I Never Thought I'd Live Past 35. Today, I Turned 36.

Before arriving at our final destination – the Democratic National Convention – I had to make a stop in Houston, Texas. There, my good friend, Greg, is buried. Greg, like so many others, died last year from a drug overdose. He was only 24 years old. Since finding my own path in recovery 18 months ago, for the first time the epidemic I’d been hearing so much about really hit home. It’s easy for us to hear the statistics and forget that they represent someone’s sibling, best friend, parent, or partner…or, far too often, their child.

The sixth installment of my #AddictionXAmerica journey to the DNC chronicles many faces and voices that have been hit hard by the addiction epidemic. Their voices deserve to be heard. Their powerful testimonies prove that this crisis has no boundaries. Hopefully, their stories will help to open a few minds so that we can continue an honest, impactful conversation that will lead us to a place where we no longer need to mourn these senseless deaths. We must overcome the stigma and prejudice associated with this public health crisis, roll up our sleeves, and get to work saving lives.

Today is my birthday. Today, I turned 36. For over a decade, I’d been telling people – friends and family members – that I’d be lucky if I made it past 35. I woke up this morning wondering what if I hadn’t been one of the lucky ones. Until recently, and after losing so many close friends to overdoses this past year, that thought never really crossed my mind.

I’d never thought of my sisters and mother having to bury me. Or friends of mine having to say their final goodbyes after only spending 35 years on this planet. What about all of the hopes and dreams I had for a family, going back to school, or building my own business in the not-for-profit community? All gone. It all could have been gone. But for the grace of something I may never understand, I was given a second chance at life. And today, I understand the power of recovery.

Visiting Texas on my way to the DNC, I spent a lot of time talking with my friend Greg’s family and friends. And, boy, there were so many of them. They all had stories about Greg and his witty mannerisms, his larger-than-life heart, and his endless compassion for others. With reality setting in that he was actually gone, it pained me deeply to think of all the beauty this world would miss because of his untimely death due to addiction. He had such talents to offer us all and the world would have been a better place because of his deep love and compassion for others.

But, Greg was one of us. He was an addict. And he was ashamed about his recurrence of use last year. So he hid it from us and by the time most of us knew he was addicted once again, it was too late. His recurrence of use was only compounded by the fact that the medical professional he was under the care of for a recent ankle injury obviously didn’t understand that you should never prescribe a recovering heroin addict a high dosage of opioids for an extended period of time. Never! Unfortunately, this is what happened to Greg. It was only a few short months later that I was sitting outside my house and received the news that Greg was dead. He had fallen back into his addiction to heroin and, this time, it killed him.

Some 22 million people suffer from addiction in this country. Another 23 million live in long-term recovery. That amounts to 45 million households – roughly one in every three. And given that addiction dramatically impacts the lives of everyone in the household/family, that means that more than 90 million Americans are touched by this health and human rights crisis. Those are staggering numbers. Unfortunately, Greg fell into another statistic: the fact that someone – usually a young adult – dies from alcohol or other drugs every four minutes in America.

Greg’s and my other friends’ deaths cannot be in vain. We are at such a unique moment in America. People afflicted, and family members and friends affected, are all standing up. Many of them have begun to speak out loudly and say “not one more.” We saw this begin at the Unite to Face Addiction rally on the National Mall back in October, continuing in New Hampshire during the presidential primary, and today a movement is growing from coast-to-coast. We will be successful. Our leaders will listen and we will hold them accountable.

We certainly have begun to see the tide turn these past 12 months, but America will be electing a new President and a new Congress in just under 90 days. Ten-point plans and town halls on addiction from candidates have flooded our news feeds for months. In a few short weeks it will be up to us. We’ll vote… and then what? Well, for me and millions of others, it certainly doesn’t stop there. In fact, it won’t stop until the day comes that addiction, including accidental overdoses, is no longer stealing our youth, tearing families apart, crippling our economy, and dominating the news each and every day. It’s finally time to address the addiction crisis in our country.

So, yes, today is my birthday. But it’s just not the same this year. For the first time ever I’ve come to realize that the imprint people leave on our hearts is immeasurable. And, in the case of Greg and all of the other friends I lost this year, irreplaceable... and eternal.

For more information or to reach Ryan Hampton, please visit https://ryanhampton.org