In 1999, I was a young, ambitious White House staffer. I had the world at my fingertips: every path was open to me. Little did I know that four years later, I would become addicted to opioids.
Getting hooked wasn’t a calculated decision: I didn’t even enjoy it. I did it to keep from getting sick. As my illness progressed, I was never not under the influence. My passion for politics and public policy was my toehold in reality. However, my illness’ physical, psychological, and spiritual symptoms overwhelmed me. Without help, I was powerless to fight it.
To say that I led a double life would be an understatement. My career put me in the public eye: I worked closely with President Bill Clinton and his advisors, in the highest office of our government. My addiction, however, took me to the absolute depths of misery and isolation. From Pennsylvania Avenue, I ended up homeless, sleeping on a drug dealer’s couch, and begging for change at the gas station. I had felt so fortunate to work with President Clinton, and be one among a staff of bright, inspired people. Where did my luck go?
I didn’t know that I was one of more than 20 million Americans affected by addiction. The stigma of my illness was powerful, and kept me suffering in silence and in hiding for a decade. When I was actively using, my greatest fear was that I would be discovered. I was afraid that my addiction would define me: that being an “addict” would steal everything from me. I knew that Americans with substance use problems face terrible discrimination in the workplace. A 2004 study by Faces & Voices of Recovery showed that 27% of people would not hire an otherwise qualified applicant who was openly in long-term recovery. That’s discrimination, and it’s perfectly legal: people like me don’t enjoy the same protections that other minorities do in the workplace. Although everyone agrees that the stigma of addiction is harmful, it still influences how people like me are viewed. It affects our ability to find meaningful work, quality medical care, housing, and other basic human needs.
When I left the White House in 2001, I had no idea I would be homeless, scared, and alone in only a few years. As I got sicker, I was sure I’d never work in policy again, much less meet the President. My illness separated me from the career I loved. By 2003, I was in full-blown addiction. A couple of years after that, I was injecting heroin, and so ashamed of myself that I thought I’d rather die than ask for help. So much has changed since then. After years of struggling with my illness, I was able to get treatment. I have been in recovery since February 2, 2015. Since then, I have not had to use any mind-altering substances, such as heroin or other opioids.
And, instead of destroying my life, my substance use disorder has given me a second chance to work in the field I’m so passionate about. The next time I shook hands with President Clinton, it was not as a sick, frightened heroin user. It was as a sober person in recovery.
I told the President my story, and he shook my hand. He didn’t turn away, or recoil. He reached out to me, as a person, and said, “I’m proud of you, Ryan. What you’re doing is immensely brave.”
His words, and his leadership in recovery efforts nationwide, are deeply meaningful to me, on many levels. To see a President put his hand out, and reach past the stigma of addiction, is world-changing. And it wasn’t just a handshake. The Clinton Health Matters Initiative’s investment in addressing the complex social and political issues that relate to recovery will save many lives.
President Clinton, I was happy to be a member of your team in 1999. Today, I’m so grateful to be on the same team again, along with your policy & advocacy working group and the many public health and recovery advocates who have joined you. Finally, people in recovery are joining policymakers at the table. Together, we’re facing addiction, breaking the silence, and ending the deadly stigma. I’m so proud to be part of this. Now, let’s get to work.