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This blog post was originally published on October 16, 2014 on the From Adversity to Advocacy blog on Psychology Today.

As readers of this blog know, I am a student of resilience — and more specifically, of resilience derived from advocacy in the face of adversity.  Over the past six weeks, my dear friend Margaret has taught me more about this subject than any expert, book, or experience I’ve ever run across.

Margaret is a teacher, by trade and by nature.  But the lessons she’s taught me are part of a curriculum no teacher would ever sign on for, lessons no woman or man should ever have to learn the way that she has.

On September 1, Margaret lost her 25-year-old son, Riley, to an overdose.  For years he had battled both addiction and severe OCD, and for just as long, Margaret had been there by his side — supporting, nurturing, coaching, and loving him at every step of the way.

So extraordinary was Margaret’s commitment to Riley and others like him that her tireless efforts led the International OCD Foundation to honor her with its prestigious Hero Award this past summer.  I was there to witness Margaret accepting her award, and I also got to see the pride on Riley’s face as he watched his mother being feted.

At that same conference, Riley helped anchor a panel discussion about OCD and addiction, sharing openly about his own challenges and offering insights so profound that even seasoned professionals in the room were clinging to his every word.  I’ve seen few speakers captivate an audience the way Riley did that day.

Just six weeks later, we lost Riley.  And with his passing, the OCD community lost one of its most promising young advocates.   His friends and loved ones lost one of the most compassionate and generous individuals they’ll ever know.  And, Margaret… well, Margaret lost her only son.

They say there is no greater loss than that of one’s child, and who on earth would blame Margaret if she chose to run away and hide, shutting out the world around her?  But Margaret made a different choice.  She chose not to run from the pain, but rather to lean into to it, challenging it to fuel her.

In our very first conversation following Riley’s death — just hours after learning of her loss — Margaret implored me to make a commitment to her.  “You need to promise me,” she said, “that you will help me continue Riley’s work… that you will help me keep his name alive.”

Needless to say, I made that promise to Margaret, and with this blog post I hope to start delivering on it.  Just what Margaret’s new advocacy will look like remains to be seen.  But what is very clear is that it will revolve around service.  As Margaret and everyone else who knew Riley would tell you, even in his darkest times he would seek out opportunities to help others.

“I know Riley would want me to find ways to help him help others — even now” Margaret told me.  “It would be his greatest wish.”

Knowing Riley as I did, I am confident he would have a second wish for his mother: He would want her to heal as quickly as possible.  And because Riley, like his mother, believed in the notion that we help ourselves by helping others, I am certain he would encourage her to dive deeply into her advocacy.

Margaret is certainly doing just that.

It’s my sincere hope that you and I can play a role in helping Margaret honor Riley’s Wish, and to that end I would like to offer up three starting points:

  • Educate yourself about OCD and addiction. The timing is ideal, as this week is OCD Awareness Week, and the International OCD Foundation is offering a variety of educational talks, discussion forums, and online resources.
  • Leave a Message of Hope for someone who needs it. With Margaret’s help, The A2A Alliance and Life Vest Inside have launched a powerful new campaign called Project Hope Exchange.  And through it, you can help change lives in just 30 seconds.  Leave your Message of Hope!
  • Do “something.” At Riley’s memorial service, his close friend Tim Blue put out a powerful challenge to all of us in the packed church: commit to doing something to help someone in Riley’s name.   Just that simple.  Because that’s what Riley would have wanted.  Fortunately, Tim turned his talk that day into a blog post, so the whole world could join in.  Read Tim’s blog HERE!

My heart breaks for Margaret.  As the father of two daughters, I cannot even fathom the pain she is going through.  But I know that in honoring Riley’s Wish, she is walking her talk, doing what she knows in her heart will best get her through this most difficult time.

In the meantime, “Miss Margaret” — as her students affectionately call her — is teaching all of us around her about the mechanics of resilience and what’s possible through the courage and commitment to turn adversity into advocacy.


  • dorothy

    My son also has o c d and b d d.he had a very bad time.I’m one of the lucky mothers.he still has it and copes.I pray for you Margaret.and keep on with all you do…

  • Heather

    WOW! Thank you so much for sharing this story. I immediately went to Project Hope Exchange and was blown away. I cannot wait to share this with my daughter who is battling OCD and BDD each day. PHE will be a powerful way to share that she is not alone. That we are not alone. I immediately shared the link online and with others who can benefit (who do not have OCD). Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Your son is incredibly proud, no doubt.

  • Margaret Sisson

    Thank you Dorthy and Heather. My hope is that telling Riley’s story and thus my story will help others. Jeff Bell did an extraordinary job writing this blog. He honored my Riley and wrote a tribute to me that was humbling. Grateful for that.
    Please continue to share and my hope will be it will help others.. Riley would be pleased…

  • Patricia

    I am forever grateful to have known Riley and I am a better person because of it. I was instantly drawn to him because of his exceptional sense of humor and our shared love for music. It was not long before we discovered that we both had OCD. Riley inspired me. He was not one to sit back and wait for someone to find a cure or more effective treatment for OCD. He was actively seeking knowledge in the field and educating himself on everything from how OCD works in the brain to the pharmacological effects of SSRIs and how they reduce symptoms. The driving force behind his quest for knowledge was a sincere desire to help others. He started the conversation on a national level of co-occurring OCD and Addiction, how the 2 interact and the need for further research to find effective therapeutic interventions that address both conditions. Riley was truly one of a kind and I will never forget him.
    Let’s continue what he started. He already did the hard part of starting the ball rolling, now we just have to keep the momentum going. . . .

  • Cindy Ivey

    So PROUD of you Miss Margaret…my work with SHARE Atlanta & the March of Dimes, after losing Lacey, kept me going during my darkest hours. Riley’s Wish is a WONDERFUL way for you to heal & help others…THANKS for the smile (I KNOW Riley has one too)!!! ❤️

  • Karen Fort

    My son Trevor and I met you and your family at the convention in Boston. Riley sounds like he was an amazing young man. I know that he is smiling down on all of you right now for continuing his work. Trevor was on the Teen Success Panel in Boston and told his story about how he has been able to defeat his debilitating OCD. He knows that it will always be there and will rear its ugly head, but he also knows that he has defeated it before and he can again. As the mother of a child with debilitating OCD, I know how heartbreaking it is to see your child suffering, but I also know that they can overcome many of the obstacles that OCD creates with hard work, ERP’s and good therapy. I would love to be able to speak to parents who are suffering at this very moment to give them hope and tell them to never give up, and do not let their kids give up. I would be most honored to help you carry on Riley’s work in any way that I can. Trevor is also in treatment for leukemia. He is doing very well – thank God! The leukemia diagnosis gave Trevor the strength to finally defeat his OCD. He has an amazing story to tell, and he would be most happy to do so, as well. May God bless all of Riley’s family and friends!!


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