Ashley and Carl had never met before sitting down together in the KET studios. Yet a few minutes of open, honest conversation revealed a deep connection between the two young Kentuckians – a connection based on their common experiences of addiction and recovery.
They shared the stories of their past struggles and their lives today in the special program, Never Met a Stranger.
The Promise of Youth, The Path to Addiction
Looking back on his childhood, Carl describes himself as full of life and ready for adventure. Although he was raised in a good home by parents he says were “awesome people,” Carl’s path took an unexpected turn the summer before middle school.
“I started spending some time with some guys that I shouldn’t have. Some of them were a little older and I just wanted them to think that I was something else,” says Carl. “Their opinion of me was more important than my better judgment.”
He started smoking cigarettes and drinking. Soon he added marijuana to the mix. Then after a car accident, Carl got a prescription for pain pills.
“I was already in addiction before I knew pain pills,” Carl says. “I was addicted to smoking marijuana and to alcohol because it was a part of my life. It was something I had to do everyday.”
Ashley says she was also raised in a good home among a close-knit family. She was athletic, an honor student, and ambitious, but also haunted by shyness. As she grew up, Ashley says she began to feel trapped by the narrow-mindedness she experienced in her small home town.
“I was trying to please everybody else and not myself,” says Ashley. “I started using… to avoid any of the pain of not really being able to be my true self, not really being able to do what I wanted to do or felt was necessary.”
Smoking cigarettes and marijuana, drinking, and taking pills offered Ashley an escape. She entered into a bad marriage and a downward spiral of addiction that lasted 12 years.
“I was skin and bones,” she says. “I was about 100 pounds soaking wet. I was walking narcotic… There was that moment that, okay, something does have to change.”
As Carl found himself increasingly dependent on opioid pain medicines, he decided to start selling drugs to support his own habit.
“I knew where to get them and I knew who wanted them so it was completely logical to me to become a drug dealer,” he says.
Although his sales were lucrative, Carl discovered a cost that he wasn’t prepared for: He realized he was helping to destroy the lives of innocent children whose parents purchased drugs from him. Carl saw his own demise looming, so he tried to quit. Sometimes he made it a day without using, sometimes he made it a week.
“But I would always fall back in the hole and had no idea how to climb out,” he says. “Then I went to jail and that’s what changed for me.”
Incarcerated and facing seven Class D felonies, Carl finally realized he needed help with his addiction – that it was something he wouldn’t be able to tackle alone.
“God put me in a position to where I was only going to look to him for a solution…. because trying to fix it all myself just kept me digging a hole,” Carl says. “And it was my grave – that’s what I was digging.”
Relearning How to Live
Carl and Ashley found the help they needed in their respective treatment programs, but the road to recovery was not easy.
“That initial treatment is hard,” Carl says. “It totally upends everything that you’ve been living to this point. Your morals, your philosophies of life, the things that have been your values were…. so selfish.”
“Everything they tell you to do is the exact opposite of what you’ve been doing,” Ashley says. “Some of it’s completely new. It’s stuff you never knew how to do.”
Living in their previous lifestyles, both Carl and Ashley focused their days on feeding a habit. In recovery, they say they had to surrender everything they had grown accustomed to and learn to live anew without any chemical crutches.
“They gave me the tools to get off of drugs and to live without them,” he says. “It took a long time because I am hard-headed.”
Carl spent a year at Chad’s Hope, a faith-based residential treatment facility in Manchester. He says he’s been sober since 2009, and he works for Operation UNITE, a London-based non-profit that combats illegal drug use in eastern Kentucky.
“I go into communities to spread hope and to teach about recovery and to teach drug prevention,” he says. “That is what helps me stay clean, is that I want to see other people clean.”
Ashley has been sober for three-and-a-half years. She says she starts every day with a prayer of gratitude and she adheres to the advice of a mentor who told her to protect her recovery like it was gold in Fort Knox. She lives in Lexington and is working towards a degree in social work. Her goal is to be a substance abuse counselor.
“One day I would like to go back home and take the knowledge and resources that I’ve built here… and help others,” she says.
‘We Are Part of a Family’
Now well into their own recoveries, Ashley and Carl say it’s hard to see others who are already addicted but not yet ready for help, or young people growing up in drug-riddled communities who are at risk of developing their own substance abuse problems. As he travels around eastern Kentucky speaking to school and church groups, Carl says he sees many youth who are weighed down by the dire social and economic circumstances of their hometowns.
“They don’t understand that there are people who will help take it off of them,” he says. “For me that’s the hardest thing because if somebody doesn’t intervene and explain and come alongside this child, then they are going to follow the same exact cycle that they’ve seen because it’s all that they know.”
But at the same time, Carl says these same young people can be the state’s hope for a future without addiction.
“They are the ones who are empowered to be able to stop and say, ‘This ends with our generation, this ends right now,’” he says. “I want those kids to know that they have people who are on their side. There are people like us that are fighting for them, and there are people who love them and want to help them make the right decisions.”
Ashley says she also sees it as part of her personal mission to help educate the public about addiction.
“I want people to know that we aren’t morally bad people because of our past. We were sick and we got help,” she says. “I want those who are suffering to know there is help and there is hope.”
Although they met as strangers, any hints of awkwardness between Ashley and Carl quickly melted away as they exchanged their stories with each other. They had formed a kinship based on their shared journey that will likely last long after their television conversation concluded.
“I love the fact that people like you and me are in a community together,” Carl says. “Whether we know each other or not, we can be part of a family because we understand something… It’s a pretty great thing that we have each other.”
“Even though I didn’t know you until today, it’s almost like I do [know you],” Ashley says. “It’s that common bond of being able to share our past, our present, and hopes for the future.”