By Ashley Hatfield
Warning: This story includes a recount of substance abuse and suicidal behaviors. If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out.
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I grew up in a Catholic household going to church and CCD every Sunday. Both of my parents were raised Catholic so my entire extended family was expected to continue being Catholic. But it’s hard to believe something just because you’re expected to believe it.
When I was really little, of course I believed in God and Jesus and everything I was told. I had no reason to ever doubt anything my parents taught me. If the Tooth Fairy was real, why wouldn’t God be? But as I got older, I started doubting what I was being told. There was no real reason for it. I just started losing faith.
I remember being in CCD in late elementary school with my mom as my teacher. She was telling a story of something Jesus did and I laughed and told her there was no way that could be true. Needless to say she wasn’t happy, but I’ve never been one to keep my opinions to myself.
My skepticism continued to get stronger as the years went on. I went to a Catholic high school and one day I built up the courage to ask the teacher in Religion class, “Did God create us or did we create God as a way to explain the unexplainable and to comfort us?” My teacher took my skepticism a whole lot better than my mom and I even won the Religion award for my grade that year. It felt nice to know that I could have questions.
Those questions ultimately turned into atheism by the time I hit my twenties. I think I had gone through so many struggles in my life at such young ages that it was hard for me to believe there was a God. Because what God would let someone hurt so badly? I had a really difficult family life with a lot of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. I was bullied middle school through high school for being overweight. I was sexually assaulted at sixteen and again at twenty-three. And I suffered from undiagnosed mental illness and was extremely suicidal all through high school.
Cut to summer, 2016. I was living in Pennsylvania working as an on-air radio personality for a couple of stations and also working as a weather broadcaster for AccuWeather. Sounds pretty fun, right? Well, I was completely miserable. I felt like what I was sharing was nothing of value. On top of that, I had a very manipulative and mentally abusive boss. And my boyfriend – who I fully believed was the love of my life and the only thing I enjoyed about being in Pennsylvania – and I broke up. Welcome to what I call “spiraling into a nervous breakdown”.
One of my friends and her family were very religious. Like “very religious” as in her dad would go into downtown State College (home of Penn State) on weekend nights and hand out religious pamphlets to all of the students making less-than-holy decisions. She was always inviting me to church with her and I was so desperate to find some happiness I finally agreed.
I walked in and there were coffee and donuts. What kind of church does that?! Then they started service with a thirty-minute concert with PowerPoint lyrics. Again, what kind of church does that?! AND THEN the pastor didn’t guilt us about anything the entire time! What in the world kind of church doesn’t do THAT?! I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.
As weird as I thought this church was, I kept going back. It was as if every Sunday the pastor knew what I needed to hear. I remember being three or four Sundays in and the week leading up to church I kept saying to myself, “it sure would be nice to be religious but I’ve sinned way too much for God to ever accept me.” And what do you think the pastor talked about that Sunday? Grace. I sat in the pew crying and crying and it was in that moment I knew that even if it felt like no one on earth loved me, God loved me. And that was good enough for me because I wasn’t alone anymore.
But of course our demons don’t just disappear without the proper help. My mental health continued to decline because I hated where my life was but I had no idea how to change it. And my parents weren’t willing to help me out because they thought it was a mistake for me to change careers. I started feeling trapped and panicked thinking my life would stay the same forever. It felt like the walls were closing in on me and I just absolutely lost it.
I turned twenty-six that September and had a lot of alcohol leftover in my house. I also had eighteen Percocets leftover from a surgery I had had in June. I decided that since I couldn’t change my life here on earth, it was time for me to go. I honestly didn’t see any other way out. I was getting ready to take all of the pills with a stiff drink when something came over me to tell my roommate what I was about to do. She followed me to my room and made me show her where the pills were and then she took them away and got rid of them. And just like that I was back to having no idea what to do.
Scared and ashamed, I decided to do the one thing I hadn’t done since I was a very little girl. I knelt down at the edge of my bed sobbing and prayed. I begged God to help me find happiness. I told Him I knew He couldn’t just give it to me and that I’d put in all the work I needed to as long as He could help me find my way. And I swear in that moment, I heard him simply say “okay”.
And boy oh boy did He lead me on the right path. I’m back home in the suburbs of Boston married to someone who lifts me up and cares for me like no one ever has and we’re a month away from having our first child. I’m working on my dream career of writing about wellness for women because it’s what makes my heart full. I got diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and got sober and I’ve never been more genuinely happy and stable in my entire life.
And most importantly, I have an incredible relationship with God. For my life to turn around the way it did, there could never be any doubt that He doesn’t exist. I have conversations with Him all the time and I try my best to live in a way I know He’d be proud of. Now instead of questioning why people believe in God, I sometimes question why they don’t and use it as an opportunity to encourage them with my story. I know deep in my heart that this relationship is the most meaningful thing in my life, and I wouldn’t be where I am without surrendering myself to Him.