The Journey of Living with a Co-Occurring Disorder

By
Ashley Miller
Ashley Miller and wife

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we're shining a light on addiction and co-occurring disorders. We sat down with Ashley Miller to discuss her recovery and her experience with addiction and mental health struggles. 

 Tell us a little about yourself. 

My name is Ashley Miller. I am 30 years old and live in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. I love hiking, yin yoga, traveling, writing, and playing basketball. I have been in recovery for 8 years, since the age of 21.

I got sober at the University of Connecticut in their Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) also called the UConn Recovery Community. I went on to design a CRC at Colorado State University that helped over 100 students enter into a life of recovery. I recently joined the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance where I  create content and contribute to discussions around mental health. My full-time job is working as a Program Coordinator with the National Stigma Initiative at Shatterproof.

What did your life look like before addiction? 

Ashley Miller headshot

I had a difficult upbringing. My parents had a toxic divorce when I was 9 years old, and I experienced a lot of childhood trauma – mostly emotional and sexual. I witnessed family members with addiction problems since I was born, and never knew a childhood free of addiction.

I learned that alcohol was a way to cope and self-medicate. I had my first drink at 13 years old and felt universally bonded to every person in my life who had an addiction problem, because I absolutely loved alcohol. I loved the feeling of letting go and numbing myself.

I was a high-achieving student and athlete. I really wanted recognition, and this is where I got it during my adolescent years.

I was a varsity softball and basketball player, and graduated 5th in my high school class. My coaches were amazing. They put so much time and energy into making me a better player and person. There were days I didn’t want to go home so I would stay after school, shoot hoops, and work out for hours.

I grew up with so much ambition and started to lose this as my addiction took over.

Tell us about the mental illness you live with today. What are your earliest memories regarding your mental illness?

At the age of 14, I experienced severe alcohol poisoning. I was extremely sick and shaking the following day. That event led to my first acute depressive episode, where I felt extremely hopeless and alone. I also experienced depression when I realized I was lesbian and did not have a lot of support from my family. 

I first really started experiencing mania around the age of 19 when my drinking was really heavy. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my early twenties when I had been sober for a few years.

My first substance-induced manic episode was in college while I was studying abroad in Australia. I was hallucinating, experiencing extreme paranoia, seeing people who weren’t there, and thinking I was in another country. I was jumping out of cars and wandering around Sydney in the early hours of the morning.

What did active addiction look like for you?

As a teenager, my active addiction looked like blacking out on the weekends. Once I started drinking, I couldn’t stop, and I would get anxious and angry when I couldn’t get alcohol. The alcohol poisoning continued through college and there were several missing person police reports filed on me.

I would often experience hallucinations and would wander the streets alone. On one occasion, I was detained in jail for arguing with the police and the next day when I woke up, I had purple lips and fingers from severe alcohol poisoning.

No matter how bad it got, I couldn’t stop drinking. It was a full-fledged addiction.

Substance use and mental health often go hand-in-hand. How did substance use influence your mental health?

I did a lot of things in my active addiction I am not proud of and therefore would experience depression after those events. But overall, I was self-medicating with substances to cope with my trauma and bipolar disorder. I was experiencing deep depression and anxiety from a very young age.

At first, I medicated with food and work, but once I found alcohol, I became attached to it very quickly. I drank when I was sad, when I was happy, when I was angry, and eventually I was just drinking all of the time.

Did you have a turning point that made you want to start recovery?

In college, I had a boss who was really concerned about my drinking. I was a building manager at the student center at the University of Connecticut. She was very kind and held me accountable for getting more help. The weekend before I decided to commit to a life of recovery, I had a 72-hour binge of blacking out.

Ashley Miller stronger than stigma

I passed out in front of police officers and they called an ambulance and sent me to the hospital. I woke up the following day, February 1st of 2015, and surrendered to my addiction. I promised myself I would get sober that week.

My addiction was wreaking havoc on my health. I had stomach ulcers and could no longer digest food. I had been written up 5 times in college for my poor behavior while drinking. The University of Connecticut was going to suspend me from school, but after meeting with them, they decided to give me a final chance.

They were finally recognizing addiction as a disease and trusted I was getting a lot of support to heal and stay sober. 

How did your loved ones respond to your addiction and mental health struggles?

I kept quiet for a little while. I don’t think family and friends really thought that I could stay sober and honestly, I didn’t think I could for my first year either. Once I worked the 12 steps and made amends to all of the people I had harmed, clearing my side of the street, I felt a newfound freedom.

People started showing me more support when I demonstrated changed behavior and showed consistent progress in my recovery. Without my addiction, I am a great friend and family member, always showing up for the people that matter.

What did treatment look like for you?

I went to treatment after being sober for a few years. The two treatment facilities that I went to treated people with substance use disorders and people with mental health disorders.

Both places had a very holistic approach – treating the well-being of the whole person. I did a lot of trauma therapy and medication management during my time in inpatient treatment. Treatment was absolutely lifesaving for me. This is when they got me on the most helpful medication to manage my mood disorder. 

What does your life look like since you've started recovery?

The reality for me is that life got harder before it got better. I was suicidal, depressed, and

Ashley Miller couple

self-harming after getting sober. I was living in poverty and needed food stamps to survive. It was hard to cope because I was no longer self-medicating my mental health issues with alcohol.

Without drinking to numb the pain, my childhood trauma was resurfacing. My mood disorder, depression, and mania were all becoming more severe.  I was hospitalized twice for suicidal ideation and went to treatment facilities 4 times, for almost an entire year. 

Year 5 of my recovery was a game changer. After trying different medications, I got on a medication combination that worked miraculously. After thousands of hours of therapy, a recovery program, a solid community, and the right medication combination,- my life is amazing. I still have hard days sometimes but for the most part, I feel like a productive member of society with unwavering compassion for all people. 

How have you been taking care of your mental health since starting recovery? Are there any tips or tricks that have really helped you? 

I moved to Colorado a year into my recovery and started to hike a lot. It’s very therapeutic for me to be out in nature and move my body. I enjoy writing and listening to audiobooks. Therapy has been life-changing and I have done it consistently since getting sober.

Lastly, it’s important to build a supportive community around you, to celebrate you through your success, and pick you up when you fall down. I started to really heal when someone listened to me tell my entire story and validated my pain. Being heard is the key to growth and healing.

What advice would you give to people who are still struggling with their mental health? 

It can be a dark place sometimes. However, I want you to hold on to hope even when you feel like you are drowning. I would suggest getting connected to a community, a good therapist, and great mentors, while you do your healing work and find the right medication combination, if medication is right for you.

I am an advocate for reducing the stigma around mental health medication. Try not to be ashamed because medication can be an extremely helpful tool. 

What does your life look like today? 

My life is absolutely amazing today. I married the love of my life, Kaylie, and we live in Colorado together. I am thankful for all the wonderful people who have loved me back to life when times were hard.

My life mission is to teach educators in school systems about substance use and mental health and to create real lasting systemic change in our education system. I have helped hundreds of people get sober and I love giving back. I am curious and adventurous, and I will never stop exploring places, ideas, concepts, people, etc.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about? 

I have embraced love and forgiveness for those that have caused me harm. Sharing my story is not to criticize or hurt anyone but to demonstrate resilience, strength, love, and compassion.