I had programed my mind. I knew I would have to attend the murder trial in a forced, locked down, zombie mode. I prayed that I could put myself into autopilot—I hoped I could hear and see . . . but not feel the facts of the story that had broken me. I knew I had to be that fly on the wall—the one with no emotion or passion shown—just an everyday citizen learning about a crime.
The scary thing about allowing yourself to slip into autopilot . . . it is not easy to find your way out—and other times a single moment of weakness can lead you to snapping out of it in uncontrollable ways.
Our bodies were not made to work properly in autopilot—it is a fight or flight mechanism that was never meant to be permanent. Autopilot—or as I have called it, zombie mode—is something our bodies do to keep us safe. We can see what is around us, we can hear—but in this type of mindset . . . we cannot feel.
I had lived in autopilot many months—unintentionally—but during the trial I had to put myself back in it . . . on purpose. I knew I could not feel, even if I wanted to—but sometimes I would begin to feel regardless of how hard I tried to fight it. The hardest part of all was when I would go home for the night . . . and I couldn’t snap out—I could hear my family . . . I could see their sweet faces—but I could not feel anything.
It was October 2012 and the murder trial was about to begin.
The morning came—it was still dark outside when I pulled myself out of bed. My eyes burned from the tears I had cried the night before. My heart was heavy knowing I was going to be leaving the kids all day—but I knew my mom had come to pick up my slack. I was in turmoil as I tried to accept the reality that today was the day—I was anything but prepared.
I stared at myself in the mirror. My pep talk was less than loving. Ashlee . . . you have to stop. This is not about how it felt for YOU. You have to suck it up, get over yourself and put on your game face. Stop crying. Stop feeling. There is nothing that will be said that is going to change anything. Once this is over—and Dateline wraps it up—it will be done. You will be able to put together all the pieces—then come home and start living for real. You cannot feel . . . you cannot wish . . . all you can do is listen. The past is in the past . . . but today— it is here again. It isn’t real this time . . . just a recap of all that is was. Game face. Stop crying. Do NOT feel. Autopilot time. Do not feel. Everything is going to be fine . . . ? . . . you are going to have to be numb. See, hear . . . but do NOT feel.
I knew this day was going to be strange. I had a new life—I had learned to love, but a broken past I still longed to heal. My nerves were getting the better of me, but I tried to smile despite my inevitable butterflies. I was hopeful with the reassurance I had received during jury selection. I knew this time in court would be hard—but I felt peace that my healing would come . . . regardless of the verdict.
My friend Brittany volunteered to drive me down so I wouldn’t have to walk in alone. It was nice having a friend to talk to on the drive—to the beginning of what would come to be the longest month of my life.
By the time we reached the courthouse I was so flustered I was shaking. I was nervous to see Rob again—but this time my thoughts were consumed more on the fact I was going to have to face Kandi—I didn’t feel prepared. I wasn’t ready to embrace the pain her decisions had caused me. I didn’t want to look into her eyes and search her soul for her pain. I didn’t want to let go of the anger I had towards her—because in my mind—she didn’t deserve it.
I walked into the courtroom; my eyes darted in all directions. I scanned the room to make sure I hadn’t missed any hidden corners—if she was there I didn’t want any surprises like I had been given the first time seeing Rob—she was nowhere to be seen.
I took my seat on the victim side along with Emmett’s parents. His mom and I had not had many conversations since he died. We had both taken some time to piece together our own realities. Emmett’s dad had only come for me—with no personal desire to be there—he came to be my support. It was nice to have them both on the bench with me—a gentle reassurance that I would not face these truths alone.
As we sat silently staring into the empty room, I couldn’t help but look at the bench just across the walkway from us—the ones who had come to support the other side. I could see what looked to be Rob’s parents and sister. I could almost feel the butterflies that must have been dancing around inside each of them. My eyes stared—fixed on them, almost in bewilderment. How could they come to support a murderer? Could they not see the obvious ending to this trial? What hope was inside them that brought them here—did they think he was going to be able to walk out with them at the end of the day? How could any parent watch something like this? Maybe they are in denial about their son? . . .
My judgmental thoughts were happy to take the place of my insecurities—my mind did all it could to keep me from feeling my own emotions. It was easier to sit and wonder about other’s personal struggles—then to be surrounded by my own.
Soon Rob was escorted into the room. He was in chains, but this time he was wearing a suit—not a prisoner jump suit—a business suit. I guess it made sense he would want to look presentable—but it was weird for me to see him dressed like one of the attorneys. Who is he pretending to be? . . . Does he really think a suit will let anyone see past the gun he held in his hand? . . .
I swallowed hard—trying yet again to slow down my self-righteous mind. I guess inside, since I knew I was not allowed to feel my own pain—I had created an unspoken rule that everyone else’s pain was fair game.
The minute Rob took his seat, and the judge began to speak, my numb mind began to slip out of autopilot. I had to control it. I pinched my arm. Ashlee . . . this isn’t real. You are only here as an outside on-looker. Remember nothing you see here today is going to hurt you anymore. You have to be brave. You cannot feel. You can see—but you will NOT feel. These are just going to be facts . . . pieces to your puzzle. See them, collect them . . . but do NOT feel them.
I tried with every fiber of my being to buy my own BS. My heart was pounding as the jury walked in and took their seats. I tried not to make eye contact with any of them—one catch of my stare, and my secret pain would be revealed.
Tears began to form—I fought the urge to wipe them, for fear someone would see. I choked back my emotions and my throat closed off. I began to think I had made a mistake. PANIC—I felt claustrophobic. I can’t do it. I can’t sit here like this doesn’t affect me. I can’t pretend everything is ok. It took everything in my power to not scream and run out of the room.
My eyes darted around again searching for something to stare at. Rob . . . jury . . . judge . . . Emmett’s family . . . Rob’s family. Nothing in that room was a safe place to rest my weary eyes. Every bench held a reminder of why I was there—a reason for my heart to feel.
I wished so badly I had Shawn sitting by my side—a neutral safe haven to turn to for strength. I wished I could grab his hand and try to calm my beating heart. My mind darted back and forth—in and out of the past and present—trying to wrap around it what was real. I wanted to press pause for a minute on the past and step back into my present life. I wanted to go home and be surrounded by things I was allowed to feel.
Have you seen the movie CLICK? Don’t you wish sometimes you could press a fast forward button through life's really hard trials? Everything would move quickly and you wouldn’t be able to feel any of the pain?
The murder trial was just like that for me—only my autopilot wasn’t at a fast forwarding speed . . . it was all in slow motion—oh and I could feel the pain . . . only I had to pretend I could not.
I went in that day with the knowledge I could not let the information affect me—at least I couldn’t show it if it did. I knew I had to sit back and be a silent observer—an everyday citizen with no emotion to what was being said. The only problem was—I wasn’t an average citizen who had come to hear about the violence that happened in my city—I was a wife to a man who had been gunned down in a parking lot. Every word spoken affected my children and me—every fact displayed . . . had changed our lives. I drove there each morning already in autopilot—knowing I was willingly walking into an emotional torture chamber.
There are many forms of brutal torture. No one should ever be physically or emotionally abused; no one should ever have to watch a loved one die. I have heard stories about torture camps decades ago, and read many books about lives affected by that kind of torment. But I hadn’t endured any form of torture in my life—I knew nothing about a pain purposefully inflicted upon me. The torture I learned about for the month of October 2012—was a different kind of torture.
This torture was a slow motion detailed description of not only the horrible choices my husband was making, but the details of how two bullets sunk into his heart and skull. Slow motion details of text messages, and emails; slow motion pictures of the crime scene that will be sketched into my mind forever. Slow motion details of the activities of three people that night—leading up to 10:00. Slow motion details of how Rob circled around inside of Walgreens looking for him. Slow motion details of how Rob moved his truck out of the views of the camera. Slow motion details of how he waited in that truck for seven minutes for Emmett and Kandi to return . . . with a letter written to me on his front seat. Slow motion details of how Emmett and Kandi pulled up together inside his truck. Slow motion details of each of them getting out of their cars, and gathering out of the view of the camera. Three people—all going in slow motion. Slow motion details of every possible witness that came and went. Slow motion details of the angle the bullets entered him. Slow motion details of how and where the blood splattered all over his truck and the ground. Slow motion details of Emmett taking his last breathe. Slow motion details of every person within the sound of the gun—witnesses trying to remember if they heard a bang bang . . . bang, or a bang . . . bang bang. Slow motion details of every emergency person who walked onto the scene, and every detective that investigated that night—every angle and every fact that played into the murder. Three people standing at three different crossroads . . . all coming together in one big bang—a slow motion explosion of bad choices and broken hearts . . . ending a life. Click.
Slow motion details of how two shots of gun—changed our lives forever. A slow motion torture I could not talk myself into walking away from.
I spent a month with a lump in my throat— and a new kind of pain in my heart. I don’t remember taking a breath in those days I spent in that courtroom. My eyes burned and my hands shook as I soaked in the pieces to the broken puzzle from our story . . . day after day after day—every one with a new topic—a different expert explaining what they had spent nineteen months researching and analyzing.
Just like the day I spent in jury selection—with my eyes fixed on Rob—I studied people’s souls. I watched each movement the attorneys made. I stared into the eyes of every witness—barely able to look away. I studied Rob, and the interactions he had with his crew of defense. I eyed each witness as they would come and go. I watched as Kandi pranced onto the stage and held her hand to the square. I watched Rob’s family hear the same facts I did—day after day after day.
I sometimes wondered if anyone else had pushed the same button I had—the one where you were put into some sort of trance resembling no emotion—but you were really dying inside.
Each day brought different knowledge—a new challenge in forgiveness of the three people whose crossroads collided that night. Every day was like someone had pushed the reset button on my remote—like the hope I had received in the past vanished into thin air.I always pictured my road to forgive as an uphill climb. I thought for sure that each step I took would be supported by the next step.
That month I learned that hope and empathy are very fluid. The more I listened about the bad decisions made that night, the more anger I felt towards all of them. The more anger I felt towards the three of them—the more I fought the urge to hate myself and question my worth. Every word spoken about the affair pierced me like a knife—a blatant attack on my worthiness of being enough as a wife. Every fact proven about the gun, reopened the wounds it had caused in my own heart. Every word Kandi said on that stand—beckoned me to hate.
Every ounce of self worth I had tried to find for a year and half was lost as I lived it all again. The battle of hope and despair became a cycle I ran over and over and over each day. The search for empathy for each of their circumstances—many days— seized from my heart as I tried to force myself to not feel my own pain. I learned a lot about the power of the mind as I purposefully pretended to be in autopilot and not feel—but felt every word—and the more I didn’t allow myself to feel . . . the less empathy I saw for them.
A trial I knew would not change anything from the past became an emotional internal battle of darkness and light. The temptation to hate had never been stronger. The battle to conceal my pain was overwhelming . . . and the hours my body went home to try to sleep—my mind did not follow. The trance took over my body—autopilot became me. Shawn and I didn’t talk much that month, some days hardly at all. I saw many meals brought in, I received many hugs—but that month, I did not feel the love that was all around me.
The learning experiences and opportunities for growth in our lives are not going to be concrete—they will be fluid. For every step we take into the light, there may be nine steps backwards trying to take us back into the darkness. Each day we will go in a different direction. Some days we will jump forward, others we will fall back.
Forgiveness, hope, charity, and empathy—all virtues we are trying to perfect—will flow in this same manner. Perfect mastering of any virtue will not come in this life. They will constantly be at battle with the opposition. Our hearts may be full with empathy and love for a foe one day—and the next day we may remember the pain they have caused. Some days we may fail in our battle to perfect our virtues—but we can start again the next. I learned a lot about this cycle of virtuous autopilot . . . the dance of despair and defeat being replaced with feelings of peace and hope.
I began to see that for me, forgiveness and hope were not an uphill climb—but a mountainous obstacle. And some days I did not win. Some moments I hit valleys; others I saw stars. Some moments I could see myself—and others all I could see was defeat.
We each hold inside of us a power of self—who we perceive ourselves to be. During, and even before the trial, I allowed just about anyone to determine my vision of my self. I did not know I could be the keeper of this power.
Some days—when I learned different facts about the case—I willingly handed over my sense of self to the perpetrator of the crime. When they spoke about the affair—I didn’t just listen to the facts—I internalized them and focused on what I did wrong. I shifted my power of self over to Emmett or Kandi. (Because they did this—I must be this.) When I learned a fact about Rob’s actions, I internalized his decisions and shifted my power of self over to him.
I allowed the facts to bring me to many of my own crossroads—where I stood waiting for their approval . . . that I was enough.
I listened every day for one of them to change the story—I secretly waited to hear the part when I was enough for any of them. I longed to hear Kandi say she was sorry, or for Rob to stand up and cry for the pain he had caused me. I yearned to have Emmett walk in and tell me this didn’t all happen because I was not enough for him.
But guess what?—nobody did.
The battle to hate had little to do with anyone in that room, or with Emmett. The difference between a good day, and a bad day in court had little to do with the facts that were displayed . . . and everything to do with the power of self I could see.
When the facts were presented I had two opportunities—two different outcomes. One was to hold my power in my mind and allow myself to feel the effect of that decision—but not allow my power to be given to that person. The other opportunity, I often times allowed, when a fact was presented—I gave away the power of my sense of self, and imaginarily handed it to the person who caused the pain.
And that is what made the difference between a dark day, and a light one. The information was not different—but the way I allowed it to affect me was drastically not the same. Maybe Kandi was a slut, Emmett was a jack ass . . . and Rob was a freaking idiot—but their actions were not mine to own. They would have to own their roles in the story—not me. Their bad decisions could only break me . . . if I gave them my power. Regardless of who I was, or wasn’t, those three had made their own choices—and the days I could remember that . . . I stood tall.
The click of that gun was powerful. These horrible decisions, made by three people, were impactful in my life—they had changed the course of the journey I thought I would live . . . but they didn’t break me. The only way I could be broken was if I chose to let the world destroy me—if I gave away my power to anyone but myself.
The world is going to try to break us—trials are never going to end. Even when the murder trial was over, its power has never ceased to try to destroy who I viewed myself to be. Truth is—the world is never going to want us to see ourselves, because the minute we do—we hold in our mind the power to be everything we were created to be.
It is not the trials in life that define who we will become—it is our reactions to them. The days I walked into that courtroom in darkness and despair—I felt it run through me. I saw and heard with a broken heart. I hated and I despised. I was numb to anything uplifting me, and I was on an emotional journey of heartache. But those days I walked into that courtroom willing to hear, see, and not feel the pain—but feel the spirit—those were the days I was given the miracles I needed to remember who I was. I was not a broken widow who was going to be plowed out of her own life. I was a strong daughter of God who was being given a new way to view myself—regardless of what others saw in me . . . or failed to see.
The past has been cracked, the pain has been deep . . . but I am not broken. Because of Him . . . even I . . . the widow to a man who was gun downed in a Walgreens parking lot for stepping out on the promises he had made to me—to protect me, and adore me, and hold true to our marriage—even I could have a life filled with dreams. Even I could find more reasons to smile, and see myself for who I really am.
Life is going to be a roller coaster of dark days and light days. But I can promise you this: if we pray for the ability to see ourselves as God sees us—even the moments when we feel broken and weak—let me rephrase that . . . especially in the moments when we feel broken and weak—we will be blessed with a different view. We will be given the ability to see our own strength and the gifts we have been given. We will be able to view ourselves as an eternal being, and not just a temporary body. We will be able to find our ability to one day be made whole from anything in our past that has shaken us.
Somedays autopilot may take the reins so you can stay safe—but don’t give anyone else your power. See, hear . . . but only FEEL the truth. Sometimes truths are hard to feel. Sometimes facing the truths that cracked you—breaks you all over again, but it is truth that puts together the broken puzzle pieces of the past, and that sets you free from the dark roads you have walked. And it is truth that brings you to the knowledge that you are enough.
Don’t let others destroy you. Be you. Find strength in your story—even the parts that want to take your power away and leave you with nothing left. Even if the jury of life is sitting in front of you . . . staring—and you are wondering if there is anything left for them to see—God still sees it all. He feels the silent tears you are crying inside. He hears the gentle whispers your heart is pleading. Maybe you feel alone from where you are standing—but He is not far away. In those moments that darkness has surrounded you, and you wonder if everyone has forgotten who you are—pray that you can remember, even if no one else does.
Sometimes the greatest miracle of all is—waiting around for someone to see your worth . . . but finding it for yourself instead.
God is not dead. He lives. He is waiting for each one of us to remember Him, to find hope not only in our stories, but in His creations. He sent His Son to die for us—that we could one day live again. So we could make it through the trials and the days our bodies go into autopilot. He knew it would be hard. He knew there would be no remote to click fast forward through the darkness and the pain—so He allowed His perfect Son to die to atone for the world.
Grace—it is the power that is inside each one of us. Because of Him . . . the trials we spend pretending we do not feel the pain—will strengthen the view we have of ourselves. The power that lies in each one of us is greater than anyone else can see. It is a hope that only we can find; in the stories only we can live.
Believe in Him. Believe in his plan—and never stop believing in the one person he gave you to be your greatest cheerleader . . . YOU. No one else has been where you have been—the pilot of your destiny is you. Truth is—you are His greatest creation of all. And when you can see that . . . you will know He is not very far away.