An Interview with James Nihan, Lead Residential Assistant at The Ranch

Thirty-five years ago, James Nihan kicked a drug habit that followed him through adolescence, and found the passion that has kept him strong throughout his recovery: music. After spending most of his teen years drowning his emotional pain in drugs and alcohol, James went on to become an award-winning songwriter who has had songs recorded by Anne Murray, Steve Wariner and many others. His music has been performed at venues across the United States, including Austin City Limits, Regis Philbin and the Grand Ole Opry. For two decades, James has shared his passion for music as a volunteer teaching songwriting to children at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Since 2000, when he joined the staff at The Ranch, James has also shared his journey of recovery with men and women working to overcome chemical dependency, trauma, sex addiction and other disorders.

From Victim to Victor

“I used to write songs about being a victim. Either life went my way or it didn’t; it had nothing to do with my choices,” James recalls. “Then I realized I have the power to choose what I will be. In every moment, I can decide whether I will make a healthy choice or not.” At a seminar in New York in 2001, led by don Miguel Ruiz, author of the bestseller The Four Agreements, James’ beliefs changed. No longer perceiving and judging the world through the eyes of the “victim,” he embraced a brighter point of view. He stepped out of the victim role and became the victor. The songs he now creates are inspired by that light. Since then, James has released three acclaimed CDs: Rays of Light (2003), All Creation (2005) and Murals (2008). “Being the victor means I can choose to be angry, resentful or lonely, or I can choose to be connected to the world around me,” James explains. “No one makes the perfect decision every time, but we can learn how to quickly redirect ourselves back to the healthy choice again. Rather than dwelling on a problem for three days, now I can get back on track in three hours, or even three minutes.”

Reclaiming the Authentic Self

James sees his own struggles in many clients at The Ranch. Often as a result of traumatic histories, some have gotten stuck in the role of victim. The Ranch helps them develop the skills to make positive choices and reclaim their authentic selves. Just being at The Ranch, James says, is an example of making a positive choice – the first step on the road to becoming the victor. Clients at The Ranch learn how to make healthy decisions through 12-Step work, intensive therapy, spiritual ceremonies, and a wide range of experiential therapies, such as equine therapy and adventure therapy. “The Ranch offers treatment that is truly unique,” James says. “Since the early days, The Ranch hasn’t been afraid to try new and innovative approaches, exposing clients to a wide variety of therapies until it finds something that resonates with each individual.” The Ranch attracted James because its special programs and native ancestral landscapes provide for reflection and continued growth. Just as he discovered his passion for music nearly four decades ago, The Ranch is a place where clients can explore what it is that lights them up in life. “I still help myself by helping others,” he says. “I have been witness to so many miracles. I am constantly inspired by the courage I see in clients as they move forward into life.” When clients embody the victor, it shows not only in their emotions but also in the way they carry themselves. People who begin treatment hurt, angry, resentful or scared gradually let down their emotional barriers, embrace what James calls “the inner child,” and recover their authentic self. “One of the most dramatic changes we see is that, rather than being in a place of fear or shame, clients leave with their heads up, unafraid to make direct eye contact and share their stories,” James says.

A Life of Service

To this day, music remains an important part of James’ life. He recently lent his voice to a documentary on the Inupiat tribe of Barrow, Alaska. His song This Land Is Not Our Land is featured in a new Cherokee musical that is funded by the Smithsonian Institute and has been released on the Grammy-nominated album, “Nanyehi, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.” His anthem I See the Light in Everything received a People’s Choice Award from Bring Peace Not Pain, an organization supported by many artists, including Yusuf (Cat Stevens). And though music continues to light up his soul, his work at The Ranch is what keeps him grounded in recovery. “Doing this work reminds me of where I came from and fills me with gratitude,” James says. “When I go home at the end of the day, I truly believe I’m in the right place doing the right thing – being of service to others.”

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