By Ashely N
I grew up in a very small town, so small it isn’t even a town, it’s a Junction. The only things around of note were two churches, a gas station, a post office and a volunteer fire department. There were no traffic lights, only stop signs and railroad crossings. I don’t think it was segregated by law, but school bus pickup made it obvious that white people and people of color didn’t live on the same side of the tracks.
Most of my close family lived either next door or down the street. I grew up with my cousins, playing outside every day, making toys out of anything we could find. I spent a lot of time with my Granny who lived next door. I learned to dance and loved to sing. My childhood was normal to me, until it wasn’t.
I started to notice changes in my family – there was a lot of yelling, fighting, moving and divorce. I don’t remember being affected by it all at the time but looking back its undeniable. Tragedy stuck our family when my Granny was killed in a head on collision just one mile away from her house. My mom was devastated. My father started using drugs. I suffered unbelievable abuse and was scared out of my mind. I recognized at the time that I had been altered by those experiences, but I kept my head down and moved on. I was 11.
There was more moving, more divorce, more drug use, and more heartache. My friends started to die in car accidents and by medical emergency. My relationship with my father was beyond repair and I was terrified to be in the same room with him. I tried to take my own life. I was 14.
I went to high school and excelled. I spent all four years of high school so busy that I didn’t have time to wallow in sadness. I started to experiment with drugs and alcohol, but only a handful of times. I went on to college and really let loose. I started drinking on Wednesday and rounded out the week using drugs until the sun came up on Monday. I was able to squeeze classes and a full-time serving job into my using schedule. I crashed and burned after Graduation. I was 21.
The next few years were a blur. I dedicated every waking minute to using drugs & alcohol and finding ways and means to get more. I lied to my friends. I cheated on partners. I stole from my co-workers. I avoided my family. Suicide started to sound like a good idea again. Thankfully, I was granted the gift of desperation and I sought help at Turning Point of Tampa. While there I learned that I had a disease that could not be cured but could be treated. With the help of therapy, group counseling, 12-step meetings, and a sponsor, I started to look at myself and how I might re-establish my place in the community, while also repairing relationships with friends and family. Recovery became important to me. I was 25.
I am not going to say “and the rest is history” or “and I never looked back,” because both of those statements would be a lie. I have looked back MANY times. I have longed to change the past MANY times. I have found it hard to move on MANY times. But, I also used the tools in my toolbox many times and made it to the other side of a tough situation, mostly unscathed.
Like many other people in recovery, I realized I had something that I had to share if I wanted to keep it: Experience. Strength. Hope. I have sponsored women, helped people find addiction treatment, talked family members off the proverbial ledge and had conversations that have truly changed my life. All of those have filled my cup, but naturally, I crave more. In 2012 I was hired at Turning Point of Tampa as their Public Relations & Media Strategist. Coupled with my recovery, this role has afforded me many opportunities to give back and become more of an advocate for recovery in several different ways.
In 2020 I was reading a White Paper and I came across a term I had never heard before: IMD Exclusion. As I continued reading, I learned that the IMD Exclusion is part of Medicaid law that prohibits a person from residential treatment for mental health and/or substance use disorder at a facility with more than 16 beds. I was floored. This exclusion has been on the books, per say, since Medicaid was enacted in 1965! It was also in 2020 that I really began to understand the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act. Typically referred to as Parity, this federal law has been around since 2008 and requires insurance coverage for mental health conditions, including substance use disorders, to be no more restrictive than insurance coverage for other medical conditions. In layman’s terms, the insurance that you pay for through your employer or that you have sought out on your own, should be covering mental health and/or addiction treatment just as they would if you had to have medical procedure, treatment or surgery.
Now I know from working in the behavioral health field for 11 years that Parity law is not being complied with and the IMD Exclusion is causing unintended consequences for millions of people. Can you imagine someone you love coming to you and asking for help, only to find out that the help they need is unattainable? I decided to start changing the conversation. I was 40.
In 2021 I was honored to be asked to lead an advocacy group, focused on the issues that impact the behavioral health field, more specifically, addiction treatment programs. This group, named the Florida Alliance for State Advocacy (FASA), has now partnered with prevention, treatment and recovery advocates from across the state of Florida to host two Advocacy days in our state capital of Tallahassee. I also joined the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce Policy Committee and have been able to talk about mental health and addiction issues that no doubt affect those who live and work in the Tampa Bay Region. Recently, I attended a National Addiction Leadership Conference and Hill Day hosted by the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP). During Hill Day I joined other advocates from across the country to speak with law makers and their staff on Capitol Hill. My focus in these conversations is always on how we can achieve equal access to treatment for everyone who seeks it, and I have found that most of the time, everyone else wants that too.
Today I am 43 years old, 17 years sober and eternally grateful for the opportunities afforded to me because I asked for help. My hope is that everyone can find a new way to live, realize their dreams and experience a life beyond their wildest imagination. My name is Ashley and I am a person in long term recovery and a proud TPOT Alumni. I am a wife, a friend, a stepmom, a dog mom and an advocate for change.