Have you ever said to yourself or someone close to you, "I just want to be normal"! Many people live a "normal" life and they don't even know it. In a world and culture that is constantly screaming at us to be extraordinary--there are times that normal sounds just about as close to extraordinary as we will ever see. But defining normal is harder than you would imagine. But not everyone has the option for "normal"--even close to normal. There are women in slavery around the world, women who are in abusive relationships (that are far from normal--even if to the outside world it looks normal), women who have suffered great loss that took away their "normal", women who have chosen to sacrifice normal to defend your freedoms around the world, and women, like me, who have been riddled with some illness that stole "normal" from them.
**I have been planning this post for a few weeks. Writing, editing and rewriting. This is a hard subject and I have only scratched the surface with this story. However, after the events this past weekend in Orlando, I knew that it was divinely timed and important for me to get this out. Additionally, yesterday my family suffered a tragic loss and I immediately knew that I had to post this for my family, for those who are walking the road of grief and those supporting the grieving. Please know that my words only barely describe the depth of grief, but I share with my whole heart.
It will wreck you. Turn your life completely upside down, shake you all around, and spit you out like the whale spit Jonah out on the Beaches of Nineveh. Grief is this inevitable, painful reality that we spend most of our lives trying to avoid. Grief will make you run, it will make you hide, it will make you crazy and it will challenge the sanity of even the most confident individual.
Grief is a process, something that has to be finished once it is started. Kinda like the death defying rollercoaster at your local theme park. Once they hit go—you just have to hold on until the ride is over, until it comes to a stop and the operator says “please exit to your left”. The funny part about grief is when someone tells you it is okay to exit—sometimes you stay on for another round, unknowingly. What most people forget to acknowledge is that grief doesn’t just come after a death. It can show up after any loss. The loss of a career, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a friendship, the loss of a future you dreamed of—you name the loss—grief follows. It is all about how we acknowledge and show up for the experience that dictates how long the ride takes.
For me, grief hit me like a bad bad joke in the middle of the ocean just as I was about to catch the biggest wave and crush it in life—except the wave cut short and crashed over me and it had another wave right behind it that coupled itself to the crash and overcame my fight. My story with grief is longer than I would like—but learning through the process has proved to be the greatest of gifts. At 16 years old I lost my future, my dreams, my hopes in a matter of exactly 10 days. On a hot July summer day in Houston, Texas I woke up broken and unrepairable—told just 24 hours later that I had less than a day to live. My life was over and even if I lived my future would never be the same. I had no idea what this grief would look like, but I didn’t like it and I didn’t want to get on this ride. It would take a toll on me that I was unprepared for.
However, in a matter of 10 days, this loss would no longer matter to me—as my best friend would die in a horrific car accident 3 states away from me, thrusting me to the beginning of the line for another ride that I had no intention of enjoying! This grief would make me question everything. I doubted the Lord many days and wondered if I could actually go on living without my friend to fight for me. Because of her death, I became very apathetic to search and find a cure for my own illness. I accepted that it was simply a matter of time and I too, would die a premature death. To the point that I told my mom where I would like to be buried—and I started pulling away from my sisters because I wanted it to hurt less when I died.
Clearly, I am still alive and the rollercoaster has circled many times—more than I ever wanted. I lost my dream of becoming a medical doctor that summer (Although I fought valiantly not to lose that one for a long time). I lost my athletic dreams—I mean I was pretty sure I was going to find some Division 1 school out there that would put my slugger mode to good use—even if we had to get a pinch runner every now and then. I lost the dream of having “normal” “easy” relationships, finding a boy who could just fall in love with my high-achiever self and would love me through the crazy schedule of surgical residency and be patient with me as we planned out starting a family and balancing it all. I lost my care free future and I was saddled with waking up every day to count the cost of every single action I would take. (Here is a great theory of what living with a chronic illness is like Spoon Theory). Then to top it off I lost my friend, my confidant, and the future I had hoped and dreamed of with her. High School graduations, the glorious college years, then raising kids together, having husbands that loved each other like brothers and having a life of influence side by side. Gone—all of that (and so much more) GONE in 10 days.
My life in the 14 years that have followed has not been sunshine and roses. I wish I could tell you that I handled the grief well. That I strapped myself in, kept my chin up and just rode that ride and got off. But I didn’t. I neglected to deal with the grief of losing my life and future and it ended up backfiring in a BIG kinda way in my early twenties. I had waves of grief that flooded me through the early years, especially around big events when I thought about the fact that I would not have my friend by my side or be able to call her for advice. I spent the better part of the first 7 years in survival mode and very unhealthy—but God in His gracious love met me with every twist and turn and guided my journey right to His healing arms. Through a season of intense counseling (I highly recommend good, Christ-Centered counseling) and the prayers of those who love me—about 7-8 years after that tragic summer I was finally able to breathe again. I found a way to accept that my life may not be what I imagined it would look like and there are certainly pieces missing, but my life matters and has a purpose. I discovered that if I would choose to walk like I believed that the Lord was still on the Throne, that He was sovereign and that nothing surprises Him—THEN I could truly LIVE again. And let me tell you living again is beautiful and the Lord has redeemed more than I could ever hope or imagine.
Grief is powerful and painful. But, (don’t you just love when there is a but) it does not have to destroy you—it does not have to over take you—the wave may crash and it may push you deep but we serve a God who is mighty to reach down, grab your hand and pull you to the surface. You will breathe again, you will feel the sun on your face again, you will laugh again, you will dream again—just hold on tight to the One that never fails and face grief head on knowing that the Lord will not let you become consumed. And shockingly when the rollercoaster of grief is over—you might even be surprised how the Lord will use you to serve, encourage, and coach the people who reluctantly get on the ride after you.
We are all going to face grief—how we face it makes all the difference for our future.
Long journies are tough. (Can I get an Amen!?) They can be full of excitement and challenges. One challenge is figuring out how to share the journey with those you love—those you consider to be your people.
What do you share? What is the line of oversharing? Do people even care?
Recently, I met a girl who was going on a journey around the world and she decided to document this for her family and friends through a blog. I watched eagerly as she detailed all the amazing things she was doing in each city along the way. However, she encountered a communication challenge: many days would go by and she would be without wifi or access to her computer and she would have to delay her updates--therefore rolling them all into a large post at the end of that particular leg of the journey. Essentially, she was off the grid for days at a time. I am not sure people blamed her for her inability to communicate or got their feelings hurt because she didn’t share the minute she got to her next location. But there was a delay. People had to wait, wonder, and patiently anticipate her next update.
This is where I am. I feel like I am on a long journey and I have lacked the ability to communicate to those closest to me. I haven't shared the highest highs or the lowest lows. The difference is, people’s feelings were probably hurt by my silence and people have probably blamed me for my inability to articulate the truth of my journey. This has looked a bit different for each person. Some just pull back. Some runaway. Some lean in. Some just wait--patiently. Some have graciously and generously just encouraged me. Some became angry. Some chose to become frustrated because they didn’t understand. For some, it was just too uncomfortable to deal with. (And if I am being really honest--how can I blame them?) Long journeys are tough. They are hard to understand when you are not the one experiencing it. There are turns that cannot be anticipated and are hard for a bystander to endure without some whiplash. A happy example of a long journey is marriage or parenting. In both cases you know you are signing up for the long haul. But in both cases, you anticipate that it is going to be a worthwhile long journey--no not one without challenges but it will be rewarding. My long journey has been straight up challenging. It was twisted and intense and many couldn’t handle that.
However, for the last few years, I have had the privilege of traveling around the country sharing about functional medicine and health in various capacities and forums. Throughout that time doors have opened for me to share more of my story and journey with those who have been through similar experiences. I have very reluctantly shared bits and pieces, but never fully. I would often absolve myself from the situation by turning the conversation to someone else that I thought had a better story or communicated more eloquently. This led me to a place where I finally had to ask myself--why?
Why do you always remove yourself from the conversation? Why do you always laugh off speaking opportunities? Why do you always negate the fact that people want to hear from you? Why are you disqualifying yourself at every turn?
I realized--it is because those that are closest to me--my people, they don’t know this Ashton. It hit me like a ton of bricks and it hurt. Consider this scenario with me: A room full of people whom I have come to know and love from around the country. Now let’s say they were all talking about a particular person (Me). These people are talking about what I have done for them, how they have been encouraged and touched by the stories I have shared with them. Now let's imagine my family and my people were to walk into that room--I am confident that they would have no clue that everyone in that room was talking about me. This is the crux of the problem. The people that I perceive as needing to know the deepest parts of me, they don’t really know me at all. They think they do. They would fight to the death and say that they do. But when my dear 22-year-old sister looked at me at Thanksgiving this past year and said,
“Hey, Ashton, you know when you got sick when you were 21....”
21? I was in such shock I didn’t even know how to respond.
I looked back and said,
“You mean when I was 16 and got sick?”
“No I mean like when you really got sick, when you were 21.”
“Chelsea, I really got sick at 16--like they told me I was going to die.”
“Oh, well I am sorry--Mom never really told us anything, I didn’t know.”
My sister, whom I love to death, didn’t even know that I had been told I was going to die. She didn’t know that I had been sick for over a decade. She didn’t know my journey, my pain, my isolation, my heartbreak, my loss of life. She also didn’t know my victory over death, the life-changing moments that led to health, my joy in the midst of challenges. She didn’t know any of it. She only knew in part. So when I read Mark 5 about the demon possessed man who Jesus set free, verses 18-20 stuck out to me like a flashing light in the dark.
“As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon possessed begged to go with him. But Jesus said, ‘No, go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.’ So the man started off to visit the Ten Towns of that region and began to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed at what he told them.” Mark 5:18-20 NLT
Here I was traveling the country, talking to parents, patients, doctors, and other professionals and yet my own family didn’t really know all He had done for me. I will not lie--I wanted to tell others, genuinely I wanted to share the story so that others could find the freedom and hope that they wanted so desperately. But the reality is--I couldn’t share everything I am because the people that the Lord had FIRST called me to share with had been kept out of the journey. They had missed several updates along the way and it was not only stunting our relationships but it was stunting me. I need my people, for continued health and to support me as I begin to share this HARD journey with others.
So if you are reading this and you are not my family, maybe you are not "my people"--thank you for taking the time to read my words, I hope they encourage you and inspire you to share your journey with those you love. But for now--I am writing this for my people. So they might come to know the real Ashton.
Messy, but whole.
Complex but simple.
Hurting but thriving.
Challenged but victorious.
Once a Victim but Now an overcomer.
Family and Friends--
It is my hope when you finish reading my stories you will understand me a little more--but more than that, I hope this encourages you to dream your dreams, face challenges differently and to never ever give up--because Hope is like an Anchor, set firm in Jesus! I have found that on every mountain top and through every valley He has been near and He has rescued me. He will do the same for you--if you just believe and hold tight to Him.
You are my people--and I want you to take this journey with me--First!