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Former addict finds alternative to ‘living hard, dying hard’

Ryan Newcomer credits his spiritual conversiwith allowing him to
break destructive family cycle addiction. | Denise Crosby ~ Sun-Times Media

Ryan Newcomer credits his spiritual conversion with allowing him to break a destructive family cycle of addiction. | Denise Crosby ~ Sun-Times Media

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The last time I saw Ryan Newcomer, he was just a kid.

A bit player in a compelling drama that revolved around family dynamics and self-destruction.

Another innocent victim in a dysfunctional cycle that offered little hope of ever being broken.

The story ran as a special section in Sun-Times Media papers 14 years ago. “Living Hard, Dying Hard” chronicled the final year of war veteran Walter Reierson’s life as the Geneva man slowly succumbed to cancer made even uglier by alcohol abuse, an addiction passed on to his grown children.

Throughout the years I often wondered what happened to Walter’s kids. But mostly I wondered about his beautiful, smart grandchildren who, in their innocence, vowed to break the family disease even as they watched the old man succumb to it.

That answer arrived in an email last week, not long after my column ran about heroin’s seemingly unbreakable grip on our communities. “I don’t know if you remember me,” wrote Ryan Newcomer. “I was the kid with long hair and a Marilyn Manson T-shirt when you covered the story on Walter Reierson.”

It turns out that not long after his grandfather passed away and the saga was published, Newcomer became the star of his own sad drama. He started doing heroin while a junior at Geneva High School. To support his habit, he began breaking into local businesses across Kane County, as well as Warrenville and Naperville. He ran off to California to avoid police, but eventually got busted.

Newcomer rehabbed through Judge James Doyle’s drug court in Kane County, but started using again. He got arrested for more break-ins and was sent to prison. After he was released, he used again and was sent back to the slammer, a two-time loser barely out of his teens.

“I just thought I was supposed to live this life,” shrugs Newcomer, now 29.

But throughout that long painful process, a seed had been planted. It was one he tried to ignore for a while, but eventually sprouted into the strong Christian faith he now possesses.

When I met up with Newcomer on Thursday, I was thrilled to greet a grown-up version of that same bright, gentle-natured kid with the beautiful smile I remember from 1998. Turns out, we now only live a few driveways from each other. He operates In the Greys, a two-year-old tattoo business on Route 47 in unincorporated Elburn where he lives with wife Joanna and a pitbull named Caleb that is as laid-back as his master.

Newcomer and I talked about a lot of things during this visit. His three uncles, he told me, have all died or are “dying hard” from alcohol. His mom and youngest sister, now in California, are meth addicts; his sister in Kentucky uses heroin. But he understands the power of this family disease, and one of his goals is to help them beat the demons, as he has. Newcomer says he’s saving money now to get his youngest sister back here.

“I think she’s ready to listen,” he said. “But I can’t just send her money because she’ll use it to buy more drugs. The only way I can do it is to physically go out and get her and put her on the plane with me.”

Newcomer, who says even in grade school his artistic talents were recognized, feels strongly that his small but growing business gives him an outlet for reaching others in need. While he inks plenty of firemen, housewives and even 70-year-old grandmas, he understands most of his clients are less conventional and only “know of Jesus instead of know Jesus.”

That’s one reason he reached out to me after the heroin column.

“I really would love to find a way to mentor those who are struggling,” he said, admitting that all but one of his fellow heroin buddies “are dead.”

It’s also why next week he will begin working with Ink 180 owner Chris Baker, the Oswego artist who has become well known for removing tattoos on former gang members and victims of human trafficking.

“He’s awesome,” said Baker of his younger colleague. “Ryan has been through a helluva struggle but has come out on top. We’re lucky to have him join us.”

Fortunate is also how I felt after my visit with Ryan Newcomer. Maybe this meeting lifted my spirits so high because I’d spent such a long time chronicling his family’s troubling story. It did my heart good to see that Walter Reierson’s grandson not only survived, he’s thriving.

It’s all “part of a plan,” he said, leaving me with a smile and a reminder: That “light shines brightest in the darkness.”



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