I’d like to be able to speak about your recovery using the terms that you most identify with. What language or labels do you use to describe your recovery?
Recovery and addict, you know? I just say that I’m either in recovery or I’m an addict.
Why is that language important to you?
You know, some people say drug addict and I think the words drug addict kinda gives you the heebie jeebies. I just say addict because there is more of a stigma if you say you’re a drug addict. People automatically think less of you rather than if you say you’re an addict. I don’t know if that’s true or not but that’s why I say addict.
When did you start using?
I was twelve the first time I got high or started drinking. I’d stolen a bunch of whiskey from my dad’s shed and drank it all. Yeah, I was twelve, almost in eighth grade. That was the first time and I continued that through my teens.
Was alcohol your drug of choice?
No, cocaine and painkillers. The alcohol was listed for while I was in treatment but that wasn’t what I went for, that was cocaine or painkillers.
What prompted you to seek recovery or look for help?
That’s a loaded question. I was homeless for a long time and my parents wouldn’t let me stay at their place and they were like you need to go to treatment. This was 2015 and they told me I had to go to treatment, and I was like I’m not going to treatment. I don’t have a problem. They had said that they wouldn’t let me stay there anymore unless I went to treatment, which was here in Walla Walla. I’m from Tacoma. So I opted to go to treatment and I just white knuckled it. I didn’t want to get clean. I had no intention. I just wanted to continue to stay there and not get kicked out. I completed treatment and some of that stuck with me: I knew I was an addict, I knew that I had a problem, and I knew that I had to fix it. But I wasn’t ready to fix that so I continued for a couple more years.
Then I was with my daughter and I spent all of her Christmas money on drugs and I didn’t have any presents for her. I was living with a friend and she was over there and she was like, “Where are my presents, Dad?” and I didn’t have anything for her. So I lied and I said, “I think I left them at my friends house” but she knew. She was ten.
At that very moment my girlfriend at the time knew that I was high and I had my daughter and she was really upset about it. So she kinda tricked me. She texted me and said, “I know your high.” I said I wasn’t high. And she said, “ I just want to get high with you” and I was like “Well come on over then I’ve got tons of drugs.” She screenshotted that and sent it to my family on facebook messenger and stuff. My dad called me right then and said “We’re done, you’re going back to treatment, I’m going to pick you up.” So that’s what he did.
He picked me up, um, and took me to his house and I stayed there for two weeks until I got into a treatment center. That incident was the final straw for me.
Did you find the help that you were looking for at these treatment centers?
No. Well, yes at the starting point. When I went there I thought I could go to treatment and come out and be okay but it’s a forever of hard work: rebuilding relationships, getting back on your feet, and that kinda stuff. It was very difficult but I think it got me back on my feet. The resources in Walla Walla are so huge that I was able to find what I needed every step of the way. As my journey progressed I was able to find sober housing and then a job and stuff like that. Walla Walla has been very good to me.
That’s wonderful. What made the switch from Tacoma to Walla Walla?
I came here for treatment. They always urge you to move away from where you were really bad off because it’s hard to stay clean where you were getting high. I was arguing with my counselor--a lot of my stuff, I was in the Marine Corps and I was in Iraq and that’s where it got bad for me--and we were arguing. He was like, “I know, I know. I get it, I get it” and I was like, “You don’t get it.” I was yelling at him and angry, “You don’t understand what it’s like to lose your best friends. You don’t get any of that.” He was like, “Why don’t you be that guy?” I was like what does that mean? He was like, “Why don’t you stay here, go to sober housing, get a job, start saving money, go to school, get a degree, and you can be here and some jerk like you can be sitting there and say ‘No you don’t know what it’s like.’ And you can say, ‘No I do know what it’s like.’ You can change people’s lives.” I was like, man, do you think I can do that? He was like, “Yeah, you can do that.”
That was February 2018 and I graduate this Sunday with my degree from CC and I transfer to University of Cincinnati for my undergrad. It was a beautiful transition. I love it here. It’s like home for me now. That’s why I stayed.
That’s an incredible story.
It’s wild, huh?
I appreciate it.
What are you graduating in with your degree?
Human and social services. Social work for Cincinnati. I’d like to get my masters degree and be a social worker. That’s what I’d like to do. My end game goal is to open a treatment center myself so I can do what I think would work. A lot of treatment centers like the VA are held down by government mandates. It’s hard for them to work because there are so many restrictions. I’d like to open my own, year long treatment center; kinda get dirty a little bit.
Would it be a live-in program?
Yeah absolutely. There’s something to be said for recreational therapy where guys are going and riding horses or going camping for a week, learning survival training and just doing stuff like living again. Stuff you don’t do when you’re getting high every day. I think that’s very therapeutic for people.
Definitively. Do you know of other programs that are doing that?
They are few and far between. It’s out there for sure. Most places are thirty day, sixty day, but science says that ninety days is the best chance--to be a patient for ninety days before you get out. I remember the first time I went to treatment in 2015 when I got out of treatment I was still shaky. I was so bad off when I got into treatment that the thirty days didn’t do it. When I got out there I was still not even thinking perfectly clear yet. I just wanted to get high. I’d like to do six months to a year to kinda combat that.
Have a program where people get used to life again.
Right, absolutely. You don’t live while you’re getting high you just get high.
How do you maintain recovery? It seems like an every day, every moment…
It’s every day, sometimes twice. It’s really hard. For me, triggers aren’t places. I can go back home and see my parents and laugh about places where I used to get high. The things that are triggers are feelings. My best friend was killed in Iraq and I felt like I had let him down or I had somehow not performed at the level I should have. When I feel like that, like I’m worthless, that’s when I want to go get high.
For me, recovery is having a really tight group of people. We call each other almost every day, eight of us, and just talk. How are you doing? How was your day?
I had some stuff going on a few weeks ago--not that I wanted to relapse--but I called my friends and four came over on the spot. We just talked and hung out and took a walk. That’s the way I maintain recovery. I don’t talk to anyone who gets high, at all. When I got here I cut off communication with anyone that was previously in my life in regards to drugs. I just don’t let those people into my life anymore.
Is that your intention to then create a community with this recovery community that you want to start, too? Create that same community of supportive people?
I think it was already here. I joined it, you know, but they were already doing it. With the VA here in town there were a bunch of veterans who did the same thing that I did: they came here and decided to stay so they can stay clean. The veteran community is thick here. I got accepted into them because I was having a hard time and they were like, “Come here, we can help you.” But you have to stay here, you can’t wander out. So maybe I would like to expand that for sure, you know what I mean.
I don’t want my treatment center to just be for vets. I want it to be for everybody. When I got here I was bent on just helping vets in combat but somewhere on my journey last year I realized that everyone has trauma and it’s all the same essentially. Whether you’re abused as a child, or your parents were using drugs, it still hurts the same. I want that to be universal so anyone can be included.
I think that’s so powerful. I might not word this question in a very clear way, but what sort of tools for life would you want people to cultivate? Also a big question.
No, that’s okay. I’m a case manager for BMAC for homeless youth and young adults. I think what we need to cultivate is accountability. If I can nutshell everything I want, it would be into accountability. You just have to take accountability for your actions and admit you’ve done what you did and that you are trying to move forward. Confront that. Be accountable to yourself and to the friends and family that you’ve hurt and to the people that you’re going to meet later and not hurt them. Make a commitment to stop doing that and just do this now and not do that. I think that’s the hardest thing for people who are using drugs to realize.
It’s so easy to make excuses. You could be like, “Well I robbed you because I didn’t get paid” instead of saying, “Well I have a drug problem, that’s why I did it, I’m sorry about that.” I did it a ton. It’s hard to instill that in people, that they need to own what they have done in order to move forward.
Especially when there is so much stigma attached to admitting an addiction and asking for help. There’s so much personal… you have to separate yourself from that label but be accountable for your actions.
It’s a difficult rope to walk, so to speak. I do try to separate myself. I’m not that guy anymore. But at the same time I want to continue to think about that because it kinda helps me stay clean. If I think about the terrible things I did or I was involved in five years ago I think, oh god I don’t ever want to go back to that. So it’s kinda helpful to think about that stuff sometimes.
How do you keep hope alive? How do you see yourself inspiring hope in other people who are hoping to find another path through their life?
I want to do that by just living the way I’m living and get my story out when I can get it out. For me it was really bad, it was really bad. I’m just going to give you the story in a nutshell, how this went down. I was overseas for my second combat tour, I was a Marine infantryman. It was really brutal we lost like forty guys. I got home and I was getting out of the Marine Corps and I just wanted to go home. They offered me to stay in for four more years--my best friends from my old unit, they’re all going--you should go with them. I was like, “I’m not going.” And he said, “Well, when one of your friends dies because you were too chicken to go on this deployment you can think about that everyday for the rest of your life.”
At the time that wasn’t a big deal. Two months later four of them were killed in an ambush. And I felt like--I found out on New Years Eve 2005--at the time that it was my fault. It just hit me: I did this, this is my fault. If I had stepped up instead of stepping down I could have maybe saved these guys. That’s not true, I get that now, but at the time I was twenty-two years old I thought that’s just how it worked.
I was drinking a lot and then my girlfriend at the time had given me some Percocet and I just felt better. I can’t explain it, I just felt better. It made me feel better. I could show feelings again, I could talk to my mom and tell her I love her, tell my girlfriend she was pretty. [Before] I couldn’t do any of that. I was just completely dead inside. I know it’s really cliche to say but I was just dead inside and wandering around. I had a great job. I was a firefighter and getting paid a ton of money and it just wasn’t enough for me because I was just broken, you know.
So the opiates just turned into a 15 pills a day thing. I couldn’t even get out of bed unless I had drugs. And then in 2014 I overdosed. My dad was a fire captain at the time, he’s a chief now, at the time he was a captain I overdosed on his shift in his house so his crew came to me. So I woke up to his crew that I’ve known for twenty years with an IV in my arm. That was a really traumatic thing. I never wanted to die, I didn’t want to commit suicide, I just wanted to feel better.
So I switched. I’d kinda recreationally done cocaine and I thought I’d do less because it’s more expensive. But that’s when it got really bad. I just sold all my stuff and ended up in the streets. But when you go through that story I was a Marine and then a firefighter, quit my job because I was getting high, all this stuff, I think this story can be very inspirational and I want to show people.
I get clients all the time that say, “Man it’s just too late. I can’t turn this thing around.” And I want to just be like, “Dude I was thirty-five. You can turn it around.” It’s easy if you have the right people with you. Like, let’s go, let’s do this. I show them I’m living a life now: I have a six month old son at home, I just got married. My life is amazing. It’s the best it’s ever been. I’m probably completely off topic now. I just want to show them that it’s doable. It’s a tangible thing. They can have a really happy and fulfilling life. It doesn’t have to be about buying drugs.
I don’t remember what the question was. Oh, how to be an inspiration.
Yes. How you keep hope and what hope means to you.
Almost every day clients--this guy just today said, “It’s just too much I just can’t do it.” And I was like, “Let me tell you a story.” They’re just blown away cause these guys are young, like eighteen. They have so much life ahead of them. But you know, like you said earlier, it’s really hard work. And if you slip--it’s so easy to slip--you just go so far back.
I go to NA alot. I was chairing an NA meeting a week for like almost two years--I just quit doing it right before covid--and that helped me a lot. Going around people that are like minded who understand the struggle. Because the people, it’s just the older generation who’ve never been addicted to drugs they’re just like, “Oh he’s a doper.” But NA, the sponsor that I talk to all the time, we do step work which is just incredible and it’s helped me a ton.
Is your sponsor a part of your support network that you communicate with?
Absolutely yeah. We talk all the time, probably three times a week at least. In fact, my friend that was killed is buried in Troy, Montana and I’ve got this thing where I’m going there now for his anniversary. Trying to address what I have been hiding from for sixteen years. Because he died on December 23 and December has been a really hard month for me ever since. Every year before I got clean I would lock myself in my bedroom with drugs and booze and get loaded for a month straight and wouldn’t come out.
This last year was the first year since 2004 that I did not use any drugs, and also did not have so much emotion and anxiety that I could not function.
Instead of carrying that responsibility around with you
Yeah. I went up there last year and met all of his family, his brother, his aunt. They gave me a newspaper clipping from when he was buried. It was really cool because it was really therapeutic for everybody.
Do you find that helping other people especially young kids, 18 or around that age…do you imagine your younger self as them? Like you’re giving advice to your younger self?
100%. Yes absolutely. I think that kids of that age don’t want to talk to someone who doesn’t get what they’re going through. They’re not trying to talk to someone like a suit or whatever they would call them. They always try to get snotty with me because I dress nice. They’ll say, “Well what do you know?” Well I’ll tell you what I know. Every scenario that they come up with I’ve been through that. I can say, “Listen that’s not going to work. I’m telling you right now.” I think that helps both of us because it helps me to give that knowledge away and maybe help them avoid a hurdle in life. I think that I have a really good rapport with all of my clients. They know if we get into an argument I’m just going to shoot them straight. I’m going to do the best that
I can do to take care of them. Even if you don’t want to hear that at the time. It for sure helps me. I tell them, “I can see myself where you’re at right now. I know what you’re thinking: it’s not going to be a problem. But it’s going to be a problem. You’re going to end up in treatment and lose everything, probably twice.”
My goal, like I said, is to be a social worker and maybe addiction counseling. I don’t know. Potentially addiction therapy. We’ll see where school goes.
You were talking about reimagining addiction therapy, focusing on life skills and outdoor recreation. Would you elaborate on that? Or do you have other ideas of how you would…
What I would like to do?
I don’t even know if this sounds crazy. I haven’t researched this yet to see if it would work but my ideal treatment center would have therapeutic options. Not just talk therapy. So like EMDR eye movement… are you familiar?
Yeah, the lights that move back and forth?
Yeah. So like that kinda stuff. I think treatment centers are really good at getting you on your feet but they kinda just push you out. They’re like, “All right, have a good life.” But if you could just stay for six months, let’s just get to the root of why you are doing this. There’s a reason everybody is using drugs. It’s pretty universal. We’re all running from something. Some sort of feeling or action that we don’t want to think about anymore. Let’s find that, let’s get rid of it, and then forget about that and put it behind you. I don’t know if there are any treatment centers doing that but that’s what I’d like to do. I think that recreational therapy like horseback riding, going to the beach and camping for a couple of days, just do stuff together. I keep saying live again but that’s really what it is. You have to learn how to live your life and how to have fun and not just be worried about getting high.
Find out how to let you and live again.
Yeah it’s hard. You don’t really realize, when you’re doing that, the toll that it’s already taken. You think you’re just fine, you’re in your peak, in your prime but really you haven’t lived in years. You’ve spent five, six, seven, fourteen years just trying to get high and asking yourself “where am I going to get money for drugs.” So when that’s over there’s nothing left in your life to live for. You don’t have hobbies. You sold your fishing poles, you know what I mean. Everything you ever did is gone.
For me most of my family wouldn’t talk to me. I was cut off from everybody essentially. I think if you had that group of guys to keep maintaining that with or people--not just men--but people to go do stuff with. We’re still here for you. Let’s talk about it. Even relaxing for a little bit. Like, for the last couple of months just chilling and living there or help with employment placement like resume help. Oftentimes people don’t even know how to make a resume or fill out an application or how to go to work or how to set an alarm clock or do their laundry, that kind of stuff. It’s super needed.
You mentioned the stigma if you say that you are a drug addict instead of an addict. Do you feel like there has been blockades for employment for addicts if they say they’ve had a past of addiction and are in recovery?
I don’t know. I haven’t at all. I got my job at BMAC after having been clean for eight months. I told them and they were really chill. They were happy that an addict had moved past that towards career style employment. They were proud of me so I’ve got nothing but love over there. But I can imagine maybe a more corporate place or maybe where there’s a little more stigma attached to that you might find that.
I think Walla Walla as a community is really really generous though. I’ve had no problems placing any of my clients with employment. Mod Pizza calls themselves a second chance company. They’re hiring felons with face tattoos. It’s beautiful out here. Really cool what’s happening.
What was the most difficult aspect of your recovery?
Probably accountability, honestly. It’s a cycle. Addicts are messed up. When you’re serious about going to treatment and you get out of treatment and you’re like, “Well what do I do now?” And then you’re just angry for a while. You’re like why did I get this? Why did this happen to me? I didn’t ask for this. I just wanted to feel like a person again and here I am.
I did the same thing. I was angry for about a year. I was angry at my family who had kicked me out a couple years prior. I was like, “How could you leave me like that, high and dry?” But they had to. They had to kick me out in order to make me want to get better. That’s just what it was. It was just love. At the time I didn’t see that. That for sure was the hardest part of my recovery.
A lot of the times if there was a little set back, let’s say I got in an argument with a family member I would be like, it’s not even worth it. I just want to get high. This is too much I can’t do it. But my girlfriend then, my wife now, her dad is a meth addict. He just got out of prison four years ago so she’s all about that cycle she knows what that looks like. She’s been a beautiful asset to my life because she can walk me through that: it’s going to get better. It’s going to be okay. You don’t need to get high. And she’ll call my friends for me.
Back then, if I was upset, she’d call my friends and be like, “Hey he needs somebody.” And they’d come over and be like, “Ashton called us man, are you alright?” And I was like, in a gruff voice “Why would she call you? Go away.” laughs. That was for sure the hardest part, riding that out. It will go away and it went away after a while but it takes a minute.
How did you rebuild your relationships? If you are willing to share that.
No, I’ll share anything. That’s another thing, I think sharing helps you get that off your chest. To just share your story. I didn’t tell anyone I was an addict for a while. Probably eight months. But I’m kinda proud of it now. I’m not proud of what I did but it changed my life for the better. Like when I was young I was kinda cocky. I was a Marine. I was a firefighter. We would go to people who were drug addicts and say, “Oh my god all of these junkies.” Just trash them you know.
And then one day I was like, “Oh man I am the junkie.” This is ridiculous. That just made my life better. I feel like I see--you know, you’re in school. I feel like I learned to see things from different perspectives. It’s not just about your perspective it’s about a macro, worldwide view of what’s happening. And that’s how I see people now. I just try to see people for who they are and not what they are showing themselves as.
I know people that are relapsing back to back all the time. But I know they are really beautiful people. They’re just having a really hard time and they just need to get their act together.
I forgot what the question was.
That’s alright. It was how did you rebuild your relationship during recovery?
So I just systematically went one by one. It’s really hard to do and it takes a toll and it’s taxing. I went and I started with my dad and my mom and my brothers and went through the captain of the fire department, all of my firefighter buddies, and just called them and was like listen, “I’m not asking you to be in my life but I just want to let you know. Here’s what happened to me in the Marine Corps--” I didn’t tell anybody then at all. I didn’t tell them that I was in combat. I didn’t talk about that. “This is what happened to me. I didn’t get help. I thought I was okay. I wasn’t okay. I ended up just getting cranked on drugs. I’m sorry for that. I’m genuinely sorry if I hurt you. I love you very much. I hope we can hang out someday and I’m sorry for what I did.”
And unanimously minus maybe two people have all been really really cool. My dad and I have a great relationship. I just went over last weekend for a week or four days. Like my brothers, I stole from all of them. I stole my brother’s guitar and pawned it. I stole three hundred dollars in change from my parents coin jar.. Laughs. I was taking them out in bags like, “Nothing to see here!” We both laugh.
But they’ve all been really cool. You can’t come back and be like, “I got screwed man.” You have to come back and say, “I did this and I’m sorry.” Like my dad said, “I don’t care about any of it. I just don’t want you to ever do that to us again. Don’t hurt us like that.” And he took it a step farther and said, “If you relapse, I understand that is a part of the game, just don’t turn into that drug addict again. That street addict who is stealing my stuff, and acting like an ungrateful jerk.. Just be honest. And I did relapse after that actually, a while ago. And I called him and told him, “I’m just going to be honest, I relapsed.”
He was like, “I love you. My heart is broken but I’m not mad. We’ll just figure it out.” And it's been great.
It ties right back into the accountability factor and being honest knowing that there will be people out there to support you.
You just gotta be real with people. I see so many people just try to pawn it off. Like, a lot of bad childhood for sure and that sucks, but no one’s is perfect. You’ve got to work through that. It’s your job to work through that. Go find a therapist that works and talk it out.
Would you like to share any more insights from your recovery journey? Anything we didn’t touch on?
I don’t know. I just think if I was going to share anything, you’ve just got to do it. You’ve just got to do it yourself. My dad would always--when I was a kid--tell me, “When you’re a man you’ve just got to do it. Pull your pants up and go do it. Go support your family. Go put food on the table. If it’s not a job you want but it’s the only job you just go and take that job and figure it out.” But it’s like that. You have to get militant about it. I don’t want to be dramatic and say that it’s a war but it kinda is. You have to get up everyday and fight it.
For probably six months after I got clean I wanted to get high everyday. In fact I told my dad somewhere around December 2018--I said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to live a day on planet earth without wanting to use drugs. I just get up and want to get high everyday.” It’s so hard to fight that. You just have to be done with it. When my daughter looked at me when I’d told her that I’d misplaced her presents and she started crying and I started crying, that was just it for me. I couldn’t live like that anymore. It’s not even who I am or who I was. It’s embarrassing right. You’re just making a fool of yourself in front of all these people.
Until you get to that point it’s just not going to work. You can go to treatment thirty times but if you don’t desire to quit that life you’re not going to quit that life.
Was there a time where you--maybe this was the moment with your daughter--where you saw that every moment you have the choice of who you want to be and what you want to do. Did you find that in a moment or was that ever a part of your recovery path?
While I was getting high?
When you decided to seek help or when you were finding what recovery is for you.
Yeah, I think I was intimidated by that though. Because I was just talking about moments, like make a moment memorable. I was thinking about how many moments I’ve ruined and like one drop in the bucket [plunk sound] to make up for it. I was like, “Oh god, I’m never going to catch that up.” But it really is all about moments. I go home and I kiss my son on the forehead. He just crawled for the first time this morning. It’s crazy. And my daughter is coming here for the summer. It works. Right? It worked.
Her mom--I’m sorry I’m super off track--is the best baby mom on the planet. She knew what was going on and she would just keep Callie from me. But she would just be like, “Listen, when you’re clean you can have her whenever you want. I promise you. Just come back when you’re not using drugs.” I got treatment and I’m not using drugs and I came back and she was like, “Do you want her for the summer?” And I was like, “What?!” So she came for the summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and she’s back here for the summer again. On Sunday we’re picking her up. Those moments are incredible.
We had a big talk last summer, you know what I mean. I just came clean and I was like that’s where the presents went. And she was like, “Yeah I’m not dumb, dad.” [laughs] “You were acting weird.”
I don’t know. Like I said I’m really thankful for it really. I have way better friends in my life who aren’t using me for money or drugs. I have a beautiful family. I never thought I was going to buy a house; I’m about to buy a house. It’s crazy. Two years ago I would have never done any of that.
I only became a firefighter because my dad was a firefighter. I thought he would be proud if I did that but I hated it. I didn’t even like it. I was in a slow department that didn’t run many calls and I’m really hyper so I was freaking out all the time. That showed me my journey. I’ve never been more confident in my life. I never thought I was going to go to school. I barely graduated high school. So that was it. That [addiction] is just what I had to be. If that hadn’t happened I would definitely be in a very different place for sure.
I always thought, “Why me?” Why did I have to go into the Marine Corps? Why did that have to happen? Why did Iraq have to turn into a war? Why did I have to get stuck in the middle of it twice? But I think I can almost count it as a blessing. That sounds dumb but kinda. A little bit. Those guys are my best friends still and I have a bunch of new best friends and life, I don’t know, just worked itself out. Like it’s supposed to.