Facing up to addiction
Ashton Marr is one of several Washtenaw County people who reject the stigma associated with addiction, part of a movement to modernize attitudes toward substance-use problems.
Story by Lynn Monson | Photos by Benjamin Weatherston
Ashton Marr is only 30, but already knows how far a person can fall, how low the human experience can get.
Today, she comes across as intelligent, articulate, upbeat, compassionate. You’d never guess that during an eight-year period in her 20s, she barely survived the vise-like grip of heroin.
You might assume that she would prefer not to tell the story of how her drug use started at age 14 in her first week at Pioneer High School in 1999. How she was kicked out of Pioneer at the end of her junior year and had to finish at an alternative school. How a year later her casual drug use suddenly morphed into a full-blown addiction to a legal painkiller prescribed when she had an appendectomy at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. How those Vicodin pills eventually weren’t enough to satisfy her all-consuming craving, even when she was taking 40 a day, flat-out ignoring the recommended limit of six to eight. How heroin became the cheaper and more effective high. How she lied to her upper middle class family and abused her father’s financial resources to pay for her habit. How she sometimes drove to Detroit three times a day to buy drugs, wrecking cars while driving under the influence of heroin or crack cocaine or both. How her hair fell out in clumps and her weight dropped to 80 pounds. How her father’s non-judgmental love saved her on the day that she couldn’t drag herself out of bed to go on.
You might also assume she would prefer not to tarnish the family name in a society that still condemns addicts as weak people with moral failings rather than as people suffering from an illness. Why would she agree to have her name and photo published in The Ann for friends and neighbors and potential employers to see?
Because life happens. Because she believes that, especially for those addicted to alcohol and drugs, you either embrace who you are or deny it; once you embrace it you can move on to treatment programs that lead to recovery. It’s called “getting my life back,” Marr says, using the expression common to people in recovery. Then it’s possible to embrace your success and provide hope to others.
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Which is what Marr is doing these days as part of a national movement that seeks to improve health care, treatment and insurance coverage for people suffering from addiction to alcohol and drugs. She’s the leader of a new public advocacy group in Ann Arbor, the Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project, or WRAP. Its first major project was a recovery awareness march and rally that drew 200 people to downtown Ann Arbor in May. The group is hosting educational forums and providing speakers to discuss recovery options and trends, public policy changes and reduction of stigma. Their mantra: Recovery happens; recovery is everywhere; recovery equals success.
It is not melodramatic to say that Marr shares her story to stay alive. She’s also doing it because it helps others with substance use disorder, whether they are in recovery like she is or still wracked by their destructive habits. They see her and others in recovery as hope.
“I never thought that my life would take that route, but it’s become the reason that I get out of bed every morning,” she said. “I like the advocacy, helping to give a voice to people who don’t have one.”
Her journey to heroin and back started when she was an insecure freshman in the big new world of Pioneer High. She fell in with the crowd “smoking pot in the woods” and spent her first three years gradually partying more and more with mostly pot, cocaine and ecstasy. By the time she was a junior, she began to miss classes regularly. She was put on a zero-tolerance improvement plan that required no more absences as the end of the school year neared. When a 16-year-old friend died of a drug overdose one day, Marr was devastated. She says she went to a school counselor to talk about it, missing a class in the process. It was a violation of her improvement plan, she said, so she was expelled from Pioneer. The next fall she enrolled at what was then the Stone School program and finished her senior year in one semester.
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The following spring she enrolled at Washtenaw Community College, her casual drug use causing few problems. Then Thanksgiving 2004 arrived along with an appendectomy at St. Joe’s and an introduction to Vicodin, an opiate painkiller.
“I just loved the way I felt on it. I could sleep without laying there obsessing or worrying about anything. I liked that feeling,” she said. “It seemed like the answer to all my problems. It’s hard for me today to understand, because our mindset is so different in active addiction than it is in recovery. At that point, it made perfect sense. All of a sudden, my problems didn’t seem as big. All of a sudden, I didn’t worry as much. … As long as I could get the Vicodin, everything would be OK.”
She was no longer interested in other drugs and found a new dealer for this wonder pill, which cost $5 — or $30 if you wanted to upgrade to Oxycontin. She was taking five Vicodin a day, but soon that wasn’t enough to maintain the high. Over the course of several years, she spent so much money on Vicodin that she regularly couldn’t pay her apartment rent or utilities. She would beg, borrow or steal to feed her habit, often coaxing her father into paying her bills.
She was kicked out of apartments, slept in a car. She pretended to go back to WCC, using the intended tuition money for the drug. She spent more on drugs than food. Her health declined and she lost weight. Over time it took more and more Vicodin to give her the same high. “Right before I switched to heroin, I was taking over 40 (a day). I would take them by the handful. You know it’s got (acetaminophen) in it. They’re saying now that anything over six a day can cause liver damage. Here I am, I weighed probably 80 pounds at that time, and I’m taking 40 a day.”
At some point — her memory’s fuzzy — she switched to heroin, at first snorting and eventually injecting it. It gave her a better high, but over time she began to run up a staggeringly expensive habit. Her health declined even further, relationships disintegrated, yet still she tried to maintain the image that she was doing fine. Her parents had figured out at some point that she wasn’t going to WCC.
“It was important that nobody find out what was really going on with me. Especially in Ann Arbor, it was socially acceptable to drink and maybe even drink a bit too much, or to smoke pot — I mean we have the Hash Bash. But holy shit, if somebody finds out you’re shooting heroin … even myself, that’s how I thought of people who used heroin: They’re dirty, they’re criminals, they’re dangerous. I never thought it would be me.”
She has since learned that a wide array of people become heroin addicts, and many are smart and talented. But for them and for her, it becomes an obsession that rules their every waking moment. “It was a full-time job,” she says, pounding the table in front of her with a fist. “Getting money. Acquiring drugs. It was slavery. There was no choice in it.”
She knew she should give it up, but that seemed impossible whenever withdrawal symptoms started to creep over her.
“People describe opiate withdrawal as the worst flu they’ve ever had. It’s more than that. I’ve been sick. I’ve had the flu. This is something different. This is like a sickness of the soul. That’s how it felt. It felt like my bones were glass, like they were going to shatter. Like I was going to shatter from the inside. My entire being, not just my body. It wasn’t just the sniffles. It wasn’t just having terrible diarrhea. It was to the core of my being. And that’s not being dramatic. When I felt that, I was terrified. I was more afraid of withdrawing than of dying. I would have rather died than gone through withdrawal.
“It got to a point where, at the end of addiction … I was sleeping in my car for weeks at a time, I was hungry, I was tired to the depths of my soul. I can’t even explain it. I’ve never been that tired since. And I was desperate. I was fairly indifferent to whether I lived or died at that point, but there was still something left in me that I didn’t take my own life, either. I had no idea what to expect from recovery and I wasn’t even sure I could do it, but I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I was so tired that I couldn’t even go pick up any more (drugs.) I had to do something different.”
Meanwhile, her parents and most of her friends still didn’t know she was a heroin addict.
It all led up to June 23, 2013. “I did what I always did,” Marr remembers. “It was set in stone. I had money. I woke up (dope) sick. I called my dealer, I set up a time and a place. I put down the phone. I picked up the phone again. I called (the Brighton Center for Recovery). And then I realized I had no way to get there. I was too sick to pack a bag or anything. I almost died protecting the secret. I called my Dad and I asked him for a ride. I couldn’t even tell him where we were going, I couldn’t get the words out. … All I told him on the phone is that I was trying to get my life together. I said, ‘Please, I need help. You’ve asked me why I’ve never quite been able to make things work and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.’ … He came and picked me up, he helped me pack a bag. And we just got on the expressway. I didn’t even tell him where we were going. We got to (the treatment clinic). He started putting the pieces together. … As we stood out there, he asked me, ‘May I ask what kind of drugs you were using?’ And I just started sobbing and I said, ‘Bad ones.’ I couldn’t even get the words out then. The guilt and the shame. I mean, to tell my Dad, who is such a good guy and such a sweetheart — to tell him that his oldest daughter had been shooting heroin for the past few years, I couldn’t even get the words out. If he had even given me so much as a crooked look, I would have bolted. I needed support in that moment. He hugged me and he said, ‘This is the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anybody do, ever. Just do the best you can and we’ll figure it out.’ And so that’s how my journey in recovery started.”
She was in detox for four or five days to start the month-long stay at the Brighton clinic. Then it was three and a half months at a halfway house for women in Brighton. She learned the basic living skills that her artificial life as an addict had caused her to miss for almost a decade — good sleeping habits, nutrition, coping with stress. Group therapy and relapse prevention were important, but by the time she had to leave, she didn’t feel ready yet for the real world. She moved to a transitional living house program with Home of New Vision in Ann Arbor, where she stayed for almost a year. She learned more basic skills — how to find a job, how to be on time, how to navigate the bus routes, how to be a good employee at the retail stores and restaurants where she found jobs. She tried living with friends in an apartment but felt more comfortable moving in with her parents in Ann Arbor.
Today she works as a street outreach worker for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office. She helps put on community events, like 3-on-3 basketball tournaments, to strengthen communication between the Sheriff’s Office and residents. The outreach workers promote community resources for people who come through the court system and jail, and she tells her story at forums, promoting addiction education and recovery.
Marr also is taking classes at Eastern Michigan. She wants to get her degree in social work and work with substance use disorder.
Her recovery support network starts with her parents. She’s living at home because they understand how to support her. She has a mutual support network of friends who keep her on the phone a lot. She attends a 12-step group. Even her work with the Sheriff’s Office supports her recovery, as does the simple act of talking about what she’s been through.
“There’s something about it that makes it seem like it’s not so burdensome, just to share it with somebody else. But more than that, too, it’s really useful for me because I know that my disease lies to me. Cancer doesn’t tell you that you don’t have cancer, right? Or cancer doesn’t tell you that it’s a really great idea to stop your chemotherapy or whatever keeps you healthy. But substance use disorder absolutely does that. So it’s helpful for me to bounce ideas off of people. (I can ask if) what I’m thinking about doing, is that really based in reality, or is that things getting twisted up? And again, the people who recognize that the best are the people who have gone through similar experiences … (who) recognize really unhealthy behaviors.
“Whatever I have going on, it feels good to try and help somebody else. And I never thought that I would want to help other people. Especially when I was in active addiction, it was about what you could do for me. But that’s such an empty way to live. Over time, in recovery, just seeing how we support each other, and how together we can all get through this. Together we can survive this. No addict ever need die of the horrors of addiction. Just learning about that and seeing how well it works, and seeing people thrive, I wanted to be a part of that.
“It means a lot to me to have gotten to a point where I can be helpful for others. I can’t believe it some days. People call me, asking me for help. What do I know? How can I possibly help you? But then they say that they feel better after talking to me and it’s an incredible feeling. It’s helped me gain some real self-esteem to address that insecurity … instead of using. It’s a healthy way to live instead of turning to something that was killing me.
“What I want to do is leave people with a message of hope. Be it your loved one who is going through this, or you are going through this. There is hope and there is help for you.”
If you’re in the grip of an addictive substance, make a call. Today. If you have a family member or friend who is affected, make a call. If you’re a family member affected by someone else’s addiction, make a call. Whether the problem is alcohol, heroin or another substance, a small army of people who understand and have resources are waiting to help. There are many treatment resources in the region; here are some places to start:
• Dawn Farm: 734-485-8725
• Home of New Vision: 734-975-1602
• Brighton Center for Recovery: 888-215-2700
• Al-anon: 734-995-4949
• facesandvoicesofrecovery.com, a national website
• Check out the Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project on Facebook
• Interested in yoga as a recovery tool?
One of the best summaries explaining the history and rationale behind the new movement toward more openness about addiction is a 2013 documentary film, “The Anonymous People,” which is available on Netflix and other outlets.