Ashley Walter shares how a life-altering injury helped her realize that perfectionism is overrated.

By Ashley Walter, as told to Faith Brar
September 25, 2019
Adobe Stock

Every mom can relate to that little pang of guilt you feel when you leave your baby to go enjoy some “me-time” for the first time. For me, that happened 10 months after giving birth to my daughter.

Some of my close girlfriends convinced me to go to a new restaurant in town for drinks. 

Being a first-time mom, I was struggling with the challenges of motherhood. Despite being a certified personal trainer, finding consistency with my workouts was harder than imagined and my social life was dying a slow painful death. 

So naturally, I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to get back out there and reestablish my life post-baby. 

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The Injury 

The new restaurant my friends recommended was lively and crowded. People were standing shoulder to should and all the windows open to help with the airflow. The restaurant itself was elevated—six to eight feet above the sidewalk. The only barrier between you and the window? Two low-hanging metal wires. 

My girlfriends and I made our way through the crowd to find a spot at a high top next to one of the windows. I placed my bag on the floor to make room for other people. A few minutes later, I bent over to pick up my purse when I was jostled by the crowd and lost my balance. I tipped forward and my body leaned out of the window. Panicked, I managed to grab a hold of one of the wires but it snapped and I fell out of the window, with the back of my head landing on concrete.

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I immediately slipped into a coma after the fall. Looking down at me, my friends thought I was dead. 

I was rushed to the closest hospital and put in the ICU before my husband and family arrived. They were told that I had suffered from a triple brain hemorrhage, an emergency condition where ruptured blood vessels cause bleeding inside the brain. 

Since I was in a coma, doctors weren’t sure of the impact my injury had on my body. They couldn’t even tell if I’d wake up let alone be able to walk, talk or breathe on my own again. 

Miraculously, I was one of the lucky ones. After several days of being in a coma, I woke up and my body seemed to be functioning normally.

But my life had changed forever. 

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The Aftermath 

After waking up from the coma, I suffered from serious amnesia and remained in the ICU for 12 days. Even after going home, my memory didn’t improve. I still knew who I and my loved ones were, but for months, I had about a five-minute recall before I’d get confused and flustered by what was going on around me. I also started having nightmares, which is actually a pretty common side-effect of short-term memory loss.

When you lose chunks of memory, your brain works hard trying to remember what happened. But no matter what you try, you just can’t. I’d often dream that I was falling (a common nightmare many people have), but I'd wake up to realize that wasn’t completely imagining things. I had fallen, but I couldn't remember the entire incident, which was both frustrating and confusing.

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I also experienced extreme sensitivity to light and sound, and completely lost my sense of taste and smell. (Eventually, my taste came back, but I still can't smell anything.)

Worst of all, my head was in a lot of pain. While I didn’t have to undergo brain surgery, doctors did whatever they could medically to reduce the swelling and bleeding in my brain. Still, it was going to take time for the swelling to subside, and until then, the pain was something I was going to have to learn to live with.

The Physical and Emotional Recovery 

To help my mind heal both physically and intellectually, I began cognitive therapy at home. To deal with the emotional repercussions of my injury, I also underwent therapy for PTSD; this was especially important in order to address the nightmares.

Throughout my recovery, I also lost a lot of muscle and overall strength. Without my sense of taste, eating was difficult and it took months before I was able to slowly start exercising again.

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The most challenging part of my injury, however, was that it was difficult for others to see what I was going through. When months passed and I wasn't left with any visible scars from the accident—my hair covers the wound on my head and the scar on my right hand is so small no one even notices it—no one could see how the fall changed my life and how I deal with the repercussions of it every. single. day.

Those who knew me pre-fall sometimes see me as functioning normally since I can walk, talk, and do everyday tasks such as drive a car. But so many people don't understand that just because I'm physically able doesn’t mean I don’t struggle cognitively. 

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Reinventing Myself

Before my accident, if you asked my best friends to describe me, they’d say I was a Type-A, hyper-organized perfectionist. It was so important that I showed everyone how in control I was.

It is, in part, what drove me to develop an eating disorder when I was in high school and become so fixated on people’s perceptions of me. While I overcame my unhealthy eating habits, my need to appear ‘perfect’ in others’ eyes still remained.

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But following my injury, no matter how hard I tried, I could never be 100 percent in control. The Ashley everyone knew couldn’t exist in my new reality and coming to terms with that was downright terrifying. 

The first few years after my injury, I went through an identity crisis, having to figure out who I was. Being in control and striving for perfection had defined me for so long that I couldn't quite grasp who I was without it. It's taken four years of therapy and self-reflection after my accident to eradicate the word “perfect” from my vocabulary and to realize that perfectionism just isn’t realistic.

Putting that work into myself has helped me live a more positive and optimistic life. It's also better prepared me for recent health struggles I've had to face. Six months ago, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition where your thyroid gland can't make enough thyroid hormone to keep the body running normally. I gained 40 pounds in just two months and given my background in fitness, that was extremely tough for me.

But having been through what I’ve been through I knew that this too was out of my control. As long as I'm doing everything I can to address the problem, and being as healthy as I can be, then that’s good enough. The numbers on the scale and the way my body has changed are just not significant enough to sweat over in the big picture.

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How My Injury Changed My Approach to Fitness 

Shifting my mindset also transformed how I think about fitness. During my career as a personal trainer, I've always felt the pressure of having to look the part. I thought I had to be a walking, talking billboard for my clients. But my accident forced me to realize that fitness is so much more than that. It’s not always about the six-pack and PRs, it’s about finding out how moving your body fuels you as an individual. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve since refound my groove in the gym and still push myself in ways that are necessary, but I’m so much more cognizant of what really matters long-term. It, unfortunately, took a life-altering experience for me to realize that being good enough is okay; that focusing on the moment is okay; that failing is okay. You have to realize that doing your best isn’t settling. 

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Now, when I take on clients and have them fill out a goal sheet, they’re required to share an intrinsic goal for every extrinsic goal they want to achieve. Why? Because both are equally important. 

Looking ahead, while I’m unsure of the obstacles I’ll have to face, I know to be appreciative of all have and what is in front of me right now because life really can change in the blink of an eye.

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This article originally appeared on Shape.com

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