My mom was always there. From the very beginning of my life, to the darkest days of my addiction, she believed in me. Whether things were good or they were horrible, she was with me. She was the one who took me to my first political rally, when I was only 10. She was my first photographer at public events: the photo credit to “Barbara Hampton” is my mom. When I was homeless, she’d find me wherever I was and bring me a home cooked meal so that I wouldn’t be hungry. This Mother’s Day weekend, I’m reflecting on the incredible gift of my mom’s love. I don’t believe that I would have survived heroin addiction without her.

After my dad died in 2001, my mom raised my sisters and me by herself. When my prescription pill addiction upped the ante and suddenly the Oxycontin wasn’t enough, my mother watched me descend into IV heroin use. I was an active user for over a decade. In that time, I lost jobs, burned the bridges I’d built in my career, and was always broke. I ended up homeless and begging friends to let me stay on their couches. I was a mess. My mental illness, substance use disorder, completely controlled me. Through it all, my mother continued to show up for me, sometimes when I least expected it.

She’s been a public school teacher for more than three decades, and she’s still working. She’s tough, for sure, but I tested all of her limits. Fortunately, my mom is a really spiritual, grounded person, and she was able to draw strength from her faith. She had no road map for what my addiction put us through. She was my social worker, my case manager, and my mental health advocate. I’m lucky she did that for me. “Tough love” is supposed to be the way to deal with people who struggle with addiction. What does that mean? “Tough love” to me sounds like “brutal honesty.” It’s a contradiction. How can you be tough and still turn your only son away? For someone like me, that approach wouldn’t work, and my mom knew it. She wasn’t a doormat, though. My mother had boundaries, like not giving me money when she knew I was going to buy drugs with it. I wasn’t allowed in the house. She sometimes took breaks from me. She didn’t answer the phone every time, or cosign my long, rambling conspiracy theories. But she never shut me out. Even when she didn’t know what to do, she’d pray with me. She was tough, and she loved me, but she never stopped being there for me.

Of all the people in my life, my mom knows me best. She knew that there was more to me than my addiction, and she knew that there was hope for my recovery – even when I doubted it myself.

Other people advised my mother to use “tough love” to try to get me to shape up. I’m so glad she didn’t take that advice. Anyone who’s dealt with people whose substance use disorder is advanced as mine was knows that threats, hard limits, and ultimatums don’t always have the desired effect. In fact, they can actually drive people further into isolation. In a time when less than 10% of people with substance use disorder actually seek treatment, shutting the door isn’t the way to help someone. I can’t imagine how much my mother suffered, watching me struggle with this illness. What I do know is that, when I needed her most, she was by my side.

At the end of my drug use, I was fortunate enough to get into a treatment center in Pasadena, California. I didn’t have insurance or money: I got into that rehab after 30 days of frantically calling publicly funded treatment centers. I was broke, sick, and worn out from my heroin use. I’d had enough. But how would I make it to Pasadena? I was able to get almost enough money together for the treatment I desperately needed. I was a few dollars short. I called my mom and told her my story. She didn’t have to believe me – why should she believe anything I said? We’d been through this a dozen times already. But when I explained that I was going to treatment, she helped pay for the medical attention I needed.

What amazes and inspires me is how many other mothers of people facing addiction continue to stand by them, too. Our moms support us, give us second chances, and help us out when nobody else can. Many of the stories featured on the Voices Project are told by moms just like mine. They didn’t give up on their kids – even when things looked impossible, beyond hope. When I read the stories of these moms, and all they’ve been through to help their children make it into recovery, I can only believe that the love between a mother and child is the strongest thing in the universe. It’s stronger than addiction. My mother’s love for me saved my life.

I’m proud of you, son. Those words mean more to me than any of my other accomplishments. In recovery, I’ve not only rebuilt my self esteem, self worth, and sense of self respect. One of the biggest blessings of my recovery is that I’ve gotten even closer with my mother. And she’s gotten her son back. I call her every couple of days, just to catch up. My mom turned 70 this year. My hope is that she’ll never see me relapse, or go through the hell of addiction again. My gift to her this Mother’s Day is my sobriety. I can do this because she didn’t give up on me when I was so sick and scared and alone.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thank you for giving me life – twice.

I couldn’t have done it without you.

Ryan Hampton is an outreach lead and recovery advocate at Facing Addiction, a leading nonprofit dedicated to ending the addiction crisis in the United States.

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