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Rising Above: A Success Story

Michael Nystrom |
October 25, 2013 | 10:24 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

(Ryan Navales / Midnight Mission)
(Ryan Navales / Midnight Mission)
On the surface, Ryan Navales has it all. He is employed, receives benefits, runs marathons, rents an apartment in Koreatown and has a family who loves him.  

His dark, deep set eyes and contagious smile portrays an unbridled sense of astuteness and success.  

Although his confidence and perceptiveness is nothing new, his current success was only recently achieved.  

Navales has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for over 30 years. His battle with addiction cost him almost everything and left him on the edge of death.  

“I was raised in a good family, I was in the church and I went to college. I had all those opportunities, and I’ve had families and I’ve had careers,” said Navales. “I’ve gone through those careers, I’ve had measurable success, but have lost numerous opportunities behind drug and alcohol abuse.”

Around 2006, Navales was in and out of both rehab and jail and eventually ended up on the streets.  

“My body was physically deteriorated, I was in the ICU with a distended liver, my kidneys were shutting down and my eyes were jaundiced,” said Navales. “I’m physically dying and spiritually I’m dead, and I’m living on the street at 44 years old.”

Two years ago, Navales’ family dropped him off at the Midnight Mission—a human service organization on Skid Row in Los Angeles that focuses on instilling self-sufficiency in individuals who have lost everything.  

He went through alcohol detox upon arriving and was prescribed Librium to prevent seizures. From there, he practiced the 12-step approach to recovery.  

“I’m selfish and self-centered by nature and it’s always about me. I’ll lie, cheat and steal to do those things,” said Navales.  “But I began to understand was that it wasn’t about me and it was about being of service to other people, that’s when my life began to change.”

Navales began using drugs and alcohol as a kid and he continued using whenever a chance presented itself.    

“I don’t subscribe to the idea that genetically I’m an alcoholic or that I’ve witnessed horrible crap in my life that I’m an alcoholic, alcohol affects me differently once I start to do it,” said Navales. “What begins to happen is that I become addicted in a way that my body and my obsession takes over, once I start I can’t stop.”

The Midnight Mission offered Navales a bed, three meals a day, and an opportunity to focus on his problems and how to fix them. They utilize a work therapy program, where 60 to 65 percent of the day-to-day operations are done by men in the program.  

If an individual can’t work, they can’t stay and use the Mission’s resources.  

“My job was in public affairs so I put on a tie early, and they found out I had computer skills.  Without any self-promotion I just fit so after a year, which is the suggested length of our program, I graduated and became an alumni and I started running the volunteer desk,” said Navales. “I’m not a car salesman, I’m talking about real experience, what the Midnight Mission really did for me.”

(100 Year Anniversary / Midnight Mission)
(100 Year Anniversary / Midnight Mission)
Navales was a swimmer and a lifeguard in college. Despite not being a runner, he was one of the first to join the Midnight Runners, a running team sponsored by the Midnight Mission led by LA Superior Court Judge Craig J. Mitchell.

“Ryan was one of the first guys I met when I started work here last year, and he was just starting his running career,” said Rob Rice, the head chef at the Midnight Mission and an ultra marathon runner. “I don’t think he had competed in a sanctioned race at that point.”

Within one calendar year, Navales has completed five half marathons, six 10k races and two marathons—the LA Marathon and the Ghana Accra International Marathon.  

"I think he has finished more [races] than anybody I’ve ever met in their first year of running,” said Rice. “He’s a personal friend of mine, he comes to my yoga classes outside of the Midnight Mission and we have a very good personal relationship.”

Running with the Midnight Runners added a new level of discipline and camaraderie previously absent in Navales' life.

“Lacing up and running when you don’t want to do it, being part of something bigger than yourself, committing to a team, those are qualities that you don’t have to have been a drug addict or alcoholic to have benefited from,” said Navales. “Those are things every man can understand.”

There is a strong correlation between physical fitness, mental fitness and sobriety. Navales believes his success in the 12-step program and in the running club is not a coincidence. His two other teammates, Ben Shirley and David Askew, both completed the recovery program and raced in the Ghana Marathon as well.

“[We] completed the program here, continued to stay connected to it, are all employed and living outside of the house,” said Navales. “We’ve reestablished self-sufficiency, we’re back in the game, we’re members of society, we’re tax paying citizens that have taken advantage of the full spectrum of what the Midnight Mission does.” 

However, Navales does not take his success for granted. 

“It surprises me that I’m one of them, that I lived. Guys at my age, this far down the road of addiction at this age, do not survive. The odds are horribly against me,” said Navales.  

Looking ahead, Navales’ goal in life is to be a good father.  As he became sober, he began to understand and recognize his role in his daughters life.  

“My daughter and I are very close, to the day,” said Navales.  “Every moment I have away from this place, I spend with my daughter.”

Reach Staff Reporter Michael Nystrom here.  



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