For Ashley Grajczyk, photography isn’t just an art form or a business.
“It’s about the subject, bringing out who the person is,” said Grajczyk of Albany, who works part-time as a photographer.
“What I love about photography is for the person to look at the photo and see that they’re beautiful.”
Grajczyk, 41, loves to bring the beauty and joy out of everything she does. Her previous life was one of pain and addiction, and she is happy to keep that in her past.
Her journey began in her early 20s, when an abusive situation left her with severe back pain.
“I was a single mom, I was divorced and working hard just to keep up,” she said. “I had horrible sciatic pain, and my doctor gave me some pain pills. He basically said, ‘this is how you fix it.’”
Grajczyk kept pushing herself – she was managing a tuxedo shop and it was prom season. Finally, she pushed too hard and it caught up with her.
“I went out with some friends, and I ended up dropping down to my knees because I’d lost all feeling from the waist down,” she said. “I saw a lot of doctors and underwent a lot of tests. They finally diagnosed me with fibromyalgia, but they didn’t do anything else but give me more pain medication.”
Grajczyk estimates she ended up taking a high amount of opioid pain killers regularly, in addition to other muscle relaxers and anti-inflammatory medications.
“A lot of these medications had side-effects, so I also had more meds to manage them,” she said. “Then I was sent to pain management where I was put on a synthetic opiate. I didn’t know anything about it, so I took it like the other pills.”
It made everything a blur. She called her doctor who advised her to give it a few more days. She stayed on it for 13 months and has very little memory of that time period.
“Over the years, my doctors kept adding more medications,” Grajczyk said. “I had a lot of emotional trauma, and I tried to fix everything with meds because I thought that was the correct thing to do.”One morning, she woke up and couldn’t feel her legs. At that time, her doctor was Samaritan physician Brent Godek, MD.
“Dr. Godek admitted me to the hospital,” she said. “They did a lot of tests and diagnosed me with conversion disorder and sent me to psychiatric care, and after three months of rehabilitation I could walk again.”
At that point, as she was about to turn 40, Dr. Godek told Grajczyk that he wanted to stop all her medications. She protested and sulked.
“I felt betrayed, because this was all I knew after 19 years,” she said.
But Grajczyk had a strong connection with Dr. Godek, and he eased her off her meds.
“From my first appointment with Dr. Godek, I felt like he really listened to me,” she said. “There were no charts, no computer, he just listened to me. If I’d had any other doctor, I don’t think it would have worked to get me off my meds.”
It took about four months, but Grajczyk successfully stopped all her medications under Dr. Godek’s care. She has also learned more healthy ways to cope with pain and trauma.
“I learned that I was holding on to the pain, living in a constant state of fear,” Grajczyk said. “It’s like when you’re driving and you see something coming at you. You tighten up and you swerve. It’s the same with trauma – you’re in pain and waiting for a wreck.”
A few of her most powerful tools now are diaphragmatic breathing and working out. She has gone from being house-bound due to pain, to working out for 30 minutes every day.
“When you’re in that much pain and use meds to fix it, it’s hard to consider walking around a store for groceries let alone doing a full workout,” Grajczyk said.
“I still have pain – everyone does, but it doesn’t mean that something bad is coming,” she said.
“A lot of my life, I felt a small amount of pain, and it led to bigger pain because I was preparing for the worst.”
Today, she is healthy enough that she could do photography full-time, but she is choosing to spend time with her family instead of working full-time.
“I can be with my husband and my kids – they’re 22, 12 and 9 – and I can be active with my family and friends,” she said.
In addition to her family, friends and photography, she does pain management presentations with Dr. Godek.
“I’ve given the talk about seven times now,” she said. “When you’re in this journey, you’re really guarded, so I just hope I can say something that comes through to people who need to hear it.”