Disguised to ourselves

Ashley Vanorny
8 min readFeb 14, 2021

“We are so customed to disguise ourselves to others that, in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.”

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

At the start of this past decade, my family as I knew it, disintegrated. Mental health crises ravaged my immediate family nearly taking the life of one, while another ran away — I left my college class one evening to help file an Operation Quickfind. I had moved home the previous Fall, and stopped my undergraduate studies — in fact I failed out, a fact I am only now ready to discuss. I was hoping to regroup. The marriage of my mother and step-father that yielded my two younger siblings failed. Things quelled, and I retreated to Chicago to decompress, parceling out pills for a family member, taking the rest with me so that there was no possibility of overdosing. I could not lose my loved one who had asked me “why it didn’t work this time” the last time they were hospitalized and I helped them finish their charcoal drink. There was three weeks of calm during which I started a paid internship with the Social Security Administration field office, following one with Federal Law Enforcement. A month into my employment, I would return to the office to file a disability claim for my father with my new coworkers.

Just days before, I worked my third job for the day, and returned home after a slow night only to hear a late knock on the door. I called to my father to answer it and when he didn’t, assumed he was asleep; I passed by the uncut watermelon I asked him to prepare for me for work the next day. An officer stood at my doorstep, explaining that my father had been in a serious motorcycle accident outside of Czech Village, and was being transferred to the University hospital. He must have told me several times; I know it didn’t register at first, and yet now I can recall it as if it had just happened. Memories are funny like that, although I can’t see his face, just the outline of the officer bringing me the news of the worst day of my life. I can’t imagine how you learn to work up the gumption to break the news like that, and how many times in an officer’s career they may be tasked with delivering such news. I know they were kind to me, but I know that couldn’t have been easy. I asked Chief Jerman in 2019, and he gave me the list of CRPD officers who had worked on my dad’s case, those who had responded to the scene of the accident — one of the names surely having been the blurry figure I see in my nightmares when I relive this traumatic day. Each officer still works for the Cedar Rapids Police Department and I wrote to them that year, thanking them for doing what must have been just one aspect of their day, but might have offered lifesaving responses to salvaging my father’s limp body and precious life as he lay on the street curb bleeding out. I raced to the hospital and awaited my family to join me. I was alone in that waiting room for what felt like forever. Alone with my thoughts and my fears, with the full weight of what ifs. The next nine months I repeatedly told my father I would fight for him, saying out loud hoping he heard me. He had sustained a traumatic brain injury and would never wake from his coma. A study we participated in at Northwestern regarding familiar voices later revealed that comatose patients respond the same as awake patients, giving me the satisfaction that he heard every word.

One of the first times I saw friends at a gathering after his passing, I became overwhelmed — a rush of folks extending their condolences. I attempted to hide my grief behind an abundance of alcohol. I was told when I woke up half a day later at my friend’s apartment that I was found by Good Samaritan’s on a curb in Chicago. In my unconsciousness, I attempted to call my late father ten times — he was always my emergency contact. My subconscious’ desperate attempt to hear from the person I missed the most was frightening, my synapses refusing to accept the reality of his death. I reached out to a friend who I asked since they knew me well, to recommend some help for me. I was able to connect with a grief counselor who saved my life. I had been able to fool most, including myself that I was doing okay. I was able to be high performing at work, in school, but ultimately I felt dead inside. During that first year of loss, I remember the uncanny physical sense that my body, heavy with grief, was falling, later confirmed when I fulfilled my dream of skydiving that next year. It’s quite curious how you can visualize something you never have experienced and when you do, it is so spot on. My Australian Nana also passed away, it was all too much and everything was changing.

I spent the next three years closing my father’s estate and sorting through his personal affects. I remember finding awkward moments of appreciation recalling the mutual teasing my father and I had in terms of every day power plays for what I ought to be doing with my time like parents and children do. There was one moment in particular where I challenged him as to when he would finish some projects around the house to which he informed me it was not for me to worry about. When I inevitably was the one to finish said projects after his passing, there were moments of laughter and tears, as I relied on the knowledge he instilled in me, to finish where he left off.

The fact that failing out of college was hardly at the top of my worries is telling. I was bright, but lost points due to attendance when I pulled double duty helping look after my younger siblings during this crisis. There were also times when my pride got in the way of asking for an extension or dropping out of a class because I had convinced myself that if I just buckled down, what was happening around me but not to me directly to me would not steal my focus. Oh how wrong I was. I hid from my friends and myself when I needed help. My GPA became scar tissue of what my life was like at that time, not my ability, and I was so angry for it for so long. I had reached out to a couple of professors and had gotten a cold and couldn’t-be-bothered response and never opened up again until it was too late. But that was on me, and over time I gained perspective. Life stood still and I got it together, collected my thoughts. You see, I no longer look at it as a negative that this happened. At the time, there were those around me who made the difficult situation worse. I had a boyfriend at the time who talked down to me as if I was somehow less worthy and was a failure. I always knew I would get centered and return to finish what I started.

I wanted to come back to school the right way, and to me that meant sorting through everything in the house because I knew I’d never focus until this was done. I remember I spent the better part of 3 months sorting through nails and nuts and screws my dad had left behind. I wanted to save every little clue he left behind for me that I might need for the future. I returned to graduate from Iowa with my Bachelors in 2014 and went to work for the same hospital that afforded my father every opportunity to survive his injuries. Eventually I would lay this all out on the line when I applied to my Master’s program. They saw and knew me wholly and still believed in my potential, allowing me to do the same with myself. I had fundamentally changed, matured, and was ready for the next step in my academic career.

I learned to appreciate the time I had with my father by devoting myself to nonprofits supporting foster care — putting me on the path to run for Council through my advocacy. My perspective changed to acknowledge his loss in terms of appreciating all the years I did have with such an incredible father instead of those I felt robbed of. At the end of the decade, I would lose the second most important man in my life, my grandfather, from dementia caused by depression from losing my father. The incredible opportunities and heartache this past decade challenged me with were both equally breathtaking, and certainly made me who I am today.

2020 was a brutal year, but it didn’t break me. Perhaps this was in part because I’ve already been broken and repaired, so I was more resilient during the pandemic, the derecho, and a furlough. I think in general, I’ve found a way to be steady in chaos — after all it was the eerie calm after the storm of my dad’s accident that broke me anyway. Mental wellness is a constant battle that has to be properly maintained. The biggest mistake I ever made was doing a disservice to myself by pretending I didn’t need help when I did. Grief isn’t easy to manage or predictable. I can be going about my day and it sneaks up on me, seemingly nowhere like an unwelcome visitor shouting “surprise!” I share this, in the detail that I do, because I see so many of us trying to do our best every day, and I want to let you know I see you, and give you permission to ask for help and to need help. I survived all of this because of help — not on my own. So if you too are keeping your head above water during all of these compounding stressors, please remember to be kind to yourself. All we can do each day is our best, and when we fall short, regardless of how much we may tailspin into punishing ourselves for our shortcomings, we can try again to do better the next chance we get. I told this story in full when I had the opportunity to join the University of Iowa Political Science Advisory Board in 2020, which truly brought me full circle to where this all began. They saw me, all of me, as a worthy addition and accepted me not in spite of what my life has been, but because of the mess and heartache and second chances collectively.

To everyone who has lent an ear or a shoulder over the years — thank you.