Twenty-eight-year-old Ashley Kolaya is able to paint a vibrant, tender picture of her mother, Kim. Even in the middle of the lunch rush at Panera Bread, her words were eloquent.
“An amazing mom,” the smiling, bright-eyed brunette started. “A five-foot pillar of strength. Very driven, very charismatic, very loving. A disciplinarian, but I never wanted for anything growing up.”
Adjusting her weight on a padded wooden chair at a table for two, Ashley’s cheeks quickly flushed pink, and her eyes pooled with tears as she continued.
She shifted her gaze to the ceiling, took a breath and made eye contact again.
“So much, so much of who I am comes from her.”
Growing up, Ashley lived a relatively quiet life in Greenville, S.C., with Kim and Kim’s second husband, Dan Carlucci, until she graduated high school in 2002.
It was a healthy, stable household. Kim was an attentive mother; Ashley grew into a teen who thought she knew best. They butted heads, but loved each other deeply, Ashley said.
Around the time Ashley hit 10th grade, Kim had surgery on her back and neck and was prescribed medicine for the recovery pain.
“Common,” Ashley said.
Two years later, when Ashley was prescribed Percocet after getting her wisdom teeth out, Kim asked for her leftover pills.
“Not as common. That was the first red flag.”
Kim had been a “glass of wine a night” type of person. As Ashley neared graduation and left for college though, a glass of wine more frequently turned into two. Two turned into half a bottle. Half a bottle turned into a whole bottle.
“When I went to college, she started seeing a couple of different doctors,” Ashley said.
Kim, the once-dynamic businesswoman, mother and wife, had started playing the system for pills.
She developed an addiction to painkillers and sleeping meds, and that, along with an already dangerous dependency on alcohol, marked the beginning of a tumultuous, 8-year battle for Kim’s life.
While she was a student at the University of South Carolina, Ashley could judge Kim’s health and mental state through phone conversations.
“She would repeat herself. She’d ask the same questions. I was talking to a sad, angry person. This woman was a tower of strength, and I was witnessing her slow disappearance.”
Then, Kim fell down the stairwell of her house and shattered her elbow. It threw Dan into a panic.
A helpless witness to his wife’s struggle, Dan emptied the medicine cabinet and sped to the hospital. She could have been taking any number of things, and she was probably taking too much of them, he told doctors.
Hospital staff sent Kim to rehab for the next six months where, for at least awhile, she found healing.
“She became engaged in my life again, and we sort of started to find this friendship,” Ashley recalled.
“I was over being this bitchy teenager who was hard-headed and argumentative. I had grown out of that and was ready to be friends with my mom, who I admired so much. I was so glad to have her back, but it didn’t last long.”
When rehab ended, so did Kim’s turnaround.
She stopped going to work and would “go dark” for long stretches of time. When things weren’t going well, Kim’s brain told her to hide it, Ashley said.
“She thought she could, and that was never the case. She was my mother. I could talk to her for half a second and know how long she’d been clean.”
After a particularly long stretch where Ashley didn’t hear from Kim, she got a call from Dan.
Kim had attempted suicide.
Ashley drove home the next day, consumed by a mix of anger and heartbreak.
They were supposed to be in it together, she though. Mothers weren’t supposed to leave their daughters; they were supposed to live for them.
As Ashley entered the hospital she saw a bride and groom – white dress, military uniform and all. The bride’s dad had passed out at the wedding, and the whole family had come to be by his side.
Immediately, Ashley's anger was kindled.
“I never hid from her when I was mad. That night I said, ‘Do you really not want to be there when I get married? Do you not want to be a grandma? You have to be there to help me learn how to raise kids.’”
But the second Kim opened her mouth to respond, Ashley’s anger melted.
“The answer she gave wasn’t her, and I knew it wasn’t her. So, the anger sort of turned into, ‘We’re going to do something about this.’”
Doctors could only offer inpatient care for three days and a two-week outpatient program.
Again, Kim fell off the wagon once rehab ended, and in May 2009 she moved out of the house she shared with Dan in favor of a small, lonely apartment nearby where she could be away from the people she imagined were hurting her the most.
Dan refused to leave Kim, and he and Ashley would check in on her as often as they could.
Ashley recalled a particular phone call in August 2010 where she listened to Kim lament the high cost of a nearby rehab facility. Kim said she wanted to get better but couldn’t. Ashley noted that her mom seemed angry, promised they’d look into options and hung up the phone.
Two days later, Kim killed herself.
“She was such a good person,” Ashley said after recounting her mother’s story of addiction and depression.
“I hear people talk about suicide as a selfish thing. Sure, but when that’s even an option, it’s not that they’re only thinking of themselves. It’s that they’ve lost themselves.
The outpouring of love and support Ashley felt after her mom died was faith-restoring.
“To see so many people step outside of themselves for my sake or my family’s sake or my mom’s sake – that positive experience in the midst of something so tragic motivated me to do something.”
So Ashley, the senior program director and director of international initiatives at the Kentucky YMCA Youth Association in Frankfort, has channeled her passion and motivation into action.
Her mother’s own struggle opened Ashley’s eyes to health care runarounds and the reluctancy of people to have open conversation about depression and addiction. Those things, she says, need to change.
Last year Ashley started Two Degrees or Less, a campaign to expand the dialogue about addiction, depression and mental illness. Ultimately, she says, no one is more than two degrees of separation away from someone who struggles with any of the three.
Many times, suicide discussion centers in on teens or veterans. Those groups – and people like Kim – are connected, but not often recognized as such.
“We’re all fighting the same battle, but people can’t integrate things, and I think that’s kind of the whole purpose of having a campaign like this.
“We should be combining our efforts instead of trying to forge our own paths.”
Right now, the group has a Facebook page to provide information, support and promotional items, like stickers and T-shirts, to spread the word. Group members have participated in walks and raised money for research.
“We all have stories to share, stories that could help other people, and so far as I am able, I’ll be a receptacle for those stories,” Ashley says.
“Like it or not, we’re all in this together. We’re in the same boat, if not one that’s sharing the same waves. There’s tremendous power for action in that when we can realize and accept it.”
To get involved with the Two Degrees or Less campaign, visit www.facebook.com/2DegreesOrLess.