction that was bolstered by the two doing heroin together, when young Nick was a teenager, knows that as well as anyone. 

And it’s why he visited Kokomo Wednesday to tell his story at an event in Foster Park put on by Turning Point: Systems of Care (SOC). 

His message, one of tough love and talk that cuts straight to the core — “If you baby an addict, you’ll bury them,” he says — ends up in one place: hope.

And the Hope Dealer, as he’s known, sat down with the Tribune before his speech to discuss what Howard County can do to curb its own drug problem. 

“What you need here, you need to get everyone on board — the judges, the police officers, the jail. How many sober homes are in Kokomo, Indiana?” he asked. The answer — “One or two little ones,” SOC Coordinator Jennifer Johnson told him — didn’t satisfy. 

“That’s a major problem. …And longer-term treatment (is needed),” he said, referencing a free, nine-month program facility in Louisville, Kentucky, with 900 beds funded by criminal justice entities and private donations as an ideal example. 

An example of the tough love? Ride out the detox, he says, and don’t forget the pain.

But how should addicts be treated? “Love and grace,” said Ryan, no different than anyone with another disease. The time is now, he believes, to end the stigma, to pull the curtain from an addiction that grabs onto all demographics and all economic classes. 

“We’ve got to drop the mask,” he said. “Everybody wants a mask and every addict wants instant gratification. … No, you better work your ass off for [sobriety].”

During this year’s second quarter, the Howard County coroner’s office recorded 10 deaths involving drug overdoses, bringing the first-half total to 15 overdose deaths.

With 15 reported overdose deaths through the year’s first six months, Howard County fared significantly better than the first half of 2017, when there were 23 confirmed overdose deaths from January through June. 

Overall, 2017 saw a year-end count of 44 drug overdose deaths, making it by far the deadliest year for overdoses in Howard County history, surpassing the previous high of 34 in 2015.

Still, Howard County remains in the midst of a severe drug crisis, one that has left local health, law enforcement and elected officials scrambling for solutions and seeking direct access to people in need of immediate help. 

Ryan, who relapsed continuously and has lived across the country, blowing one high-paying executive-level job after another during battles with alcohol and cocaine and heroin, became clean in prison, he says, following the near-fatal accident. 

He’s since gone on to be an invited guest by President Barack Obama to the 2016 State of the Union address and is the author of the bestselling “From Dope to Hope.” Ryan is now considered one of the nation’s leading speakers on the drug epidemic.

He is possibly better known as the subject of an A&E documentary: “Dope Man,” where he works to help others overcome their addiction in an unconventional and inspiring way,” according to A&E’s website. 

Ryan, who flew into Indiana from Dallas, Texas, regularly delivers that same message directly to addicts across the country. But he also tailors it to policymakers and people in leadership roles, relying on his experience helping more than 4,000 addicts enter rehab. 

“It’s a matter of, do you want to get sober or not? If not, go to jail then,” said Ryan, who prefers abstinence-based treatment over medication-assisted treatment with Suboxone or other medication, an approach taken by multiple facilities in Howard County.

“You have to understand, some people need to go to jail. Some people need to go to prison. I needed to go to prison, I needed to be sat down for 13.5 months. It saved my life,”

Jail sentences for the point of sending a message, however, are not feasible in Howard County, a place with a county jail dealing with a pervasive problem of overpopulation. 

“If we could get grants or funding to open up a peer-driven center here, female and male,” Ryan responded, also advocating for ideas like drug court, which has become one of Howard County’s most prominent responses to its drug epidemic, and 12-step programs and, especially, Narcan.

“Let’s take those people and divert them into the treatment program. … You see people start getting hope and turning their lives around, but it’s a six-to-12 month program.”

Similar to that thought process, said Johnson, Systems of Care is pushing an anti-stigma campaign, hosting its third public event Wednesday since May. 

SOC is also trying to put peer-recovery specialists in both Kokomo hospitals, hopefully leading addicts directly into treatment after an overdose, in addition to a jail program. 

“There is hope, there is help,” said Johnson. 

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.

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