I spent a decade addicted to opioids: Here’s why Pete Buttigieg gives me hope

I met Pete Buttigieg for the first time last week. As a gay man, I was intrigued by his historic campaign to be the first LGBTQ president. However, Pete’s identity isn’t why I am choosing to support him. He’s getting my vote because of his landmark plan to combat the national addiction crisis—an epidemic that claims more than 200 American lives every day. For the first time, a presidential candidate is talking some sense about mental health care and addiction.

Why do I care so much? Because one of those lives could be my own. For the better part of a decade, I spent my time in and out of homelessness, panhandling and scamming meals at shelters. I was addicted to opioids and other drugs, unable to find help. I called treatment centers every day, dozens of them, pleading for help. I showed up to recovery support meetings in rehabs that didn’t have a bed for me. Every time I used, I risked becoming an overdose statistic. I grabbed for anything that offered a chance at survival, not knowing what real help was. Anyone who has been through active addiction knows how incredibly isolating the experience is. I am alive today because I was lucky. I accessed services, recovery support that included stable housing and a community of peers. If anything, my recovery is an anomaly: the exception, not the rule. Since I got sober, I have worked to ensure that others get the chances I did, and more. I’m tired of losing friends and loved ones to addiction. I will vote for anyone who offers that chance to my community.

To do this, I’ve spent the better part of 2019 connecting with presidential candidates. As a recovery advocate who works on the front lines of this crisis, my top priority is learning what our next president plans to do to stop the deaths and make recovery accessible to everyone. What are they doing to lower barriers to health care, shatter the stigma of addiction, and support people beyond the acute, early stages of recovery? Are people with lived experience included in the planning stages? Is the budget realistic? Is the plan ambitious and well-supported? When I asked Pete these questions, I got the answers I was looking for. His new plan specifically addresses “deaths of despair,” which include overdoses and suicides. It also acknowledges how people with mental health issues have been neglected and marginalized. The plan ensures that at least 75 percent of people who need mental health or addiction services receive the care that they need and prevent 1 million deaths of despair by 2028.

Pete’s plan is important because it focuses on supporting existing advocacy efforts. Instead of replacing grassroots advocates or letting the federal government tell our communities what recovery is, people who have real experiences with mental health care will lead from the bottom up. To help ensure that communities on the front lines of this crisis are given the tools needed to tackle it head on in their own way, the plan would provide $10 billion Healing and Belonging annual grants allocated over a 10-year period to aid policies or programs around prevention, care integration, and community. Local communities know what works—this plan gives us the tools we need to make sure our children, friends, loved ones, partners and community members get the help they need, in a way that they can understand and access. The plan specifically includes funding to massively expand the peer support workforce: a vital, lifesaving network of people in recovery who mentor and guide others as they take steps toward wellness. Mental health flourishes in connected, empowered communities where resources are shared. This plan makes that possible.

Most importantly, Pete’s plan puts people first. The national epidemic isn’t just an opioid crisis: As Pete’s plan outlines: “Last year, for every five people who died from opioid overdose, three died from overdose due to other drugs, such as methamphetamine or cocaine; five died by suicide; and nine died an alcohol-related death. Combined, these deaths have contributed to the longest sustained decline in American life expectancy since World War I.” It’s clear that we can’t invest in another “War on Drugs” that punishes people for being sick. Drugs are not the problem: they are a symptom of the problem. That’s why we need to decriminalize addiction, offer universally available recovery and mental health support, and deal with the root causes of these issues.

I’m ready for a national campaign that does more than offer millions of people the bare minimum they need to survive. Most candidates have solely focused on talking points around Big Pharma and the other players who created the current day opioid crisis. I agree we must hold them accountable, but those issues barely scratch the surface—especially because the epidemic is not limited to opioids. Pete has taken the bold move to talk about the deeper, systemic forces that prevent people from getting care and keep us sick.

For years, I’ve been shouting from the rooftops to get policymakers to include people in recovery in their decision-making processes. Finally, I feel like our voices are being heard. Our community and the people impacted by mental health and addiction know what to do. This plan offers us the resources we need to help each other get better—no matter who we are, what we have, or where we live.

There should be no decisions about us, without us. With Pete Buttigieg, I feel like someone is finally listening.

Ryan Hampton is a nationally recognized activist, person in recovery from heroin addiction, and author of “American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis—and How to End It,” published by St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanForRecovery.

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