Part of the PublicSource series: The Fix

Editor’s Note: As journalists, we spend a lot of time talking with officials and community members and distilling it into stories that explore important issues of our time. But we realize that sometimes it is just more powerful to hear it straight from the source. This is one of those times.

By Ashley Potts

My name is Ashley Potts, and I am an individual in long-term recovery. I was an intravenous drug user who had many encounters with emergency departments and primary care physicians. I was diagnosed with hepatitis C as a direct result of my intravenous drug use. I have been convicted of two felonies and nine misdemeanors. People might describe me as the sum of these alarming statements—but am I more than that? I want to tell you the other side.

My journey into the darkness of addiction began at a young age. I took my first drink of alcohol at the age of 9. My mother suffers from addiction, so I did not realize it was abnormal to engage in this behavior. At 12 years old, I started smoking marijuana and consuming alcohol on the weekends. When I was 13, my uncle gave me my first Oxycontin, and I began to abuse cocaine. I started having behavioral issues in school, such as fighting, insubordination and disruption of class. I was suspended, fined and eventually expelled.

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I thought to myself, “Maybe I should stop using drugs.” I quit abusing cocaine and opioids. However, I still did not seek any intervention for the underlying issues that had led me to start using drugs in the first place. I didn’t understand the gravity of my actions or the impact they would have on my future. I was a teenager; I was invincible.

At the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, I fell quickly into old habits. I began smoking crack cocaine. Cocaine and other substances were not hard to find as most of my friends were also using drugs. My life started to spiral out of control yet again. I was apprehended by the police several times, and I ran away from home. I was often truant from high school, and I continued to use drugs.

A friend who was already addicted to heroin tried to warn me. “Ashley”, my friend said, “if you play with fire long enough, eventually you will get burned.” At the time I didn’t understand, nor did I care, but later, it all made sense.

For my entire life, I was determined never to be a heroin addict. I hated heroin addicts. I had watched heroin destroy my mother’s life. I was better than them. In my mind, my addiction wasn’t nearly as bad as others’ addictions because I was not injecting heroin.

I was 17 years old when I stole from my father. I was sentenced to juvenile probation for six months, and I moved out of his home to live with my mother. During this time, I was ordered to an outpatient program, and a probation officer visited me at school. This was also the year I became what I hated most: an injection drug user. I was addicted to heroin.My senior year of high school was one of the hardest years of my life. I would disappear for days at a time to use drugs. I didn’t go to school or talk to anyone. I got trapped on the same path every day—the path that led to the drugs. I became mean and angry. I was rude and disrespectful to anyone who would try to talk to me. I hated myself and the life I had created. As much as I tried and wanted to have friends, the drugs came first. There were a few teachers during this time who wanted to see me do well, but most ignored the track marks dotted up and down my arms. Ultimately, I was able to graduate from high school despite my addiction.

The summer after high school graduation, I called my father. I knew I needed to clear the air with him if I was ever going to stop using drugs. My father’s home had the structure that would enable me to get help.

I called him repeatedly in the middle of the night. When he answered the phone, I told him that if he did not come pick me up from my mother’s apartment, I would kill myself. He picked me up, and I went through the physical withdrawals of heroin at his house. With every agonizing breath, I said to myself, “I am never going to use again.”

Withdrawing from heroin is unlike anything in this world. Everything on your body hurts, every movement aches. You’re hot, you’re cold, you’re sweating and yet you’re covered up with a blanket. The only thing that takes the sickness away is what caused the sickness in the first place.

After a short period living with my father, I found out I was pregnant. I was able to remain abstinent from all substances, including alcohol, for the duration of my pregnancy. When I had my daughter, everything about my mentality changed. I wanted to be the best mom I could be; everything was going to be great. I set the goals of going to college, getting my own place for us to live and giving my daughter the best life she could have.

A few weeks after I had my daughter, I thought it would be harmless to just drink alcohol. “One beer isn’t going to hurt me,” I thought. I was wrong. This led to snorting bags of heroin, which ultimately led me to put a needle in my arm again. Within a few weeks, I had gone from not using any substances to full-blown addiction all over again.

Things were worse this time. I was consuming more drugs than ever. I fell deeper and deeper into the despair of addiction. My father came and found me at a friend’s house. He begged me to go to inpatient rehab and let him have temporary custody of my daughter. I agreed. I remember lying in the backseat on the way to rehab, too sick even to sit up. The agonizing pain was back. With every breath, I said, “I am never going to use again.”

My stay in the rehabilitation facility was short, only 24 days. I refused further treatment and returned home on May 13, 2006. On May 17, I fell back into my addiction, disappearing for days at a time to use drugs. Three days later, my beautiful baby girl had her first birthday.

All the dreams I had of being the best mother I could be were shattered. I was enslaved to the needle. My father warned me never to set foot on his property again, or I would be arrested. I was living in my car. I started selling all the things I had that were worth any amount of money, including my clothes, cell phone and eventually my car. I had nowhere else to go. I moved back in with my mother.I turned to a life of crime. I began writing fraudulent checks out of my checking account to support my addiction. I then stole my mother’s checkbook and wrote fraudulent checks in her name. I broke into an innocent person’s home and stole several guns. I felt like a zombie, a hollow corpse with nothing inside. I didn’t even feel like I was part of this world anymore. When my mother learned I had stolen her checkbook, she had me escorted from her home in handcuffs. I had several warrants out for my arrest and no desire to live anymore. In my mind, I had only two options: stop using or kill myself.

I decided to try treatment one more time. Once again, I went through the physical withdrawals from heroin, and once again, I said with every agonizing breath, “I am never going to use again.”

I spent seven long days in a detoxification unit and then 29 days in an inpatient rehabilitation program. The rehabilitation staff offered me a place in a halfway house, and this time I agreed. I was homeless and had no place to return to. I transitioned to a halfway house in Washington, Pa. While I was there, the staff encouraged me to participate in the Intensive Vocational Rehabilitation Program, which assists with career development. I took an IQ test and scored at a sixth-grade level although I was 20 years old. My addiction, beginning in childhood, had begun to wreak its long-term effects on my future.

In 2007, I was convicted of several felonies I had committed to support my addiction to drugs before entering recovery. Despite society’s assumptions about me and my future, I decided I wanted to go to college. I was used to no one wanting me around because I was labeled a “lost cause” or a “failure,” but I knew I could still do something more with my life.

Due to my low test scores, I first took some reading and math refresher courses through CareerLink, a social service program that assists individuals in gaining employment and obtaining their GEDs. Later, I enrolled at Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC], where I took prerequisite courses in math and English.

I was elated — I was in college! It was surreal in every sense of the word. There I was, the girl everyone said couldn’t make it, the girl who was told she was not college material, and I was in college. I transferred to a technical school to pursue a career as an occupational therapy assistant. At the time, I wanted a career in physical medicine. I attended six-hour classes four days a week. It was a great learning experience, and I enjoyed learning about how to help others with their physical needs.

Ashley Potts shows several coins carrying messages that have served as encouragement throughout her recovery. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)
It was soon time to participate in an internship at a hospital. However, I couldn’t find any positions in Ohio, Pennsylvania or West Virginia due to my criminal record. Disheartened, I was forced to quit the program because it required internship hours to graduate.This was my first true encounter with stigma. The situation made me feel inferior to everyone else, as if I weren’t good enough to be part of “their world.” I felt as if mainstream society would never let me in. The decisions I had made during my active addiction would haunt me for the rest of my life. All of those horrible labels that the world had placed on me were still so obviously present.

I took a year off from school before building up the courage to return. I thought about starting my own business or becoming a construction worker, but eventually I returned to CCAC to finish my associate’s degree. Then, I decided I wanted more out of my life, so I enrolled at California University of Pennsylvania to obtain a bachelor’s degree before continuing on to obtain my Master of Social Work degree and a license to practice as a social worker in the state of Pennsylvania.

Along the way, individuals often told me everything I couldn’t do with my life rather than encouraging me to pursue my dreams. Many career tracks were closed off to me due to my criminal record. Each time this happened, I felt segregated from the world, like an outcast who would never be allowed in. However, I knew I wanted more out of life. It took courage and perseverance, but I continued on my journey.

I also experienced stigma during my recovery process. Attempts to access health care, seek employment, advance my education and even obtain housing all posed challenges. For instance, a landlord once laughed at me over the phone and told me that “someone like me couldn’t live on their property.” I have been hired and fired within the same five-minute conversation after revealing my history to an employer. A registered nurse once asked me if I was a “junkie” when she tried to insert a fluid IV and found I had no veins available. This happened a couple of years into my recovery journey.

This treatment all led me to the question: Who is acceptable as a human being? It seems that many people feel they have the right to answer this question.

The stigma of addiction has impacted every facet of my life. The stereotypes mean that if someone reads my story on paper, they might wonder how someone with my history could ever be a successful and productive member of society.

This is my other side. I am employed full time as a social worker at the Allegheny Health Network, working directly with individuals with opioid use disorder. Working in the hospital has given me the opportunity to meet with individuals and help them in their own journey of recovery. I can relate to the patients on a personal level and help facilitate their treatment. I understand how they feel and what it is like to be stigmatized. I can advocate for individuals who feel they are being treated inappropriately. I help educate staff and community members about substance use disorders. I have three degrees, and I sit on several committees to combat the opioid epidemic, including the FBI’s heroin outreach prevention education group and the U.S. Attorney’s working group on addiction. I have dedicated my life to reducing the stigma of addiction and helping others achieve recovery. When we hear of the growing opioid epidemic in our community, many people think of the burden it puts on our healthcare system and the financial cost of the people over-utilizing services. They think of crimes committed or trauma inflicted on the community. It is true that individuals with substance use disorders often end up in social service systems, including county jails and state prisons.

I challenge you to listen to the other side. I challenge you to ask: What if incarceration isn’t the answer? What if there is a real medical pathology occurring, and no one is listening to its sufferers? What if their version of the story is dramatically different than what is typically portrayed by the media? What if there is more to the story than the emotional pleas of a scorned family member? In life, there are always two sides to the story, but too often we only ever hear one side. Have you ever asked yourself: What is the other side?

Ashley Potts is a social worker at the Allegheny Health Network. She can be reached at ashley.potts@ahn.org.com.

Edited by Abigail Lind and Mila Sanina.

Web design and development by Natasha Khan.

This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation. The story first appeared on PublicSource and is being republished as part of the INN Amplify News Program.