Editor’s Note: This article includes discussion of sexual violence and suicide.
The audience went from laughter one moment to tears the next in Alumni Gym Thursday night as Ashley Judd delivered Elon University’s Spring Convocation address. The actress and activist candidly spoke about her life, journey of healing from trauma and the search for discovery, peace and resilience.
“My story is different. I was born into situations and knots that set me up to have this core pain from which I ultimately needed to become resilient,” Judd said.
Throughout the talk, titled “Mental Health: What we do not transform in ourselves, we will transfer to others,” Judd highlighted the importance of self-care through multiple outlets, as well as the human connection that can result from love.
After being home alone for a year of her childhood, Judd broke the cycle of suffering by confiding in a family friend.
“I just spilled my guts and that was what broke the cycle for me, and my nana took me in,” Judd said. “That was the year that my nana absolutely saved and transformed my life.”
Judd stressed the impact one person can have on someone's life.
“The intervention of one or two people along the way, makes not only that difference, but it can keep us alive because I was surviving on the thumbprint of a cockroach as a child,” Judd said.
Judd spoke about impact, which resonated with Elon sophomore Alexa Morrissey as she exited the convocation, who said she hopes to use the values discussed as motivation to make a difference.
“I hope to continue to be compassionate, as Judd expressed,” Morrissey said. “Showing up really means a lot and it goes a long way for people.”
Judd said it was her godmother who helped her pursue a college degree as she began attending the University of Kentucky. Judd began her social justice work and further found her voice. She said college was “where I caught on fire.”
In college, she worked to combat racism in her school's Board of Trustees. She worked with historically Black organizations on campus to organize walkouts and a march on the capital, while many of the sisters of her white-dominated sorority did not understand her movement. Judd recalled protesting a book signing by a racist Board of Trustees.
Judd said that as she was standing outside with her protest sign, she watched as her sorority sisters lined up to get their books signed.
“I learned that I represent myself as an individual,” Judd said.
Judd explained how she managed to be an activist for a minority she was not a part of.
“I was full of rage and it takes time to transform that into a way of being non-punitive, of not placing myself in unqualified authority over another,” Judd said.
Judd went on to be an actress whilst beginning her humanitarian work. She then got the opportunity to represent Population Services International’s HIV/AIDS programs, traveling the world to learn about HIV and Aids and speaking with the International AIDS Conference.
Throughout her work as an advocate and activist for HIV/AIDS programs, Judd said something was missing, for she had not healed herself before helping others. At the time, Judd’s sister was going through a 12-step treatment plan with Shades of Hope in Texas, in which Judd was invited to visit her sister for family week.
During her visit to Shades of Hope, she was invited to stay for inpatient treatment for sexual trauma and unresolved childhood grief. Judd said she “absolutely fell apart” at treatment, yet worked on childhood pain until she began her 12-step program.
“My ability to show up in my international work really changed because I didn't get sick anymore,” Judd said, “One of the mothers of family therapy said you can measure your recovery by the ease of your comings and goings.”
Since Shades of Hope, Judd has traveled to a mass of places, including Madagascar, Ukraine, Central Africa and more.
“It doesn’t tear me apart,” Judd said. “Of course, I’m deeply invested — I wouldn’t go if I weren’t — but I can hold space today because I’ve done my own work and I’ve got that empathy through empowerment.”
Judd’s 12-step program also led her to find her faith and spirituality. For the first three steps, Judd said she had to make peace with a god of her understanding. She struggled to find a god that was bigger than the struggles she had known around the world, until she found a photo of her cat, Percy.
Judd said Percy used to sleep on her pillow at night while she held his paw, only moving the cat when she had to sleep. Percy would wait until morning for Judd to invite him back in, which led Judd to see how innocent and kind Percy was, not upset about being kicked off of the bed.
“I thought, ‘Ah, this is God. God just wants to curl up with me on this pillow right now and love me and my brokenness and be with me in the tenderness of my spirit that is here and that cares,’” Judd said. “It’s about infinite tenderness and nurturing and loving me in my way or journey exactly as I am.”
Just as she had been when finding her spirituality, Judd was overwhelmed by struggles in the world from misogyny, sexual violence and racism to Belgium colonialism and exploitative mineral mining. In order to take care of herself and still be an activist and voice for personal values, Judd learned techniques of detachment.
“Detachment is neither kind nor unkind,” Judd said. “It's through the practice of detachment, where I learned not to suffer because of the actions and reactions of other people.”
Judd applied detachment in her relationship with her mother, Naomi Judd, as well. Though Judd's relations with her parents had been repaired, her mother still suffered from mental illness. Judd explained how she was able to detach her mother's struggles from her own, so as to maintain her personal well-being.
“No matter what her journey was, I was going to be okay, and that doesn’t mean that I love her any less, because of course I love her with all my soul,” Judd said. “I would just call her every day and tell her I love you, I’m with you, I support you.”
Judd’s mother died by suicide in 2022, leaving her heartbroken. Judd said she was given the gift of recovery despite nightmares, migraines and pain. She recalled the words she said to her mother as she died.
“To share everything with her that you would ideally hope to say when someone is making their transition: What a gift,” Judd said.
Elon sophomore Charlotte Turner said she lost a close friend to suicide, and after hearing Judd speak, she said she is inspired by Judd’s strength and mindset throughout the hardship of a loved one taking their own life.
“It is so important to share that story, letting people know that you can come out of it with wisdom, you can come out of it with hope, you can come out of it with a good perspective in life,” Turner said.
Judd also addressed the difficulty of finding positives in pain and trauma, and stressed the importance of complexity.
“That is something I hope you at Elon can cultivate, to tolerate ambiguity and to hold complexity in your life because this world of binaries and black and white isn’t a successful way to live,” Judd said. “We have to be able to stand in these dualities.”