Raising Joy: Healing From Trauma With Ashley Igo, LPC
The latest guest on the Raising Joy podcast is Ashley Igo. At 8 years old, she was riding in an Amtrak train car when a semi-truck tried to speed through the crossing. She lost her mother, two friends, a niece and her right foot in the traumatic accident.
Ashley Igo was just 8 years old when her world changed forever. She was riding in an Amtrak train car when a semi-truck tried to speed through the crossing. She lost her mother, two friends, a niece and her right foot in the traumatic accident. For years, Ashley suffered from severe anxiety later diagnosed with PTSD. Today, she is a licensed psychologist and registered play therapist, and is passionate about early intervention after trauma.
Learn more about Ashley and the charitable work she does through the Beautifully Flawed Foundation and the Lauren Scruggs Kennedy Foundation here.
Ashley is our guest for episode 7 of the Raising Joy podcast. Here is her conversation with Wini King, Chief of Communications, Inclusion, Equity and Diversity at Cook Children’s. and Kristen Pyrc, M.D., co-medical director of Psychiatry at Cook Children’s :
Stress, anxiety and depression are skyrocketing among children and teens and Cook Children's Health Care System is on a mission to bring these topics into the light. I'm Wini King.
Dr. Pyrc (00:16):
And I'm Dr. Kristen Pyrc. If you have kiddos in the room, now is the time to put on those headphones. Some of the topics we'll be discussing will not be suited for young years. This is Raising Joy.
Hello, and welcome back. We're so glad to have you back on this episode of Raising Joy. One of our first episodes dealt with trauma and how childhood trauma messes can sometimes mess with mental and physical health. It really kind of throws the equilibrium off of the health.
Dr. Pyrc (00:56):
Absolutely. And we talked about the ACEs study with Dr. Hood Patterson and I just thought she did had a really good job of explaining that to us. And I think that there are all different kinds of trauma. She had lost her dad in her front yard. And that totally changed her life as a teenager. But I think that there are other kinds of trauma that we see and I think that there is some trauma in our society right now just watching the news.
We're seeing it now, as you watch the events of Ukraine open up and just unfold. And now the photos and the video it's becoming so much more graphic. And while of course, my trauma is not their trauma by no stretch of the imagination. It is something that if I look yet long enough, I feel the effect. And so trauma is something that we tend to push down, push down, push down, but that stuff can bubble up and come back. And when we talk about ACEs, I didn't even realize I had about five or six of them.
Dr. Pyrc (02:00):
A lot of people are learning that.
You're like ‘I got to keep my head down, I have to do this. I got to make sure I do that.’ And so you wanna push it down. Today, we are joined by someone I would like to just refer to as a trauma survivor who embodies the word resilient.
Dr. Pyrc (02:21):
Absolutely. So Ashley was just 8 years old when her life changed forever. It set her on a course to help countless others. Ashley, thank you for being here.
Thank y'all for having me.
Thank you so much. So now that we've set this up, trauma lives around you or has been a part of your life. Tell us about that day.
The day of the accident, so a little bit of background. A big deal for 8-year-olds and adolescents is the American Girl concept. So my friends and I were obsessed with the American Girl series and so my mom had me and then her best friend had three girls. And so they planned a spring break trip to Chicago to the American Girl store. It was amazing. And instead of taking traditional transportation, we took an Amtrack train and that was cool and exciting. And kind of all the things that go along with new experiences. So it was a really, really cool trip. We spent a week there exploring Chicago and going to the American Girl store.
On the way back, we were headed back from Chicago on our way home to Memphis, which is where I'm from. An 18-wheeler tried to beat the crossing arm of the railroad track. And so, he did not make it. Our train collided with the 18-wheeler. Twelve people died in the accident, hundreds were injured. And I was the only person to survive in our sleeper car. So everyone that I was within my particular car passed away. So my mom, my two best friends and my niece all passed away and my right foot was amputated in the accident.
Dr. Pyrc (04:18):
Oh my goodness. Ashley, I'm so sorry.
Yeah, it was a lot for sure.
That's a traumatizing situation for an 8-year-old girl. How did, after all that happened, how did that change and how did that affect your life?
Kind of to put it in a nutshell, I kind of look at healing in three different ways. Personally, first is physical healing. So after the accident kids by nature are physically resilient. I actually went to one physical therapy session. I was like, ‘this is boring.’ And I taught myself how to walk on a prosthesis.
That part kind of was pretty quick. Spiritually, my faith, it was and is still really important to me and I had a great community surrounding me. And so prayer and faith in the Lord really strengthened me during that time.
The mental health piece is something that was not cared for. Not out of, it wasn't my dad's fault, but being a single dad, he didn't really pay attention to that piece. And it was like the late ‘90s, like who cared about mental health, then?
OK. The physical, the spiritual that's done, onto the next.
Right. So everyone looked at me and assumed like, 'oh wow. She can walk. She can run. She's doing great. She's totally fine. She's healed. Let's go, let's move on with this, you know, lone survivor, powerful kid.'
I will say my dad took me to one therapy session with an older gentleman who was not a play therapist. And I sat on his couch and he asked me some questions. I told my dad that I didn't like it. And I never went back. And so I lived with unresolved trauma for decades before it was ever addressed.
Dr. Pyrc (06:04):
I think what's hard too about your situation is its trauma and grief.
Dr. Pyrc (06:09):
I think that just makes it even more hard.
Trauma and grief together.
Dr. Pyrc (06:16):
How did you figure out, like, ‘Hey, maybe there's something else like maybe I need,’ or how did you see the trauma kind of bubble up for you?
Like I said, I kind of assumed that I was healed on all fronts until really my early twenties. So, I had looked back, so the anniversaries of the train wrecks over the years were not super significant. But the 10-year anniversary, for some reason, I was like, ‘wow, it's been 10 years since this train wreck, I'm gonna go on YouTube and see if there's any coverage.’ Because I had been contacted by some news agencies out of Chicago, just kind of following up 10 years after the accident.
And since then, it's 20 years after. So I was like, let me look at just some footage and just see from that day. And so that as you're talking about imagery can be extremely triggering. And I found this YouTube montage of the accident that I was in that I had never seen before. So the imagery kind of sparked kind of flipped on this switch that I had not flipped on. And long story short, it kind of launched into this whole kind of spiral of PTSD symptoms and debilitating panic disorder.
You’re seeing this, even from a different perspective, because you experienced the train wreck, but seeing it from a video standpoint, now you're seeing things you didn't see.
Things you didn't remember from a perspective that was not what you experienced, you know what I'm saying?
Wini: It was different.
It looked honestly a lot worse on the video footage, like the fire, the flames, screaming, just the horror of it. I had survived it, but I hadn't actually seen it. And so that triggered a years-long battle with anxiety disorder.
Dr. Pyrc (08:14):
Absolutely. I could definitely see how that would trigger that. So just to help me understand a little bit, so do you think you ever had any PTSD symptoms after it happened, like nightmares or flashbacks?
Now that you think back?
Yes. Now that I think back, and now that I specialize in play therapy and childhood development, I can pinpoint, ‘oh my gosh. That OCD tick that you had was a side effect of unresolved trauma and grief and anxiety.’ I mean, I definitely had OCD and panic growing up intermittently and it looks different in kids than a dozen in adults.
And so my dad, single dad now running this bed and breakfast -- that was my mom's dream. He was running it by himself because she died. He didn't see it. So I just kind of brushed everything, shoved it down, pushed it down. And now looking back, it's like, 'oh my gosh, there were so many warning signs. I didn't deal with them.'
And so what I've learned through my study in psychology is that, and there's this book it's called ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ is that our body holds on to experiences. Even if we don't process them verbally, trauma lives in the right hemisphere of the brain and actual neuron clusters and it takes in-depth therapy.
In my case, I did EMDR, which is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It's essentially just for PTSD. I did that. I did years of it, in addition to talk therapy, in addition to medication and I would say I still struggle with anxiety and panic. I still have those thoughts, but I don't I don't become immobilized by them. They don't make my life dysfunctional anymore. So yeah, I've learned a great deal. That's why I'm a therapist.
Wow. Did you ever go back to the, EMDR, you went back?
To EMDR in my twenties, yeah. So I took a decade-plus hiatus from therapy that I needed. I didn't deal with these things until I was in my early twenties.
How did you decide this is what I wanted to do? And this was the best thing for me?
So I studied psychology ironically enough at SMU, so it had some kind of basic like, ‘oh, the green lights were going off’ in college. It is interesting. Then I kind of through a pathway of individuals became really interested in therapy. I knew I wanted to work with kids. And so, through my master's program at SMU, I really started kind of realizing, I was learning about myself and did research and just kind of was like, ‘OK, I need to do this specific therapy.’ And I found a therapist and kind of went from there. It was a lot of through my own education, I was kind of my best advocate from a mental health standpoint.
Dr. Pyrc (11:21):
That's amazing. Well, it's awesome. I mean, I think that whenever you have trauma and the ‘shove it down’ is survival. Like that is a survival mechanism. ‘Hey, I went through something really bad and I need to get through the day, how do I do that?’ We call it compartmentalization. Kids are experts at this, but it is just to keep going every day. And so I really applaud you for being willing to like open back up the box and be willing to have a look at what is there.
Painful. It's painful and tough. I mean, I really got to the point where I was in therapy or I was in grad school to be a therapist. And I realized that if I did not deal with my own issues, I could not help other people. So, it was kind of, honestly, by force, I got to where I was having such horrible panic attacks that I couldn't focus. So it was like, 'OK, I've got to do this.' And I did it and it is uncomfortable. It's hard. I mean, it's not fun to feel like that and to kind of face those traumas again, because you're reliving everything. But in the end, your brain is more where we're able to integrate trauma into our lives and make it a part of our story versus just shoving it down.
Dr. Pyrc (12:41):
Absolutely. You've mentioned being a counselor and a play therapist so like how did that come about? Like how'd you figure that out?
Yeah. So I have always in a sense, wanted to help people and I really became passionate about early intervention when I learned about kind of my own issues and how those could have likely been prevented to some extent, with some play therapy or therapeutic approaches that were appropriate for my developmental stage.
So I was like, ‘OK, clearly kids need prevention for, or early intervention, with the goal of prevention, essentially.’ So we want to prevent them from experiencing these debilitating issues. Let's get them early. So that's what kind of made me want to work with kids and want to work with play therapy specifically. It's kind of preventing. I would say you don't want to become me. We want you to process this as a 7-year-old versus when you're 25.
But it seems like to me it would be so much harder to deal with a 7-year-old who can't really communicate and who really can't articulate what's going on, as opposed to a 25-year-old who can say, ‘boy, this is painful for me.’ You know, as opposed to that child. It seems to me that one, and I'm looking at Kristen like you do this every day. So it would seem to me harder to deal with as a younger child.
In a sense, but think about it, like if you go the same way to work every day, it's so much harder to learn a new way. Right? Whereas kids, we can teach them, we can form those neural pathways in a positive. Versus going back and trying to erase the old road and starting a new one. So as adults, we are more stubborn and it actually can take a lot longer and it's harder, to learn new skills.
But if we teach kids like, ‘Hey, it's okay that you feel this way, we accept your feeling and we reflect your emotion.’ And so I always say we accept the feeling. We do not always accept the behavior. For example, when I was growing up, my stress and anxiety came out a lot as defiance and kind of not great behaviors.
My dad would probably say just smart aleck. But really on the inside I was hurting. Right. I missed my mom. I was lonely. And so I wish that I had had coping skills to implement at a young age, so that those behaviors did not even present themselves. So I'm really passionate about teaching kids, coping skills early. Acknowledging that this is what you're going through and that's OK. And let's help you process through it versus let's just shove it down and make it part of your personality. Right. When you're an adult.
Dr. Pyrc (15:37):
I think that's really key, like exactly you're saying like we can create new, more positive, coping strategies because sometimes trauma and abuse can lead to really negative coping skills. I see it a lot of my practice, like lots of cutting, just horrible self-esteem and that, it just affects everything, like how they interact with the world, what they think they can do whenever they grow up, how they pick a partner, like all these kind of things.
And so I think you're absolutely right. That teaching them, ‘Hey, you have these symptoms here is how to help it.’ I think it also so helps. I think left unchecked and untalked about, the trauma gets bigger and bigger and scarier. Yeah. And harder to deal with but it's like, if, if the message from adults is, ‘Hey, actually you can do this and we're gonna help you.’ It gives the kids a sense of control. And I think that that's ultimately what they need to be successful and to feel good about themselves.
Ashley (16:33): I agree.
We were talking earlier about how, when you experienced this kind of trauma and I've said it before that I would probably curl up in the middle of the bed and you would never be able to get me out, but the fact that you were out of a space that said, ‘but I want to help, I want to do something different. I want to actually impact in a positive way.’ How does that occur? Because honestly, I know I would have a different approach. I promise you, I would, it would be something totally different, but what happens to your brain that makes you want to do something positive and to really make it better? As opposed to me just lying down and curling up in the middle of the bed?
Man, that's the million-dollar question. I'm not exactly sure. But I do, again, like my faith is very important to me, so I see it as thank you Lord for your grace and, and letting me be kind of where I am today, but there's so much good and empowerment that can come in helping other people. And I think even my teenagers who are depressed, like one of them told me that she had this new thing where instead of cutting herself, she was gonna draw a pretty flower on her arm. And so I shared that with another teen who was struggling with depression, and I told the first teen whose idea it was, ‘Look, I shared your idea with somebody else. And it really helped her.’ Wow. And the, her face was it lit up. So just, it's so empowering to use your pain to help others.
And so I just kind of took that mentality and have been blessed enough to be able to use it in multiple areas, whether it's with amputee or mental health kind of things in my life. And so I think the Lord has given me really great opportunities to do that, but I think it also runs in family. So my mom was a super resilient person. And so I look back and think like, ‘OK, this is kind of a girl power kind of trend in our family.’ But I don't know, it's the grace of God, honestly, because it's nothing that I specifically did.
Dr. Pyrc (18:47):
Right. I have to disagree you know, because like you could have said, ‘I lost my mom’ at a time whenever girls really need it. And I'm mad, I'm frustrated and I'm gonna go the route of like every negative choice that you could make, you know? But I think what it says so much about you that you said ‘hey I’m gonna heal first and then I'm gonna help people.’ I just think that says so much about your heart and your character and resilience and being a strong person. It says to me also that your mom is amazing.
She was, yeah. I think she'd be pretty proud.
I think so too.
Dr. Pyrc (19:24):
She would be so proud of you.
She is. She is proud. She is. And, probably somewhere hovering. You know, around to kind of give you that, ‘okay, here, tapping on the shoulder, do this, do that.’
That. Well I have a daughter who's 14 months and she's named June after my mom. So I get to see a little bit of my mom every day.
Dr. Pyrc (19:44):
That's amazing. That is really cool.
Tell us a little bit about the work that you're doing with amputees, because you are not a only helping the people in their mental health but you're helping others through work with other amputees.
Yeah. So I get to be a part of two really amazing organizations. The first is I am on the board of the Bethany Hamilton's foundation. It's called the Beautifully Flawed Foundation in Bethany Hamilton. For those who maybe not remember she's the soul surfer, shark attack victim. So she's a great friend and have gotten to know her through the years. And every year we hold a retreat in California called the Beautifully Flawed Retreat for amputee girls and women across the world. It is amazing. Wow. It's the best week of the year by far always. And so we just pull these girls together for a whole week in Delmar, California, and love on them. And we focus on kind of those three pieces, so physical, mental health and spiritual health and wellbeing. And we get to, you know, hold each other's legs and talk about prosthetic things.
I call it group therapy for the week. It's amazing. So there's that. And then I'm also I work with the Lauren Scruggs Kennedy Foundation. So Lauren Scruggs Kennedy is actually from the Dallas area. She was in a plane propeller accident years ago.
I remember that too.
Okay. Gotcha. So she is another great friend and she, Lisa Curley and I run the LSK (Lauren Scruggs Kennedy) Foundation, which we provide, beautiful silicone coverings for girls and women also so the insurance piece does not cover anything on a prosthetic leg or arm to look real. So you're essentially getting a metal pole and self-esteem does not really allow for that. A lot of place for sure. So we pay for that. We pay for the beautiful piece of that prosthesis. So we actually have a recipient coming next week. I think it's our 13th one. We've been able to do some really amazing things.
Dr. Pyrc (21:57):
It's so cool because I've had patients, maybe not amputee, but who have gone through something that's disfiguring and it really is a huge, huge. Especially if it happens to a teenager. It is such a huge blow to their self-esteem because you're already self-conscious and now you're like, 'oh, look, now they're really gonna look at me.'
And so I feel like a lot of kids they just like turn in on themselves and like wall themselves out, like wall themselves off from the rest of the world because they don't want to be seen. But I think what's amazing about you having a therapy background is that you can say with your personal experiences, you can say, ‘Hey, I've been through this.’ You can actually say, ‘I know how you feel.’ You've been through it all. And I think that just puts you in such a unique spot to help a lot of people. It's amazing.
It can be really powerful. And I have a couple of girls in my practice who they have Type I diabetes. And so they wear, you know, the Dexcom and you know, I'll see on their intake form that they wear a Dexcom. And so I will intentionally wear like a dress that day or a skirt. And so they can see automatically that like, ‘Hey, there's something different about your body too.’ And so then it's a really cool bond of, ‘my sugars are really low today and it sucked.’ I'm like, ‘yeah, my leg is squeaking for no reason.’ Like, I don't know why it's doing that.
So it’s not to say that other people can't empathize, but there's something about kind of being in that shared experience of having something different about you. That is comforting.
The last two years have been really hard for everybody. Have you seen anything, any trends, anything in your practice as a result of the last two years?
Yes. You know, in addition to the anxiety disorders that we have continued to see the depression, the kind of self-harm, just all the things. I would say the most concerning to me, just kind of looking back the last couple of years was the turn inward. Not only to just like, because they couldn't go anywhere where we were doing virtual sessions, was virtual school and everyone on their phones all the time.
And so the turning inward, the turning to their phone, the turning to comparison. Actually, I had a girl who had struggled with disordered eating in the past, but then I had seen her for virtual sessions for a year and then I saw her in person and she had lost a significant amount of weight. She hid it from me. During virtual sessions, she was wearing baggy clothes and, and that kind of thing. So looking back, it's just like wow, these things that were already really difficult for them have now been kind of exacerbated by certain things. And so yeah, I would say that for the most part, most of my cases right now are teenage and preteen girls. I really do see a lot of, kind of the disordered eating, making a, I don't even think it's a comeback, it's rearing its ugly head. I think that it's rough for self-image these days.
And we've talked a lot about how long this is gonna take for us to unravel out of this.
It's not like, okay, now we're through with the pandemic, take off your mask, keep going and, and it's all gonna be over. It's really gonna be an unraveling for years to come.
There are kids now who don't even want to take their mask off because they got to hide their acne when they wore their mask. So, I mean, it's a whole thing. I think we're gonna be seeing kind of ripple effects for a while.
Dr. Pyrc (25:36):
I'm curious if – this is kind of a little bit of a left turn -- but what would you say to look an 8-year-old girl who came in your practice who had thing that changed their body? Like what would you tell her?
Hmm. So my gut would be to sit and sit with them in their discomfort. In whatever is making them have their, whatever, emotional kind of feelings. So parents always say, ‘oh, she has such big feelings.’ And so therapy 101 is ‘reflect the feeling.’ I'm not gonna try to fix it for you. We will sit and we can cry together and we can be sad about that. And we can say that this sucks. But then we, you know, I would hopefully be able to cultivate in her coping skills and positive ways to look at things in a different perspective, but I never want to just brush over things that are the in initial kind of emotional hurt that we need to sit in.
Growing up, I mean, it was uncomfortable for my dad to sit in emotions with me. And so he just tried to fix things.
Wini: And so that's what men do.
Ashley: That's what men do. So the can got kicked down the road. So I would want to embrace that, whatever she was, you know, struggling with or dealing with reflect those feelings, sit with her and the pain. And then when she's ready to kind of move forward with coping, then that's when we start.
Dr. Pyrc (27:05):
That's amazing. And what would you tell a parent of a kid who had had some sort of like either life-altering trauma or something that changed their appearance or what would you tell the parent? How do they best support their kid?
Well, first I would recommend finding a therapist to help you.
But yeah, I mean, again, like we do a lot of parent training through therapeutic parenting skills at our practice and parents want to fix it. They want to say but it's fine. You're OK. Let's move on. And 'oh, but you're so beautiful' and ‘oh, this is great about your life,’ but kids really need to feel heard and understood.
And so we know through research and in neuroscience that if you name an emotion for somebody, it helps them to feel that emotion less intensely because someone else is sharing that kind of burden. Sometimes it is a burden. Sometimes it's not a burden, but someone else is sharing that with you. And so the first thing I teach parents is sit and reflect because sometimes the problem doesn't necessarily need to be fixed. They just need to know that someone's hearing them and sitting with them in that moment. I mean that depends on the case, but I always start there always start with reflecting the feeling.
Dr. Pyrc (28:19):
But I think that's great advice for like kids grieving any grief like if they're grieving their personal appearance, a loss of a relationship. You know, I mean that would apply to a girl who's been broken up with. You know, sit with the feeling.
A feeling, just sit with them and it stinks and it's uncomfortable and let's move on when you're ready. But I try to be careful not to have kids use their diagnoses as excuses for things. But you know, there's a fine line.
Dr. Pyrc (28:49):
Ashley, thank you so much.
Thank y'all for having me.
We appreciate it. This has been so enlightening and just like we talked about at the beginning you really are resilient and it's inspiring. And I love sitting in this chair because the inspiration just doesn't stop. It keeps coming through the door.
You guys have a fun job.
We're so grateful that you spent time with us today. Thank you so much.
Thanks for having me.
And to our listeners. Thank you for being a part of us and all of your support being with us. Please rate, review and subscribe to help us continue to grow and reach more people with these conversations and inspirations. But until next time…
Wini & Dr. Pyrc (29:31):
Have a joyful day.