Throughout the majority of my childhood and teenage years, I dealt with chronic anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I was always taught not to let the intrusive thoughts that came from these disorders affect my daily life, but it is easier said than done. When you mix a tragic death, a divorce, and transitioning to college into the equation, all within six months of each other, it can be a much harder battle to fight.
I come from a place called Londonderry, a very small town in southern New Hampshire, not too far from Boston. When I was eight years old, my mom decided to sign my sister and me up for horseback riding lessons. Little did she know, she had just unleashed a passion that would guide me for the rest of my childhood and into my young adulthood. By the time I was ten, I had worked my way up to world and national competitions and was ready for a fancy show horse of my own.
On Christmas Day 2015, I received Gipper; the horse that would carry me to numerous wins, titles, and memories. Most importantly, this was the beginning of a rare and special bond between the two of us.
Right before my sophomore year of highschool, I started to get bored with my only activity being horseback riding. I wanted to be around my friends at school and find a way to become more involved. My Uncle Matt, who is one of my biggest role models, talked me into signing up for cross country. It did not take long for me to fall in love with running and the grind of it.
To this day, the hard work and effort it takes to be successful in running is my favorite aspect of it.
I ran cross country and track at my hometown highschool for my sophomore and junior years, but transferred to a new school my senior year. There, I competed on the varsity cross country and track teams.
It had always been my dream to attend college at the University of Kentucky. I loved every aspect of the school; plenty of horses, beautiful trails to run on, the football games, and the experience I could have there. I had absolutely no plan to run in college since I was attending an SEC school. I was completely content with finishing out my competitive running career in highschool and joining Kentucky’s club team. It seemed like the perfect place for me, at least until life started to throw curveballs at me.
It was January 20, 2021. I was sitting at my dining room table taking a physics exam remotely and my mom had just left the house to pick my sister up from school. Honestly, it was a great day so far. My new puppy, Hazel, had slept through the night, I had aced my test, and now I was playing outside with her. Extra sleep, good grades, and a new puppy to play with? Come on! What was there to complain about?
My mom came home from getting my sister from school, and I instantly knew something was wrong just by watching her body language getting out of the car. I ran inside and heard the words that broke my heart, “Ashley, something’s happened to Gipper. He had a seizure and broke his leg.”
I fell to the ground. It felt like my world had come crashing down. We drove straight to the barn. We got there so fast that we actually beat the vet there. Two hours later, I had to make the decision to put my beloved Gipper to sleep. A decision no seventeen year old should have to make. His broken leg was so severe, he would not have been able to live a quality life, no matter what surgery was performed.
In that moment, I had to say goodbye to so many goals and dreams I had wanted to accomplish with Gipper. Most of all, I had to say goodbye to my world, my constant, and half of my heart. I will never forget how much love I was surrounded by; from my family and friends, my horse trainers, and the entire horse industry. This loss, to this day, is the hardest thing I have ever had to go through.
Two months later, I was finally feeling better. I was starting to pick up the pieces and focus on an amazing outdoor track season and horse show season. Track season and horse show season start at the exact same time every year, so I am very used to juggling both. As soon as I finally felt like I could breathe again, my parents decided they were going to get a divorce. Awesome.
It was the end of my senior year, the time everyone says is supposed to be the best time of your life. My experience, if you could not tell, was quite the opposite. Nevertheless, I persisted, had a great track season, started the show season strong, and finished my senior year making fun memories with my friends.
Even though I put these hardships on the backburner, it did not change the fact that I had to deal with them at some point. Unfortunately, that eventually all bottled up and came out at a much later date.
It was the end of Summer 2021; a summer filled with lots of running, time with family, and valuable time at the barn. Even though I had done all of these things to fill my cup to make sure I would be happy moving away to Kentucky for college, it still did not feel like the right choice. A week before I was supposed to move into my dorm at the University of Kentucky, I deferred my attendance and enrolled at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. The bottom line is, I had been through so much mental damage within the six months prior that I just could not bear the thought of moving far away from home.
This new college decision brought one very big opportunity; the chance to run in college. I reached out to the coach and we had a phone conversation the next day. Fall 2021 was the inaugural year for Wentworth’s Women’s Cross Country Team and I am proud to have been a part of it. I never dreamed I would be running in college, but I feel very lucky that it fell into my lap.
My cross country season was pretty average. Obviously, I was not prepping for college running over the summer, so I hit my peak way too early. I wound up getting pretty burnt out, which resulted in me missing my freshman indoor track season. Contrary to what others might think, despite sitting out from track, I never stopped running. At the end of January, I received an opportunity to run the Boston Marathon this April and I immediately jumped on it. I put my head down, got to work, and started my training cycle promptly.
I thought putting all of my stress into training for the marathon would help me. Turns out, I was very wrong.
As February and March rolled on, my anxiety started to increase more than it ever had before. I describe it as having constant turmoil with myself. If something happy was not happening at every given moment, I would find something to be upset about. Every time I let myself be happy, I would tear down that thought with another destructive one.
My threshold for getting upset was also a lot lower than most other people’s, causing me to get upset over irrelevant things, which was very draining. In addition to my newly profound mental struggles, I also had to deal with brushing the situations of 2021 under the rug. This brought back many unresolved feelings, which caused me to spiral into a very dark place.
Like most other runners, I turned to running as a coping mechanism. All of my energy went into training for the marathon, but this caused an even bigger dilemma for me to address. I began to despise running because I was not running with passion anymore; I was running out of anger and bitterness at life. While I think it is a good thing to set goals and keep yourself busy when trying to cope with issues, it is never smart to hyperfocus on something so much that you suck the joy out of it.
Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. Running the marathon may not have been the best decision for me; I was risking a very large injury and I was running it for the wrong reasons. Even though this decision was hard to come to, I know it was for the best.
Fortunately, I have a very responsive mother who knows me better than I know myself. After crying to her on the phone about how sad I was for the umpteenth time, I hung up, did my hair, and started to get ready for my day. Ten minutes later, I got a phone call from her telling me to come home from Boston for the day and go to the doctor to address these issues. It was not fair to myself or anyone around me to go on like this anymore. I’ve always been one to steer away from any type of medicine because, honestly, I felt ashamed. Although, there is absolutely no reason to be ashamed.
Everyone deserves to be happy and live life to the fullest, and if medical intervention is what it takes, then so be it.
After a long conversation with the doctor, we figured out a solution that works for me, and has been working magic ever since.
After getting the proper help I needed, I now realize my struggle with anxiety affected me more than I realized. My social interactions, my happiness, and my outlook on everything has done a complete 180. The past year has been a roller coaster ride I never thought I would be on, but I would not change anything.
Was it hard? Absolutely. Was any of it ideal? Absolutely not.
It made me stronger, and proved that if I can handle these problems, I can truly handle anything.
Life is too short to stay bitter and focus on the negative situations that have happened. The past year has left me with a few lessons that I think everyone should know:
It is okay to grieve over death, loss, and having to let go, but I will not let it inhibit me from making new memories and moving forward.
I will not listen to the people who say I cannot do something. I promise I will prove that I can and will.
I will not overwork myself to the point of burnout.
Yes, running is something I enjoy working hard for and I enjoy being successful, but I will never forget that at the end of the day, it is all for fun.