'Alcohol Nearly Killed Me. 16 Months Later My Life Has Transformed'

Sometimes, when I look back at the constant upheaval I experienced as a child, I think it may have contributed to my experience with alcohol as an adult. I was very shy growing up because I didn't have a lot of friends. My father worked in U.S. Customs and transferred a lot so I grew up in many different areas across many different states. It did impact me a little socially.

I first experimented with alcohol at around 16 years old, and I didn't particularly enjoy it. Then, when I really discovered it in my 20s, all of sudden, this really awkward kid was transformed into someone who was outgoing, social and popular.

I went to college on a scholarship for a few years and I met my best friend in the world, Dennis. We became thick as thieves and college became a bit of a drag. I had spent a lot of my younger years practicing being an adult and all of a sudden I discovered enjoying myself. When Dennis and I turned 21, we started going to bars once a week, then twice a week, and after a period of time, it was every night of the week.

Struggling with alcohol after college

Like anybody out there who struggles with alcohol, it was a progression. At first, it would be five or six beers a night. I was 150lbs and didn't have the tolerance, but I'm sure any doctor would say that's still not good. Over the next several years it became nine or 10 beers a night, and then it was a 12-pack. I couldn't match the number of beers to the exact years; it was incremental.

After I got out of college, I spent years fighting my alcohol addiction. I knew that I was developing issues and I really struggled against it. There would be times when I would swear it off for a little while. I worked as a process engineer and got married and I would have brief periods of sobriety, where I would pump the brakes and get things under control. I have a pretty good moral compass and I knew I was doing damage; I knew this was going to destroy me if I didn't get out, but I just got trapped.

Around 2015, my drinking really accelerated. I was tired of fighting. I wouldn't say I made a conscious decision to let alcohol take over, but at the same time I just stopped fighting.

Once you hit that point, it starts to snowball.

Drinking 30 beers a day and putting on 170lb

Between 2015 and the end of 2019, Monday through Friday I would probably consume 18 to 20 beers a night. On the weekends, I would probably drink 30 beers in a single day. That was over years and years.

I had never struggled with my weight and all of sudden, the pounds started piling on. My best estimate is that I got up to 350lb, and my natural weight is about 180lb. I got to a point where I didn't see myself ever making a recovery and losing weight. I looked terrible and was so depressed.

Alcohol Addiction Almost Killed Ryan Thom
Ryan Thom's driver's license from when he was at the height of his alcohol addiction. Ryan Thom

Then, when COVID first hit, I began hearing rumors that we wouldn't be able to go out anywhere and that all the bars and liquor stores would be closed down. So, I went out and bought a bunch of bottles of vodka in case everything shut. That never happened, but all of a sudden I discovered that vodka did the job of beer, but more effectively. During weekdays I began drinking maybe a liter of vodka daily and on weekends it would be a liter and a half a day. You can't do that for very long.

I started noticing deeper health issues soon after. I had pain in the area where my liver is located and my gums started bleeding. I also started to lose weight. I had known that I probably had serious issues but they weren't manifesting themselves. I was also petrified of seeing doctors and seeking help, because in the U.S. that's a costly venture. I refused to saddle my family with that kind of financial burden, so when I started to see stuff going on, I knew I was in trouble but I didn't change anything.

Alcohol addiction becomes life threatening

My jaundice came on extremely suddenly. I was lying in bed one night in October 2020 and all of sudden I woke up with blood in my mouth; I could feel these clots. I remember getting up, walking into the bathroom, flipping on the light and looking in the mirror. My heart just stopped. My eyes and skin had become yellow. I just remember crying and saying to myself: "I'm a dead man." You can't go walking around like that for very long before you need to get to an Emergency Room.

I was in hospital in Columbus, Ohio where I live for several weeks, but a lot of it is a mosaic of very brief memories. My liver and kidneys failed simultaneously, called hepatorenal syndrome, because my liver was so diseased. I was on dialysis and struggled with hepatic encephalopathy: which was the ammonia build up from liver failure affecting my brain. That was a nightmare experience; I struggled with consciousness and was hallucinating the whole time. At one point I thought the hospital workers were conspiring against me. It was very frightening.

Alcohol Addiction Almost Killed Ryan Thom
Ryan Thom in hospital in 2020. Ryan Thom

At that point I was in an intensive care unit and doctors were doing everything they could to save me. I had a port in my neck for dialysis and whenever I asked, doctors would tell me I was very, very ill. At one point they said I might only have a few days left. My Model for End-stage Liver Disease (MELD) score was 38 and the highest score possible is 40. I was eventually declared medically incompetent, because I wasn't capable of responding to simple questions like "Who are you?" or "Where are you?"

The prognosis for me was very bad and doctors decided to transition me to end of life comfort care. They stopped all treatment and I believe it was a case of waiting for me to die. Then, I started to feel a little bit better. I remember one day I was laying there when a doctor started talking to me and I responded. She seemed a little surprised and asked if I wanted to be treated. I said yes.

Then, everything just started slowly working again as far as my body was concerned. Some of it was probably due to the fact that I got a bacterial infection that I was told precipitated the hepatorenal syndrome. Once that cleared up my liver started to function again.

After I talked to that doctor, I was out of hospital within a week or so and into a nursing facility for a few weeks. That was to teach me how to walk again. I had lost all strength; I was incapable of walking or taking care of myself. One of the tasks I had to complete to be released was to climb a flight of stairs. That took me 20 minutes and every ounce of strength I had, but I did it. After I got home, I was focused on rebuilding my life.

Having been that critically ill, the thought of having even one alcoholic drink is horrific. There's no circumstance that would ever drag me back there again. Not even if I was depressed. I still wouldn't do that to myself, because it was so terrifying and traumatic being that ill. I have certainly been "scared straight."

Alcohol Addiction Almost Killed Ryan Thom
Ryan Thom in hospital in 2020 after his liver and kidney failed (left), and now in 2022 (right). Thom has been sober for 16 months. Ryan Thom

I went back to work in January 2021 and every single day I was getting a little bit better. I didn't initially seek out any help or counseling, but several months ago I started attending some AA meetings and I have a support group there.

A lot of it has been on my own, although I would encourage others to get professional help for alcohol addiction. Once I came out of the depression I had been in, I looked at myself and said, "Who was that guy?" In a sense that old version of Ryan did die. This version of Ryan is very passionate about keeping himself in good health.

As with anybody who struggles with alcoholism or addiction, once you lose the addiction out of your life, you're left with that big hole. Filling that for me has been about working out, working and spending more time with my family. I have a 9-to-5 job and then I picked up part time work. I now have to pay those medical bills.

Starting in March 2021, I decided to get into a gym. At first it was awful. I hadn't exercised in decades. But I pushed myself and took a very active role in my recovery. Now, I'm at the gym every day of the week. That's where the weight started coming off and I have now lost around 150lbs.

There is still a limit; I deal with cirrhosis now. But I don't have any symptoms any more and diet and exercise are a huge part of that. I eat a low carbohydrate diet, which works for me, but might not work for everyone else.

Alcohol Addiction Almost Killed Ryan Thom
Ryan Thom pictured in 2022. He has been sober for 16 months and completely transformed since being hospitalized for liver and kidney failure and being hospitalized in October 2020. Ryan Thom

Everybody knew when I was in the hospital that something bad was happening, you can't hide that. My family and kids were called and told that I may not make it; to have survived that experience in the hospital is rare.

There is rebuilding I need to do in my relationships with my family. When I was drinking, I pushed a lot of people away from me. I stopped talking to my buddy Dennis and I stopped going to see my brother for years because I was really embarrassed about how I looked and where I was at with my drinking. Now, I'm trying to be involved in their lives again, but it's a process. I can't just snap my fingers and repair all those relationships. It's an effort, over time.

The greatest part of my journey is not the obvious health improvements that have taken place since I quit drinking. Regaining of trust and support of my family has made the biggest difference in my world. They all missed the energetic and vital person I had once been, and when I reached out for their help, they were there to support me instantly and every step of the way. I have a much deeper relationship with my family now and now I feel like I can be a husband and father they can look up to and who will always be there for them. I felt like I was something different all of those years, now 'm definitely back to being me.

I wish I could go back in time and shake myself. If I had just gone to a doctor ten years ago, if I had been honest with them and let them help me, if I had reached out to people around me for support, I could have gotten myself out of that hole a long, long time ago and with a lot less damage. That's something I will live with forever.

I still have cirrhosis but every time I go to the doctors, they say I'm doing great. Everything was normal on my latest liver panel results, while my kidneys are holding their own.

I would love for anybody who might be like I was to see my story and understand that they can do this too. You may not be too far gone. I thought I was too far gone to ever come back from where I was, but I have. I'm hoping that maybe someone out there will think to themselves: Maybe I can do that too.

Ryan Thom lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family. You can follow him on Twitter @ryan101614

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.