Why I Traveled the Country to Connect with the Recovery Community

By Ryan Hampton

I’ll never forget Thanksgiving Day 2014, sitting in my apartment alone staring at my last bag of heroin. A few hours earlier, I had received the green light to get treatment for my opioid use disorder at a public treatment facility, but the window of opportunity was closing before my bed would be given away. I stood at a turning point; would I wait it out until the next hustle came along? Or would I finally surrender to a decade-old struggle with addiction that had robbed me of everything? I chose treatment — despite the shame and stigma I felt about asking for help.

Ryan Hampton

I didn’t know it then, but I was one of the lucky ones.

In an epidemic that’s taking 78 lives every day to opioid overdoses, only 10 percent of Americans who seek help for their substance use disorder actually get it. This number is mind-blowing, and it’s unacceptable.

After leaving treatment, I began to see improvements in my life; I was rebuilding relationships and performing at work. However, outside of family and close friends, I stayed away from talking about my recovery, as it still seemed to be a taboo subject to talk about in public.

But suddenly, I could no longer be silent: One of my roommates overdosed and died. He had been picked up by the local police for loitering while high and was taken to a hospital for evaluation. He wasn’t admitted and was found dead the next morning. A few weeks later, my friend Nick, a young and vibrant aspiring actor, died alone in his room from an overdose. And then, as we were planning a trip together to the East Coast, my friend Greg overdosed and died. He was only 24 years old. It was at that moment that I knew something needed to change in the way that our country is facing addiction.

I could no longer be silent and live in the shadows while my friends were dying.

It is unconscionable that an illness so deadly is viewed by many as a bad personal choice — it’s not. My story is similar to millions of other Americans. I was building a career at 19. Then I broke my knee and was referred to a pain management physician who, in an effort to relieve my pain, prescribed me the opioids that would result in my opioid use disorder. As my problem progressed, I was discharged from medical care for using my prescription too quickly, but there was no follow-up health service to support me with my addiction to opioids.

I was lucky enough to find a small window of opportunity for treatment and it saved my life. Access to treatment and recovery should not be about luck. We cannot continue to walk over bodies, leaving people to die from addiction. We must start acting boldly.

This past summer, 18 months into my recovery, I packed up my bags and set out on a road trip to speak out about my addiction. With my best friend, Garrett, we drove across the country and met people seeking treatment, inmates incarcerated as a direct result of their addiction, families who’d lost a loved ones, and people in long-term recovery. From state to state and from big cities to rural towns, I saw the disparity in resources available. I felt the pain of those who’d lost a loved one to this preventable, treatable health problem. But I also saw hope and opportunity–especially if our criminal justice system prioritized treatment over incarceration. And I met some incredible people making positive impact in their communities, all of them living proof that long-term recovery is possible.

If you had asked me that Thanksgiving Day where I’d be 19 months down the road as I was staring at that last bag of heroin, I couldn’t have imagined the opportunity and the life that was waiting for me on the other side. If it hadn’t been for the recovery supports I was fortunate enough to find, I may not even be alive.

But because of recovery, I’m now able to be a better son to my mother, a more present brother to my sisters, a more dedicated friend, and a voice for the more than 45 million Americans and their families directly impacted by addiction and recovery.

Next month, I’ll even be able to walk in my little sister’s wedding– the same little sister who used to go to bed every night worried that her big brother wasn’t going to wake up in the morning because of an overdose.

We can only overcome this epidemic if every sector of society contributes to a collective response. We need an “all hands on deck” approach. Without President Obama’s $1.1 billion in new funding, 78 Americans a day will continue to die from overdoses. We need Congress to join with President Obama and find additional resources to support the tens of millions of Americans that are facing addiction with me every single day. I’ll continue to keep using my voice to do my part. I just hope that the rest of America wakes up and does theirs.