Aja Symone thought she had her entire life planned out from the very beginning. From a very young age, she knew exactly who she would become, where she would be going and what she would be doing with her future.
But then suddenly, everything changed. A series of unfortunate events completely turned her life upside down.
In today’s episode hear from Aja as she shares her incredible story, along with her valleys and triumphs, and teaches us some valuable life lessons along the way.
Full Transcript Below
Dee: Today. I am so excited because I have the chance to speak with Chicago based lifestyle blogger Aja. Her story is pretty awesome if you think about it. Having a severe brain injury, among other things, and still managing to do great things with her life is pretty dope.
Her story is one you’re gonna want to hear. So without further ado, hey Aja, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Aja: Hi everyone. My name is Aja Symone. I’m a lifestyle blogger based here in Chicago, Illinois. For the most part, I like to bring together women of all different walks of life, to give them the empowerment that they need to move to the next levels in their life, to talk about the things that we experience on a daily basis.
And so I am trying to navigate redefining an image of what a woman is supposed to be because as y’all know, what is defined as a woman doesn’t necessarily explain all the layers of what womanhood is or can be.
Dee: Aja, why don’t you tell us what song gets you going in the morning?
Aja: Um, wow. So what sound gets me going in the morning? It would be like a number of things, but I feel like anything by the artist’s HER I live for and so usually it gives me a smooth vibe in the morning to get me going. And then by the time I’m going, and I’m actually up and about like that Beyonce rendition of-I call it the cookout song.
I forgot what the name of it is, but it’s basically one of her upbeat songs that really gets me going and gets me activated throughout the day. And after that, I’m pretty much fine and I’m coasting and I’m in good spirits and good vibes.
Dee: That is awesome. I am not familiar with Beyonce these days, so could you give me one or two lines from that song? I want to get started too.
Aja: Ooh, I feel like it’s, um, gosh, I’m going to just have to look it up. I’m so wrong with this. This is so terrible. I’m going to get got together by the beehive- “Always Before I Let You Go”. I don’t know why I didn’t remember that because that is the lyric before I let you go. Okay.
But that was, I love the rendition of that song. And um, for the most part, it gets me going and gets me pumped for the day because it’s really an upbeat, familial song that my family has played for decades. So it was just like, woo, okay, now we’re in here. I really listen to soft-in-tempo songs throughout the day cause I’m working and it doesn’t mess with my concentration.
Dee: I’m creative by heart, so music gets me going all the time. So I wish I had the opportunity to bop to a song all day. Oh, my word. I’ll be doing the two-step all throughout my classes. I would be lit. It would be lit.
But anyway, before we get all the way off-track, can you please give us a brief understanding of what your childhood was like?
Aja: I grew up in the suburban area outside of Chicago. I grew up in a single-parent household with my mother and I’m her only child, so I had a bit of living the spoiled life for way too long. But, I lived in an integrated area, so it was super diverse.
So there were people from all walks of life. I was very well rounded as a kid because I was in everything. I was doing sports, from wrestling, cheer-leading, basketball, and swimming to also playing an instrument; which I know for some people there isn’t always an opportunity to do that. But because I was on my own, I feel like my mother overcompensated with a number of things that I was doing at one time to not get me to think about my father not being in the household.
It was just us and we called ourselves the dream team. I actually fostered a really good relationship with my mother. It was my mother and my grandmother, and my uncle was around. And so like we’re really pretty much a close-knit family and just growing up they put expectations on my growth patterns and things that I needed to be doing and experiencing, and being apart of a really liberal family, I was able to do some of the things earlier on that a lot of my friends and counterparts weren’t able to do.
That’s simply because my uncle was in the Navy and he was like, “you need to see the world”. “You need to be able to understand how to navigate around different people from different walks of life because that’s gonna afford you the opportunity to be able to communicate on a greater level”. So I progressed early. I ended up graduating from high school a year early.
In the States, we pretty much have like four years to get it together. I gave myself three and I was out of there. Honestly, high school was terrible for me because for one, it wasn’t necessarily awesome. I’m a strong personality and being a teenager, which I called the period of time where I was hell on wheels, I was a very, very strong personality.
Even my mom would say “Listen, you as a teenager, I was so happy for you to get out of here.” For me, I felt like I was above the curve because I was like listen y’all still trying to play video games and stuff. I’m trying to gradually colleges at this point. In my head, I was so fast-paced, like way too fast-paced. I think my grandmother had me taking college math while I was still in middle school for summer camp and I feel like that pushed me academically to want to succeed and want to go off to school early and putting certain restrictions on myself like graduating a year of high school completely early.
Like who does that? Nobody does that. People should not be concerned about things like that. But I was and I had a timeline. Like, okay, I’m in high school at this time. If I gradually by 17 then that means that I can graduate from college by 20, be doing my Doctoral Degree by 21, and then by 25, I’ll be done with everything so I can start my own practice.
Dee: Hold on, hold on. You seemed, at a younger age to have your entire life scheduled out and together. Are you sure you’re on the right show? Like are you sure? You sure you’re on the right show?.
Aja: Oh I hope so because it gets better. So that doesn’t happen. None of that happens.
Dee: Okay. Cause I’m like are you sure you’re on the right podcast? Because at 13,14 I was just like, “I wanna get through school cause I’m tired of this”. I wasn’t thinking about college at all. No!
Aja: It was a completely different experience for me I think, because, again, my uncle was a big factor in my life. My mom was also a big factor. My uncle was actually an engineer in North Western. My grandmother was an engineer for Lucid Technologies. My mom was a financial analyst for several different banks at the time.
So I really didn’t have precursors or space to be like, “Oh I don’t have any plans”. That just didn’t exist. It was just not there. Because my mom started asking me at a young age, what did I want to be? I think by five I told her that I wanted to be a doctor and the entire family ran with it.
At that point, I was getting every type of book on it. Anatomy, science, and biology, and science ended up being my very, very strong suit.
I had top scores in my science classes because of the stuff that I was at home reading. I was in high school reading books on forensic anthropology. That’s basically the science of death and mortality. That’s the type of material that I was reading.
So I had this grand plan, “Hey, my life is completely together”. But see, what I didn’t realize was when you make plans, God sits there and laugh at you because that ain’t the plan. I didn’t know that. I was still the kid.
I didn’t know that God was laughing wholeheartedly; like a hearty laugh, like, “Oh, you think that’s what’s going to happen? Let me show you.”
Dee: You know what? Do you know what I have realized? That you are so correct. I have sat down many a time. I’d be like, I know what I want A to happen. and B, C, D, E, F, G, all the way down to Z. And God is like, “Wait, hold up, hold up. Who are you to tell me what to do with your life? Like I made you.
Why are you sitting there dictating to me what you want to happen when I am the one who knows exactly what your future should hold? Exactly what lessons you need to learn and what path you need to take? It’s always funny to me that we sit here and we think that we have all this control over our lives but then God is like “Oh no!”.
Aja: Oh, I didn’t realize that. So He had many a hearty laugh and He has harsh punishments along the way that I was not prepared for. We are never prepared. And when I say shook before that was the meme I was it. Okay?
I had this grand plan as I graduated high school early. I had a lot of flack from my grandmother at this point because she was just like, “If you don’t go to school I want you to go to, it’s going to be a problem,” because I think she was gonna pay for my dorm or whatever. It just ended up not happening.
So I ended up taking a year to go to community college. Now I highly suggest anybody go to community college first. You save yourself a bunch of debt. I just think that’s a need-to-know cause a lot of people like to turn their noses up at people who go to community college. No. Pay $500 for a class. Don’t be stupid and pay the thousands that other people are paying when you have a way to navigate that.
Dee: So do you hear that? Trust me, student loans are no joke. Just my personal service announcement for all y’all listening. Student loans are no joke. All right.
Aja: It’s not. It’ll make you cry when you get that first bill. Trust me, I cried. So I ended up doing community college. So my first semester I got straight A’s. I’m used to this already, so I know what’s up. The second semester, maybe three weeks in, I had a three-car pile-up car accident.
Dee: Oh. Oh wow. What happened?
Aja: So because of living in the Midwest, the winters are terrible. This one particular day, I had stopped at Starbucks and had just gotten on the highway to go class. From my home to school was like 15 minutes. This was the highway. It was about 30 minutes because of traffic, snow and ice- the whole 9 yards.
So I’m driving, and because the weather conditions were so bad, there was a lot of black ice on the highway. What I did know, which I found out later, was that there were continuous accidents in this one particular spot that I hit, all that morning. And it continued to happen until they shut down the highway.
It’s a three-lane highway. I’m driving in the right lane, the furthest right lane, that was closest to the medium that changes directions for the other side of the highway. I ended up hitting a patch of black ice. My car completely shut down. You can’t turn the wheel. You can’t brake. The car is non-responsive.
The radio goes off everything and I ended up spinning into a gasoline semi-truck. Then I bounced off, hit the medium, bounced off that and spun across the other side of the road. Somebody behind me actually tried to brake spun and hit somebody else. So all of this was going on. In the meantime, I passed completely out, like completely out. I had just eaten breakfast and I faintly remember people came to the car, breaking the door open, trying to like see if I was responsive.
I wasn’t responsive. I believe it was a lady, but I really don’t remember cause I completely blacked out. Somebody started touching my neck, and mind you, I had just eaten so I ended up throwing up all of my breakfast. The guy behind me ended up getting the ambulance first and cause he ended up dying on the scene.
Dee: Oh my gosh.
Aja: So it was completely crazy. Then by the time I’m waking up, I’m like in complete, utter shock. I’m hyperventilating. And as a child, I was predisposed to seizures and I had grandma’s seizures, which is like the worst form of seizures because they are really affected by activity, heart rate, and temperature. So if anyone of those goes up, you get a fever, you get sick, you’re in prime seizure lane.
Because of that, they thought I had a seizure in there. So they shut me up in the ambulance and took me on my way. I had a whole bunch of testing. I’m like freaking out because I’m waking up in the ambulance wondering what happened. Mind you, I cannot feel the entire left side of my body.
So I’m freaking out. My parents get there. My grandmother gets there and everything’s happening. At this point, I’m still considered a child because I wasn’t 18 yet. So they ended up taking me to the children’s hospital and I ended up spending three or four days in the ICU because I had extremely high blood pressure and extreme heartbeat; everything.
I still couldn’t move the left side of my body and they couldn’t understand why because they did all the MRI’s; all the testing. They were forcing me to move and I’m just like, “I don’t feel this”. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dee: So, so what were the hardest moments that you experienced while going through this whole “can’t move your body, can’t do anything for yourself” period. What was the hardest part?
Aja: I think it was just the ability to actually do the things that you’re so used to. I was super athletic at that point. I had always been an independent child. So me not being able to do something, is foreign to me, especially cause I had a lot of independence growing up.
My mom was super like, “okay you go do it then” because that’s the type of attitude I was giving my mom. So it was more so like I want it to move, I want it to do the things and I’m just like, I’m completely sitting here now.
One of the things is that when I say God, sits you on your behind so you have fair warning. I was involved in a horrible relationship at the time. I wasn’t focusing on the things that I needed to focus on. I wasn’t listening to what I call intuition, and I feel like a lot of that is God speaking to you, telling you your next course of action.
While you’re in the moment, those gut feelings that you get, they kind of mix you up. They don’t feel like butterflies. They’d be like, “Oh”, so I had those feelings. Mind you, with three years of high school, I went straight through summer school each year. I had not had a break at all. Like ever. Educational wise I was always doing something. Onto the next. Onto the next. Like I had run this marathon that never had a finish line.
I needed a break and that was the first time I had really sat down. I was like, “Okay, what are we doing? How are we going to do this?” And I realize that I needed a new setting. I realized that I could finish all the things that I wanted to finish but I had to do it in a way that doesn’t hinder me.
But I didn’t take that lesson. I thought I had the master plan and I just thought God was whatever. It’s just about the relationship. No, looking back on it, six years later I’m like, okay, that wasn’t about the relationships, that was about you.
Aja: But you didn’t get it. So you had a bigger lesson down the road waiting on you.
Dee: Isn’t that something though? Because have been where I’ve been just like you, I am pig-headed bull-headed, all those different “headed” you can think about, and in my mind, I have the best idea, the best option, point A. That’s, that’s all I have. I don’t want to listen to anybody. I don’t want to listen to God. I’m just me.
And God has had to sit me down like parent to child and said, “Daeyna, Dee, look, I know you think you know, but you don’t. I know you think you have all the ideas or plans for your life, but you don’t. So because you don’t listen to me with this one lesson, I’m gonna give you a lesson two. Lesson two is going to be harder. But here, if you don’t still listen to lesson two, I’m going to give you lesson three and so on and so forth”.
And at some point we have to be able to be like, you know what? I don’t need any harder lessons. God, I’m listening right now. I opened up my ears. Whatever you want to say. I’m listening. So what was this next lesson that God had to give you? Because you weren’t listening now?
Aja: Oh, so I can laugh about it now but when I was going through this I was in tears. Okay. My life was in shambles. I ended up finishing my freshman year, had 3.0 GPA by the grace of God. I ended up transferring into DePaul University based in Chicago. This was my first time off to university. I wanted to go out of the state. I wanted to go to HBCU and if, you know, DePaul, you know, is a PWI, which is a predominantly white institution.
So my father had gone to an HBCU, all of my step-siblings went to HBCUs. I kind of wanted that same experience. But I didn’t get that. I went off to DePaul. I was super quiet my first semester because I’m an observer. I don’t just go dive in head-first into situations. I don’t work like that. The second semester comes around and I’m in everything. I’m in the black student union. I’m doing community service every weekend. I’m making sure my grades are good. I’m communicating. I’m at the parties.
I’m trying to get to know people and then I start getting into trouble because the person that I am or was at this point was not conducive to the environment that I was in. What I mean by that is I had been of the mind that everything that I do has to come from me and because I do everything, people who are in the community with me, who are in projects with me felt the lack of need to assert themselves because they knew I will do it.
So I get to the point that my schedule is swamped. I mean everything day in and day out, um, doing social media for the black student union and events, and also trying to have a social life and still study. Now mind you, I’m studying at this point Pre-med obviously because I was going to be a doctor and those classes weren’t clicking. Mind you, science; my number one thing. I’m getting into this chemistry course and I’m losing my mind.
Aja: I’m like, why doesn’t this make sense? I’m freaking out. I’m crying. I was like, you know what, just forget it. I withdrew out of the class and I go into another class right before the drop add date. I’m in another science classes. I’m in biology. At this point I’m like, okay, I don’t pass this biology… This was my second time taking this course because I took it the first time at the community college. Just side note.
When I took biology the first time at the community college, I had just had my accident and got put so far behind. Based on medical care and things like that, I didn’t pass the class. So I’m taking it this time. I’m like, there was no reason I’m not passing this course. I’m freaking out. I’m freaking out. And something just told me to start writing. I had always been a great writer. Writing has always been a way for me to express myself.
Even as a child I was like writing my mom apology letters because I couldn’t communicate like that to her. Or I would explain it, my argument that is, write it to her through a letter cause she would listen to me then. She’d be upset, but she’d read it, so that was my logic. So I was always writing. I’m just like writing out my emotions and writing out how I feel. I’m writing about things that I see.
It became a tool for me to really relax. I used it and I’m like, maybe I need to take a creative writing course or whatever. I ended up taking this seminar class on black love which was taught by Dr Julie Lee Freeman.
She had an amazing class. We talked about Bill Hooks, Audre Lorde and Zora Neale Hurston and all of them. One of the things that stuck out to me was this line or this expression by Audre Lorde. It was living your erotic life; living in eroticism. And so the way she describes it is basically to live your erotic life is to be fully fulfilled in every element because there is this stereotype or stigma that black woman cannot have it all. And I was just like, well, I want it all. Like I should be able to live like this. But I wasn’t fulfilling myself on a basic level.
So I ended up leaving that class. I crashed. I was in complete tears. I get an email from my professor, “You’re failing biology” Completely lost it. Lost it. I’m like, Oh my God, my life is ending. Like what is happening? I call my mom. She’s not trying to hear it. She’s like, you need to get it together. I’m like, “Oh my God”. That day I had always been, up until that point, I had been struggling with changing my major and I was like, you know what? I’m not going to listen to my mom. I’m not going to listen to anybody else. Like this just feels right. I gonna change my major to communications with a journalism major, keeping my anthropology minor.
Dee: So hold up. So I’m really curious about this whole journey. So you had an accident. It affected how you, you were in school, and then you changed your major. So my question is, in all of this, how does the brain injury fit into this entire story? Like what happened?
Aja: This was the second phase of me not listening. The brain injury was the third.
Dee: Oh, so you had one, two, three. Okay. All right, go ahead.
Aja: Things come in threes. So senior year I still hadn’t listened. I’m running through everything. Running a marathon, no finish line, no water, no piss stocks, no nothing. I’m just full-breasted out, just running. Senior year comes and I’ve been taking classes throughout the summers since high school.
One day I’m just moving out of my apartment and moving into another apartment after the semester had started. It was a month into school, fully running and fully doing everything on my way. I’m moving out. My parents leave after they move the majority of my stuff into the apartment. I went back to the last apartment to clean it out and make sure everything was okay for the landlord and exchange keys.
As I’m walking to the dumpster to throw everything away, my neighbours on the third floor are also moving out. They had a window unit air conditioning that was held up by two or three breaks. I don’t remember. They pull the window unit in, the bricks fall out and I’m walking directly under it and they literally hit me from the top of my head and roll down my back.
So I’m laid out. I’m crying and I was on the phone with my mother and she’s hearing the whole thing as I’m like losing it. I did blackout but I had periods of unconsciousness where I would flash in and out. So they take me to the hospital, clean me up the whole night. I wake up the next morning and I’m still bleeding because when you have a scalp injury, it’s the one place you will bleed the most.
They couldn’t put sutures in because it wasn’t deep enough. In order to do sutures, they have to saw through your skull but that’s not what happened. They told me, “Oh you just have a concussion. You have a couple of headaches. You should be fine in a week”. Then it was like, “Oh you should be filing two weeks”. Then I lost my vision.
They were like, you need to go to a neurologist and you also need to go to the eye doctor. They performed a series of tests. My vision was completely shot; couldn’t see. I couldn’t drive. And at this point, I have now lost my sense of self because I can’t do anything for myself. I can’t stand up for like 15 minutes. I can’t watch TV. There’s no such thing as looking at the phone because it physically hurt to look at a screen.
Dee: So what was going through your mind when you lost your vision? I can’t imagine it.
Aja: Well for one thing, when I realized I lost my vision, I was actually driving. I couldn’t see the road. I’m freaking out and crying. Luckily I was in an area where one of my friends lived and I’m like, listen, I need you to drive me home. And I’m freaking out crying. I’m calling my mom and I’m like listen, y’all gotta come get me.
Something is wrong. I cannot see. I’m freaking out because even past the injury, I was dealing with those symptoms and then to go into not being able to see utterly broke me. I was out of it. Completely out of it. At this point, I’m arguing with the school to get out of all my classes because I physically could not take them. I’m sitting there, and I feel completely helpless.
Aja: My mom, God bless her heart. I probably would not be here if it wasn’t for her today. I had some come back home and my mom had to physically take care of me for two months and it got to the point where I literally had to have around-the-clock care because one, they were concerned that I was going to have another seizure as I am a seizure prone. They wanted to see what my vision was doing. They were watching my heart rate. My health was declining. Everything was just bad. I could not do anything for myself.
At this point, I’m like, okay, what does this mean for school? I’m in my senior year. Senior year is supposed to be a relaxed year. I did all this work. I’m supposed to be taking a few classes, graduate in the spring and then I’m supposed to be done. That didn’t happen. So I was physically sat down because I’ve been running for so long. Before the accident, because I was not taking care of myself physically, I depleted my entire energy reservoir once I had that accident.
So I had to physically take vitamin B, D and C tablets, just to rebuild to a semi-functioning level. They’re pumping me with vitamins day in, day out, along with pain medication just so I can feel like I can stand up. That was “the sitting down”. That’s what it looks like to continuously run and think you can run on nothing, and not one, follow your passion and two, think you have all the answers.
Dee: So after all this happened: you lose your sight, you’re going through all of this, what happened that led you to where you are today? Cause you’re now a lifestyle blogger. You help other women to become better versions of themselves. So how did you get from there to where you are now?
Aja: God. Listening. I went back to writing because that’s the only way I knew how to express myself. And even though I couldn’t look at my phone, a laptop and all these things, I had to pull myself out of it. One thing they don’t tell you is that when you go through a concussion or any type of brain injury, you go through a severe depression. I was hit in my frontal lobe, which is the house that holds all your hormones, holds all your serotonin levels.
It holds your personality really. When I was hit, I went through a complete depression and anxiety and after that jumped back in it thinking everything was gonna be okay. I ended up having a mental breakdown to the point where I had to drop out of grad school once I got into it earlier this year because I still wasn’t mentally ready. My only way of being able to connect with other women and feeling like I’m a conducive member of society and to feel like I’m attributing to my own life was to share these stories with other women.
To give them the opportunity to say, “Hey, she went through this and I know I’m not going through as much, but I can understand and I can choose how to navigate life with this as a template”.
In my life, I feel like we go through things, especially as women that are not necessarily for us. We go through things for other people and to cheer other people on. My experience may not have been for me. I probably didn’t go through half of the things in my life for me, but because I was vocal enough and open enough to tell the next person, somebody else didn’t have to go through that. They could be like, okay, since I see you, I know what I need to do differently.
Dee: I love that. I love what you’re saying that a lot of what we go through is not for us. It’s for us to be able to help other people who are going through similar or the same thing. I love that. I love that but I’m very curious. Aja, how do you want to be remembered?
Aja: Oddly enough. I want to be remembered as being limitless, and I think that’s something I’m striving for now. Even in my life, I have always been learning actively, doing something, but I want to be remembered not by the things that I’ve gone through, but by the number of people that I helped unconfine themselves in a way.
In the number of ways that I have broken certain boundaries in relation to other women. I feel like a lot of women go through a lot of things and we don’t talk about it. We don’t commune on them. We may talk about a bad boyfriend here and there, but we are not talking about the things that we need or the things that help us the most. We’re not talking about womanhood, what a community of women can do.
I kid you not, the community of women that I had around me when I had this accident was the very reason why I’m standing here and able to talk about my experience going through a depression. People don’t like talking about mental health issues, and women especially don’t want to be talking about it because we’re already deemed crazy for having a menstrual cycle. Like we don’t like talking about them. But the reality of it is so many of us are suffering in silence and we need each other to be able to move through that. We need community. We need to be able to say, “Hey, I need help. Can you help me or can I hear your story because it may help me?”.
And I think that’s huge. So for me to be remembered in his lifetime is to be one, an advocate, to be limitless in my pursuit of helping other women and reaching other women as well as being almost like a fable of sorts of what not to do. This is what shouldn’t do or this is why you should listen. Like that. To be somewhere. I know it’s funny, but like this is really what it is.
Dee: Well I love that and I love that you said that you want to be remembered for how many women you have helped, how many lives you have changed and that is so awesome. I think there are so many women out there who need to hear that, who needs to hear that you know what?
The only limitation you have on your life is the one that you put on yourself because God has told us we can do anything. Anything is possible as long as you believe it is. Aja I want to ask you where can our listeners connect with you online?
Aja: So you can connect with me online. I’m on Instagram at I am Aja Symone, or you can go and head over to ajasymone.com for more content, for more conversations about this very thing and others. There’s a community of women who anyone would be able to connect with and to be able to grow with.
Dee: Of course, I’m going to include all of the links in the show notes and I have one final question for you, Aja. For all the women listening, you know all the women from all different backgrounds who are listening to this podcast, whether it be now or years from now. For all the women listening, is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them?
Aja: Yes, and that would be you are your own challenge. You are the thing that you have to get over. You want it? You have to get over yourself, over the mindset that you have that you can’t have or it should already be yours. No matter the circumstance, the situation, you are not it. You can move past it.
You can experience it outside of yourself and outside of your mental state- to move and progress forward because you can only be limited by you. You are your own entity, your own being and you should be able to nurture yourself in a way that things don’t happen to you, but they happen in the presence of you.
Dee: Whoa, I love that. They don’t happen to you. They happen in the presence of you and I would add they happen for you. Because sometimes we have this limited mindset that things happen to us. We’re victims. No, we’re not. We are survivors and we are here to help other women become survivors and become powerful survivors at that. Thank you so much for being here, Aja. I loved your story.
You are a strong, amazing woman and I am so excited to see what you have next. Like you are young, you have so much ahead of you and girl, you are going to change so many lives and impact so many women. For all those listening, just understand that strength does not come from what you can do. Strength actually comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t and trust me, you can overcome anything anywhere, any time.
This is Dee and you have been listening to She Is A Mess.