“I walked into treatment for the last time on Thanksgiving Eve, 2014. It wasn’t exactly a Kodak moment. I was terrified, exhausted, and sick of myself. My addiction had ruined every aspect of my life. I wasn’t proud of who I had become. I was disgusted. As I filled out the intake form, I swore I’d never speak about that moment or the years leading up to it, ever again. I wanted to get help, get my life back together, and just move forward.
The first opioids I used were prescription painkillers, given to me by a doctor for an ankle injury. When my prescription ran out, I went back for more. And more. Eventually, I picked up a needle. Within a short period of time I had lost everything. I was homeless, broke, and sleeping on my dealer’s couch. I ate twice a day at the homeless shelter across the street and begged for quarters at the gas station. I’d worked in the White House, and I ended up scrounging for spare change. Worst of all, I couldn’t admit—to myself, or anyone else—that I was sick. It took me a decade to reach rock bottom. When I got there, I was desperate for recovery.
As I began to heal from my addiction, I became more willing to share my experience. I learned that my story was a jumping-off point. It created connection and community. I started reaching out. When I did, it opened the door for many others to do the same.
In the last three years, my life has changed in every possible way. I’ve transformed from a struggling addict to an activist. From giving testimony in Congress, to speaking at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, to talking policy with leaders like Jeb Bush and Michelle Obama, I have found myself in the center of a movement that is changing the way America thinks about addiction.
When I started out in recovery, activism wasn’t part of my plan. I was just trying to survive. I’d fought tooth and nail to get treatment for my heroin addiction, find sober housing, and hold on to every single day like it was my last. The days I spent as an intern in the White House seemed far behind me. I thought I would never do anything meaningful with my life again. After all, I was an addict. A junkie. And a gay man, too. What did I possibly have to offer anyone? The barriers I faced to acceptance and a meaningful life felt impossibly high.
The basics, like staying sober and housed, were hard enough. My mom, who has always been my biggest supporter, gave me a pep talk every time I called home.
‘You can do it,’ she said, although I’d relapsed again and again. Although she’d seen me at my worst, and even brought meals to me when I was strung out and homeless, she believed I could make it, one more time. She told me I still had something to give, that I was more than just another sick person. I needed to hear that she believed in me, because I had trouble believing in myself.
The turning point came when I started noticing empty chairs at the support groups I went to. People went missing, and nobody but me seemed upset they’d either relapsed or died. My new community was shrinking. I lost one friend, then another one. Today, more than 20 of the people I know and love have been killed by overdoses. I’ve realized they’re not isolated cases. Their deaths are part of a bigger tragedy: a tragedy that steals children from their parents, separates families, destroys communities, and is killing an entire generation.
Those people’s moms and dads didn’t stop believing in them, ever. But that didn’t save their lives.
This month, I turned 38. I’m old, for a heroin addict. Overdose is the leading cause of death for people my age. The losses are staggering, with an estimated 72,000 deaths. This health crisis is even more severe than the AIDS epidemic, and it’s only getting worse. People know so little about addiction that they’d rather turn their kids in for possession than get them medical help—not understanding that incarceration sets them up for a fatal overdose as soon as they finish their sentence. Parents take out second mortgages on their homes, just to send their kids to snake oil rehabs that do more harm than good. In the last three years, I’ve seen firsthand the incredible price we pay for stigmatizing addiction.
It kills people. It’s killed my friends. It almost killed me.
I am not special because I was spared an addict’s death. My role in the recovery movement was not part of some agenda. It came out of grief, and it came out of love. Because the friends I love are in recovery, and because so many of them lost their lives, I’ve dedicated myself to helping others survive the drug epidemic.
Every day, I get dozens of messages from parents who are desperate for help. Their children are dying, can’t find treatment, got a prescription that pushed them into a relapse, are living on the streets, or are going to jail when they really need rehab. This is a real problem. It’s not some media headline or political talking point. It’s real, and it’s killing America.
When everything is said and done, America will never be the same. More young people have died this year alone of drug related causes than in the entire Vietnam War. Yet, the battle they’re fighting is one few people understand.
Love saved me from dying of addiction. That’s why we need more than just talk. Recovery has to come from the heart. Because our hearts are what’s hurting, and our hearts need to be healed. We need education, medical care, and criminal justice reform. Instead of punishing people for being sick, we need to show compassion.
We need love to combat the stigma of addiction. The sickest people in this country are the ones we love the most: our daughters and sons, grandchildren, and friends. Don’t they deserve our love? I think they do. We have to do better, for them, and for our future.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ryan Hampton, a person in recovery from heroin addiction, and author of “American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis – and How to End It” published by St. Martin’s Press. Have you battled with addiction? We’d like to hear your journey. Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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