June Leffler Published

Even After Death, Stories Of Recovery Can Give Hope

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West Virginia filmmaker Tijah Bumgarner has looked at opioid addiction from every angle. It’s personal — she lost her father to an overdose in 2020. Recently, she’s embarked on both fictional and real-life narratives that highlight the experiences of women in recovery through film.

Both of these projects are inspired by the life of Ashley Ellis, who passed away at the age of 34 last November due to substance use disorder. Ellis helped write “Her Hope Haven,” a TV series in the works about a group home for women in recovery. The pilot episode premiered for a Charleston audience last month. Ellis is also the subject of the yet to be screened documentary “Picture Proof.”

“All Ashley and I wanted was to save a life,” said Debi Ellis, Ashley’s mother, who is another subject in “Picture Proof.”

Ashley told WVPB during the filming of “Her Hope Haven” that she wanted to be open and honest about her addiction and recovery. She hoped her story would fight against stigma and remind folks that recovery is possible.

Debi said for about three years, Ashley was steadfast in her recovery.

“Even when she’s doing well and somebody would ask me, ‘How’s Ashley doing?’ I’d say ‘She’s fine at this moment,’” Debi said. “I always tagged that, because the sad thing with addiction is it roars out of nowhere. I knew it was a possibility every single moment. I knew she could die every single moment.”

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Courtesy of Tijah Bumgarner
Lauren Brothers plays Rachel in the pilot of “Her Hope Haven”, an episodic series in the works based off the experience of Ashley Ellis.

Ashley’s Story

After getting out of rehab, Ashley started making a name for herself in the recovery community. She worked as a peer support coach for Recovery Point. In her free time, she would get up in front of exhausted grandmothers to offer advice on how to cope with addiction in their families.

That’s how filmmaker Bumgarner met Ellis. Bumgarner was looking for subjects for a documentary.

“I just sat there in awe of her. Even at that point, I was just like, ‘Oh, I love her,’” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner was drawn to Ashley, and in turn Ashley and Debi offered complete access to Bumgarner.

“This story that we don’t get to hear as often in the media about a family that worked so hard to build back what could have been shattered,” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner began filming moments of their lives. She captured sticky situations, like custody proceedings, and solemn moments, like when Ashley found out her friend died from an overdose. But Bumgarner also filmed uplifting milestones in Ashley’s life, like Ashley getting engaged and having her second child, as Ashley described for the documentary.

“I can feel my kid moving inside of me, and it’s really cool, because I’m like ‘my god’ he’s moving because he’s healthy,” Ashley said in a clip. “It’s just so different now, I have a lot of stuff to live for now and before I felt like I didn’t.”

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Tijah Bumgarner
Debi Ellis (left) walks with her daughter Ashley Ellis (right). They hold tight to Ashley’s children Asher and Piper (center).

No one can know exactly what Ashley was going through days and weeks before her death. But she did lose her finance to an overdose, and Debi knew Ashley was grieving and depressed.

“I was looking at some texts last night, and I’m asking her if she wants to go ‘home.’ And ‘home’ is our code word for the treatment center in Louisville, because they have a sign above their door, ‘Home Sweet Home’,” Debi said. “So that was our code for ‘I need treatment.’ All she had to say to me was `I need home’ and we’re on the road.”

Debi said in that text conversation, three days before her death, Ashley reassured her that she was doing okay. She was reaching out to friends.

“And so we thought she was okay, and then I got a call that she wasn’t okay,” Debi said.

Folks close to Ashley came to her home, even though there wasn’t anything that could be done at that point. Bumgarner also rushed over, this time, without her camera.

“Debi got there. And I just wanted to hold her and not let her go. And then Debi’s like ‘Are you filming this?’ And I was like ‘No.’ And she’s like ‘Oh, you’re not really a documentarian then are you?’” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner said she reacted as a friend in grief before considering the project at that moment. But since then she’s had space to consider how the documentary will reflect on Ashley’s death. The film will disclose Ashley’s passing, but it will end on a scene of her alive with her two children, her mother, and her recovery community.

“It ends in this hopeful way, that I think it would just do a disservice to all of the work and love of this family to make it feel so finite, and maybe not leave enough hope for others as well,” Bumgarner said.

The Power Of Narratives

The Ellis family didn’t take much convincing to have their life caught on tape.

“But I did tell her, I have one rule throughout all this. And that was to be raw. And I want people to see how it really is,” Debi said.

The documentarian and the subjects believed the story could shape perspectives.

Director of the Opioid Policy Institute Jonathan Stoltman said the way addiction and recovery are portrayed in the media do have consequences. Alongside the West Virginia based news outlet 100 Days in Appalachia, Stoltman educates reporters on how to cover addiction in a way that is accurate and minimizes harm with the project Reporting on Addiction.

Stoltman said the public needs to know addiction is a treatable, chronic condition. If they don’t, policy makers won’t be pushed to find and implement solutions.

“If we still think about it as a personal failure, or moral failure, then I’m not out there advocating for services to help in my community. Or if a treatment center wants to open up in my neighborhood, I might be more likely to say ‘Hey, I don’t want treatment in my neighborhood, because that’s bad. These people just need to figure it out on their own,’” Stoltman said.

Without viewing Bumgarner’s complete documentary, Stoltman said the filmmaker’s approach to a tragic story is helpful in a number of ways. Personal stories convey the true impact of addiction and need for services better than numbers alone. Showing all the good years of Ashley’s life lets others know that treatment helps and recovery is possible, and that fact doesn’t change just because Ashley died.

“All medicine is designed to extend life and increase quality of life. You saw with Ashley that quality of life, it came back in spades for her. Unfortunately, that does not mean that you’re at no risk of returning to use,” Stoltman said.

Stoltman also said there should be hopeful and gritty narratives around addiction, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“When we talk about addiction, and treatment and recovery, there are so many different paths. And one of the paths, unfortunately, with opioid use disorder, is death. It’s not the most common path, but it is a path worth exploring and talking about the barriers that lead to that,” Stoltman said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 100,000 people in the U.S. have died from a drug overdose in the past year, but millions more people are experiencing opioid use disorder.

Only Ashley would know, but Debi suspects her daughter’s active, forward facing role as a recovery advocate put pressure on her.

“Yes, she did very well. She was clean. She was extremely, over the top active and accessible to anyone who needed her 24/7. But what happened was they put her on a pedestal. And anytime you are put on a pedestal, you get knocked off eventually by yourself,” Debi said.

Jonathan said that pressure is real. Peer recovery advocates take on the demands of social workers and have the pressure to be perfect in the eyes of those who admire their sobriety.

“You were the person that everybody talked about. And so now you’re not even like back to zero [days since drug use], you’re back to like negative 100. Because everybody looked up to you. In reality, that’s not the case of course, but it’s hard to get past that barrier that you’ve built for yourself,” Stoltman said.

Recovery from addiction is possible. For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP) or visitfindtreatment.gov.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.