If you’re familiar with Ashley C. Ford’s online presence but have not met her in person, you would hope that your assumptions of her are true: that she is smart, determined, thoughtful, kind, and a great story-teller. I can confirm that Ashley is all of these things and more: she will offer you rosé in the afternoon and a bowl for your soup that has spilled throughout your bag on the train. Ashley Ford is a writer, editor and speaker, currently working as a senior features writer at Refinery29. She writes openly and directly about her vulnerabilities and obstacles in life, which include a complex relationship with her father who was recently released from prison after 30 years of incarceration, her sexual assault as a teenager, and her experience as a black queer woman. This is Ashley’s story about rising from rock bottom, the fears that she has been freed from and those that still plague her, how to take a first step as a perfectionist, and how she’s slowly stripping down to the core of who she is, one layer at a time.
“I have that ‘stop saying yes’ post it on my wall because I kept saying yes to things which ended up being torturous to do. New York is the city of ‘anything could happen,’ so you keep saying yes in fear of missing out on opportunity. You do everything out of the hope that something will bloom from it. What we don’t always consider is that even if some of these opportunities do come into fruition, they might not be in line with our intentions or our goals. I was recently working on a big project that I desperately wanted, but in the middle of it, I was like, ‘Oh. Actually, I don’t want this after all.’ The deeper into it I got, the more I didn’t enjoy it, the more soul-crushing and exhausting it felt. I ended up having to back out of it, because I went into it with the wrong perception of what it was. Not by the fault of anyone else, it was more that I wasn’t being honest with myself about the project from the start. I get that, as adults, we all have to do shit we don’t want to do. But I’m not at a place in life right now where I have to do a lot of those things. If I think about what I do want to do, my big objective is to be a bridge for people. A bridge into thinking a little deeper about themselves, the world and the people around them. Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling very, very alone—when in fact I wasn’t. But I didn’t have access to things beyond my situation to have that understanding. If people have a purpose (which I’m not totally sold on), then I do think that my purpose is getting people to see that we really are in this thing together. You know? And some people will reject that, which is totally fine. But for the people who don’t, I want them to know that there is somebody out there who gets it. For me, writing has always been an effort to reach out. I am not (and this surprises people) a terribly social person. I don’t really go to parties, or meet a lot of people for coffee or drinks or dinner or anything like that. I’m not good at having the energy to see people physically all the time. Writing is different—it satisfies the connection I crave, without the energy suck. I think about people all the time, and my writing is a kind of love letter. I want them to know: I think about you all the time, even though I don’t see you.
When it comes to writing and race, I feel like a lot of white women are all, ‘We’re in this together.’ But every black woman I know has had an experience where as soon as a conversation got hard on a racial front, as soon as they tried to explain to a white woman in their life why something they said offended them—they were immediately reminded by the white woman’s reaction that we’re not actually in this together. As in, you are only invested in my well-being if you don’t have to acknowledge your privilege and if you don’t have to acknowledge my blackness. And I think the way that white women can combat that, especially white women writers or those with platforms, is to have the tough conversations. To talk about their own bullshit. Whatever it is, talk about it. Even if you want to say or write something that you might be judged for—getting dragged for two days on Twitter is significantly less harmful than being told you’re barely a human woman for most of your life, which is what many black women have had to deal with. Having our femininity questioned, being paid less, being believed less, being cared for with less compassion. And that’s over a lifetime, not for two days. It is worth it to make that effort. There are some people who will absolutely always critique white women who speak out. That’s part of your learning process. There are a lot of black women who are waiting for you to make an effort—who will forgive an effort that doesn’t go well, and who will applaud an effort that does goes well. But the efforts you make should be most important to you personally. You have to want to be better. You can’t just be showing up for the applause. I find that a lot of white women want to do right, but they don’t know how to go about doing right and that is a reasonable fear. But doing nothing is an unreasonable response.
That’s your ego getting in the way of your ability to empathize with women who don’t look like you.
Before I came to New York in 2014, I was living in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was juggling three part-time jobs which I lost all at the same time, because my car broke down and I couldn’t get to work—the city’s public transportation was crap. I didn’t have any money. I was at rock bottom. I said to myself: You are, at this point, eating half a sandwich mid-day and then the other half of the sandwich at the end of the day. You can’t get anywhere, you have little to no job prospects and you haven’t written in a while because of your last two jobs. What are you doing? I thought about what I really wanted and I kept hearing, ‘You want to write, you want to write, you want to write.’ So I began to think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. I made a list of all the places I wanted to write for someday. As soon as I had that list, I thought, I wonder if I can find the email addresses for these editors, or maybe they’re on Twitter? I should probably clean my writing samples up too. I just decided that writing might be the thing that was going to get me to the next step of my life and I wrote it all down. I still write things down when I want them. It feels like the first step of getting there. During that time I came across Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. It felt like that book read me, basically. It became abundantly clear that while there were circumstances in my life holding me back, the biggest one was me. And I thought, I can lean into that narrative of being wasted potential, or I can try something different. I had spent a lot of time deciding not to apply for something, not to move somewhere, not to do all sorts of things—based off the fear that when I got there, I would not be capable, and that I’d be labelled as a fraud. Back then, I had a tendency to think, until you’re doing things that meet your standards (which were, and still are, very high) everything that you do is worthless. But I didn’t want to be stuck anymore.
I decided not to say no to myself before somebody else said no to me.
Whenever you’re going through something tough, you need to be real with yourself. You need self-compassion, but you also need to recognize that the only thing you have control over is how you react to the pain and to figure out what you’re going to do next. There will be a million little decisions that you’ll need to make along the way, but you don’t have to make those decisions right this second. You just have to take one step in the direction toward the life you want. And then you’ll have a lot of time to figure out the step after that, typically. I think a lot of people get caught up in that first step, myself included. I’m always grappling with ‘done is better than perfect.’ But you have to get over yourself enough to make that first move. Everything else you can figure out along the way.
In terms of having my dad back in my life, on surface level, it’s great. The fact that I could hop on a plane right now and go see him is amazing. What is not so amazing is that it brings up a lot of stuff for me. It brings up a lot of anger and fear. It brings up a lot of things that I thought I had dealt with, but I had actually just buried. And that’s hard, because I so desperately want my dad to know who I am. But in order for that to happen, I have to be really honest with him. At this point, it’s one of the most honest relationships I have—because with 30 years to catch up on we don’t have time to fuck around. That means that I’ve had to talk to my dad about things like me being sexually assaulted as a teenager, my struggle with anxiety and depression, my bisexuality. All of these things that, if you’re close to your parents, you reveal over time. But my dad knew all of these things about me in one week. I know it’s a lot for him too. It’s a combination of trying to give him context for my life, while at the same time trying to be compassionate about the fact that he’s had this idea of me built up in his head for 30 years. On the one hand I know that he’s just grateful that I talk to him, love him and am open with him. But I also know that it’s probably really hard for him to understand parts of my identity that he is not familiar with. I was 13 when the sexual assault happened, and I took on a lot of responsibility that I had no business taking on.
For a while, I thought that being sexually assaulted was my penance for having a parent who had sexually assaulted someone.
I believed that whole-heartedly, and it took me a really long time to undo that poison in my mind. As a young adult, around 21, I wrote my dad a letter asking him to explain to me why he did what he did. At that point he did not know that I was sexually assaulted, but his letter said: ‘Ashley, it was not what they were wearing, it was not where they were, it was not what they were doing, it was me. It was nobodies fault but mine. I made a choice. I was not thinking about how my choice would affect my wife, my daughter, or even the person that I hurt. Now, I’ve spent 22 years thinking about it. And that is my punishment to lean into and to uphold and I deserve it.’ In a lot of ways, that letter freed me from my worst fears about myself, and what was mine to own.
I think my biggest fear now is that my work and my life won’t count. That it won’t be enough. That I’ll get to a place where somebody says, ‘Because you are black, because you are fat, because you are a woman, because you are queer, because you are not wealthy, you cannot go anywhere. You cannot get any closer to the life that you wanted for yourself.’ And that fear, at times, paralyzes me. I think one of the smartest things I’ve done in the past few years is to have surrounded myself with people who can dream bigger dreams for me than I can dream for myself. People who will encourage me when I can’t encourage myself. I have people who believe in me unconditionally, which is invaluable. My partner, Kelly, has always believed that there is literally nothing I couldn’t do. And that goes from when we were friends, to now. It is important to him that he will always be my biggest fan, that nobody will be outdone by him when it comes to to empowering me. Having somebody like that in your corner is so good it doesn’t always feel real.
Trusting somebody this much, loving somebody this much, letting somebody love me this much is the reason why I am able to take chances that I wouldn’t otherwise take.
And it’s not just Kel. It’s my friend Spencer, my best friend Ashley, my friend Tyson. It’s people like that who remind me that not trying is never the answer. So I just keep going. In a lot of ways, I think of myself and my life as a big block of marble. Everyday I’m meant to chip something away and get closer to revealing the sculpture of who I really am. The sculpture of what my life is, that’s inside the marble. It’s not so much about ‘finding myself’. It’s more about the fact that there are things I have taken on in life that don’t belong to me. Things that aren’t part of my goals, my story and the life I want. Like my insecurity about my weight and my body. My insecurity about my writing. The idea that not having more hair makes me less of a woman, the idea that money and net worth is attached to self-worth, these things that society have put on me that are not actually meant to be here. How do I chip all that stuff away? How do I reveal the truth and the essence of what I’m really fucking trying to do out here? I think that people sometimes leave parts of themselves in an effort to find something different. When people talk about finding themselves, often what they mean is: ‘I want to be different. The different version of me is out there somewhere and I need to leave myself behind in order to find it.’ I don’t think that’s the case.
I think the true work in this life is stripping away those layers of bullshit that are on the outside. Often, those layers are just the thoughts of other people and the fear of other peoples thoughts.
Fulfillment, to me, means that very narrow space where you are firing on all cylinders—when you are taking care of yourself mentally, emotionally and physically. And that is a hard, hard balance to strike. But in those few moments that you do, it’s a beautiful, amazing thing and it’s worth the effort. I don’t think of fulfillment as a condition, I think of it as a sensation. It’s not going to be constant. I think that fulfillment comes to you in moments, and that those moments fuel you so that you can jet into the next phase. In my mind it’s all mountain peaks and valleys. We spend most of the time between the peak and the valley, and fulfillment is that moment when you’re in the valley but you remember what the mountain peak looks like. You can still smell that air and if you go a little further you might be able to reach it. The act of going further helps you chip away the fear. The point is to just keep going. I’m someone who loves surprises and that’s a big part of what keeps me moving forward, because I know life is full of them. You really don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what your lowest low is yet and you don’t know what your highest high is, but experiencing both is key to those moments of fulfillment. You cannot keep those moments, but they are worth the pursuit.”
As told to Amy Woodside, May 2017
Photographed by Amy Woodside