A Life Cut Short
“I'm not rushing anything in my life. I am just thankful every day…I know I still have a long way to go, but it is so beyond worth it!”
The Ashley McDonald Story
An Allegany Magazine exclusive
Original photos by Incogneato Photography
One year ago, in October, 2019, Oldtown native Ashley McDonald was encouraged by her friends and family to write her personal story of addiction and recovery. Her written words were intended to be part of a photography and documented project by Aaron Frazier of Icogneato Photography in Cumberland focusing on local stories of hope and redemption. Instead, her story ended tragically just four months ago. Just as she was beginning what she hoped would be a new chapter of her life and with a baby on the way, Ashley McDonald died. .
The words you are about to read are Ashley’s, written by her exactly one year ago. They were submitted to us by Mr. Frazier and used with permission of Ashley McDonald’s family in the hope that the goal she was unable to obtain can be reached by someone else and that her personal story might inspire others.
My name is Ashley and I have been an addict since I was about nineteen years old. I am now twenty-seven and celebrated one year clean on September 25th 2019. I moved out of my grandparents’ home two months before I turned nineteen and got with an ex-boyfriend who was already heavy into opiates. At the beginning of the relationship the severity of his addiction was hidden from me and by the time I realized how deep his addiction was, I was already following in his footsteps fast.
I graduated high school with an honors diploma and college magna cum laude. I thought that as long as I was managing to make progress in my life, the fact I was using opiates could be hidden from my family and friends. I brushed it off like it was not a big deal whatsoever while my friends and family got more concerned for my well being by the day. One by one they would try to reach out to me and tell me they noticed my personality changing as well as me being less involved in activities that used to make me happy. I would choose to buy pain pills and heroin rather than buying a ticket to a concert or festival, which were some of the activities that I would look forward to before and plan for months in advance.
I remember several of my closest friends from high school trying to tell me they knew I was high and I would blow them off and lie right to their faces, saying that I wasn't high and they were mistaken, even though from the outside view looking in, it was completely obvious that I was high and lying. The people closest to me eventually decided to stop coming around/talking to me because no matter how much they would try to help or reach out, I would just shut it down and not give a s***. Instead of realizing that my friends weren't coming around because they were worried about me and pretty much didn't know what else to do but put some distance between themselves and me, I got angry and said well f*** them all, I don't need them. I then started to use heroin on a daily basis rather than just some pain pills here and there.
I started dating a guy in Pittsburgh, and divided my time between Cumberland and there. I loved being in a new city where I knew no one and there were no people to give me sh** about stuff I didn't want to hear (even though that is what I needed.) It didn't take me but a couple weeks before I started to find heroin in Pittsburgh and started to really spiral out of control. I started to use cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines, and whatever else I could get my hands on, without really giving a sh** at all what anyone else thought because anyone that had mattered to me wasn't around anymore. So why should I care?
On February 25th of 2018, I decided at 2 a.m. to drive to Pittsburgh instead of waiting until the next day (as planned) because there was a hotel room with a bunch of cocaine. My ex insisted on me driving the two and a half hours right then and there, and without giving it a second thought, I was in my car and on the way. I had already drank some liquor, as well as my daily amount of heroin and Xanax. It was raining extremely hard that night and I ended up rolling my car four times and ending up in a ditch one mile from the Pennsylvania border in Oakland, Maryland. I had my dog Maxel with me and he barked on a random person’s porch until the man came outside and followed him to my crash site where I was laying in a ditch losing an extreme amount of blood from my head.
I was rushed to Western Maryland Health Systems, where the ER staff said that I had so many injuries that were so severe that they couldn't treat me. I was then rushed to Ruby Memorial in Morgantown, West Virginia. Six days later I woke up from being in a coma and was intubated wondering what the hell was going on and tried to rip the intubation tube out of my mouth. A nurse quickly stopped me and informed me that both of my lungs had collapsed and I was not able to breathe on my own. The next day the intubation tube was removed and I was asked what day it was. I responded with a sure answer that I knew for a fact that it was Monday. I wrecked on a Sunday night. A nurse responded that it was Saturday. My response, “Where did Monday through Friday go and where is my dog?” I was told that I had not only wrecked my car but I coded twice and was revived, bruised my heart, had both lungs collapse, fractured my skull and had 57 staples from ear to ear, broke seven ribs, compressed three discs in my spine, suffered a traumatic brain injury, broke three tree limb bones in my back, and broke my collar-bone.
I woke up surrounded by my boyfriend at the time and various family members who all were crying and were exhausted looking. My mother and father divorced when I was very young, around two or three years old, and had not been able to be in the same room with one another let alone have a civil conversation. To my surprise they were both standing at my hospital bed side by side with nothing on their mind but the fact that their daughter was given a 15% chance to live. I hid the fact that I was an addict from my entire family and it was revealed to them while I was in a coma that I had a cocktail of drugs and alcohol in my system at the time of my wreck.
My grandmother is my everything; my grandma, my mom, and my best friend all wrapped into one amazing woman. The fact that she found out that I was addicted to heroin while I was in a coma, and I didn't ever get the chance to tell her myself is something that still stays with me on a daily basis. Her heart broke hearing this news and all she could do was sit there and hold my hand praying hourly that her baby girl would wake up and recover from this. My heart still breaks thinking how she must have felt those entire six days, not knowing if I was ever going to wake up.
As days began to pass, my grandparents and boyfriend at the time never once left my side, and the friends that had walked away from me one by one came to my hospital bed side to make sure that I was okay and to let me know that they hadn't forgotten about me, they just didn't know what else to do to get it in my head that I had a severe problem, that literally would have cost me my life if it wasn't for the amazing staff at Ruby Memorial. That was the ultimate wake up call for me. I spent 29 days in the ICU in so much pain that I couldn't do anything but lay there and scream out. All I thought about for that month, laying in that bed, was how poor of a friend I was to some amazing people. I thought about how many times my closest friends sat on my couch and saw me completely vacant minded and nodding out to the point of being completely incoherent. I realized in that bed that I had to do something for myself or I was going to let the drugs kill me.
I spent the next six months healing 17 total broken bones. I was still using heroin here and there, but was trying to cut back.
In June 2018, I met a beautiful girl named Savannah who lived in Fairmont, West Virginia. We started dating and I started dividing my time between Cumberland and Fairmont. A couple months passed and I really started to fall for her and for the first time since I started using drugs, I decided to be honest with her about my addiction, even though I was terrified that she would run for the hills. To my surprise, she was completely understanding and wanted to help in any way that she could. I decided then and there, September 25th 2018, that I was going to really try and get clean. I had a Suboxone hidden in my purse and chose to show it to her and flush it down the toilet in front of her. I spent the next couple weeks sitting in her apartment withdrawing my ass off, shaking and shivering, puking and sh***ing, and tossing and turning, not sleeping more than an hour or two a night, if at all. Along with her, I had a friend in recovery named Jesse, who lived in Morgantown about 25 minutes from her. He saw my want to get clean and drug me to NA meetings in his town.
I had previously thought about going to a meeting, but the two times that I tried here in Cumberland, was like a high school reunion, where half of the people filling the room were people I had either used with, bought from, or went to high school with. I didn't feel comfortable speaking there because half of the people in the rooms already had some preconceived thoughts about me, which made me extremely uncomfortable. In Morgantown, no one in the NA rooms knew my first name, let alone anything about my struggles with drugs. I felt like I could actually be myself and begin to open up and tell my truth without several dozen eyes staring at me thinking they knew everything I had to say before I even spoke. Savannah and I eventually decided to part ways, but to this day she remains very close to me and I will always remember her rubbing my head in bed as I sweated and shivered, just being my shoulder to cry on, and letting me spill my guts to her. When her and I broke up, for the first time that something bad happened to me, I didn’t want to run to drugs. All I wanted to do was go home to my grandparents and cry on my grandmother's shoulder. That is exactly what I did.
I went back home to Oldtown and started to spend time with my grandparents. I realized how much I simply just missed being around them, and helping in the garden. I spent the next several months just spending time with my family and focusing on getting to know and love myself again. The whole time I was heavily using drugs, I was depressed and hated myself. My grandmother is in her 70's and doesn't really understand too much about addiction, but she would sit with me every single night and listen to whatever I wanted to get off of my chest. Even though a lot of the things I said shocked her or she didn't fully understand, she was nothing but 100% supportive and tried her best to understand and be there for me.
Nine or ten months went by where I just simply spent time with my family and kind of kept to myself, knowing it wasn't time for me to jump back into being around all my old friends again. I already put my friends through so much Hell that I wanted to actually put in the work and make the proper changes in my life to actually give myself a real shot at staying clean. I just recently within the last two months decided that I was ready to get my old friends back and show them the progress that I have made. I have been met with nothing but encouragement and positivity. The same friends who stepped away are some of my very best friends again. Hearing from people that mean so much to me that they can visibly see the old fun loving, emotional, talkative Ashley coming back makes me have the biggest smile on my face, and is the most encouraging thing ever! Hearing my grandmother tell me that I am present again, have color in my cheeks again, and am my old giggly self, means the world to me.
Just as anyone can be an addict, from a lawyer, a cop, to an average person working at a mall, the recovery process is also different for everyone. I leaned on my family and friends ultimately for support and am thankful for every single day that I wake up happy and clean, but it is still a one day at a time process for me.
I have come a long way in my recovery, but most importantly, I'm not rushing anything in my life. I am just thankful every day that I had such an amazing support system of friends and family who never gave up on me and believed in me even when I didn't believe in myself. I know I still have a long way to go, but it is so beyond worth it!
Editor’s Note: On June 30, 2020 Oldtown native Ashley McDonald died when – according to police reports – she was shot by her live-in boyfriend, Quentin Strawderman, who then turned the gun on himself. The two were found dead by police responding to a 911 call to a house on Trough Road outside Moorefield, West Virginia in Hardy County. A .45-caliber handgun was located in the home and there were witnesses to the shootings, according to police. As of press time, the investigation had concluded that Mr. Stawderman was responsible for both deaths. Ashley McDonald was pregnant at the time of her death. She would have given birth to a boy that she planned to name Rowan Jackson.
Allegany Magazine wishes to express our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Ashley McDonald and hope that her own encouraging words of hope and faith about her life -- and not her tragic death – can serve as her legacy.