You can't have a rainbow without a little rain
She was also a lie. A person I created to cope with what was going on around me. She is who I thought I not only wanted to be, but needed to be. Before I started writing this, I couldn’t decide if I was brave enough or had enough life experience to tell my story. Then I caught myself, I was doing what I always do, questioning if I am good enough, beginning my ride down that never-ending river of self-doubt. Luckily I have gotten to a place where I can catch myself, and say with confidence that I am good enough to tell my story, and it is important that I do. After weeks of deliberation I’ve worked up the courage to share this, because other than wanting to be a part of the dialogue about mental illness, I also don’t want to be ashamed of who I am and I need you to hear what I have to say for me to be able to move forward. This is the story of Good Ashley and I going our separate ways.
I was voted ‘most likely to attend four different universities in four years’ in my grade 12 yearbook. This was a testament to the three high schools I’d gone to in four years. During high school I made lots of friends and succeeded academically everywhere I went, but nothing seemed to be the right fit for me. I felt different and out of place at each school I went to, so I left places because I thought they were the problem and not me.
When everyone I knew was applying to universities, I didn’t know where to apply. I kept being asked, “well, what are you looking for in a school?” after trying to find a simple answer I always managed to get to, “I want to be at a school where I can find myself.” This is not the expected answer from someone going into first year. Perhaps, “an impressive science program,” or “great parties” would have been a more conventional response. Once I came to the realization that no school existed that offered a program in ‘finding yourself’, I settled for Queen’s University. I was less than enthusiastic about going but it seemed to be my best option. On move-in day we packed up my mom’s van and headed to Kingston Ontario. I was undoubtedly anxious but it made sense to be considering I was moving away from home and to a completely new environment. When my printer was set up, my posters hung, and the puke-orange walls of my 8’ X 14’ residence room were covered with pictures, I led my parents towards the exit of the building. When we reached the doors my heart sank and my tears began to form. My parents hugged me quickly and were gone before they had a chance to break down about leaving me.
Suddenly I felt more alone than I ever had before. There were people everywhere yet I felt deserted. I very quickly became a prisoner of my own room. I spent all my free time with my door shut, dreading each and every time I had to go to the bathroom because it meant leaving my room and risking having to talk to somebody. For me, meeting new people meant learning how to please them and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find Good Ashley anywhere and so while my floor-mates were laughing and getting to know each other, I was crying and pleading with my parents to let me come home, just for a little bit.
When I got physically sick and needed to come home to see my doctor, I felt immediate relief. After seeing my physical and emotional state and talking to professionals, my parents decided it was up to me whether I went back or not. The thought of going back to my prison cell seemed impossible, so, just over a month into university, I dropped out. I was right on track when it came to my “most likely to,” but way off track when it came to everything else. Leaving a school this time was different than in high school. I left because I didn’t have the strength to do what used to come naturally to me. I couldn’t make friends because I didn’t have the energy, I couldn’t succeed academically because I couldn’t focus, and I couldn’t be the happy, social, well rounded person I was used to being identified as. Suddenly Good Ashley had abandoned me and I was left with no knowledge of who I actually was.
The months that follow are hard for me to write about because they were the darkest moments of my life and I was very much ashamed of who I was. I spent months crying constantly, leaving my house only for doctor and therapy appointments, isolating myself from everyone that I love. I wore pajamas all day and buried myself in blankets. I lost interest in all the things I loved and spent the majority of my time with my bedroom door shut, watching episode after episode of whatever TV show could temporarily numb my brain. I tried medication after medication, psychologist after psychologist, but nothing seemed to make me feel better. I never considered suicide but I thought about it often. My biggest fear was running into someone on my way to or from an appointment and having to explain myself to them. I dreaded being asked what I was doing because “being depressed” didn’t seem like an okay answer. My depression and social anxiety were the elephant in the room, it wasn’t talked about, it was something to be ashamed of, and the secrecy of what was going on in my life felt almost as isolating as the illness itself.
Once some time had passed and I was able to begin grieving the loss of Good Ashley, I was finally able to think about what was actually going on for me. Why did I always feel so different even when everyone liked me? Why couldn’t I handle university? The answer to these questions and many others didn’t come easily to me nor can I say that I now understand all of it. My sister’s illness definitely played a large role, but there was something else going on for me that I wasn’t even aware of for the majority of my life.
I am gay.
Yes, you read that correctly, this is my way of coming out to everyone.
After my boyfriend and I broke up a couple years ago the thought popped into my head but I fought it until it went away. It came back every so often but I never allowed myself to believe it to be true. I loved my boyfriend dearly but something never worked for us and my experience with guys in general always felt uncomfortable. This past year during the darkest days of my life the thought came back. I fought it and fought it until I felt physically ill but I couldn’t get it to go away this time. It was this realization that told me once and for all that I had to let go of Good Ashley, Good Ashley was gone, she couldn’t be gay, being gay makes it impossible to please everyone. That is the overly simplistic version of what made coming to terms with my sexuality so difficult but in trying to keep this to a manageable length, I will not go into too much detail.
I spent this summer coming out. First I came out to myself, I sat in front of the mirror when no one was home and cried as I repeated the words out loud over and over again. After months of feeling like I was lying to everyone, I told the first person. Nothing could have prepared me for the feeling that came when the words left my mouth. I was in hysterics and it felt like the world was caving in on me, saying it out loud to someone else made it feel real for the first time. I hated myself for hating myself for being gay. I consider myself a very accepting person and yet I couldn’t accept myself for who I am. With time, I one by one told my best friends, my parents, my sisters, and a few other important people in my life. It was indescribably difficult each time but every time I told someone, it got a little easier and I got that much further into the process of accepting myself.
I’m writing this exactly one year from when I was dropped off at Queen’s. This has been the hardest and most important year of my life. I am still in the process of being comfortable with my sexuality, I still have bad days, and anxiety continues to hold me back from certain things, but I cannot put into words how much better I feel. I’m starting University of Toronto now and I’m going into it nervous but ready to start something without Good Ashley governing all of my actions. This year needed to happen for me to be where I am now. I want to stress that It was not being gay that created or solved my problems, it was getting to a place where I could no longer be what everyone else wanted me to be that allowed me to get to my lowest point, and eventually, to start building myself up from there. Mental illness continues to be present in my life but I know that this past year will help me through the tough times ahead.
If I had one piece of advice for someone struggling with mental illness I would say take your time, don’t be ashamed, and know that no matter how long it takes, you will feel better! I know how hard that is to hear when you are in the middle of it but all I can say is that I was there and now I’m not. There is nothing more important than accepting yourself for who you are. I went into university looking to find myself, when what I really needed to do was accept myself.
Thank you to everyone who has been there for me this year, you showed me that you love me no matter what and I am forever grateful for you. Also a huge thank you to The Dialogue Projects for allowing me to share my story.