During his time in prison about 50 years ago, a young Gary Ryan met two fellow inmates who proved to offer a positive and lasting influence on his life.
“I started painting in prison,” the now 73-year-old Ryan recalls. “A couple of guys there were artists, and they invited me to join them.” It wouldn't take Ryan long to realize he could lose himself in the creation of an artwork. Still, it would be many years before he would become comfortable referring to himself as an artist, finally coming to that conclusion in an “aha!” moment during an early-morning meditation.
Even today, Ryan jokes that using the “artist” title would actually suggest that he was making money from painting. But he does not hesitate to say that art has played an instrumental role in sustaining his 33 years in recovery. The former owner of a concrete contracting business, Ryan had the kind of job that left plenty of his afternoons free for developing his talent in painting.
“My painting sustained me many times; it gave me something to do,” he says. “I could be at home safe and have an enjoyable evening. It figured quite prominently in my recovery.”
All of Ryan's paintings have a spiritual center. The theme serves to remind him of the noble message embodied in the 12-Step fellowship, the brotherhood to which he attributes his recovery.
Much as his memory of the actual offense that landed him in prison for “three years, seven months and 18 days” is largely lost, so too are details of his earliest involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) somewhat sketchy. It was Ryan's ex-wife who suggested during a phone conversation about visitation schedules that he attend a meeting with her new husband.
“I went to that meeting and I was pretty much overwhelmed with the friendliness and openness,” Ryan says. “People were even laughing. I wanted to be like them.”
At the time, he says, he lived in a “fantastic little shack on the beach” in Southern California and felt beyond miserable. The people he met at AA would get him through the fog of the first few months, beginning with the first night when one man said he would pick him up the next day for his second meeting.
“They kept coming and getting me and taking me places,” Ryan recalls.
He admits that he never felt that he worked the Steps with as much zeal as others around him seemed to. Yet in recent years the power of Step 11 and improving one's “conscious contact” with a Higher Power has resonated.
In his recovery, “Everything is different as it stays the same,” he says. “I discovered that I was a spiritual entity having a physical experience, not the other way around.”
Ryan also writes, having self-published the autobiographical Blessings in Disguise: A Tale of Redemption.
He writes in that book's introduction, “For too many years I used drugs and alcohol to assuage my discomfort. It wasn't until I chose differently and stopped medicating myself that I could find the answers I was seeking. It turns out the discomforts I was so eager to avoid were blessings in disguise. The discomforts were bringing the need for correction into my awareness.”
Ryan is currently seeking an agent to promote his latest project, a spiritual essay with the working title Be Happy for No Apparent Reason.
“That is my purpose in life,” he says. “In the past I always felt that I needed certain conditions to be in place for me to be happy. I eventually realized, ‘I could keep this up forever.’”
Ryan also makes his time available to ex-offenders in California. He is all too familiar with data showing the recidivism rate in his state hovering around 70 percent.
He says he has freed himself from the negativity that used to take over his thinking. One of his paintings on a wall at home contrasts black and white prison bars with intense colors around them. He glued onto the painting a quote: “And furthermore you are much too tolerant of your wandering mind.”
“We think every thought that comes into our head is valid, particularly the negative ones,” Ryan says.
Five decades from some of the darkest times in his life, Ryan still finds great meaning in an artistic pursuit that gave him a ray of hope back then. “I do this just because I really don't seem to have any choice,” he says.
Addiction Professional 2010 November-December;8(6):40