Episode 115: Ashly Burch
The 22 year-old writer and actress (Hey Ash, Whatcha’ Playin?) and VO artist (Tiny Tina of Borderlands 2) opens up about the recent accidental overdose death of her boyfriend, the truths and myths about addiction, loving an addict, and her guilt about wishing she could have done things differently, plus the struggle to put her life back together. They also talk about the danger of invalidating children’s feelings and the shame of obsessive or intrusive thoughts.
Paul: Welcome to episode 115 with my guest Ashly Burch. I'm Paul Gilmartin, this is the Mental Illness Happy Hour, 90 minutes of honesty about all the battles in our heads, from medically-diagnosed conditions and past traumas to everyday compulsive negative thinking. This show is not meant to be a substitute for professional mental counseling, it's not a doctor's office, it's more like a waiting room that doesn't suck. The website for this show is mentalpod.com, all kinds of good stuff there. There's a forum you can join, there are surveys you can take, you can see how other people responded to the survey, people revealing some of their deepest, darkest secrets, some of those we read on the show. So go check out the website. About the interview today, one of the things that Ashly asked me to do was bleep out the name of a doctor that was mentioned in it, so when you hear that get bleeped out, she was just more comfortable not having that person's name said publicly, and I had no problem with doing that. What did I want to tell you. Oh, I want to remind you that May 30th, 2013, is the debut of a documentary on the California PBS TV stations called A New State of Mind: Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness, and they cover the podcast on that, so I'm very excited to be a part of that and former guests Meghan Parkansky and Greg Behrendt also get interviewed for that, so I'm excited to see that and then obsess for a couple hours about what could have been different and what wasn't perfect about how I was represented and how people will misinterpret that and how I will spiral into a rabbit hole and then realize that I'm a jackass. I'm looking forward to that! Really looking forward to that. And it's narrated by Glenn Close! I might actually shit myself if I hear Glenn Close mention my name. You'd think, living here for 20 years, being in show business, meeting people, some of that awe would go away at sometimes seeing a movie star, but I still kind of become a 12-year-old kid when I see somebody really famous that I've seen in movies.
I have a lot of surveys--you thought I was gonna say I have a lot of issues? I have those too--but let's just get into the surveys, shall we? This is from the Struggle in a Sentence survey, filled out by Stasha Tay, and about her bulimia she says "One bite too much changes everything in a second." About her love addiction "Needing to be adored." About her co-dependency "Sick and blind to it again and again." And about living with an abuser "Shocks me each time with his put-downs."
This is from the same survey filled out by a guy that calls himself Derek. About his anxiety he writes "My anxiety feels like a psycho ex-girlfriend who waits outside your door. You can take medication, but that's more of a restraining order. I want that bitch dead." About his PTSD he says "I feel like if it happened once, it can happen again at any time. I can never fully relax for fear of being caught off-guard ."
This is filled out by Harriet, same survey. About her depression, she says "Like my personality has been replaced by a block of cement."
This is filled out by Clara. About her depression, she says "Sometimes, like nothing matters. Sometimes it like just me that doesn't matter. Sometimes I just want everything in the world to shut the fuck up for one goddamn minute." About her alcoholism and drug addiction "God, I hope this doesn't end up ruining my life. God, I hope I haven't ruined my life already." About her co-dependency she writes "I never wanted to need anyone, I hope that I don't need him now." About her PTSD, she writes "It's so indistinct. I know what causes it, but it's almost like I'm not feeling the pain from that. It's just something that makes me shut down because it comes out of nowhere. Sometimes I can't breathe. I just have to tell myself to get through the next minute." And about being a sex crime victim, she writes "I can't even say the fucking word out loud."
This is from the Shame and Secrets survey, filled out by a woman who calls herself A.P. She's straight, she's in her 20s, was raised in an environment that was a little dysfunctional, never been sexually abused. Deepest, darkest thoughts "Growing up in a conservative Catholic household, thinking of sex in general is unthinkable. It crosses my mind constantly and although I refuse to act on such unpure thoughts, I cannot stop myself from wanting to quite literally be fucked so I can feel wanted and beautiful. I also think about suicide. I know in my heart I could never go through with it, still I often escape to a world where I am free from my depression and anxiety. The idea of ceasing to exist is strangely calming." Deepest, darkest secrets "I have willingly and knowingly continued to be my first love's back-up fuck. I've compromised my morals for that brief moment of being wanted. Even though it hurts how much I have disrespected again, I know that if he contacted me again I would respond for a few moments of attention. For months I continuously wrote 'FAT' on an area covered by my underwear so I would see it every day and constantly remind myself of my own self-hatred." Sexual fantasies most powerful to you, she writes "Most of my fantasies revolve around me being in control over my partner emotionally. In them I am disconnected from the emotional aspects of sex and feel free from the hurt that has followed me from past relationships." Would you ever consider telling a partner or close friend your fantasies? She writes "No, I have never trusted anyone enough to say more than 'I have trust issues.'" Do these secrets and thoughts generate any particular feelings towards yourself? "Self-hatred", she writes. Well, I'm sending you a big hug, A.P.
This is from the Shouldn't Feel This Way survey, and it was filled out by a woman who calls herself Jennifer. She writes "I'm supposed to feel excited to be living but I don't. I feel like I can't wait for it to be over. I'm supposed to feel like talking about my sexual abuse in therapy will make me feel better but I don't. I feel frozen and ashamed and I can't do it. The words won't come out. I sit there silently like a stupid little piece of shit." How does writing your feelings out make you feel? She writes "I feel like crying and I don't like to cry. I feel hopeless because I've gone to therapy for a year and I just haven't found the words. I'm going to be stuck in my prison forever." Do you think you're abnormal for feeling what you do? She writes "Yes." Would knowing other people feel the same way make you feel better about yourself? She writes "Yes. I've started group therapy and am figuring out that I am not alone in some of my feelings but I still can't get out this prison I've made for myself that separates me from everyone else." And to that, Jennifer, I would say be patient with yourself, it's a process. It takes time. Some of the shit that wound up for me causing the greatest pain, I didn't even uncover in my first 18 months of therapy, I'd buried it so deep that I'd convinced myself that it wasn't abusive, stuff that had happened to me. so it's a process, and just keep showing up and just keep plugging away.
This is from the same survey, filled out by a woman that calls herself Giovanna. She writes "I'm supposed to feel happy about my cousin getting married and having a baby but I don't. I feel jealous and anxious that it will never happen to me." Do you think you're abnormal for feeling what you do? She writes "Yes. I have a hard time being happy for people because my life is nothing like I hoped it would be." Would knowing other people feel the same way make you feel better about yourself? She writes "Absolutely." Well Giovanna, you are like so many people. I think that's one of the most normal things in the world, to look at other people's successes as our failures. I do it all the time, so you are not alone.
This is from the same survey, filled out by a woman who calls herself Kai. To the question 'If you had a time machine, how would you use it?' she writes "I would go back and see how bad it really was with my alcoholic, verbally abusive stepfather. Are my memories exaggerated? If not, why didn't an adult intervene?" Well, because a lot of fucking adults are children walking around in adult bodies, wrapped up in their own bullshit. "Could it have been even worse than my memory allows? Was I really singled out? Was it really that bad? Is my anger justified? Am I crazy?" Boy, do I fucking relate to that. She writes "I'm supposed to feel great about being a mother but I don't. I feel tired and useless. I'm supposed to feel happy to have a loving, involved husband but I don't. I feel jealous of the time he spends with our kids. I'm supposed to feel compassion about my mother who has a history of being in abusive relationships, but I don't. I feel angry at her for never learning any better and for never choosing me or my sisters over a relationship." I'd say that's a pretty fucking valid feeling. Although you know what, all feelings are valid. I think that's a valid thing to be upset about. "I'm supposed to feel lucky to be a stay-at-home mom but I don't. I feel stuck. I'm supposed to feel grateful to have a happy, healthy family but I don't. I feel guilty for never feeling genuine joy and always bringing everyone down. I'm supposed to feel enthusiastic about seeking therapy but I don't. I feel angry, scared, ashamed, guilty, nervous. I wish I didn't have to do it and I don't want to relive my childhood. I'm supposed to feel everything I don't and I'm not supposed to feel everything I do." I really related to that. I really, really related to that, and I wanna say what I said to the other person in the survey: it's a process, and hang in there. You can do it, you can absolutely do it. You only have to worry about the next minute that's in front of you. But I get how terrifying and overwhelming it can feel.
This is from the same survey, a woman who calls herself Tab. She says "I'm supposed to feel proud about getting my PhD but I don't because I should have accomplished this 10 years earlier." Do you think you are abnormal for feeling what you do? "Yes. It's hardly explicable, which makes it socially abnormal." Would knowing other people feel this way make you feel better about yourself? "Yes, if you can find them." Well guess what? Three survey numbers after yours, filled out by a guy who calls himself Eeyore, he writes "I'm supposed to feel happy and proud about getting a PhD but I don't. I feel bored and alone." Do you think you are abnormal for feeling what you do? He writes "Sometimes I feel as though I'm incapable of ever being satisfied or happy with myself and that does seem abnormal." Would knowing other people feel this way make you feel better about yourself? He writes "I think so." Well there you have it.
And this last one I want to read before we get to our interview is from the Body Shame survey, and this was filled out by a guy who calls himself Troubled Nation. He's in his 20s, and what do you like or dislike about your body? He writes "I hate my fat fucking gut, my lack of muscle definition, my goofy giant head, my chipmunk cheeks, my inability to grow facial hair that doesn't look disgusting, and my greasy skin that still breaks out if I eat a cheeseburger once in a fucking while. I like my hair though."
I'm here with Ashly Burch, and the reason I'm laughing is we just taped for an hour and fifteen minutes, maybe, and the power went off in the studio where we're recording and her half of the recording, the file is corrupted, so we just decided to start again, because why not? Your description on Twitter says "Ashly is a singer, actress, and writer which makes her indistinguishable from 83% of the population of Los Angeles." I may be butchering that but I think that's pretty close--
Ashly: Yeah, that is.
Paul: --which really made me laugh. People know you mostly from the web series Hey, Ash--
Ashly: Uh huh, Whatcha Playin'?
It is a web Paul: series kind of about video games, but it's also kind of sketch comedy.
Ashly: Yeah, exactly.
Paul: And they would also know you as the voice from some video games.
Ashly: Yes. The most popular character I've done is Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2.
Paul: Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2?
Paul: But those are not the reasons why I'm having you on the podcast. I can't remember how we connected...How did we connect?
Ashly: I was just posting on Twitter...It was after they caught the fellow whose name escapes me now, that was behind the Boston bombings, and I was just tweeting about...I think people were talking about the fact that he was 19 and how crazy that was, and I started thinking about a lot of men that I know and recent experiences that have happened with me, and I think it's very easy to demonize and to put people into certain categories...I'm not dismissing his actions at all, what happened was absolutely terrible, but every asshole, every douchebag, every whatever comes from somewhere and I think I was tweeting something along the lines that there's a reason that men are disproportionately violent and susceptible to addiction and it doesn't have to do with the fact that they're bad. I was just speculating on the fact that it probably had a lot to do with society doesn't think that men should be able to express their emotions openly. There aren't a whole lot of outlets when you're told that you can't be vulnerable, and I think someone that followed me tweeted it to mentalpod--
Paul: --and then I read what you wrote and I loved it. Yes, that was it. And so I asked you if you'd be interested in coming on the podcast and one of the things that you forewarned me about was that you're going through kind of a difficult situation in the last couple of months. Where would be the best place to start with talking about that?
Ashly: Well, the synopsis is that in December, my partner David--
Paul: This would be five months ago?
Ashly: Yeah, coming up on five months, passed away on the 20th from an accidental overdose of opioids. He had been dealing with chronic back pain that he was medicating, and also he had, I realized in retrospect, probably the bigger issue and the thing that he was actually medicating was emotional trauma that he'd had. He was molested when he was a child by a trusted adult in his theater community because he was always into theater but he started at a young age and it was an older man in the community that was molesting a lot of children, and he was one of them.
Paul: Had David ever received any kind of help or counseling or processing of it?
Ashly: No, I don't think so. No.
Paul: Did he ever report it?
Ashly: No. The guy ended up getting caught and I think he got jail time, but I think he only told his mom and he told me, and he told one of his close friends from Michigan.
Paul: Did the molester get extra time for being a theater stereotype?
Ashly: One can only hope.
Paul: I can only assume that guy was also incredibly over-dramatic at Shakespeare. There was a theater teacher that I had who was creepy, and man, he just couldn't get enough of himself doing Shakespeare.
Yep, I've known the type.
Paul: So, talk to me about David. You guys were together for three years?
Ashly: Um-hmm. Yeah. It's funny, knowing what I just said, like he only told three people, part of me was like 'Ugh, should I be talking about it, then? If he didn't want people to know?' But then I think about why he didn't want people to know, and it's because there's so much shame, unnecessary shame and just horrible feelings associated with it that shouldn't be there.
Paul: I think especially if you're a male because we're supposed to be tough, we're supposed to not be vulnerable, we're not supposed to be exploited. I mean, nobody should be exploited, but we're supposed to be fighters, and nothing really takes away your power more than being molested and I think men, our ego is so wrapped up in our power and our ability to defend ourselves that nobody wants to imagine themselves as defenseless and exploitable and gullible.
Ashly: And he grew up Mormon, too, which I think that was another layer that made it really difficult for him to talk about it or to deal with it. But yeah, David and I met, we starred in an independent film together called Must Come Down, and sort of fell for each other and then I was still in college at the time so after the shoot I went abroad to Japan and we dated long distance for a little while and then he moved to LA and then we moved to Seattle together and then back to LA. And that was in November of 2012 and then he went home for the holidays in December and passed away there.
Paul: And it was clear that it was accidental because you were saying your therapist said that if it was intentional there would have been a lot of other signs that it was intentional.
Ashly: Yeah. Apparently when people are intending to take their own life they'll often exhibit pretty common signs of wanting to wrap things up, so if they were fighting with someone maybe they'll call them out of the blue and try to make amends, or they'll start giving their things away, or they'll speak in finalities, and that sort of thing. And they'll almost always leave a note or some sort of something, and David wasn't doing any of that. The morning of the day before he died, 'cause he died early in the morning on the 20th, we were excited, he was gonna come back to LA and we were gonna do all these projects together, and he talked about how excited he was to come back and get some work done, so all signs point to him not wanting this to happen. And the thing about David too, having problems because he was struggling with addiction, it kind of splits you in two. There's David and there's David's addiction, and David's addiction makes him act illogically and selfishly, but David himself was a very incredibly selfless person. He was always, always there for people, sometimes at his own expense, if anyone needed help with anything, he would be there in an instant. And he was always so completely kind, I never saw him say an unkind word about anyone, really. I mean, he'd complain about things that people would generally complain about, of course, but I never saw him be mean, ever, to anyone. And then people that other people would dismiss, like on set there was a bus involved in the movie. Our characters meet at a bus stop, and the guy driving the bus was this super-quirky dude that they found on Craigslist and everybody kind of made fun of him but David treated him like a human being. He'd have conversations with him and drove him back home from set a couple of days because he didn't have anyone else to do it, and that was his way. But then of course when you're addicted to something that makes you act irrationally, illogically, and--
Paul: Compromise your morals and integrity.
Paul: It makes it hard for you to connect with people. And the thing that people don't understand addiction, chemically something happens in an addict's body when they get whatever it is that they're addicted to, and it can just be the rush of shopping. When that drug gets in your system, it creates the craving for more of that thing. And for non-addicts they think it's a matter of self-control but when that thing, whatever it is that you're addicted to, gets in your blood stream, it warps your reality, and getting more of whatever it is that's making you feel good is like a tunnel vision that the non-addict has difficulty imagining.
Ashly: Absolutely. And that's a major thing that I want people to understand more, or if anything's going to come out of this tragedy, and it is a fucking tragedy, is more compassion for people in that situation. Because I feel like there's such a knee-jerk reaction, when you hear the word addict or you see addiction, to assume the person is weak or bad or...
Paul: Selfish. And while their actions are selfish under the spell of their addiction, deep down nobody wants to change more than that person. But there's a lie that addicts tell themselves, which is "Tomorrow I'm gonna quit. This is the last time I'm gonna do it." And you really honestly believe that. And it can go years where you think you're gonna do that.
Ashly: Absolutely. And I know David absolutely was there. I asked him to stop taking Percoset at one point, and he did for a solid month, I think, and I think he really thought "I'm done with it." But of course he wasn't, because that's not how it works, that's not how your brain chemistry works.
Paul: I heard somebody say it's like dancing with a gorilla. You don't decide when the dance is over.
Ashly: Right. Yeah, totally. That's a good way of saying it. And we talked about this earlier in the previous podcast that was not, that there's a certain ignorance with all mental illness that I think people have, like if you have anxiety, "Oh, I get worried sometimes too--"
Paul: "Take a deep breath!"
Ashly: Yeah. Or you're depressed, "Oh I get sad sometimes as well."
Paul: "Look at all you have to be grateful for!"
Ashly: Yeah! And so those same people, and maybe that's just the general population, I don't know, but then that becomes the societal framework and I think the same thing happens with addicts and addiction. It's like "Oh, you're an addict, so you're just a good-for-nothing, you're a miscreant." You know, there's nowhere in the social or cultural lexicon for an addict that's a sweet, Jewish theater-lover that loves his girlfriend and calls his mom. There's no slot that people reserve for that person.
Paul: Yeah, and people that think that depression is just "Oh, you're stuck in that thing that I feel when I'm sad in a situation." Situational sadness is to depression what the Olive Garden is to Italy.
Ashly: Right! Yeah.
Ashly: There's no comparing.
Paul: No, there's no comparing. On the surface yes, they may share some similarities, but the depth and breadth of them are wholly, wholly different.
Ashly: And it's so frustrating and saddening to try to explain that to someone and see that they just don't get it, or that they judge you for needing to express that, or they see it as an excuse. That's something that I sometimes hesitate, or I haven't actually publically spoken about exactly what happened with David, partially because I don't want his memory to be 'the addict that died'. And I think some people will probably jump to it or judge him for the fact that that's the way that he passed away, or not understand how what happened to him as a little boy informed the rest of his life and eventually led to how he died.
Paul: Because victims of sexual abuse are much more prone to mental illness, depression, and addiction.
Ashly: Yeah, absolutely, across the board.
Paul: And feelings of worthlessness and suicidal ideation, but clearly David didn't intend to take his own life, but it sounds like that struggle to get through the day was there.
Ashly: Absolutely. And it was nothing he could ever really talk about. He would always, always be there for other people. He would listen to you complain for hours about the most inane shit. I was looking back on our text messages and I have anxiety and I obsess over often really mundane things, like I thought I had a cavity once and I almost had a panic attack for two days. It was stupid! And he was my partner and I loved him and I trusted him with everything so I'd just tell him all this stupid shit, and he took it with the most grace and patience, and he didn't make me feel stupid for thinking any of the things that I thought that were actually stupid. He took it all on. Then you look back and you're like 'I just fucking...What was I doing? I was complaining about the most nonsense stuff and he was being a fucking angel', and meanwhile he had this storm brewing in him that he just never could talk to anyone about. And that's been a constant theme of talking to friends of his or mutual friends or friends that I only met after he passed away, that it's like "He was always there for me, how did I not see this? How did I not know to be there for him in that way?" And part of it is that maybe he just didn't want us to know. Part of it was he wasn't ready for us to know, or whatever it happened to be, but there's a deep pain in remembering how present he was and how good he was to everyone except himself, which I guess is a problem that a lot of people with mental illness have. I have a mentor that once told me that having anxiety or depression is almost like you're an XMen, it's like a superpower, so it gives you insight that other people maybe don't have, but it's also a curse because you're miserable the whole time.
Paul: Yeah, I think a lot of people that live with depression and addiction there's kind of a heightened sensitivity that maybe has set you up for that, but it can also help you read other people, to have compassion for other people, but it can also really backfire on you. And it can make you be a dick that goes into your own shell and shuts everybody out and makes up excuses why you can't make an appointment. In essence, a difficult person to understand sometimes. Somebody who's lovable but difficult to understand, or somebody who's aggravating as fuck and confusing.
Ashly: Yeah. And the amazing thing about him in particular, I have other loved ones that are struggling with addiction, or loved ones that have loved ones that are struggling with addiction, and some people that are beautiful, wonderful, insightful, creative people, when they get drunk or when they take a pill they become angry or abusive, maybe emotionally or whatever, and the amazing thing is that David never did that. He never went there.
Paul: What was the unmanageable part of his addiction?
Ashly: The way that it made him act, he'd be a completely different person, not in the way that he'd suddenly become an angry monster, but he was just so clearly not himself and not being healthy at all. He would pass out, once he actually passed out in the bathroom and hit his head and his nose he was bleeding, or he would just fall asleep out of nowhere or he would act really, really goofy and not have any self-awareness and that beautiful mind of his was tucked away somewhere because he was just gone.
Paul: Would it be fair to say he was less present with you?
Paul: And so also less able to connect to you on the level that meant so much to you?
Ashly: Yeah, it was like a weird shadow of David when he would do that. And obviously I knew it wasn't healthy for him and it took me a while 'cause my dad, I never saw him as an alcoholic, but apparently he was an alcoholic and then before I was born he sobered up. But I never actually had witnessed addiction before David and I barely even take aspirin when I have a headache, so when he said the word Percoset, I didn't know what that meant. I just knew it was a painkiller. And when he started acting the way he did I didn't realize, I don't know how I didn't realize, obviously, hindsight's 20/20, but how bad it was getting and how this was not the way that anyone was supposed to act on these drugs. But he was really good at convincing me that everything was fine and that this was par for the course, or that he knew what he was doing and I completely trusted him until I realized one day that he had been lying to me about what he was taking. Because I asked him to stop at one point and then I found out later...I'd asked him to stop taking Percoset and then he agreed, he said he was going to go get a different, less intense pain killer, and took it and was reacting the exact same way that he did to the Percoset, so I called his doctor. His doctor informed me that he hadn't prescribed him the painkiller that David told me he had taken, and when I confronted David about it he broke down and admitted to me that he had lied and he was taking Percoset. And that was the moment. It took me that long to realize 'Oh fuck, David has a problem.' And after that, I told his mom and his sister and we decided that he should go home to Salt Lake and see his family doctor, and kind of discuss what the next step was, and it's hard to say now, and who knows, there are so many things that led to what happened. It's not a simple issue, but it's hard not be angry at this doctor. It's hard not to blame him for a lot. But when David went to go see this doctor with his mom, his mom was there, the word "addiction" never came up. He never expressed concern. He in fact said that David was taking a normal amount of Percoset, which just isn't true. He was taking--
Paul: Maybe David told him he was taking a normal amount?
Ashly: No, he told him how much he was taking and the doctor was like "Oh, I have patients that take that much."
Paul: Sounds like this doctor doesn't really understand addiction.
Ashly: No, I wouldn't say he does. And he kept saying "As soon as we address the pain, then this will get better", insinuating that like "The only problem is that David has back pain. It's not that his brain chemistry is now altered by a substance."
Paul: Oh my God, that is so fucking clueless.
Ashly: Isn't that crazy? And so his mother's sitting there, hearing like "Oh, here's my trusted family doctor, who we've been with for 12 years, telling me that my son isn't an addict. He just has a problem with back pain." So then, what's a person going to do in that situation? If you're a mother and the option is fight what your doctor is saying and know that your child is an addict, or trust what your doctor's saying and just focus on making David's back better, what are you going to do? What are you going to pick? So we started working on making David's back better, and him doing stretches to help his back and all that kind of stuff. And we were living in Seattle at the time that all this was happening--
Paul: Always a good place to get away from opioids.
Ashly: Right. Well I could always tell when he was on them, but he would leave to help a friend with a movie or he went to go visit family and I found out later that anytime he would leave he would use, because I wasn't around. It was ignorant on my part to assume that he could kick it, but I didn't know, I guess.
Paul: I hope you don't blame yourself for that.
Ashly: It's hard sometimes not to.
Paul: You have a ruminating OCD kind of brain, I know from what we've shared.
Ashly: So it's hard not to. And it's something I talked to my therapist about, because I've gone back and thought like 'All these ways I failed him. He wanted me to read that thing he wrote and I forgot, and that's a failure on my part. And I never saw him in a play because we were long-distance for so much, I should have just fucking flown out. I should have just known to go do that, and I failed him in that way. And I failed him because I didn't force him to check into rehab. And I failed him, I failed him, I failed him.' And my therapist was like "Of all the many things that happened in David's life, starting with his molestation up until when he passed away, I'm pretty sure your fault is at the bottom of the list."
Paul: Yeah, I just suddenly had an image of you being responsible for his death the way the person that cracked the champagne bottle over the bow of the Titanic was responsible for it going under.
Ashly: That's a nice analogy. That'll be helpful for me, actually, when I'm having those moments. In my mind, his family doctor and the dude that molested him were kind of driving the Titanic in that analogy, I suppose. But yeah, it was insane, and he was doing well for the most part except for those times when he'd go and he would use. And then his family doctor, David went to him and he said he wasn't going to have insurance which he wasn't because we got him a Seattle-specific insurance which was for people with pre-existing conditions and because we were moving it became invalid, so it wasn't wrong, he said "I'm moving to LA and I don't have insurance, and I am going to need this medication." So he gave him 90 pills which was supposed to be 3 months' worth--
Paul: But not for an addict.
Ashly: Not for an addict, and he knew how David was using them, too, because Betsy, his mother, was there when they met with him the first time and David was honest. 'Cause I told Betsy--
Paul: How many was he taking a day that you knew?
Ashly: He was taking five 5mg tablets at a time, sometimes 10 in a day.
Paul: Ten total pills in a day, or ten times a day?
Ashly: Ten total pills in a day. And on the bottle it says "Take one" so he was doing ten times the amount you're supposed to. And then somewhere in that time frame, I think at the meeting where David went home after I busted him essentially, [the doctor] said "That's a normal amount to be taking in a day, we'll just up your dosage to 20mg and then you'll take less." And I asked David to just not take those, I thought that was crazy. I didn't think that made any sense and I was just like 'Please don't take those pills', and so he didn't take those. But then I guess he took more later. But yeah, he gave him 90 20mg tablets and he overdosed and died.
Paul: What parts do you play over in your brain, because I know that's human nature when something tragic happens for some reason we want to blame ourselves, we wanna say 'What could I have done differently?' and then we pull the whip out and start beating ourselves up. What are the things that go through your head as you grieve?
Ashly: Right before we went to Seattle is when it all came to a head and I finally got it through my thick skull that David had a problem, and I didn't know how to deal with it because one of my big problems, 'cause I have problems with anxiety, is always needing to feel validated that what I think and feel is normal or okay--
Paul: Which I relate to so much.
Ashly: Yeah, and it's a constant struggle, it's every day.
Paul: I gotta hide my un-normalness from everybody. How can I present an acceptable presentation to the world so I won't be rejected?
Ashly: And if I think these things, then they must have a lot of weight and power. If I'm thinking them. Like we talked on the other podcast that didn't end up working about intrusive thoughts and how horrible and powerful those can be when you get these--
Paul: The shame of them, especially.
Ashly: The shame of them, and like 'If I thought these things, then clearly there's a part of me that actually feels them or it's actually a part of me.' And so I have that in the intrusive thought way, but also in mundane things, like in this scenario I kind of characterize my brain as separate from me a lot, I'm fighting with my brain all the time so there's Ashly and there's Ashly's brain. And Ashly's brain was saying "What if you're making a mistake being with this guy? Are you just gonna be duped? Are you gonna be some shackled wife that people see two years from now, like "What is she doing?"' But then Ashly just wants to be there and deal with it, and Ashly eventually won out and decided I love this guy and let's do it. I'm ready to work through this with him. But that decision-making process took a while and I found it difficult to do with him around so I asked him to go back to Salt Lake City for a little bit while I figured my stuff out.
Paul: And did you have any support in this time? Anybody kind of helping you set boundaries of what would be acceptable and what would be a deal-breaker, any part of it that David needed to keep up?
Ashly: Yeah, one of my very close friends, his name's Aaron, he was amazing with it. He lives in Seattle and if he hadn't been there I would have fucking gone insane, but he helped me, like "Either way, whatever choice you make is gonna be the right choice. The only thing I would say is if you decide to stay with him draw a line in the sand and explain to him what that line is, and if he crosses it there will be consequences, and communicate to him what the consequences are." So during that time when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do I was dealing with that tug and pull of just wanting him to come back and be okay with it, but a larger part of my brain was like 'Is that the normal thing to do? Is that what a normal smart person would do, to accept him back? Or would a smart normal person walk away?' And eventually I decided 'No, fuck that, I want him in my life, I wanna keep going with this.'
Paul: Within reason.
Ashly: Right, with a line drawn. So I asked him to stay in Salt Lake, and then he came back and did a grand romantic gesture where he put up a bunch of art in our apartment and did all this stuff and I remember getting really mad at him. At first I was like 'Oh, this is sweet', but then I was like 'No, this isn't sweet. I told you to stay there and what are you doing??' and there was this whole conversation that I had with him where I was like 'I need you to tell me what you need more. I need you to be more open with me about what you need from me and what you need in the relationship, etc. etc.' And so he came back and then he was telling me those things, like "This is what I need", and at that moment I was like 'What the fuck? You came back here and now you're telling me all this stuff you need from me when you just really, really hurt me. What's your deal, David?' He wasn't amazing with common sense, so when all of that conflated it made me angry but he was really just trying to do the thing that I asked him to do, to show--
Paul: Just not necessarily on the time table--
Ashly: --that I had set up. And I replay that a lot because in that conversation he was telling me things that he needed from me and--
Paul: Like what were some of the things?
Ashly: Like he'd always downplay things that bothered him or things that he needed. Always, always. So if he was in a play or something, he would always "Oh, this is kind of a stupid play, I don't really...I'm not that excited about it." But really he would be, he'd be happy to be in it and when he performed he'd have fun but he would always downplay how important it was to him. And so there were a couple of times where he was performing in a play and we were long distance and I'd be like 'Do you want me to come?' and he'd be like "No, no, it's okay", because I'd be really stressed because of school or whatever stupid bullshit I had going on and I just wouldn't come. So in that conversation he was like "And maybe if I'm in a play you could come see it", and I keep thinking of those ways that I...The thing with him was that he would always give, always, always, and never ask back. And if it hurt him that I didn't go see a play, or if he gave me something to read that he had written and I forgot to read it, he would never make me feel bad about that ever. He would just put it inside and just let it sit. But it never boiled like it does with a lot of people, it never came out in resentment. He was always incredibly sweet but it would hurt him and I didn't know that it hurt him. And that's something that I replay a lot, that conversation where he was telling me these things that he needed that I just was too in my own shit to realize that he needed, and I replay November a lot, when we first came back from LA, because he was depressed, he was turning 30, he died three days after his 30th birthday.
Paul: And how old are you?
Ashly: I'm 22. He was an incredibly creative person in so many different ways. He was an amazing actor and a really fantastic writer and a musician, and he did home brew, and he did all of these things and he was always working on films or he had his own theater company for a while and he was working on business plans with people, but he never was kind to himself and he never felt like he was doing enough. He had some idea of where he should have been at 30 and he wasn't there, and so he hated himself for that.
Paul: He couldn't see that that was his brain fucking with him. That's the tragedy of addiction and mental illness and depression and abuse surviving, is these core messages are buried inside you, either genetically or through environment that just convince you that you're unworthy and that you're three steps behind the universe and you've blown it and everyone else is winning and you are striking out.
Ashly: Yep. And I think that's where he was, and at that time he had stopped doing his stretches and had stopped--we were getting on a good run in Seattle where he was doing his stretches every day and we were eating really healthy and we were trying to be healthy, and I saw him not doing those things and for me that was like an indication that he wasn't taking the fact that he needed to keep his back healthy to keep the addiction away because that's how it works. Fucking idiot. I was like 'It really hurts me that you're not doing these things because it indicates to me that you aren't taking this as seriously as I am', where of course I didn't know at the time he had been using when he was gone anyway and it had nothing to do with his fucking back. That was a justification, or that was part of it, but it definitely wasn't the whole story. And when I'm transitioning and stuff I have a lot of problems dealing with that, I get really anxious and really nervous and really stressed, and I was just really in myself at the end. And I remember when he left I apologized for being that way and said I was sorry for being so self-absorbed and maybe being too hard on him, and I was talking about ways we could try to make stuff work that wasn't me being so demanding of him and stuff like that. so I guess that's good, and then we said goodbye to each other for the last time in person, it was a nice moment and there was no animosity. It was just a loving thing. Not that there'd been animosity, but we weren't in a bad place when he left. But I still regret not seeing that for what it was when it was happening, that the reason he wasn't doing those things is because he was in a bad place and he was depressed, and I wish I had recognized that and talked to him about it rather than being mad that he wasn't doing these things that indicated something else to me.
Paul: But you're 22 and you've never been around addicts, how could you know? How could you know those things?
Ashly: Yeah, I try telling myself that, 'cause yeah, it's true, how would I know? But then of course in retrospect it all seems so obvious.
Paul: It all seems so obvious in retrospect.
Ashly: Yeah. So I just replay all those moments of ignorance a lot, like 'Fucking-a, if only you had noticed sooner, maybe we could have done something.' But then of course, there's nothing we could have done, I realized afterward too. It had to have come from David, he had to have come to that realization himself.
Paul: Absolutely. You put addicts in prison and they're gonna smuggle shit in their asshole to get high, so it's like you can control people as much as you want, tell them as much as you want, give them consequences as much as you want, but if they haven't admitted that they're ready to change and learn a new way of living, and asking for help, there's nothing you can do. They will go to incredible lengths to keep getting loaded or whatever it is that their addiction is. And that's the thing that to the person, the friend, or the spouse, or the relative of the person, don't take it personally. You are competing with something that is so powerful to that person, that is a god to them. It's their everything. And they don't in their mind believe that anything will ever feel as good as that thing. Even though it's destroying their life, that two hours of high, when the high is good, is worth the other 22 hours of pain to them. That's the thing that is so hard for the non-addict to understand, that emptiness and that deadness inside, when you get that relief from it through your drug, it's like the world goes from being black and white to Technicolor, and all you want is that two hours of color in your life.
Ashly: Yeah, like you said, when you have that pain. and that's part of the tragedy that I was talking about, the tweets that you read, that I feel like a lot of people, and a lot of men in particular, don't feel like they can be vulnerable, don't feel like they can explore that pain or talk about that pain and so what are you gonna do at that point? You're dealing with--
Ashly: Just beat shit up. I would prefer that to what happened, God. But yeah, part of me wonders how many people actually think like this, but it's enough of a societal mindset, or it's perceived enough to be a widespread mindset that it almost doesn't matter, but just having no sympathy for people that have mental illness or have these problems, and it's inconceivable to me, maybe just because I have my own pain that I've been dealing with, that you could see someone in that position and not imagine 'Fuck, if that's what I had gone through...'. I completely understand. Or, given what they've gone through and what the world that we live in and what our culture dictates is okay for men to do and say and feel and express, like what else are you gonna do? How else are you gonna deal with it?
Paul: What you wrote about that, this possibly being related to how men are allowed to express themselves without being mocked in our society, touched me so deeply because men have been fucking the world up for so long and deserve so much of the scorn and the criticism that's being leveled against them, but in that torrent of criticism there's a lot of unfair blame laid on some men who are just scared and don't know how to ask for help, and aren't the slave owners and the worst of the worst when you think of what men have done, and it just really touched me that you can see that though we may be walking around in adult bodies and have muscle or whatever, look like we don't need protecting, a lot of us really do. A lot of us really need comforting, a lot of us really need a shoulder to cry on. We need somebody whose arms we can collapse into, who we can tell our secrets to, who we can feel like we're not gonna be judged by. The conversation that you and I had while we were off mic, and they were trying to fix the file, I've only known you for two hours and the compassion and understanding that I felt from talking to you...If I'd been able to experience that when I was a teenager, I don't know how I would have asked for it, I don't know where it would have come from, but that would have made a world of difference to me to know that I can have that kind of a conversation with somebody, that I can reveal that part of myself that I struggle with. So thank you for recognizing that we're as sensitive and as easily hurt as you are, we're just really afraid for you to know that.
Ashly: Yeah, well thank you for being an example of a man that can actually express that vulnerability, I think that' so important.
Paul: It's only taken me 50 years.
Ashly: Well at least you've done it though, you know what I mean? Some men never do.
Paul: They're missing out on so much 'cause it's such a good feeling connecting to somebody and just putting your cards on the table and going 'Here's who I am. I'm tired of pretending. I'm not cool, I'm scared.'
Ashly: Yeah. And I've been thinking about this recently, all of the societal ills that people contend with and that we blame men for, I feel like the better way to fix it is to examine what the experience of being a man is, where it comes from.
Paul: And what other outlets for healthy expression.
Ashly: Yeah. If it was okay for men to be expressive about their emotional pain, maybe misogyny just wouldn't be a thing, because I think whatever that need is for subjugation or domination or power, it comes--
Paul: Is it innate? I think some people may be just born genetically cavemen Neanderthals, but I think it's a really small percentage.
Ashly: I think it's very, very rare. 'Cause it's like if it doesn't come from insecurity or pain, then it comes from evil? It's not that simple.
Paul: Most of the men I've met that are misogynists, when I've seen them interact with their mom, there is a domineering quality to their relationship, the way their mom treats them where they're on eggshells with their mom and it reminds me of my relationship with my mom, because I was a misogynist and definitely still have some leftover issues. But I had never connected the two and I noticed as I began to get healthier and process my pain and my past and everything, I began to view women differently, and I began to see them as my sisters instead of a pair of tits, and what does she look like nude? I'd like to whatever whatever. It's...
Ashly: And that's so significant. It's like a joke in popular culture, you lay on the therapist's couch and they ask you about your childhood or whatever. It's a joke. I feel like it has become in the cultural parlance a silly thing that doesn't actually mean anything, but it absolutely does. It starts when you're a kid.
Paul: They're your template for relationships.
Ashly: Yeah, and all of that's significant, and it's funny because apparently you get more conservative as you grow older, and I just don't understand that. Because I feel like the more you learn about people, and the more you learn about yourself, how can you not be more compassionate?
Paul: Especially the more you fuck up! It's like how can you not be more like 'Look at that homeless guy,' and go 'Wow. That could have easily been me!'
Ashly: I know. I was always sad specifically when I saw homeless people but now I have such a deeper fucking misery when I see them.. I just feel so terrible because it's like that person could have been schizophrenic and like what a fucking death sentence that is. Or had so much pain that they dealt with it with drugs and ended up on the street. Like, I have friends of friends that dealt with addiction and their rock bottom was being homeless and imagining David there...I mean, that would have been better than this, but it's still painful and it can happen to anyone. If you're susceptible to these kind of things you're not just a fuck-up who was born bad, that's not how it works.
Paul: Let's talk about your mental battles. You struggle with intrusive thoughts, we were talking about that off-mic. How comfortable are you...I know you're not comfortable talking specifically about the intrusive thoughts you have. How specific can you get while staying in your comfort zone?
Ashly: I guess they're not as bad as they used to be.
Paul: When did they start?
Ashly: They started when I was a kid.
Paul: Like how old?
Ashly: Like 10. And were really, really bad then and then really, really bad again in I think college. I had a period of time from like 10 to 14 or something that they were really bad and then they got worse again.
Paul: Were they about you doing things to other people, or other people doing things to you, or you just witnessing things?
Ashly: Kind of all of the above.
Paul: Gory, violent, sexual, immoral? And I've check-check-check and check for me. If it's horrifying, if it's immoral...it's almost like my brain is a machine that will go "What's the worst thing spiritually, physically, mentally, anything, that could happen at this exact moment?" and I would think that. It would be like 'Ok, first that sweet old lady gets her dentures punched out, then this person sees it and they vomit, and then...'
Ashly: Yeah, absolutely. Check-check-check, for sure.
Paul: For you?
Ashly: Yeah. It's just sort of like what do you care about or what would you not want to see at this point? Here it is!
Paul: Innocence being destroyed?
Ashly: Yeah. And you start getting like 'What the fuck? Where is this coming from and what does this say about me that I'm having these thoughts?'
Paul: So let's say a thought pops into your head. What is your reaction to that thought?
Ashly: It's usually like a jolting 'Aw fuck.' Like a disgust or a fear, and then I judge myself for having that thought and then I obsess about it.
Paul: And beat yourself up--
Ashly: And beat myself up about it, and it kind of continues on and on and on--
Paul: --and let that define who you are because you're the type of person that would create that type of thought in your mind as opposed to that just being like radio static.
Ashly: Exactly. And that's what feeds so much into my needing to feel validated all the time, like 'I'm okay'.
Paul: 'I need to get back with the normal people'?
Ashly: Right, and it's like logically of course I know there is no normal, there is no baseline standard way of existing. Any of the people that would fit into that normal sphere are usually very ignorant--
Paul: They sell insurance.
Ashly: Exactly! Boring, people that don't really--
Paul: There are some terrific people out there that sell insurance, don't get a complex.
Ashly: You'll get a lot of angry emails.
Paul: Angry, boring emails.
Ashly: Mediocre anger. But I am always in that spot, and I've had that even with my grieving process. Like, is this the way I should be grieving? If I'm grieving this way and not this way, is that wrong? Does that say something about me? Does that say something about my relationship with him? You know?
Paul: We were talking on the other podcast that there was a fair amount of invalidating your emotions when you were a kid, but it hadn't really occurred to you until we started talking about it.
Ashly: Yeah. I hadn't thought about that, actually. You asked me "Was there was ever a time where you were crying or something and were told to stop or whatever?" And I hadn't thought about it, but yeah. Whenever I would cry--and I don't hold any resentment for my parents for this, and it wasn't a malicious thing--it was like my dad saw a hysterically crying child and felt a need to either get past it to comfort me or just didn't know how to deal with it so he would just be like "Stop crying, stop crying."
Paul: Who the fuck wants to listen to that? I mean, I get it.
Ashly: Yeah. That happened, and my anxiety started when I was little, like I said, and my mom would often say "You need to be stronger. You're gonna give yourself an ulcer, you have to stop. You just have to stop." And it's not something that you can just stop. And I think that's a common misconception.
Paul: And kind of the underlying message too is "You're wrong."
Ashly: Yeah. Which they would never mean to impart to me of course--
Paul: No. But that's what you read as a kid, is 'I'm wrong. What I'm doing is wrong.'
Ashly: Right. And I've kind of thought about that before. Mom would talk about it a lot with physical pain, so if I had a bad stomach ache or something like I'd wanna stay home from school, she'd be like "You can't do this. You need to suck it up and go to school." So now if I have really bad menstrual cramps, I feel like I'm being weak if I need to take time , and it has the same effect emotionally where I often feel like if I express to someone 'I'm feeling really anxious right now', or 'I'm feeling really disconnected', or 'I'm sorry I can't do this 'cause I'm just in a bad place', I always assume that they're going to think I'm making an excuse, for whatever reason.
Paul: I totally have that.
Ashly: And you asked me on the other one what recent anxieties I've been having, and I found that I need a lot more alone time now than I did before. I think before...I don't know when this changed, maybe it changed when David passed away, but, the difference between being an extrovert and an introvert is you recharge being around people or you recharge being alone. And I think before I was an extrovert and now I'm absolutely an introvert. If I am around people for too long having to pretend like everything's fine, then I have to be alone. I have to recharge that way. But also I get anxious when I'm not doing things too. I feel like I have to constantly be working towards something, so I push myself too far to the point that my battery is drained. Like last week I canceled three social engagements that I had, and I felt guilty about canceling them and I obsessed about the fact that they--
Paul: They're gonna be judging you.
Ashly: They're judging me for bailing all the time and they think I'm a flake, but then I obsess about 'They must think this about me', or 'They must assume this. Should I tell them what's going on with me? Would they think that's weird that I admit the fact that my partner just died and I feel like my life's falling apart? That's too much information, I barely know these people...' And then I just obsess, obsess, obsess, so then I get three days to myself where all I'm doing is fighting anxiety, intense anxiety, and trying to fend off panic attacks for three days because I canceled on a party.
Paul: So then the worrying about what your friends think becomes anxiety on top of the anxiety.
Ashly: Yeah. So I like to double down.
Paul: And that's why I think being in a support group is so great because you become friends with people who have lived your exact experience, and I never get questioned from my friends. If they call me to see how I'm doing and I text them back that I'm feeling overwhelmed and I just can't pick up the phone, I know they get it. I know they don't take it personally, and I know that they know that I will call them when I'm able to pick up the phone, but maybe I need to just go stare at a wall for 10 hours, or lay down, or watch another documentary about a serial killer.
Paul: So I think increasing your network of people that get you is really huge, really huge.
Ashly: Yes. Especially with something like losing someone as important to you as David was to me, you start seeing where things kind of fall apart in your social circles, and where there's lack, and like 'I can just do fun things with this person, but apart from that I can't really count of them for this or this thing.'
Paul: Do you have any friends that you can be intimate with?
Ashly: Yeah, absolutely.
Paul: You can tell your deep, dark, what's really going on inside you?
Ashly: Yeah, well, David was the first person that I literally just laid everything out on the table with.
Paul: What did that feel like?
Ashly: It was really freeing, because of course his response was "Okay. I understand and I still love you." He was just really amazing about it, he was really compassionate and just took it in and didn't judge me for a second and when that happened, I was like 'Oh my God, this is...'
Paul: What were the things that were the hardest for you to talk to him about? The intrusive thoughts?
Ashly: Yeah, the gnarlier, really darker sort of disturbing stuff that I really hadn't told anyone about.
Paul: Which, by the way, she was kind enough to share with me off-mic and they're so-- dime a dozen I would say isn't the right word--but so par for the course for intrusive thoughts, from what I've shared with other people and heard them share with me.
Ashly: Yeah, totally. And I think I understand that more now. At the time, though, I was like 'No one else has these thoughts', and 'Oh my God, I'm a freak and he's gonna leave me and I'm gonna...'
Paul: 'If anybody knew I was thinking these they would be trying to find out how I can be put in jail.'
Exactly. But yeah, they're so par for the course. But telling him that was really freeing and after that I felt like I could talk more about them to other people. So I have three or four super-close friends that when I'm feeling it really hard and feeling really shitty, I can just be like 'I feel like I'm gonna die. I feel like I wanna die. I feel like I'm never gonna be happy again. I can't breathe.' You know, that sort of stuff I can go to them with and part of me feels bad because I know that they worry about me and there's nothing you can say. Like what are you gonna say to that? There's nothing that brings David back, there's nothing that makes it easier, it just is something that I feel like I need to get out of me. But I do, and they get it too because they're fucked-up like I am.
Paul: Yeah, and it can become something that brings you closer together with other people. You brought a survey in that you related to. Would you like to read that one?
Ashly: This was for "I shouldn't feel this way", like we talked about that's kind of a running theme--
Paul: Do you have the name of the person who filled this one out?
Paul: They'll probably recognize it from what they wrote. I just like them to hear that somebody else knows how they feel.
Ashly: I think most of these were anonymous...
Paul: But they have a pseudonym that they come up with...That's alright. If they're a listener, they'll recognize what they wrote.
Ashly: Ok, good. So this prompt was "I'm supposed to feel blank about blank, but I don't. I feel blank." And there are a few that I really related to, given where I'm at right now, and one of them was "I'm supposed to care about something but I don't care about anything at all. I'm supposed feel something about my life, but I don't, I feel numb. I'm supposed to feel happy or accomplished when I complete a project or task, but I don't. I feel exhausted and anxious about the next thing. I feel like I am already running behind and am only making up ground I've already lost to everyone else." And the last one was something that I've always felt or dealt with. The first two are a more recent thing since David passed away, that there's a very distinct sense of pointlessness or meaninglessness that comes with it. So when fun things or cool things happen now, I don't really get excited about them. I just sort of feel numb or I feel overwhelmed or--
Paul: Do you ever feel guilty for feeling joy? Or do you not feel joy?
Ashly: I don't really feel joy.
Paul: Has there been a happy moment since he passed away where you felt some of your zest for life come back?
Ashly: I can think of one, actually.
Paul: When you killed a baby?
Ashly: When I murdered an entire village in a video game. I have a group of friends in Texas that are really awesome people. They're really fun and they have a cute little community, they're all really there for each other and they help each other out and I went there to record something and while I was there I needed to record an audition and I asked them for help. And all I really needed was a camera and someone to read with me and they brought lights and they had three people to read with me for the different parts, and camera setups and audio, and all this kind of stuff. And they just really wanted to help me, and I ended up hanging up with them pretty consistently for the rest of the week, and I remember when I came home from one of the hang-outs just being--
Paul: Do they know what happened with David?
Ashly: Yeah. And I came home from hanging out with them once--home, my brother and sister-in-law's place because I stay with them when I'm in Texas--and just feeling like life is fucking hard but there are some really awesome people in it. And I remember for the first time since David passed away feeling gratitude for those people that are still around, and that was a nice feeling. I didn't feel guilty for feeling that. I felt glad that I could feel grateful, and it was a transient thing and it passed and the last three days I've felt like I'm a miserable sack that no one wants to be around, and it comes and goes in waves but that moment I did feel genuinely grateful and there was a joy in that to have so many people in my life that care and do wanna help me and don't really expect anything back. It's kind of awesome and not everyone has that and I do feel grateful for that, but on a day-to-day basis it's very hard to feel happy these days.
Paul: What do you think if he could say something to you, and this may be a horrible fucking Oprah-y thing for me to prompt you to say, but--not that Oprah's horrible, she's done some great things--but what do you think he would say to you if he could say something to you right now?
Paul: Yeah, about you and your life, and the rest of your life.
Ashly: I think he'd say "I'm sorry", to start. One of the first things I thought when I found out what happened was like 'If consciousness exists past death, David is fucking hitting himself, hitting his head against a wall right now. He'd be so mad at himself.' My spirituality is a weird, nebulous thing and I want to believe that he's around consciousness-wise somehow, but a large part of me is like 'No, that's not a thing.' But there are a lot of friends that he has--
Paul: But then you also gotta picture that person watching you take a shit, which is just...I become an atheist whenever I shut the bathroom door.
Ashly: That's really funny. I never thought of that before. But some of his friends are very confident that they've seen him or experienced him or talked to him and that he's free and there's a carefree David floating out there somewhere, and I really love that imagery but part of me is also like 'I can't imagine David being carefree. I can't imagine David not being worried that he's acting awkward, or worrying about other people, or...you know. But I think he would...I know that he would feel sorry and he would want me to get on with my life and not dwell on him, and to be happy. But he isn't really gonna say any of that right now.
Paul: And what would you say to him if you could some kind of communication through to him? And I'm sorry if this is...I've never done this before, asked this question, but I just found myself wanting to know what your answer would be to these two things.
Ashly: It depends on the day, it depends on the mood. I'm sure if I actually knew I was communicating with him I wouldn't be like 'Fuck you, man!' but sometimes I yell at him. Sometimes I tell him to fuck off, sometimes I'm really angry. But if I could actually talk to him I'd just want him to know that I love him, that I'm sorry for the ways that I fucked up or that I could have done better and that I hope he was happy with me. And I know he was, and one of the really hard things that I learned, after he passed away his family was looking at his computer and in his search history he was looking for engagement rings. So. That's kind of a shitty thing to think about, but...It was also comforting in a way, that I knew he was, of all the shit that was going on with him and all the things that he was dealing with, I think he felt solid about us and he felt happy that I was in his life and that's a great comfort to me.
Paul: I would imagine that moment when you confided all of that stuff to him, that had to make him feel safe.
Ashly: Yeah, I hope so.
Paul: That would have me. That would have been like 'Okay, this person gets that we're all a little crazy. That we're all a little ashamed of parts of ourselves, that there are parts of us that we wish could be different but just are', and that's part of this battle, is how do we make peace with that? How do we accept that part of ourselves that we want to hide from everyone else? Well, ironically sometimes it's finding someone who's trustworthy and showing them that part of yourself.
Ashly: That's the most healing, yeah.
Paul: It has been for me.
Ashly: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, doing that was an amazing release, and how accepting and loving he was despite or because of it was huge for me. I felt like it was a turning point in my self-perception.
Paul: Well, it's the ultimate compliment to someone because what you're basically doing is you're taking your soul out and uncovering it completely and putting it in their hand and saying 'This is at the center, this is what I hide more than anything else, but I'm gonna let you see it.' I mean, that's fucking beautiful and scary.
Ashly: Yeah, scary, very scary.
Paul: Do you want to go out with some fears or loves?
Ashly: Yeah, sure. I think we kind of talked about all my fears.
Paul: Do you want to just do some loves?
Paul: I'm gonna be reading the loves from a Facebook thread. These are people that posted on the thread. Logan Swanson said "I love getting a new batch of podcasts right before the hustle of the day."
Ashly: That's an awesome one.
Paul: That is a good one.
Ashly: Yeah. My first love, I love when I splurge on groceries and end up making something really delicious that justifies the money I spent.
Paul: Dean Battino says "I love when my cat suddenly jumps into a cardboard box after minutes of staring at it." That's a great one.
Ashly: That's a great one. I love when I audition for something and I actually feel good about it, because I often don't, I will beat myself up after it, and then I get the role.
Paul: That's awesome. What's that like?
Ashly: It's happened maybe once or twice in my entire time.
Paul: Alison Baziak, hello Alison, writes "I love when an orchestra swells and you feel a wave of emotion pass over you." That's a beautiful one.
Ashly: That's a nice one. I love when I try to learn something specifically on the guitar, that I've been learning recently, that feels too hard but then I actually end up figuring it out.
Paul: That is a great feeling. Ann Marie Pasquinelli writes--and I'm not gonna read her hyphenated last name because I know her as Ann Marie, we dated when I was in high school and I refuse to accept that she's moved on--"I love when summer comes and every single person I know tells me how much they love the smell of fresh cut grass. Wait, I think I misunderstood the assignment."
Ashly: I love when I write something and don't absolutely hate it the next day.
Paul: Dean Battino again writes "I love the moment when your head hits the pillow on Friday when you're actually tired and not forcing yourself to get eight hours of sleep, and you realize your responsibilities are over for a brief wonderful moment as your head sinks into the pillow." Beautifully written.
Ashly: That is a good feeling. So rare.
Paul: Dean is the king of these threads, he writes some good ones.
Ashly: Yeah, his have been really amazing. I love buying clothing that fits me well that I consistently feel glad that I purchased and that I continue to feel confident in.
Paul: I like that feeling when you go to get a piece of clothing that you bought and you pull it out of the dresser for the first time and you get to wear it, and it's just been washed. I think it's been about seven years since I've had that. I'm not lying, I can't even remember the last time I bought a new piece of clothing.
Ashly: It's a bad road to go down.
Paul: Sarah Bong--Sarah, apologies to you having to go through life with that last name, especially on April 20th of every year--"I love when you're a guest in someone's home or a bed and breakfast or house sitting and they have an amazing bathroom : deep tub, strong shower, aesthetically pleasing soaps and scrubs from faraway places, little lotions and potions galore." I love that.
Ashly: That's awesome. I love going to my therapist and getting an hour of sanity for the week.
Paul: Me too. Clint Crane says "I love the smell of burning leaves." I do too.
Ashly: I like that too.
Paul: Is that it for you?
Ashly: That's it for me.
Paul: I'm gonna go out on this last one, from Alison again, hello Alison for a second time, "I love finding the time when the longing to and the ability to write match and the words pour out of me." That's a beautiful one, Alison.
Ashly: That's great.
Paul: Ashly Burch, thank you so much for sharing what must be not easy stuff to share, and it's really nice to meet you and get to know you and I really enjoyed our time when the computer was down and we had that conversation about intrusive thoughts. Maybe someday you and I will find the confidence to talk about that on mic and let other people hear it.
Ashly: Yeah. Well thank you so much for having me, it's been great.
Paul: Many thanks to Ashly for being so open and honest about something that is clearly still really raw and difficult to talk about, so many thanks to her. I'm hoping that somebody out there listening who is feeling like they're going through something similar and grieving, I hope you got some comfort from that. Before I take it out with some surveys I want to remind you guys there's a couple of different ways to support the show if you feel so inclined. You can support it financially by going to the website mentalpod.com and making either a one-time PayPal donation or my favorite the monthly recurring donation for as little as five bucks a month. Once you set it up it's good to go until you decide to cancel or your credit card expires. I have been getting some people lately canceling their monthly donations and I understand if it's for financial reasons, if you're strapped for cash, but I hope you're not doing it because you think now that I have advertisers I'm raking it in and supporting myself. That's hardly the case, so I just wanted to put that out there. But if you're strapped for cash I totally, totally get it. And I just want to send some love to those of you that have ever donated anything to the show, be it financial or transcribing or whatever. It means the world to me and I probably don't thank you enough. So, thank you, especially my monthly donors. My monthly donors and my stories, I don't know what I'd do without you. You can also support us financially by shopping at Amazon through our search portal, that way Amazon gives us a couple nickels and it doesn't cost you anything. You can support us non-financially by going to iTunes and giving us a good rating, that boosts our ranking, brings more people to the show, and by spreading the word through social media. That really helps, so I'd appreciate it if you'd do that.
You know, I've never let people know what goes on in the forum and I thought this would be a good time to...For those of you who have never visited it and don't know what it's like, I'm just gonna read through what the main forum areas are. Probably the most popular one is Introduce Yourself Here, that's a great place to start and it's right at the top of the topics. And then the various other topics are Anxiety; Body Issues; Borderline Personality Disorder; Childhood; Depression/Bipolar; Depression/Unipolar; Eating Disorders; Learning Disabilities; Lying; Medications; Military Veterans; Narcissism; OCD; PTSD; Schizophrenia; Self-harm/Injury/Cutting; Sexuality; Therapy and Treatments; Trauma/Abuse/Violation; Unwanted Thoughts/Desires; Being a Mom; Do other people feel like you do?; For mental health professionals; Help--I don't know where to begin to get well; How do you feel now?; I just really need a hug; I'm experiencing an overwhelming life transition; I want to share a dream I had or keep having; Links for more mental health info; Living with an ill loved-one; Seminal moments; Signs you need to do something about your depression; The mental burden of a non-mental health issue; Things that ease your depression's impact on you; What to do when nothing's working; Discuss the podcasts; Suggest podcast guests; Help Paul tag the episodes; Are you addicted?; What's your substance of choice?; How are you coping?; I'm a friend/family member of someone who's addicted; Express your creativity; Fear-off; Love-off; Meet ups; Is a live Mental Illness Happy Hour show feasible in your area?; and Recommended Reading. So those are all the main threads that you can go post on in the forum, and we've got a lot of people joining the forum and connecting to each other. And I think the other reason I wanted to encourage people to go to the forum too is I think I feel like I'm kind of at my limit of being able to reply to emails, and I think if the show gets any more popular I'm not gonna be able to read or respond to all the emails I get, which makes me feel bad but I know that that's what I have to do. It's a great problem to have to have, but I'd like the people that are writing to be able to connect to other people, so that's why I encourage people, especially if it's really long and it involves a lot of stuff about your life, to go post on the forum because there are people there that do want to connect and have probably gone through similar stuff.
Alright. To the surveys. This is from the Shame and Secrets survey, filled out by a guy who calls himself Mr. Battery. He is straight, in his 20s, was raised in a stable and safe environment. Writes "Some stuff happened but I don't know if it counts as sexual abuse. When I was about seven or eight my aunt thought I was curious about sexuality and locked my sister's door and had me feel her breasts, and everything else is a blur." Yes, that is sexual abuse. Deepest, darkest thoughts: "I constantly think about social suicide. I just daydream about getting in my car and leaving, not telling anyone, deleting all social media I use and email addresses. I've come close about a dozen times to getting in my car, but I couldn't leave my pet cat. He's helped me during my darkest depression and I make it my goal to give him the best life I can." Deepest, darkest secrets: "I've been depressed for about eight years and have lied about attending college by telling people that I keep switching majors and can't make up my mind, when in honesty I just don't want to go to college and would rather just live." Sexual fantasies most powerful to you: "I hjave a sexual fantaxy about incest with either a mother, sister, or close relative. The funny thing is, I have no feelings towards anyone in my family and don't really like them." Would you ever consider telling a partner or close friend? "I'd like to think I would but it would be so hard to actually do it." Do these secrets and thoughts generate any particular feelings toward yourself? "I spent most of my life shameful of this but recently stopped caring since I believe it stems from my moment with my aunt. I never put the two and two together until this podcast." Well I'm flattered if I or my guests played any part in helping you put two and two together, because that absolutely was sexual abuse. Any comments to make the show better? "I abssolutely love the show and if I had to pick something to change I would say pick more people who aren't in show business. Though I like their stories and get a lot out of them, I tend to like the average people you have on randomly." And I get that, you're not the only person that has said that before, so I try to strike a balance.
This is also from the Shame and Secrets, filled out by a woman who calls herself Alone and Overwhelmed. I believe we read something of hers from last week, I think it was an email she had written to me. She's straight, in her 30s, was raised in an environment that was totally chaotic. Was the victim of sexual abuse and never reported it. Deepest, darkest thoughts: "A lot of my unwanted thoughts are about losing my kids, either by an accident, hit by a car, or through a mistake caused by me." Deepest, darkest secrets: "I have unwanted thoughts about my father while having sex. The thought is not that I want to have sex with him, it's just that I'm having sex and he pops into my head." Sexual fantasies most powerful to you: "My husband and I have not had sex for a very long time. I prefer not being touched. Denying my husband sex brings me shame. I feel if I have sex I am being used." Which is so common from people who have been sexually abused and have not processed it. Super, super common. And even from people who have been sexually abused and have processed it. Would you ever consider telling a partner or close friend? She writes "No." Do these secrets and thoughts generate any particular feelings towards yourself? "Shame." I just wanna send you a big hug and really encourage you to get help. There are so many people that feel the way that you do, and they think it's some personal fault of their own, that they should just be able to work through it on their own, and my experience it's impossible to work through something so large and buried on our own.
This is also from the Shame and Secrets survey, filled out by a woman who calls herself Fat Girl. She's bi-sexual and in her 40s, was raised in an environment that was pretty dysfunctional, was the victim of sexual abuse and reported it. Deepest, darkest thoughts: "I often think or daydream about bashing people in the face, of beating the crap out of them. My anger is overwhelming at times." Deepest, darkest secrets: "I had a partner who wanted to be choked to near passing out during sex. At first this repulsed me but then I tried it and found out that I enjoyed choking the living shit out of him just as he was having an orgasm. The relationship ended soon after, as this scared me to no end." Sexual fantasies most powerful to you: "I often fantasize about being the 'party girl', the one at an all-male party that is used and fucked by all the men and then forced to have sex with some other female that was brought in." Would you ever consider telling a partner or close friend? She writes "Yes, and I have." Do these secrets and thoughts generate any particular feelings towards yourself? "Not any more. I used to be ashamed and embarrassed, thinking I was a sick fuck who should hide, but no longer. I understand that these kind of fantasies are much more prevalent than most people want to believe." Yay! And a high-five through the internet to you, Fat Girl, for realizing that you are okay, exactly as you is.
This is from the Shame and Secrets survey, filled out by a guy who calls himself Ronnie Hubbard, a little shot at Scientology there. He's male, he's straight--he qualifies "I have had two homosexual experiences in my 20s"--he's in his 40s, was raised in a stable and safe environment, however he qualifies "I was raised Calvinist and that fucked me up for a while." Have you ever been the victim of sexual abuse? "Nope." Darkest thoughts: "Can't think of any at the moment." Deepest, darkest secrets: "I can only say this because it's anonymous. I have one friend that knows everything about me and most of my close friends know some of the things about me. When I was pubescent I sexualized my older sister. I would leave my bedroom door open and be exposed while feigning sleep in the morning. I spied on her getting dressed and undressed. The grossest of all is I once hurried into the bathroom after she finished and fished out a turd from the toilet and sort of licked it. I have no desire for my sister any more. I am middle-aged and fairly well adjusted, have had a very satisfying sex life, and am not a shit-eater. I sometimes get off on porn with women shitting but I have no desire for that in real life. I have done a fair amount of water sports with women over the years. The only reason I felt compelled to say this is for solidarity. If anyone is beating themselves up over being weird and gross, I think they should know we all have secrets and we are all human. Give yourself a break." And that's why I wanted to read that, too. I know on the surface that seemed like a sensational thing to read, but he's also not the only person that has written that in the survey. There was another guy who did the same thing with his sister as far as running into the bathroom. Sexual fantasies most powerful to you: "Being used as a human toilet by a woman, only urine." Would you ever consider telling a parter or close friend your fantasies? He writes "Yes, I have, with the right women. Not all." Do these secrets and thoughts generate any particular feelings towards yourself? He writes "I actually think I'm pretty well adjusted as far as sexual stuff. I never fretted over my homosexual encounters, I really don't have shame about the urine thing, but the sister thing I feel shame about." Well I want to thank you for sharing that, because I think that will probably help somebody else out there that's feeling like they're the fucking worst, the grossest, the craziest.
This is an excerpt from an email that I wanna read that I got from a person called Kasha. I can't even remember if Kasha is a man or a woman, but they wrote "I had an insight the other day which I'd like to share with you. It happened when I got the last seat at the subway and everyone else had to stand. For a few moments I looked around to see if anyone was less able to stand than I, kind of fiddling with my bag and feeling uber-guilty that I got the last seat. But then I thought 'Wait, it makes so much more sense to just feel grateful that I got a seat. And then it hit me--you can transform that type of guilt into gratitude at any time. Like if you're feeling guilty about having a lazy, unproductive day, instead feel grateful that you had the chance to relax. That might inspire you to actually do something the next day. Or if you're feeling guilty about having to borrow money from your parents, instead be grateful that you have the opportunity. That way you will make the most of the money for sure. Gratitude is such a high-vibe state and one we're all ultimately working towards, so we may as well start, get practicing, and start turning those negatives into positives." I love that.
We're in the home stretch. I was gonna limit this down to two but I'm gonna read all three of these. This is from the Babysitter survey, so you know it's chock full of goodness, filled out by a guy who calls himself Big Daddy D. He writes "One day just after I turned 12 my parents brought over a girl from our neighborhood to babysit my younger sisters. After she put my sisters to bed she came into my room. She was just talking to me and I thought just passing time. She asked me if I'd ever had a blowjob, I said 'What's a blowjob?' She explained it's when a girl puts a boy's penis into her mouth. 'Ooh', I said, 'That's gross.' She said she thought it was fun and asked if I wanted to try it. I shrugged and said okay, I sat there thinking that it was pretty awesome when she went down on me. When it was over and I had finished in her mouth she told me that we couldn't tell anyone and if I kept it a secret we could do it again and maybe even more. Over the next couple years she continued as my sisters' main babysitter and she would experiment with me. She had me perform oral sex on her, give her anal sex, she would tell me about porn movies that she found of her dad's, and would sneak them over for us to watch together and act out. She would make me choke her, finish on her face and hair, just like in the movies we'd watch. This continued all the way until she left for college at the age of 20, and I was 16." Did you ever tell anyone? "I never told anyone until years later. I went into the army and used it to brag of my sexual conquests even though it always brought me shame, in a way. I think experimenting as kids is normal, but with someone so much older wasn't healthy. Today I'm in my mid-30s and I've always had a thing for older women. I'm married and I love my wife and children but I've cheated multiple times with multiple older women. When I was 20 I was sleeping with a 49-year-old. Just a few years ago I had to end a four-year secret affair with a mid-40s housewife. I'm constantly searching for my next sexual conquest with an older woman and it completely fucks me up. I know it's wrong. I tell myself I'm going to be committed, then when presented with another older woman who is willing, I can't help myself." Remembering these things, what feelings come up? He writes "I think I range in all of the emotions listed--anger, sadness, regret, sexual excitement, fondness, longing, shame, etc. Years later I began working at a place. When we had our annual Christmas party one of my co-workers came in and the beautiful woman on his arm was no other than my sisters' old babysitter. I was shocked and excited and ashamed all at the same time. We tried to make small chit-chat conversation but quickly realized we had nothing in common. I was a little disappointed in that, but had she said "Let's sneak off to the bathroom for old times' sake," I'd have done it in a heartbeat." Do you feel any damage was done? He writes "The damage done was that it has always wanted to make me want to experience that rush of having secret sexual encounters because of the young age I found it exciting and naughty." If you're a parent, has this influenced how you view your children being babysat? "I am a parent and I do watch closely who babysits my children. We try to use adult family members when possible and now our oldest child is old enough to babysit." Have you ever been the victim of sexual abuse outside of the events listed here? He writes "Yes, and I have reported it. I had an aunt that was married to my dad's brother that began forcing me to go down on her starting when I was around 10. When she found out that I was sexually active she would make me masturbate for her, often on her, after I had serviced her. I was also coerced into sexual acts with two older female cousins. I have also begun recently to uncover things in therapy that may have happened to me when I was around four to five with a boyfriend of one of my aunts.” He writes in the suggestions to make the podcast better , he writes “Thank you for the topics you cover, the humor you inject, and the insight you try to give. The love that comes through your show is evident and strong and I’m always moved by how you share your emotions with us as well. After two overseas deployments and dealing with PTSD, a lifetime of fucked-up sexual abuse and deviance, a fucked-up family life, and working on getting out of my own twisted head, it’s great that I found your show to show me that I’m not alone and not the only one dealing with these issues. Since beginning to work on myself two years ago with therapy and help, I’ve found my need to tell everyone in my life that mattered to me just how much I love them. Most reply with uncomfortable I love yous back, or a shy “Thanks”, but the way you tell your guests and listeners that you love them makes my heart sing.” I guess that’s why I wanted to read that one so much. And those of you that know me and my story know why I sometimes feel compelled to read that.
This is from the Happy Moments survey, and this is filled out by a woman who calls herself Splendid Minx. She writes “I was driving back to LA with my niece and two older sisters after having Thanksgiving dinner with my parents. A little background: I was overseas for a long time so besides the first week she was born, I hadn’t seen my niece in a year and a half. She’s almost two. During Thanksgiving dinner she was in that phase where a child is not quite sure if she likes you or not, so during our drive back to LA I’m sitting in the back seat with her and I fall asleep. I wake up about an hour later. She’s leaning out of her car seat with her soft, downy cheek pressed up against my bare shoulder. I was surprised. I held that moment for as long as I could. I didn’t want to move or even signal to my sisters that I was awake. I felt that everything that life is, is in that moment. I felt love, the unabashed kind that only kids still have the innocence to dole out in spades, and in that single quiet moment I belonged to this perfect little creature and she belonged to me.” That’s beautiful. Thank you very much for that.
And actually that was it, those two last ones. I thought I had three but that was it. Thank you guys, thank you so much, thank you for all the beautiful feedback I’ve been getting these last couple of weeks. I feel like I’m about 10% better than I was last week, I feel like I’m heading in the right direction. Whatever you’re dealing with, I hope you know you’re not alone.