Cork camogie star, Ashling Thompson, talks about what she has learned from the last 10 years of her life that have seen her battle depression, cope with the tragic loss of her friend, win seven All-Ireland titles for club and county and get caught in a media storm around her court case last year.
When I hit rock bottom, I was only 22 years of age. I genuinely didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror because I was disgusted with the person that I’d turned out to be. That might be harsh of me to say about myself, but it’s the truth. I was just disgusted by the person in the reflection.
It started with a car crash.
I ended up with pretty serious back and neck injuries. It took a massive toll on my sporting life at a pretty young age.
At the time, I was playing all sorts of sports, not just camogie. I was in college. I’d a hectic life. I went from being on the road for seven days a week to zero. Just imagine having your life revolve around one thing and then that’s taken away from you in an instant.
I had to drop out of college. No college and no sport. I just couldn’t handle it. It was a huge turning point in my life that had a massive negative impact on both my physical and mental health. I started to crave the attention that I used to get from sport. I filled that void by leading myself down a dark path, getting in with the wrong crowd. That’s when things began to spiral out of control.
Before that, I’d never felt feelings of depression. As a child, I never had dark thoughts.
Rock bottom for me was realising that I wasn’t the same person that I used to be. I just knew that I wasn’t Ashling anymore and clearly, I wasn’t the same athlete. I didn’t know who I was.
Everything was affected, eating habits and all. I lost a lot of weight after that car accident from stress. I’m somebody who needs a schedule and structure in my life and all of a sudden, I had none. Absolutely none.
Nearly three years down the line from that, it came to the point where I just didn’t even want to be here anymore. I was just sick of it. Every day was the same. It was a constant struggle, a constant battle. I’d lost any faith I had, I was thinking, “If there is a God, then why would I be feeling this way?”
I handled it my own way, which is just very me, I guess. When I was faced with depression, I just knew I had to make a decision. It was ‘shit or bust’ as they say. I was either going to lead myself down an even darker path, and God only knows where I’d have ended up, or I could decide that I was not going to give in.
That stubborn and competitive side kicked in. I knew I was better than that. I knew there was more in me. It’s like extra time in an All-Ireland final you think, “Fuck that. This is going to be the battle now”. I don’t know what it was, but there was just something in me that wanted to give it that extra push.
We turned a corner with the club that exact same year (2012) and lucky for me, we brought in a brand-new coach to the senior squad. Frank Flannery was the turning point for me. I confided in Frankie. Everyone in that situation needs to talk to someone, and he became my councilor as such
His name is on repeat to the point that everyone thinks he gets paid every time I mention him, but I can’t – not mention him. Frankie was the key to my recovery.
I never sought professional help; it just didn’t work for me. I find it extremely hard to trust people. I didn’t want to upset my family either, I felt I’d put them through enough. So, I turned to someone who I didn’t really know, but we connected on so many levels. Frankie has his own story that he shared with me, so I opened up to him. The floodgates opened and we just created a bond.
He was the type of coach that I’d never come across in my life. I’d never connected with a coach on a personal level. It was exactly what I needed. He just reinforced that if I put in the work and do the time, he would help me. He always said, “anything that goes on outside of that, I am just one phone call away.” Having that support and being able to open up to someone – that was my lifeline.
We went back training with the club in March with Frankie. Little by little, I could see the improvements in myself. I was sticking to my training, trying to get back to who I was. That was what I needed. It’s funny because sometimes you forget about the simple things that once made you happy. Slowly, but surely, I was settling back into the environment. I was getting back to myself.
Then a good friend of mine, someone who I’d been in an on-and-off relationship with, committed suicide. It was very sudden. It was something I definitely never saw coming. His family never saw it coming. This was totally out of the blue.
I still remember getting the phone call. I was driving to training, and I went to training without saying a thing to anyone. He hadn’t passed away at the time, he was on life support. I went into complete shock.
I trained, but Frankie could see straight away that there was something wrong. He pulled me over to the bench and asked, ‘‘What is wrong?’’ I just broke down and poured it all out on the side of the field. I said, “Frankie, I don’t think this is for me. Is this a sign? What’s going on? Why are these things happening?” It was just one thing after the other.
He tried his best to put himself in my shoes for a moment, but he just kept enforcing that I was going to have to stick with the training – “Stick with the process and things will get better.” After that, Frankie just kept tabs. He kept ringing me to make sure I was coming to training.
Obviously, it was a devastating time, but I knew that training was helping me before that, but my friend’s death knocked me back fairly close to square one again. I know what it feels like to be in the position he was in. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
I found it very hard to come to terms with it. We hadn’t spoken in a couple of weeks, and the last time we spoke he didn’t seem himself. You start to think that maybe there was something you could have said or done differently to change things. Even just asking the simple question, “Are things OK?”. That was the hardest part for me.
”I feel the victims of suicide are often the family. Going to his wake and his funeral and seeing how devastating it is, I would never want to put my family in that position. Ever.
I know, for someone to have suicidal thoughts, it is the toughest place you will ever be, and it’s a split-second decision. It’s a flick of a switch. But you have to carry on.
I feel like losing my friend has a lot to do with where I am now. I feel he just gave me that extra push and determination to make him proud. In the strangest of ways, he gave me a new lease of life.
Growing up at home, I was the same as any other country kid, out playing any chance we could get. Back then, it was pure sport. Life was easy. There were no real pressures really until you maybe got to a final and there was silverware at stake. You just played for the love of it. We enjoyed it to the max.
My brothers and I would have been extremely competitive since we came out of the womb.
When you’re born into playing and wanting to win, and you grow up around that you’re just totally engrossed. It becomes your life.
Nowadays, sport is a lot more serious and, admittedly, it’s not a very nice place to be at times. There are more pressures and things that go on inside and outside the camp that can affect you.
I think if there’s ever an opportunity to take a step back and look at it from the outside then players should do that. I’ve had to do that a couple of times. It’s what I’ve needed.
Thinking of the day I captained my county to an All-Ireland is crazy. I’m still trying to figure out how it all happened. There are only so many people who can say they’ve captained their county to All-Ireland success.
Initially, it wasn’t a role that I was very comfortable with because I was still coming into my own. I was only 23-years-old when I came back on the squad and was asked to be captain at 24. It was a lot to take on. I was kind of nervous to take it on. I knew I could certainly handle the pressure but as a captain you have responsibilities as a leader.
But when the opportunity is there, I don’t think there are many people who would turn that down no matter how bad the pressure gets. It happened close to a very tough period in my life, so it meant a lot to me.
That moment, being presented with the cup in Croke Park, I will keep very close to my heart for the rest of my life.
I’ve been on the other side of it too of course. To lose an All-Ireland Final is devastating. I always say that no matter what happens in a game once I have given it 100%, then I’m satisfied walking into a dressing room and being able to look in the mirror and know I gave it everything I could. When I’ve to drag myself off the pitch, that’s when I feel there’s no more I could have done.
After the 2016 All-Ireland Final I felt that as a team and as an individual, we hadn’t done enough that day. I hate to say it, but I knew 20 minutes into that game that something was off.
That was the most sickening feeling. It felt like a wasted opportunity. It was nothing to do with going for three-in-a-row or any of this craic. It’s when you spend nine months of the year training and then it’s just not enough, it’s devastating.
”Losing was very unfamiliar territory. I just felt like it wasn’t real. It can’t be real. I’m not meant to lose!
No matter how old you get, or no matter how far you get into your career, every loss is a wound that stays open.
That’s what I feel like every time I get out on the pitch. I feel that’s what I’m there for, to finish the mission. You’re obviously going to lose a lot more than you win in life, but that’s what makes it. It’s extremely tough to be on the losing side but it’s also true that without losses you never fully appreciate the wins.
The first All-Ireland Club win in 2013 was just indescribable. I’ve never felt anything like the emotion felt from every player and the entire area of Milford.
For any club player to get to Croke Park and get up on the podium of the Hogan Stand after never playing there before in your life, winning an All-Ireland at the top level, with girls you grew up with, your family, I don’t know what compares to that. That’s the ultimate.
I think if I’d have died the following morning, I’d have been as happy as Larry. The imperfections and the struggles that happened previous to that just left my mind and my body in that moment.
I’d never seen my family cry, ever. We are not emotional people to each other. They’ve all cried a couple of times in Croke Park whether it be for club or county. That’s what it means to them, to me.
I feel I’ve so much to give, and I’ve so much making up to do with my family at times, it’s moments like that that are priceless.
Before the car accident and all that came with it, I was as quiet as a mouse on the field. I was the speedy corner forward scoring loads of goals and taking people for a run around the pitch.
I think it was just the obstacles and struggles that I’ve had to face in life that created a whole new persona. I had to be tough. I had to be strong.
One moment you’re a nobody and the next you have people talking about you. You’ve caught people’s attention. It was something I was unfamiliar with. I didn’t really notice the attention initially when we won the first All-Ireland with Cork or the first couple of All-Irelands with the club. I was just so focused on winning and wanting more. Then with the papers and social media it does catch your eye and it is hard to ignore it. It takes its toll eventually. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me.
In the beginning, I was just really proud of myself. I still am. I care about what my family and my closest friends think of me. But after a couple of years I think I had a bit of PTSD. It didn’t impact me initially but then, two or three years into things going well, I started to get anxiety and panic attacks and I didn’t understand why.
”I had been going from one extreme to the next. Car crash. Depression. Losing my friend to suicide. Then, winning four All-Irelands in two years.
Everything happened in such a short space of time. I didn’t get a chance to sit back and evaluate what had gone on.
When I entered a pitch, I could just shut it out. The odd comment that you might see online might piss me off for a second, but once I crossed the white lines everything just left my mind.
When I started opening up about mental health difficulties, you’d see comments from people like, “Her tattoos are shit” or “She’s just looking for attention”. Some people just get uncomfortable with the fact that you have a profile and they feel the need to put you in your place.
Whenever you go against the grain, there’s never anything positive that comes out of it. Having said that, there are a certain amount of people that will appreciate your honesty as a person, but as a female, there can be a “Who are you to talk?” type of reaction, from both men and women. It’s like you’re not expected to be that honest. I’m not going to be a fake person for anybody else. My opinion is my own.
It takes something huge to face an obstacle and get over it. Without those mistakes and those struggles, I wouldn’t be the person that I am. People strive for perfection, especially athletes.
”What people fail to realise is that without my mistakes and imperfections, I wouldn’t be the person I am. I wouldn’t have seven All-Ireland’s to show for it. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.
Sport picked me up from the ground. It got me out of the deep, dark hole I never thought I could get out of. I owe so much to sport, to camogie, my family, my team.
That is where the passion comes from. Anger on the pitch is just passion. I’ve had to fight for it all my life. I’m not going to let someone’s opinion or the media or anyone else take that away from me. Aggressiveness is just the way it comes out in me. I’m everything I want to be on the pitch, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. That’s something you can’t buy. It’s something a lot of players don’t have. I feel pretty lucky to be who I am.
I’m glad the court case incident didn’t happen a few years ago. I’m glad it happened now. Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with certain situations and to look at them from a different perspective.
One thing I’ve learned is that your opinion is a reflection of yourself. Anyone who thinks that I’m an animal, who doesn’t deserve freedom then that’s a reflection on themselves. To comment on somebody who they’ve never met, never sat down with, never crossed paths with, how do they have the authority to pass judgement without even knowing the whole story.
To me, the only thing that matters is happiness. My family who’ve always been there for me, my club, the handful of friends, with them is where I’m at my happiest. I’d take a bullet for any of them.
That was the toughest part for me, that my whole family had to suffer. Reading things online, I know it will hurt them ten times more than it will hurt me.
”Throw digs and shit at me, that’s grand but, when I see my family suffering, that is a whole other level.
You are not going to change my opinion. I’ve made many mistakes, I take that. I’ll totally own up to my mistakes and what I do.
Denzel Washington once said, “If you don’t read the media, you’re uninformed. But if you read the media, you’re misinformed.” That’s the best statement I’ve ever heard in my life.
I opened up about my mental health and put myself on a platform to help other people, but when things go wrong, people are down your throat.
The media forgot everything positive that had happened and focused on that one thing. They said, “This is who she is now”. They said, “She’s not the person you thought she was”.
I know who I am. I’ve owned up to every mistake I’ve ever made, and I’ve owned it. I’ve moved on and tried to do better. I never thought I’d see the day where something would go wrong, and that was the reaction I’d get.
They couldn’t give a flying fuck what happens to you. That was the killer for me. You can’t be on the bandwagon and jump off it when it suits.
The media know the battles I’ve had and totally abused that in my eyes. I might not even be here right now just because of that media frenzy around that case. There was nothing to stop me from going down to the nearest river if I let it get to me like that. That might be a blunt way to put it, but it’s the truth.
I accept my repercussions, but was it fair that I should have been put through that media circus?
It had a massive impact on my family. They couldn’t walk into a shop without seeing my puss on the front of a newspaper. Breaking that to my family was one of the toughest things I think I’ve ever experienced. To think of my mother, my grandmother, even my brothers having to read that. It was just devastating. Absolutely devastating.
Then I have to look at the messages I get from people who I did help. I still get messages from people telling me to keep the head up. I get messages from people trying to keep me on this earth because I once helped them. After time, that’s something positive you can take out of it. Whether you met those people or not, you helped them, and they will always stay loyal. That’s what meant the most to me.
Who’s there for you and who’s not? When things take an awful turn, that’s when you find out. Again, like everything, it’s just another learning curve. There was a lot of growth for me through it all. While there was a lot of negativity around it, there was a lot of support too and the light overcame the dark.
I’ll never let anyone else define my career or define me as a person. In my eyes, I’ve nothing to prove. The people closest to me know who I am, and I know who I am and that’s the way you’ve to look at it. Because there is no other way.
”You could be Mother Teresa, and you could give everything that you have to a charity, and somebody will still have a problem with it.
At this point, it’s just about striving to be happy. It’s not about perfection anymore.
That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned. When everything is stripped from you, that’s when you realise what’s important.
The last two years, I’ve had almost everything taken away from me apart from my family and my sport. If I had to choose between that and the material things in life, it’s no question. At the end of the day, it’s your family and your sport that’s going to be there for you.
I feel the last 10 years have been the most difficult and the best years of my life. It makes me wonder what in God’s name is to come.
Now, I’m not sure if it needed to be as intense as it was, but I feel you’re here for a reason. There’s always something to strive for. I’ve seen the good that’s come out of it. Overcoming the struggles make it great and life would be extremely boring if it was any different.
Something good comes along and all of a sudden, it’s a shock to the system, and I’ve to rewire and go again. Every time I’m picked up off the ground, I’m back even stronger.
That’s how I feel now. I feel really strong. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I’m down and low, but that’s OK. I’ve come to realise that too. I’ll embrace it. I’ve come to realise that if I feel a bit anxious and panicky to just take it on and accept it because it’s happening. Tomorrow, next month or two years’ time will be better. I will be better.
Yes, I’ve been through a lot, and there are a lot of things I wish I could take back and things I regret, but without them I wouldn’t be Ashling Thompson.
Patience is key. I came through things years ago by the skin of my teeth and learned the coping mechanisms along the way. To the younger me, I’d say, “Be patient when you are struggling and work at it.” Just know there is always going to be a light at the end of that tunnel. When the latest incident happened, I just had to keep telling myself, “This is going to be tough, and it might take a few years, but something great is going to come of it.”
I know I’ve put my family through a lot. At the end of the day, they’re extremely proud of me. Going down the town and someone mentions my name to them, I know that does something for them. My sport gives me purpose, and I know I give them a purpose. To me, that is everything.
I never want to see the day that I retire, but when I do, I want it to be on my terms. I would never want my career to end on someone else’s terms. That would be wrong. I’ll play until I can’t, until I know that I’m not capable. Hopefully, I’m not 90 when I realise that!
Some people have big hopes in life. Right now, for me, the pinnacle is still playing and winning for my club and my county. Maybe down the line starting a family. Who knows? I don’t really look to the future because I just live in the moment.
My hope is that I can be happy and healthy on my terms. That’s it summed up in one.
If you enjoyed Ashling’s piece you might like to read Clare Shine’s – “Advice For My Younger Self.”
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