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Interview: Breaking Free From Addiction With Andy Ryan
Interviews|Dec 22, 2021

Interview: Breaking Free From Addiction With Andy Ryan

Andy Ryan Has Been Sober For Two And A Half Years. He's Lucky To Be Alive.
Corrine Barraclough

There was a time when Andy Ryan was known for his acting skill; he’s a talented performer. But, while he threw his energy into perfecting his craft, off-stage his mental health was crumbling and addiction was gnawing away at his self-esteem. Where did it go wrong? How did he manage to get control of his life again? Penthouse sat down with Andy to talk drugs, drama and dicing with death.

Andy, before we get into the gritty side of your story, can you tell us about some of your favourite work projects?

Sure! I’m probably best known for All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and INXS, Love Child (2014-16). Also, Lemon Tree Passage (2013), Tomorrow When The War Began (2010), which was really successful and a TV series called The Jesters (2009-11). 

You were busy!

Yes, my first professional production Les Miserables was when I was 13. You know, being a kid growing up on the Sunshine Coast, who loved dancing and drama, that didn’t make me popular with the football team. So, when I got the Les Mis job, I got a tick of approval. 

Were you seeking approval?

As a child, I just wanted to be like my sister and, unfortunately, she liked doing dance. So I did jazz, tap and ballet. I had three things going against me: I was small and I liked doing dance and drama so it was tough! There was bullying, I had learning difficulties and I always felt I was different to other kids.

When did you start drinking?

I was 13 when I had my first drink. 

Do you remember what it was?

Yes, it was Bundaberg rum. The best thing about getting Les Mis was getting the job in Les Mis. No one prepared me for life after. The circus leaves town, you know, and you’re not in it. That was half the problem for me. A bottle of Bundaberg rum became my Les Mis; all my fears, jealousies, resentments, all my worries left me. 

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And then you started using drugs in your late teens?

Yes, I was 18 or 19. When I got into university I started smoking pot and ecstasy was big at that time. 

Was that all fun at the time? 

At the beginning, yes, it was really good. It was a lot of fun. I was really good at it. I was the life of the party. At around 21 or 22, I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art. The industry inside joke is that’s actually a Bachelor of Fuck All; it means nothing. I’d never been to an audition, but it gave me the ability to get one of the best agents in the country. 

And then you moved to Sydney?

I moved to Sydney and my using went to a whole new level. The ability to access drugs increased, it’s that simple. The idea of getting cocaine delivered to your house, it was mental to me. I was just like, ‘Great, let’s do that all the time!’ It didn’t happen back home. It didn’t happen in Brisbane at that time either. 

Did that all go hand in hand with your industry, do you think? 

I have to be careful with my words here, but, if you’re prepared to get into bed with the right people, it makes you flip up on the right people’s radar’s in the industry. So, yes, it all went hand in hand. 

The acting industry enabled your using?

Well, I was almost celebrated for some of my escapades. Getting arrested, bar fights, nudie runs, they were all funny stories. One night I did too much MDMA and went home with a dude. Considering I’m straight, that was a fucking rough hangover. But, they were all just funny stories to tell. 

How was that hangover?

I woke up with shame, guilt and remorse. I remember standing on the train going home thinking, maybe the kids at school were right, maybe I am gay. 

Did you know you had a problem with alcohol and substances?

Yes, I knew. At 26, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey son, I think you’ve got a problem with this’. It’s an industry person who’s in the AA program so I’ll protect their anonymity. 

And you managed to get sober at that point?

I did three and a half years sober. I knew I had a problem with alcohol at that point. I knew, walking into the AA fellowship that I fitted in there. I’d never really related to any group that weren’t artists before. I walked into AA and thought, ‘Oh shit, I relate to you people too much.’

So, you were three and a half years sober and what happened?

I had my heart broken. All my formative years I’d been drinking and using, and I didn’t know any other way to cope with my emotions. I was doing service, helping at an AA group and I caught myself one Saturday night putting the chairs away, I was walking home and thought to myself, ‘You know, I’m a 29-year-old male, putting out chairs and stale biscuits at an AA meeting on a Saturday night. Maybe I’ve called this shit too early.’ I thought, I’ll just pick up a drink and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just go back and start the count again.

But it didn’t work out that way?

No. What I didn’t realise at that point is that the door to recovery gets so fucking tiny if you pick up. I drank every day for two and a half years. 

The idea of getting cocaine delivered to your house, it was mental to me

Were you thinking about drinking for a while before you picked up that drink?

Probably around six months, I was thinking about it. I was heartbroken and I couldn’t get over that heartbreak. I wasn’t the guy who sat in emotions, I was the guy people called when they’d had a break up and their friends would say, call Andy, he’ll take you out for a fortnight. 

So you picked up?

I picked up a bottle of red. I know I’m an actor so I’m prone to being dramatic, but that first sip… I looked at the bottle and thought, ‘We’re going to need at least 10 more of these… and some bags [of cocaine]. It was like a switch that went on and I couldn’t switch it off. I drank for two and half years. 

Did you go to any AA during that period?

No, and any attempt to stop was pretty half arsed. All my friends who were drinkers said they weren’t going to drink with me, because they didn’t want to encourage bad behaviour. And my friends who were non-drinkers didn’t drink, obviously, so it all became very lonely for me at that stage. It then lead to self harm, suicidal thoughts and I lost control. I used to cut myself with a knife and, towards the end, I would slit my wrists. It was all emotional period – grief, loss, issues I hadn’t dealt with through childhood. Those song lyrics are right, I found, the drugs didn’t work anymore. 

And you didn’t talk to anyone about what was going on?

I didn’t know where to start. If you break a leg and it’s in a cast, someone asks you how you’re going. If you’re going mental in the head, they don’t ask, and even if they did I would have just said I was fine. I wasn’t going to turn around and say, from the age of six I’ve been in emotional pain. 

How did you cope from day to day?

That’s when experimenting with harder drugs like meth came in. I didn’t even care at that point if I died. My drug of choice was cocaine, but if that wasn’t available, it was dealer’s choice. I was working a little, I did Underbelly at that time – a show I can hardly remember. The periods when I was drinking, my career dried up. Then it flourished during my sober points. When I wasn’t drinking, I performed well. But I couldn’t see that because I was in it. That’s why they say alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful. On paper, only an idiot couldn’t see it. Everyone else could see it, but when you’re in it, you can’t see it and you don’t want to admit it. 

When was it that film director Stuart Beattie asked Russell Crowe to write you a letter to try to get you on track?

I was 24 when that happened. I was drinking at that point, before my first sober period. I’d missed my call-time, I woke up with two ambulance officers and crew in my room. I actually lost the job. They said there was $30 million behind the production, there were kids lining up to do my role, I had to get my agent to beg for my job back. They said, if you commit to not drinking, we’ll give you a second chance. I’m so grateful for that. I’m so thankful that Stuart Beattie was so nurturing and understanding to my predicament. A lesser man would have told me to fuck off. This was a major production, $30 million behind it, a Paramount international release. It was a big deal.  They could have said, you won the Willy Wonka ticket and you tore it up, that’s not our problem. 

So you managed to finish that job  without drinking? 

I did it for three months – but, I smoked a packet of cigarettes every day and the occasional joint. All with the delusion in my head that I thought I was sober. 

And then what happened after the production finished?

A week after the production finished I got back on it. That’s the only reason I stayed sober until the end of production, I knew I would return to drinking as soon as I could. I was just toughing it out until the end. 

There’s such a lack of understanding about addiction…

Absolutely there is! When you tell people you’re in recovery and they say, ‘All credit to you, I did dry July and that was hard enough’. I’m like, ‘Fuck off mate! You did a month and you’re not an addict. Just fuck off!’ I feel so lucky to have Ben Geurens as such a good friend [he played Toby Mangles in Neighbours]. He’s my best friend and has always been there for me through the drinking and sober times. That says a lot about his character – and I mean, a lot!

It was a family intervention in 2018 that got you back on track again?

It was two and a half years ago. My self-harm had started to get really intense and I don’t own that many long shirts, you know? My life had become totally unmanageable. 

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What did that look like? 

I had no job, I had no money, I was back living at my parents at 32. I had no prospects. I was so grateful for the intervention. As I said before, the door to recovery gets smaller and smaller. I was determined not to prove those in AA right. I didn’t want to turn around and admit they were right. But, the truth is, alcoholism is a progressive disease. It does get worse. When my family intervened, I buckled and asked God to take my life and do something with it because I suck at it. My family organised my rehab at South Pacific Private rehabilitation and it changed my life. 

In what way? 

Firstly, it saved my life. I got the opportunity to learn deeply about grief and unprocessed pain. I learned you have to confront it. I’d been drinking over it. And one of the worst thing that happened was a girl I’d been seeing took her own life. We’d been doing all this bad stuff. She was my yardstick. I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not as bad as her so I’m not an alcoholic. She was a little bit worse than me. I used to love hanging out with her because it was fun, and I got the reassurance I wasn’t as bad as her. The last conversation I had with her was on the phone. I told her I was going to rehab and if I was going, she needed it too. She said to me, “Ain’t no one got time for that, babe”. 

That was the last thing she said to you?

Yes. I had a job at that point and I was flying to shoot. I connected to the Wi-Fi on the plane, my phone lit up with this message from her best friend saying, ‘Hey, I just need to let you know that she took her life.’ I screamed on the plane. The crew came running over and I showed them the message. They told me to sit at the back of the plane; we’d be landing in 20 minutes. 

That funeral must have been tough?

I was in rehab; I couldn’t go to her funeral. I went up to one of the counsellors and said, ‘I’m having a rough day, I can’t go to this girl’s funeral because I’m in rehab. He said I should write a letter to get my emotions out. I said there was no way I was going to do that; the last letter I’d written was the Santa. He replied, ‘that’s funny because I thought you were here because you said you’d do whatever it takes to get sober’. I was just like, ‘Fuck you mate’. But I did write the letter and I cried like a baby reading it to my group. 

What did that teach you?

It taught me that I can go through heartbreak and agonising grief and not pick up a drink. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s depressing. But it was actually the catalyst for me to say, ‘I’ve got a shot here’. I proved to myself that I could do life on life’s terms. Someone gave me some good advice before I went into rehab that time.

What was the advice?

They said that there would be some people in there who were there to avoid jail, some to keep an employer happy or a partner happy or family and friends. They said there would be a select few who really wanted to get sober. They told me to find the nerds and stick with them for 21 days. I did that. Rehab isn’t the time to sit with the cool kids at the back of the bus. 

Do you feel you’re on the right path now?

I’m not perfect – but life is much better than when I was drinking. I still lose my temper, I haven’t turned into Gandi, I have an Only Fans account, I can still be OCD, the addict in me can still come out. I’m still learning. But, what I can say is that I haven’t self-harmed and suicidal thoughts haven’t crept up on me. I have structures and procedures in place, I have red flags to look for and people I can call if I’m struggling. I have a sponsor in AA, I have a home group and I’m working the program. The thing I hate most about AA is that it does work! It’s so simple and straightforward. Do you know, I’m being more honest with you than I’ve ever been before…

Honesty is good!

It is. I don’t want to pretend that it’s all been rainbows and unicorns for two years. It hasn’t. COVID-19 has fucked up my industry, we’re not even in a conversation about rebuilding yet, the arts always come last. It’s been a really big test, but… I haven’t felt like picking up a drink. And that is progress!” 

HELPLINES:
If you need help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.  Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.