“The fact that I’m speaking with you today is a miracle,” recovery activist Ryan Hampton says. “By all statistics, I should be dead. The reason I’m not is not because anyone did their job well. It was luck—circumstances and luck.”
Hampton, now 38, is nearly four years sober, he says. He has dedicated his life not only to helping others recover, but to changing our broken laws and policies. He does this through his work as social outreach and recovery advocate for the nonprofit Facing Addiction as well as through work for another non-profit he founded, The Voices Project. The latter, which encourages people with substance abuse issues to tell their stories, is Hampton’s passion project and the one that takes up most of his time.
This week he published his first book, too: American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis and How to End It (All Points Books, an imprint of Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press). Finally, also this week, his Voices Project announced that is partnering with the non-profit, When We All Vote, which co-chaired by Michelle Obama. Together, in a campaign called Recovery Voices Vote, they aim “to register one million new recovery-oriented voters by 2020,” Hampton says.
“There’s no wrong way to get sober, and there’s no wrong way to stay sober.”
Hampton is clearly a driven advocate. But who is he?
Like many Americans, Hampton’s first opiates were prescribed by his doctor. In 2003, when he was 23, he sought care for an injured ankle that wasn’t healing. His doctor prescribed oxycontin for the pain.
His second, third, fourth, and 50th prescriptions were also obtained legally. But in 2009, when his doctor noticed his track marks—he was crushing and then shooting the drugs—she cut him off. She called him a “junkie,” threatened to put his name on a database of pill seekers, and call the police if he ever returned to the clinic, according to Hampton.
Within an hour, he started using heroin to avoid going into withdrawal. “I was looking for relief,” he says in an interview. “I didn’t have an option at that point.”
Becoming addicted to heroin wasn’t part of Ryan Hampton’s game plan. Hampton grew up with two sisters and a loving schoolteacher mom in a house with a white picket fence. He went to bible camp, was a Boy Scout, and calls himself a “product of ‘Just Say No.’”
He attended college at Marymount University in Virginia and, by the late ‘90s, he was a fresh-faced White House staffer for Bill Clinton, planning a life in politics. After he left in 2000, he formed his own consultancy and worked as a senior staffer on a number of Democratic campaigns.
By 2003, though, Hampton was in deep, certain that his career, and life, were over.
He then sought help, but endured a half-dozen stabs at treatment that didn’t take. Finally, he says, “I used medication-assisted therapy [MAT] for the first part of my recovery, which eventually led to abstinence for me.” (The three FDA-approved medications are buprenorphine—most often in the branded preparation known as Suboxone—methadone, and naltrexone. Most public health authorities believe the safest approach for people with opioid use disorder is to stay on MAT drugs for many years, if not for life.)
Though Hampton says he no longer uses MAT drugs himself, in his book he does not proselytize for that approach or end result. He supports all pathways to recovery, and, indeed, has no patience for rehab centers that refuse to treat patients with meds like Suboxone.
“There’s no wrong way to get sober,” he writes, “and there’s no wrong way to stay sober. … Preaching abstinence as a superior form of recovery buys into the idea that addiction is a moral failing. … That attitude can be extremely harmful because it reinforces the shame of addiction—and makes it less likely that someone will ask for help.”
On the whole, though, his book is less about himself than about how, in his view, collusion between Big Pharma, the medical profession, and a corrupt recovery industry fostered the opioid addiction crisis and turned it into a nationwide epidemic.
“When my boyfriend needed treatment several years ago, [the rehab center] helped his family auction off artwork to pay for three weeks of care. It’s criminal.”
That the recovery industry remains basically unregulated clearly infuriates him. There are no “standards in advertising” for that industry, he writes. “Recovery is an industry. . . . Its ‘raw materials’ are patients looking to get sober.” (Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg detailed criminal abuses in the detox industry in an interview with Opioid Watch this past April.)
Hampton is still angry about the way that industry exploited his loved ones. “They take advantage of desperate family members,” he says in an interview. “My mom was preyed upon by recovery centers—and my boyfriend’s mom, too. When my boyfriend needed treatment several years ago, they helped his family auction off artwork to pay for three weeks of care. It’s criminal.”
Hampton’s sudden appearance on the recovery advocacy scene was initially met with skepticism by some other advocates.
“When I first met Ryan, I didn’t know what to think,” says Anna David, the author of Party Girl and co-author of By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There. “He hadn’t been sober for very long, but was talking about changing how the world views addiction; shutting down disreputable treatment centers, and creating a global movement around recovery. Honestly, I thought he had to be full of it.”
But she came around. “I’ve watched Ryan accomplish more to change how addicts are treated, and to get rid of the scumbags in the industry, than anyone before or since,” she continues. “He doesn’t seem to give a f–k about making money. He’s all about making a difference.”
Hampton believes the only way to effect change is by organizing and legislating. And for people in recovery to organize, they must be out—i.e., open about being in recovery. Hence, The Voices Project.
“People in recovery need to get involved in voting and policy,” he adds.
“If we had single-issue voters—like LGBTQ-motivated voters—we would win. We have power when we come together.”
That’s the idea behind Recovery Voices Vote, the new partnership between Hampton’s The Voices Project Michelle Obama’s group, When We All Vote. (Obama’s group did not respond to inquiries seeking comment.)
“You can’t send someone to treatment if there’s no focus on aftercare. You wouldn’t deal with a cancer patient or a diabetic that way. There would be therapy, checkups, and living changes.”
“We’re going to start seeing people in recovery running for office,” Hampton says. “People who are identifying their recovery status, and are taking it on.” Unless it’s hit home for them personally, Hampton asserts, most legislators don’t know much about addiction or how to treat it.
For instance, he says, “They need to stop saying they’re allocating money to ‘treatment and recovery.’ Recovery is always the stepchild. They’re not malicious—they think treatment is recovery.”
It’s not, he stresses. “Recovery is sustaining what started in treatment,” he explains. “You can’t send someone to treatment if there’s no focus on aftercare. You wouldn’t deal with a cancer patient or a diabetic that way. There would be therapy, checkups, and living changes.” Not just 28 days of yoga and vegan meals, he says.