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Beyond Shame – Ashley Thomas Finds Love, Joy, and Purpose

Issue 33

Ashley Thomas knows that recovery isn’t always a straight shot, detours happen. She got sober from heroin at 21 years old. And then she got married, had kids, became an emergency room nurse… and got sober from fentanyl at 37.

“I started using in high school, smoking and drinking, some hallucinogens,” Ashley says. “I had some Percocet for back pain, too, and started going through that fast… The first time I checked myself into detox, I told my parents I was going four-wheeling with some friends up north. And then my parents got the bill from the insurance company. When they asked me about it, I concocted a story that it was about the pain pills that my doctor had prescribed. And they were so proud of me.”

Meanwhile, Ashley was still using.

“I blacked out and wrapped my car around a tree,” she says. “I called my Dad to pick me up, and I didn’t know where I was. Off to treatment, I went again, and eventually, I started listening and things started getting better.”

But she didn’t understand then — or for years — that addiction, rather than specific substances, was the problem. Case in point: She got out of detox on her 21st birthday and stopped at the liquor store, rationalizing that her problem wasn’t with alcohol.

“In September 2005, I ended up at a 12-step program in New Hampshire that changed my life,” she says. “It allowed me an opportunity to look at myself and start taking ownership.”

Along with a few other women from the same recovery program, Ashley moved to an Oxford House, a women’s sober house in Portland. While living there, she went to a 12-step meeting every morning at Milestone Recovery. “It was gritty, with unhoused people, the old-timers who had been sober for 40 years, and the young kids who were in detox,” Ashley says. “There was something powerful about that.”

She met a guy who was living in a men’s sober house, and they started a sober life together, got an apartment, then got married, and had a couple of kids.

“After almost 12 years of sobriety, he and I had this discussion that maybe we could casually drink now,” she says. “We both started drinking occasionally. It wasn’t excessive… until it was.”

Meanwhile, Ashley went through nursing school and found a career she loved. “I had so much love and passion for my work, and it began to highlight the ongoing differences [with my husband] in years of a rollercoaster relationship.” Ashley and her husband decided to divorce. But, she says, “We had an idealistic co-parenting relationship. Our friends would often comment on how beautifully we worked together and remained kind to one another.”

It wasn’t all ideal, though. Now living part of each week alone, Ashley started drinking when she got home from night shifts. Then she found a lump in her breast which led to have a partial mastectomy.

“I went to my pre-op appointment and they gave me a prescription for Oxycodone,” she says. “I filled it that day and probably took it all in two days. Then, when I had the surgery, I knew what to say to get some more pain meds.”

During this time, Ashley was struggling with the surgery not going as planned; she was dealing with complications and was out of work for longer than intended. She became depressed as she grappled with accepting there would be permanent disfigurement she didn’t intend on having, which led to excessive drinking while she was home.

“On my first day back, I had a trauma patient, and my brain went blank.” She couldn’t remember what to do because she was still detoxing from alcohol.

“We had medication machines in the ER that dispensed using our fingerprint,” Ashley says. “I started to divert significant amounts of medication from the hospital. I knew I was going to get caught. I was on camera. I remember hanging my head as I did it and thinking, ‘This is it, my nursing license is gone.’”

When Ashley was called to meet with the nursing director and human resources, she confessed.

“I knew that I wouldn’t have a job anymore,” she says. “But the most beautiful thing happened; they met me with kindness and ensured that I had a safe place to go to access help. I had already coordinated rehab. I knew this was going to happen, and it was time.”

Ashley surrendered her nursing license and entered a treatment facility.

“I used to believe that abstinence and the 12 steps were the only option and that if you didn’t do it that way, you weren’t doing it right,” Ashley says. “I didn’t believe in medication-assisted treatment, but that ended up saving my life. I realized it doesn’t matter how I got sober, just that I did.”

Four months into sobriety, Ashley faced a major hurdle: the sudden death of her ex-husband. She had to grieve while parenting her grieving children alone.

Ashley stayed well, though, and joined Milestone Recovery as a nurse. After three years of negative drug screenings and participation in the Medical Professionals Health Program, Ashley’s nursing license is no longer restricted. She now leads the nursing team in Portland.

Looking back on her story, Ashley says, “As a nurse, I was too ashamed to seek inpatient detox anywhere in Maine for my opiate use disorder. I was once a well-respected and highly skilled emergency room nurse. Why is it that, because I have RN after my name, I thought I wasn’t like everyone else? More importantly, why did I feel that others believed that?”

She continues, “Most people I’ve worked with would only genuinely want me to get help. My shame had been keeping me sick. My shame kept me from getting the treatment I deserved.”

“On the other side of shame, life is beautiful,” she says. “However many times treatment is needed, that’s how many times it is needed. I want my story to help those who feel huge amounts of shame or concern about losing their career if they ask for help, to know that recovery is possible. Folks who are healthcare professionals or first responders, please reach out for help. I want everyone to be met with the same kindness that I was, and to know that you can get it all back, and then some.”

Today, Ashley is engaged to be married and is a loving and present mom to three boys (including her soon-to-be stepson), plus a dog and a kitten. She finds joy through traveling and gardening, digging in the dirt, and watching vegetation come to life. She also has a purpose in helping others through medically supervised detox.

“Watching the gray fade from clients’ eyes and watching the color come back to their faces is beautiful,” Ashley says. “Clients often say they are embarrassed to return to detox. I’m just grateful they made it back.”

Amy Paradysz
Amy Paradysz
Amy Paradysz is a recovery ally and freelance writer and editor from Scarborough with more than 20 years of experience. She can be reached at amyparadysz@gmail.com..

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