Ashley Smith, who is originally from California, spent her childhood with her very close-knit family. Her mother was very supportive and involved with Ashley’s life, as was her stepfather. Growing up, Ashley was very outgoing and participated in many sports, such as track and cross country. She describes herself as an academic “go-getter,” and she was a youth church leader at her local church. This active involvement in the community gave Ashley a sense of self-validation and confidence. Upon entering college where she studied business and marketing, she made the dean’s list and had high hopes of continuing her education into a master’s and even a doctorate degree. Ashley was also an active student mentor and a youth assistant coach. While maintaining her high GPA and other activities, Ashley ran on the cross-country team for all three years of her college experience.
In March of 2007, Ashley experienced a very “dark moment” during her junior year of college where she had lost all her motivation and passion for school and other activities and felt as though she was unable to cope with these feelings. She was very surprised by these emotions and felt as if this loss of motivation was consuming her; she had tried multiple resources, such as study groups, to regain her focus and her drive, but nothing had worked. Ashley watched her grades slip away from her with no ability to correct them. During this time, she reached out to her family for support, and her family suggested that she take some time off from school, supporting her endlessly through this decision. Ashley recalls visiting campus for the last time to say goodbye to her professors and feeling like a “complete failure,” saying she felt ashamed and guilty for withdrawing from her classes. At that time in Ashley’s life, she recalls having little to no understanding of mental illness. She says that she felt like a cloud was hovering over her.
I surprised myself that I couldn’t manage, that I couldn’t stay focused. I tried study groups, I tried sleeping, I tried this and that. And I couldn’t help but my grades were slipping. I did not understand what mental illness was or that it applied to me, that I was at risk, and its symptoms. So when I left my school campus, I couldn’t hold back the tears and it was a really dark day for me. It felt like a cloud was hovering over me and it was just all negative energy. It was just so fast and difficult to feel like I can’t complete what I started, which was so new to me.
After withdrawing from college, Ashley relocated from Atlanta back to California to start over and regroup with her family. She began a new job working under her aunt and eventually found herself paying her own bills, working on her wellbeing, and even becoming highly involved in her local church. Despite all the positives in her life, Ashley recalls feeling like she could not trust anyone, including the people she typically would trust. One Sunday morning in June, Ashley recalls waking up and watching a church special on tv. During an advertisement commercial for selling DVDs, she noticed that the bottom of the screen read, “how to commit suicide.” Ashley interpreted this as the devil trying to tempt her. She fought this feeling, telling herself repeatedly, “I am not suicidal. I do not want to die, and I don’t want to take any risks.” Ashley continued to her church service that morning as usual. At the time, she did not understand what hallucinations were, nor did she understand the way they were affecting her life.
Upon leaving church that day, Ashley rode public transportation and recalls being terrified of everyone, even though she knew in her heart that they were harmless. She states that she kept thinking, “They’re trying to kill me. Everyone is against me.” Looking back, Ashley remembers thinking extreme religious thoughts, and began having vivid hallucinations, thinking that she could look at a person and tell if they were “angelic or demonic.” She states that she remembers seeing that most everyone was demonic, even hallucinating that their eyes were solid black, and that she felt very afraid and disoriented. Ashley also recalls feeling extremely paranoid, like everyone was talking about her and that there were cameras everywhere, just watching her.
After this experience, Ashley reached out to her family back in Atlanta and told them she wanted to come back home. Ultimately, she tried to get a flight back home to Atlanta. She recalls finding herself in the parking lot of the airport after being unsuccessful in her attempt at booking a flight. Ashley remembers being very afraid and praying to God in the parking lot to protect her and to get her back home to Atlanta safely. She recalls seeing a large pick-up truck in the parking lot; it had large light strips on top, the driver side door was open, and the keys were in the ignition. Ashley recalls thinking to herself, “That’s my God…giving me a miracle.” She saw this abandoned truck as a gift from God that would allow her to drive across the country back home to Atlanta. She didn’t know where to go, but she felt comforted and hopeful in her faith in this moment.
While she was driving, Ashley recalls seeing police cars behind her. Upon realizing the police were after her, she remembers panicking and driving over the median into oncoming traffic. She had hit two cars and crashed head on into a building. Ashley suddenly found herself surrounded by several officers with their guns drawn. Upon getting into the police car, Ashley remembers thinking that the car would explode, and she began praying again. After this incident, Ashley ended up in jail and was experiencing a worsening of her symptoms. She remembers seeing roaches all over the floors and hearing voices. She was entirely unable to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t.
Ashley spent five months in jail, in and out of the jail’s hospital due to a lack of eating and drinking out of fear of being poisoned. She remembers feeling as though she had lost control of her mind and her body, and she eventually began experiencing episodes of catatonia. Eventually, Ashley had a competency hearing due to the extremity of her symptoms. She recalls being unable to understand anything during the hearing due to her fear and hallucinations. After this hearing, and after five months in jail, Ashley was then sent to a state hospital. Her mother ultimately relocated to California where she spent every day with Ashley in the hospital supporting her and caring for her.
While in the hospital, Ashley was given options regarding her medication and treatment plans. She recalls that this made her feel much safer than when she was in the jail. While she was in jail, she was given no options for anything regarding her treatment, and this had worsened her fears. Ashley feels that her experience in the hospital, particularly with her team of doctors and social workers, was much needed and highly beneficial to her journey into recovery.
Listen to Ashley describe this experience here:
When Ashley was released from the hospital, she and her mother went straight to a library on a mission to do research and learn anything they could in order to help Ashley cope and recover as best as she could. Ashley recalls sitting in the library with her mother and noticing something jarring:
Ashley: And there’s one statistic that really stood out to us. It was the suicide statistic. One out of ten people that live with schizophrenia will commit suicide. I remember us looking at each other and she—it was kind of an unspoken agreement that I wouldn’t be another statistic in that realm. In fact, my mother told me at the state hospital, she said, “I see you surviving this illness and showing other people how you did it.”
Ashley has not suffered from hallucinations or delusions since 2007 when she began taking her medications regularly and obtained a solid support system. She eventually went on to start a non-profit called Embracing My Mind, and she says this has allowed her to share her story in many settings, such as shelters, mental health facilities, local hospitals, and churches. Ashley was even recognized by the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and put into the NAMI hall of fame for her talks and workshops about her journey.
Ashley credits a lot of her growth to NAMI, specifically in the realm of overcoming her self-stigma. Despite all of Ashley’s achievements and progress, including the blog, peer-groups, and becoming a peer-counselor, she still struggled heavily with shame and spite toward her illness. She says that sharing her story and connecting with others through NAMI was the most empowering piece of her journey:
Ashley feels very fortunate to have been able to find a working medication and a welcoming support group. She says that while sharing her story was the most empowering tool, having these other resources was very impactful to her, and she recognizes that not all people are given these opportunities. Ashley is currently a state trainer for NAMI where she guides and trains others to tell their stories. She maintains that her strongest tool for maintaining her mental health throughout her daily life is her family and her peer support. Even through the passing of her mother in 2013, Ashley feels that her family supported her endlessly and she was able to maintain her wellness through this difficult time due to them and her other support systems. Ashley’s mother was her biggest supporter and Ashley is forever grateful for the way her mother loved and cared for her.
Ashley’s current days involve getting up early to have some self-care time before taking care of her son and spending time with a close friend. She takes her son to school, goes to work where she works in a supportive role to her peers, and going back home or to the park with her son. Her and her son enjoy watching movies and tv shows together, and Ashley appreciates the time and opportunities she has with her son. Ashley feels that every day is a success to her when she takes her medicine, does her daily duties, and raises her son to be a wonderful person and upstanding citizen. She works part-time now in order to maintain time for self-care.
Ashley: And I feel like I easily could’ve been a suicide statistic, had I not received the treatment when I did receive it, because those thoughts, those hallucinations, those fears are very real. And it could’ve become—it could’ve been my outlet to attempt the suicide, if it had been in my mind over and over again, like some of my peers, with the rambling, racing thoughts, with the compulsive negative self-talk. It could’ve been me. And I have to remind myself of that. I am a miracle. I have one of many purposes, which is to share my recovery experience, to let others know it’s okay to take medication. It’s okay to get your needs met for self-care. And it’s even okay to have schizophrenia because it’s very much manageable.
In Ashley’s future, she sees herself owning a home, writing books, and gaining entry into another profession yet still sharing her experiences with her recovery journey. Ashley doesn’t see herself continuing being the face of schizophrenia in her community, but she sees herself maintaining her place as an author sharing her story. Ashley wants the stigma and stereotypes around mental illness to end; she wants everyone to know that there are many faces of mental illness, and that recovery is possible for everyone.
Ashley: I want people to think—when they think of mental illness, I want them to have a different perspective, a different understanding. I don’t want them to think of the typical, stereotypical person. I don’t want them to think of a homeless person. I don’t want them to think of a violent person… I want them to think of, oh my gosh, this person is everything I thought that she couldn’t be or couldn’t do. I want them to second-guess themselves and take a step back… Because when they see my face and when they read my book, I want them to know there are many faces to mental illness. I want them to know that recovery is possible because I’m living my life to the fullest. And I want them to know that just because I have a mental illness does not mean I am incompetent. It just means that I have a challenge like you have a challenge, and that it takes a little bit more—it takes a little bit more effort to be the person I want to be. But at the end of the day, I’m the person I want you to see, and that’s Ashley Smith, the author, the mother, the peer counselor, the writer. The list goes on and on.