By Polly Basore Wenzl, The Wichita Beacon.
This is the first part of a two-part series. Read the second part here: “ ‘Storm of Addiction’ Part 2: Sober and ready to fight”
This story contains references to drug use, addiction and overdose.
If you wanted a metaphor to describe Ashley Alexander’s life, you might tell the story of a woman emerging from a house destroyed by a tornado, walking past dead bodies in the wreckage, trying to make sense of the chaos, like cars in trees, wondering how she survived it all.
Only that really happened, and it’s not just a metaphor.
Ashley isn’t eager to tell her story. She wants to tell the story of her fiance, Dustin Gotham, who died Jan. 22, 2022, from an accidental fentanyl overdose. Ashley wants justice for Dustin and changes in laws that she believes might prevent other Kansas fentanyl deaths.
Born to addiction, daughter of a meth cook
Ashley Alexander, 33, was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, into a world filled with alcohol and drugs. To this day Ashley loves both her parents, though her dad was addicted to drugs and took her to his meth house on his days to watch her, and her mom brought home men who were violent, and both drank or used with her from her early teens, leading to a lifetime of alcoholism that almost killed her.
But Ashley loves them from a distance now. She is in recovery and has learned to set boundaries to stay clean and sober. She talks to her mom on the phone regularly; she doesn’t talk to her dad at all.
“My dad since I was 4 has been a meth addict – a meth cook actually – in and out of jail. So obviously he was not the best role model,” she says. She recalls being 7 or 8 and her father taking her to a friend’s house – the cook house – where there was always a bag of dope on the table and a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey.
Kansas Department of Corrections records show a number of convictions for drugs, theft and violence for him.
“I always really loved my father, you know?” Ashley says. “He was never a good influence. And I would say we were the closest when I used (drugs) with him, which I started drinking and smoking pot with him when I was about 14 or 15.”
“But I never did meth,” she emphasizes. “I tried it once. But I never did it with him.” She used drugs in her teens, but only dabbled in drugs later – pot, cocaine on occasion, psychedelics at music festivals. Alcohol was her preferred drug.
Ashley recalls a time when she was a child and her dad returned from a night of partying: “He would come home … all beat and bloody and he lied down right next to me sobbing. And I was under 10, and I didn’t understand why he had to do that. I felt like it was just to get my attention, but I got up and got a rag and cleaned him up a bit.”
Her father was never violent toward her — she only recalls one mild spanking during childhood. But he beat her dog when it was a puppy not yet housebroken, she says.
“He would beat her, throw her outside when it was raining. I would go out there and lay with her, and he would feel bad and let her back in, but she was scared so she would pee again, and he would freak out again, and that cycle went on for hours.”
Ashley mostly grew up with her mom. “She was always in a violent relationship, I’m not sure why. There was always men physically hurting her.” Whenever things got bad, her mother would take Ashley to stay with her mother’s parents, to keep her out of harm’s way.
No one ever considered calling police or social services about the drugs or the violence surrounding her, she says. And she didn’t expect it.
“I was always raised to never snitch. You always handle stuff on your own. You never call the cops. I knew she (her mother) shouldn’t be treated that way, but I didn’t know the right thing to do was call the cops.”
When Ashley was 13, her mom married a man who moved them to Perry, Missouri. “Her first husband was extremely violent, so she let me get a job and drive. I was a bus girl under the table at the only restaurant in town.” She used the money she earned to buy drugs and alcohol.
Respite from an uncle in Joplin
By high school, Ashley was back in Hutchinson, where she says she went to school drunk most days. By the time she was 15, she’d met a boyfriend she would stay with for the next eight years. “We partied at first, but then we settled each other down,” Ashley says.
After graduating from Hutchinson High School in 2007, the couple wanted to leave town. To celebrate graduation, they went on a float trip in Elk River in southern Missouri. They were with Ashley’s uncle, who lived in Joplin. He was one of her father’s siblings.
“I remember it like it was yesterday: We were standing outside the vehicle, we were saying goodbye and about to leave and my uncle said, ‘If you ever want to move down here, you guys can stay in this room until you get on your feet.’”
The young pair jumped at the chance. “I had a job (in Joplin) within a week, I think we both did, and we had a place (to live) within a month.”
For four years life in Joplin was relatively calm — until the 2011 tornado.
Ashley and her boyfriend had dialed down the partying as she went to college at Missouri Southern State University. “I still drank, but just on the weekend. … I had a 3.63 GPA when I graduated.”
Ashley majored in accounting and minored in finance and economics. “When I was trying to decide what I wanted to do … I wanted to make good money. And I was just good at math generally.”
She gets those number skills from her mother’s side. Those grandparents she stayed with? Grandma was an accountant and math teacher and grandpa was a computer engineer.
Ashley has great memories of him.
“When you go through a lot of trauma you tend to remember the bad stuff more,” she says, “but I know there was good stuff mixed through there, and one of the things was with my grandfather.”
“We would spend hours playing video games together,” she remembers, smiling. “We would play Mario Kart, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, things like that. My grandma would bring us sandwiches because we would be there so long. I was Yoshi; I really liked Yoshi.”
The storm moves in to destroy
Ashley and her boyfriend were at home in their rental house on the evening of May 22, 2011, a Sunday. She says they were not concerned about the storm, at first. That changed quickly.
“We were watching the news and it showed the skycam, and here’s this funnel cloud and it turned into a tornado. And they are like, ‘Joplin, take cover, take cover!’”
Ashley says her boyfriend’s quick thinking saved their lives. “He put us in a closet by the bathroom and had put the dining room table up in the doorway. And so when we got out, there was debris up at least 75% up this table. So had that table not been there, that all would have flew into us.”
Once the storm had passed, they crawled out of the debris of the rental house to see what happened to their house and to Joplin.
“Walking out I saw several car crashes,” she says, appearing haunted. “I saw trucks that had bodies piled up in the back trying to get to the hospital, because there were two hospitals in town and one of them got hit… It was just chaos, gas leaks, fires. There was this huge tree that fell in my backyard … my car was in the tree.”
The 2011 Joplin tornado was an EF5 that tore through the city, killing 158 people and destroying 4,000 buildings, including Joplin High School, a few blocks from Ashley’s house. It was deemed the costliest tornado in U.S. history, producing $2.8 billion in damages.
“There was debris this high in the roads so we were walking over nails and wood and stuff with the 80-pound dog in our arms,” Ashley remembers. “It was also bizarre because at jewelry stores or head shops you saw people just looting and stealing. And the cops were guarding the liquor stores.”
It was after that, Ashley thinks, that she started to drink heavily again.
Bad becomes worse – with whiskey
In college, she mostly drank beer with liquor on the side. “What it turned into was I only drank whiskey straight. American Honey.”
After the tornado, there were no rentals available so Ashley and her boyfriend bought a house together — then broke up six months later.
“I remember one night I was out a lot later than normal, and by the time I got home, (my boyfriend) was home, and he said, ‘I came looking for you at the bar,’ and that’s when we had a sit-down talk — I was drunk but I remember it — and we agreed to a mutual breakup.”
What followed was a series of bad relationships: “No house, no car, no job, just got out of jail — that was what my check marks for a boyfriend were.”
All of them used drugs and alcohol. “I just thought they were really good guys and I could help them,” she explains, citing what she calls her problem with codependency brought on by caring for her parents while she was a child.
In 2015, she moved to Wichita for a job. Her drinking worsened and she wonders how she survived.
“Something was looking over me because statistically I shouldn’t be here or I should be in prison,” she says.
“I got pulled over drunk out of my mind three or four times, each time I talked my way out of it and I drove home. I don’t know how or why, so it just got worse and worse.” Kansas criminal records don’t show any arrests for her.
By 2018, after a lake trip at Table Rock, Ashley noticed her abdomen swelling. She thought it was a lake injury.
“So I went to the doctor and they ran tests and pretty much came in the room and told me my liver was failing and they wanted me to take an ambulance to the hospital, and I refused.”
Ashley told them she wanted to drive herself to save money. That wasn’t the real reason.
“I wanted to stop and get liquor on the way because I knew I wouldn’t have any at the hospital,” she says. “That’s how much of an alcoholic I was. Everything I planned, I made sure I could get alcohol. There wasn’t a day I didn’t drink for a very long time.”
She was admitted to Wesley Medical Center and went into detox for a week. When she got out, she tried to stop drinking, “but living with a raging alcoholic when you are a raging alcoholic… It lasted a few weeks and I started drinking again.”
Ashley says she was now on medical leave, being paid. Her financial analyst job paid well, about $75,000 a year. “So it went from me drinking from the time I got off work until bed, to drinking all day because now I didn’t have to work.”
Ashley’s mom worried she was going to lose her daughter, and asked Ashley to get treatment. “And I was surprised: I told her I agreed with her.” Ashley entered rehab at Holland Pathways in Wichita, which was called Fieldview at that time.
“And this is where I meet Dustin,” she says.
Ashely broke up with her boyfriend while in rehab when her mother found him advertising himself as single on Facebook. “And in my head, being thick, I am automatically looking for guys. … There was a couple in there that was really cute and Dustin was one of them.”
Dustin Gotham had served time in prison for robbing a Walgreens in Tulsa in 2015. According to Oklahoma incarceration records, he served from August 2015 to November 2017.
“It’s kinda crazy that I was attracted to him,” Ashley says. “He had been in prison … in his 20s and he really hadn’t figured out how to adjust in society. He had been in multiple treatment centers, more or less to not be homeless.”
One night Ashley heard him “flipping out” in detox and asked her counselor if she could give Dustin a cigarette. She remembers walking over to him and asking if he wanted to go outside for a smoke. “And he just got up and gave me a hug and so the day that we both were out of treatment, we started hanging out together immediately.”
A person is more than their addiction
In Dustin, Ashley saw a really good person with a really bad problem. He was a devoted son and a loyal boyfriend. “I never worried about infidelity or anything such as that; he wasn’t that kind of guy. He hated when guys would talk about women in a demeaning way; he would actually get mad.”
Asked to describe Dustin’s good traits, Ashley writes 2,700 words in an email. She describes a gentle soul traumatized by prison, someone loving to animals and constantly doing little kind gestures like setting out her energy drinks before she went to work, leaving love notes by her computer, cleaning the house to surprise her before she came home.
His addiction did not define him, she says. “He was so much more than that. He would do anything to make me happy or to make me smile. And I know he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me no matter what — and technically he did.”
Unlike Ashley, Dustin did not experience trauma growing up, she says. He told her he had the perfect childhood with loving parents. But since childhood he suffered from panic attacks and anxiety, self-medicating with heroin and Xanax – Xanax is what he stole from the Tulsa pharmacy.
Both tried to stay sober after rehab but it didn’t last. They were soon drinking regularly. Ashley was kicked out of the house she rented from her mom. Soon Ashley and Dustin were “hotel-hopping” – staying in cheap motels that Ashley paid for either with her income or advances off credit cards. She hit rock bottom the week of Christmas 2018.
“It was quick and it was crazy,” she said.
At the bottom, seeing no way out
On Christmas Eve, Ashley’s car got broken into, and many of her things were stolen. On Christmas Day she got drunk and totaled her car. On Jan. 3, 2019, she lost her job.
Through that same week, Ashley describes several instances where the consequences of their substance abuse binges led to calling 911 for Dustin and herself.
“They kept helping him because he was prone to seizures. So they would detox him, but I was just an alcoholic, so (they told me to) get out.”
According to Ashley, someone in the ER told her to call an ambulance to go to a different hospital and security guards called the police and told her to leave.
“So that was the last time I tried to go to the hospital,” she says. “So at this point (I realize): If I drink anymore I was going to die, and if I didn’t drink, I was going to die. And at this point, I had jaundice, lost about half of my hair, 80 pounds in two months, I was very very sick. And I was just so lost because … I couldn’t quit drinking.”
Dustin was home from the hospital when Ashley’s mom showed up at the motel with an uncle – another of her father’s siblings – in law enforcement. “I thought he was taking me to jail,” she says.
Instead, he found all their drugs and flushed them down the toilet and took her back to Holland Pathways for detox and rehab. The uncle promised to take Dustin somewhere else for help. Ashley refused to stay past the detox, but briefly sober, she and Dustin — now back home — rented a car and drove to Joplin to see Ashley’s uncle — the one who took her in after high school.
She wanted to spend a day with her younger siblings, who were being raised by the Joplin uncle. She thinks maybe she did that because she thought she would die soon. She took the kids to an escape room and out to lunch. After that, she and Dustin checked into a hotel in Joplin.
“We spent about three to four grand that week, on the room and everything… And we ended up in the hospital, almost in the exact same predicament,” she says. This time Dustin had a grand mal seizure, she says. “It was really bad.”
Ashley wasn’t permitted in his hospital room.
“I just felt so hopeless. We didn’t know what to do. And it was almost like those higher power things that I think about… I turn around and my uncle and my aunt are standing there. … they saved my life.”
Ashley agreed to pour out all her whiskey and commit to rehab at Valley Hope in Moundridge, Kansas. “That was the start of saving my life,” she says.
An attempt at sober living
Ashley wouldn’t go to Valley Hope until she received assurances that Dustin wouldn’t be released only to become homeless. Her aunt and uncle promised that wouldn’t happen. A social worker at the Joplin hospital arranged for him to go to rehab at the H.O.W. Foundation in Tulsa, a free residential recovery program for men.
Ashley went through detox at Valley Hope, then did the rehab program there. Through detox, they kept her on librium, a medication used to ease symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal. She went to classes, worked the program and made sober friends at Valley Hope.
After 30 days at Valley Hope, she moved into an Oxford House in Wichita, group living for people in recovery. There are more than three dozen Oxford Houses in the Wichita area. Ashley paid $125 a week to live there. Hers was the first allowed to administer methadone and naloxone to residents. Residents are required to attend recovery meetings and undergo regular urine drug screens.
“I lived recovery during that time. … It helped until it didn’t,” she says. Ashley cited personality conflicts, betrayals of trust and drama among the residents as reasons that led her to move out after six months.
By this time, Dustin was living in another Oxford House in Wichita. “He was doing really well.” But when Ashley moved out of Oxford she stopped going to meetings. “And naturally after I quit going, he quit going.”
Ashley says she became what is called “a dry drunk,” meaning she stopped drinking regularly but wasn’t fully committed to sobriety.
“I was out of recovery and I got drunk maybe five to 10 times. I was a dry drunk because the COVID started and then I worked remote and I just got into this deep, deep depression,” she recalls. She and Dustin were living together again by now.
She credits Dustin for keeping her going during the isolation of COVID. “I just remember him constantly trying to cheer me up. He just wanted to know what he could do to make it better — but there was nothing anyone but myself could do.”
Dustin was working a job as a machinist and kept going into work, but Ashley says the pandemic took a toll on him as well.
A doctor prescribed Xanax for his panic attacks and he kept taking more and more. Later he lost his job and started being at home with Ashley all day. She recalls him pacing the house, constantly, ramping up in anxiety.
What happened next was the final thing that got her committed to sobriety.
Dustin “went on a five-day bender and he was taking 20 Xanax a day,” she says. On the megadoses of Xanax, Dustin’s behavior became so erratic that on the second day of the bender, Ashley sneaked out of the house to stay with one of her friends from Valley Hope.
As the days went on, their neighbors called to complain that his behavior was so frightening they were keeping their children indoors.
Ashley traded concerned phone calls with Dustin’s parents, all of them trying to figure out what to do. Eventually a neighbor called the police and reported Dustin for acting threatening in the yard. He was taken to jail, but stayed through the weekend and sobered up. He was released a few days later.
Dustin wanted Ashley to pick him up and take him home. Not this time, she decided.
“As a codependent person I had to do one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. … I said, ‘No. You’re not coming home.’ ” Dustin’s dad paid for him to stay in a motel before moving him into a sober living house the next day. “So that was the start of our recovery,” she says.
Six good months before the end
According to Ashley, after one relapse at the sober house, Dustin stayed clean for the next six months.
They lived together in a house in Park City. “It was the happiest six months of our relationship. … We did all of these things we couldn’t do and enjoy in our addiction.”
They went to see the lights at Botanica’s Illuminations, visited the animals at the Sedgwick County Zoo, took a trip to Colorado, attended a Joe Rogan comedy show and went to Kansas City for a Chiefs football game. They cared for Luna, a German shepherd they’d adopted, and started making plans to get married, imagining having children one day.
It’s at this point – recalling happy memories – that Ashley for the first time while telling her story starts to choke up. “My life was not chaos for the first time in my life. It was such a good time — that’s what makes it especially hard,” she says.
Dustin turned 32. He also got his six-month sobriety chip. “And everybody in the hall said they’d never seen him smile so big, he was so proud of that six months, because that was the first time that he had truly earned it.”
One deadly mistake changes it all
Days after his 32nd birthday, Dustin texted Ashley. He’d gotten off work and wanted to know if he could go play video games with a friend from work. Ashley thought it was strange he asked.
Dustin didn’t normally do that. But a week earlier he had also asked whether she thought it OK if he got some pain pills from this same friend for severe knee pain.
Dustin’s friend was offering “Perc 30s,” 30-milligram oxycodone pills, she says.
Ashley’s first impulse was to worry. She had seen pills like this before, even taken some herself during her “dry drunk” period. The drug market is flooded with fake Perc 30s laced with fentanyl, a potent drug 50 to 100 times the strength of morphine. It is used because it is cheaper than oxycodone.
Ashley says her dealer friend had been upfront and warned her the pills had fentanyl in them. He told her not to take a whole one: “He told me he overdosed on half of one pill.” She took one-eighth. Dustin knew about all this, so he wasn’t ignorant of the risks, she says.
“He was texting the guy while we were talking about it, and I said to him, ‘How do you know there is not fentanyl in those pills?’ And he held up the phone and said to me, ‘Look, they came from the pharmacy.’
“And I said, you know it’s going to kill your clean time… but you’re a grown man and only you know how much pain you are in.” Dustin decided not to get them, or so he told her.
By the time Ashley got home from work, Dustin was home from playing video games. “And I didn’t think anything about it.”
Later she woke up in the middle of the night because she needed to use the bathroom.
“I noticed Dustin wasn’t in bed.”
She checked to see if the car was in the drive or he was in another part of the house. No sign of him until she noticed the bathroom light was on and the door was shut.
“We had been working on trust, so I just decided I will go when he gets out.” She went back to bed and fell asleep.
The next morning she awoke at 6:30 a.m. and noticed had never come back to bed. The light was still on in the bathroom. That’s when it hit her.
“I just started banging on the door and screaming,” she says. “And I got no response and the door was locked.” She used a card to unlock the door and when she opened it, she saw.
Dustin was lying awkwardly, his body contorted, as though he’d fallen off the toilet and hit his head on the bathtub. He had a needle in his arm.
Read Part 2: ‘Storm of Addiction’ Part 2: Sober and ready to fight
This story was originally published by The Wichita Beacon, an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.
This post was previously published on wichitabeacon.org.
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Photo credit: Ashley Alexander and her fiance Dustin Gotham liked to visit the Keeper of the Plains on their good days. Dustin died last year of accidental fentanyl overdose. He is shown here with his beloved dog Luna. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)