Until recently, individuals who suffered from Mental Illness suffered in silence. They hid; ashamed of their perceived odd tendencies or made-up countless excuses for behavior that made them appear socially awkward, withdrawn and even antisocial. Women, with the myriad of demands that are plaed on them daily tend to show higher levels of anxiety, depression and other mood related disorders.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 1 out of every 2 Canadians experience some form of mental illness before the age of forty. By shedding light on mental illness we can join hands against the stigma and show those who are suffering in silence that they are not alone. Support is available, we only need to be willing to share our own struggles and stories.
Ashley, a fellow Canadian and a woman born in my now home town of Toronto, bravely agreed to share her story in this week’s installment of the Women of the Patchwork Project.
I'm from Toronto, Ontario Canada. The fact that I was born and raised here and still live here is kind of unique in this city. Many people end up in Toronto from other places, but for me everything is here; The hospital where I was born, the schools from elementary to high school, my private college, the many jobs and all the houses I've lived in over the years.
Tell us a little bit about what you do.
During the week, I work as an Operations Director for a small business. We run an online culinary nutrition school. My job is a mix of executive assistant, social media, project management, writing, editing, event planning, administration and more. I get to use my eclectic skill set and I'm constantly learning.
I also run my own business as a health and fitness coach. I encourage and motivate people to feel their very best, most sparkly selves. I’ve combined at-home workouts, healthy eating and group accountability into monthly groups where my clients can connect. I've been writing a blog for years and my coaching became an extension of building that community, inspiring others to live their most awesome lives and sharing my own journey.
Finally, I'm a performer! I went to school for musical theatre and over the years I've done musicals, cabarets, commercials and created my own work. The show I'm most proud of, is a one woman show that I created about my mom, her death and mental health, called The Life is Sweet Project. I concurrently shared a number of people's experience with mental health, mental illness and loss through my blog to go along with the show.
What Inspires you?
I'm inspired by so many things–It really depends on what I'm doing. I'm constantly inspired by my clients and our monthly groups. Their journeys, perseverance and goals inspire me to get up every morning and do my own workout, continue making healthy meals and sharing my authentic self. I also read a lot of books, listen to podcasts and consume a lot of media on the internet. The world changes so much and so quickly, and I love being up to date with everything that happens. My mom's life and her death by suicide had a huge impact on my life and the woman that I am today. We're coming up on 20 years that she's been gone, and in the sadness and grief I've still found that life is sweet amid the challenges we may have.
I couldn’t imagine losing a parent, especially one's mother to suicide at such a young age. You mentioned that her death shaped who you became, can you explain what you mean by that?
My mom's death had a huge impact on me for many reasons.
I was 13 when it happened, which was such a formative time. I learned a lot of information about my family in the 24 hours leading up to her death which changed my view of the world. I was always a mature child, but I grew up really fast after her suicide. Following her death, I really set myself apart from my family and in many ways, took care of myself. I always had good grades and was very involved with everything at school, and I maintained that throughout. I actually went to school the day after my mom died, because I didn't really know where else to be.
I approached my grief very differently from many members of my family. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. I did what was right for me. I found support in safe people I could trust, and kept on my path. I recognized that mental health was a contributing factor to my mom's death and spoke openly about it. I kept moving forward with my life, even though I missed my mom every day; I know that's what she would have wanted. I have a younger brother who was 5 when it happened, and he and my dad became closer once my mom died.
The day before she died I had found out she had attempted suicide a few months prior and she shared that she had been going through a difficult time. She had previous suicide attempts when she was younger, and she had struggled with her mental health for a long time. When she told me about all of this, I felt sad for her and told her I loved her and did my best to reassure her. When we found her the next day it came as a shock, but I was thankful that we had that conversation less than 24 hours before.
You said you went to school the day after, what was that like?
Kids in grades 7 to 9 are terrible. I had a very supportive class, homeroom teacher and guidance counsellor, but a lot of the other students were horrific. Rumours went around the school about the nature of her death, whether or not I was telling the truth and all sorts of other things. Most of them didn't have any similar experience they could compare it to, and I found it difficult to relate to them. It was hard. I learned to surround myself with positive people and adults that I could trust, to help me get through those years of school.
I have a journal of my mom's and there's one entry where she wrote "Ashley is such an open child, I hope that one day I'll be able to share my heart with her". There were things that she never spoke about to anyone, and I was grateful and honoured that she would consider opening up her heart to me.
It seems very special that you have your mom's journal; a piece of your mom and her thoughts and her emotions. Can you describe how it feels to have her journal?
I love having my mom's journal - it helps me to feel closer to her and have a piece of her thoughts. There were many things that she kept private or we didn't talk about since I was young, so it's valuable to have that insight.
My mom's suicide gave me a newfound perspective on mental health at a very early age. Suicide, depression, anxiety aren't taboo words in my vocabulary, and I think they're so important for us to talk about. 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime - the other 4 will know someone going through it. It impacts all of us, yet still so many people are afraid to share their experiences. I want to work towards changing that.
I'm in therapy, and I'm working on my stuff, and I realize that a lot of it comes back to my mom's death. Slowly but surely, I'm uncovering the layers. I miss my mom every day, but I know I wouldn't be the person I am without her life and her death.
You mentioned that you are a Health coach and that your host groups, that sounds like a positive outlet, can you tell me more about your coaching and your groups?
I absolutely love the work that I do as a health and fitness coach. I started my weight loss journey in my 20's, but was never really into working out. I dropped gym when I was in grade 9 and when I went to musical theatre school I was in pre-beginner ballet. I tried all sorts of workouts, gym memberships, trainers–but nothing really stuck! I met my coach in 2014 and we just clicked and I fell in love with helping other people work towards their health and fitness goals. I've been running monthly groups for nearly 3 years and it is incredibly fulfilling and helps to keep me on track with my own journey.
I get to know my client’s routine, goals, habits, likes and dislikes and then set them up with a workout that they can do from the comfort of their own home. We pair the workouts with awesome nutrition plans and a superfood shake to help with weight loss, reduce cravings for junk, increase energy and overall feelings of awesome. I don't throw them out into the woods and expect them to do all of that on their own–this is where the groups come in!
Each month I run a private, online community where my clients connect with one another, share their triumphs and struggles and relate to one another. There are moms, people with multiple jobs, folks who travel lots for work, people with crazy schedules–all sorts of different stories, all over North America. Every day I post a new challenge or topic of conversation and we post our responses, share sweaty selfies, post new recipes to try and stay connected throughout the month. At the end of each month we share our successes and new goals, and then get started with a brand-new month! It's a really special place to be and I am constantly inspired by my clients and coaches.
Thanks Ashley, for sharing your lived experience about your mom's suicide and her battle with Mental illness. Also thank-you, for connecting. Let us continue to share, connect and empower one another. Our stories are a reflection of who were are, but our story also has the power to raise awareness. We are stronger than we think and there are people out there willing to provide support and encouragement.
To connect with Ashley and to learn more about her fitness groups, her blog or to follow along on her journey click on the links below: