CHICAGO -- Two years after emerging from prison on drug-related charges, Tim Ryan has become a beacon for families scarred by Chicago's heroin crisis.
The brash and salty former corporate headhunter has launched a public crusade to take addicts "from dope to hope" by running recovery groups, performing interventions and handing out advice via Facebook. He claims he ushers hundreds of people a month into rehab, and that he does it with remarkable speed.
"I can get someone into treatment within 24 hours," he told a recent community forum in the downstate town of Dwight. "I know how to maneuver the system whether you have no insurance, good insurance or (state-funded) insurance."
Ryan, 47, has turned himself into one of the area's most prominent activists in the struggle against heroin, the confidant of police chiefs and politicians and soon, perhaps, the star of a reality TV show. His audacious style and compelling personal story -- he kicked a ferocious habit only to see his 20-year-old son die of an overdose -- give him credibility among people damaged by addiction.
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"Tim is just raw, uncut honesty -- no sugarcoating," a former heroin user said after one of Ryan's recovery meetings. "He gives it to you like it is. That's what I like about it."
Yet while Ryan has built a devoted following, he has also attracted strong criticism.
Ryan heads a Naperville-based nonprofit dedicated to aiding people with drug problems, but he also has a job marketing a $15,000-a-month rehab center in Florida. The line between those roles is blurry to some critics, who say it could create a conflict of interest.
Others take issue with Ryan's lack of professional training, his hostility toward medication-based treatment and what they regard as his unseemly love of the spotlight. Assisting people with addictions has traditionally been discreet work; Ryan performs it with unapologetic flamboyance.
"I'm trying to shift things," he said. "This drug kills you. There's no coming back from death. That's why we need ... (to get) in people's faces. Not my child? Damn straight, it's your child. Pull your head out of the sand. I come across gruff and hard, but I speak the truth. And if I offend you, too bad."
Like many addiction stories, Tim Ryan's began in high school. He grew up in Crystal Lake, an easy drive to Wisconsin and its then-drinking age of 19. When older buddies took him there to party, he said, he found he liked the sensation.
Alcohol led to cocaine, and Ryan spent much of his teens and 20s under the influence. But he didn't discover heroin until he was 32, a married man with four kids and a lucrative job as a technology industry recruiter.
He said he impulsively accepted a bag from a friend of a friend and "unleashed a friggin' monster." His habit grew until much of his considerable income -- court records indicate he earned $150,000 in 2007 -- went toward booze and drugs.
"I was living in Oswego, so I would take a cab or get a ride to the train station," he said. "I'd take the 8 o'clock express down to Union Station because the bar opened at 9. I'd have a couple of martinis. I'd go to the Wrigley Building and call my dealer, and he'd deliver five jabs of heroin or five grams, whatever I wanted.
"I'd go in my office and shoot up. Might make some phone calls. I'd usually end up at the Billy Goat Tavern for four or five hours, drinking. I'd go back and shoot more dope, make a few phone calls, and a couple of nights a week I'd end up on Lower Wacker Drive with the homeless people, because that's where I was more comfortable."
In December 2010, Ryan had just shot up on Chicago's West Side when he passed out at the wheel of his minivan and crashed into two vehicles. Paramedics had to give him two doses of the overdose-stopping medication naloxone to revive him, according to a police report.
Ryan was charged with aggravated DUI, but he said he continued to use heroin during a drawn-out court process. It was then, he said, that he learned his troubled teenage son, Nick, had also fallen for the drug.
The discovery shocked Ryan. It didn't stop him.
"We started doing (heroin) together," he said. "It's hard for people to wrap their heads around. It's how Nick and I bonded. We became chaos agents. ... My conscience, values and morals were out the window."
Ryan was convicted of the charge in late 2012 and went on to serve 13 months in prison. A religious awakening and a newfound dedication to the 12 steps allowed him to grasp sobriety firmly for the first time, he said, and he emerged with a plan to launch a nonprofit organization that would help addicts and their families.
But as Ryan dedicated himself to a new life, his son was pulled under by their old one.
On a summer night in 2014, according to a police report, Nick Ryan was hanging out with friends in Darien when he passed out on the couch, stirring only to snort a line of heroin off the kitchen table. By 2 a.m., he was unresponsive, his pulse weak. His friends took him to the emergency room at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Tim Ryan said he went to a 12-step meeting that night. A month later, he filed the incorporation papers for his nonprofit -- A Man in Recovery Foundation.
"When Nick died, it really solidified everything," Ryan said. "This was my calling and mission."
Ryan started by organizing free recovery group meetings for people fighting addiction, offering guidance in a confrontational, profane and darkly humorous manner. At one recent session, held at a Naperville church, Ryan was giving a mini-lecture on how fear affects drug use when a 20-something man admitted his frequent relapses.
"Well, no (expletive), (expletive)," Ryan said as others giggled. "What are you afraid of?"
His approach, which he describes as "recovery in the raw," connected with young people and their parents, and the crowd steadily grew. So did the number of addicts he guided into treatment.
"(Ryan's) name started coming up on the call sheet a lot," said Kevin Wrigley of the SHARE Program in Hoffman Estates. "At that time, we were getting at least 50 calls a week from people who said, 'Tim Ryan told me about you.'"
His goal was to raise enough money so he could make the foundation his full-time work. But after a few months, he said, he accepted a job with the Banyan Treatment Center in Pompano Beach, Fla.
The for-profit rehab, which opened in 2013, is one of hundreds of treatment centers in the state. Like many others, it follows the so-called "Florida Model," in which patients receive therapy at a clinic but live in offsite apartments.
The arrangement allows patients to stay much longer than the typical 28 days of inpatient care, said John Lehman of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences. Low costs and substantial insurance reimbursements have turned such treatment centers into a lucrative business, he said, and many market their services far beyond the state's borders.
That strikes a nerve with some Chicago-area rehabs -- "I find it hard to believe that people need to leave this immediate area in order to get very effective and caring service," said Pete McLenighan of Joliet's Stepping Stones Treatment Center -- but Banyan owner Joe Tuttle said leaving home can be good for someone seeking sobriety.
"We're selling (the idea of) getting away from your environment," he said. "If your friends are using, you'll probably be using, too."
Since joining Banyan 15 months ago, Ryan said, he has referred more than 100 people there, some of whom he met through his charitable work. Such an arrangement strikes some in the recovery community as problematic.
"It tends to be a conflict of interest if you're recommending one treatment center over and over instead of spreading it out, because who's benefiting, really?" asked Lea Minalga of the Hearts of Hope support group in Geneva. "(Addiction) is a life-threatening disease, and you want to get the patient the very best care for them. They're individuals and they have individual needs."
Ryan said Banyan screens prospective patients to be sure they're a good fit, and that his salary does not hinge on the number of people he refers. He added that he directs many more people to treatment centers with which he has no financial relationship.
"I don't care where they go to treatment," Ryan said. "Have I got people from (activities connected to the foundation)? Sure. But I also have parents in my group saying, 'You know what? My kid's now a year sober; Tim sent him to Florida and he went through Banyan's program.'"
It's not hard to find such testimonials written on Ryan's Facebook page or offered by people attending his recovery groups. Some parents say Ryan has a unique ability to reach drug users in a desperate spot.
"We all look up to Tim so much; it's like he has a special power," said Robin Dale of Oswego, whose son has been sober for eight months after completing treatment at Banyan. "It sounds crazy, but he does amazing things with our kids."
Not everyone makes it, though; Ryan said more than 70 people he tried to help died in the past year. One was 20-year-old Michael Woods.
He grew up in St. Charles and began abusing opiates in high school. His father, Jim Woods, said Michael tried treatment centers around the country without lasting success. But after meeting Ryan through the recovery group, he agreed to try again at Banyan.
"It was the best thing I've seen," Jim Woods said. "Michael was treated with respect. He was genuinely cared for. There were a lot of people who were working hard to make him successful."
Michael Woods left Banyan in early January and was working at a country club while living in a Pompano Beach motel. On Jan. 8, the manager stopped by his room to pick up the rent and found him dead from what a police report said was multidrug toxicity.
Woods' family asked that donations be made in his memory to Ryan's foundation, an appeal that raised about $10,000. Ryan said he uses donations to cover bus tickets, hotel stays and other costs to get people into treatment.
Alecia Coglianese's parents made a similar request when their daughter died -- but later changed their minds.
Ryan guided Coglianese, a 24-year-old from Orland Park, to Florida in May -- "One more off to Banyan Treatment Center!" he posted on Facebook, along with a photo of the two smiling outside O'Hare International Airport -- but medical problems that arose during detox prompted her to switch to a rehab in Jacksonville, according to John R. Wrona, an attorney for Coglianese's family.
She completed treatment there only to relapse after moving to a sober living home in South Florida. Coglianese then went to Banyan, but when her health problems continued, a plan arose to send her back to Jacksonville.
What happened next is under dispute. Wrona said Banyan had agreed to keep Coglianese at the rehab until it was time to escort her to her morning flight. But according to a police report, Banyan Executive Director Eric Oakes told investigators Coglianese was so adamant about leaving that she vowed to run away if she were not taken to the airport the night before.
"Mr. Oakes stated that he felt it would be safer for (Coglianese) to be brought to the airport rather than roaming the streets," the report says.
But Coglianese didn't stay at the airport. At 5 a.m. the next morning, according to the report, she entered the bathroom of a gas station 16 miles away. Two hours later, when she didn't respond to a knock on the door, the manager unlocked it to find her dead of an overdose.
"All Banyan had to do was get her on the plane safely," Wrona said. "Dropping her off 12 hours ahead of time wasn't the way to do that."
Oakes declined to comment. But Ryan said every treatment center loses patients, and that deaths are inevitable with as many people as he tries to help.
"We have a higher success rate of people grasping recovery, I think, but do people walk out and get high? Sure," he said. "Do people walk out and die? Absolutely. There is no magic bullet."
In early December, Adam Silvers, a close friend of Ryan and a fellow Banyan employee, died of a heroin overdose in his Naperville apartment. Nine days later, Ryan posted a Facebook video in which he lamented the continuing epidemic -- and took aim at one method of treatment.
"I have this mother going, 'Oh, go on Suboxone, go on methadone, that's a lifesaver,'" Ryan said in a sarcastic voice. "No, it's not. ... Most people who do that are not in recovery. They're abusing alcohol, they're abusing cocaine. That's no way to live."
Suboxone and methadone are opioid-based medications that are used to suppress heroin cravings. They have been studied extensively for decades, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine says they have proven to be "more effective than any other type of treatment for opioid dependence."
But because patients generally stay on those medications for years, many regard them as just another addiction. Ryan said he had a terrible experience with methadone in his using days, becoming so miserable that he went back to heroin.
"It keeps someone alive, but they're a friggin' zombie," he said. "It takes away your emotions. How am I, as an addict, supposed to truly get into recovery and have a spiritual awakening when my emotions are gone?"
Dr. Abdel Fahmy, whose Soft Landing Recovery clinic in Naperville treats patients with methadone and Suboxone, doesn't know Ryan but said his characterizations were false.
"He might be talking about his own personal experience," he said. "It's egotistical to think everyone is Tim Ryan. There are many people living full lives on medication-assisted treatment. We are not aware of (emotional vacancy) being a side effect."
Ryan's strong opinions have also alienated some in law enforcement. While he has good relations with numerous departments, helping them establish programs to divert addicts into treatment, he has clashed with the Will County state's attorney's office.
A young man facing drug possession charges was going through the county's court system last year when Ryan asked State's Attorney James Glasgow to allow the man to leave for Banyan. Glasgow refused, and the man ended up serving a few months in prison before being paroled.
Ryan said the episode demonstrated the futility of locking people up for addiction-related crimes. But Glasgow spokesman Chuck Pelkie retorted that the prosecutor has been progressive on that issue, helping to establish one of the area's first drug courts in the 1990s.
"We have options to help people kick their addictions," Pelkie said. "Mr. Ryan is not one of those options. He doesn't get to insert himself into the legal process and tell people what kind of bonds can be set so he can take a defendant who's facing criminal charges out of state."
Despite the conflicts, Ryan's profile continues to rise. In January, he was the guest of U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, at President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Ryan makes frequent appearances on WGN Radio to discuss addiction. He's collaborating with a television producer to develop a reality show that would document his work.
And last month, he participated in a taping of the "Steve Harvey" talk show dedicated to the heroin crisis. He joined television personality and addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky for a surprise intervention, trying to convince a reluctant young man to go to Banyan. The episode is scheduled to air April 7.
Mixing addiction and entertainment is yet another controversial practice -- shows such as "Intervention" and Pinsky's own "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew" have been called voyeuristic and exploitative -- but Ryan said the chance to put someone into treatment is the most important consideration.
That assertion came toward the end of an interview at Banyan's recently opened outpatient center in downtown Naperville, where Ryan chalked up the criticisms to jealousy or misunderstandings. Reached later, though, fellow anti-heroin activist Felicia Miceli said she understood the skepticism.
Miceli heads a nonprofit called the LTM Foundation, named after her son Louie who died of an overdose in 2012. She finds Ryan to be overly rigid in his condemnation of Suboxone and methadone, and occasionally too bombastic for his own good: She once took him to speak at a high school only to hear "f-bombs rolling off his tongue," she said.
But she said Ryan has also answered her calls in the middle of the night when despairing families needed help, and she credits him with getting people into rehab while attracting much-needed attention to the cause. To her, that outweighs their differences.
"Tim's a loud voice," she said. "We need that. We can't be silent. We can't sit in the corner and cower when we're losing so many lives."