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Back from addiction, she's voice for recovery

Wellesley native tells her story as healthcare activist

Almost seven years after getting clean and sober, 28-year-old Ashley Stanley has to think a moment about where her story really starts.

Was it that one eve of Yom Kippur, when she dissolved into tears in her father's car at the airport and admitted she was an alcohol and drug addict?

Was it after the first relapse and descent into a daily crack cocaine habit, when she returned to rehab for the second time -- the one that ultimately worked?

Or was it actually much earlier, as a teenage soccer star? With 450 saves in her junior and senior years at The Rivers School in Weston, Stanley, who lived in Wellesley, was one of the most gifted goalkeepers in school history and the first female student athlete recruited to a Division 1 college. She was a US Olympic team hopeful, planning for a career in professional soccer, when injuries in both knees abruptly ended her life's dream at age 19.

That's when the old Ashley fell apart, and the struggle that would define her adult life began. That's probably where the story begins.

With soccer out of the picture, there was a huge void. She partied. Hard. At one fraternity party, she tried cocaine. She lost her soccer scholarship to the University of Rhode Island and dropped out of school.

"It was like I disappeared," Stanley said.

Looking back, she said, she doesn't think being raised in an affluent, pressure-cooker suburb like Wellesley, with all the accompanying advantages and expectations, is what led her to an addiction to drink and drugs. Nor can her problems be blamed on her all-or-nothing focus on soccer in her teen years or her stint working in the glitzy, drug-fueled, New York City fashion world. The reasons why she abused alcohol and cocaine are more complicated.

What she does know is that it can happen to anybody's daughter, living anywhere. And it took two rounds of intensive rehabilitation and all her family's love to overcome.

It's their continuing devotion and support, Ashley said, that keeps her in recovery today, as well as her efforts toward addiction recovery for others and a new healthcare reform bill in Congress -- one that would force insurers to cover chemical addiction and mental illness on par with other medical conditions.

Facing the facts

It's hard to imagine Ashley's parents, Ken and Caren Stanley, in crisis.

They are smart and successful people, a commercial real estate broker and homemaker who recently returned from Thailand to visit their son, Adam, 26, who teaches English at Chiang Mai University.

Ashley was back in Wellesley a few weeks ago for a summertime visit. Together, she and her parents are witty and irreverent, firing off jokes about their beloved Portuguese water dogs, Ruffian and Gilligan. ("Adult puppies of alcoholics," Ashley quips.)

But Ken and Caren readily admit they didn't want to see what was going wrong with their daughter as she struggled toward adulthood. Back then, the signs of trouble were too easy to rationalize, said the Stanleys. Take, for example, the time when Ashley veered off the road and wedged her car between two boulders in Weston. The Stanleys accepted her explanation that the car had hydroplaned, "even though it was 75 degrees and sunny," her father said dryly.

There was Ashley's drastic personality change from tomboy-like college student who could not be forced into a dress, to stylish Ralph Lauren boutique employee, obsessed with designers and attending the hottest New York fashion parties. There was the time she was inexplicably enraged by a video montage of her happy childhood that Caren had assembled for a birthday gift. Ashley's moods were especially volatile during these years, ranging between euphoric and furious. "But you just don't think about your kid being on drugs and alcohol," Ken said.

It became simply impossible to ignore in the autumn of 2000. Ashley visited from New York for the high holidays. Ken picked her up at Logan, and Ashley began sobbing. She was coming down from a cocaine high, and her mind was wound tight, like an elastic band, Ashley recalled: "I said to him: 'I need help.' "

Her parents were stunned by their daughter's confession, and at services that night at Temple Beth Elohim, Ashley and Caren held hands and wept. "I didn't know what to do. They didn't know what to do," Ashley said.

This highly competent family was at a total loss. Ken and Caren didn't have anyone to ask for advice. Nobody they knew had ever entered drug rehabilitation. At the time, they were too ashamed to confide in friends or relatives, the Stanleys said. Caren finally found information in a People magazine story about singer Natalie Cole's struggle with heroin addiction. (Cole sought treatment at Hazelden Foundation in St. Paul, a place that would become a haven for Ashley as well.)

But by the end of the weekend, Ashley was already recanting her story, claiming her drug use wasn't so bad. She insisted her parents drop the subject and returned to New York. "I was in such deep trouble. I had just dropped a bomb on my family, but I still didn't want to upset them," she said. "I felt it was the most shameful secret."

But her parents knew they had to do something. A day later, Ken flew to New York and took Ashley to Hazelden for an intense, 28-day, inpatient rehabilitation program.

That November, Ashley turned 21 while she was at Hazelden. (Today, the family jokes about how a well-meaning relative sent a celebratory tiramisu cake, not realizing that liqueur was a no-no in rehab.)

But in her heart, she wasn't ready to recover. She completed the 4-week program, but refused the center's recommendation of six months in a supervised halfway house and follow-up recovery treatment.

"Basically, I wouldn't accept that I was like everyone else there," she said. "And I couldn't stay clean."

She left Hazelden for New York, and in a matter of hours was back to her old cocaine habit. "I called my dealer, and got high that second."

For about four months, she said, she smoked crack on most days. She told Ken and Caren she was enrolled in classes at NYU, but instead she got high with friends.

Once she hung her cell phone out a window, so her mom could hear the ambient noise and would believe she was taking a walk on a sunny day.

The memory that still moves Caren to tears, all these years later, is how hard her daughter tried to reassure her things were OK, when they couldn't have been worse.

"The thing that really tears me apart was that she went to great lengths to make us think her life was good. And we wanted to believe she was 'cured.' "

Ashley wasn't cured. She was terrified. "I was afraid I was going to die," she said. "I didn't know how much longer I could survive an active addiction."

She told her parents, "I need to go back or I'm going to die."

A real recovery

Ashley returned to Hazelden in March 2001 -- at the cost of another $30,000 to her parents.

While Ashley was struggling with her addictions, Ken and Caren attended the center's family program. That's where Caren finally learned to utter the phrase, "My daughter is a recovering alcoholic and addict."

"Before, I just couldn't say that," her mother said. "I could only say she was an athlete. That she's smart, That she's funny. That she's temporarily in trouble."

The second time in rehab, Ashley agreed to ongoing recovery treatment, which she still participates in today.

She settled in St. Paul, remained connected to Hazelden, and worked in addiction recovery, doing public relations for addiction recovery centers and professionals, including Hazelden's vice president of external relations, William Cope Moyers, whose 2006 memoir "Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption," detailed his own 15-year battle with alcohol and cocaine addiction.

He said that Ashley is a standout in the local recovery advocacy community because of her youth and openness.

"Ashley is the next generation of leaders in a movement that is sorely lacking leaders.

"It's only been in the last decade that advocacy on behalf of addicts and alcoholics has become a force in this country," said Moyers last week in a telephone interview.

Moyers, 48, has been sober for the last 13 years. He cited examples of older awareness activists, including the late Senator Harold Hughes and former Massachusetts First Lady Kitty Dukakis, who has spoken publicly about her struggles with alcoholism and depression.

"There are not many of those advocates who are under the age of 40. Ashley is a remarkable exception rather than the rule," he said.

Moyers, son of renowned journalist Bill Moyers, was in Washington, D.C., this month advocating for legislation put forth by US Representative Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and Representative Jim Ramstad, a Republican from Minnesota, that would require insurance companies to cover mental health and addiction treatments as comprehensively as physical ailments.

It is expected to reach the president's desk by year's end, William Moyers said.

Ashley is also lending her voice to this issue, she said, because she and Moyers, unlike the vast majority of addicts, had top-notch care.

"I was one of the few who had the resources to get this kind of treatment. Most people simply don't have access."

The family members who once felt completely alone now know they are anything but; since Ashley started speaking publicly about her recovery, Caren and Ken have received calls and thank-you letters from other families grateful for their openness.

The Stanleys said they wish they had a magic solution to offer so other families could avoid their heartache. But there's no iron-clad prevention policy.

"This could happen to anyone anywhere -- whether you live on a farm or in the Cliff Estates [of Wellesley]," Ashley said. "Parents run around, saying, 'Not my kids; they are going to DARE and doing sports.' But I don't believe you have a choice whether your kid is going to be an alcoholic [or addict]. What you can do is support their recovery."

"The only thing a parent can do is keep the lines of communication open," said Ken.

"There's no rule book for this kind of thing," said Caren. "We were there for each other. And your kids have to know they can come to you. That's all you can do."

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com

The power of addiction

'Any unresolved issue -- being too poor or too rich, too famous or too unknown, too tall or too short, too smart or not smart enough, too successful or too down on your luck -- feeds the discomfort, the sense of not fitting in your own skin, the fear of meaninglessness, insignificance, the sense of shame, the hole in the soul that gives people who are vulnerable to addiction a really good excuse to get drunk or high.

And that is why there is always more to recovery than not just taking another drink or hit, because the reasons to take another drink or hit are always going to be there. We can learn to live sober with our "issues," but only if we recognize that it isn't the issue that drives the addiction so much as the addiction that latches on to the issue for a free ride straight into the complicated neurological wiring that underlies the craving and desire for oblivion.'

-- From "Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption," by William Cope Moyers

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