From Shattered to Shatterproof

Ashley Riley
Ashley Riley holding up a sign that says Stronger Than Addiction

I was in turmoil, and I was sober. I was lying down on my broken and slanted twin-sized bed – a bed that hurt my back every single night. I was 22 and I couldn’t afford a new mattress because I was living paycheck-to-paycheck and surviving on pasta since it was 50 cents a box. I would lie in the broken bed, staring at my blank walls, asking God to take me in my sleep. Night terrors would wake me up every night and I would cry and shake, again thinking death was the only way out.

I was reliving the childhood trauma I suppressed my whole life. I was also experiencing an untreated mood disorder coming to the surface. How was I to cope without alcohol? Alcohol had been physically killing me, but it was also helping me manage my mental health issues. I couldn’t live with it and I couldn’t live without it.

I had just gotten sober in college and was learning how to navigate life as a young, sober woman. Why did people say that life got better when you got sober? I would pull myself out of bed because I was the coffee maker at my local 12-step meeting. I had a commitment every day. I kept going, I kept crying, I wanted to drink, and I wanted to die – but I immersed myself in the recovery community and stayed sober.

Ashley Riley in Pink Coat

After the meeting, I would go to work until midnight. I worked for an adolescent boy's group home. These boys had really difficult lives and some didn’t have any family. My own life experiences helped me to understand and have compassion for them. These boys became my reason to keep going. I loved them and felt like I could make a positive impact in their lives. They will never realize how much they impacted my early sobriety. They gave me the opportunity to be the role model they never had, and the role model I never thought I could be.

Eventually, I packed up my car with all my belongings and moved myself to Colorado for graduate school. I wanted a new experience, and I wanted to get out of Connecticut. My heart has always been pulled to the mountains. I started an amazing yet rigorous graduate program in Marriage and Family Therapy. At the same time, I got really involved in creating a Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) at Colorado State University (CSU), Ram Recovery. I had gotten sober in the CRP at the University of Connecticut, the UConn Recovery Community. It was absolutely life-changing to become friends with so many young people in recovery. I saved money to fund my own trip to a Collegiate Recovery conference in Atlanta, where I learned how to create a recovery program from scratch.

I was in my young twenties and beginning to have severe manic episodes. I would have bursts of creative energy and I would stay up all night designing elements of the new recovery program. I had immense shame over my Bipolar diagnosis but always felt better knowing some of the most genius and creative people in history had this disorder. There were times when I was incredibly creative and other times when I was incredibly destructive. Between the Bipolar and unresolved trauma, I started slipping back into extreme suicidality. Mania was always followed by a crushing depression.

I was the student board member on the executive board for the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE). I was speaking locally and nationally, representing the voices of students in recovery and those who lost their lives too soon and didn’t have a voice. I won ARHE’s Student of the Year award in 2018 for my efforts in the community. I remember accepting the award and what an honor this was. However, all I could think of was wanting to die the entire time. I was outwardly fighting the stigma around addiction but inwardly hiding in the stigma of mental health issues, not realizing how much they go hand-in-hand. I was in the spotlight, yet suffering silently. I was fighting for others but not fighting for myself.

Ashley Riley and Wife

Ram Recovery gave me the hope and purpose I needed to make it through another day. I devoted my time to mentoring countless students who were trying to get sober. As of today, Ram Recovery has helped hundreds of students enter a life of recovery.  It is still in existence, now run by a bunch of amazing students at CSU.

My ability to function was deteriorating quickly. On two occasions, I was ready to take my own life and was hospitalized twice, being put on an involuntary psychiatric hold both times. I ended up in treatment facilities for a total of one year. I did more therapy than most people do in a lifetime. I also got on the right medication, which has been absolutely essential for my stability and well-being. When I am on medication, I am productive, smart, caring, and of service to others.

I am grateful to have been hired into an amazing organization that fully accepts me and values me for exactly who I am

Ashley Riley and Wife

and what I have to offer. I have been in recovery from substances for 8 years. I met a beautiful woman, Kaylie, who is now my wife, and we want to have many children, both through fertility and fostering to adopt. We are nomads at the moment; we live in an RV and travel the country. I thrive in the outdoors, at national parks and hiking through the mountain region. We started a company called Brave in Love with a mission of being brave enough to choose love over hate, whether it is loving someone of the same sex or finding forgiveness in those that have caused deep harm. Love never fails to bring me peace.

Despite my struggles, I do love my life today. There are many days that still feel like a fight, but I continue to focus on managing my disorder and teaching people around me on what’s happening in my brain and how they can help me move through hard emotions. Life hasn’t always been easy, but it has made me more resilient and today I know I am #Shatterproof.

Woman in a support circle

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