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'I still have dark days when it's up and down but I won't give in to anything, not even depression'

This isn’t the first time Ashling Thompson has told her story but each and every time she does it helps someone else in a vulnerable position. A few years ago, she had given up but found a mental fortitude to battle back from the brink.

Thompson sat down with The42 during the week.
Thompson sat down with The42 during the week.
Image: Red Bull/The42

WHATEVER YOUR PRECONCEIVED opinions are, leave them here. Wherever your allegiances lie, put them to one side. As a person, Ashling Thompson — the Cork camogie captain and the sport’s teak-tough poster girl — deserves a fair trial at the very least.

Although, that said, it doesn’t really bother her what people think. She couldn’t care less if truth be told, but her story is worth listening to. It’s important.

Forget about camogie, forget about All-Irelands, forget about what happens across the white line. This is Ashling Thompson the person, the 27-year-old who battled back from the brink, endured incomprehensible tragedy and has overcome adversity to achieve incredible success.

After all, it’s not everyday you get to sit down and have a conversation, or just listen, to someone like Thompson. In an age of monotonous, PR-driven interviews, she is remarkably refreshing, honest and forthright. Some would say outspoken with a personal agenda, but don’t judge a book by its cover. Save your judgements for the end.

This isn’t the first time Thompson has told her story, but that doesn’t make it any less pertinent. She has become one of the most prominent advocates for mental health in the country and it doesn’t take long in her company to appreciate why.

We meet in Dublin as afternoon turns to evening. Thompson has spent the day doing promotional work in the capital and what strikes you most is her appearance; tall, strong and athletic. And the tattoos.

It all contributes to that perception of her as a fearsome, intimating, individual; but she’s anything but. Bubbly, full of energy and very laid back, Thompson’s personality is completely the opposite to what you might expect.

“It’s not that I’m two completely different people off the pitch,” Thompson tells The42.

“I’m passionate about certain things too but I’m not at all serious. Some people might think I’m so serious. Sometimes when you are very physical on the field people get the wrong perception and they think you’re a bitch, let’s be realistic.

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“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do on the pitch to win and I’m not saying that in a cheating sense or giving digs or whatever but if I’ve to blow you off the ball then I’m going to do it like because I want to get there first.

“At inter-county level, everyone wants to win so it’s going to get bitchy like. You have to be a tough bitch on the field but off the field I’m completely laid back, I’d talk the leg off a pot, I talk to my dog at home.

“I’m so laid back and girls have sat down with me and had a conversation and said ‘Jesus like you’d never think it.’ I like to be the class clown and I’m actually really soft. I’ve described myself like a caramel bar before; I’m hard on the outside but soft as shit in the middle.”

An interesting analogy, but a brilliantly accurate one. Thompson is a player you’d love to have on your team, but hate to play against; aggressive, brash, physically imposing and an in-your-face approach. A win at all costs mentality, and it’s always been there.

From a young age, sport has always played a central role in Thompson’s life and five years ago it may have saved her life. If it wasn’t for sport, if it wasn’t for camogie and if it wasn’t for Flank Flannery, she may not be here today.

Opening up

It’s a big statement to make but when it comes from Thompson’s mouth, you know it’s the truth. She has never done this for the limelight or headlines but for two reasons; opening up about the mental illness which intruded on her life is a cathartic release for her personally and, more importantly, it offers others hope. It’s okay not to be okay and it’s okay to talk about it.

“Throughout my teenage years and growing up, from when I was in national school to secondary school, I was loving life,” the All-Ireland winning captain from 2015 recalls.

“I was on every team, we were winning. I was the perfect teenager, well not perfect because nobody is perfect. I hated school, I went literally just to play camogie. I was an absolute fairy, wrong place at the wrong time. I wouldn’t say trouble maker but just that eejit that was always caught.

“Then I was involved in a car accident and it just stemmed from there. It was just one setback like the accident that sparked it. After that I got really angry and frustrated and it just prolonged the recovery because I found it hard to get up at times to do my rehab work. I was extremely young, I had never been injured and had to get my head around that.”

The serious car accident near her home in Newtownshandrum didn’t threaten to turn her world upside down, it did without any warning. She was 19.

Ashling Thompson Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Thompson’s life had started to fall apart. The emotional and physical scars of what had happened became too much and coming to terms with the arduous days of rehab sent Thompson into a downward spiral. She didn’t eat or sleep and the internal demons and trauma would soon become externally clear. And then life, as it so often does, served up another cruel twist of fate as Thompson lost a close friend to suicide. It was yet another body blow.

“Even when I was diagnosed with depression, I didn’t have a clue what was going on in my head. That’s literally what drove me to nearly give up on it. I didn’t know what was going on. I was asking myself ‘why am I feeling this way?’

“I was in a frame of mind back then where I didn’t give a shit about anyone or who I was hurting. I’d given up so I couldn’t care less.When it did come to that breaking point, I just suddenly thought this is not right. I shouldn’t be feeling this way three years after an accident. I still should not be feeling like this. That’s when Frank Flannery came along and it was one little thing that changed my life and thankfully he was there.”

Flannery arrived to take charge of Milford in 2012 and it changed everything.

“He took the time to understand me as a person as well as a player,” Thompson continues. “He understood and could relate to me outside the four white lines and that seemed to give me hope. I no longer felt alone.”

Recovery

Camogie provided a release, an outlet to occupy and concentrate the mind. She found strength, determination and a mental fortitude to pick herself up off the canvas and embark on a road to recovery. The pieces were beginning to fall back into place.

“I don’t regret what happened because I don’t think I would be sitting here right now talking to you if it didn’t happen,” she says. “I’m not saying on a suicide note, I don’t think I’d be at this level if it wasn’t for that. I might still be an average player playing club camogie. All of that gave me that competitive edge and extra step to push on and be a better player.

“When you get to that breaking point and overcome it, you don’t take life for granted even on the shit days. I still know I’ll go to sleep, wake up and know I’m totally different.

“I’d never take it back. Yes it was f**king tough and yes it brought me to my wit’s end but I’d never regret it. Everything in life happens for a reason. Obviously people passing and things like that, I don’t put it down to that. I just don’t know why that happens but everything else happens for a reason.

Aisling Thompson Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Depression makes you stronger and life can be so f**ked up nowadays, even if something happens to me in five years time I will have the coping mechanisms now and I think that’s a big problem in Ireland. People do not have the coping mechanisms to deal with tragedies. I’m just lucky enough to have that strong mental attitude. I never regret it, I embrace it everyday.”

Part of the recovery process involved opening up and letting the world in. Thompson had never considered sharing her story or detailing her experiences before but a return to the Cork camogie panel at the age of 22 catapulted her back into the spotlight. There were questions being asked and the best way to answer them was to tell the truth.

“It’s never that I planned for someone to come along or knocked on someone’s door and like ‘interview me.’ At the start I was questioning whether it was a good idea, what are people going to think.

“A girl asked me for an interview because she was just curious to know, you’d never see a camogie player with tattoos, and I was like ‘I don’t know’ but the more I had opened up to coaches and people the more I felt comfortable talking about it.

“Something in me just told myself to do it and f**k everything else and what people will think or what people will say. At the start I didn’t go full pelt, I didn’t tell the whole story but obviously it grew from there. It’s like anything you’re afraid of doing. The more you do it, the more comfortable you get.

“I’ve literally an attitude now, and I don’t mean to be too vulgar, but I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks about me. I know who I am and to me that’s all that matters. As long as I’m happy and I make the people around me happy and I surround myself with good people, friends, family and as long as they have a high opinion of me that’s all that matters.

“Some people think that way; I do interviews and tell my story for attention. They say ‘oh we’re sick of hearing it at this stage’ but there’s a different bloody listener every time. So if you don’t like it, don’t read.

Ashling Thompson with the O'Duffy cup Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I hate people like that who are constantly giving their opinion. I’m not knocking on The42’s door asking you to interview me. You’re coming to me because you know the importance and the difference it can make. If I did care what people thought, I wouldn’t do it but I do it because I know there’s a 19-year-old or a 52-year-old that’s reading this article and is finding the effects off it.

“It’s not to get limelight because at the end of the day what sort of limelight do you think I’m getting from this? That’s the only thing that frustrates me, people talking shit like that.

“Obviously if it had no reaction after my first interview, I wouldn’t have done another one but I literally had messages flowing in. People thanking me for finally speaking up, someone finally f**king did it and still to this day I get it. I’m still going to do it.

“People write to me and everything. Send letters, emails, messages on Facebook. Reading these messages I get shivers up my spine because it just makes me feel so good. People think I’m very honest in my opinion, it’s not staged or I’m not reading something about mental health off my phone.

“It’s not something I typed up or read off the internet because at the end of the day I’m no expert on mental health. It’s pure raw and honest and not something I made up. The reaction has been amazing.”

Support

Thompson spends a lot of her time reading through the messages and emails she receives from others in a similar position. She was once that teenager with nobody, with no light at the end of the tunnel. She’s driven by the knowledge that change is possible.

“It was that competitive edge and I just wasn’t prepared to give in,” she adds. “I won’t give in to anyone or anything. What people were saying or thought of me used to get to me and I think that’s an issue for people. It’s still taboo.

“It did used to bother me but life is so short, you can’t go around worrying what people think. I do like to carry myself well, I like to influence other people whether they’re 90 or nine years of age. I do like to carry myself well but at the same time I’m going to me and not going to be someone different just to please somebody else.

“I’ll take anything constructive. If you sit that with me and have a conversation, I’ll take anyone’s opinion but for someone to turn around and give their negative opinion of me but have never met or had a conversation with me, that’s someone that judges a book by its cover and I couldn’t give two f**ks what they think.

“I’m not above anyone else and people have that wrong opinion. I think I’m extremely lucky to be honest. Yes I’ve worked hard and all that to get where I am now but at the same time I’m lucky, this doesn’t happen too often. There are better camogie players out there than me.

Ashling Thompson Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I am very humble, even if someone asks me for a photo I still get embarrassed to this day. I still find it very surreal but at the same time I take advantage. Yes I’ve been through a few problems and obstacles and all that. Some people think it’s me looking for attention or looking for the limelight but to me they’re just pricks or keyboard warriors.

“An honest person who sees me for who I really am, even if they don’t know me, will know I’m doing it to benefit someone else because I was that 19-year-old that had nobody and nobody to read or listen to and say ‘oh so it is okay.’”

2017

It is okay, and Thompson is in a good place at the moment.

“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed training as I have now,” she continues. “I don’t think I’ve hit my peak for Cork yet which is amazing to say because I’m 27. I haven’t hit my peak because I only came back at 22 so I feel there’s another eight years at least in me. I feel I’ll grow every year.

“I haven’t felt like this in such a long time, I can’t remember feeling this good training. I’m loving it at the moment because usually during this period I wouldn’t usually be feeling myself. When I don’t have training then I do get lonely for it so I’m loving it.

“I still have days where it’s up and down and it’s not perfect all the time. I’m excited for 2017 and as the years go on, it seems to be getting better and better. As I said I’ll always have setbacks but I feel I have the coping mechanisms now to deal with it. That’s a part of life, life isn’t easy but if it wasn’t that way and a challenge then I wouldn’t enjoy it.”

Thompson speaks about the year ahead with such vigour and enthusiasm. After the heartbreak of All-Ireland defeat last September — a loss the captain found particularly hard to swallow, as evidenced by the striking images of her at full time — the Milford midfielder is determined to right the wrongs in 2017.

Ashling Thompson dejected at the end of the game Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

But it’s not all about winning. Granted, Thompson is a born-winner, or, in her own words, a sore loser, yet she knows there is more to life than matches and medals. Camogie is a form of therapy, it makes her happy and is her life.

“I’m not going to say I want to win another x All-Irelands because you can’t predict the future and you don’t always get what you want. My goal is to literally play until I’m 35, that’s what I’m aiming for. It might be wishful thinking but I think I can do it. I’ll play until I can’t or until they give me the roll like, which could be next year I don’t know.

“I just want to go out and give it everything I’ve got and have no regrets coming off the pitch. It’s like everything in life, as long as you give something 100% effort you’ll be happy and that’s it really, I just want to be happy.”

Whatever your opinion or perception of Ashling Thompson as a person or player, you can’t deny anyone that.

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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Ryan Bailey

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