Currently co-owner of the Woburn based Summit Financial Partners, the passionate financial advisor and retirement specialist’s harrowing journey into and slow burn out of a hell of multiple addictions is living proof that with deep faith, the encouragement of loving friends, sponsors, mentors and family and an effective 12-step program, anything is possible. Taking full advantage of his second chance at life, he is building a successful business, taking care of his fiancé, stepchildern, and, perhaps most importantly, paying his reversal of fortune forward in many inspiring ways.
In addition to being a sponsor and mentor to younger recovering addicts, Ryan continuous public speaking at high schools and gives regular talks about making changes and turning adversity into positives to those enrolled in a drug program at the Middlesex House of Corrections in Billerica. In 2015, he also served as a guest speaker at a conference hosted by The Heroin Education Awareness Task (HEAT) Force Program, an education and treatment initiative created by two Woburn District Court Probation employees to combat drug addiction. Ryan gives these men credit for “making decisions that I wasn’t making for myself.” He is also in the planning stages of launching The Ryan Fund, to raise money for children who have been orphaned by their parents due to addiction.
While acknowledging that recovery is a lifelong process, Ryan is grateful that he can now share a harrowing story with a happy ending – because a handful of years ago, it easily could have ended for him in tragedy. He and some other friends he made who made it out – husbands, fathers, business owners, employees – hang out together weekly in a group Ryan and his sponsor Billy began hosting in his living room. They call their group “Dead Men on Vacation (DMOV),” because, he said, “Based on what we did to ourselves as addicts, we should all be dead. We’re all grateful for second chances.”
People often find it ironic when Ryan tells them that being a drug addict was the best thing that could ever have happened to him, but they understand him once he explains: “I had a terrible fall and thank God now that I can help people who are going through it. It gave me a purpose and a strong connection with divinity and my fellow human beings and in essence, made me bulletproof. When parents come to me feeling hopeless about their addicted child and tell me ‘people don’t recover,’ I tell them ‘I recovered.’ Now my only goal is to be a blessing to people. My day to day joy comes from being there for others like so many were there for me. If one less mother can cry herself to sleep because of me and my story, I feel like everything I have been through was worth it. I’m blessed now and want to be a blessing to others.”
Like many addicts, Ryan’s descent into heavier addictions began with those few extra stress-relieving drinks at lunch and after work that developed into alcoholism. From the outside world’s perspective, everything was going great. After graduating with a degree in finance from Merrimack University, he secured a position as a broker dealer with a renowned investment firm and within a few years launched his own successful firm focused on retirement planning. He was the very definition of a “functioning alcoholic,” serving his clients well and giving them peace of mind with the money they had worked all their lives for – yet, as he says, “inside my soul was dying.” The more money he made, the more he drank. Pills were another factor. In his early 20s, he had hand surgery and developed a small addiction to Percocet.
Ryan’s job-related stress, combined with his increasing drinking, led him to experience a painful esophagus condition known as the Mallory-Weiss tear, which occurs in the mucus membrane of the lower part of the esophagus or upper part of the stomach, near where they join. He bled out and was in a coma for a time, and a stomach surgery was performed to save his life. Coping with the pain led to more addictive behavior, escalating from one 5 mg of Percocet per day to five, 10 and 15 pills. He then switched to the heavier Oxycotin, peaking at 20 crushed pills of 80 mg each per day snorted up his nose. (1,600 mg of Oxycotin is equivalent in strength to 320 Percocet pills).
His painkiller habit escalated to a full-blown heroin addiction – and he soon lost everything, “my business, my money, my pride, my self-esteem.” He had gone from making half a million dollars a year to essentially being homeless. Ryan adds, “I began waking up in dirty places, smoking used cigarettes I found on the ground, hitting the streets shaking a cup for money to buy more dope. Over a few years time, I had some stupid arrests for assault and battery and resisting arrest. At one point, I tried to commit suicide by mixing heroin with klonopin. My plan was to OD and get thrown outside a detox center with a suicide note, so my parents wouldn’t be the ones to find me dead. An ambulance happened to be pulling up at that moment. They gave me two shots of Narcan and saved my life. I guess God had other plans for me.”
Not long after, his arrest for another scuffle led one of the probation guys familiar with him to say, “You’re a great guy, Ryan, but we give you so much rope and you always hang yourself with it.” Looking out of the window of his Cambridge jail cell, he saw his old office across the street – and the parking lot where he parked his Mercedes during his fruitful days as a financial advisor. Having been raised Catholic, a profound spiritual presence overtook him, and he pleaded, “God, if you give me one more shot, I will never drop the ball again.” He describes the recovery process as one that happened “over a long period of time, yet all of a sudden.” He had been to a 12-Step program before but didn’t commit. This time he did. He had no choice. Death was the only other option. And like he says, “Nobody who knows the pain would choose it. Nobody wants to be dirty, grimy, hungry and dope-sick all the time.”
While most of his former friends abandoned him when he went to jail, he found new friends committed to helping him take the long road out of addiction. His sponsor, Billy, played a key role. “He adopted me, put his hand out, visited me in jail, loved me,” Ryan says. “He was a successful professional who had been once been where I was. He was the type of man I wanted to be. And he taught me how to live. The funny thing is, he knew nothing about my financial planning history. With his help, I began taking stock of who I was – an insecure guy with a lot of fears who would compensate by overachieving at work and at the gym. 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.”
After coming to terms with these insecurities and fears, he reconnected with some of his former clients, making amends and assuring them that while he never stole money from them, he knows he stole their peace of mind through his addiction-fueled scattered attentiveness. Some came back, others didn’t, but with the help of another mentor, Brian, and his family, he was able to get back on his feet, start Summit Financial Partners and build a new business via referrals and what some might call Providence. Brian, an established financial industry professional whom Ryan had long revered, had been a mentor to Ryan when Ryan was younger and returned to help coach his old friend back to mainstream life. The key to this relationship, according to Ryan, is that Brian always told him the truth.
“Now that’s my job, being honest, living the right way, being kind and loving to others, taking a person who nobody could tolerate and being kind to that person,” Ryan says. “I like to say I had to fall to gain it all. I grew up with a father and grandfather who taught me the value of integrity and I had to lose everything to gain that sort of integrity and live my life according to what I learned so many years ago. I broke my parents’ heart once and now to see their joy in the life I lead is everything to me. I sponsor recovering addicts and when I see the light go on, take that kid who was once on the couch half dead and show him how to live right, that’s what’s important to me. If I’m only remembered for the amount of money I have made, I will consider my life a failure. 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.”
Under the leadership of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Marylou Sudders, Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Bay State has embarked on an extraordinary effort to become a “#StateWithoutStigMA” – using education as a tool to de-stigmatize drug misuse and addiction so that those who suffer from the chronic disease will become more likely to seek help or treatment. In her official message, Sudders writes, “Stigma hurts. Treatment works and recovery is possible.” No Massachusetts native more powerfully embodies the reality of this hope and deliverance from that darkness than Ryan Skinner.