August 17, 2018. Thick thunderclouds darkened the horizon, turning the beautiful Stamford, Connecticut, sky from blue to nearly black. Within moments, my shirt was soaked with sweat as the August humidity crept down my collar. I heard the voices before I even got to the Purdue Pharma building. As I pulled into a parking spot, my ears started to ring. The shouting grew louder as I hustled toward the glittering monolith on Tresser Boulevard.
The police were already there, shielding the front of the building in a blockade formation. Hundreds of people crowded the plaza. The noise hit me like a wall, and I stumbled as I went into the press of bodies, working my way forward. The ground was covered in shreds of paper, “protest messages” that people were stuffing into orange plastic pill bottles and leaving on the steps. The officers didn’t move. Locked in place, they were there to back Purdue.
Standing in the shadow of the building, my sweat turned to ice water. I looked up, craning my neck to take in the whole monstrosity. One Stamford Forum was the mother ship. Ten floors of glass windows and dark chrome reflecting the coming storm down at us. It felt nearly abandoned, even on a Friday afternoon, when people should have been coming and going to their jobs. The stillness was eerie, as though the building were listening to us, planning its next move. I felt as if I were looking up at the Death Star for the first time. That’s no moon. One Stamford wasn’t just a corporate office; it was a national monument to American greed.
The 505,000-square-foot building at 201 Tresser was stuffed with Purdue offices. This was ground zero. Inside these walls, the Sackler family–owned company had run the numbers, drawn up marketing plans, and executed their strategies. The company committed cold-blooded corporate genocide, rubber-stamped by the FDA and cosigned by the free market. More blood had been spilled in that building than I could comprehend. My stomach clenched with nausea. I felt as if I were standing at the gates of hell.
On the third floor, in one of the lacquered panes that overlooked the plaza, I could see figures standing at the window. Three or four people clustered together, holding their phones and pointing down at the crowd. I narrowed my eyes. They were taping us.
They were laughing.
I’d tear that place to pieces—with my own hands if necessary. My voice joined the chant that swelled around me. The protest was a furious hurricane, filling the plaza and battering the windows of the Purdue building.
I’ll end them, I thought to myself. If it’s the last thing I do. I will take this place down—along with everything it ever stood for.
* * *
I got the phone call a year later, on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon in September 2019. It was the long Labor Day weekend, and I was at the Bronx Zoo with my two favorite people for a last-minute vacation. I let go of my fiancé’s hand to answer my phone. Sean, who was used to work interrupting our dates and outings, smiled at me and turned away to talk to my mom. They pointed at the red pandas in the nearest enclosure while I pressed my phone to my ear.
“Purdue’s filing for bankruptcy,” the voice on the other end said.
“Yeah, whatever.” I got lots of calls like this. Everyone had a theory about Purdue, and information spread like wildfire between advocates, reporters, and lobbyists. A lot of it was old news by the time it got to me. We all knew the same stuff because we’d worked tirelessly to take down Purdue and bring them to justice for encouraging and profiting off a national drug epidemic that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
“No, it’s really happening,” she said.
What I learned in that phone call altered the course of almost two years of my life. (Though it felt like twenty.) I didn’t know what it meant, but by the time I hung up and turned back to Sean and my mom, the gears of history were turning at lightning speed. Within two weeks, Purdue Pharma did file for bankruptcy. Before I knew it, I was in a room packed with every person I’d ever squared off with.
That day was the last calm moment I experienced for the next twenty-two months. Life before the Purdue case wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, but I navigated the waves with some help from my partner and my friends. I wasn’t new to being a disrupter, but I was about to be catapulted to a level of involvement I hadn’t imagined was possible for people such as me.
Previously, I’d worked to support a range of policy issues and devoted countless hours to advance forward-thinking addiction recovery legislation. I knew what the numbers were in the crisis: I saw, firsthand, how addiction tore families apart, destroyed entire communities, and killed our most vulnerable people. In the first years of my recovery, I lost more than two dozen friends to preventable overdoses. I visited dozens of communities as part of a documentary project in 2016 called AddictionXAmerica and witnessed the losses sustained by ordinary families everywhere. I stayed in homes with parents who’d lost children to Purdue Pharma’s bestselling painkiller, OxyContin. I ate at the tables of families that would never be the same. I vowed that I would bring justice to them and all the people who, like myself, had lost years of their lives to Purdue’s rapacious hunger for profits.
I told these stories in testimony I delivered to Congress, in front of thousands of people calling for change, and at the gates of institutions with the Sackler family name emblazoned over them. I wrote my first book, American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis—and How to End It, which was published in 2018. I talked about the crisis on MSNBC, Fox News, and any other outlet that would listen to me. I met with leaders and politicians and tried to convince them to take emergency measures and to treat the crisis like any other public health issue. Few of them listened, and as a result things are not much better than they were when I wrote American Fix.
Let me make something clear. I will talk to literally anybody about finding a solution to the overdose crisis. And I mean anybody. I know what the cost of ignoring addiction is: it means that we’ll keep losing our friends, family members, loved ones, and neighbors to a highly treatable health-care problem that is severely stigmatized. So stigmatized that America’s 90 percent treatment gap (the inability to access treatment) has remained stagnant for decades. It’s not enough to organize people individually. I had to go to the source, the company that gaslit a nation.
I thought taking on Purdue Pharma was enough. I had called them out for years, in the public domain and in the press. Our efforts slowly chipped away at the pharmaceutical giant. Within three years, institutions stopped taking philanthropic donations from the Sackler family. The Sacklers, who became billionaires from drug profits, struggled socially: they were no longer invited to black-tie functions, and former friends snubbed them. I watched the company’s lawyers bluster through hearings, claiming that Purdue wasn’t guilty of coordinated, state-sanctioned genocide in the name of profit. I thought I’d never crack the thick wall of glass that seemed to protect the Sacklers from the consequences of their greed.
Then, all of a sudden, the impenetrable shield opened and I walked through.
* * *
When a company such as Purdue files for bankruptcy, it’s a major operation. Dividing the company’s assets, paying its debts, and dismantling its internal structures is a huge undertaking. The process happened behind closed doors under the eyes of a judge, a ton of lawyers, state attorneys general, and a committee of creditors who have personal or corporate interests in the case. The general assumption is that whoever represents the state—usually a state attorney general—has the people’s best interests in mind. I had thought that there were two teams: Purdue was the villain, and everyone taking them on were the good guys. But as I learned more, I found that there were way more questionable folks than I’d assumed. The folks I thought were good often had their own interests in mind, not the interests of the people they were allegedly helping. They were unintentionally causing harm because of their lack of information and unwillingness to see the overdose crisis for what it is. They undermined the victims—the survivors and their families—for political and institutional power.
Since nobody knew what happened in those meetings or what was said behind closed doors, I knew it was vital to make sure there was a public record of everything I could possibly get my hands on. No company that takes advantage of the public should be able to hide behind the uniquely American bankruptcy process. Every elected official who claims to “help” must be accountable to their constituents. I’m not writing this for any reason other than to share the truth. My contribution is putting my truth about this case in the hands of the people. The American bankruptcy process needs radical reform because it is shockingly easy for various actors—even some so-called helpers—to keep the truth hidden and turn an astronomical profit.
I knew from the beginning that a case of this scope wasn’t something that should be dealt with in bankruptcy court. But that wasn’t my call. Purdue Pharma had been sued before and gotten away with paying relatively small settlements compared with the damage they’d done. Little money, if any, made its way to survivors and victims’ families. And no company executive or member of the Sackler family ever had to worry about dropping the soap.
I knew that this corporate bankruptcy case wasn’t “real” in the way that bankruptcies are for ordinary people. Purdue wasn’t on-paper bankrupt. They had assets, valuable patents, and more than $1 billion in the bank when they filed for Chapter 11. This case gave them an escape route, a way to walk away from the wreckage they’d created. So, after years of dogging them, I had finally caught up to Purdue. But tearing them apart wasn’t as easy as you’d think.
In a way, I’d been preparing to participate since I first stepped into the ring. Prior to the company’s bankruptcy, I’d been talking to different lawyer groups about how to get involved in a massive civil litigation against Purdue, representing myself and other groups and individuals whose lives were ruined by OxyContin. When the phone call came, I was more ready than I expected to be. Sean and I flew back home from New York, and Purdue declared bankruptcy two weeks later, on September 15. By then, I’d heard about the Unsecured Creditors Committee (UCC), looked into my options, and taken action to get myself a spot on the committee. When the news hit the national wire services, it spread so fast it was as though there were a national emergency. The next day, Monday, September 16, I wrote my letter to the US trustee at the Department of Justice. He alone would decide who was seated on the committee. The following week, I was invited to New York City to interview with the trustee. The process moved so quickly that I hardly had a moment to internalize what I was about to get myself into. For the life of me, I didn’t expect to get appointed.
Above all, it was critical that Purdue and its lawyers not be aware that I was vying for an appointment to the entity that was charged with dismantling them. They all knew who I was. I’d made a point of making sure they all knew my name. The Purdue people had copies of my book, American Fix, and knew about the op-eds and protests. They never thought I could be impartial because of my activism. Just a few months before the meeting with the trustee, I’d been on MSNBC’s Ali Velshi show, calling for the Sacklers to be cuffed and jailed. When I arrived at the committee interview, I wore the same clothes I’d worn on Ali’s show: my black suit and light blue plaid tie. My friend Cheryl Juaire, who’d lost her son to an opioid overdose, was there. We walked around waiting with over seventy other people who’d applied to be on the committee. The trustee interviewed all of us in five hours.
Finally, after some deliberation, the trustee came down and announced the nine members had been chosen. I was surrounded in the room by big insurance representatives, pharmaceutical CEOs, and powerful lobbyists. I was a small fish: not powerful, not an expert. I didn’t think I had a chance. The trustee said that the names on the list were final and the choices couldn’t be appealed or challenged: this was it. Upon the reading of the names, those people would be taken to a conference room on a different floor. They’d convene for the first time with lawyers and financial advisers, figure out bylaws, meet one another, and start work immediately.
They read the list. Ryan Hampton was the seventh name.
Within three minutes, I was whisked away and told I couldn’t talk to the press. If I was going to participate and see justice done, I would have to keep my mouth shut for the time being. In those three minutes, I went from being very loud about Purdue to buttoning my lip. I was not going to be on television again anytime soon.
The first meeting of our committee was the same night. I was exhausted. My suit was rumpled, and my phone was almost out of juice. The selection process happened so fast that I wasn’t prepared, and I felt unbalanced by how quickly things were moving. I was used to advocacy and vocal activism, where a single goal might take months or years to accomplish. Now, in a week, I was being rocketed into this world I was totally overwhelmed by.
Furthermore, the people I was supposed to work with really didn’t like me. I looked at the list of other UCC members. My name was surrounded by those of folks I’d squared off with for years. I recognized the big insurance companies and hospitals, the pharmacies who were also on the list. The idea of working with them hand in glove gave me the creeps. But as we sized each other up, I also realized that I was one of the people in the room most prepared to take on this challenge. I’d been doing the research for years, staying current, and working with victims. I already knew more than the pension group or even the judge about the real impact Purdue had had on American lives. The others were all looking at this case through a lens of bankruptcy law, not public health.
A bead of sweat ran into my collar and I swiped at it. Cheryl and I were two people, vastly outnumbered by corporate and state interests. Our voices were going to have to be loud. Without us and the other victims on the committee (a small but powerful minority), every individual out there whose life had been ruined by Purdue was going to get ripped off. The “bankruptcy” would be a total scam: a way for government interests, corporations, lawyers, and the highest echelon of the one-percenters to divide the spoils of Purdue’s assets and keep the settlement for themselves. Anyone who wasn’t a victim or a survivor was acting on behalf of an institution, not human beings. I scanned the room again, noticing who was already getting friendly with whom. Yep. They were here to do business as usual.
* * *
Purdue was not happy about my appointment for a lot of reasons. I’d made it clear to everyone that I thought their company should be burned to the ground. They perceived me as a loose cannon or a firebrand who was interested only in getting people wound up. They saw me as someone who ran on emotion, not rational decisions. They didn’t see what I was capable of, but the trustee clearly did. I did my best to lead with a sound mind and a level head. As hard as it was, I could somewhat detach emotionally and make reasonable decisions. My struggle wasn’t between speaking up or sticking with the process. My struggle was between my head and my heart. Setting aside my personal feelings is hard for me: anyone who knows me knows I wear my heart on my sleeve.
My essential feelings haven’t changed. I still think Purdue should be burned to the ground and the Sacklers should rot in jail, but as it became clear that was a near impossibility, it was more important to do right by the victims rather than fight a losing, ideological battle. In the beginning, I was against any settlement that didn’t end in Purdue being dismantled and turned into charcoal briquettes, but then I got inside and realized it was a deeper rabbit hole than I’d imagined. Nothing was simple anymore. It was a political game of hot potato, and nobody wanted to take responsibility for the choices that had led us to this point. These are the facts that would never make it onto the news or be shared with the public. In spite of the black-and-white stories I saw in the media, people didn’t understand that the Sacklers, Purdue, and many of the states and government actors were all hiding the truth from the American public. All of them are to blame. They all profited by maintaining the status quo, harming people—whether that was their intention or not.
I made it my mission to disrupt this case and do my best so that the money went to the people who were actually affected by the crisis. How easy would it be for each state, claiming to work in the “public interest,” to hoard a few billion dollars for old-school scare tactics that squandered valuable resources on billboards and worthless pamphlets? Or tougher crackdowns on people with substance use disorder, funding police squads that targeted our community instead of helping people by lowering the barriers to treatment and giving them access to the full continuum of care? I imagined that many of these representatives weren’t interested in radical change: they wanted to keep the status quo and still look like heroes. I knew exactly what that meant for real, ordinary people. It meant they’d get nothing—and that the epidemic would continue to spiral out of control.
Everyone knew that Purdue Pharma was the villain. What they didn’t know was how the billion-dollar corporation was aided and abetted in their merciless assault on Americans by the systems and institutions that were supposed to protect us. Money, not justice, was calling the shots.
* * *
However, this time things were a little different. For the first time, the Sacklers were personally involved. They are not known to be at the table with anybody and had stayed out of court proceedings in the past, preferring to communicate through lawyers and publicity reps. The power dynamics of this situation had shifted: as victims/people impacted on the advocate side and pushing the envelope, we’d never had mutual power. We’d never sat face-to-face with them. There was nothing they needed from us. Now, they did. They begged for mercy. And I was the last person on earth they wanted to beg from.
In this book, you’ll read the story of Purdue Pharma, the billionaire family that owned it, and the carnage they wreaked on unsuspecting Americans. You’ll hear the conversations I had with members of the Sackler family and how they really feel about seeing their company’s heyday end. You’ll also hear the untold story of how a group of determined, motivated, ordinary people tried to see justice done against all odds—and in the face of a lot of opposition from so-called public servants. You’ll see how the people who are supposed to serve and protect us exploit legal loopholes for their own political gain and let companies such as Purdue run amok.
My UCC appointment put me in a spot where I felt isolated and unsupported. I was uncomfortable working one-on-one with these players. What did I know about bankruptcy law? I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a CEO. I’m not a university professor. I’m just one person who wants to do the right thing. Having agreed not to discuss the case, I couldn’t rely on the large group of people I would usually call on for advice and counsel. This experience drove me deeply into myself and my inner soul and sent me searching for answers. It would alter my perspective on the world and my place in it. It would change who I was. Suddenly, I was having to find myself again. I wondered, What’s best for my community? What would my past self, the loud advocate who protested outside Purdue in August 2018, feel about this? Was this a good decision or a terrible mistake?
I turned down interviews and couldn’t share what was happening with any of my allies in the community. In committee meetings, new information was exposed every day—but I couldn’t say a word. In writing this book, the time for silence has passed; it’s time to talk. We must make this process public or it will repeat itself, and big corporations will continue to exploit people in the name of profits, with the state’s implicit consent and support.
I had unique access to documents, discussions, and budgets. My opinions are based on what I’ve heard and read. I’m writing this not just so I can sleep at night but because my first responsibility is to the people who deserve an honest answer.
* * *
In the past, I received my information from the public domain and believed what was told to me: Purdue was evil and everybody else was on the same team. Many of my trusted friends and allies had expressed zero tolerance about what should happen to Big Pharma. I was afraid that they’d think I was playing ball with the devil or that the committee position was effectively buying my silence at a time when our movement needed more voices, not fewer.
On top of this, I had to be honest with myself about the scope of committing to participating in the bankruptcy. Sean and I talked for three days about what it might mean for us, how my involvement in the case would affect our relationship, and how we wanted to handle it. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do this without his support, and I also knew it could potentially be a huge strain on our partnership.
To make it work, we had to agree about privacy and boundaries. So much was at stake, and I couldn’t jeopardize any of it. Sean’s community and mine overlapped pretty much everywhere. Mutual friends often asked one of us about the other. When Purdue was a topic, we agreed that Sean wouldn’t answer for me. He wouldn’t run interference. I am grateful for his unconditional love and his dedication to seeing this through. He thought it was the right thing to do, saying, “Somebody needs to be in there, and it needs to be you.”
I took this journey knowing that the love of my life had my back. This helped put my heart at ease: at least we would go through it together. Travel, phone calls, me being pulled away, and the constant stress are what he signed up for when we decided to get married. I know it was hard for me, but in a way, I think it was harder on Sean.
For almost seven hundred days, the case consumed our time and also our conversations, meals, free time, and even our wedding plans. Yet, I wouldn’t have wanted to face it with anyone else.
Sean has been my rock through this, which was essential when so many of my other relationships changed, seemingly overnight. I have learned whom I can trust and whom I can’t. The worst were people who have been around for a long time and were resentful and condescending throughout the whole process.
In every instance, I chose to disengage instead of defending myself. What was I supposed to say? There wasn’t much I could say, even if I wanted to. They were operating without all the information. What they didn’t know, I couldn’t tell them—until now.
* * *
This commitment represented a huge sacrifice, even within my own self. It’s been brutal. It’s been heartbreaking. It’s been disappointing. But it was necessary. This shit was hard. It was all volunteer. It was not paid. It caused me to question everything I thought I knew. I felt a huge amount of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, from the first minute of the very first meeting. I’d never do it again. Even with the love of my partner and my closest friends, it’s only me who internalizes this. That inner work has indelibly altered who I am. There’s only so many times you can fire up your passion and hope to inspire institutional drones. They have money to make and a job to do. They don’t have the same kind of empathy that a person who’s lived through it does. Trying to change their mechanical minds every day was draining and discouraging. Try as I might, I often found it impossible to create any empathy or kindness. They don’t get it because they haven’t lived it.
The trek also built my confidence in what I do know and drives me to believe that I’m in the right place. When I felt weak, I still had faith. I knew that we had to exert our power—whether we thought we had it or not. We couldn’t accept a pat on the head any longer. I fought behind closed doors for the right to say that we deserved more.
Justice means justice for you. That means your family. That means your community. You deserve to know exactly who is responsible for the losses you’ve sustained and what they got in exchange for failing to protect people over profits. You should know what a human life is worth to the corporations, the billionaires, and the lawmakers.
Unsettled is my truth.
I’ll tell you who’s really making America sick.
UNSETTLED. Copyright © 2021 by Ryan Hampton.