Nelson Mandela’s famous words are a constant and positive reminder for an energetic and ambitious young woman named Ashley* whose life holds genuine joy and promise, two things that didn’t fill her life as teenager.
“I took my first drink when I was 13. That was the beginning of the end,” she says.
While Ashley grew up living a comfortable life in the suburbs with her family, what was happening behind closed doors set in motion a path to alcohol and drug use, eating disorders and risky behaviors. Family members that struggled with their own addictions added fuel to the fire.
“My uncle suffered from addiction and my grandfather was an alcoholic. My dad was an alcoholic, too, which made things pretty dysfunctional at home,” she says. “My parents would fight…a lot.”
While Ashley says her dad would never get physically abusive, his anger hung like a cloud over the family and their home. But what made things worse, Ashley says, was the denial of anything wrong.
“If they were fighting one night, the next morning we’d wake up and it was like nothing happened. That would always freak me out because no one would reaffirm my reality,” she says.
While her dad ended up getting sober when she was 12, Ashley became curious about things she’d see on TV—things like cutting and eating disorders. She admits it enticed her because it was a way for her to get attention, escape her troubles and gain some control, something she desperately wanted as her life, it seemed, was spiraling out of it.
“I had really bad ADD growing up. I’d get kicked out of class and get into a lot of trouble. I don’t think the teachers knew how to handle me,” says Ashley. “I turned to alcohol and drugs to be rebellious and to live up to the labels people put on me.”
At 15, Ashley smoked marijuana for the first time. Then, when she turned 16, things took a turn for the worse. Her parents got divorced and she started abusing Adderall.
“My sister had a prescription and I started stealing her pills. I was amazed at how much homework I could get done. It also helped me focus on my art,” she says.
The Adderall, however, also fueled her eating disorder. She binged and purged, and suffered from anorexia.
“From the alcohol and marijuana, to the Adderall and eating issues, all my demons were intersecting,” Ashley says. “Then I started doing uppers and Ecstasy, and mixing all these drugs together. I was using three or four times a week. Things were completely out of control.”
The first week of her junior year in high school, Ashley was arrested for possession of marijuana. She also had her Adderall prescription on her, which authorities believed she would be dealing. Then at 17, Ashley was arrested again at a party, where she was extremely drunk, she says.
“I managed to get out of the handcuffs and I took off,” she says. “The next morning, I had an appointment to see my therapist and I ended up going to her house instead of her office. It was then that I decided to get sober.
“I know it sounds strange, but often it’s the mundane things that push people to get sober, things like missing an appointment or forgetting someone’s birthday,” she explains.
Ashley spoke with her sister, who was in recovery herself, and asked to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with her.
“In my first year of sobriety, I went to six to eight meetings a week. I also changed schools because I needed to take myself out of that environment,” Ashley says. “I switched my way of thinking and behaving. Every part of me that I put into getting high, I was now putting into getting sober.”
Today, Ashley is four years sober. She lives with her mom and is close with both her parents. During her first year of sobriety, she lived with her father, with whom she shared the experience of recovery.
Ashley has dreams of becoming a fashion stylist and designer some day, and is making plans to move to Los Angeles, where she may even try to make it in acting. Looking back, she says she’s not ashamed of what she went through.
“You kind of have to let the universe do what it’s going to do. Ultimately, an addict is an addict is an addict. I’m really lucky to be sober—not everyone has that chance.”
By // Michelle Jacoby