Ryan Hockensmith, Deputy Editor for ESPN, joins Rubber Bands and Avenues Recovery for a joyful discussion about recovery, comedy, and sports.
Ryan has found a way to tell his own personal story of recovery through the prism of athletes who have battled addiction. Listen to how sobriety empowered him to cry, to laugh, and to rediscover a life worth living.
“Strength of the Titans”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Welcome to Rubber Bands, an Avenues Recovery Podcast, conversations about the push and pull of addiction and recovery. And now, here’s your host, Shlomo Hoffman.
[0:25] Shlomo Hoffman: Hello, everybody. Welcome to Episode 5 of Rubber Bands, conversations about the push and pull of addiction and recovery. We continue to shed light on a world of addiction treatment by talking to the people who make up its heart and soul, those who have gone through it, and those that help them get through it, sharing their experiences and insights and how people can find their way back from the darkest places and light up the world for themselves and for those that love them.
We are grateful today for a special guest, Ryan Hockensmith, an editor for ESPN. Ryan’s work on addiction and sports has been featured on ESPN recently, and he excels in revealing the humanity of souls of those who have lived through hell and made it out to inspire those who are still looking for a way out. In the words of Jimmy V, he will make you laugh; he will make you cry, and he will make you think. If we accomplish that, it will be a heck of a podcast. Ryan, how are you? Thanks for joining us today.
[1:17] Ryan Hockensmith: I’m great. I’m honored to be on here. I really appreciate the opportunity.
[1:22] Shlomo Hoffman: Thank you so much. We’ve talked to Ryan a little bit. I’m going to give him the reins because Ryan’s a talker. Ryan, you sort of lead me here as we get into this conversation. Tell us about your background in terms of your job, first of all, and how you were juggling addiction with actually leading a successful job every day.
[1:49] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. I’m 43 years old, and if you listen to the whole podcast today, which I hope you will, it’s been a wild ride. I didn’t realize. Sometimes, it’s your own life, so you don’t really realize how weird stuff can be, and I packed a lot into 43 years. I’ve worked at ESPN for 20 years. I’ve been sober for about half of those, and the other half, not sober at all, and it impacted things greatly.
I’ve been here for 20 years. I’m an editor now, but I get to write a little bit. We’ll probably talk about some of the pieces I’ve written. I’ve written a lot in the last year. I started at ESPN as a writer. That was my lifelong goal. I used to write it down once a day, “Someday, I will be a writer at a national sports publication.” And I got that dream fulfilled when I left college in 2001. I went right to work at ESPN, and for a couple of years, I was doing it, but I was also living a total lie at night, just abusing opioids, alcohol, and anything I could get my hands on.
Eventually, I was starting to fail at work, so I got sat down and told, “We want to try you as an editor. The writer thing is not working out.” It broke my heart; it crushed something that I had pursued my whole life. It wasn’t their fault; it was mine. They put me in an editor role, and I continued to just plummet because of drugs and alcohol for a couple more years, and then I got sober in 2008, and I turned my career—I turned everything. If you stop drinking and drugging, it’s amazing what turns around—everything!
I got back on track at ESPN, and I’ve had, I think, a pretty wonderful last 12 to 13 years since I got sober. In the course of that, I realized part of me was really sad about not writing. That’s what I always wanted to do. I have some awesome bosses. The company at ESPN is an amazing place to work. I said, “I have some things that I think I could write really well,” and I came up with a way to do them that involved athletes, not just running Hockensmith. There’s no lead where I’m like the MVP, and everybody clicks and watches and everything. I’m just sort of a slub.
If we talk about my CC Sabathia’s story. I watched CC Sabathia Documentary on HBO, and I was really moved by it. The way he talked about alcohol and what it did to his life, that’s what it did to me, too. They say in the program that I participate in, “It’s not the exact details of our stories; it’s the exact nature.”
The exact nature of my addiction is the same as CC Sabathia’s, even though we had different bank accounts and he’s a professional athlete, and I’m not, and all those differences. I saw that, and I thought, “Man if I talk to CC Sabathia, I think I can write an interesting story about both of us.” I did, and it took off. I’ve written a few things like that, and it’s been a nice story just on its own that I’ve gotten to write these things but in a meta-treetop view of my life.
[5:00] Shlomo Hoffman: If you read Ryan’s work, what’s very interesting in how you go about writing these pieces is it’s the human element of how you—it’s almost like we’re seeing you work through your stuff with the window of somebody else’s story. Like CC Sabathia, I’m identifying with his struggles, and that’s making me learn about myself. That’s why I think it’s so important for anybody who is struggling with addiction and these kinds of things. If you read your work, it will teach you about yourself. It’s not just, “I’m learning about somebody else’s story.”
[5:36] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. The first thing that got me going on CC Sabathia is the part in the documentary where he was broken, and he had to go to rehab, and he announced to the world, “I need to step away from the Yankees at a crucial time of the season, and I need to go to rehab.” It was big news, and it was painful, and he was at the very, very bottom, and he still got drunk on the way to rehab, and I did that too.
[5:58] Shlomo Hoffman: Tell us that story.
[6:00] Ryan Hockensmith: I told you CC’s, he decided he had to go to rehab. His family was very reluctant, and he showed up at this gathering of family members. He was going to be packing up to go to rehab, and he showed up with all these people, and some of them were like, “Are you sure? Shouldn’t you just go pitch in the playoff?” And he showed up completely obliterated, and they were like, “Okay, let’s get this guy to rehab.” For me, I was at the very bottom, and I finally told everybody, “I need to go to rehab,” and it was shocking for a lot of people.
[6:32] Shlomo Hoffman: So your family had no idea that you were dealing with real addiction? How did you get away with that?
[6:39] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah.
[6:39] Shlomo Hoffman: You were married at the time. Right?
[6:41] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. I was married, and I got really sick in college and ended up in a coma, and I had the ends of both feet amputated, and we can get into that more later, but that set me off on a course where I was prescribed pain medication a lot—lots of things to manage chronic pain. I have a disability to this day. I have chronic pain. I have these tiny little feet that get overwhelmed if I just even go to the grocery store.
So I was on some painkillers. Everybody knew I was on some painkillers. They just didn’t know that instead of two, I would take 15. They didn’t know that I was taking--instead of 8 during the day, I was taking 50. They didn’t know that. They didn’t know that I had multiple doctors and was juggling—I was a con artist.
They didn’t know that. I had plausible deniability. I would say, “Oh, my stomach’s bothering me. It’s the Vicodin.” I would go lay down, and I was passing out in reality. Everybody knew. I had an open door in that regard. They knew I was on pills all the time. They just didn’t know the magnitude of it, and I finally came to them in November of 2008, and I said, “Listen. I’m addicted. I am in over my head. It’s really bad.”
I cried a lot because I was saying stuff out loud for the first time. I told my wife, and I reached out to rehab in New Jersey, and I signed up to go in and do an intake where they would interview me and talk to me and try to figure out the best plan. Even in that, I lied. I told my wife that it was like a noon appointment, and it was actually a 2:00 pm appointment. Before I went to the actual rehab, I faked an injury, went to an emergency room, got a prescription, dropped off the prescription at a pharmacy next door to the rehab. I went in. I bawled my eyes out, told the truth for the first time.
[8:35] Shlomo Hoffman: At the treatment facility? You’re at the interview.
[8:36] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. At my bottom, I thought, “I’m either going to die or be in prison or kill someone else. This is going to end. The end is here. How do I want it to end? Do I want it to end in sobriety, or do I want to end it in handcuffs or a casket?” I knew that something had to change. I went there, and I told that woman the truth, and she said, “Yeah. You belong here. I think you’re an addict. You need help.”
[9:05] Shlomo Hoffman: You qualify.
[9:08] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. Absolutely. If there was a checklist, you could check them all off. She was like, “Yeah, you definitely need help.” I said I thought I needed only intensive outpatient, which was four or five nights a week, three or four hours every night rather than being put in the facility. I should have been hospitalized. I really should have been. That would have helped me, I think.
I told her all that, and she said, “You’re in. We’ll get you in on Monday.” This was a Saturday. I had cried for 60 minutes straight, and I had told the truth, and it was a tremendous relief and the trust of my addiction. It was out there. It was a real thing. I still drove over to the pharmacy and got high the rest of that day. I went home and told my wife, “Yeah, I’m going to rehab.” I was high the whole time.
That part of our stories resonated to me that even at the very bottom, when you know, it’s still hard. Using drugs and alcohol, it wasn’t just this thing that I did and started to abuse a little bit. It was a lifestyle. It was every hour of every day. I heard a guy one time at a meeting say, “Drugs and alcohol became a full-time job,” and I already had a full-time job.
[10:34] Shlomo Hoffman: You were juggling two full-time jobs.
[10:35] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. And guess what? At the end, it wasn’t even really juggling. It was, this thing had to happen every day. If I got to work or I got to play with my kids, maybe I’d try to squeeze that in too, but otherwise, get out of my way. I’m getting what I want.
[10:50] Shlomo Hoffman: Would you say that the injury is the direct cause of your addiction? Was it pain management? Were you exposed to addiction before that? Were you struggling with other stuff, and this just exacerbated it? What was your story?
[11:03] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. If Hollywood made a movie about me, they would use the injury as like, “Well, this caused his addiction.” But the truth is, the first time I drank, I got really drunk in my dad’s basement. I drank all these Coors Extra Golds, and I ate an entire bag of honey-mustard and onion pretzels, also as I chugged all these beers for the first time.
[11:26] Shlomo Hoffman: How old were you?
[11:26] Ryan Hockensmith: I was 14 or 15. I felt like I had arrived. I thought, “I don’t know how I’ll do this every day, but I want to.” The way that I feel; the looseness I feel; the relaxation; my ability to talk to people. It was everything. I remember I ended up puking the whole night, just barfing all over my dad’s basement. The next day, I was talking to a friend of mine, and he said, “I hope you learned your lesson.” I said, “I absolutely learned my lesson. Don’t eat honey-mustard pretzels next time you do that because you’re definitely going to do that, Ryan.”
[12:02] Shlomo Hoffman: You had found your first love.
[12:03] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah, it was. From that point on, it slowly but surely got worse and worse and worse. I think what getting sick at age 21 did was just sped things up. I meet a lot of people that go to rehab with they’re 56 years old instead of I went when I was 32, and I’m grateful that I went when I was 32. Some people just hang on and hang on.
The painkillers got to the point where—you know, you can’t take 50 or 60 Vicodin every day and wear Fentanyl patches all over your body and take Ambien at night and drink six beers every night. You can’t do that for very long. You’re not going to meet very many 80-year-olds in retirement homes. “Yeah, this is my regiment. I’ve been doing it for 50 years. I’m fine.” It just doesn’t work that way. So, I knew. But was the injury a significant factor? Absolutely. It got to be this big ole pill bottle bag that I used to carry around, and it got me started. It was a starter kit on addiction.
[13:08] Shlomo Hoffman: On real hard-core addiction. But it was almost like a silver lining that it brought you to your nadir quicker.
[13:18] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely—it hit fast-forward for me.
[13:22] Shlomo Hoffman: Tell us about your injury.
[13:24] Ryan Hockensmith: I was covering a college football game. Penn State was #2 in the country. It was an awesome ride that season to watch this team crawl up the rankings.
[13:33] Shlomo Hoffman: Is that where you went to school?
[13:34] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah, I went to Penn State. I had the great honor. I got off to a really good start in a career as a journalism student, and I got the great blessing of getting to cover the football team at Penn State. It was a big deal for the student newspaper. So, I was along for the ride. It was a wild season. They had some great players, one of the only teams in college football history to have the top two draft picks, #1 and #2.
[14:00] Shlomo Hoffman: Was that the Ki Jana Carter draft?
[14:02] Ryan Hockensmith: No. It was Lavar Arrington and Courtney Brown in 1999, I believe. They were the #1 and #2 picks. They were on that Penn State team. It was an awesome ride.
[14:12] Shlomo Hoffman: The Browns took Courtney Brown that year.
[14:15] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah, it didn’t work out.
[14:17] Shlomo Hoffman: That’s because the Browns drafts don’t work out. They used to have. I’m from Cleveland. So, I’m a little bitter.
[14:24] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. If the Browns picked Joe Montana, he would have gone, 0 and 4 as a starter and been out of the league instead he’s Joe Montana. Yeah, Courtney Brown was just an amazing talent, and it breaks my heart he wasn’t a superstar in the NFL because he was good enough. To be along for that ride was unbelievable. I covered the game. We went to Illinois. I interviewed players after the game.
I wrote a game story, but I just didn’t feel right at all. I noticed some blotches on my arms. I went to the hospital that night. They gave me some fluids. I felt better. Got back in the car, and we drove back to State College. It was a 12-hour drive. By the time we got back, I couldn’t even get out of the car. They called an ambulance. It was waiting and took me to the hospital. Two hours later, I was in a coma.
I woke up a week later, and my life was forever changed. I had had bacterial meningitis, which could have easily killed me. Instead, my hands and feet were destroyed, but I was awake. They were going to have to do some amputations, but I was alive. I was glad about that. I was in a wheelchair for six months. I had horrific wounds on my feet. I had bones sticking out of my feet.
If you think it’s jarring, the concept of what would it be like to see my own bones sticking out of my own foot? It’s worse than whatever you can come up with. I saw that every day for a while, and it did. It expedited my addiction. I was 22 when I woke up from the coma. That’s technically an adult, but I wasn’t really an adult. I was a college kid. That day, you have to be an adult.
If you’re talking amputations, and wheelchairs, and health insurance, and all of this other stuff, it was adult stuff. So, my childhood ended that day, and my addiction started, and so did this idea of—there’s some stuff that’s really hard to grapple with. I think this is part of my addiction, too. That’s why I’ll tell it to you.
When something happens to you like that where you could have died, and you have a tremendous amount of pain and a long road back, and you’ll never be the same as you were before, there’s a part of that that is incredibly terrifying on a very existential level because we all have that moment in our life when we realize, “Oh, I’m going to die someday. Nobody gets out of this thing alive.”
[16:48] Shlomo Hoffman: It makes you face your immortality.
[16:51] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. And to do it as a 22-year-old, I was just ill-equipped. I don’t know that as a 50-year-old, you’re ever truly ever able to be like, “Oh, I’m cool with the dying. It will be fine.” I don’t think you ever get to that point. But as a 22-year-old, it just buckled my knees, this idea.
I think I told you this. One of the first things I said to the doctor when they took the ventilator out of my throat was, “When will I be able to run again?” I was an athlete my whole life, and I had tons of injuries, and they always just put a cast on it, and six weeks later, they took it off. “Yeah, go ahead. See if you can run.” I just thought it would be like that.” Like, “It will be fine.”
I said, “When will I be able to run again?” He got very uncomfortable, and he said, “It’s going to be a long, long time till you can run.” I saw it in his face. What he meant was, I probably never was going to run again. To lose that part of your identity, to have the fragility of life just plopped down in your lap like that, it’s really jarring, and I just was never able to process it for probably ten years.
[17:54] Shlomo Hoffman: It was like you needed that escape, the escape of addiction and the drugs that were accessible at that point. It helped you get through it.
[18:06] Ryan Hockensmith: You know, it’s not an uncommon thing that I heard at rehab, and I’ve heard it with several people over the years. It’s like for a lot of us, alcohol and drugs, at the end, are a horrific problem. But at the beginning, it was a solution. For a lot of normal people, you hear them say like, “Wow. I had a rough week. I’ve got to cut loose a little bit tonight. I’m going to have four beers.” Like, “Bravo to you.”
When I was 20 or 23/24, I wasn’t using drugs in that way yet. My mom still jokes around with me. It’s not that funny, but we joke around about it, she and I, that I used to have this pill bag that was—it was a drug dealer’s bag. It had everything in there. I would throw it on the car seat, and my mom would wheel me into Taco Bell. She would always put it under the seat. I’d be like, “Chill out. What’s your problem?”
She would go, “Don’t you understand. That stuff can kill people, and it’s worth x-number of dollars on the black market.” I just didn’t know that the thing that I was holding in my lap when we rode around in the car, I didn’t even know where it was ultimately going to take me and that I was playing with fire every time, and I was.
[19:26] Shlomo Hoffman: What was juggling your job like, your job, your family? They kept you. Did they keep you because you’re this charming guy, or because you were actually doing something, or they felt bad for you? How did you survive all this at that time?
[19:42] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah, it’s a good question. I could have easily been kicked to the curb by everybody, and there are definitely people that phased me out of their lives. I think deep down, even in the drug and alcohol phase, I do think I’m an empathetic person who cares about you. But back then, I cared more about you if you could do something for me. Sometimes, you didn’t even know I was raiding your medicine cabinet or whatever. I hate using that word, functional. Because, like, chairs are functional. “I’m a functional alcoholic” is like, “Okay, you’re like a chair, then, going through life.”
[20:24] Shlomo Hoffman: So what do you mean to say by that? Like you’re not really experiencing anything that you’re doing? Is that the point that you’re making?
[20:31] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. Functional means—the sidewalk is functional. It’s a thing that lays there, and you can walk on it. It’s a thing that is barely—it’s not alive. It’s not truly here. It’s not present. So I was functional. I showed up at the office a lot of days, and I paid our bills, and I hugged my kids, but it was getting worse, and worse, and worse, and worse.
Also, as we talked about, people felt sorry for me, and I weaponized it. I made sure you knew all about my feet and that they cause me tremendous pain. I could go to that. It’s really hard. I can’t remember a specific example, but I’ll make one up. My wife is upset with me because I said I would be home at 5:00, and I show up at 8:00, and I seem like I’m drunk. If I say, “I’m sorry, my feet—it hit me so hard today, the devastation that I’m not able to be there for you because of my feet, and then the pain was really bad.” What are you going to say back? “Awe, okay. I love you.”
[21:39] Shlomo Hoffman: You had it worked out.
[21:41] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. I was gaming everybody. I really was. At work, my work was incredibly accommodating. ESPN is the best when it comes to this stuff. I would say, “My feet are killing me today”—and tomorrow—and the next day. “I’m going to work from home, how about that?
[21:57] Shlomo Hoffman: This was pre-pandemic before everybody was working at home?
[22:00] Ryan Hockensmith: No Zooming. There were no Zooms or anything. There were cellphones, but you could just disappear. I used it. I used every ounce of my disability against people.
[22:12] Shlomo Hoffman: In general, when we talk about addiction, we talk about people using everything at their disposal. You were talking about learning how to get over on people, and that includes lying, cheating, stealing, maybe people getting into drug stuff, and you just know how to make it work.
[22:34] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah, you do. You figure it out. The way that addiction was the gasoline—it was the fuel in my life. I had to work everything else around it. That meant my morals, the things I was willing to do, also had to bend. They had to bend to be able to make it work.
I think I shared this with you already, but one of the things that happened toward the very end is my wife had our second child. Down the stretch of that, she wasn’t getting around as much, and I ended up having to watch my first daughter quite a bit. I would be taking her with me to doctors’ offices and places. It was sort of out of—I hadn’t begun to use her, but the minute I was at a doctor’s office with her, at an Urgent Care—I would go to Urgent Care Clinics. If I show you my feet, you feel sorry for me immediately.
[23:33] Shlomo Hoffman: That was your prescription pad. Your feet were your prescription pad.
[23:37] Ryan Hockensmith: I never actually wrote my own prescriptions, but I practically did. A doctor would be writing 25, and I’d be like, “Well, I’m going to Disney World for a week. Can you make it 60?” They’d scratch it out or tear it up and write another one. Like I had told you, the first couple of times I saw how people reacted to me, plus a three-year-old girl coloring in a Disney coloring book, it was like, “Wow. This is a great combo package. Nobody can deny me.” And they didn’t. They gave me whatever I wanted. It wasn’t their fault. It was me. I was like a hard package to deny because I was a great liar, sympathetic figure. I can usually figure out a way to make people laugh. You throw that together, and it’s like, “Yeah, why don’t I just give this guy 50?”
I was just thinking about this. I had this doctor that I found in New York City who is an older guy. He definitely didn’t have his fastball anymore. He was probably 80 years old. I remember I went to him, and I showed him my feet, and I told him my sob story. He rode a bike around the City, so I asked him 50 questions about riding a bike in the City. I was genuinely interested, but I was also buttering him up. At the end, he said, “I don’t know that pain medication is the best thing for you, so I don’t want to write you a prescription for forever. So I’m going to write you this one for this month and then come back next month, and we’ll see how it goes.”
I looked, and he had written me a prescription for 180 painkillers. It was this canister of painkillers. When I met someone like that, you went in my rolodex. You were going to be my go-to guy, and over the next year or so, I brutalized that guy. He just was an older guy who was a little bit checked out, and I just went to him over and over again. Man, when I would get 180 painkillers for somebody like me, at that point in my life, it could have killed me.
[25:50] Shlomo Hoffman: How long did 180 last?
[25:52] Ryan Hockensmith: I would always have this plan. I would write it out how I was going to manage it. That’s a common theme among addicts. “If I only drink on weekend days or holidays,” and then you end up realizing that you’re celebrating Flag Day all of the sudden. It’s like, “You’re just working backward from how do I drink; how do I drug?”
I had all these management plans. I remember this really silly plan I came up with, which was, I would get the 180, and I would take 50 right away. I’m talking like three or four hours after getting this tub of painkillers. Then I would go to ESPN or at a post office, and I would mail the pills to myself. That would give me two or three days of a breather, and that way, I could space it out slowly.
Then I would get the package. I would crush my mailman just waiting for the package to arrive because I couldn’t make it the two or three days. They would arrive. I would take 50 again and then mail them, and immediately go very high to the Post Office, and mail them again. A couple of months into that, I couldn’t make it the two or three days, and I would just go to another doctor’s office.
[27:06] Shlomo Hoffman: While you were waiting for the mail.
[27:07] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. I just couldn’t do it.
[27:09] Shlomo Hoffman: You were dealing drugs to yourself, Ryan.
[27:11] Ryan Hockensmith: Totally. I was micromanaging myself, and it was failing.
[27:16] Shlomo Hoffman: Incredible. Tell us about the man who stole the train.
[27:18] Ryan Hockensmith: Oh, yeah. I went to rehab, and I belonged. I knew I belonged right away. It was like, “Wow. These are my people. These people are just like me.” It was beautiful. But I got maybe seven or ten days under my belt, and your mind starts to wander again. The truth is, for a good ten years of my life, anytime I had any sort of problem, I reached for these things: drugs and alcohol. I reach for substances. This will make it better.
Even if you really want to stop that, it is still a very, very hard thing to do. In almost every aspect of our lives—I hear people say, “I want to drink a lot less coffee.” You’re like, “Okay. Just stop then.” They go, “Oh, wait. I’d actually have to stop. That would be hard.” Even with sobriety under my belt, I was like, “How do I handle financial insecurity, or my wife is upset with me, or that work assignment that I screwed it up?” I didn’t know how to do it.
My mind would wander, and then one night I was at rehab, and this guy told his personal story, and it was very moving, and at the end, he said, “I’m here, though, specifically because I got very high and drunk, and I thought it would be a good idea. I hopped on an Amtrak train, beat up the conductor, and I tried to rob the train.” This dude made it like 100 yards. Guess what? Amtrak trains—if you don’t know how to drive them.
[28:48] Shlomo Hoffman: You have to have a license for that. You’ve got to go to school. Yeah.
[28:52] Ryan Hockensmith: You’re supposed to not be high, first of all, and also get some training before you start driving an Amtrak train.
[28:57] Shlomo Hoffman: A couple of lessons.
[28:59] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. Things to know. Good to know. So he got arrested. He made it like 100 yards, and the cops grabbed him. I remember, very poignantly sitting there going, “Well, my addiction is really bad, but I’ve robbed zero trains. I hadn’t even thought to rob a train.
[29:18] Shlomo Hoffman: You have a long way to go.
[29:19] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. And I don’t think I would have ever even tried to rob a train. Cars, pharmacies, yeah, but not a train. I’m not as bad as that guy. So luckily, this rehab that I went to insisted that you start to go to meetings and have a long-term plan, something happening outside of just rehab.
I had gotten a great network of sober people already because you had to. The rehab was making you do it. I told one guy who I really loved and trusted, “This guy told about robbing a train, and I’m nowhere close to that.” He said something to me that, to this day, I remember it. He said, “Dude, you’re like a few exit ramps away from that. You’re not there yet, but you have a chance. You found an off-ramp ten stops before that guy.”
[30:13] Shlomo Hoffman: You’re headed to the train station.
[30:16] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. The way that he laid it out, where all of these things that I said I would never do and then three months later, I did them, then I had a new list of things. “I’ll never do this. I’ll never drive with my kids when I’m drunk, etc.” Then I did it three months later. You could see. He laid out the progression like a highway, and I was driving the New Jersey Turnpike every day at that point, so highways clicked into place for me.
I was at Exit 10, and that dude was at Exit 13, but we were on the exact same road. He said, “Do you think it’s possible that you would ever rob a train? Do you think it’s possible?” I was like, “Yeah. It’s conceivable eight years down the road. I find a black-market Amtrak train dealer somewhere.” [Laughter] “And I’m working on getting an Amtrak train to Siberia or something.”
We laughed, but it wasn’t really that funny. It wasn’t that funny. It was a punch in my gut that I’m going to—in recovery, you meet people that were absolutely worse off than you. You meet people that were better off than you, too, though, that got out and are happy. And you can never forget that. It’s not a contest. You can’t be a world champion drunk. You don’t actually want to be. I love that phrase that my old sponsor used to say, “The world record for sobriety is 24 hours in a day.” It’s like, “Yeah.” I’ve just got to tie that every day.
[31:41] Shlomo Hoffman: Is that something that today, you’re how many years sober?
[31:45] Ryan Hockensmith: I’ve been sober since November 10, 2008, so 12, 13 years.
[31:55] Shlomo Hoffman: And every day. Is it behind you? Is it something that you’re still dealing with? And how do you get through it? What keeps you on the straight and narrow?
[32:06] Ryan Hockensmith: I think you’ve got to—for me, I meet a lot of newcomers that are trying to get sober, and I end up going to more meetings per week than they do. I read more literature than they do because I have never forgotten—I had a guy call me out one time. This was not that long ago.
Around the concept of any lengths, I went to any lengths to get drugs and alcohol. It didn’t matter what was put in front of me. I was getting it. I told a guy I’d see him at this one meeting, and I didn’t go because the weather was crappy. He said, “Hey, I didn’t see you at the meeting. What happened?” I said, “I didn’t go. It was so windy out.”
He goes, “Really? How many times did you not go to the doctor’s office, or the package store, or the booze store because it was windy? Did wind ever prevent you?” The answer is no; it never did. It didn’t matter how windy it was. I would have walked into a tornado. I really would have done that. If you told me, this store has a bunch of painkillers and alcohol, and it’s about to be hit by a tornado. I would have driven right into it.
[33:22] Shlomo Hoffman: What’s the craziest thing you ever did to get drugs?
[33:25] Ryan Hockensmith: Man, there’s a long list. Oh, my gosh! I’ll tell you one awful one. I feel a tremendous amount of shame about it. When my wife had our second daughter, I got sent to the store to pick up her painkillers. When I say, “I got sent,” I insisted that I go.
[33:50] Shlomo Hoffman: You volunteered. You were being a good husband.
[33:53] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. I was being a thief, in reality. I went. It was a torrential downpour. I went to the pharmacy. It was 10:00 at night, and I got her pills. I think there were 30 of them. I took them all. I put them all in my pocket. Then, I got the bag all wet. I smashed the bottle, and I came up with this story that I just went down in a heap outside of the store because it was raining so hard. There was actually water running through the streets. It was a crazy storm in New Jersey. I came home, and I faked that I was hurt and faked tears. My mother-in-law was there too, at the time helping out. And they both were taking care of me, and I’m so high using her pills.
[34:44] Shlomo Hoffman: Her painkillers, who just had a baby. Wow.
[34:47] Ryan Hockensmith: The next day, I tried to orchestrate getting another prescription for her, which the doctor was reluctant to do, and she ended up in more pain than she should have been because I took all of them. Even while I’m sitting there—I took probably 12 or 15 that I took immediately. I went home, told the whole fake story, and then I had the rest in my pocket, and I’m sitting there looking at my wife and realizing, “Wow. She just gave birth. She’s in a lot of pain. She could use the painkillers.” I did not give them to her.
[35:18] Shlomo Hoffman: You wanted to, somewhere.
[35:21] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. Somewhere. There’s that light down deep that never went completely out, but it was overwhelmed. Yeah, just not good. The mail fraud is probably another example of complete silliness, and it’s just not good—there are a bunch. I got an assignment in Florida, and I went down to do an assignment in Florida, and I convinced my doctor to phone in a prescription in Florida while I was doing this work assignment, and I went down there.
I did the work thing. I went out and interviewed people that I needed to, and then I went back to my hotel room and got these painkillers and got completely obliterated and high for a couple of days. Then I came back, and within a few days, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I need more pills.” I looked at the bottle from Florida, and it had a refill on it. There were 60 painkillers sitting in Florida with my name on them. I convinced them to send me back down to Florida. I needed to do more work down there. I went back down, and I didn’t leave my hotel room. I got high the whole time, and it was such an abuse of my company, my friends, my family, my doctors. It was horrific.
[36:52] Shlomo Hoffman: Tell us about your work now with athletes. Let’s rewind to that because I’m always on the lookout for different kinds of stories, and your stuff really makes me sit up. What has the reaction been from their perspective? How do you find their goals and sharing their stories? How do they react to you? Do they look at you like a kindred spirit? What’s the experience like in finding these stories and actually interviewing these athletes?
We just wrote about Vance Johnson, who I hated growing up because he was with the Broncos. His story was just wild. He was talking about how he lost moments of fatherhood, etc. How do they view you in terms of where do you come in?
[37:42] Ryan Hockensmith: It’s interesting because it’s an interesting journalistic exercise. Most of the stories I’ve ever written are edited in my career. You come into a scenario where you’re like, “I want to interview you for this story.” And you, as the subject, would understand that there’s on the record and there’s off the record. This is not my friend. This is not my buddy. Yeah, we might laugh and stuff, but this might appear in print somewhere, so I might not say this bad thing about a colleague or teammate.
But with these stories, I’m very upfront that “I’m going to try to be both a journalist and also another recovering addict,” if that was the case. I’m very upfront about it with them, and then it is an interesting dance where I have to hold people accountable for bad things while also admitting to doing them myself. It’s a weird dance. I have really good editors at ESPN, and they help me navigate that. One that wasn’t about addiction, I ended up writing a little bit about myself. I wanted to write a story about what it’s like to have pain all day, every day.
[38:49] Shlomo Hoffman: Chronic pain.
[38:51] Ryan Hockensmith: Chronic pain. It just doesn’t go anywhere—what that’s like. I asked my boss, Scott Burton, at ESPN, “Who would be a good athlete, a good vehicle for that?” We kicked around a million ideas, and he ended up saying, “What about the pro wrestler, Mick Foley.” For wrestling fans, he was real kind and he just was really known for taking big bumps, like hard falls, and body slams, and nails, tacks in his back, and all this other stuff.
But he’s also a really gentle soul who is retired now. So I called him, and we had this amazing conversation about his pain, but I wanted to talk to him specifically because he is such an optimistic human being even though his back hurts all the time. I tried to list some of them. It’s beyond 25 significant injuries that he’s had, and it took its toll on his body.
We had an amazing conversation, and I found it very helpful to my soul. At the end, I talked to him about how we both have a blue accessible parking plaque that you hang up at the parking special spots. I’m, to this day, reluctant to use it unless I absolutely have to. It’s because I feel less than. This chronic pain and losing part of your body; you feel less than. You have to combat that. You have to fight every day to realize, “I’m not less than. I’m different. I’m a little different. I have different abilities than I had before, but I’m not worse.”
We had this beautiful conversation about that, and he said something to me that made me laugh so hard. He said, “Do you ever hang it up? Do you ever pull in the parking spot and hang it up? Then, when you’re getting out of the car, limp a little bit more than you need to just so if anybody saw.”
[40:40] Shlomo Hoffman: I really deserve that card.
[40:41] Ryan Hockensmith: This guy’s pretty young, but he’s limping. Okay. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve don’t that. I’m just playing up what is actually real, which is that my feet hurt. But I don’t want you to think that I bought this on eBay. I want you to know that I have a disability, but I’m also embarrassed about it.
It helped me to realize he’s the toughest human being I’ve ever seen. He’s been thrown off the top of cages onto tables and knocked unconscious. If he can do it, I can do it. So, he talked me through it. And yeah, we were kindred spirits. We were. We were talking about something we both share that’s a little bit unique.
So, people do open up. It’s really interesting. People open up to me. Vance Johnson, if you read that story, he caused a lot of wreckage in his life, really bad wreckage that he’s accountable for. He’s raising his hand and trying to say, “I’m accountable for that. I was a horrible husband. There was domestic violence. Just terrible behaviors.” So he’s trying to do better. I identify with that.
One of the things I ended up writing in that story was, “I did unforgivable things, and some people won’t forgive me for them. And that’s okay. I wish it weren’t the case, but that’s okay.” The thing I need to do for those people in their honor, even if they don’t want me in their life, is: don’t do unforgivable things today. Don’t do them today. I can pay it back to the universe.
There are a lot of people out there, hopefully, some people listening to this, that have shame and are like, “How am I ever going to outrun these horrible things that I did?” You may not outrun them, but you can find a life where you process shame and move on without drugs and alcohol. It is possible. I’ve met some people. I grew up as a big sports fan. I think you did too.
[42:41] Shlomo Hoffman: Yes.
[42:41] Ryan Hockensmith: Where I thought my heroes are—fill in the blank, all these athletes. Someday, when I grow up, I want to be like that. Now, I meet people named Heather W. I don’t even know her last name, and it’s like—I’m making this up. This isn’t a real person. Where I’m like, “She is my hero.”
[43:00] Shlomo Hoffman: When I grow up, I want to be like her.
[43:00] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. When I grow up, I want to be like her. I think about that phrase all the time. There’s a question that everybody asks, like, “If you could have dinner with any three people, who would they be?” People pick past presidents, world leaders, and famous people.
[43:18] Shlomo Hoffman: Actor, celebrities, and that kind of thing. Right?
[43:21] Ryan Hockensmith: Gandhi. Maybe I’d put Gandhi on the list. A lot of mine are people I know in recovery. If I had one more dinner on earth, that’s who I want to be around. And that’s not what I thought I’d be like. I didn’t think my life would be like that at age 40-something, but it is. I love Tom Brady. I’d love to have a casual conversation with Tom Brady, but if you gave me the chance to talk with one person, it would probably be some friend of mine from recovery that’s living a heroic life as an independent contractor or a manager at a box store. It’s not that person who’s famous.
[43:58] Shlomo Hoffman: Wow! That’s profound. That is profound.
[44:02] Ryan Hockensmith: Thank you.
[44:04] Shlomo Hoffman: We talked about you giving back to the recovery community. Obviously, by way of your articles and your openness in sharing your story and stories that people look up to and admire, and it resonates. You also have a side little thing. Your comedy gig that you’ve been doing, and you’ve been doing some stuff for recovery conventions, etc. Where do you find laughter coming into recovery? How big of a role does that take?
[44:37] Ryan Hockensmith: I took it uber serious for a long time. But, man, I was really taken aback. This is not a thing that I discovered, either. You hear it a lot, but a lot of people come into recovery, and they think, “Well, the party is over.” I realized pretty early on that it’s not that the party is over. The party was over a long time ago. The actual party is just starting.
You see so much laughter. I saw so much laughter at rehab even. People were 15 days sober that so much is rekindled about your relationships with people. Even sunlight, walking along a creek, and seeing a duck. That stuff that you were so oblivious to when you were passed out laying on your bathroom floor, to come back alive. It’s funny. That’s the biggest thing I tell people is, “I’ve laughed more the last month of sobriety than I did the last two years of drunkenness.
For people like me, there’s a nostalgia about like, “Ah, back in the day, I used to drink, and we’d go out to parties, and blah, blah, blah.” The last five years, it was by myself, in a dark room, up way too late, passed out. That’s not a party. That’s not a party. Getting sober, yeah, it can be hard. I don’t want to pay bills on time and do all of these adult things, but it’s so much better than the alternative, and it is a time to laugh.
In 2018, I was struggling. My sponsor and I did some work, and he said, “Have you ever done work about yourself? Have you ever applied the 12 steps to yourself?” I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “Let’s talk through all of the resentments you have about yourself, about what drugs and alcohol did for you?”
I started doing the writing, and I realized that I was mad at myself—all the opportunities I threw away, all the money that’s gone, all the kid birthday parties that I didn’t show up for that break my heart. At the end of it, we get to the process where the immense process is not about just saying sorry; it’s about making things right. How do I make these things right with myself?
He looked at the list of things that I had, these missed opportunities over the years, and he was like, “I need you to do one of them.” I looked at the list, and it was like, “I’m not actually going to get my whole chest tattooed. And I’m not going to move to Paris for a year or get a motorcycle. I can’t do those things.”
But standup comedy was on there. I had made a promise to myself when I moved to New York City. I was 22 years old, dating my wife but not married yet. No kids. I thought. There are standup comedy opportunities. There are open mics on every corner. I’ll do it. I’m going to chase this. I think I can make people laugh. I never did it a single time in one of the heartlands of comedy in the world. I didn’t do it one single time.
So I was heartbroken about that, and my sponsor was like, “Well, guess who’s getting on stage pretty soon. It’s you.” I was like, “Oh, no.” Then, I did it. I did it in 2018. I bombed horribly in front of 100 people who had paid $20 to get in and see an actual comedy show to see some hack with no toes up there.
[48:01] Shlomo Hoffman: That was sort of a right of passage. Don’t you have to bomb in order to be a real standup comic?
[48:05] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. And, believe me. I’ve tried bombing many more times, and I’m pretty good at that bombing. There’s nothing on earth like standing in front of 40 people and aiming to make them laugh, and they just stare at you.
[48:20] Shlomo Hoffman: It’s like the loneliest feeling in the world.
[48:22] Ryan Hockensmith: It is pathetic. You just are wondering about the fate of humanity as you walk off the stage. But I will tell you, every time I bombed, which is many, the best day of my month is the next day because if you yell at me for passing you on the highway or whatever.
[48:42] Shlomo Hoffman: It’s all good. I bombed yesterday.
[48:44] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah. Not as bad as last night. I did comedy that night, and I felt it was a spiritual experience. We talk about spiritual experiences. It was a spiritual experience because it didn’t matter if the people laughed. I did it. I tried it. It felt like I was making things complete, whether it went well or not.
In recovery, we say, “You’re responsible for the effort, not the outcome. You work with a new person in sobriety. It doesn’t matter. The outcome is beyond me, but you put in the effort. I got the great blessing of doing my favorite show that I’ve ever done. I did an hour, which I’m not good enough to do an hour—not at all, but I did an hour about recovery, mostly about recovery at a Connecticut Convention of sober people. These are my people, man! It went really well.
That’s the hardest thing about comedy I’ve found is when you show up at a Monday night show or Friday night show, you have no idea if it’s going to be 12 people or 45 people. You have no idea. I looked out at a crowd one time, and there were about 15 people who were 21 years old, and there were 12 people who were 60 years old. What would those groups both find funny? It’s really hard. You can’t pick your audience, but at a convention, I know who I’m working with.
[50:10] Shlomo Hoffman: It’s like, do I play Taylor Swift or Bryan Adams.
[50:13] Ryan Hockensmith: Totally. I goofed on ‘80s TV one night, and there were a bunch of people who I wasn’t even sure they were old enough to be in this bar. When you’re laughing about MacGyver or the Father Dowling Mysteries from the ‘80s, I bombed in a way like, “I give up. I quit. I’m never doing this again. I feel like a terrible human being. Humanity is lost.” Then I went back the next day anyway. That’s how you feel; it’s miserable.
[50:41] Shlomo Hoffman: Ryan, I could sit here and talk to you all day. People don’t have great attention spans anymore, so we’re at an hour. I’d love to have you back one day. What is your message? We’ve heard a million things here. We’ve heard about laughter. We’ve heard about keeping up the steps, the meetings, the commitment, finding the joy in a life of recovery as opposed to the darkness. What is your message to someone that’s struggling, somebody that needs to find their way back and to get meaning in their life again? How do they get over that hump? What would your elevator speech be?
[51:24] Ryan Hockensmith: Yeah, I always try to hammer two things: 1) There is hope, and there are many different ways of finding hope in recovery. If you find ten people that you really admire, and you will. If you go to meetings and rehab and things like that, you’ll find people that you’re like. “I don’t like those three people, but I like that guy.” If you find ten people and ask them, “How did you do it?” They’re going to tell you ten different ways. They might revolve around some common themes, but recovery can be a choose your own adventure. It really can be.
There’s no, “If you do this, you’re in; if you don’t do it, you’re out.” You can find the things that work, the how to find a higher power, and the kinds of people you hang out with, and the kinds of meetings you go to, and when you go to them. You can choose your own adventure. You still have some ability to control how you get sober.
2) The other thing that I always emphasize, in addition to the hope is, this is a fun thing. It is very, very fun. You think about getting sober, and you think, “Oh, gosh. It’s over.” That’s not true. It was just starting for me. The best 12 years of my life have been the last 12 years of my life without the drugs and alcohol.
I laugh more; I love more; I hug my kids more; I hurt more—I do hurt more, but there’s nothing like it. There’s just nothing like it. It is such a fun adventure that if you’re hanging on there in your parent’s basement at age 40, divorced, drinking every day, and you just don’t know that putting down that bottle is worth it, I always try to say, “It is. You’re going to meet somebody who did it, too, and you’re going to love it, and you’re going to have more fun, and you’re going to enjoy life in a different way than you even realize? This really is beyond my wildest dreams, what is afforded to you in sobriety.
[53:15] Shlomo Hoffman: That’s really amazing. Thank you so much, Ryan, for talking to us and taking out the time. Best of luck in your work going forward. We hope to meet up again soon.
[53:22] Ryan Hockensmith: Absolutely.
[53:24] Shlomo Hoffman: Look at his Twitter for any new stuff coming out @ryanhockensmith. Is that right?
[53:30] Ryan Hockensmith: You got it.
[53:32] Shlomo Hoffman: And look for us at AvenuesRecovery.com. Subscribe, please, and give a comment or two; it’s nice. Ryan, I’m sure, will share it, as well.
[53:43] Ryan Hockensmith: Sure. Yes.
[53:43] Shlomo Hoffman: Ryan, thank you so much for coming on, for sharing your story, for sharing some hope. It was really, really a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.
[53:52] Ryan Hockensmith: Thanks for having me; a great opportunity. I really appreciate it.
[53:55] Shlomo Hoffman: This has been another episode of Rubber Bands.
[End of Episode 5 - 54:17]