Find someone who is in recovery who you can talk to about what is going on. It doesn’t have to be someone you know. Just find someone who has changed their life and tell them what you wrote on that piece of paper (at least some of it). Ask them for help. If you don’t know how to ask for help — tell them that.
As a part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview Ashley Loeb Blassingame, co-founder of Lionrock and member of the executive team, where she leads talent acquisition operations. Ashley is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor-II, a Certified Relapse Prevention Specialist, and a Certified Arise Interventionist. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Los Angeles. Ashley co-directs the Healthtech Women LA Hub, a global syndicate of women in health and technology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
My childhood was privileged and complicated. I was born, the eldest of three girls, into a good, loving, supportive family who gave me all the material things I ever needed and most of the ones I wanted. My parents are well-educated and I was given the opportunity to be well-educated too. Unfortunately, I came face to face with two great obstacles that made it difficult for me to follow any sort of “normal” path. I was born genetically predisposed to addiction and I experienced early sexual trauma. In my field, we say “genetics loads the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.” My gun fired by the time I was five years old.
I spent my entire childhood trying to fill a void that could not be filled. I did it with everything from sugar to heroin. By the time I found heroin at 15 years old, I was just hoping to quiet the pain and rage that kept bubbling to the surface. I had given up on feeling good and resigned myself to simply feeling nothing.
From the outside, my life was a crazy, chaotic mess. It included things like being kidnapped, near fatal overdoses, disappearances, and many treatment centers. My parents did everything they could to try to help me but I was beyond their reach. I would not find recovery until shortly after my 19th birthday.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
I had my first drink at 7 years old. I stole a beer from a refrigerator and proceeded to drink it in a closet for a week. I didn’t really know what I was doing other than the fact that I was not supposed to be doing it. I don’t remember being intoxicated or anything other than it took me a week to finish it in the closet. I did not become a daily user until years later, but this was the beginning of my relationship with alcohol.
As the years went on, I became addicted to a series of things that ended in heroin. I drank and did a lot of cocaine daily for a couple years. In my head, alcohol and cocaine use were still pretty “reasonable” substances of abuse. I could (and did) rationalize them. When heroin came on the scene through a boyfriend who was addicted, I began my final descent and knew I had a problem. After many years and relapses, I realized that alcohol had been equally as corrosive.
I was drawn to drugs and alcohol because they were a quick way to make me feel anything other than what I felt. I hated being in my skin and the substances made it tolerable. They also gave me permission to be completely out of control. I was released from expectations because I was not reliable. My brain told me it was freedom.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
I saw and understood things about the world that a girl my age was not supposed to understand. These experiences elicited feelings that I did not have the maturity, coping, or communication skills to process. As a result, I always felt different from my peers. My perception of the world made me feel like I stood out when all I ever wanted was a sense of belonging.
When I told someone about my sexual trauma, it was not handled well. While I recognize that everyone was doing their best, unfortunately, it solidified a feeling of being alone and unprotected. The combination of all these things with my genetic predisposition created the perfect storm. Addiction was my lighthouse.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
The last time I used heroin, I ended up going to the hospital within 36 hours of using. This time I had infected the veins in both arms. My mother showed up from out of town to be by my side. My mother is a pretty stoic lady when it comes to these matters and this was not our first rodeo. She looked at me in another hospital bed and with tears in her eyes said “Are you going to make me bury you?”. Maybe she had said this to me before, but it was the first time I really heard it. I remember looking at the hospital ceiling and thinking, “This isn’t working anymore. I’ve given up so much for it. I’m so tired.”
That was January 6th, 2006. My sobriety date is January 7th.
Can you tell us the story about how you were able to overcome your addiction?
I tried everything I could not to have to become a member of a 12-step program but when the day came that I finally surrendered, it was waiting for me with open arms. The rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous are filled with people who taught me how to live this new life. They spent hours listening and relating to my stories, showing me how to act and respond in relationships, and how to have feelings I didn’t drink over. They loved me when I did not love myself. While there are many ways to get sober, this is the one that worked for me. The combination of years of therapy and a 12 step program saved my life.
I have been overcoming my addiction — daily — for almost 15 years. But the key word is ‘daily’. In the beginning, I battled and conquered my addiction by the minutes, then by the hours, and then by the days. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. My disease is chronic and only in remission if I am doing the things that I need to do to keep it that way.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
Reconciliation, like recovery, has been a process. Many people are familiar with the idea of ‘making amends’ after getting sober. Oftentimes, this act is conflated with apologizing, or ‘saying sorry’. A mentor of mine once told me that the legislature does not apologize to the Constitution — they amend it. Having been a political science major, this was an idea I could really wrap my head around. Taking a sober look at my behavior was not an opportunity for me to turn to the people I had hurt, myself included, and say, “I’m sorry”. How many times had I said I was sorry? Too many. No one wanted to hear it.
Making amends meant offering something new that I had never offered before while laying a foundation to maintain it. Some of the things I had done were so egregious that I could only be what is called a “living amends”, meaning I showed my desire for things to be different through my daily actions.
My passion for recovery and willingness to disclose my “dirty laundry”, so-to-speak, is not to embarrass myself or my family, but to step out into the light and put my stake in the ground — to say ‘this is what happened and my family and I are recovering. It’s ok if you need to recover, too. Join us.’ Knowing my experiences are now helping people, and the horrible things that happened have meaning, has paved the way to my reconciliation.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
In the first couple years of sobriety, I spent the majority of my time growing my sober community. I was told to find the people who had what I wanted and do what they did. I went to a lot of meetings and 12-step young people’s conferences. I learned how to, simultaneously, work really hard on my recovery through sponsorship, the 12 steps, and service while also having sober fun. I was 19-years-old and if I was going to stay sober for any length of time, I needed to know that I hadn’t quit having fun on my sobriety date.
I also had to catch up to my peers. I had no idea how to be a productive member of society. Those first years, I learned how to do things like open a bank account, pay bills, buy a car, hold down a job, and show up for family events. I had lost so much of my childhood through substance abuse that there were many times where I had no idea how to do everyday activities that the rest of the world expected someone my age to be able to do. I leaned on my community and they showed me what to do without reminding me that I was “behind.”
I look back on those early years fondly. I did the work to lay the foundation for my recovery; the same foundation that I stand on today. And I was reunited with the person I was always meant to be.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
I have incorporated so many different positive habits over the (almost) 15 years that I have been clean and sober. Why? I had to! I set myself (and others) up for success. Being in recovery is about incorporating fail-safe behaviors into your daily life so that they become autonomic. As my life has changed over the years, some of the behaviors have changed but for the most part, they include: journaling, meditation (of some sort), telling the truth, attending support group meetings, cultivating relationships, helping others where and when I can, investing in myself, exercise, adventure, joyful activities, and therapy.
One thing that really helped me when it came to mindfulness and meditation was yoga. I was not able to sit still and watch my thoughts. I desperately wanted to be a serene meditation queen, but it was just not happening. Then, I discovered yoga. This became extraordinarily meditative for me and I realized that I was meditating while doing yoga without even realizing it. This practice helped me a lot.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
As sure as I am that I was born an alcoholic, my father was born an entrepreneur. His childhood is filled with stories of ideas he brought to life because no one else was doing them. We moved to Silicon Valley when I was 7 years old so that he could build his career around people who thought outside the box. Thinking outside the box in my house was actively encouraged. My sisters and I would come home with school projects and he would find a way to spin our idea into a business. Our running joke with him whenever an idea enters the conversation is that “all you need is a logo and a website.” If we didn’t like the status-quo, he encouraged us to build something new.
While I loved his sense of adventure, I also thought it was crazy and impractical. After watching Judge Judy at age 5 I wanted to be an attorney. Law was the type of career with a pre-paved path I could follow. But, in 2010, after I studied political science and public policy, worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, became a law-clerk, and interned at the Orange County Public Defender’s office, I couldn’t will myself to go to law school. My father was working on another business idea and this time it was something I knew a lot about, so I decided to “help” while I figured out what I was going to do next. It turned out my “help” was vital and I went on to be the cofounder of an idea that would later become the first telehealth outpatient program for Substance Use Disorder: Lionrock.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
I am relentless. I was relentless in my addiction and I am relentless in my recovery. I do not give up. That doesn’t mean I don’t fail and have to switch directions, but I do not give up. There have been times where I found it difficult to switch directions quickly. This is something I have gotten much better at over time.
I am authentic. This has allowed me to gain a followership of people who like hearing my truth through my podcast. For many years, however, it kept me from fitting in when doing so would have been advantageous.
I am unconventional. I was raised to think outside the box. It’s in my DNA. This has supported me in my pursuit of creating a business that did not exist already.
My addiction can be described as my ability to lock-into an idea, belief, or need and not let go. Being an entrepreneur is all about holding onto your belief in yourself and your idea so deeply that you cannot be swayed by the naysayers. We had many people who laughed, scolded, and doubted us in our early days. Some of them have since called and apologized — admitting they couldn’t see what we saw. We were relentless in our pursuit, authentic in our execution, and unconventional in our problem-solving. Recovering from addiction will give you grit and grit is what you need to be an entrepreneur.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
We have an addiction crisis in this country and much of it is rooted in trauma. We have many ways to treat survivors of trauma, particularly early sexual trauma, after-the-fact, but we aren’t talking about why the instances of childhood sexual abuse are so high. They are astronomical. There are more than 42 million survivors of sexual abuse in America (NAASCA). Why are we not looking at why so many people are interested in sexual activity with children? Why aren’t we trying to intervene? To understand the real problem? I’m so grateful when people are able to heal from their trauma, but what are we doing to stop it from happening in the first place?
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
If you are an entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction and are ashamed to tell anyone — I get it. There is so much to focus on, so much at stake, and yet, you cannot stop.
Whatever it is, you can’t seem to stop.
Sometimes you feel ready to deal with it and then your head tells you you are being dramatic. Maybe you think about your friends who are worse than you are and feel relief… except you don’t. You don’t feel relief. Whatever it is, I want you to hear me when I say that you don’t have to feel this way anymore if you don’t want to.
- When you are having those feelings of not knowing what to do anymore, stop what you are doing, and write everything in your head down on paper or a word document. Don’t think about it. Just write it all. Let it out. Say what you can’t say out loud. You don’t have to read it to anyone, but for those moments when you forget what the “big deal” is — read it. Keep it.
- Find someone who is in recovery who you can talk to about what is going on. It doesn’t have to be someone you know. Just find someone who has changed their life and tell them what you wrote on that piece of paper (at least some of it). Ask them for help. If you don’t know how to ask for help — tell them that.
- Find a support group, in-person or online, where people are talking about the same issue with which you struggle. You don’t have to say anything. You can just attend and observe. If you feel compelled, tell them you are new and want help. Recovering people will show up to help. That’s what we do.
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Thank you so much for your insights. That was really inspiring!