Ryan Cain: “Leaders do not create followers.”

Leaders do not create followers. They create other leaders. As a leader, it is my job to fearlessly do what is right, do what is difficult, and do what is asked of me. It is the job of a leader to lose ego and be willing to do anything you ask others to do. If […]

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Leaders do not create followers. They create other leaders. As a leader, it is my job to fearlessly do what is right, do what is difficult, and do what is asked of me. It is the job of a leader to lose ego and be willing to do anything you ask others to do. If I consistently bring this attitude every day, other leaders will emerge. I love the concept of servant leadership. It is not about power or titles. It is about serving the cause and being authentic and vulnerable.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Cain the president and CEO of the Nashville Recovery Center. He has been working in healthcare for almost 20 years, has been published in numerous articles and appeared on various media outlets, and he continues to be a positive influence on many individuals in recovery. Ryan lives his life authentically and is inspiring others to have the courage to live their lives to their truest potential.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?

Thank you for giving me this platform to share my story. I am a native Nashvillian, born and raised in middle Tennessee. Growing up in an upper-middle class family, I had every privilege as a young man: two loving parents and an intact family, private school, good grades, athlete, and lots of friends. After an injury sidelined me from sports, I was prescribed opioids for the first time at 17 years old. My athletic career over and college beginning, my focus became drinking and abusing pills. I was able to maintain decent grades and relationships, eventually getting married and beginning a career. After a move to Michigan and then to Washington, D.C., my alcoholism and addiction was now full blown. It began to impact my marriage and relationships. After a few years away, my wife and I returned to Nashville and had two children. My addiction continued to worsen, despite now having more and more consequences- my health dissipated, my marriage was nearly over, my children didn’t know me, and my work suffered. After an arrest in 2012, my secrets were now public. I lost my wife, children, job, house, and what was left of my reputation. I began my journey in recovery in April of that year and have been sober ever since that time. In 2016, I changed my career from one about money, power and prestige to one focused on serving others. The opportunities recovery has provided me have allowed me to give back what was given to me, and I can now live a life of meaning and purpose.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction? One story is evidently clear for me and I will be forever grateful for this day. I was a couple of years sober, and my friend and I were driving on a sunny spring day to do service work for young men in recovery. He was telling me about doing a professional intervention on someone in Washington state. He was so happy to have done such good, noble work and felt good about himself; not to mention was able to make a living while making a difference. I had recently sold my business and had been sitting out a non-compete for a few months, so I had extra time on my hands. Knowing at this point that for me, working for money alone was an empty promise of happiness, I wanted to try a career that had meaning. I told my friend that if he could teach me how to do interventions that I could help him run a small business in exchange. By that night, we had a website and company name. We started Music City Interventions and I have been employed in the recovery space ever since that day.

Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?

Addiction and alcoholism has been around for hundreds of years. This is not new. What is new is the powerful prescription medications that were available with little to no oversight for almost a decade. This created opioid addicts out of teenagers, house wives, executives, athletes, and anyone who had both “chronic pain” and access to medical care. The issue today is we have much tighter restrictions on that medication, but we still have the addiction. Now people are looking for other ways to treat their addiction. The most accessible drug and the most equivalent drug for prescription drug addicts is heroin. The problem with heroin is that it is a street drug. It is not manufactured in a controlled environment, so the potency is dramatically different from dose to dose. Most recently, we have the fentanyl issue making heroin much more dangerous. Because fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 1,000x more potent than heroin, is being added to heroin, accidental overdose deaths are on the rise.

Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?

We know that addiction thrives in isolation. Secrets keep us sick. The antithesis of addiction is community. Our facility, the Nashville Recovery Center, had over 25,000 people in recovery visit our community in 2019. Although the drug and alcohol treatment offered at NRC has a huge impact on an individual and their family, our greatest impact is creating such a wonderful place for people of all stages of their personal recovery journey to find friends, recovery meetings, sober events, and concerts. Nothing gives me more joy than seeing someone wearing one of our baseball caps or t-shirts around Nashville. One of the most amazing things our community has been able to do is raise money for various philanthropic causes. We have supported many causes, including overdose awareness, safe housing for women, and even a foundation helping those facing cancer. Nothing ensures sobriety like helping others. It is something we are tremendously proud of doing.

Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?

Absolutely. We have so many beautiful stories. Literally every single one of us in recovery has a powerful story. If I had to pick one today it would be about the family impact of sobriety. Recently we worked with a young woman, a mother of two small children, threatened to lose custody of them due to her use and drinking. The ex-husband was going to take sole custody. Faced with the decision to give up custody or change her life immediately, she chose to enter into our program full of fear and potential consequences. Despite her fear, she jumped into the program 100% and did the work she needed to do. After only six weeks, she was able to maintain sobriety, demonstrate change significant enough that even her ex-husband dropped his custody case and they found a peaceful resolution. She is now re-married, sober, has her children, and has a healthy co-parenting relationship with her ex.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I think I am most proud of the way my work has had an effect on my parents. At the end of my addiction I was estranged from them essentially. Unless I needed something from my parents, I wanted nothing to do with them. I ruined events, was a constant source of stress, and my parents had to be miserable with me around. When I began this work, they didn’t really understand it but they liked the man I was becoming. As the years have gone by, and we have more individuals impacted by our work, they are constantly being approached in restaurants or at church with moms, dads, husbands or wives that have been positively impacted by the work we do. I know THEY feel proud because they tell me. But for me it’s something else. Recently, the treatment center where I got sober invited my business partner and I to name the basketball court at their newest facility. We have dedicated the court to our moms and moms of other addicts everywhere. It is definitely one of the proudest things I could have done to let others know how much I love my mom and how much we hate what addicts put them through in active addiction.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples

The first thing that comes to mind is addressing the stigma. Both society at large as well as within families and the addict/alcoholic. Rarely is an addict a “bad” person. They are sick people and should be treated without shame and guilt (which only fuels further addiction). We should work lovingly with these people to help them find a solution which can forever change their lives and the lives of those around them for the better. Secondly, we can offer greater access to more people for treatment, and do it at an earlier stage of their issues. Most addicts know they have a problem well before they seek help. Many families know this to be true as well. The question nearly all individuals struggle with is “Am I overreacting?” People don’t want to be labeled or judged. Many people will drink or use drugs to the bitter end, just trying to prove they don’t have a problem. The other issue with access to treatment is financial. Insurance companies can help with the cost, but many people are uninsured and have no cash resources to pay for treatment. The Nashville Recovery Center has taken a leadership role within the industry with the financial issue. In the last two years alone we have provided over $500,000 in need-based scholarships. My hope is that other treatment centers would offer the same help to patients when situations justify financial assistance. Thirdly, I think society and certainly the recovery community should have more open and honest discussions about the impact of drugs, and more importantly the solution. We have heard time and time again about the “Opioid Epidemic”. Deaths annually for the last decade have exceeded the death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. These are our children, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends that are dying needlessly. There is a solution to addiction. I, along with millions of others, am living proof. But we cannot assume our community knows what the solution looks like. I am always amazed every time I meet with a family of an active addict, and it’s the same hopeless and confused attitude. They have no idea how to navigate life living with someone impacted by addiction. In the last 10 years, over 1 million people in the US have died from opioids. Yet somehow our communities don’t understand the solution and prevention on a large scale? COVID-19 has been around for a few months, but most of us now know steps to prevent and treat the disease. My hope is society remembers that the addiction crisis remains active and relevant today. We need to regain a fervent attitude that calls people to action. Community participation is vital for a solution on a large scale.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work? I would like to see more legislation around the decriminalization of drug related offenses. Instead of incarceration, treatment should be provided to addicts. If the government could work more closely with private industry on this issue, we could treat the core problems and reduce recidivism. Secondly, legislation that aggressively pursues and prosecutes physicians and patient-brokers who are keeping people sick by over-prescribing medications or are incentivized to keep addicts using to keep them in their programs. When money and business is involved, unfortunately there are predatory practices that come with it. The “Addiction Market” can be a lucrative place for people looking to make a buck. These people need to be stopped. We aren’t in a business selling software or cars. We are helping sick people get well. There is a huge responsibility we assume working in this field. We need to get rid of the people working here for the wrong reasons. Finally, if we could have legislation that allows more options across state lines for clinical care, more people could have access to quality care. Each state has different licensure requirements, and oftentimes it limits who or where a patient can receive care. Telehealth and other technologies are wonderful platforms to be able to provide services on a broader scale and at a lower cost. The COVID-19 pandemic has loosened restrictions temporarily, allowing more clinicians with various levels of credentialing to offer some of their services remotely. I think there should be legislation making this change permanent, more services should be allowed under these less restrictive guidelines, and the rules should be applicable nationwide.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

This kind of work is deeply emotional and personal to me. It can be exhausting emotionally. Each person that comes through our program as a patient or who visits NRC as a guest at one of our meetings or events feels like family to me. I try to get to know every individual that spends time at our facility. Sometimes what keeps me going is the news that one of these people has died from an overdose. Hearing the news on social media, or seeing one of our staff crying because they just received a text message saying one of our friends has died from this disease is very difficult to navigate emotionally for me. I get sad and angry. It also drives me to do more and make our programs even more accessible. I want to stand up and scream to the world and say, “No one else has to suffer or die from this disease! We can help you!”. It is why I am grateful to be able to share my story on this platform today to help spread awareness of the solution. The other thing that keeps me going is the recovery successes we see each day. It certainly is not all doom and gloom. Most of our patients have a hopeless state of mind the first time they walk into our program. Their heads hanging down like they could not be any more defeated. The favorite part of my job, and what keeps me going are the days and weeks that follow that first day: seeing them laugh or smile authentically; watching them celebrate their successes when they hit a recovery milestone like 30 days clean and sober; having a real conversation with them and making eye contact with them when they no longer hang their head; and most importantly for me, when they take a newcomer on their first day, and share their experience with that newcomer so they can now become the helper. When I see an addict in recovery help someone else, nothing is more powerful for my own spirit.

Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?

I don’t know if we can ever completely eliminate addiction or deaths caused by the disease of addiction. I have tremendous hope that the disease can be reduced and treated more effectively than it is today. If we can provide better education to families and the government about the nature of the disease, we can address these issues earlier in someone’s life. If we can find alternative financial resources, government funding or more scholarships, then we can make treatment more accessible to more people, ultimately saving more lives. We know that recovery works. Millions of people are living examples today. Recovery benefits more than just the addict or alcoholic. It changes the lives of that person’s family for the better. It also can have a huge effect on society at large. Crime rates can be reduced. Unemployable people can now work and hold steady jobs. Medical costs spent treating addiction related illnesses are lowered. But unfortunately, until therapeutic care is more accessible and intervention happens earlier, the death rate will more than likely remain the same.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leaders do not create followers. They create other leaders. As a leader, it is my job to fearlessly do what is right, do what is difficult, and do what is asked of me. It is the job of a leader to lose ego and be willing to do anything you ask others to do. If I consistently bring this attitude every day, other leaders will emerge. I love the concept of servant leadership. It is not about power or titles. It is about serving the cause and being authentic and vulnerable.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1- Don’t try to determine if something is “good” or “bad” in the moment. Acceptance is the answer today and the ultimate outcome of a situation will reveal itself when you are ready. When I was arrested I was in the cell and I would’ve sworn it was the worst day of my life. Years later I look back and can’t imagine how wrong I was. I am not only not upset about it, I am forever grateful for that day.

2- Working with others professionally isn’t the same as doing my work personally. If I don’t take care of my mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health, I will be no good helping others. Self care is not a suggestion for me, but it is a requirement. I still attend regular recovery meetings, see a therapist, exercise every day, meditate, practice solid sleep habits, and find a way to take some time away from work to ensure that I bring the best version of myself to our clients.

3- Remember why you do this work. We have a saying posted in all of our facilities: “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.” We have been blessed with a second chance at life. Never forget why we do this work.

4- Don’t forget where you came from. The longer I am sober, the more distant the memory of how I used to be. I was angry, lost, scared, shamed, and afraid. I acted in ways I couldn’t imagine today. Working with an active addict keeps me grounded. The further away from the day I quit using, the more my ego and confidence can build up. Nothing could be more dangerous for me. I must always remember what it was like for me. I am no different than an active addict today except I work a program and did not use today. I must always remember where addiction took me because I never want to go back to that point in my life.

5- You will doubt yourself, and that is ok. When things get hard for me at work or personally, I catch myself daydreaming about moving somewhere else and starting over. Sometimes I question my decision to change careers. I tell myself that I could have it so much easier and make more money if I did something else. When I fall short, when I fail, or when I am misunderstood, I have to remember that this life was a choice I made. Life is hard and life isn’t fair. I “get” to do this work. I don’t have to do this work. It is a blessing to me, even on the hardest of days.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We have a movement at the Nashville Recovery Center that is the foundation of our work. It is called “Radical Inclusivity”. It means that no matter your ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, sobriety or addiction, emotional or mental health, spiritual or religious beliefs or non-beliefs, your past indiscretions or your status in society, YOU belong. YOU are Welcome. Because we are all human beings. And this is your one life. YOU deserve the dignity of your own journey. We practice radical inclusivity because shaming and judgement only separates us. By including everyone, we create human connection and ultimately love.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love the quote: “Affirming people’s potential is more important than reminding them of their brokenness.” It almost perfectly describes how I recovered. The first recovery meeting I attended was the first time in my life that I heard about what my potential was in life. The content of the meeting didn’t focus on the mistakes people made or the consequences of their actions. It was about the solution. People shared their successes despite their struggles. I have been reminded of my brokenness and shortcomings my whole life. I thought those struggles were shameful. Recovery taught me that my brokenness is beautiful and has a purpose. It made me who I am. My brokenness and honesty about my past makes me strong and allows me to connect authentically with other human beings.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-).

Elton John!! His songs are inspiring to me, but more importantly, his recovery journey is such a testament to the power of sobriety. I mean the man is a legend. Everyone knows his songs. He had the dream. The money and fame and all the world promises us. And it was an empty promise. He literally took a grandiose, self-centered life, fueled by his addiction and changed his life. The most amazing part of his story to me is his world impact once he started a life of recovery, outside of music. It became service based, and the money he’s raised for philanthropic causes has made a larger impact on the world than any song could ever do. He is a testament to the power of recovery.

How can our readers follow you on social media?




Twitter- @nashvillerecov1

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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