When Ashleigh reflects on her life’s journey so far, she can see the many turning points that have brought her to where she is today. She sees God’s grace in each of those moments. It makes her smile and fills her with hope.
“I am so blessed,” she says. “I’m just surprised over and over again by how God works.”
Ashleigh describes herself as a gamer and a metalhead. She is also a daughter, a sister, and a friend. She is a person of deep faith in God. And when she’s at work, Ashleigh is a Peer Support Worker (PSW), supporting others on their journey towards mental wellness. It is work that she loves.
“Peer Support is not a job, it’s a blessing. This is where God wants me to be,” she says. “I’m mostly working in the psychiatric unit, which is my favourite place. I’ve met the most incredible people and I can relate to their experiences because I’ve been there.”
Ashleigh’s own journey with mental health challenges began in her early teen years after her mother passed away. Ashleigh was close to her mom and her death made an impact on Ashleigh’s faith.
“I was so angry with God,” she remembers.
The trauma of this loss became a turning point. Ashleigh’s world was turned upside-down, she lost all motivation, including a will to live. It was then that she began to experience the first symptoms of schizophrenia.
“I started hearing voices, malicious voices, that told me it was my fault that my mom had died,” she says.
Confused and scared by what she was experiencing, she retreated even further from life around her. She was an outsider at school because of her love of heavy metal music and didn’t have many friends with whom she could talk. But then she connected with a teacher over a shared love of metal music. Ashleigh told him about the voices.
“He called my dad and told him that they were taking me to the hospital and I was admitted to the psychiatric unit,” she says. “I was terrified.”
It took some time to get to the diagnosis of schizophrenia and still more time to find the right balance of medication that helps Ashleigh live a healthy life. Although it was one of the hardest things she’s ever done, Ashleigh realized that making that choice to be vulnerable and seek help was vital.
“There is no shame in asking for help, it’s a sign of strength,” she says.
The journey back to faith took a little longer. Metal music is a source of expression and comfort for her, especially Christian metal bands like P.O.D. She has reached out to musicians through social media or email and has found encouragement from the interactions she has had. After another difficult season in her life, she reached another turning point on March 5, 2021.
“That’s the day I rededicated my life to Jesus,” she says. “I felt a joy and a peace like never before. I’d always struggled with my identity, trying to fit in. Now I know that my identity is in Jesus.”
It was a truly life-changing moment and while all those around her have noticed a profound change in her, she doesn’t want people to think that she is a religious fanatic. The transformation is one that has enabled her to see others in a new way.
“This experience has made me more empathetic and compassionate,” she says. “I no longer judge people, I just try to see them as Jesus would and be authentic about who I am.”
As she reflects on this journey, Ashleigh sees how God’s grace has been extended to her through so many people: the teacher who listened, the mental health support people who helped her find the right balance of medication, the friends and family who have stood by her even in the darkest times, especially her dad.
“My dad is my hero. When I got my diagnosis, he dropped everything to support me,” she says.
It was her dad who suggested that she look into Peer Support and that suggestion led to yet another turning point. She came to the realization that she was relying on others for her health and blaming God when things didn’t go as she thought they should. It was when she made the decision to choose hope and fight for the life she wanted, that things really began to change for the better.
Look where I am today! I have my own place, I pay my own bills, I have a job that I love, with a faith-based organization that I love. – Ashleigh, PSW
She hopes that anyone who encounters her story will see her – and anyone living with mental health challenges – as more than their diagnosis.
“I am human,” she says. “Mental illness is a health issue like any other, that can be helped with medication, the right support, and life-style changes.”
If God’s grace has been extended to her at each turning point in life so far, Ashleigh knows that there is more to come and she is grateful. She is particularly thankful for Communitas and the opportunity that she has to use her life’s experiences to help others.
“I’m so happy here. I’ve made such amazing friends,” she says. “Doing this job is a way of giving back and of showing the people in my life that their efforts for me were not in vain.”
You can hear Ashleigh tell her story in her own words in this video from the Schizophrenia Society of Canada.