Real People Overcoming Real Problems
We are launching a new series on the podcast this week—Real People Overcoming Real Problems.
You do not want to miss this very first episode with author, speaker, podcaster, and new friend of mine, Ashley Abercrombie, who shares with me her story of overcoming addiction and learning to ask for help.
Ashley speaks candidly about the pain in her life, how she tried to numb it, and the divide that nearly shattered her until she learned to ask for help. And do not miss the last part of this interview where Ashley talks about how she's been getting through a period of extended isolation and loneliness these past few years.
- The various big “T” and little “t” traumas that can lead to addiction and painful patterns of self-soothing.
- Why carrying your pain silently doesn’t work.
- How Ashley finally found healing in safe community
- Why failure is our friend
- How to be helpful (and what’s not helpful) to people who are struggling
- The wisdom Ashley would give her 20-year-old self now.
Connect with Ashley on Instagram
Ashley’s After Hours newsletter on Substack
Key Take Aways:
“Integrity earns itself in time.” —Ashley Abercrombie
“We should not have to lie to live.” —Ashley Abercrombie
Questions for Reflection:
Do you relate to feeling like you are living as two different people?
What is one step you can take to share what you are feeling with a safe person?
Connect with Ashley on Instagram
Ashley’s After Hours newsletter on Substack
Rise of the Truth Teller: Own Your Story, Tell It Like It Is, and Live with Holy Gumption
Love Is the Resistance: Learn to Disagree, Resolve the Conflicts You've Been Avoiding, and Create Real Change
Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
Complex PTSD, From Surviving to Thriving, by Pete Walker
Changes that Heal, by Dr. Henry Cloud
Safe People, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
The Soul of Shame, by Dr. Curt Thompson
Episode Eight: The Best of You Podcast 23rd June 2022
Guest: Ashley Abercrombie With Dr. Alison Cook
Dr. Alison: Hey everyone. I'm Dr. Alison and I'm so glad you're here to discover what brings out the best of you. This podcast is all about breaking free from painful patterns, mending the past, and discovering our true selves in God. I can't wait to get started as we learn, together, how to become the best version of who we are with God's help.[00:00:26] < Music >
Hey everyone, welcome back to The Best of You podcast. I am so excited to kick off a brand new series this week called Real People Overcoming Real Problems. So this series is in response to your requests. You wanted to hear real stories from real people, who have worked to overcome real-life problems.
We are going to cover some really important topics in this series and I cannot wait for you to meet the women I have lined up to talk with us. In today's episode, we're talking with a new friend of mine, her name is Ashley Abercrombie.
Okay, I'm so excited today to talk with my new friend, really a new friend, Ashley Abercrombie, am I saying that right?
Ashley: Yes, you are.
Dr. Alison: We first met at a retreat we were both invited to just a few months ago, and I was so nervous going to this retreat. I love the deep one-on-one. But these large gatherings, with a lot of new people, really stir up some anxiety in me. I feel sort of awkward and angsty. Sometimes I try too hard and then sometimes I just pull back, and don't say anything.
Anyway, the thing that really stood out to me, this very first night, was this woman, Ashley, who is our guest today. There were two things in particular and I want you to hear me say this, Ashley, and I want my listeners to hear me say this. Because we're going to hear your story, this is what I want this juxtaposition of I know there's a lot to your story that I don't know yet.
But what I saw was this woman who was so authentic. She carried herself as a woman who is free, that's the word that came to my mind, with the accessible, funny, but really real. And what I noticed is, and I think this is really true for all of us to remember, that freedom that Ashley carried herself with all of a sudden settled something in me. And we didn't ever really talk that first day or two.
I was just watching this from across the room, but something in me was like, "It's okay." It sort of freed something in me. She also shared, really, candidly about her history with addiction.
Some isolation, and loneliness that you've been feeling as a result of these pandemic years, just so much that I wanted to get to know more. And, so, I'm so excited, Ashley, that you agreed to come on with me.
Before we get to you, I want to just give a quick bio for the listeners who aren't yet familiar with you. Ashley is a writer, a speaker with a passion for justice, particularly anti-human trafficking, I want to hear more about that, and mass incarceration initiatives. She's an executive board member of Treasures, a nonprofit that reaches and supports women in the sex industry, and victims of sexual exploitation while training leaders globally. Amazing.
This is a woman on a mission, this is what I love. Your work has been featured in all sorts of places, all sorts of magazines. But these two book titles, the first one, which I think was your first book, Ashley, which is Rise of the Truth Teller: Own Your Story, Tell It Like It Is, and Live with Holy Gumption.
That is who I saw that night, and I didn't even know what you were about. But I saw that title, and I was like, "Oh, okay, I see that. And then your new book, a recent book that just came out, Love is the Resistance: Learn to Disagree, Resolve the Conflicts You've Been Avoiding, and Create Real Change.
Wow, okay, you're also a podcast host of a great podcast with Tiffany Bluhm called Why Tho?. She currently lives in Los Angeles raising three children, is that right?
Ashley: That's right.
Dr. Alison: Welcome to The Best of You, Ashley, I'm so glad you're here.
Ashley: Well, you made me sound so good. So thank you for being so kind to me and I felt the same about your peaceful nature on the retreat. And as much as I might mask as an extrovert, the truth is I get very nervous around people, and more specifically people I don't know. And I haven't done very many of these things during COVID.
So I felt the same sort of angsty nervousness that you're talking about. And, so, I appreciated you being a soft place for so many of us to land, thank you.
Dr. Alison: You know, I think that was a big part of it. That was another overlay of all the angstness, it was, for so many of us the first time, literally, we'd been in a room full of people.
Dr. Alison: And, so, you already have all of the angst that comes with new people. But then it was like, "How do we do this?
Ashley: Yes. Awkward turtle, I don't know how to talk. How do I put my hands? What do I do? It was like all of that.
Dr. Alison: It was intense but it was really cool. And I'm just really excited to get to know more about your story. So I want to dive right in if you're ready for that.
Ashley: I'm ready.
Dr. Alison: All right, one of the things you mentioned, during that first night, I think you've been 20 years sober?
Ashley: Yes. This year marks 20 years of sobriety for me, it's huge.
Dr. Alison: That's huge. Are you going to celebrate that?
Ashley: You know what? I should. I really should. I don't think I've set aside a real marker of sobriety, like to set time to really just be like, "Oh, this is amazing, 20 years." But I think part of that is in the sober process you really are living one day at a time, one moment at a time. And I think it's a miracle from God, the last two years that I didn't fall back into some type of addiction.
I know a lot of people who relapsed during the last few years, I think, I'm feeling very humble and tender about it. Where it's like a thread of grace have I hit 20 years, and I'm grateful.
Dr. Alison: Interesting, just that moment of, "Yes, thank you, God." Yeah, there's been a lot these last two years that would get the best of any of us.
Dr. Alison: Well, I'd love to go back in time, for a moment, to that younger version of you. From 20 years ago, I guess it would be before 20 years ago, who you were at that time? And what were some of the circumstances, how old would you have been in your teenage years when you started using?
Ashley: Yeah, so my late teens, 18.
Dr. Alison: Okay.
Ashley: So from 18 to about 21, and then I had a couple of relapses that first year as well. But I think my younger self, I grew up with a really wonderful experience, to be perfectly honest with you. We definitely had problems in my home of origin, in my extended family. I don't think anything unusual to what most families are facing.
But at the same time, I'm from the South, and not to put some sort of maskey southern culture thing on. Because I've lived in Los Angeles, I've lived in Manhattan, I've lived in the South, and everywhere you go, people put a mask on, and people pretend to be something that they're not. And many of us don't know how to grapple with our own pain, much less express it in a way to others. We're not able to share it with other people, so that seems to be a very common thing.
But in the South, there is sort of this culture where you don't tell your family's business. And you should figure things out on your own, and then present the most kind, and most winsome version of yourself.
So I grew up in a place where I knew everybody, had a rich experience in community and family in a small town. And at the same time, I grew up where everybody knew me, but nobody really knew me at all. And from a very young age, I did not know how to engage in reciprocal relationships.
I did not know how to open up and say to others, "I have pain too." I was very often the person people would come to, the strong one, the one who had it together. The one who was participating in a whole bunch of things, and running a whole bunch of things.
I think, from the outside in, and no one would ever know that I was struggling with addiction. Or that I was dealing with these sort of hidden pains and figuring out a way to cope. And because I'd never ever wanted to be a burden on anyone else. I'm setting the table for how I became an addict, but I didn't want to put a burden on anyone.
I was very deathly afraid of somebody having to deal with me. And I just wanted hide that part of myself and deal with it on my own, and hope that I could fix it all. And I went off to college from a small town of 14,000 people in the Carolinas, and then I went to a campus that had 28,000 people on the campus alone.
So it was a huge shock to walk into classrooms of 300 people, and in high school, in my younger age, definitely having smaller classrooms. And coaches who cared about me, and teachers that really were very formative in the way I think, the way I talk, the way I write, they were very supportive of me as a person.
To go from that to just being somebody's name on a roster was so much harder for me than I realized. And, at the same time, my parents were going through a divorce after 23 years of marriage, and it was a really hard time. I was an athlete, I was on scholarship. And I say all this because, I think, many people think about recovery, and they think about addicts, and immediately think about some caricatures of what an addict is.
But very often high functioning people who appear to be fine, are struggling with secret addictions. And it may not be drugs, it could be approval, it could be your phone, it could be achievements, it could be workaholism, there's a real struggle there for people who look fine.
Dr. Alison: I love that you're highlighting this idea of I see it all the time in my work as a counselor. These invisible traumas, whether they're big T, little t, it's hard enough when there's really overt trauma, that's hard enough. I don't want to compare.
But there's this story of, I hear what you're saying, where there's this family that on the surface looks intact. It's interesting listening to you describe yourself because it's a little bit of the person I saw. There's a very capable, can-do aspect of you.
Dr. Alison: And, so, who's going to think that Ashley is struggling? Who's going to think you were in need? And then you add on all these overlays and it puts the complex, when we talk about complex trauma, it puts the complex in complex. Sometimes I talk about it as a million tiny paper cuts, as opposed to one big gash.
Dr. Alison: Does that resonate with you?
Ashley: Yes, absolutely, I often say death by 1000 cuts. It's like the seasonal story of my life, at times. And when I chose to begin using drugs, it was more because I'm like looking for a release. I also was coming to the end of trying to please people and being a perfectionist, and I know that sounds really young to do that.
But there had always been this dissonance in me, this part of me, that's a little bit like, "Hey, you just say the thing that needs to be said." This sort of truth-teller. I wrote a book about it, that's always been a part of me.
There was also that side that was very eager to please, and wasn't satisfied unless things were perfect, and didn't want to present myself to anyone unless I presented as perfect. And, so, that was a very real struggle and tension inside of me, and it took a long time, for me, to integrate. And, in fact, my process of addiction and recovery is actually what made me integrate my mind, and my heart, and my body, and just to become a person who's more integrated, and can handle my own brokenness.
So I went through this addiction process of eating disorders and dealing with drug addiction, and abuse of alcohol. I had dysfunctional relationships. I had pretty much anything you could think of, I feel like I was just stacking on top of one another. And from that season of my life, I was sexually assaulted in college, like many women are on campus, and instead of dealing with it, or talking about it, or going to therapy for it.
I literally got up the next day and went to work as if nothing had happened to me. Because that was the only way I knew how to cope. And, so, this tension had created a capacity within me to disassociate and to compartmentalize my life so that I could deal with it and cope.
But that also fed the addiction because you have to find an outlet for pain. And, so, the only way I knew not to burden others with my pain, was to self-harm to deal with my pain. And, so, I made the decision at 21, to move across the country to Los Angeles. I figured I could start all over, nobody would have expectations over me.
I didn't have to be Ashley, the athlete, or Ashley who had a scholarship, or Ashley, the glowing daughter, or Ashley, this, that, the other thing, I can just go where nobody knows m, and, so, I didn't know a soul when I moved.
And I got there and the first three months felt like heaven. It's like, "Oh, look at me, I'm peaceful I don't need an addiction. I don't need a drink. I don't need to binge and purge, I'm good." And then I found out very quickly that everywhere you go, there you are. And I could not escape myself and I could not escape the pain. And I got lucky enough to start working at a restaurant where a couple of people went to a faith community, that I ended up becoming a part of for many years.
And at that faith community, they held a Monday night solutions meeting and that was almost like a recovery meeting. They went through safe people, changes that heal, the boundaries books, and there were a big group and then small groups of women. Where you could talk about sexual abuse.
Where you could talk about sexual assault. Where you could talk about eating disorders and pain. And it was kind of the first time in a group setting and in a faith setting, that I had ever heard anybody connect our brokenness, and humanity, and struggles, with God.
I always thought I had to clean myself up first. And it was this awakening of like, "Oh, God loves me where I am and He will journey with me through the process. And there are believers who will not shame me, and who will love me, and who are also broken."
That was the catalyst for change for me, was realizing that I didn't have to be perfect and realizing that I never would be. That I was chasing some kind of gold glitter that doesn't exist, that I was never going to arrive at a place where I didn't have issues, problems, and pain. That was part of humanity and that was the beginning of my freedom journey. And, so, 20 years later, it's a lot but here we are.
Dr. Alison: When you were first in college before you moved to Los Angeles, when you were noticing that divide. First of all, were you aware? So my sense of, as I'm listening to you, is there was the Ashley who people met, Ashley the athlete.
Dr. Alison: And then there was the Ashley who was, were you binging and purging?
Dr. Alison: As well as using drugs and alcohol.
Dr. Alison: And did anybody know about that Ashley?
Ashley: Nobody, not even my best friends, I mean, I did not tell anyone. In fact, I circled back to my dear friends that I'm still close to from childhood, we met when we were five. I circled back after the first year of recovery and said, "I want to tell you the whole truth about myself and I also want to apologize for presenting as perfect. Because it must have been a very bad friendship experience for you." We had great friends, we loved each other so well, but I realized I was always putting myself as superior, and it was something I needed to apologize for.
Dr. Alison: That is amazing. So during that period of time, several years.
Dr. Alison: I mean, to me, the empathy I feel for those parts of you that had to maintain that divide.
Dr. Alison: So you were one person here, but you didn't feel, you didn't know, you didn't have that freedom. It's not that you didn't have bad friends, is what I'm hearing, is not that the people wouldn't have cared. But nowhere inside of you did you know, "I can actually mention that I'm hurting."
So the only solution inside your little Ashley, body and mind, at that time, was I've just got to numb it out. I've got to do whatever I've got to do over here, to make that go away. Because I cannot bring that pain to these relationships.
Ashley: 100%, you have nailed it.
Dr. Alison: Oh, Ashley! I mean, it just breaks my heart because how many people are living with that?
Dr. Alison: How many people are living with that? Like, "I've got to just be this person here." And then in the privacy, the pain is so big. And like you said, I love what you said, whether it's just, "I'm going to just tune it out with television." Whatever it is that you do, for you, to just drown it out, and then show back up with a big smile.
Dr. Alison: Oh, and, so, what I'm hearing is you go to L.A., so there was some part of you that was like, "This has to change."
Dr. Alison: But then don't know how to ask for help. Don't know how to go- so I'm just going to leave town.
Dr. Alison: I love this, I mean, you've got some bold, audacious parts of you, I love this. I get where this resume comes in, you put those parts to good work. You're like, "I'll just start over. I'll just get up and take myself, and I'll do great." For three or four months until the same patterns shift.
Dr. Alison: Isn't that interesting? So there was a part of you that was like, "I'll just do it. I'll just take care of it." I'm so grateful for this conversation, already, because, I think, so many women are living that divide, maybe not in as overt ways, and then you go to this group.
Dr. Alison: And this power of hearing people, you said very clearly, you said, "Talk about their pain". And even invite God into the pain versus, "I've got to get cleaned up." I mean, what was that like? Can you give me just what was that like, one of those first meetings? What was going on inside of you? I mean, was it just an immediate aha? Did it take you a little while to go, "Can I do that?" What was that like for you?
Ashley: I think what's really interesting is that I have always been a person who likes to seek out safe places. And there is this sort of radar that goes off in me when I know for sure something is safe, so I can't really explain it.
It's like that old unction of the Holy Spirit that they talk about. When you can sense in the environment, like, "Oh, I think I could be my whole self here." When you go to somebody's house and they're super hospitable, and you can tell that they don't care if you put on your presumptuous self or your best self, but they want the real you.
Dr. Alison: Yeah.
Ashley: And that is the environment that was cultivated. There was an L.A.-born and raised person there leading, and he was so strong and so real. He talked real people language, he talked about his own struggles. And then there was this beautiful woman from England who was there, and same thing. She was super real and she talked about her kids, and she talked about her life, and her struggles in marriage. And it was kind of the first time that I thought, like, "Oh, you can own that publicly, too."
They weren't oversharing. Nobody was dumping on us, nobody was blaming or shaming anyone in their life, as they shared. But they just created this rich, safe environment that felt like, "I'm free to beat me here." And when I got into the small groups it felt the same.
It took me some time to really open up and share. I think for the, most part, when I first started coming I would just listen. And I think I would share briefly about some tiny struggle, that you know, "My car broke down this week." Something that really was on the surface of what [Inaudible 00:19:11]
Dr. Alison: Maybe true?
Ashley: ...exactly. And just watching, seeing what happened. And then eventually, it was like, "Oh, actually, here's what's really going on. I'm struggling with addiction, and here is where I've been, and here is where it comes from, and this is what I went through just two years ago." And then just being able to share over time.
I had a person, a mentor, who said to me once, "Integrity reveals itself in time. And, so, you have to watch and engage and earn trust and allow people to earn your trust." And, I think, sometimes in faith circles, we have this false expectation that everybody should trust us, and everybody should be trustworthy. And, the truth is, you can come as your whole self, but you wait until you're able to really be vulnerable, and to be honest, and to be really open about your life. When somebody has earned trust and when you have earned trust in their life to do the same.
Dr. Alison: That's true.
Ashley: And I think that's what safe environments do. It's like, "Yes, please, come be your whole self, but see what we're about, and you tell us what you're about. And then let's create some reciprocity here, and let's create a rhythm of trust."
Dr. Alison: That's right.
Ashley: And I really felt like they did that exceptionally well, and that was the beginning of my journey. It also set the tone, for me, seeking out safe people, and me being able to work on the parts of me that were unsafe and work on my desire to be perfect all the time.
And present in relationships as if I always am right, and have wisdom, and can offer you things, and can help you fix stuff, instead of showing up and being present. I didn't know how to do that and feel like my presence was enough for anyone.
I always felt like I needed to do, or to serve, or to have wise answers. And to just show up and be myself that's something I've cultivated on my recovery journey, and I really appreciate that time.
Dr. Alison: I love what you're saying. And I do tell women this all the time, in particular, that trust must be earned. Even in that setting, you knew it was safe, but something inside you gave yourself permission to take baby steps.
Because you had some serious trauma living inside of you with the assault, and, so, it's just like, "Let me just wait." I think that's really important for people to hear, and then that trust builds over time. Listening to you, it's so interesting because what I experienced of you a few months ago, was exactly what you're saying you experienced there.
Dr. Alison: Which is someone who you were being vulnerable and transparent, but it wasn't in a way of dumping. We didn't feel like we needed to take care of you. It was the vulnerability of someone who's like, "I'm going to show up as I am." And that's an invitation, and I felt that.
My husband and I often talk about how we wish, neither of us has sort of an overt, we all have addictions, but we want to make some sort of recovery group or church. Because that's where we've seen safety, it's people who have learned that art of what you're describing.
Ashley: Yes, oh, my gosh, I love this and I'm very passionate about it. Because you know what I think the recovery community does best? Is they lead with brokenness, and they lead with story.
Dr. Alison: Yes.
Ashley: So you're in the company of people where you feel like, "Oh, you're comfortable with your brokenness, chances are you're going to be comfortable with mine." And there is a little bit more of an exhale, and a sense of confidence, and a sense of trust that's built into that. I think it's those environments.
Maybe you're listening in at your job, or in your faith community, or even in your family, you feel that sense. That to be loved here, or to be significant here, I need to pretend and perform, or I will not have value. And I think we learn that in our homes of origin, in the schools we're raised in, in the teams that we're a part of, in our jobs.
And I think it's a real journey to settle in to the safety, that who you are is enough, and that on your journey to becoming your best self, you can still operate in reciprocal relationship with others. And, so, to pretend and perform is a lie, and we shouldn't have to lie to live.
Dr. Alison: Say that, again.
Ashley: We should not have to lie to live, that's it.
Dr. Alison: It's to show up in church communities, to show up in our families. That divide where we show up one way versus how we're really doing is soul-killing, it really is.
Ashley: Soul-killing, that is the best way to put it.
Dr. Alison: One question I want to ask you because of this theme of growing up in a family- let me put it this way. I've talked to a lot of women, a lot of people who will say, "I didn't really have that trauma. I didn't really have that." I mean, and you did have some, especially, when you got to college.
But when you grew up in a family and your parents divorced later. So you can't point to five years old when somebody was, maybe, beating you up. I don't know, I mean, these are really hard overt traumas. Was it hard for you to give yourself permission to be where you were? Let me think about how to ask this question, was there shame in, "How did I end up here? I should have been able to do better." Does that make sense, how I'm asking that?
Ashley: Oh, 100%, yes, and there was so much shame in it. There was so much shame in like I went to school on an academic scholarship. But I had to give it up the last semester I was there because I was like, "If I don't give it up, I'm going to lose it." Because my last semester grades were not good.
And, so, I think that things like that, I was the first person in my whole family to go to a four-year university. My mom graduated with a nursing degree, she was the first person in our family to ever graduate. And then I was the first one to go to a four-year university with the hopes of being able to be the first person to graduate, and I didn't graduate one semester short.
Because of the addiction, because of all the pain I was dealing with, and because of my inability to ask for help. And, so, I think there was a ton of shame in that. I think I also really thought I would be somebody, if that makes sense. And I think that everybody else did too and, so, there was certainly that shame.
Dr. Alison: But you were on track?
Ashley: I was on track.
Dr. Alison: I mean you were on it, there was a lot of expectation of you. You are going to be the star of your family, of your town, all the things.
Ashley: Yeah, and when that doesn't happen, you're full of shame and full of regret. But here's the beauty of it is that if you can deal with the shame, and part of that comes from just sitting in it, like, the grief of failing.
Dr. Alison: Tell me about that a little bit.
Dr. Alison: That's really hard for people to realize, it doesn't always feel good at first.
Ashley: It doesn't, you have to sit with that grief and the loss of potential, and the realization that, "Wow, failure is a real part of my life and now this is a part of my story." And to sit with that and own it, and to let it be okay, and I think, sometimes, when we don't do that it keeps us in shame. Because you live your whole life trying to return to that place, trying to earn people's approval, trying to live up to the person that you should have been. And you can go 20 years of living like that, and many people do.
And, so, I think through the recovery journey, through humility, through a lot of prayers, therapy, support groups, all the things, I did it all, and I recommend everybody to do it all. It takes all the services and all the things. It takes what it takes to be well, and it takes what it takes to be free, and you have to do it all.
But I think that process really taught me, one, that it's okay to fail, and that I'm not here on earth to be some kind of all-star. And that I'm not here on earth to fulfill everybody's expectations, and I am not here on earth to unfill my own ungodly expectations. And that the Lord, His heart for me is love, His banner over me is love and not expectations, and not me jumping through a bunch of hoops, and not me pretending and performing my way to heaven, or my way into God's favor, or my way into other people's favor. I am here to be healed and whole.
And I think that that had to be enough for me. Not pursuing the achievement so that I would be significant, but finding my significance outside of the achievements. And that, I think, has led to so much healing and breakthrough. And it has led me to not define my worth by the stuff that I do, and I'm allowed to fail.
And even as a mother this transitions into the next generation. I want my children and, so does my husband, we want them to understand that you can fail, then, actually, failure is a regular part of life. We do it daily, we do it weekly, we do it monthly in big and small ways, and that's how we learn, that's how we grow.
It doesn't have to be the thing that stops us, or hinders us, or halts our purpose or our life. It's like, "Oh, great a detour, here we go. I failed, I made a mistake. It was big, or it was small, or it was somewhere in between. But I'm going to own it, it's mine and I'm going to ask for forgiveness where I need to and I'm going to take responsibility for my life where I need to. And I'm going to make the next right decision. Instead of feeling like I can never do enough to make this thing right."
It's like, "Now, what is the next thing I can do in front of me?"
"What is the next step that I can take?"
You can boil it down to today. You can boil it down to this journey, and this path that we can walk on that is free of shame and free of the sense that failure is going to ruin our lives because it isn't, it doesn't have to.
Dr. Alison: So good. Tell me a little bit about the journey. You've talked about a lot of things that were helpful, I'm curious, and I know that early group was probably the most significant. Give me one or two, in those 20 years, where the junctures, somewhere where something really helpful came in, but also what wasn't helpful? So that people can hear like what?
Dr. Alison: You're going to bump into people who are trying to help but don't help.
Ashley: Yes, plenty of times, believe me. So I'll tell two stories that I think encapsulate both of those things. And the first was about two years into my recovery journey. I started building a great relationship and a friendship with a girl that we're still friends today. We love each other dearly, she's wonderful, and she became one of my closest friends in Los Angeles a couple of years after I moved. And she had called me and I was in the process of recovery, the process of showing up as myself, and I wasn't hitting the mark all the time.
But she called once and she said, "Hey, how are you doing?" And I said, "Oh, I'm fine." And then I did what I always did back then, which was I switch the conversation, "How are you?" And I started asking her questions, and talking about her life, and all these different things, and she just was not buying my bullcrap. And, so, we hung up the phone and 10 minutes later there's a knock at my door, and I open up my door and she's standing there. And at that time I had not told anybody openly about my sexual assault. I had also not told anybody that I had had an abortion a year prior to that.
I had so many like heavy secrets that many women and people carry. I decided, when I saw her, I fell down in the floor, I burst into tears, and that was enough for me to start telling my story. And I shared with her that night what I was really walking through. And part of that was because she wasn't trying to fix me.
She wasn't trying to save me. She wasn't trying to recommend six books for my healing and five steps to freedom, she was like the Lord, was a very present help and in times of need.
Dr. Alison: That's right.
Ashley: And she was a blessing.
Dr. Alison: She was the flesh.
Ashley: And she practiced the ministry of presence. And she sat with me, and she cried with me, and she listened to me, and she shared with me, and we were vulnerable together. And that was, you know, a deeper step in our friendship. And I think that could be a next step for some people, is that they just need to tell the whole truth to someone who is safe, that they already love, that they already have a connection to just tell the whole truth to them and watch how they respond.
Watch yourself be loved, when you think you're not going to be loved. Watch yourself be accepted, when you think that perfection is the only way. Watch herself be able to receive grace from someone. That, in and of itself, is the most healing experience, I think a person can have.
Dr. Alison: I've often thought, so there's three things, one, that it took a while, right?
Dr. Alison: This was a few years in, where you still had layers of that onion that you hadn't quite been able to peel back. So I just want people to hear that this was a process, and there's still a few of those really painful things that were still living inside of you silently.
The second thing is she saw through your, "I'm fine." That is amazing. That's an amazing friend. I have a friend who used to do that. I struggle a lot with codependency, I write about it in my next book. And every time I call her and be like, "I'm just so worried about you, you've just been on my heart, I've been thinking about you."
She called me back and say, "What's up? What's going on with you?"
Because - I mean, and she was dead right. If I'm hurting I'll go take care of somebody else, and she just saw right through it. And it would make me so mad, I'd be like, "I called to check on you." And she'd be like, "What's going on?"
Ashley: I love her.
Dr. Alison: And it's the most amazing type of person that gets that. And that this friend was like, "Okay, I'm at your door, what's going on?" And you just sank into that. And then lastly, the other thing I'm curious about because I kind of have a theory about this, and I'm curious if you relate.
She didn't try to fix, she didn't try to solve. One of the things, I think, that is the most powerful when we're hurting, and when we're in that raw, vulnerable place with a safe person. Isn't that they try to help or fix us, is that they go, "Me too."
Dr. Alison: Or they go, and maybe it's a different struggle, it's not that they're taking away from your story, but they're like, "I get it." Not from I'm trying to help you but from I've got that pain, too.
Dr. Alison: Because then you're not alone.
Dr. Alison: And that's where the healing comes, it's together.
Ashley: Does that resonate with you?
Ashley: Well, it resonates so deeply. I like to call it the great exhale because that's what it feels like. It's like, the air in the room is so tight until that happens. And then you realize, like, "Okay, I'm not a freak, I'm not the only one. My emotions are normalized, my experience is normalized, and guess what I'm not by myself." It's like the great exhale.
I mean, you can do anything when you feel connected to others. And you can do anything if you know somebody has survived it before you. It's like, "Tell me, or at least be in it with me." It's helpful.
Dr. Alison: It's unbelievable, and we actually know now that this is actually shifting something in the nervous system, the neurobiology backs this up.
Ashley: That God did not design us neuro-biologically to heal in isolation.
Dr. Alison: So when that pain is living inside of you, when someone comes in, something happens.
Dr. Alison: literally, and physiologically, and emotionally, and spiritually, all the things, that opens up that spaciousness inside of your heart, soul, and mind. That's a beautiful story, I love it. Now, I almost don't want to go here, but I do want to ask what wasn't helpful? Maybe we kind of touched on it, it's the solution, and someone trying to fix you. But if you ever bump up against that and where you had to set a boundary. Where you had to be like, "Mm-mm, no, that's not helping."
Ashley: Yes, I think, besides those things that you just mentioned, and that were evident in this story. I think one of the things that is the hardest for people in recovery is the expectation for a person to be like you. And there is so much judgment in our world, and especially the more it becomes polarized, the more people are discipled, really, and indoctrinated by social media.
Because they're on it two to four hours a day, the average adult and, so, they're getting fed all these things all the time. And they have this idea of how the world works. And then they develop an idea of how people should be, and how people should act, and how people should make decisions, and how people should believe. And I think that a lot of that is present in relationships. And my friend, Harmony, says "Please don't 'Should' all over me."
I love that so much because that was the most unhelpful thing, is when I would encounter someone who maybe they were a pastor, maybe they were a co-worker, maybe they were an acquaintance. But they have the sense that if I just did things their way that I could be better. Or that I could be healthy, or that I could be whole, or that my journey would go faster.
That's the other thing is people want to rush healing and recovery. I mean, I know I'm preaching to the choir, here, but, again, it takes what it takes. For some people, they can hurdle something in a year. Other people, they can hurdle it in 10. Other people, they deal with it their whole life.
Dr. Alison: That's right.
Ashley: I think we're any combination of those things, given the situation. Like my anger is probably never going away, I wish it would. I think it's just, actually, a part of my life, I tend to go to anger to avoid hurt. And, so, that is always my gut instinct and my gut response, I cannot change it, I can't avoid it. I have to find ways to cope with it and deal with it.
But then there are other things, have I overcome the sexual assault?
Yes, I have. I have walked through that process of healing, it does not affect me anymore.
Did I overcome addiction? Yes, I did. I'm completely free from it.
So there are these things that we get free from. But then there are these other tensions that we deal with forever.
Dr. Alison: I love that.
Ashley: And, so, I think we have to give each other space to not 'Should' all over one another and to not say, "Well, if you just did this blah, blah, blah." First of all, that's never changed anyone. Second of all, you're not going to have no friends if you're doing that.
Dr. Alison: I love that. That is so good. I want to just as we wind down here. I'd love to ask, what are some of the key practices that help you on a day-to-day, or weekly, I guess a day-to-day basis to stay grounded?
I know you got three kids. I imagine these practices aren't perfect. I'm sure every day you have the little things that you do every day, that just help you stay grounded in the best of who you are. And in that place of belovedness, I love what you said that, "The banner over me is love." How do you go back to that? How do you remind yourself of that?
Ashley: Yes, well, I think this has changed for me in the last two years. Part of that is moving from Manhattan back to L.A. two weeks before COVID hit. So we've really been in a season where we have not been able to develop the community that we've had for the past 20 years.
Me and my husband both, and that has greatly affected the way I move through the world. And, so, it's been interesting watching myself as someone who is so deeply devoted to relationships, and I'm a long and deep kind of relational person. And to not have that in my weekly and daily experience has been very hard for me.
So, usually, I would tell people relationship and community is the thing. I still fully believe that but I'm in this place where that's not a reality for me. Especially, as a young mother, and studies show that one of the loneliest groups in America is mothers with young children.
I didn't know that I just read a study about it. Kids 18 through 25, mothers of young children, and our elderly community, which, of course, that makes perfect sense. So it's a lonely season. So what is working for me now is grounding techniques, deep breathing, stepping in my grass, and just putting my feet in it, and standing there, and looking up at the sky and breathing.
I became a plant mom. I have always killed everything I brought into my house. I mean, things you can't kill, I can. But I became a plant mom during COVID and watering my fiddle and wiping the leaves, and my rubber plant, and taking care of those green things every day has ministered to me in a really sweet way. And it just brings me back to the moment, it brings me back to my body.
I think walking, having a discipline of laughter because I like to laugh. It's good for the soul, but I don't do it enough anymore. And, so, I think finding ways in small things, sending gifts, or sending memes, or laughing with my husband, these are things- Watching a few TikToks together that just make us laugh till we cry. It sounds weird to say that is a sacred practice, but it is, and I think that those things have really helped me.
My last one, I would say has been true for me since I was a little girl, and that's writing. I think having a creative outlet, whatever yours is, it might be organizing your pantry. It might be helping your friends plan a party, whatever your creative thing is. But, for me, it's writing and I come back into myself when I write, and I find myself, I'll come home, if that makes sense.
There's no way for me to put the pen to paper and not be honest. And, so, that, for me, is a sacred, almost, daily practice. So those are some things that have helped me in this lonely time.
Dr. Alison: That's beautiful. I was curious if doing the podcast brings some of that laughter. Because I love the description of it that it's helpful and hilarious. And I was like, "Isn't that an interesting?" I mean, I'm sure it's part of work, but it's also like a place to connect, and a place to cool.
Ashley: It is and that is a weekly rhythm and being able to serve people that way is so fun. And reacting to the hard world that we live in, in a way that's like, "Yeah, this is hard, and terrible, and awful, but also let's laugh. Because what else are we going to do?"
Dr. Alison: Amen.
Ashley: Die in our anxiety? No thank you
Dr. Alison: I mean, it's just so real, that's amazing holy laughter, I love it, I love for that as a practice. All right, so what would you say to that young 18-year-old, 19-year-old Ashley from where you are now? What would you want her to know and what would she think of who you are now?
Ashley: Oh, my gosh, I think she'd be sorely disappointed with her career path because I really thought I was going to be some kind of famous superstar. But now that I'm here I'm very pleased with where I am in my life, but I think she would be shocked.
What I would tell her is that wholeness is a lofty goal, and that freedom is the right pursuit. And that friendship is the thing that will save you. And, I think, if I had really understood that, I could have harnessed the power of those things a whole lot younger than I was.
Dr. Alison: Oh, Ashley, that is beautiful. That desire, her desire to be somebody, whatever that meant, was actually fulfilled. And being somebody to so many precious people, which you are.
Ashley: Thank you.
Dr. Alison: That is really beautiful, I love that. What would you say to anyone who's listening right now, who's maybe still in a pattern of some sort of addiction. Maybe still living that divide, what would you say to her?
Ashley: I think the first thing I would want you to know is that you're not alone. Because I think that is why so many of us divorce ourselves from our body, or divorce ourselves from the truth, or hide, is because we are so afraid that if we share who we are with others will end up alone. Or we are so afraid that we will be more isolated if we share, rather than being more connected.
And, so, I'd want you to know that you are not alone, and that connection is the way forward. That you will not be able to heal this on your own. You will tell yourself that every day, and you will try every single day to do something different.
But those brain grooves in your mind are so deep, it is a rut, and the only way out is to connect yourself to something bigger. And that could be community, it could be therapy, it could be spirituality and faith. There's a million ways that you could do it, that don't feel so overwhelming. But connection is the way out and that's how we integrate to ourselves. That's how we love ourselves. That's how we come home to ourselves, it's through connection.
Dr. Alison: I love how Curt Thompson, I don't know if you've read his book, The Soul of Shame, and he talks about how shame keeps us both, it's all about connection. It disconnects us from ourselves, it disconnects us from other people, it disconnects us from God.
Dr. Alison: And the only way through that is to reach for connection. And it's so hard when you feel that shame, yet, paradoxically, it's the only way to begin to heal it. So I love that word. Okay, so I have a question that I ask all of my guests but you're my very first guest. So you're the first person that gets to get asked this. I actually have two questions because I couldn't decide between the two of them. So the first one gets at the title of the podcast which is what is bringing out the best of you right now?
Ashley: Honestly, it's going to sound very weird, but loneliness is bringing out the best in me because it is forcing me to be honest. And it is forcing me to choose the life I want, and not to surrender to the life that I don't want. And I think that sense of isolation and loneliness is making me evaluate who I want to be in the future, like, "Who does Ashley at 50 and 60 want to be, and what do I want to do to take steps toward that?" So I think it is calling me to a higher place of thinking, and being, and deciding, and I'm appreciative for it.
Dr. Alison: That is a really beautiful answer taking a hard season.
Dr. Alison: And we're still naming it as loneliness, it's hard, it's not what you want, but taking it and allowing it to become some sort of fertile ground. I love what you said with the image of all the plants.
Dr. Alison: It's like trying to let yourself take root, "Who do I want to become?" And in hearing that there might be a tendency to just kind of keep going with what's been working versus slowing down.
Ashley: 100%. I think, I don't know of anyone who wouldn't be tempted to fall victim to just accepting life as it is. And we remove our powerful person, but where we are capable of making decisions to change our lives. And some of those decisions are small, some of them are big, but I have got to lean into my own capacity to build a different life and to build a life I love. And I know that I've done it before, and we can all do it, it's possible.
Dr. Alison: I love it. The other thing I'm kind of curious about is what needs and desires, those are the two words, what needs and desires are you working to protect, to safeguard?
Ashley: I really love this question. I think that I'm working really hard to protect my vulnerability. I hinted at this earlier, but because of my capacity to skip over my heart and exhaustion and go right to anger and anxiety. And I can cope with life through anger and anxiety because that is how I've done it forever.
But to be vulnerable, and sit with hurt, and to deal with my exhaustion, that makes me so anxious, that makes me so angry. To actually deal with those things, first, I think is really critical for me in this season. So I'm really working hard to protect the vulnerability that I need to be hurt, and to deal with that, and to deal with exhaustion. Instead of skipping over it with anger and anxiety.
Dr. Alison: That's a great answer. Give me one example, does that mean going to your husband and saying? Does that mean go to a friend? What does that look like? How do you protect that vulnerability?
Ashley: So, I think, I first have to stop myself from going into the sort of more shallow brain, if that makes sense. This thing is just like its energy, its adrenaline, and I can just run on that, and I can run out until it runs out. And then it feeds this vicious cycle of tired, and anxious, and angry, and all these things and skips over the hurt.
So dealing with the hurt is really saying, "Man, the last couple of years have been really hard. I didn't expect to turn 40 in a pandemic and have to do that by myself. I didn't expect to give birth in a mask. I did not expect to lose my whole community.
I did not expect to feel like I have to start my life over at 41." And I think being honest about that and being truthful about it to myself, to God, and to the people who are closest to me, I think, those things are really important. I'm working very hard to protect that instead of just running on adrenaline.
Dr. Alison: I get it. I hear you, I get it. It's in all the different places yourself, God, and other people just naming, being very real about what it is. That is great, I love that. I feel like I could keep going with you for hours.
Ashley: I feel the same. I'm so grateful for you. Thank you for how you love people, and the work that you do is so important, and your voice is so important. And thank you for being just a safe place in the wilderness, and a freaking water tank in the desert, I appreciate you.
Dr. Alison: One of the unexpected benefits of podcasting, I was looking forward to this all day there's connection there.
Dr. Alison: Even though we're having this conversation and we're inviting other people into it, I'm like, "Oh, I needed that too, this is a gift to me too. To get to be real and go there, and talk about real things."
Where can people, where can our listeners find you? You're doing some writing, how can people find you and connect with you?
Ashley: Okay, so I spend the most time on social media on Instagram @AshAbercrombie. And then I started a newsletter on Substack called After Hours. And, so, I write weekly essays and I also have a component called Mentor Monday where I answer questions.
Every other Monday, I send out a video about boundaries, or how to do boundaries at work, how to do boundaries at church, all these different kinds of things that people are asking me and really putting that to work in the newsletter. So that's the newest thing that I'm excited about and a way for me to build a little internet neighborhood, that people can come and connect.
Dr. Alison: I love that. Well, will link to all of that in the show notes. I have a feeling there's going to be a flock of people coming over there to learn about those great topics you've learned about the hard way, hard-earned wisdom. Thank you so much for being here.
Ashley: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Alison: We'll look forward to the next time.
Dr. Alison: Thank you for joining me for this episode of The Best of You. Be sure to check out the show notes for any resources and links mentioned in the show. You can find those on my website at dralisoncook.com. That's Alison with one L- cook.com.
Before you forget, I hope you'll follow the show now so that you don't miss an episode. And I'd love it, if you'd go ahead and leave a review. It helps so much to get the word out. I look forward to seeing you back here next Thursday. And remember, as you become the best of who you are, you honor God, you heal others, and you stay true to your God-given self.[00:49:17] < Outro>
Sandy Powers says
Thank you so
much for having Ashley – and for your amazing questions to her!
I knew I would love this podcast because I have so enjoyed every one so far, but I thought this would be one (about addictions) that I could listen to “from a distance”. But… Ashley’s story!!!! It’s my story!!! Almost to the letter! (I’ve even become a plant mom 😘). I listened to it 3 times to let it truly sink in!
I am well on my way to recovery, but still do live with more of that “divide” than I want! I thought I had a safe group that I could be vulnerable with (my sisters and nieces), but learned recently that they have gossiped behind my back, discounted my story as made up or highly exaggerated, then applauded and defended the person who hurt me most. I’ve drawn good boundaries around those relationships now, but trusting anyone as safe now took a huge setback! I don’t do that easily!
Her story and healing were truly life-giving to me! I will read her books, continue to be a “truth teller”, own my story, and will continue working on taking off my “I’m fine” mask with the very few right people!
What a great first guest! Thank you again!