For a Safe and Sober Fourth, Pack Narcan and a Picnic

Independence Day is my favorite day of the year. Some people love Christmas or Valentine’s Day. For me, it’s the Fourth of July. I love America, and the Fourth of July is like the biggest, best birthday party ever, for the nation I’m lucky to call home. I love the fireworks, the flags, the parades. I love that we celebrate our nation’s freedom by hanging out with friends and family, grilling, or maybe taking a trip to the beach. I love the stars and stripes, the national anthem.

I’ve always felt like this. In fact, my love of my country has been a huge influence in my career. I was on every student council in grade school. As an adult, I worked in politics, and got to see the amazing fireworks show on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I always celebrated the Fourth of July, although I spent more than one of them in rehab. In 2012, I was locked in a detox unit that had no windows. I could only hear the explosions in the sky outside as I shivered through yet another withdrawal. It’s the only fireworks show I’ve missed.

This year is my third sober Fourth of July. I will be doing all the things I usually do: watching my neighbor’s kids set off sparklers as the sun goes down, enjoying a slightly burned hot dog. I’ll probably get a sunburn. But instead of drinking or getting loaded, I’ll be sober. Staying present makes my favorite day even more enjoyable, for me. I know for sure that it is more enjoyable for the people around me, too. If you’re reading this, the odds are good that you know someone who’s in recovery or is struggling with addiction. Here are some ways that you can help that person have a safe, happy Fourth of July.

Have Fun

It is totally possible to have fun while staying sober. The Fourth of July is an amazing holiday, with all kinds of awesome things to do. Ride your bike, get together with friends, go for a hike, or plan a red, white, and blue picnic. Many towns have parades, free music performances, and other fun events to check out. Grab a friend and explore what your city has to offer.

Don’t Miss the Local Fireworks Show

You can’t have Independence Day without fireworks! It’s literally my favorite thing to do every year. There’s something so special about being part of a crowd that oohs and aahs as the rockets turn into golden stars overhead. It’s magical. Your local newspaper (or their Facebook page) should have a listing of places to see the fireworks.

Eat A Lot

I admit that I’ve been on a diet lately, but I’m giving myself the Fourth off. Fresh berries, hot dogs, hamburgers, amazing desserts, and cold salads are all on the menu. I usually hit up a few barbecues to visit friends, bring a non alcoholic beverage or a side dish to share, and sample whatever’s on the grill. Feeling like I’m not locked into any particular event has been good for my sobriety: if I feel uncomfortable, or if other people are drinking heavily, I can just go on to the next event.

Carry Narcan

Our communities have been hit hard in the last couple of weeks. The overdose rate is increasing. If you’re in recovery or spending time with people who are at high risk, carry Narcan. The shot could save someone’s life. Also, be aware that if you are with someone who’s overdosing, you need to call 911 for additional help. Don’t leave the overdosing person: Good Samaritan laws will protect you if the situation gets sketchy. You can find out where to get Narcan here: http://www.getnaloxonenow.org/find.html

Stay Connected to Your Recovery Community

Holidays, especially holidays where there is drinking or partying, can feel like a trigger to some people in recovery. That’s totally normal. Be smart and stay connected to your sober peers and friends. Many support groups, such as 12 Step programs, hold round-the-clock marathon meetings for people who need a break from the festivities. I have a list of resources on my website to help you find support near you, when you need it: https://ryanhampton.org/resources/

Share Your Sober Fourth on Social Media

I’m using the hashtag #HappySober4th to share pictures, videos, and posts. Tag your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with this hashtag, so we can see each other on social media. I will be sharing some of my favorites (after the fireworks, of course!) later tonight. Showing that we do recover, and we have a great time, is so important for our community.

This Fourth of July, I’m excited to celebrate my country’s independence. But it’s not just for America: it’s for me, too, as a person in long term recovery. My sobriety today is hard-won. I had to fight for it, and at times I wondered if I’d make it through the battle. As I sit on the grass tonight, surrounded by my friends, I will be appreciating every moment. The Fourth is about freedom, and thanks to my recovery community, I’m truly free today, too.

Happy Fourth!

Love to you all,

Ryan

Fourth of July

Headline photo credit: Eugene Strouse
To join the Ryan Hampton #VoicesProject and submit your story, please go here.

Sheriff Karl Leonard: Facing Addiction From Jail

Innovative. Inspiring. Compassionate. Skillful. These are all words I use to describe Chesterfield, Virginia’s county sheriff, Karl Leonard. This afternoon, Sheriff Leonard took to my Facebook live to discuss his inspiration behind the visionary Heroin Addiction Recovery Program he co-founded with the McShin Foundation last spring.

Sheriff Leonard is experiencing America’s opioid epidemic first hand. He openly admits that prior to being elected county sheriff, his awareness of this public health crisis was limited. However, this past year his jail was overloaded with people suffering from heroin addiction and he knew something had to change. And it had to change quickly. The sheriff knew we couldn’t arrest our way out of this problem any longer. So how did this republican elected law enforcement official in a rural Virginia community respond? He did something that pretty much blew my mind. He bucked the system. And he began to focus on recovery solutions. No, he didn’t wait for government approval or funding from his county or state. His community was in crisis and the situation demanded an urgent response.

Sheriff Karl Leonard here taking over Ryan's live. I'm frustrated about the way our country's criminal justice system has been failing to address people facing addiction. Something HAS to change. Join me LIVE now.

Posted by Ryan Hampton on Wednesday, February 15, 2017

With the help of John Shinholser, McShin’s founder, and members of the local recovery community, Leonard was able to be fully operational with an authentic peer-to-peer recovery support system, clinical services, and professional supports inside the jail within 48 hours. No red tape. No strings attached. He wrote the check himself from his operational budget, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work. The cost of the program: about $2,500 per month for 40 inmates – that’s only about $750 per year, per inmate. Compared to the billions that our country spends on incarceration, Sheriff Leonard’s approach is not only saving taxpayer money, but saving countless lives. The academic journal Crime & Delinquency recently published a study citing if only 40% of those addicted serving time in jail or prison received treatment and recovery support services, the savings to our nation’s economy would be in excess of $12.9 billion per year. Wow. Imagine that.

When I visited the Chesterfield Jail this past summer, to say I was inspired would be an understatement. To see people living in recovery within the confines of a county jail – supporting each other, sharing their stories to inspire others, and proving America’s old ways dead wrong – that we cannot make this problem go away by locking people up and throwing away the key – I decided right then and there that I would do everything I could to get this story heard from coast-to-coast.

Our nation stands at a crossroads in 2017. We have a new President and a new Congress. Our country is up in arms about what is arguably the most urgent public health crisis of our time. When evaluating how to reform our criminal justice system to decrease recidivism and heal families, Americans need look no further than Chesterfield County, Virginia. Karl Leonard will tell you these lives are worth saving. And I’ll tell you from first hand experience, we can change the course of history by listening to him.

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If you’re frustrated about the way our country’s criminal justice system has been failing to address people facing addiction, then please join the movement by signing up at facingaddiction.org.

Enough Is Enough: Reform The Rehab And Sober Living Industry In 2017

My dad always used to say, “nothing changes if nothing changes.” Over the past year, we’ve seen the mortality rate from drugs and alcohol spike to epidemic levels. People are dying at an alarming rate, so alarming that the CDC recently reported that heroin overdoses now outnumber gun homicides. Just as alarming, we’re seeing news reports, almost on a daily basis, chastising the treatment/sober living industry for substandard care, “body brokering,” unethical marketing practices – and the list goes on and on.

As a person living in long-term recovery from addiction, this angers me. However, from my perspective as an advocate for the recovery community, I’m absolutely disgusted. The fact that treatment operators are using this health crisis as an opportunity – as we continue to walk over dead bodies – to take advantage of what arguably is our nation’s most pressing health challenge is wrong, and something must change.

Recently, a bold approach from a Florida state attorney shed a tremendous amount of light on some of the obstacles the treatment/sober living industry faces. Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg convened a grand jury last month to investigate the deceptive practices of this multi-billion dollar industry that leaves so many of our most vulnerable citizens at the hands of bad actors and shady operators. Pay-for-patient marketing, the misuse of Google key words, rerouting people who are facing life-or-death circumstances to unqualified phone “boiler rooms,” and fraudulent insurance practices are all abuses that need to be examined under a microscope – not just in Florida, but across the entire country.

Since Thanksgiving Day, we’ve seen a severe uptick in overdose deaths in our community. What we’ve been hearing about in the news in Ohio, New Hampshire, and elsewhere has arrived at the heart of the City of Roses, best known for its New Year’s Day Parade and Rose Bowl football game.

Now the Los Angeles area is also known for its high-rate of deaths stemming from alcohol and drug overdoses. As of last year’s reported data from the CDC, more than twice as many Californians die of drug overdoses than are murdered. This may be a tough statistic for my neighbors in Pasadena, CA to swallow, but it’s now a fact – and I see it every day. So no, now is not the time for treatment owners and operators to gouge those on the frontlines seeking a life in long-term recovery. Now is not the time to take advantage of an opioid epidemic that continues to take 91 lives per day.

On the contrary, it is time for those who’ve created a business model leading people into recovery to step it up. Operators in the treatment industry should not only be open, but completely willing to work with law enforcement, community organizations, and district attorneys in their hometowns. We must get rid of the shady operators who’ve turned this industry into a scheme that’s left so many behind.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many people in this industry leading the way to save lives. There are countless facilities and legitimate sober homes that are unfortunately lost in the midst of the bad headlines and unscrupulous actions of others. They must make their voices heard and join the call to end these unconscionable practices making their way to the front pages of almost every hometown paper. In my opinion, this is the only alternative we have left: reform the system or sit on the sidelines as people continue to die.

Two years ago when I found my way into treatment for substance use disorder, I was lucky enough to stumble upon one of the good ones. It’s not necessarily the fanciest center in America. It didn’t have a pool or “extraordinary view of the Los Angeles skyline.” It did have an operator though who was genuinely in the business of saving lives. Mike Bloom took me in when others looked the other way because of my lack of financial resources. His center didn’t launch an all-out predatory marketing scheme on my family. He was client-focused, not profit-focused. You see, as business owners in the addiction space begin to wake up and understand that ethical and affordable treatment shouldn’t be an anomaly — their profits will skyrocket.

These past few months, public policy leaders and communities from coast-to-coast have heard the rallying cry of the recovery movement. I’ve seen the paradigm shift in how we’re breaking the stigma and ending the silence. Our country has come so far in such a short period of time. But we still have a lot of work to do. It’s time we take this conversation to the next level and address the business of addiction. Recovery treatment shouldn’t be pay-to-play nor should it be up for grabs to the highest bidder on Google. It should be transparent, qualified, and affordable for all who seek it.

These Women In Jail Have A Strong (But Inspiring) Message For Donald Trump

Donald Trump has been on a month’s long thank you tour across the United States. Over the past several weeks, I’m sure he’s heard from countless Americans who are now putting their faith in him that he’ll deliver on his promise to Make America Great Again. While many of us may disagree with much of what Mr. Trump proposed during the campaign, we can now only hope the voices of those who’ve been hit hardest by the country’s addiction crisis will help him reason with what is now the most bi-partisan issue to come out of the 2016 election.

Often lost in the shadows of political debate are the men and women who are living proof that recovery is possible when it’s readily accessible. Mr. Trump needs to listen to these people, even if it’s from within the confines of a county jail. He might learn something.

This evening, the brave women currently incarcerated at the Chesterfield County, VA jail took to Facebook live with a strong — but inspiring — message for President-elect Trump. It’s their hope this message makes its way across the country, and right up to the 25th floor of Trump Tower. Hear what they had to say to Mr. Trump in this hopeful plea for our country to wake up and address the addiction crisis that continues to take tens of thousands of lives each year.

It’s time we wake up and do something about this public health crisis. Mr. Trump, if you’re watching this live feed, please support these women and the millions of Americans facing addiction by taking action on this crisis within the first 100 days of your administration. Treat this epidemic with compassion and a common-sense approach that will save lives and heal families.

‘It’s Time’ — Mr. President-Elect, Please Listen To These Americans

“Never forget that the faces of addiction are real people. They are beloved family members, close friends and colleagues. They are us.” —U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy

The addiction crisis in America is real. And you need not look any further than your own city block to understand the gravity of this epidemic. I’ve written often this past year about my personal struggle with addiction and journey in recovery, the friends I’ve lost to fatal drug overdoses and the need for addiction policy reform. The wave of this public health emergency has gone from coast-to-coast. Since Thanksgiving Day just a few short weeks ago, I’ve lost five more friends to addiction — all within three square miles in Pasadena, California. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control reported that heroin deaths now outnumber gun homicides here in the United States, for the first time ever. It’s time we begin unifying for immediate, sensible solutions around this issue, regardless of whom you voted for or what your political affiliation may be.

While it’s no secret that my first choice for president will not be taking the oath of office on January 20, I will not sit idle as those closest to me continue to die. Donald Trump will be this country’s 45th President in just 31 short days. And as president, his policies will have a tremendous impact as to whether we turn back the clock on addiction or move forward with a new, more progressive and evidence-based approach — built upon the experience of the more than 23 million Americans living in long-term recovery today. The latter provides our new president with an opportunity to show this country that he could, in fact, be the great unifier around this cause.

This morning, I joined tens of thousands of Americans by signing the following open-letter to the president-elect, putting aside any partisan divide or personal feelings, with hope that he’ll listen to — and work with — my community to put an end to this crisis.

Dear President-Elect Trump,

We are writing as Americans who, regardless of political affiliation, are deeply concerned by the addiction crisis ravaging our country. You shared openly how alcoholism devastated your brother Fred’s life. In fact, addiction to alcohol and other drugs impacts 45 million Americans and their families. As you heard during the campaign, 21 million families today are being torn apart by substance use disorders; scores of thousands more bury their children each year, at ever-younger ages; and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of preventable death in America.

Americans have made it apparent they want our elected leaders to address this crisis. Indeed, a study of the election results found your voters turned out in significantly greater numbers over previous candidates — specifically in counties with the highest drug, alcohol, and suicide mortality rates.

Our current national response to this crisis is nowhere near proportionate to its magnitude. For example, the consequences of untreated addiction costs our economy $442 billion a year – twice what we spend on diabetes. We heard much about supply-side reduction ideas throughout the campaign. However, we want to make clear evidence-based prevention programs have a return-on-investment of $58 for every $1 spent. Recent studies show every dollar spent on substance use disorder treatment saves $4 in health care costs and $7 in criminal justice costs. There are likely few investments you will make during your administration with this type of return to the budget and, importantly, to the families and communities impacted.

You have expressed strong interest in reforming our healthcare system. Currently, mental health and substance use disorder insurance benefits are required to be offered at parity with physical health conditions for millions of Americans. Budget analysis shows that providing comprehensive coverage for these chronic conditions reduces overall health costs in all sectors, especially the staggering costs of co-morbid conditions. At a time when our nation is suffering terribly from the growing burden of addiction, eliminating the ability for people to access prevention, treatment, and ongoing recovery supports could have catastrophic consequences – in economic, societal, and human terms.

The signers of this letter are part of a fastgrowing movement of people affected by the addiction crisis. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with members of your Administration to discuss these important issues and stand at the ready to support the implementation of solutions that will save lives.

* * *

Mr. President-Elect, if you’re reading this, please know that I am ready to stand with you, work with you, and support you in any capacity that will ensure we move forward, not backward, on this issue. I’m certain we don’t see eye-to-eye on much, but I am also certain the pain we both share as Americans personally affected by addiction might be just enough for us to meet halfway. America is calling on you for bold, new leadership to solve the most challenging health crisis of our generation. Please answer our call with urgency and compassion.

Add your name to Facing Addiction’s open-letter for President-Elect Trump and join the growing movement to end the addiction crisis in the United States.

These Inmates Did A Facebook Live From The County Jail. Their Message Is Life-Saving.

The Facebook Live post that should change the way America has been addressing the intersection of the addiction crisis and criminal justice reform.

This past week was the very first Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, designated by President Obama in a signed proclamation. I was fortunate enough to add my voice to the cause via a Medium article for the White House on Thursday. While I was honored to speak up on behalf of the more than 45 million Americans impacted by addiction and recovery, I thought it would be even more relevant to end this important week with a message from some men who are proving the status-quo dead wrong.

So, I picked up the phone and called my good friend John Shinholser with the McShin Foundation in Richmond, VA. John is on the front-lines every day, healing families and saving lives. He’s helped to implement one of the most unique, progressive recovery programs in America, the Chesterfield County Jail Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (aka HARP). I asked him if we could get the County Sheriff to allow us to bring a cell phone into the tank and let the inmates take over my Facebook LIVE to tell their stories. After talking with the Sheriff, not only did he give us permission, he said this is something that must be done. You see, Sheriff Karl Leonard – a Republican from a rural Virginia county – has seen the deaths and devastation from addiction first-hand. He deals with it every day. And he’s sick and tired of politics as usual. Sheriff Leonard was willing to try something different with respect to how we’re facing addiction in America. He’s facing it with urgency, compassion, empathy, and skill. And it’s beginning to heal his community.

These guys have a message for Hillary, Donald and the rest of America. See for yourself:

After the live feed wrapped, we were informed that this was, in fact, the very first Facebook Live ever done from within the walls of a jail. And that warmed my heart. It did so because with all the negative media recently around addiction, it’s important that America hears from the faces and voices that are flipping the status quo right on its head. What amazed me even more was that Sheriff Leonard is paying for this program from his own budget. He can’t get any state or federal funding for it. That’s unacceptable, especially since it only costs about $2,500 a month for 40 men ― or about $750 per year to truly rehabilitate each inmate. Imagine the long-term economic savings if we implemented a program like this in each and every small town and big city across the country. According to a study by the academic journal Crime & Delinquency, providing only 40 percent of the drug addicted treatment and recovery services over incarceration would save the U.S. economy over $12.9 billion per year.

I could go on forever about this subject. But I’m going to leave it here. Listen to these men, they have a voice. Even though they’re temporarily confined behind the walls of a county jail, they inspire us all to look at addiction and criminal justice a little differently. Maybe, one day soon, we can look upon this moment in time and talk about how the Sheriff and inmates in a rural Virginia town helped end the addiction crisis in America. I know it’s a tall order ― but it’s small victories like what’s happening in Chesterfield that’ll truly turn the tide.

Why I Started Facing Addiction Out Loud

My journey from heroin addict to delegate at the Democratic National Convention

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. I remember sitting in my apartment alone, staring at my last bag of heroin. A few hours earlier, I received the green light to enter a public treatment facility for opioid detox and 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 reluctantly chose the latter.

I’ll never forget the shame and regret I felt when walking in those doors to treatment. For years, I knew I had a problem. But I was too ashamed to ask for help and I was terrified that those around me would cast me away.

I didn’t know it then, but I was one of the lucky ones. Only 1 in 10 of the more than 22 million people in America struggling with addiction who need treatment are able to get it. This number is mind-blowing. When you look under the surface, you’ll learn that more people are dying from accidental overdoses than car crashes – approximately 129 per day. The U.S. Surgeon General recently proclaimed addiction as a public health crisis and young people, talented souls from every walk of life, are fading away every minute because of the stigma that has long been associated with addiction.

After leaving treatment, the haze began to lift and things started looking up in my life. I was slowly rebuilding relationships, work was on an upswing, and I was generally pleased to be back in society as a productive individual. Outside of family and close friends, I shunned away from talking about my recovery as it still seemed awkward and taboo to those who I had thought might have not experienced addiction first-hand. And I was okay with that.

Then, it started happening. One of my roommates overdosed and died. He had been picked up by the local police for loitering while high and taken to a hospital for evaluation. He wasn’t admitted and was found dead the next morning a few blocks from our home. A few weeks passed and I learned that my friend Nick, a young and vibrant aspiring actor, died alone in his room. When they found him dead, the needle was still in his arm. And I’ll never forget when I learned the news of Greg’s death. I had just returned from a short vacation to see my family on the east coast, where Greg and I were discussing plans to visit together in the coming months, and I arrived home to LA to learn that Greg had died that morning. He was only 24 years old. It was at that moment that I knew something needed to change in the way that our country treats and views addiction. I could no longer be silent and live in the shadows while my friends were dying.

It’s absolutely unconscionable that an illness so deadly is viewed by so many as simply a moral failing. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s not. I was raised by a loving, middle-class family. I was well educated. I had a career. I was even fortunate enough to have worked in the White House as a young, ambitious college student with goals and dreams. That was all before I had broken my knee and was referred to the care of a pain management physician. What began as an innocent need to relieve pain from an acute injury turned into chemical dependency. Sadly, my story is not unique. When I was discharged from medical care for using my prescriptions too fast, there was no follow up to support me with my new problem – addiction. No continuum of care. No discharge plan. The only thing I knew how to do was to continue getting high, at any expense.

I was lucky enough to find a small window of opportunity for treatment and it saved my life. We cannot continue to walk over bodies – leaving people to die from addiction. We must start acting boldly and call this what it is – an epidemic. Our public policy leaders have just recently begun to listen to us because the more than 23 million of us in recovery and our families are finally speaking up. Brave souls are starting to put faces and voices to an emerging addiction advocacy movement. We are your family members; friends; co-workers; teachers; artists; politicians; CEOs and more.

With addiction now front and center as we enter the general election, I decided to step out of the darkness, take a stand, get political, and run for delegate to the Democratic National Convention. It’s my hope that putting a face to recovery this summer in Philadelphia will help to transform the political conversation about how we, as a country, need to wake up and realize this is a problem we can no longer ignore. We need solutions and we need them now. With the support of the recovery community and the caucus goers in my district, we were successful. A movement has begun to take shape across America. The afflicted and affected are beginning to organize around the principle, coined by the AIDS movement in the 1980s, that “silence equals death.” It was true then and it still rings true today. Our time is now. We will no longer sit on the sidelines and watch as countless lives – young and old – continue to fall victim to this preventable, treatable health crisis.

Recovery has given me so many gifts. But most importantly, it’s helped me find my voice. And come this summer, I plan on using it.