Ryan Riggs is working to end the prison-for-profit movement and open recovery

End The Prison-For-Profit Movement & Offer Recovery Solutions Now

My name is Ryan Riggs and I am a person in long-term recovery from addiction. What that means to me, is that I have not found it necessary to use any mood or mind-altering substances since April 20, 2015. This journey has been the most amazing experience that I have ever had, and it only continues to get better. My story, in large part, involves the criminal justice system.  As result of my addiction and lack of resources, I fell into a vicious cycle of drug use, incarceration, and dereliction. Nine overdoses and fifteen or more jail sentences later, I found a way out. Jail and prison are not the solution to addiction. My life today is beyond my wildest dreams, but let me tell you a little bit about the journey.

I was raised in a lower-middle class family in Richmond, VA. I began using drugs around the age of 14 and it quickly progressed. I went from marijuana and alcohol, to pills and crack, then to heroin – in 2.5 five seconds. My drug use began to have consequences early, and those consequences never stopped me. Incarcerated at 14 years old for drug possession, I quickly dispelled my fear of “doing time.” I quickly learned how to adapt to the institutional environment, thus relieving incarceration as a deterrent for me.

The following years were marked by numerous juvenile detention home visits which turned into jail stays as the years progressed. Jail is not a place that someone should learn life lessons in becoming a man. The rules that are adhered to, and the principles one lives by, in jail are more tools of survival than tools for living a productive life. I learned that weakness was not tolerated. Any form of weakness that was perceived would be exploited. I began to develop a sub-personality that was more of a mask than anything else. The problem came when I began to identify with that mask and started to believe that’s who I truly was. The morals and values of prison life are not applicable to life on the outside. I was not only locked up physically, but locked up mentally as well.

Jail programs for addiction were virtually non-existent throughout the majority of my incarceration. When programs did become available, I took advantage of the opportunity. In 2008, I was introduced to recovery in a program inside the Richmond City Jail. It was here that my journey in recovery began. I would like to say that I stayed clean after that and that I lived happily ever after, but that’s not the case. I gained a ton of information but still had no idea how to apply it. I was released. And when the door shut behind me, I was on my own. I proceeded to do what I always did, and ended up with the results that I always got.

The turning point for me was when I was released for the last time and got involved with a Recovery Residence by the name of Libbie Avenue Recovery. From there I began to live in a community that had experience living life on the outside of institutions, free from drugs. I began to do some volunteer work for the McShin Foundation, a recovery community organization (RCO) in the area. I wanted to help people who were incarcerated find a path to freedom, just as I had. I was offered a job working with inmates, at the Richmond City Jail, where I was once housed. In this arena, I learned how to use my experience as a teaching tool to help those who suffer from the same problems I did, addiction and criminal thinking. I then became the program coordinator for a new program in the Chesterfield County jail called HARP (Heroin Addiction Recovery Program), a multi-faceted approach at tackling substance use disorder, with a heavy focus on peer-to-peer recovery.

Chesterfield Jail's HARP Program

Chesterfield Jail’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP)

My life would be drastically different if I had never found the recovery community.  It has been the foundation of my new life. This community taught me how to live life as a productive member of society, free from the bondage of addiction. No jail time or consequence ever kept me from using drugs. The term “it takes a village” is the best way I can describe this.  It took the recovery community and a lot of hard work to raise me into the man I am today.

I’m coming up on 2 years clean.  I’m married to the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.  My children look up to me and think I’m the strongest man in the world. I recently regained full custody of my daughters. I work or volunteer in three different jails in the Richmond metro area, doing something that I love to do – helping others. I’m a loyal friend, faithful servant, caring son, and a faithful and loving husband and father.  I’m going to college in pursuit of a degree in social sciences. These accomplishments are not mine. They are OURS. And they belong to the recovery community! Had it not been for the love, support, and guidance of those who travel this journey with me, I would undoubtedly be dead or in jail.

Addiction touches almost every family at some level. The people serving time in jail and prison because of their addiction are someone’s mother, father, son, or daughter.  They all deserve the same opportunity I had. We need to stop building more prisons, and build more bridges to recovery. Stop the prison-for-profit movement that has crippled our country and start providing real solutions to this problem. These private businesses are getting rich while our communities are suffering. Prison profits soar, while social capital declines. There is much more that needs to be done and it all starts with talking about it. The more we talk about it and the more people we get involved, the more minds we’ll have to create better solutions. As long as stigma is attached to addiction, there will continue to be an “us” and “them” mentality. The American people are strong, innovative, and courageous. Combine that with an unparalleled spirit of unity and patriotism – that creates the greatest of hopes, hope that this country will one day refuse to sacrifice life for livelihood, that it will refuse to accept the success of few on the backs of many, and hope that one day there will be no “us” and “them”, but only US.

There Is Always Hope. I’m Living Proof.

It was my second day back in a rehab home that I was in just 4 months earlier. I couldn’t take my eyes off the clock as my mind raced at 100 miles per hour. Each minute felt like an hour and I wondered how I got myself into this situation again. With pretty much all hope lost I wondered if I even had enough strength to take another shot at recovery. Rehabs were becoming a very common occurrence in my life and I was completely sick of the same cycle, over-and-over again. In the previous fifteen months of my life, ten of them were spent in 3 different rehabs. This wasn’t the way my life was supposed to go. This wasn’t part of the plan.

I’ve come to learn today that many things don’t go according to plan and everything happens for a reason. I believe that to my inner core. I was usually able to put together a few months of recovery upon leaving the rehab – but at some point, each time, I would give-in.

At this point in my life, the jig had been up for a while and the fun and games were long over. If I’m being rigorously honest, the fun stopped when I was around 19. I was 23. Oxycodone was my drug of choice which inevitably lead me to heroin. I firmly believe that a drug is a drug though – and they are all different branches off the same tree which is the disease of addiction. Alcohol took me to marijuana, which lead me to Xanax, and eventually ended up progressing to opioids.

That’s just the way my journey took me. Everyone has a different journey but the pain we all go through and the feelings we have are virtually all the same. The end game is also the same which is inevitably death. Unless we find recovery. The drugs that I thought were helping me at one point had now completely robbed me of almost everything. There was no debating that anymore. Even with knowing all of that, I kept going back to the same poison that was literally killing me. I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t a bad person, but there was no debating that I was a mentally sick person. I came to find out I was very spiritually broken as well. I was mentally, physically, and spiritually broken. I needed help.

My run up to my past (and God willing last) rehab was a short one but it brought me to my emotional bottom, which ironically was necessary to get me to the point I’m at today while typing this.  All the guilt and shame of doing well for a time – and then throwing it all away again brought on a lot of pain. That same pain is the driving force in my recovery program I work today. I decided I was going to give my all to recovery this time I around. I put a lot of effort into my past attempts at recovery but I would be lying if I said I gave it my all. I was going to do more than talk the talk this time. I realized that if I gave anything less than my all I would suffer the same fate that three of my friends suffered this past year. Death.

I spent about eight months at the recovery home with the last four being a transition phase. I slowly got accustomed to being back in the real world which was so essential for me. I started to work a full-time job and began to go home on the weekends. My days in recovery started adding up and my peace of mind drastically increased. My mind is where my problem and obsession exist. Throughout my life, I’ve always just wanted peace from within. I thought drugs were a solution to try and escape that. A temporary solution to a much bigger problem – and it was a very temporary solution. There’s no peace of mind in living to get my next high and having all my thoughts obsessively revolve around it. There’s no peace of mind in building up lie after lie in-order-to get my next fix.

My new life in recovery began on November 21, 2015 and is still going strong one day at a time. The best gifts I have received from recovery are not the material kind: I have a much better relationship with my family; I am a lot better at being comfortable in my own skin; and I have a much better peace of mind. The friends and authentic human connections I have made along this journey are unbelievable. There is something so special about being on the same path as someone and having the same goal, while also knowing (and sharing) their struggle. I look at this as a gift and feel extremely blessed.

Not everyone gets the opportunity to live in recovery and many people continue to lose their lives to this disease. From someone who could not maintain time in recovery and failed over-and-over again, to now someone with 15 months in recovery, there is always hope.

Recovery Gave Me Purpose & Saved My Life

In 2007, my world came to a screeching halt. I was 16 years deep into a decorated law enforcement career when alcohol dealt me a significant blow. Not only was I a SWAT team member at the time – but also a SWAT Instructor – as well as a basic recruit instructor. Over the course of those last 16 years, I experienced much success but now my career was on the line as result of a DUI crash. At that time, I didn’t know what recovery was. Or that it was even possible for a guy like me.

Up to this point in my life I had already burned through 2 marriages and was working on a third. My kids were coming around less and less, and if I wasn’t on-duty I was more-or-less drunk, all the time.  After a leave absence to get my legal issues ironed out, and a trip to my second spin-dry treatment center, the department brought me back and imposed only one stipulation: I had to find a recovery program and stay sober for 5 years.

I didn’t know how to stay sober. Nor did I want to. But I tried. The issue I discovered, however, was that when I stopped drinking I became unbearable to live with. Meaning, I couldn’t stand how I felt. I was extremely irritable and had an almost impossible time carrying out tasks as simple as going grocery shopping. At times, even my skin hurt. I tried going to some meetings, suggested by my boss, but they weren’t for me. I wasn’t that bad. At the time, I even remember telling myself “if the people at those meetings felt as horrible on the inside as I did, they would want to drink too.” And so, I got loaded again. By March of 2009, I was unemployed. My life spiraled out of control, and I soon found myself heavily involved in the use of pills and methamphetamine. This led to more treatment centers, hospitals, the county jail, and eventually homelessness. I compromised everything I ever believed in. I sunk to a low that was unbearable to face, so I stayed drunk or high for the next 4 years. I couldn’t stop for the life of me.

December 10, 2014 – a moment of clarity hit me. I was on the backside of an 8-day run, completely out of my mind and no one left in my life. I basically came-to, realizing for the first-time ever, the magnitude of my situation. My insides were screaming. I could no longer get high enough (or drunk enough) to stop the emptiness.  Once again, I pondered suicide. Thankfully, during a brief unexplained moment of peace, I convinced myself that maybe I could get sober and stay sober.

On that day (12/10/14), I made a decision that I’d no longer be a slave to addiction.  As painful as it was in the beginning, I threw myself into the world of recovery. I did what was suggested by those who were living lives that I had never dreamed possible. I met men brimming with love for their fellows, who were down in the trenches, caring for our brothers and sisters that remained trapped in addiction. It had been a long, long time since I had concerned myself with needs of others. The thought initially frightened me, but I was willing to do whatever it took to stay sober.

My life today is nothing like the old. I am free from the obsession to drink or use, and have been some time. I no longer suffer from anxiety, depression, or fear. I have successfully entered back into the work force, and am a valued employee. I have reconnected with family and have friends that care about me and I about them. I am engaged to an amazing woman who journeys upon a common spiritual path. But the craziest thing I have today? I have purpose. 

My purpose today is to reach out and help – in any way I can – those still suffering. I do that by hanging out on skid-row, visiting detox centers, helping men get jobs or housing, and showing others how I got sober.  When I do these few things, I experience peace, joy and a renewed self-esteem. I never thought in a million years that living a purposeful life in recovery would be possible. Now I know, there is no other way to live.

Recovery Gave Me My Son, Family Back

Becoming a mother was one of the greatest joys I had ever experienced. Kyle was a vibrant, exuberant child with a larger-than-life personality from the day he was born. Our family was truly blessed. He was always the center of attention and became friends instantly with anyone he met. He had this thirst for life, until he was about 12 years old. That’s when things started to change and fracture our family unit until Kyle entered recovery in 2013.

Kyle was always precocious and outgoing, it was his defining character trait. So when he started to isolate in middle school, I became extremely concerned. He began asking why he was “different” and why he didn’t fit in. As a parent, all I wanted to do was provide the best possible life for my child, so I looked into different therapists and psychologists to help him through this period. I thought, “he’ll grow out of it – he’s so personable and has such a bright future.”

Kyle and his parents

Little did I know that would be the beginning of a decade-long battle against addiction. Kyle began showing signs of depression and anxiety. He asked to see doctors, who put him on prescriptions. Kyle began abusing those medications, and soon graduated from pills to heroin. His father and I would have never guessed our child was shooting up heroin at just 15 years old.

The next eight years would be filled with ups and downs. Kyle’s father and I were in complete denial of his addiction – we thought he would rebound every time he said “I’m done.” We sent him to multiple psychologists, therapists, treatment centers, and facilities. We were able to find centers in-network but we traded quality of care for cost. Finding a treatment center that treated all three aspects of addiction seemed nearly impossible. We saw him deteriorate in front of our eyes, attempt getting sober, then fall off again and again. Kyle would hide from the world feeling overwhelming shame and guilt, but continue using. He was a slave to the drugs.

In 2013, something finally happened. After a string of failed career moves, arrests, overdoses, and increasing medical problems, Kyle finally told us he couldn’t keep doing this. We sought out a treatment center that worked on mind, body, and spirit. As parents, all Kyle’s father and I wanted for him was to be happy and productive. We listened to addiction professionals who had overcome the same debilitating disease of addiction.

Our family experienced, what I like to call, “a collective enlightenment” as a result of Kyle’s recovery. Through intensive work, Kyle finally became open and honest enough to share with our family that he was gay. He had sat in fear for so many years, thinking we would turn our backs on him. He began coming out of his shell again and engaging in life for the first time in years. I saw the vibrant, social Kyle again. Our entire family started addressing issues we had glazed over for years. We became a true family unit.

Recovery has completely changed our lives. As a family, we’ve begun to have direct and open communication with one another. Kyle and his brother are best friends again. Kyle’s father and I have never had a better marriage. Kyle’s able to show up for us and participate in his own life again. But what’s most miraculous is how those dark days are now the foundation of the strong family bond we’ve built.

Almost four years later, our lives are completely different. It was through practicing honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness, that Kyle found himself. He’s since identified that “different” feeling he experienced was due to his addiction and fear of coming out of the closet. Today, he’s a proud gay man and is a respected member of his community. He’s engaged to a wonderful man and living the life he’s always wanted. There is no greater gift than watching your child live life to the fullest, and that’s exactly what’s happened since Kyle got sober.

Kyle's family today, at almost 4 years living in recovery.

Kyle’s family today, at almost 4 years living in recovery.

There’s no “right” way to prepare for a loved one’s addiction. This disease blindsides you, it hits you when you least expect it. Our family was able to overcome this disease by listening to our child, providing support any way we could, being cautious not to enable his addiction, and helping to find a recovery solution when Kyle became ready. My hope is that every parent who struggles with their child’s addiction is able to find the freedom we have, and to let them know that it gets better.

My name is Kylie. And I’m a woman in sustained recovery.

The mind is a powerful thing and recovery is possible.

I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve been told that I can do anything that I put my mind to. It’s crazy to think that the one thing that could help me obtain anything is also the same thing that has kept me from living my life to its fullest.

In my case, my mind eventually became dangerous. For 10 plus years, it told me that I couldn’t function without meth or alcohol. What’s scary is it didn’t start that way. At first, meth was the solution to what I thought was my biggest problem in life. How awesome it was to find this substance that could help me lose weight faster than any workout or diet plan and allow me to eat anything I wanted. It also gave me this extra boost of confidence; I could talk to anyone and was more outgoing than ever before. I had what felt like endless energy.

Over time, the only thing that stayed constant with my meth use was that I stayed thin, everything else in my life fell apart. However, at the time I didn’t see it as a problem because at least I was skinny. As the years went on, my meth use increased and that’s when it truly started to take over my world. My tolerance went up – and I was beginning to need meth just to get out of bed. Instead of doing things to better my life, my days consisted of finding ways to get high. I drifted away from everyone I knew that didn’t use. I was kicked out of my home and started wandering the streets all night and sleeping on people’s couches, staying in random hotel rooms smoking my life away. There were times I thought about quitting, but the fear of putting on weight was enough to put that thought to an end quick. I was hopeless and I just couldn’t stop. I wanted recovery but I was too ashamed to ask for help.

My anxiety levels were unbearable, and I started to constantly have that feeling of wanting to crawl out of my own skin. Instead of stopping, I found that when I consumed alcohol it brought me back to what I felt was normal. I just needed another mind-altering substance to get me there. I came up with a system that helped me get through the days – using meth when I woke up, all throughout the day. And when I got too high, I would just take a few shots of alcohol and be good to go. This became my life and this is how my mind became my own personal prison. I wanted a way out!

I wanted to be free from my addiction but my mind told me there was no way in hell that could ever happen. I was stuck. And the years kept flying by. Any solution I came up with was shot down because my mind told me I couldn’t function without meth or alcohol, that I wasn’t worthy of recovery. My mind told me that I would gain weight if I stopped using meth.

Luckily for me, I reached a rock bottom and saw the destruction addiction was causing in my life. I finally asked for the one thing I had never asked for – help. I wanted more for my life; I didn’t want to be controlled any longer. That mindset and the willingness to stop was just the push I needed to turn my life around. And I’ll be forever grateful that help was accessible when I needed it the most. It saved my life.

Once I detoxed and rid my body of the poison I had been contaminating it with for years, my mind had a chance to breath and process life without any mind-altering substances. I am here to tell you I have not needed a mind-altering substance for 327 days, just shy of 1 year. I’m finally free, living a life as a woman in sustained recovery from addiction. As corny as it sounds, I truly believe that I have the world at my fingertips. I feel amazing, a genuine kind of amazing. It’s pure, and not in any way the same as I felt when I was drunk or high. I not only feel better – but I also look better than I ever have because today I make the effort to live my life in a healthy way. It’s more rewarding and I’m proud of myself. So, as I was saying the mind is a powerful thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told in my life that I can do anything that I put my mind to. It just requires action, perseverance, and facing your fears! Recovery is a beautiful journey and I remind myself of that every day.