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Ashley English '01 stands in hallway in front of a silhouetted willow tree

Ashley English ’01: Exhibiting empathy born of experience

Little did Ashley English ’01 know that hitting bottom can set you up to bounce back up.

It was in 2004 – June 26 specifically, because she remembers it well – that she decided that her lifestyle “wasn’t in line with the way I was raised, what I was taught and certainly not in line with God … I said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m morally bankrupt. I am spiritually broken. I do not feel good about things that I’m doing, where I’m progressing in my life.’ And it was at that moment that I said, ‘tomorrow will be a new day.’”

For 17 years now, every tomorrow has been a new day. Not only did she permanently set aside the alcohol and marijuana she had regularly used, as well as “other drugs (that) were not unknown to me,” but she passes along her example and expertise as a licensed addictions counselor to other substance abusers who find their way to her and The Willow Center, her addiction treatment center in Brownsburg, Indiana.

Clients are referred by physicians, employers, schools or the courts, with their enrollment precipitated by threats of divorce or loss of job or some other inciting incident.

English declines to describe the incident that prompted her turnabout or the specific substances she abused, lest other substance abusers use their differences as an excuse to avoid treatment. They may say, “I didn’t use that or she didn’t use what I use and therefore I can’t find hope,” she said. “People like to find reasons why they can’t identify with you.”

And yet, English and the members of her staff who likewise are in recovery most assuredly identify with them. “I want people to know that there isn’t anything that they’re going through that somebody else isn’t,” she said. “They need to know that they will get through it and their story is valued. There’s a purpose for that. Do not give up before the miracle happens. It will happen. But you have to reach out.”

“Do not give up before the miracle happens. It will happen. But you have to reach out.”

English said she used substances while a student at DePauw, though “it was after DePauw that I totally crossed the line of moderation.” When she arrived in Greencastle, she considering majoring in psychology, but a few days of a statistics class changed her mind. She considered communication, but eventually switched to education studies and student taught, though it didn’t feel like the right choice for her.

As graduation approached, her sorority sisters were landing jobs, and that “just added to the panic that I wasn’t good enough or worthy enough.” After graduation, she taught as a substitute and took temp jobs. Three years later, her reckoning came, followed by a new job at a methadone clinic and, six months after that, a position at what is now Community Fairbanks Recovery Center in Indianapolis.

She stayed eight years, during which she became a certified life coach with a specialty working with substance abusers, then got licensed as an addictions counselor.

Then, in August 2012, the owner of a counseling center who was shutting down his operation asked if she wanted to buy his assets and take over his client list. With another counselor and an administrative assistant, she opened The Willow Center.

Nine years later, she still sees some individual clients and runs a men’s group but spends most of her time while overseeing a staff of 15-20 who provide customized individual and group counseling to about 400 clients a month. She hopes to eventually open more centers. 

Last year, as she watched a softball game played by former clients – part of the center’s after-care programming – she noticed some joyous children in the bleachers. Their father was on the field.

At that moment, she said, she realized that “this is success, when your kids are smiling, your wife is here, they’re cheering you on where they’re supposed to be cheering you on. It was in that moment I said ‘this is why we do what we do. We’re reunifying families and communities and we’re giving people their dad back, their mom back, their son back. And to me, that is success when you can look over and the kids are smiling again.”

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