Cork camogie star Ashling Thompson: My dark places
Cork camogie star Ashling Thompson, who captained the side to All-Ireland victory last year, credits her sport with turning her life around after depression, the suicide of her on-off boyfriend, and some badly chosen friendships threatened to derail her. Since then, she tells Emily Hourican, she has learned that, in the bad times 'it's about holding on' and that there is no weakness in asking for help.
"I feel like I'm made of steel," says Cork camogie star Ashling Thompson.
She looks it, too. Unsmiling, with the kind of steady gaze that means she probably rarely has to actually say the words: "Don't mess with me". It's written all over her, from her Amazonian height and strength, to the tattoos that snake across her forearm. It's there, too, in her history, as a fierce player, hard tackler and outspoken commentator.
But she's vulnerable, too. Twice during the interview, she nearly breaks down in tears, talking about the "dark times" that lie behind her. Mostly what she is, though, is passionate - about sport, and what it has done for her.
"I know it was my sport that ended up saving my life," she says, without a hint of exaggeration. "I went through a few struggles some years ago, depression and a few different things, and it was my sport I always held on to, and it was that that dragged me through, and picked me back up. There were individuals along with it, but sport literally saved my life."
Which is why Ashling is a supporter of the Irish Life Health Schools' Fitness Challenge, now in its fifth year, with 60,000 secondary-school children so far having taken part. "When I play my sport, the benefit is 50pc physical, and 50pc mental. When your emotions are getting the better of you, there's probably nothing worse," she says. "I couldn't imagine, if I wasn't playing camogie at the time . . . I don't know where I'd be right now. I was in such a dark place, such a low point in my life."
The dark days started, for Ashling, with a car crash in 2009, near her home in Newtownshandrum on the Cork-Limerick border. She was 19 and in her first year at college. Before that, she was, she says, a perfectly happy, sports-mad teenager. "I was always playing at the highest level. I was on the Cork senior camogie team when I was in secondary school. I was gifted naturally as a young girl. I never struggled to get on the highest-level team, which was great. I was engulfed in sport growing up. I was a pure fairy, I just wanted to play sports all the time.
"I was real smart at school, but had no interest whatsoever. The teachers thought I was a bit of an eejit, like: 'So much potential, really good in class, but . . . ' We always got on really well, and I'd always do my homework, but when it came to studying, I hated being cooped up in a classroom. I needed to be physically active."
Did she never have a teenage moment when boys took precedence over sport? "Never. I was a tomboy. I don't think I wore make-up until I was in first year in college."
And so, for Ashling, the impact of the car crash was devastating far beyond her physical injuries. "I had no broken bones," she says, "no life-threatening injuries, but I had severe muscle damage to my neck and back. I was used to getting bangs in games, and, at first, I said, 'I'll be totally fine'. But in the hospital, the physio said, 'There's no way you can go back playing, and you probably won't be right for a long time'. So when it came to that realisation, it hit me like a ton of bricks. That car accident set me back for about three years."
It was, she admits, very much her response to it that was the problem. "I could have prevented it from being prolonged, but the impact it had on my mental health and my feelings . . . I stopped talking to my friends. I would be cooped up in my room 24/7. I stopped eating; I lost so much weight. I should have been 10 stone, but I was seven-and-a-half stone. I was skin and bone. It all was so overwhelming, and I didn't know how to cope with it. I was just so sick, physically and mentally sick, at the thoughts of it. Your whole identity comes to a stop," she explains. "It was like it was taken away from me, and there was nothing I could do. It was so disheartening, and I started to get really angry then."
The anger was very much directed at herself, because it was Ashling who was driving the day she crashed. "I was angry at myself - 'Why did I go out that day? There was no need to go. If only I hadn't'." Clearly, she already had a bad temper - at one point, she talks about her two older brothers, saying with a laugh, "They would have been half afraid of me. I'd such a temper. I'd lose it in a second if you said the wrong thing . . ." - and it doesn't take a degree in psychology to begin to understand the effect of all that anger, bottled up and turned inwards.
"I didn't have a clue what was going on in my head. And I was someone who was really hard to read, so it was very difficult for my parents to read what was going on in my head. I might go out and drive around and they would think, 'she's with her friends', but I wasn't. I would drive around on my own, or go for walks on my own, trying to figure out what was going on in my head. And eventually, that got the better of me. I became depressed, but didn't have a clue about depression, the signs or symptoms, so I was constantly beating myself up: 'Why am I feeling this way?'"
Ashling is pretty matter-of-fact about all this - and, because she never really spoke to a professional about what was going on, saying, "I never found the right person" - she doesn't have the language of therapy to explain herself. Instead, it comes out, entirely in her own words, and all the more raw for that. "My mam had no control over me. Nobody would have had control of me. I went through the whole thing on my own. I didn't want to listen to anyone. And I was so angry that if my parents or my friends gave their opinion, I'd say, 'It's none of your business, I know what I'm doing!' I thought I'd be showing weakness if I said anything. I couldn't say anything to my mam. I was embarrassed, I was ashamed. I felt, 'She's not going to know anyway, she's not going to help'. And I didn't want her worrying about me."
And so Ashling bottled up the anger and the hurt, talking to no one, taking no antidepressants. "I think it was just that I've been brought up to fend for myself. That's just the way I was brought up, and it wasn't a bad thing. We'd kill for each other, but there was no 'I love you', and hugging. We weren't soft. We're all athletes. My mother was an athlete, my dad was a hurler, my brothers are athletes. Everybody was involved in GAA; it was a tough atmosphere.
"Growing up in a sporting environment, you've got to be tough as nails. My two older brothers, we're really close; if someone ever upset me, they'd be straight in there, but they couldn't understand it, they'd never experienced it before. And depression, even then, was such a taboo subject. Even I didn't have a clue what was going on. I never said that word to myself."
When Ashling did go back to training and playing, the anger came with her. "My sport suffered," she says. "My anger showed throughout my performances. I started to retaliate a lot on the field. I was involved in a lot of physical altercations, and that's where my identity changed from being this super-athletic child and teenager, to being this hothead. I'd get targeted then in every game. Everyone wants to target someone who is going to lose the head, especially if they're effective. I was never the same athlete or player I used to be, and it felt like I'd lost that."
It is at this point that her eyes fill with tears. "It makes me emotional now, because I get flashbacks . . . I knew I'd lost myself . . . ", she says, before making a visible effort to pull herself together, "Sorry, I haven't cried in a while.
"I got so fed up, because it was like I was fighting a losing battle. Things started getting sour in the camp. Trainers would leave me on the bench because I was such a liability. That was a first for me. And I made it worse then." A kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? If you think I'm bad, I'll be the worst? "Exactly. I started not going to training. I would be so low I wouldn't get out of bed." When she describes the situation as "a ticking time-bomb," it's easy to feel the growing rage, frustration and loneliness that built within her, the lack of an effective outlet, or any real handle on what was happening to her.
Instead, Ashling acted out, as so many young people do, by choosing to distract herself. "I started to crave attention from a different light, I went on a really bad path and started doing stupid things out late at night, not coming home."
What kind of stupid things, I wonder? Drinking? "Yes, but I was never a big drinker, and I'm not to this day. But [I was] constantly involved in physical altercations. Getting involved with people who were up to all sorts. I was in such a bad place, any bit of excitement, it was a change. And it grew on me. It's very easy for someone to fall off the right path and onto the wrong one." Again, the memories make her suddenly emotional.
"I had a few really tough experiences," she says. "I still haven't chosen to speak out about them, because I feel like I'm still not over it. I feel I'm not ready to talk about these things because I'm still so young - you'd be afraid of what people would think." Much more than that, she will not say.
"People do get the gist of it," she claims. "You get involved with the wrong crowd - there's violence and everything involved. Bad relationships. You seek out terrible people who won't feel sorry for you, who are up to all sorts, because it feels normal then. It was literally a roller coaster for four years, and I nearly fell off it."
She is clearly repelled by the memory of the person she was, saying, "If I could show you a clip of me back then, it would be like looking at a different person. I was so completely different. It's amazing I am the person I am today."
Does she feel sorry for the person she was? "Yes. But I'm disgusted in myself as well. I did put my family through a lot. I put my mam through so much. And my dad, and my two brothers. Last year, when we won the All-Ireland" - with Ashling as captain - "for them to see me standing up on the Hogan Stand . . . we're really tough and strong, we don't cry, we don't hug, we don't say 'I love you', but everyone was in tears.
"My brother texted me after, saying, 'You don't realise how proud of you I am'. You don't get those messages. My dad would have been bawling. My mother, and she never cries, was bawling. To see the difference . . ."
It is this - the difference - that drives Ashling; the knowledge born of experience that change is possible. For her, 'better' started with the arrival of a new coach, Frank Flannery, to Milford GAA. "We just clicked, from day one. He had been battling his own demons in the past, fell off the right path for a while, so he could relate to me, straight away. He threw me a few home truths - 'This is the way it's going to be . . . But, if you have any problem, at six o'clock in the morning, ring me'. He was there for me, on the field and off the field. It was the first time I felt I really had someone on my side - I did have people, but it felt like they never knew the extent, but with him, we laid it all out on the table, we shared our experiences. It just felt like I could be very open, because he was a stranger. It was the right person at the right time."
Just as Ashling was beginning the slow journey back to a better place, she was hit with a new and terrible blow. "I was in an on-off relationship with a guy. It was constantly on and off, but we were the best of friends. I was in a lot of toxic relationships during the bad times, but this was a healthy one. We were so close. He ended up taking his own life that year. His 21st birthday was just two weeks later. The worst of it was, it was totally unexpected. He'd never spoken about his feelings."
Ashling's cousin rang with the news that the young man - she has asked that his name not be included - was on life-support. "She never got the message across fully, because the phone cut out. I thought he was in a car accident. I was in shock. I didn't want to believe it - I thought: 'Ok, he's on life support, he's a fighter, he'll be ok'. Then my cousin rang me again and said he attempted to take his own life. I went to training, because I'd never let Frankie down, and then it just hit me, like a ton of bricks. I broke down and started bawling.
"I said to Frankie, 'If he doesn't make it, I can't see a way out'. I felt my soul had been sucked out of my body; I couldn't breathe when it hit me." The advice and support Ashling got in that moment was what has allowed her to carry on. "Frankie said, 'No matter what happens, if I've to pick you up and carry you, I will. Just stick with me. You're either going to be buried six feet under from this, or you can make yourself the best person it's possible to be'. I had learned to trust him. I'd seen the changes a few months had made, so I didn't question it. I just went, 'Ok, I need to trust him, because I don't know what I'm going to do'."
Tragically, Ashling's friend died. "I don't think there's a day that goes by that I don't think about him, but at the same time, the success I've had since, I feel like he's watching me. After he passed away, my life has literally turned upside down: the championships we've won, the person I am now. I kept training. I kept going. Because it's life or death. One foot in front of the other, and hope for the best. For me, not training would be like a diabetic not taking their insulin."
Ashling is adamant that she is the sum of all her experiences, bad as well as good. "I always stress: I would not be where I am today if I didn't go through all this. I feel like I'm made of steel. Even when I was like an egg, and you could have shattered me, there was always something in me that didn't want to let go just yet. It's literally about holding on. It's one little thing - a person, a pastime - that'll save you. If you can hold on and take the small steps, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I hung on, and I had Frankie, but it still took me until two years ago to get into a good place again."
And even now, she takes nothing for granted. "I have days when I feel low. I had a patch last year where I started to feel down in myself again, a small bit of depression was creeping back. It can still happen. But I get satisfaction from knowing I know how to cope with it. I'm so happy I have the coping mechanisms, that I know what to do, because it's such a scary place if you don't know what to do."
Right now, Ashling is working, as a sports massage therapist, alongside training, and isn't currently in a relationship. "It's not that I feel I'm not ready," she explains, "I just take it as it comes. I wouldn't go out of my way to look for a relationship, I just go along with whatever's meant to be." As for the eventual prospect of retirement from competitive playing, she says, "I know it's going to be really difficult when I do retire, but I can't see myself ever giving up sport. I'll find something else. But I would hope to keep playing the way I do until I'm 35, at least."
One of the key things she has learned, at last, is that admitting to needing help is not a sign of failure. "It's not a weak thing to do," she insists. "It's incredibly strong. I began to open up to my family, and now it's completely different. The first thing that would happen now, I'd go straight to my mother. I'd tell my mother anything."
The other thing - keep training. "It's the first thing I'd do. I know the benefits of it, even to an extreme level." Tough personal experience is the source of Ashling's conviction, and why she is so determined to get the message across. "I feel it's up to the parents. Especially when children are young. But if the parents aren't involved in sport themselves, they don't realise the benefits. That's where my job comes in."
She is particularly shocked at a statistic from Irish Life Health's research. It indicates that, in a challenge comparing the fitness levels of first-year students against the same group in fourth year, the boys improved their fitness by nearly 20pc (from an average of 53 shuttle runs to 71), while girls remained the same. Static. No improvement between the ages of 12 and 16, a time when they should be getting bigger, stronger, fitter.
"It's not that girls aren't as interested as boys," Ashling insists. "It's just that it's way cooler for boys to play sport. So girls are falling by the wayside. Sport is the normality for boys; for a lot of girls, it's not. They find it hard to keep it up." To which, Ashling's response is, "If you do stick with it, you will see so much of a change, emotionally, mentally, physically. You don't have to be engulfed in it, it's about having fun, but I guarantee you will see the difference."
Irish Life Health Schools' Fitness Challenge, see irishlifehealth.ie/fitnesschallenge
Photography by Kip Carroll.
Styling by Liadan Hynes