Ashton Nanninga

Self-Awareness, Self-Destruction, and Self-Love

I was raised in a strict Christian family of good ol’ Midwestern conservatives, and I’m the liberal, vegan, atheist daughter who has her ears gauged, her nose pierced, and her body tattooed.

I grew up on a farm in the country, surrounded by nothing but flat fields of corn. Most of the time it was just my younger brother and sister and I doing whatever we would do to fill the time, which was mostly tormenting each other. My parents didn’t like driving into town because it was so far, so I didn’t get to see my friends a lot, which sucked. In the moment, everything sucked. I hated my siblings and wanted to be an only child. But looking back, I wouldn’t trade my childhood with them for anything.

Being the oldest sibling has definitely shaped me into the person I am today at 20. I was the one who had to be in charge, and I set the bar for everything, which I set pretty low, so that was good for my siblings. I was making it easy. But I took care of us a lot. There were several issues with our parents’ marriage, especially after I graduated from high school, and I took on the responsibility of making sure my siblings were okay before I considered whether or not I was. I felt like I needed to protect them.

Our parents provided for us, they always did whatever they could for us, and my mom is a great mom, I love her, but she’s harsh. There wasn’t a lot of physical interaction or saying I love you, and that was emotionally traumatizing for me, not being able to express how I felt. I overcompensate for that now in my emotional relationships, and I need to be validated and reassured that my partner feels the same way, that their love is still there.

Sometimes I see her harshness come out in me, mainly in the way I talk to myself. The voice in my head is very sarcastic. I respond to tough love. When I’m writing a rough draft, I’ll add little comments to myself, like, “Make sure you add this in there, bitch.”

For now I’m a full-time student and a part-time barista at Starbucks, but I want to be a successful writer, which, for me, doesn’t mean money or fame. I just want to publish a book that actually matters, that isn’t just a book I wrote, that has an impact, even if it’s only on a small group of people. Success comes at a price, and I think I’m willing to pay that. That’s been a positive that has come from being raised by my mom: she always pushed me to follow what she thought I wanted, and eventually I learned to push myself to follow what I know I want, regardless of what other people think. It took some time, though.

College has been a reality check for me. I moved to Omaha for college, first to the dorms, then with my significant other for a year, and now recently to an apartment by myself. I really struggled and skipped a lot of class my freshman year. I just kind of gave up; college was so much harder than I thought it would be. But I also wasn’t taking classes that I enjoyed. Once I found writing, it got better. I still hate going sometimes, always sit in the back of the class, and never raise my hand to speak, but I know getting through this is important.

Moving out on my own, making my own decisions, and taking certain classes really opened my eyes and helped me become more aware of the world around me and who I am as a person. Growing up, I accepted everything my parents told me because I didn’t know any different, and these past few years have really just been a process over time of realizing that maybe everything I was told from such a young age wasn’t true. I’ve changed so much since high school, and I know it’s difficult for my family. They are the same people they’ve always been, living in the same small towns they lived in since they were children. They just don’t know any different, either. But taking a step back to look at what you’ve been taught is so important. It has applied to a lot of things in my life, making sure I’m not just believing the first thing I hear.

I believe in science, in the ability to prove something is real. I believe that you are your choices, that whatever happens to you is where you put yourself, not where fate or divine intervention puts you. I believe everyone has the right to make their own choices, to believe what makes them happy and most comfortable, and that everyone should be treated equally regardless of their religion, race, sex and gender identity, sexual orientation, class, appearance, or ability.

The religion I was raised to believe in was severe and unforgiving. I agree with a lot of teachings on paper, like being kind to one another and to love your neighbor as yourself, but there is so much hypocrisy in practice. The Christianity I’ve seen encourages the idea that there is only one absolute truth. It preaches that if you are Christian, you are right, and everyone else is wrong. I can’t get behind that. Our society is polarized enough as it is: yes or no, right or wrong, Democrat or Republican. That’s where so many of our issues lie, because that’s not the reality. Everyone and everything has some aspect of evil, if you want to call it that. And no matter what, there is always some small aspect of good. Life isn’t one or the other. We aren’t one or the other. We’re both. And I don’t think any of us have it any more figured out than anyone else. I know I don’t.

Although I’m learning a lot about myself, this time in my life, right now, because I haven’t experienced anything past it, has been the most difficult. Hindsight is 20/20 obviously, but looking back, everything seemed really easy compared to now. I’m sure at the time I was like, “Oh my god, this is so hard,” and I’m sure I will look back on this and think, “Oh, college was so easy,” but you go through a lot of changes in your 20s. I’ve had to recognize and deal with a lot of issues that will affect me for a long time.

I’ve struggled with anxiety and insecurity to the point where I developed eating disorders. I’ve been so uncomfortable around food and with my body. There’s so much pressure to look a certain way, and when you internalize it, it makes life so much more difficult. It’s just too much.

I’m constantly thinking about five hundred things at once, but mostly I worry about what everyone else is thinking, and sometimes I’ll grasp for anything to make it stop. Going out with my friends can take my mind off of things. Usually a lot of drinking is involved. But when I become increasingly stressed out and am not coping with emotional issues, I fall into patterns of self-destruction. On top of eating disorders, I was addicted to Adderall; I took it so consistently that eventually I wasn’t able to do anything without it. And I’m addicted to nicotine. Smoking cigarettes isn’t at the top of the list of things that I want to do. I want to quit, and I don’t. It de-stresses me. I find comfort in it. And when you are addicted, you really feel like you can’t live without it anymore, that its small pleasure is worth the high cost.

When my mom found out I smoke, she told me I’m a failure, a disappointment, and that definitely made me feel like shit. It gave me a kick in the ass, but I still didn’t stop.

Although I’m self-aware, I usually don’t do anything with that awareness. I acknowledge my issues, and that’s the end of it. Honestly, for me, I had to reach the point of no return before I started getting better. I had reached my limit of what I could handle. I remember thinking, “This is it, Ashton. You have to get your shit together, or I don’t know what else… you’re out of other options.”

Obviously, yes, you should do things because you want to do them for yourself. But I had no sense of self-love. At first, for me, it was easier to change because I wanted my friends to be able to see me healthy and happy and confident.

When I first moved into my apartment, I couldn’t stand being alone with myself. I’d avoid going home because I was so uncomfortable there, so uncomfortable with who I was. I had to force myself to face myself. And it was so difficult. I was just so unhappy. But confronting my issues, literally having a conversation with myself to flesh out my problems and figure why this was so hard for me, has been the best thing I’ve ever done. And now I actually enjoy being alone and having my own space where I can comfortably interact with my surroundings. My reality is a lot of work and school, and although self-care is super important, I don’t have a lot of time to focus on myself. The little moments when I’m able to sit on my couch, light the fifteen candles scattered about my tiny apartment, and watch TV with a cup of tea and a blanket are so important for getting through my day-to-day life.

I’m Ashton Nanninga, and I’m more positive than I have ever been, but at the root of everything, I am a cynic. I tend to dwell on what has happened to me in the past or the negatives of the present instead of how things could be better in the future.

I’m Ashton, and I don’t think there is any real purpose to our lives. I think we’re all just one little speck in the huge spectrum that is us.

But there are so many things I want to accomplish and see and live through. I’m excited to get old, to see how technology advances, if and how we progress. And there is so much that I would like to help change.

I want to help better prepare young people for the things they will have to face, because nobody really prepares you for the mental, emotional, financial, and political stresses and pressures you have to deal when you become an adult, and I think it’s getting harder. I’d like to advocate for mental health and awareness of depression and anxiety and the ways our society is contributing to it. And eventually, I want to write a memoir. I want to help other people understand and become comfortable with themselves, because it’s so hard, the hardest thing I have ever done, and you shouldn’t have to do it alone.

You’re not alone.

I love you.

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