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when photos are all you have left

When Photos Are All You Have Left

December 19, 2022

when photos are all you have left

*trigger warning* This blog is going to talk about loss, addiction, alcoholism, divorce, abandonment and mental health.

Oh friends, I’m about to get personal here because I need to get some feelings off my heart and into the world. I’ve never been one to really shy away from feelings or my life experiences, but I’ve never really talked about my early childhood. Even more, I’ve never really talked about how the trauma and experience I had growing up led to me becoming the woman you see before you. Why am I sharing about this now?

Because I had an epiphany over the weekend about my career and my purpose in life (outside of marriage and motherhood, obviously), and I think it’s important to talk about. My why.

But before I can get to the present, we have to talk about the past.

You see, I was blessed from the get-go with the most incredible mom in the world. From my very earliest memories, my mom has been my rock and my best friend – through thick and thin, she loved, supported and guided me. It sounds so not humble to say that I was the dream my mom prayed for, but that’s what she has always told me and I firmly believe in answered prayers. My mom was unable to biologically have children, and through a series of God-led events, I was brought into her life through adoption when I was mere hours old.

She’s the best mom anyone could ever ask for – funny and kind, crafty and sensitive, stern but flexible. She always encouraged me to be whatever it is I wanted to be, and to never settle for anything less than what I deserve or have earned. She raised me as a single mom for as long as I can remember, because her husband – the man who adopted me as his daughter – was an alcoholic. And he made terrible decisions, many times as a direct result of his addiction and alcoholism. My first family was torn apart before I even entered kindergarten.

There’s a lot of ins and outs of divorce and quite frankly, I was a little kid when it all happened so I don’t know much. This man, however, was my dad the first few years of my life and when he was suddenly gone – it had a profound effect on me. My personality, my characteristics, my wants and needs out of relationships, my self-worth – so many things were directly effected by this time in my life that I do not even remember. My best guess is that my mind has blocked it out because of the trauma, but, over the last few days many things have come to light about this man and my early childhood that it led to a revelation.

I had no pictures of him until this past weekend. I couldn’t pick this man out of a three-man lineup if my life depended it, because I’ve spent the last thirty years actively not thinking about him or our (lack of) relationship. His alcoholism destroyed so much, and I was essentially abandoned by him. Court had a lot to do with it, but so did choice and addiction. Because of anger and hatred and hurt, I lost half my family in one fell swoop. I never got to see my aunts, uncles, cousins or Nana ever again. It doesn’t matter to me whose fault it was, it matters to me that it was just gone. And even though my mom is literally the best thing in the world and I had the world’s best grandma and grandpa, there has been a huge void in my heart and my life as a result.

My dad died this past Friday and I’ve been in a tailspin of emotions ever since.

Thanks to social media, I have been able to reconnect with my cousins a few years ago but I’ve always kept them at arm’s length. Why? Because I felt abandoned and unwanted. Why didn’t anyone try to find me? Or write me letters? Did I not matter to any of them? Did they forget about me? As an adopted person, I was already bound to struggle with things like identity and worthiness in relationships, but to add this trauma to the mix? Yikes.

For thirty years, I believed that he chose alcohol over me, that he did not care about anyone but himself, that he just hated my mom and used me as a pawn to hurt her. But after talking in depth with my cousin and my only remaining uncle after learning of his passing, I found out that there was a bit more to the story than just what I believed as truth. Sure, what I believed is mostly true but it isn’t the whole truth. I always say there’s three sides to every story – one side, the other side and somewhere in the middle is the unbiased truth.

There are not a ton of answers right now, but I do know this: I am absolutely passionate about documenting all the little things in life and celebrating families because I simply did not have that as a child. I have seen less than a dozen photos of myself from before the age of 8, we refer to the divorce and loss of everything we had as “the fire” because it was so devastating and destructive. It’s easy to blame it on the fire than to really dig in to the sordid history and ugliness of divorce.

When Photos Are All You Have Left

But this weekend, I finally got to see a photo of me and him from when I was a baby and my heart has just been aching ever since. I am grieving because he passed, of course, but I’m also grieving at the lost opportunities, and the lost time. As soon as I get this photo printed, I’ll be able to hold in my hand tangible proof that he existed and at one point, was the man my mom hoped he would be for me.

To me, photos aren’t just a pastime or a hobby, and they really never have been.

Even as young as 5 or 6, I can remember taking photos of my Barbies, troll dolls and animal figurines and pretending they were families, or brides and grooms, or silly things like soccer teams. I filled so many shoe boxes and photo albums of blurry photos of people and moments with my Grandpa’s Polaroid and my Kodak film camera, it’s ridiculous. There is probably zero shock that on my phone right now are nearly 70,000 photos and videos from the last couple of years, because I take photos of everything. 😂

Anyway, I don’t have any romantic notions about who or what this man was in my life. After the age of 11, I was raised by an incredible step-father who is my Dad, for all intents and purposes. But this is still a whole lot for me to process and grieve and try to move forward from, and I know that’s going to take time.

And it’s renewed my purpose in business – to document moments and memories so that in thirty years, you’ll be able to hold your photos and say, “remember when …”.

If you’re lucky enough to be with family and friends this holiday season, take the selfies and group photos using a timer. Cell phone, DSLR, I don’t care: just take the photos. Be IN the photos, too. Because one day? It’s all you’ll have left, and it’s all they will have left of you.

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Heyyyy ... I'm Ashley Durham and I'm a luxury wedding photographer in Phoenix, but I travel all over Arizona and the desert southwest to hang out with the most incredible people. I am obsessed with puppies, extra hot coffee, sunrise and firmly believe that love conquers all.

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