Do Not Be Afraid

It’s not like I knew my life was headed for cataclysmic change. Monday, October 24th was a morning like any other morning in 2016. Teach a 9AM class at Lipscomb University then workout for an hour or two. Fitness and nutrition had become part of my identity. I was sixty years old and in the best shape of my adult life. I felt great. Which is why I was so surprised to wake up with a headache.

I didn’t even bother taking Ibuprofen. In an hour the headache would be gone. It wasn’t. It stayed with me all day and night at precisely the same intensity. With each passing day, the pain remained the same. Very intense. Highly irritating. No variation.

On the morning of November 4th, things got worse. I felt so bad I couldn’t get out of bed. I canceled my cardio and weights session. New symptoms had appeared. My head pulsed loud and unrelenting. The pounding caused my eyes to jump in rhythm. I was having something akin to a power brown-out in my left ear. Like a flickering light, it was shutting on and off. Specific sound frequencies bothered me. My pulse spiked at random. I had a full body, micro-trembling feeling as if I were vibrating. My face was a minefield of twitches firing off. Spasms moved up and down my legs. My whole body felt like it wanted to steer left all the time. Like leaning into a curve. I was fatigued and mentally off. When I wasn’t thinking unclearly, I wasn’t thinking at all. I kept saying, “I’m not right.” Through it all, the headache remained. Not headaches. All one headache, all the time.

I tried to stay working, willing myself to remain positive around students and colleagues at Lipscomb University (where I was the Director of the School of Music). Our family doctor referred me to a neurologist. I was thoroughly questioned, poked and scanned. I consulted with several additional specialists, including an Epstein-Barr Virus expert at the National Institutes of Health. The only bit of quantitative data they could find was white blood cells and protein in my spinal fluid and elevated norepinephrine. As the neurologist famously said, “I know you have something, and it is vexing to me.”

Though I was eventually given pain medication (after two months), it had little to no effect on the headache. In some ways, the drugs and attending brain fog made it worse. It’s hard to teach or meet with prospective students and their parents when you can’t put sentences together.

After 120 days of a single intractable headache, daily, unnerving passages of crazy had become my new norm. A Ten on the headache scale is a truly mind-bending experience. My mouth pushed out grunts in rhythm. I thought I was dying. I begged God to make it stop.

On March 8thof 2017, Andi and I flew to Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. I had a 3½ hour consultation with an integrative medicine specialist. Unlike every other doctor I had seen, this one was willing to venture a diagnosis. My central nervous system had been severely compromised. The reason I felt like I was coming apart, is that I was.

He explained that the sympathetic component of my fight or flight response was stuck on – something called Dysautonomia or Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction. He put it like this, “You’re hypervigilant – always alert for danger. Your brain and central nervous system are refusing to go into rest mode. It thinks there’s a saber-toothed tiger in the room with you – all the time, everywhere.”

He talked about something called Central Sensitization, a condition of the nervous system associated with the development and maintenance of chronic pain. When central sensitization occurs, the nervous system goes through a process called “wind-up” and gets regulated in a persistent state of high reactivity. This is not tissue related. The brain is the genesis of the headache pain based solely on past trauma and past and present stress triggers. This diagnosis also explained my other symptoms, including ear issues (hyperacusis). As with PTSD, my brain was creating sound sensitivities that had nothing to do with my ears. They were real and painful (and selective) sensitivities, but they were not tissue related.

The doctor asked if I needed to work. Could I quit my job at Lipscomb University or take a leave of absence? No, I don’t need to work, though I do need to because I’m the head of the School of Music. He asked, do you want to get better?

This doctor read me like a book. He explained how my lifetime of mystery illnesses, recurrences of what I thought was Epstein-Barr virus, the 100-day headache I’d had several years back, vertigo, anxiety attacks, working till I was sick then going to bed for a week just so I could begin the cycle again – all of this, were storylines in a single drama. Now, through some perfect storm of triggers, I was experiencing the mother of all manifestations of this one overarching illness, a complete central nervous system meltdown. My body had kept the score, and I was losing. A week in bed wasn’t going to fix me this time. I’d used up all the resilience allotted to me.

The doctor diagramed a multi-faceted plan for recovery. This included anti-depressants, alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, biofeedback, EMDR and Reiki, dietary supplements, mindfulness and breathing exercises. My workout regimen would have to change. Cardio and weights, always pushing through pain to higher goals, was hurting and not helping. Walking would do just fine. He stressed the importance of family, talk therapy, spiritual life, nutrition, sleep, and in general, a life made of more than work. “Did I have a hobby or a pet?” He asked. Adding, “Perhaps I could get one or more.”

All in all, I would have to slow the tempo down, concentrate on these forms of self-care and community, and in a phrase, “unlearn my pain.”

I came back to Nashville, grateful, and hopeful that my headache and accompanying symptoms would one day be gone. I took a leave of absence from the university and worked my new, self-care program, and for several months the headache was less severe, and some of the attending symptoms disappeared. Things were looking up. Yet, even with such good progress, I had no way of predicting the dark tunnel that lay ahead.

Through the process of treatment, I came to understand that some or all of my illness was triggered by the stress of my new vocation as a university professor and director of a music program, our move from the Art House to a new home near campus, and a neighbor in the house directly behind ours.

In 2014 I was hired as a consultant to create a contemporary music curriculum for Lipscomb University in Nashville. The idea was for me to do a deep dive into what’s given me a sustainable career for four decades, and then turn the findings into a Bachelor’s degree in music. I love doing this kind of short-term intensive analysis and problem -solving. The consultancy led to becoming the director of the new program, and eventually the director of the entire School of Music, and the overseer of a new Lipscomb property, the Sound Emporium studios.

While I loved teaching the students and the friendship of a few open-hearted colleagues, the work put me face to face with an unforeseen nemesis: institutional bureaucracy. After a career of being in charge creatively and financially, I was now at the mercy of ever-shifting boundaries, budgets, and plans. By October of 2015, I was sick with what I thought to be an Epstein Barr Virus flare-up. I resigned my position, and then quickly took it back when the Dean graciously reshaped my commitments.

When we left the Art House property for a lovely, urban house a mile from the university, we imagined a quieter, simpler life. My work aside, I saw the move as a chance for Andi to realign with her writing and recover from decades of hospitality work. Her calling to hospitality is genuine, and she was a creative, warm-hearted host to thousands of people who came through our home. Yet, both of us had peaked from too-muchness. We longed for a private home where we could enter a new season of life and grow closer as a couple. It didn’t happen. Leadership at a university produced the opposite result. Looking back now, I can see that Andi and I had little time to reflect on, even grieve over our move from the Art House, a home God used in remarkable ways. We’d traded a great meaning-maker for a house. We were both unhappy, and too often saw only the negative in circumstance and each other. This was not us. We were in trouble.

In our new neighborhood, there’s an alley separating our house from the back of our neighbor’s. Shortly after moving in, I was disappointed to find out that our back neighbor was always yelling. Again, not the peace we hoped for. But worse than that, he would go into fits of rage, swearing and belittling his wife and children. All of this happening in their open garage or in the alley, right outside our bedroom window. There was no possible way to not hear it. His anger and screaming voice were terrorizing. Yes to his poor family, but to me too. I felt like it was happening to me.

As part of my headache therapy, I began a treatment known as EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was initially designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories and is often prescribed for people with PTSD. EMDR helps the brain unlearn its pain, allowing for it to activate its natural healing ability. This is all about the science of brain plasticity.

There’s a landmark study that was sponsored by Kaiser (a healthcare giant) and the Center for Disease Control. It’s called the Adverse Childhood Experience Study, often referred to as ACEs Too High. There are ten types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Five are personal: physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to family: an alcoholic parent (any alcohol or drug abuse), domestic violence against the mother, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the absence of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. There are, of course, many other types of childhood and adult trauma. These ten were the dominant ones in this particular study of childhood trauma. For each trauma you’ve experienced, you receive a point. Ten being the highest. See: https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/

The study found a stunning link between childhood trauma and chronic diseases, as well as social and emotional problems. In short, toxic stress and trauma change a child’s developing brain. It can turn your mind into a hyper-vigilance factory. It can make you think you’re not alive unless you’re doing everything in your power to keep yourself safe and moving forward.

Though my ACEs are quite high, there’s been a positive flipside for me. My resilience scores are even higher. Its evidence of why I didn’t meet the mother of all central nervous system crashes sooner. It was in me, ready to blow anytime and often leaking out, but my chronic resilience was keeping it from entirely incapacitating me.

Through EMDR therapy I faced my deepest and darkest traumas. I located my triggers. While I received some immediate physical relief, it mostly wrecked me and made me crazier than I’ve ever been. I grieved things I never thoroughly grieved or gave myself license to. I found my anger and lashed out, casting blame on Andi and others. Day after day I felt a deep, unrelenting sadness. And for the first time in my life, I let myself feel the full weight of my child, teenager self. I allowed myself to fail, not be strong. I faced the unfiltered me.

Much has been made of our marriage at various times over the last few decades. By us and by others. Together since fifteen, married at eighteen and nineteen. Teenage romance and still married after forty-four years? A miracle! That sort of thing. Mythological in proportion. The whole truth? Less triumphant.

Andi and I lived through things between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five that have always needed acknowledgment and grieving. Sure, we had talked about some of it. We’d been to therapists and filled up notebooks in recovery groups. The unexpected call to follow Jesus in the early 1980s had immediate and immeasurable, positive effect on our lives. We were swept up in the mercy and forgiveness of God, and so very grateful. Spending any more time going back seemed like an insult to the whole concept of redemption and new humanity in Christ. Wasn’t Jesus going to restore the years the locust had eaten?

Perhaps so. But, if you’ve got stories living in your brain that you fear thinking about for even one second, the pest of trauma is still crunching away at your insides. So it was with me. Though I was, as the hymn proclaims, “In the everlasting arms of Jesus,” I was no less in need of a savior. More than ever. More than when I first believed. And I wasn’t alone. What was happening to me was happening to Andi. For better or for worse – mostly worse. I was processing. Communicating poorly. Disassociating. In phenomenal, headache pain.

And because of this, we were not unlike a couple who suffers tragedy, something so weighty they can’t recover personally and so the marriage can’t either. For a moment we dangled over that cliff.

It was the worst possible time to have our unity divided. I was a child in a sixty-year-old man’s body. Some portion of every day was spent wrecked and in tears. My mother was dying in a memory care facility. An essential person in our lives and in the creation of the Art House had died. Chris Cornell, an artist I’d produced, took his own life. It seemed that everything had gone dark, yet it hadn’t. There was light.

At just the right time, our friends circled around us, and a couple’s therapist helped us talk. At just the right time we found each other again. Faith, hope, and love would have the final word – the greatest of these being love.

Today, we are experiencing a remarkable renaissance in our marriage and creative lives. Each of us able to say, this is what I hoped for, what I longed for. As painful as the headache has been, it didn’t set in motion a cataclysmic illness. Sure, it’s easy to steer the story there, but I’ve come to believe there’s more to it.

The headache is an alarm gone off to warn my mind and body of an army of intruders and thieves. I get their names. I hunt them down. I look them in the eyes and say, “Give me back what you took from me, back when I was so afraid.”  And in the doing, I cooperate with what Jesus has had in mind all this time. “Peace I leave with you,” he says. “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

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35 thoughts on “Do Not Be Afraid”

  1. Charlie, this is so beautiful to me. I have read and studied the effects of Adverse Childhood Trauma over the past 3 years and know the Lord can restore what the locust have eaten, give us peace and comfort, and even give us a new heart to rid us of all the triggers from the past. Thank you for being so authentic. I’m sure your honesty will help so many people. A book you might really like is The Deepest Well by Dr Nadine Burke Harris. Check it out. Love you and Andi and pray for your marriage and ministry.

    1. Charles W. Ashworth

      Thank you Geri. I have listened to a talk by Dr. Harris but have not read the book. Will check it out.

  2. Thank you. My daughter has dysautonomia and struggles daily. It has changed her life plans,but she is a fighter. She went through many tests to find out what was wrong. As a psychologist and father I have felt helpless to help her. Your openness and honesty bring comfort. Much love and appreciation.

    1. Charles W. Ashworth

      Thank you Jon. I’m sorry to hear about your daughter. It’s always a unique challenge when we see our children suffering. You’ve encouraged me by sharing. No easy answers, but hope and perseverance (as broken as it may be at times). Peace to you and your family.

  3. Thank you for sharing this painful story. I’m sorry that you’ve had such a difficult couple of years. I wish I was better equipped to convey the depth of feeling that your story produced in me. My language is inadequate. There is value in understanding the pain that others go through, and I appreciate your openness. I wish you continued improvement, physically, mentally, and relationally.

    1. Charles W. Ashworth

      Thank you John. I write for my own healing with the great hope that others will find something of encouragement in it as well. You’ve affirmed that, and it means a lot. Peace.

  4. That was absolutely riveting Charlie! I read it out to my grown up son, Daniel who kept interjecting with comments! We are new to Nashville having moved here recently to pursue the music journey we are on with our family band, Credenda.
    Thanks for sharing your life story!

    1. Charles W. Ashworth

      Thank you Barbara, I wish you well with Credenda and thank you for sharing this reaction. I’m encouraged.

  5. Brent Adamson

    Wow, your story brings up past pains and recovery in my own life. A good, tough read.
    blessings, -brent

    1. Charles W. Ashworth

      I like the way you described the piece as a “good, tough read.” Continual healing for your life!

  6. Thanks for taking the time to tell this story, Charlie. And thanks so much for recording the audio as well. I’m glad I listened. I had no idea you had gone through all of that… it sounds awful! So glad to hear you found the help you needed.

  7. God Help Us, “It can make you think you’re not alive unless you’re doing everything in your power to keep yourself safe and moving forward.”

    I only “read” this post because it pinged my phone, and when I saw the picture it looked like I feel this afternoon. I needed a nap to see if the pressure beneath my skull would relent. Appreciating the audio option, I lazily pushed play, put my head on my pillow, and closed my eyes.

    I cannot tell you how much this post spoke to me. I am on a slippery slope.Your story made me brave, and maybe even brave enough to stop being pathetically sporadic with my own known self-care minimums. I am cruising for a bruising, and have been for a long time if I’m honest.

    My day so far:
    Took my Dad to a PET scan 8am, its not good, and today’s information will come with a timeline, we’ve needed it and we also do not want it. He is so weak, I feel like I might throw up as he avoids the wheelchair, preferring using a walker, on a leg which is being destroyed and could shatter beneath him at any moment. My Mom has needed an eval at a Memory Care CTR years ago, but dad thought he could take care of the elephant in the room, shut down any talk of helping him. Suddenly, that is no longer possible. When I am there, it makes cause for more perseveration, no matter what I do, and when I am not there, I get nothing done, because my mind is distracted listening for the phone and worrying if my first aid training will really kick into gear…or I will just pass out. Most days I have to lie down just to be able to have enough O2 to my brain to make simple decisions about simple household tasks. For instance, After I got home around noon, I remembered I forgot to turn the crockpot on before I left at 7am. Oops! Then I drank a protein drink, and drove across the next county to a music producer to drop off a hard drive, for a project that likely will never meet its deadline now, so why am I going through the motions of finishing it? I am really not sure, except that the musician/producer also in the delusion, and is putting his Berkley degree into it, and God forbid I would not finish a thing I started, so relentlessly hurl it forward, in case it can be will to be used for seed for another larger, or pay for the next broken thing to be repaired or replaced, household, vehicular, or human. Or it can all come crashing down. Every welcome blessing is also a severe drain.

    Some circumstances, there is no way out, I could be making better choices on those I CAN(nutrition, walking (same prescription there!) take the damn supplements. I feel warned, but also, if I don’t get through this life-passage unscathed, I might go back to my ND/Functional MD homeys again, and beat it…again. I seem to fall apart about every ten years and have actually never been so AWOL from my protocols as now.

    Thank you sir for being so transparent, so that others could learn to from your hard knocks.

  8. Loved your word Charlie as I have loved your music. They come in my own darkening time. I can’t articulate what I am feeling, but I know that I feel like many things around my life aren’t right or well. Praise the Father who stays beside us, and can help us see the light. “There was light.”

    1. Charles W. Ashworth

      Thank you Carl for your encouragement. Yes, Praise God indeed. I pray for your own “darkening time” and for the penetrating light of love. Peace to you.

  9. Carol from California

    Uncle Chuck- I loved reading this and the raw truth of what you’ve gone through. It’s so interesting to me you mentioned ACE’s as I’m working a lot with that assessment in my master’s program and am unpeeling the layers of effect trauma can have- pent up, pushed aside, physical and emotional lifelong weight. I admire your bravery to tell the whole story- the good, the bad, and the beautiful, needed, ugly. Lots of love to you and Aunt Andi! I’ll keep following from Cali!

    1. Charles W. Ashworth

      Carol,

      It means so much to me that you took the time to comment. Thank you. I love that your Master’s program involves the tool that ACE’s can be in diagnosis and healing. And not just academic, but personal as you allude to. Much love from us to you and yours.

  10. Charlie, if I had read this post five years ago, I would likely have had some appreciation for your journey, but not much insight.

    Now, five years into foster and adoptive parenting, ACEs is something I have become all too familiar with. The body keeps the score, indeed, and we have had a steady stream of children come and go (or, in some cases, stay) whose lives are so marked by trauma it makes my heart sink and my head spin. And then there’s my secondary trauma. My body is keeping score as well (and Andi’s post this week spoke to that as well).

    I had no idea (how would I?) that you and Andi have been working through your own trauma. Well done for pressing in to the hard things! I love this: “Though my ACEs are quite high, there’s been a positive flipside for me. My resilience scores are even higher.” AMEN. I see that and believe it for my children (all of them, those who stay and those who go) as well.

    In the last hour or so of this day, as I am about to make my way through my nighttime rituals and routines, I am praying for you both. I love this forum, I love listening in on both of your thoughts. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Charles W. Ashworth

      Christy, thank you so much for encouraging Andi and I. It means the world to us that you would take the time to reply so thoughtfully. Peace to you in your own wild adventure in parenting. Respect.

  11. Jonathan Andrews

    Charlie. I trust that your transparency will have a large impact on all that read/hear your words. You and Andi are going through some serious ‘adulting’ and that is great news. It is HARD HARD HARD work and I hope it continues to be rewarding. EMDR is an amazing tool and a therapist I had was a real proponent. Thanks for writing and sharing.

  12. I was surprised that the very last line of your post got to me–“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” I have always quoted this from the KJV: “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Referring to my heart as “it” makes it seem alien and distant from me. I guess it just hit me that Jesus, who loves us more than we can know, is saying to us, he’s reassuring us–“Don’t be afraid!” I’m not even sure what I’m afraid of, and I really don’t want to find out. I certainly haven’t been through the valley of the shadow of death like you have, Charlie. Thank you for reminding us to not be afraid.

  13. I scored 7 out of 10. Your song saved my marriage. “Almost Threw It All Away” Was it 1990? Going on 43 years now!

  14. Thank you, I really appreciate your sharing this. I will pray for you while on such a similar journey. I don’t always feel it (now in particular as I have just lost my dad), but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our Father gently walks us through the pain of healing. You are an encouragement just when I was teetering again.

  15. Charlie, I got the notification about your post and began reading it while sitting in the waiting room as my wife, who has been dealing with debilitating migraines for 4 years, began her second session with a counselor to begin EMDR and do a healing work on 40 year old wounds that she thought she had effectively dealt with. Live music (Certain decibals) and barometric pressure have been key triggers for her, excluding her from most worship and many celebrations — wedding receptions, festivals, fairs, etc. Your honesty of your story couldn’t come at a better time. Your music has been the soundtrack of our marriage, and now it seems that God will use your writing as an encouragement and communion as well. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Our brains and bodies are unbelievably complex – it’s a wonder they work at all, what with so many places and ways for things to go awry! My struggle is with chronic, treatment-resistant depression. It hit me smack in the face 32 years ago when my husband and I moved to upstate NY for grad school: Seasonal Affective Disorder. I NEED more than 60 days of sunshine a year. I cannot express how utterly weary I am of facing the same daily demands of this disease. Over time, it has “accessorized” 🙂 into chronic pain, etc. because, like you, my stress system is simply shot. But I am also over-the-top blessed because my husband has a doctorate in neuropsychology and helps me to make sense of what’s happening to me. Far beyond that, his patience, kindness, gentleness, and stubborn love have shown me more about Christ than I ever imagined. And I have learned that there are always at least two choices: stay where I am (do nothing – that thought horrifies me) or keep asking, seeking, and knocking because that’s the only option that offers even the possibility of hope. In the words of Jacob, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
    (BTW, Jacob was permanently, physically damaged after that enormous struggle with God. But it was also an invitation to grace. I suspect that people asked how Jacob got that limp, and there was no way for him to tell his story without grace abundantly entering into that soul-wrenching wrestling match 🙂

  17. Thank you, thank you. In the middle of the battle with past issues in our home right now. Praying, praying and seeking help to get better. Grateful again and again for your work and your words of truth.
    Blessings to you and your wonderful Andi.

  18. Charlie and Andi–
    I’m a small group pastor at a large church in the Cincinnati area. Just last month, 26 of us from our church got together for the first time to see how we can address mental health issues in our church and our community. Most of us have suffered with these issues ourselves. Just wanted you to know that I have sent your blogs this month to everyone in the group. Your willingness to be vulnerable is ministering to lots of us up here! God bless you for it.

  19. Thank you, Charlie, for sharing this so vividly and vulnerably. I am also hyper-vigilant. I know the long walk it is. Your story helps me be more courageous in facing mine and in facing what I see happening in my husband also. You and Andi are in my prayers, always with love.

  20. Check out the TED talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris “California Surgeon General”. She explains and discusses the issues that you mentioned in your blog. I hope you find it helpful and interesting.

    “Nadine Burke Harris is an American pediatrician who is the 1st and current Surgeon General of California since 2019. She is known for linking adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress with harmful effects to health later on in life.”

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