Addiction can come in many different forms. It’s not always a chemical substance misuse issue. In the case of Ashley Bookwalter, an addiction of co-dependency created a life of searching for self-worth and acceptance from others.
However, through that life — and with the help of Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn — Bookwalter, 37, has come full circle and is creating healing ripple effects in the area.
Logan, Ohio, is a typical small-town area and Bookwalter said she had a relatively typical upbringing. Bookwalter did all the things she thought she was supposed to do to be successful. She was an athlete, an honor student, president of student council, president of her class and a Homecoming queen candidate.
“Ironically, I had no idea who I was,” she said. “I had no idea what made me happy or what I wanted in life.”
Bookwalter wears her heart on her sleeve. As a child, she dreamt of saving the whales, changing the world and marrying Michael Jackson. Through the years, she developed her “chameleon” power, being able to adapt to any environment. But she wasn’t able to determine where she really fit.
“I didn’t really have my own sense of identity. I was just a little of what everyone else was,” she said. “I didn’t know how to cope with what I’d later find out was an addictive personality.”
Bookwalter stayed away from drugs and alcohol and said she never had the desire to go get high. She still went to parties, but it was normally as a designated driver.
Bookwalter’s “drug” was other people and relationships. She couldn’t stand to be alone and she hurt people because of it. She wasn’t comfortable with herself and she turned to trying to comfort others. She was a “fixer.”
The years that followed were a tumultuous cycle of self-sabotage, depression, self-harm and social isolation. A series of unhealthy relationships that included physical and emotional abuse, harassment, stalking and other unhealthy aspects, led to her car being repossessed, utilities being disconnected, excessive credit card debt, lost jobs and a run-in with law enforcement.
Co-dependency is defined as excessive, emotional or psychological reliance on a partner and one that requires support due to illness or addiction. Bookwalter couldn’t be happy on her own. She didn’t see purpose in her own life, so she relied on purpose from others.
“My happiness was based on whether or not there was someone there. If the person I was with left, I felt no one else would want to be with me,” Bookwalter said.
She would stay in unhappy relationships for long periods of time because she didn’t know how to get out. On more than one occasion, she brought someone new into her life as a way to end an existing relationship. One story had her on the way home with a new relationship while phoning to let the other know he had to move out immediately.
“I felt bad. I didn’t want to hurt him. I knew I caused a lot of pain. There’s a lot of pain in co-dependency for the other person too. They didn’t know I was unhappy. He didn’t know this was coming because I couldn’t express it. I felt guilty more than anything,” she said.
“You don’t want to hurt their feelings but you cause way more damage in the long run,” Bookwalter continued. “You tell them things you don’t mean because you don’t want to hurt them, which ends up hurting them even more.”
While dating a man with a substance addiction, Bookwalter took it upon herself to steal from her pharmaceutical employer. That led to a court date in November 2011 where she pleaded guilty in Athens County Common Pleas Court to three counts of complicity to theft in drugs. She was sentenced to five years of community control.
The incident was more than a wake-up call; It was life-changing.
Bookwalter went through treatment. In addition to Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, Co-Dependents Anonymous is its own 12-step program with sponsors. She joined and also started to read self-help books. She found religion, re-evaluated her beliefs and values and started to remove herself from unhealthy relationships and environments.
“As I started to take care of me and doing things for myself, I started to like myself,” Bookwalter said. “I still struggle to say that I love me, but I like me, most of the time. I don’t have to rely on other people for that.”
Bookwalter felt drawn to counseling and pursued a certification as a chemical dependency counselor. She started working at Health Recovery Services in Athens, the same place she herself had sought counseling. She would go on to work at other organizations and eventually became a director.
Bookwalter started to find purpose.
“My job was helping people but it was in a healthy way. I learned to help people the right way,” she said. “Before, I didn’t know how to help appropriately. Now, I can recognize things that make me uncomfortable, I’m not scared to say something, and I know meaningful ways to help.”
Bookwalter went on to earn her master’s degree and became an independently licensed counselor. She also had a very specific objective in mind.
“I wanted to work with (Prosecutor) Keller Blackburn,” she said.
“I didn’t know him closely, but I respected him and to know that he was disappointed in me (after the felony charges), sucked. I wanted to regain that respect. In 2015, I said, ‘I’m going to work side-by-side with Keller,” Bookwalter said.
That goal is now a reality.
Bookwalter created Summit Recovery in her hometown of Logan. Through the organization, she and her staff provide a curriculum for intensive outpatient substance abuse counseling. Typically, her clients have already completed at least 30 days of in-person treatment before enrolling at Summit Recovery for continuing treatment.
Through a partnership between Summit Recovery and the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office, Bookwalter now offers services to Athens County residents in the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, including assessments and ongoing counseling for low-level felony offenders.
“Ashley is proof that someone can go from struggling to recovery and lead a meaningful and productive live,” Blackburn said. “No matter what you did yesterday, you can make tomorrow better.”
“Side by side, like I said I was going to do. It’s amazing,” said Bookwalter about the partnership. “Getting to work with the prosecutor and his office is just amazing.”
The Athens County Prosecutor’s Office’s Community Justice program impacts more than just the people it serves within the various programs. It and the people it serves create a ripple effect of positive change. People like Ashley Bookwalter.
Joe Higgins is a spokesperson for the Athens County Prosecutors Office and former editor of The Athens Messenger.