Working with someone who has been through it will help more than treatment. Treatment is a start, but working with someone sober will help you sustain your sobriety.
Your health matters more than anything. You won’t make your business goals if you aren’t in a good place. You might make it 5 years, but you won’t make it 20 or longer. Stopping or pausing to get help is the most important thing to staying in business long term.
As a part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview Tony Nordeen, co-founder of Blue Painting, a high quality home and residential painting company based out of Minnesota. Tony took his life and turned it around from rock bottom to becoming a successful entrepreneur with a passion for building businesses and bringing ideas to life from the ground up.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
I actually had a good childhood. My dad wasn’t around a lot so my mom mostly raised my siblings and I.
As a kid I had a lot of anxiety that I didn’t know was anxiety at the time. At school I would constantly get these stomachaches– like it was a daily thing that I expected. I felt nervous a lot. But I also had a lot of freedom. Around 10 years old or so, mom started dating someone and wasn’t around as much. Since she was gone more often, I felt like that meant I was allowed to come and go as I wanted, set my own rules per say. Things got crazy from that point going forward.
It didn’t get crazy right away, though. As an introvert, I spent a lot of time in my room. I got really into computers at around 12–13. I actually built a computer at 14 and started learning how to code. I got so good at it that I would actually hack into other people’s computers. At that time, I didn’t really see anything wrong with doing that. I definitely didn’t think about other people’s privacy. Now I know better, but at the time it was just another skill I taught myself that I thought was fun to mess around with.
At school, my head was always in the clouds. I was always late and got kicked out of every first period class that I was in from being late everyday. I really was a good kid, but I was kind of a class clown. I loved making people laugh and smile. Oftentimes, I would get in trouble and get kicked out or suspended because I was just trying to make people laugh. I really didn’t know any better and I definitely wasn’t trying to be a rebel or anything like that, I truly just enjoyed seeing other people laugh and smile.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
A family member got into drugs when I was about 13. They started hanging out with other people who weren’t really the best influences on them, and they would stay up all night. I was given the task to snoop in that family member’s space looking for drugs or whatever else I could find. When I was around 14 or 15, another family member who lived with us started drinking in their room with their friends. They would party all night and it made me super anxious worrying about what was going on. I’d go in their room to check it out and they would be blacked out on the floor. A lot of times, they tried to get me to drink with them and I was super against it at the time. I was super fearful of it all and saw how they turned out and didn’t want to end up like they did.
I used to hangout with these family members quite a bit, but seeing how the choices they made turned out for them, I really wasn’t into it. I started hanging out with other friends who I knew who were a little younger than me so they weren’t really into drugs or drinking at that point either. At that point, I just really knew I didn’t want to get involved with any of it.
The first time I drank was with one of my family members, but I didn’t really drink a lot again after that. I still had those visions in my head of them blacking out and how stressed it made other family members. But when my younger friends started drinking, I started drinking with them. That was it for me–I suddenly started taking whatever I could get my hands on.
There is that song called Speedfreak that I really liked but I didn’t know what speed was or meant. I literally did a Google search for “What is speed?” and it popped up saying Ritalin. I knew a friend with ADHD and hit him up for Ritalin and bought some. I did it up in my room by myself before I went skating.
Once I did it for the first time on my own, the feeling was so good. It was euphoric– the anxiety that I had felt my entire life up to this point just vanished. Why wasn’t I doing this before? I started telling all of my friends about it and getting everyone into it.
I remember when I went to tell my family member who drank down the hall from me, I saw a rolled up dollar bill and white powder in their room. I decided I wanted to try that. I told them that next time they were going to do that, to tell me so I could do it too. I did end up trying it with them, but I didn’t really feel that into it. Fast forward, I ran into someone at a football game who I knew did it and told him I wanted some. We left right there and I got hooked.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
It was definitely helping to cover up the feeling of being less than. I was really self conscious, had a lot of self esteem issues and all of that turned into anxiety. As a kid I remember saying to my uncle that “I just got my daily stomach ache”. He was so confused, and I explained that I always had a stomach ache every single day. Later I realized that it was anxiety. Using drugs helped me relieve that anxiety and feel like I was finally able to feel like myself without all of the worry and tightness in my stomach all the time. I also really like the feeling of doing something and then sharing it with other people. I guess I like to be a leader per say. Now, I do that with healthier choices, but at that time it felt good feeling social and influential.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
I had gotten to a point where I would drink all the time, and I would always need to take an upper when I drank. And just to clarify, an upper is a stimulant and a downer is a depressant. As soon as I drank I would have to find adderall or find an upper in order to not black out. I would do whatever it took to get what I needed. I would wake up, go to the liquor store, get a bottle of vodka, drink it then figure out where to get adderall. I’d be wide awake from the upper and would start to sober up again so I felt like I would need to find more alcohol again. Life became a lot of up and down and chasing the high. Meth was one of the things I told myself I would never do. But then I started doing it with another family member when they were living with us. Thankfully, I didn’t get too far into that rabbit hole because I looked at this family member who was quite a bit older than me, and realized I didn’t want to go down that same path for the next 30 years of my life living on someone else’s couch because of addiction and decided I wanted to get sober.
Can you tell us the story about how you were able to overcome your addiction?
I felt like I always wanted to quit. I was constantly trying to quit. I had a girlfriend at the time who was against it, and my mom caught me doing coke and kicked me out. I had fun for a little bit but then wanted to be done, and realized that it wasn’t going to be that easy. It’s like you have the voice telling you that you want to stop but then the same voice kept giving reasons why I should still do it. I’m really analytical, so I realized my own brain was working against me and it felt like I couldn’t win.
Listening to that family member who I had briefly done meth with– the one who was living on our couch with nothing but a green backpack to their name, they would say “you just have to control it, just only drink beer”. I realized I had the same thought patterns and that this person was 30 years older than me, and that if I kept going this way I was going to keep going down the same path.
For a while, I stopped trying to quit and kept blacking out. I figured I’d go to jail and eventually die. At the time, I didn’t know about treatment and AA. I didn’t really know anyone sober who had struggled. I was stealing from people and basically exiled from my hometown.
One day I was at my girlfriend’s house at the time and had blacked out. I don’t remember what happened, but I know I was treating her really poorly. I left and went to a skateboarding event in Golden Valley with friends who were willing to hang out with me. From there, a friend asked if I wanted to go grab a beer so a couple of us went.
While we were there I remember telling my friends I needed some adderall. I blacked out, scraped my knee and was crying. I ran into another friend who I really looked up to. I was so excited and invited him to go party. He told me he was sober and didn’t drink anymore. I had already accepted that I was powerless over drugs and alcohol, which is the first step in AA so I begged him to let me know when he went to the next meeting. I wanted to be sober so badly so finally knowing that someone close to me was sober was encouraging and sparked a little bit of hope inside of me again.
I went back to my girlfriend’s house later that day after talking to that sober friend and asking him to take me to an AA meeting. I woke up at her house the next morning with a new feeling of empowerment. I kept saying over and over that I was never going to drink again. I had said it before, but this time someone I looked up to had given me a way out of this mess that I had gotten myself into. I went to my first meeting that Tuesday (two days after I had seen him at the skating event) and have never drank again since then. Within those two days, I did try to drink again but I was with my uncle and thankfully he wouldn’t let me. Without him, I don’t know that I would’ve made it to that meeting.
The meetings were amazing. There were other people– other YOUNG people, and a group of friends who were there. As an introvert, it was really uncomfortable being in this kind of social setting, especially while sober. I had a good friend who forced me to stay and to go to fellowship after. I don’t think I could’ve done it on my own, but having friends who were in a similar place as I was in and were able to overcome it helped me to stay and work through it all and to keep coming back.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
Over time, I did the 12 steps. Before you can reconcile the pain you caused others, you have to get to a spot where you can do it and justify it. Otherwise you’re just going and saying sorry. A lot of it was about me. I went to go get sober, not to make other people happy or to make up with other people.
Where I was back then, I was a lost soul. I just wanted peace. I had done so many bad things and caused people so much pain. Even today I have flashbacks and have feelings of shame about how I treated people who were close to me. Reconciling it with myself was just doing the things that were asked of me and allowing myself to feel again. It was hard at first but I had to choose not to run from things that caused me pain. Learning how to deal with things on a daily basis really straightened me out. Right and wrong didn’t make sense to me when I was young and using. Over time, getting away from that and correcting my mind, right and wrong now makes sense to me. I can stop and look at the right vs the wrong action and choose to make the right action.
Once I got to a spot where I was feeling more even and level headed, I started making amends with other people. I let them speak about their feelings and their experience with me. It wasn’t just me saying sorry and definitely wasn’t just a facebook post apologizing to a mass group of people, but going to each individual and asking what I could do to make it right. No excuses and not blaming the addiction. You can see the real pain that you caused. They’ll tell you what you did, and what you can do to make it better. Then you are able to move forward and do everything possible not to cause that kind of pain again.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
I felt like I missed so much time in the past that I got this new energy and ambition. Within the first three months, I was obsessed with time management and organization and finding ways to not waste time. Even in school, I wasn’t still all there and was always running. I became obsessed with learning and making the most of every minute and living in the moment.
It’s not so much filling time, but using it and making the most of it. It’s okay if I’m sitting and drinking coffee and petting the cat if that’s what I feel like doing, it’s wasting time if I want to do something and end up not doing it because I do something else that I didn’t want to do.
Every moment is now filled with purpose. If it’s not purposeful I try not to do it.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
I have really incorporated a lot of healthy habits into my life. I practice daily meditation and regular journaling. I regularly figure out where I’m at and where I’m going. It helps me to remember and learn about who I am. I have a spirituality, I do things that agree with that. I go to meetings regularly still and have sponsees now. I try to do positive things on a regular basis, I try to stay motivated and help motivate others to also be ambitious and motivated to make the most out of life.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
I have always wanted to own and run a business. I’ve come up with hundreds of ideas, inventions, business models, business plans, but I never really got anything further than the planning. For a while, I was part of a painting company and was running production. I had a good friend working with me. The company announced they were going to stop operating because the owner was going to do something else. I had the choice to follow him to his new venture, or break off with my friend to do something on our own. We had to make a quick decision so we had to run with it.
When you start a business, the most important thing is to take action. You don’t need to spend as much time planning. We came up with a name and logo, printed flyers and knocking on doors in order to book our first jobs. We took a 10% deposit and took it from there.
It was a scrappy start but it was still a start. We took that and ran with it. Our first three months were in the winter, Feb-Apr. We didn’t have any painters at the time. We were estimating jobs and didn’t know how we were going to book them– we took the deposits to start funding marketing efforts, getting friends to help us spread flyers and knock on doors. When spring came, we switched and started using our funds to hire and train painters. We built up four crews and did over 350,000 dollars in the first year. This level of success was partially based from our experience but mostly because we just had to hit the ground running. I’ve always been better at managing than actually getting out there with a paintbrush, because honestly someone else probably has a lot more skill in that area so I can just step in and train them how to get the job done.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
When I was on uppers I would really get sucked into things. I think I probably have classic ADD. Uppers helped me to feel more focused. With ADD you get hyper focused on things, and I do that now in my business. I don’t need to take an upper if I’m interested in something– my brain gets excited on its own and I just get sucked in.
I’ve also always been an all-in kind of person. I started drugs the same way, I found sobriety the same way, and I started my business the same way.
In all honesty though, I feel like a completely different person now than I did when I was drinking and using drugs. The first few months my brain completely changed and I haven’t ever gone back to that person. I don’t really relate at all with the person anymore.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
It’s because people don’t understand it. There isn’t enough understanding about what addiction is. It isn’t just doing something you shouldn’t be doing. It’s that a group of friends who have never used are all susceptible to addiction because of the type of person that they are. It’s more about how your brain works as opposed to self will. People will write people off for doing drugs. Someone dies and others will say “well they shouldn’t have done it in the first place”. It’s deeper rooted than that. You can be sober your whole life and at 40 be prescribed a painkiller and become addicted and die from it. They chose to not do drugs their entire life until that point. People don’t understand the way that addict’s brains work differently. That makes it uncomfortable to talk about since it isn’t fully understood.
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
- Reach out to someone you know who has also struggled and has sobered up. If you don’t know anyone, then call AA inner group or get ahold of someone who has struggled even if you don’t know them. They found a way to get sober and if they don’t feel comfortable helping you, they at least will be able to get you to someone who will.
- Working with someone who has been through it will help more than treatment. Treatment is a start, but working with someone sober will help you sustain your sobriety.
- Your health matters more than anything. You won’t make your business goals if you aren’t in a good place. You might make it 5 years, but you won’t make it 20 or longer. Stopping or pausing to get help is the most important thing to staying in business long term.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on Instagram– my personal account is @n7ndez and Blue painting is @bluepaintingco
Thank you so much for your insights. That was really inspiring!