About the Expert:
Ashley Elliott is a recovering addict, patient advocate, psychology major, guest speaker at Medicine X and repeated speaker at Regina Holliday’s Cinderblocks5
Ashley’s Health Journey Through Addiction
My story more often than not, coincides with addiction. I am a recovering heroin addict. I’ve been clean since December 28th 2012 and since I’ve gotten clean I decided to take a path to help others whenever they’re struggling. I know for me when I felt hopeless if it wasn’t for the women in my life that had lifted me I don’t think I would have made it .
My goal is to help those find hope that think there’s no hope. In my darkest days I would say I probably had no idea what was going on at any given time. I went from being an all honor student in my freshman and sophomore years of high school– straight A’s to slowly decreasing my workload. I was a merit student my junior year and by the time was a senior I was a general student. Luckily enough I still graduated with merit a diploma.
That was the start of the dark days that just kind of involved drinking along with experimenting with a few different substances, nothing too extreme. By the time I had graduated high school I would consider myself pretty deep into my addiction not rock bottom but still pretty deep. What would happen over the next twelve years would be me finding my own, falling in love.
I always made the joke that heroin was my first love, it never failed me, it never let me down. Every time I wanted to do something it changed the way I felt, it did just that. After that point it was really weird. I went from using to needing and I don’t remember it. I don’t remember when I went from recreational use to addiction, to dependency.
I would go through several different treatment centers, methadone centers. I tried suboxone. I tried moving to California. I thought if I just packed my bags, leave and go somewhere else where nobody knew me I could just start over and be whoever I wanted to be. The problem with that is wherever you go there you are you know. At that time I didn’t realize the problem was me. I thought it was the drugs. I was in two very abusive relationships.
The first one was we were living in Nevada and he ended up head-butting me and breaking my nose in the front lawn of our home. Shortly after that I had ended up running into an old friend out in California. She saw me and I think I’d probably been about 140lbs at the time. My collar bones were sticking out, I was rather frail. She bought me a plane ticket and three days later I came home.
When I came home I just got involved with the same people. When I did that, that’s is when the legal stuff started happening. The first time I ever got I trouble I had lived right up the street. The apartment that I was living in got raided and that was the first time I had been arrested. After that point it was just one after another getting arrested. Eventually I tried to do it on my own. Got involved with another rather abusive boyfriend. Fast forward my first treatment center I decided to leave AA, which is against medical advice. My thought process was; I was going to leave, come home, use go to court and go to jail
I was okay with that. I thought that was a solid plan to me. That’s how crazy the disease of addiction is. I did that, I left, I came home, I used, went to court and the judge said “Punish her to rehab”, which was not a part of my plan. Over the next two months I had to wait 30 days because I left AA. I had to wait another 30 days for a bed to open up. Within those two months the apartment I was living in had burned down. Under the Influence I had fallen asleep on my hand for an extended period which caused something called Saturday Night Palsy.
It’s where an addict or an alcoholic passes out on the extremity and does nerve damage. I had no use of my hand for over three months. I was an I.V. user and there was a point in time where a needle had broken off into my arm and I left it there for six years until I had gotten clean and got a straight head on and I had surgery to have that removed. My kidney functions are extremely low. The way they explained it to me is that my kidney function is that of a 70 year old. I think that’s due to all of the different opioids and the wear and tear on the body.
Emotional Health and Addiction
A big part of the health effects is the emotional state that people wanders in while being in addiction—I’m a very outgoing person and I can talk to just about anyone, anywhere about anything. When I was using, I was afraid to leave my house. I’d lived less than two or three hundred yards from a grocery store and it took everything inside of me to get up, get myself dressed to go to the grocery store just because my anxiety levels were so high. A lot of people use to try and escape their feelings of depression or anxiety.
In reality the only thing it does is increase this. I was going through panic attacks, and a lot of the different medications. I was having on medication induced seizures. I just think of it I felt like my body just couldn’t go anymore. My sister pointed it out the most. The way that my family always knew I was using, was how much I weighed because I would get her periods of extreme weight loss while using and then gaining that back while attempting to get clean. The health effects I had have lasting effects, psychologically, physically, and emotionally. It takes a long time to heal all that stuff, to accept it, deal with it and move forward with it.
Finding a Support System in a Sponsor
I do honestly say that without my sponsorship family I don’t think I would still be clean today. When I went into treatment the first thing I told my counselor was “I’m going to tell you I want to go home, not to let me go home. Don’t let me go home”. But she didn’t, she relocated me to a halfway house down in Frederick Maryland. While you’re in treatment it’s almost like a brainwash. I’ll say if I needed to be brainwashed to get away from whatever I was doing before I was okay with it. I got involved in a twelve step program. It took me about six months after I was involved in the program to be clean.
The reason that is like I said look for my clean is December 28, 2012. This was the first year I was down in Frederick, I was my first Christmas. I remember I was getting ready to come home and my sponsor and I had come up with this plan where I stay at my sister’s, she’s my safe zone. No contact with old friends or ex’s. I didn’t do anything she suggested. When I went home I think the first thing I did was contact my ex. he brought my dog over. My sister’s kids were so I ended up staying at my parents which I ended up using, so I’d used all over Christmas.
It was December 27th, my best friend and my sponsorship family called me to wish me a Merry Christmas. I thought what we had was just a normal conversation. When I got off the phone probably less than five minutes later my sponsor called me and trying to walk me through my thought process. I had my dog which meant I saw my ex, I was at my parents which is not a good place for me. She was trying to get me to realize all the decisions I was making weren’t necessarily the best ones. The last thing she said to me was—she worked the night shift as a security guard at a prison and she said “I don’t have to work tonight. I don’t know if you want to white knuckle your way through this situation, but if you don’t I’ll come and get you”. I was kind of just like “Okay you know I’ll think about it. I’ll call you back”.
When I hung up the phone it was at that moment that I realize that these people that I barely knew six months wanted nothing but the best for me. I think that was my reality check. I ended up calling her back and I said “Come get me”. My sponsor and my best friend drove three and a half hours from Frederick up to Garrett County in the middle of a snow storm to pick me up and take me back home. That’s why I consider the 28th my clean date because I haven’t used since. I don’t drink, I pretty much don’t do anything.
Trials During Recovery
Throughout my early recovery and my first year or two I remember a period where it was around my first year clean and they say in the twelve step program that at your anniversaries you start going crazy. That’s what I was experiencing. It was around my first year I had no idea why but I just wanted to mess things up. You know I knew I couldn’t quit my job because I needed my job. I liked my friends so I didn’t want to screw anything up with them.
I just couldn’t come up with anything to ruin, but that’s all I was thinking about because I was an addict. A lot of times my first thought is self-destruction especially when I can’t deal with feelings whether they be good or bad. I remember texting both my sponsor and my best friend and telling them that everything I was doing was reminding me of using.
My best friend sent me this long message of all of the things she knew about me through my active addiction, including you know the abusive ex’s and going to jail and all that stuff. Then she sent me another message of everything that we had done in recovery and now. I’m saying your first year of recovery I lived more than I did in those twelve years of using even though I went all over the place, California, Nevada etc.. I still didn’t experience anything because I was never present in the movement. When she sent that to me she followed it up with “Think about those two and then tell me if you still want to use”.
I was living with my sponsor at the time, I’d gotten home and she told me to get dressed and I didn’t know why, she didn’t tell me. She just tell me to get dressed. I got dressed and my grand sponsor, which was her sponsor showed up and they took me to a baseball game and made me sit there. I sat at this baseball game and I cried. I cried and I cried and I cried and my grand sponsor’s theory was always “When you don’t know what to do you sit on your hands”. That’s what I did. I just had to sit through it and here I am at the Frederick baseball game, everyone’s having a heyday and I’m bawling because honestly I don’t know why.
Situations like that, like if they weren’t there for me in those moments, if I were to allow my thought process to continue I eventually would have came up with the idea of the best solution right now is to go use. I strongly agree that a social support, an emotional support, it is a key component of recovery, you cant do it alone. It’s a lot easier when you have people who understand what you’ve been through.
Sobriety & Stigma from the Medical Setting to Society
I know for me sometimes it’s tough with my health issue trying to talk to a doctor and being taken seriously. I’m a recovering addict and once they hear that, the word human being goes out the window. It’s tough and sometimes you’ve got to have thick skin because some mean people that have a very closed mind and aren’t very understanding. I kind of just smile and nod at those people. It’s been six years since I entered my first treatment center and in two days I’ll graduate from college. That’s crazy to me to think back to where I was.
Sharing Story to Impact Change
I remember when I went to MedX to speak on a panel session. Standing outside and seeing the big sign that said Stanford University I just thought to myself “How did I get here?” I didn’t understand it was so weird. I do attribute a lot of this to Regina Holliday. If Regina hadn’t brought me to Cinderblocks, if she wouldn’t have asked me to share my story, all these other people wouldn’t have heard it and I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I’ve had over the past year. I remember when I told my family what was wrong with me, what was wrong with me being addicted to drugs at that time.
It was suggested to me by my counselor at the treatment center that I was at. I was in an outpatient methadone treatment center. I gather my family together granted my family is well known in the community. My brother was in the department of juvenile justice for 20 years. He’s the Cub Scout leader. Everybody knows my brother, both my sisters, one’s a teacher an elementary school teacher and the other one is a guidance counselor secretary. You could say I was the black sheep of the family and I remember when I told them they didn’t understand because they didn’t know, and they didn’t know anything about it.
Public Health, Education & Addiction
If people were more educated about addiction, what causes it. The interactions, the pharmacology between the different substances. How they affect the brain. Just stepping outside of their shoes and trying to look at it from a different perspective I think would have a huge impact on things. A lot of people feel shame and guilt because of their addiction and are embarrassed to talk about it. One of the doctors on the panel at MedX said it best, for years addicts have been lepers. That’s what we are once you have that label there’s no turning back. Again, when people don’t have that in mind, the empathy or compassion to understand, they don’t get it.
It’s a fruitless battle. I feel that education, knowledge, understanding simple human being decency is needed. Nobody deserves to die no matter what they choose to do or chose to do it, I hear that a lot. “They chose to use so they deserve to die”. I can speak from experience that there were many times I used against my own will. I did want to be doing what I was doing but I knew physically I couldn’t go on without it because I was dependent on it. In our twelve-step program, we say “Drugs aren’t the issue. Drugs are side effects of addiction”. Our real problem is the way that we think and the way that we feel and not being able to cope with those things. It’s exhausting and it’s long it does take a lot of motivation. I would say self-will but that’s nothing at all one must deal with.
A Call for Resources in Rural Communities.
Whenever I was using in this small town I had no idea about resources because it wasn’t something people talked about. I remember going to treatment and going to my first twelve-step program and they’re like “You’ve never been to a meeting before?” and I had no idea what a meeting was. I didn’t have the resources here. The more we talk the more we bring it out and the more we bring it up, I think the quicker we can get past the stigma.
Get past the negativity of addiction and see it simply as what it is and that’s a disease. Much like a diabetic who takes their insulin every day, an addict gets a daily reprieve by simply choosing not to use and more often than not when the addict that chooses not to use is a miracle. Because everything in my being says to use, use, use, and every day that I choose not to do that is a miracle and nothing short of that.