I am continually inspired by people who take the time to write to us and share their story of how they overcame their own personal hang ups about money, life, or whatever to get on the path to FIRE. We’ve all been there. I myself grew up in abject poverty and suffered from a brief addiction to purses.
But some people had it even worse. Some people were actual addicts. And that’s who we’re talking to today.
Ryan, thank you talking to us. You have quite a unique journey in that you were homeless and a drug addict at one point in your life. If I may ask, when did that happen, and what were the circumstances leading up to that?
As you might imagine it’s a *very* long story, but basically I started with more benign drugs like pot and alcohol when I was 13 and right from the start I didn’t have control of my use. This progressed quickly to hard drugs like IV heroin (pre opoiod crisis), cocaine, and a slew of others. My drug of choice was speedballs, a mixture of cocaine and heroin that is injected. We called them “Belushi’s” because it is how John Belushi died. Ultimately my addiction led to me losing everything, and I mean everything. Despite having a loving family, there was no helping me and I wound up on the streets at the early age of 18. I bounced around cities throughout the SE, finally skidding down in Miami for the hardest core, mean streets using yet, until, after nearly dying, I ultimately got clean in August 2003. I was 23.
Can you describe for our readers what it was like being in that situation, physically and mentally?
Absolute misery. Physical sickness, emotional emptiness, and lack of basic human needs like food and shelter were a daily occurrence. Imagine losing your family, home, ALL personal possessions, freedom (including literally being incarcerated), educational opportunities, driver’s license, employability, health, hygiene…I can go on and on.
At some point, something must have happened to make you go “This is not OK and I have to do something to make a change.” What was that?
I get this question a lot. Even from my own family, who marvel at my success after years of costly, failed attempts to get clean. The answer is what I call Spiritual Economics. “Spiritual” is used here as a secular term related to mental and physical well being. The theory is that when you start using drugs, it costs you a few dollars. Over time, you are spending more money on using. Eventually though, if you are an addict, there will come a day when your addiction will look you in the eye and say, “money is not enough anymore”.
The kicker is, it doesn’t matter how much money you have! As we all know, athletes and celebrities struggle mightily with addiction despite being flush with cash. Think Charlie Sheen’s “winning”! Some even end up homeless. We end up “spending” all the priceless things I mention above on chemicals. Freedom, health, family, possessions. These specific losses, or “costs” in Spiritual Economics, vary by the degree to which a person is addicted, because the severity does vary, but the point is they go way beyond just money.
The economics part comes in because in time the “cost” of using massively outweighs any enjoyment of getting high. When I volunteer and speak at treatment programs, I tell fledgling recovering addicts that these costs are akin to chips on a poker table. They are free to go back to using, but must do it with eyes wide open. There will be no return to using without paying the same costs that drove you to a treatment center in the first place. In other words, own the fact that you are putting ALL of your chips back on the table. You’re all in. For me, much of this was really just getting honest with myself about what was happening to me on an emotional rather than merely intellectual level. Put simply, the cost just got too high.
What was the first thing you did to start turning your situation around?
I contacted a 12-step fellowship and went to a meeting.
What was the hardest part about your recovery?
Cultivating the deep seated honestly required to start the process. It’s easy to know intellectually that you are screwed up when you are sleeping on the streets and shooting up, but somehow recognizing this on a deeper level is the single biggest impediment to getting clean. Once you get this profound honesty about yourself and your situation, the rest is just doing the footwork.
You were valedictorian of your class. How did you manage to pull THAT off? And what did you say at your speech?
I signed up for Miami Dade Community College right when I got clean. I had to start with remedial math taught to us by an 8th grade teacher. Even my father conceded (long after I had graduated) that he doubted whether enough of my mind was left to get a formal education. I got a job at a grocery store full time to pay for all my living expenses, and got help for classes from a Pell grant.
I had something to prove to the world, or more truly, to myself. I gave it everything I had. Once I got an “A” or two, I was addicted to A’s! I really never set a goal to get a perfect 4.0 GPA, but one grade at a time, I did it for my Associates Degree.
As a result of my academic excellence I was given membership to the Honor’s College at Florida International University, and it came with a full scholarship! I worried because I now had to take 5 classes and work a full time job, but I did it. At some point I said to myself, “wouldn’t it be cool to get all A’s in school, after barely graduating high school”? One “A” at a time, I finished with a perfect 4.0 GPA! This was despite them introducing A- grades, which meant I had to get an average of 95% or better in my courses. I was a Finance major so definitely not a gimme
As Confucius said, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. I had those words inscribed on my Academic Excellence award.
Although FIU didn’t have an official “Valedictorian” title, I earned it de facto when I was called up to speak to my graduating class in recognition of being the only student with a perfect 4.0 GPA. I made one simple statement: “It is my understanding that only 1% of the world’s population earns a college degree of any kind. I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity to have done it, and that’s why I worked so hard at it”. The President encouraged me to say more, so I spouted off a few words about where I was from and our football team and went back to my seat as quickly as I could. I mean, I am comfortable speaking in front of crowds, but this was 8,000 people!
You had a warrant out for your arrest when you graduated. I feel like there’s a story there. What happened with that?
“Story” is putting it charitably. The thing about being what we call a “hope to die dope fiend” is that you create wreckage in literally every dimension of your life. I had to rebuild everything. My credit, health, finances, living arrangements, familial relationships, and yes, my criminal history.
So I had this felony cocaine possession warrant in SC because in the throws of my addiction I hadn’t shown up for court after posting bail through a bondsman. It wasn’t intentional evasion, just the usual chemically fueled irresponsibility on my part. Regardless, it loomed. I’d be working in the supermarket and a bunch of law enforcement agents would come in and my heart would stop. I’d think, “This is it. No more college, work, or recovery meetings for me. I’m off to prison (the offense was punishable with up to 5 years hard time).” Luckily they weren’t coming for me…that day. So as I worked on my 4.0 GPA in Finance this dark shadow haunted me. I pledged to go and face the music just as soon as I graduated. I didn’t want a prison sentence to interrupt the roll I was on with my education. I thought maybe my gap year could be, according to mafia slang, college, a euphemism for prison. As graduation approached, so did my day to face the music.
By this point I had built up trust again so my dad arranged for an attorney to help me and we both flew to Greenville, SC to turn myself in. I had been in court many times, and had always been, and plead, guilty. I was pleading guilty this time too, but with a twist. In the past I never had jack shit to show for myself. I just plead out to get sentenced, credit for the time I had already been in jail, and a date when I could get out and return to my shenanigans. This was the first time in my life that I went to court with something to show for myself, and boy I had a lot to show! I had a letter sized official looking metal clasped envelope stuffed to the seams with evidence of the good person I had become.
In the envelope I had letters from my 12-step sponsor, employer, customers from the supermarket, and professors. It had degrees, academic awards, accolades, honor rolls, scholarships, the valedictorian thing…you get the idea. With all that, even the prosecution was speaking on my behalf saying “probation, let this guy go”. So no prison in between college graduation and job hunting! Which was good because I always gained weight when I was locked up and my mom had already bought me my cheap grey suit to go on job interviews.
After court, my dad and I went to the probation office to transfer it down to Miami. I have no family in Miami, where I live to this day 20 years later, but all my recovery, job, education, and life was down there, and I wasn’t going to mess with success after all those years of suffering from addiction. Since I was employed and financially responsible now, I had a few dollars to my name. I paid my probation fees and court costs and the probation people just said, “you are free to go”, as in I was off probation! I’m not sure if this was typical bureaucratic laziness or benevolence, but who gives a shit I was off probation! Time to go back to South Florida and find a job.
You mentioned that you ended up getting your Masters. How did you manage to pull that off?
With my freedom from drugs and incarceration in the bag, I went out to the job market. Not an easy feat for a 2-strike felon. I went to 3 job interviews and got three job offers. I approached the interviews like I approached dating. I sent my resume, went to the interview and tried mightily to build interest in my candidacy. Then I’d call back (or in dating wait until the 3rd date), and say “by the way, I’m a reformed junkie. That’s not a problem for you is it?
Well, I ended up with 2 job offers, not three, after having those conversations. In an amusing twist of ironic fate, the president of that company that rescinded their job offer ended up being indicted, and ultimately convicted, by the federal government for a $230M money laundering and kickbacks scheme. The company then went into financial free fall and only fractional, barely recognizable vestiges remain today. I was like, “damn I was just a petty user who occasionally shoplifted steaks and batteries!” Did I indulge in a little schadenfreude at their downfall? Of course not. I full out basked in the glorious failure of these hypocritical bastards!
But I digress. Sorry, as you might imagine I’m a little bit of a burnout. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, my Masters. So I accepted a job as a business analyst at a great company that I am still with today after 12 years. Not only did they give me a second chance, but after they saw my performance, the agreed to sponsor my MBA at the University of Florida, which I attended through what was the top distance learning MBA in the country at the time. The good news is that I graduated and got a Master’s for free. The bad news is that I finally did get an A- and even the dreaded B, and graduated with only a 3.93 GPA. Let me tell you, getting that B felt great.
Fast forward over the past several years and I have been steadily climbing in the company, working in all areas of Supply Chain. I am now a Vice President. We have a great culture, and my job has not only become lucrative, but both the people and the assignments are enjoyable. The reason I am pursuing FI is not to escape a job I loathe, but rather a relentless pursuit of freedom and all the things other than work that I am passionate about in life.
When did you meet your girlfriend, and did she have a role in your recovery?
My girlfriend and I have only been together 9 months, but it’s one of those incredible matches people dream about. I’m 40 but have been following millennial thought leaders such as yourself for many years, and like what I see. My girlfriend is 27 so now I have a millennial by my side and at home daily! She says I’m more millennial than her, which honestly is probably true, at least culturally. We met through a mutual friend that practiced yoga with me in our local studio. We are living the DINK lifestyle and pursuing FI.
Despite our short time together, she has inspired me to write a book and pursue motivational speaking, based on and my life experience overcoming adversity and building a life I love. This new venture is called Addict on Fire. The “on fire” not only represents my interest in how the fire movement will take me to the next level of freedom, but on the fervent progress I made after rising up from the ashes of my past. She has made me not only believe that this is possible, but probable! I love her dearly and cherish everyday we spend together, enjoying the present while moving towards our goals for the future.
Tell us what you’re doing now with Florida on the Fly.
Thought you’d never ask! 🙂 In the past 16 years I have developed a passion for the outdoors and fishing, and in fact it has become integral to the foundation of my recovery. Not just any fishing, but the niche, challenging area of saltwater fly and spin fishing. I pole my boat in 6″ of water, sight fish, present the lure or fly, and watch the fish devour it. Then a spectacular fight ensues. Imagine watching a 200 lb tarpon engulfing a fly the size of a quarter and then jumping wildly, repeatedly catching full air as you struggle to fight it! From serene silence to absolute chaos in seconds. This is not bobber fishing. Almost always we release the fish, and some species, like tarpon and bonefish, are designated game fish, illegal to keep. For us, it’s more about the bond with nature, inserting ourselves into its at once breathtakingly beautiful and wildly predatory environment, and then being grateful for the ride and what it teaches us.
Most special to me are the beloved Everglades, which isn’t just air boats and saw grass. We run shallow skiffs around remote islands off the Gulf coast, deep inside brackish creeks that scarcely see human contact, and on the intoxicating saltwater flats of Florida Bay that stretch all the way to the Keys. As Captain Willy Benson once said, “at the end of the day the Everglades is where you go to get lost”.
Florida on the Fly is my way to share my passion for these special areas with others. Plus from a FI POV, fishing charters have become my side hustle and I’m earning great money while doing something I love. When I put my clients on fish, it’s like I’m the one standing up there catching them. My heartbeat surges and my adrenaline pumps. The night before, I can barely take my rest, too excited for the beauty and possibility the next day offers. Plus it allows me to give back, taking recovering addicts fishing for free.
Lastly, and most importantly, Florida on the Fly is my first foray into entrepreneurship. I always had a limiting belief that I was destined to forever work for others. Success with my company revealed that as a lie. My dream is to use it as a stepping stone to expand into other passions, like writing my book and motivational speaking with Addict on Fire.
What’s your net worth now, and where did that money come from?
My current net worth is $520,000. I earned every penny on a W-2 working in supply chain and a small amount in 2019 with Florida on the Fly. The bad news is that it should be much higher. If I may quote your blog, “my god I was spendy back then“. The good news is that I have a well paying job and side hustle, and have the potential now to save as much as $10,000 per month. I could conceivably acheive FI in 5-8 years, and with my side hustle, your concept of “partial FI” as I make the approach. Again, I love the people I work with, but I don’t want to have to work.
Your book, along with JL Collins‘s The Simple Path to Wealth, has ignited a fire in me, no pun intended. I’m so excited about saving, investing, and pursuing my dream. Time might equal money, but more fittingly, “money equals time”, as you aptly put it. I see money very differently now. We are programmed by society and marketers to ask ourselves if we can afford the payment. Your book shifted my perspective not to just look at the payment, and in fact, not to look only at the amount of money to be spent, but to consider the earning power of that money over time, and the freedom (time) that it could buy me.
I made financial mistakes because frankly I never expected myself to have even a small fraction of the financial success that I have. Once I started to make great money, I bought cars and bullshit because I thought that was what people at that income level did. The funny thing is, those who know me will tell you that flash, brands, fashion, and outward appearances don’t mean jack shit to me. I march to the beat of my own drum; always have. This Stoic aspect of my personality is a great fit for the financial prioritization you outline in “Quit Like a Millionaire“.
You taught me that “rich people buy investments”. That is what I am focused on now. Saving about 65% of my income, living frugally, and investing a la the Shen/Collins approach.
Do you think your experience changed how you view money?
Absolutely. Living on the streets, being incarcerated, and living as a slave to addiction taught me the real value of freedom. I’m now armed with this concept that money is empowering for deeper purposes than just buying the latest and greatest whatever. I built on this understanding and radically changed the trajectory of my life towards a freer existence. I see this as a guiding principle behind FI. It’s like the first step of recovery. From this philosophical basis, the nuts and bolts of budgeting and investing become relatively simple footwork. Notice I said simple, which is not to say that it is easy.
What are you hoping to achieve by telling your story?
Most importantly I want to reach people struggling with addition or being impacted by someone else’s addiction. To give them hope that truly remarkable things are possible in recovery, even for someone like me who failed at recovery repeatedly for years as a chronic relapser.
But my recovery story is not just about addicts. I want to give people the confidence that anyone can rise up, overcome all types of adversity, and build a life they love. I want to leverage my unique experience to move, educate, and motivate people from all walks of life. I am passionate about turning the negative of my past into something good and useful to society. I will be sharing my message through books, blogging, speaking and more through www.addictonfire.com.
And finally, where can people find you?
Some incredible stuff. Thanks Ryan for sharing your story with us. What do you think about Ryan’s story? Let us hear about it in the comments below!
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