Hello! My name is Ashley and I am the founder of Have Heart Co.
I always say that one of the most powerful things we can share is our story. Here is mine:
From a very young age I never felt “normal.” I can remember not wanting to be away from my parents for too long because it made me nervous, I struggled in school because I couldn’t sit still and I had butterflies all of the time and not in the good way. I didn’t understand until I was a lot older that what I was experiencing was a combination of anxiety and ADHD.
My first real recollection of my mental health conditions was when I went to a therapist in elementary school and I was diagnosed with ADHD and this was one of the main reasons that I couldn’t focus in school. This same therapist also told my parents that I also suffered from separation anxiety. I remember spending a lot of time in a stuffy office with the school counselor during this time. This was also the first time I experienced any mind altering drugs. I was prescribed a medication to help me focus better in school and eventually told my parents I didn’t like the way it made me feel and stopped taking it.
Moving forward to middle school, I was in a new school district and aside from a little anxiety here and there everything was going okay. My entire world came crashing down near the middle of 8th grade when my dad was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. At 13 I could not grasp what this meant and the thought of losing my dad sent me into a tailspin. I found myself, again, in the counseling office for many hours during the week. Thankfully this office was a lot roomier and comfortable than the last one (Shootout to Mrs. T who was one of the main reasons I was able to make it through that year.) As if my dad’s diagnosis wasn’t hard enough, I was being bullied by girls who used to be my best friends. I do not know exactly what happened but it was like my entire world changed overnight. I was barked at in the hallway (because they thought I looked like a dog), I had no one to sit with at lunch, rumors were being spread about me online and I remember coming home from school every single day and crying. This is the first time I recall ever feeling depression.
The bullying eventually subsided and I moved onto high school but I was still depressed and anxious a lot of the time. During this time my dad was receiving risky surgeries to prolong his life and they ended up doing their job. I think I was in denial about his illness because I was a self-absorbed angsty teenager. Freshman year of high school was pretty ordinary aside from underlying anxiety and depression that would eventually catch up with me.
In sophomore year I missed a lot of school due to an unknown illness which ended up being acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome. I was home schooled for a month while they were running tests and figuring out what was wrong with my stomach. Ever since the first time I was home schooled it was hard for me to readjust back to a typical school environment. Because of my ADHD the individual attention helped me tremendously and I loved not having to be in school. I finished out my sophomore year back in standard classes but when Junior year hit I started missing a lot of school again and inevitably was home schooled once again, this time for half the year. I would make up reasons why I couldn’t be at school but ultimately it was my anxiety that was starting to manifest into physical symptoms and slowly taking hold of my life.
Senior year came around and I tried to go to school the first week but I couldn’t do it and ended up being home schooled the entire year. Around this same time my dad was stable and had just opened his own business. I was working there almost full time and being tutored a few hours a day.
I remember going to therapists on and off during my high school years but I never committed to anything and placed blame on them not being good for me because they were “mean” or trying to tell me what to do.
I graduated high school and enrolled in community college and wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do as far as a career. My passion for art was reignited during this time and I started taking as many art electives as I could.
I was accepted into a local art school for the following spring semester and as exciting as that was it was around the same time that my dad’s health took a turn for the worst and there was nothing else they could do for him but keep him comfortable. The next year and a half would be one of the most difficult of my life. My dad lived at the hospital for about 6 months and between going back and forth to work, classes and the hospital it really took a toll on me. He came home for a little while and then was back in the hospital again three months later and I found myself back in the familiar routine of going to class, working, and visiting him at the hospital as much as I could.
On March 17th, 2013 my life changed forever. My dad lost his battle with cancer. It is something that nothing and no one can prepare you for. I threw myself into school and working and ignoring my grief and pretending that since he was sick for so long I was prepared for this, spoiler alert: I wasn’t. It took about 10 months but the grief resurfaced as anxiety and hit me like a truck.
In January of the following year I was convinced I was having a heart attack and ended up going to the ER. They knew right away it was anxiety and gave me fluids and Xanax and sent me on my way. Thinking my planned trip to Florida with my grandma would help me, I went and my anxiety just intensified. I cried for no reason, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t get out of bed and I felt like my life was spinning out of control. My mom had to fly to Florida so that she could escort me back home because I was too afraid to fly alone. The day we arrived back home we had a therapist appointment scheduled and I started back up in therapy.
I was still in school because it was the only thing that made sense to me and provided enough of a distraction that I wanted to keep going rather than take time off. The semester prior to this, I was talking to my drawing professor about my options for future career choices and I told him I didn’t know if I wanted to go down the route of art education or art history. He told me that our school offered an art therapy minor and it may be worth looking into. I had heard of art therapy before but I wasn’t too keen on having to continue going to school to get a master’s degree. But I knew that as much as art helped me during the darkest times in my life I wanted to be able to share this gift with others. That same week I enrolled in the minor and started my intro to art therapy course right after the whole Florida mishap. I was very transparent with my professors and told them about my anxiety and panic attacks and if I ever left class that’s what was going on.
My art therapy professor, who forever changed my life, was the most supportive and understanding individual and greatly helped me through this time in my life. She was always there for me when I needed to talk or help me make sense of what I was feeling. She would tell me how strong I was and how the art therapy field is going to be so lucky to have me because I “have heart” for this profession and for others. Ironically enough this statement she made to me was the foundation of something so much bigger.
Still in the throes of the darkest point in my life, I was trying to navigate my new diagnosis of panic disorder. I was obsessed with anything health related and automatically assumed that anything physically happening to me meant that I was going to die or that I had a serious illness. I googled every single symptom I had, checked my heart rate at least 90 times a day and was so focused on every one of my breaths that I barely could think about anything else. My entire life was consumed with my new health monitoring rituals. During this time, I barely left my house and anytime I did I needed to drive myself and know that it was an option for me to leave at any point. I spread out my classes at school so that I could drive home from campus during my breaks because I was too uncomfortable being anywhere else.
This was the first and only time in my life I felt like I was a prisoner in my own body. I have never wanted to take my own life but I would lay in bed at night and my heart would be racing and I would be so focused on my breathing that I couldn’t relax enough to go to sleep. I would lay there and wholeheartedly didn’t care whether or not I woke up the next day because it was just too much. After three months of this I decided it was time to go to a psychiatrist and see what my options were as far as medication. I was so against medication and did not want to be on something that I felt would change who I am but I knew my quality of life was completely diminished and I was willing to try anything.
The psychiatrist was booked for the next month, which is typically how it is, and I went to my GP desperate to find any solution. She prescribed me more Xanax to take as needed alongside Lexapro. Since she is not a mental health practitioner, the dose she prescribed me was too high. This lead to what basically was described to me later as poisoning my system with this medication. The general side effects for any SSRI are scary but the symptoms that I felt after two days on this medication were something I can’t even describe. I woke up one night around 3 am and was trembling with anxiety, I laid on the bathroom floor thinking that this was it. Thankfully, I made it through that episode and when I called my therapist and told her what happened she was able to get me an emergency appointment with a psychiatric nurse practitioner. I was reluctant to start medication considering what just happened to me but I knew I needed to at least try. She prescribed me a different SSRI that I have been on ever since. Within the next few months I started to take back some ownership of my life. I felt less anxious and was able to actually go out and enjoy things again. Medication alongside therapy lead me on a path the healing and recovery. It wasn’t a magic cure and I still had bad days and still do have bad days but I was able to find a sense of stability so that I could work on myself rather than barely being able to function.
Fast-forward a few years and here I am now, a 27-year-old woman with a master’s degree in creative arts therapy, working at an acute inpatient psychiatric hospital as an art therapist helping children all the way up to geriatric patients. I knew from the time I decided to become an art therapist that an inpatient setting was what I wanted to do. I felt so connected to that population because of my struggles and I wanted to share the healing power of art.
For those of you who don’t know what art therapy is, it is essentially like regular talk therapy except we use art as our modality. We utilize psychotherapy and encourage self-expression through art making to improve cognitive functioning, foster self-awareness and self-esteem, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight and reduce and resolve conflicts and distress.
I have been working as an art therapist for nearly two years now and it is something that I am so passionate about. While it was never easy, I am thankful to have gone through what I did as it led me to my purpose in life. My mental health has had its ups and downs throughout the past five years and I am actively in pretty intense weekly grief therapy. Hey, even therapists need therapy!
Starting something like Have Heart Co has always been a dream of mine and a few months ago I decided to make that dream a reality. I wanted to create a community where people can share their stories, support one another, fight back against stigma, give back and spread awareness for mental health.
I have so many plans for Have Heart Co. and am so excited for what is to come.
Thank you for being here and hearing my journey thus far. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
All my love,