“I live in constant pain and take powerful pain killers and muscle relaxers just to be able to get out of bed in the morning, and I’ve considered suicide more than once because of my condition. I can say the games in the NWSL have given me a reason to live. Thank you for being a wonderful human being, role model and great athlete to watch and follow. Your will to win is a breath of fresh air to me and lets me live each day.”
Ashlyn Harris gets a lot of letters like that. She also has strangers—kids, teenagers, middle aged women–come up to her after Orlando Pride or women’s national team games and say things like, “You’ve given me purpose again. You’ve saved my life.”
Life-changing is an over-used, watered-down phrase we use to describe new jobs, books or movies, and the newest innovations in technology. But here’s a 31-year-old soccer player having an enormous impact on the most personal aspect of lives of people suffering with depression or addiction, people she has never met.
They’ve found something to identify with in this shark-loving surfer who once hit a bully across the face with a dead catfish. There’s something about her that draws people in, makes them feel safe. Maybe it’s the compassionate, understanding ear, or simply her willingness to listen that makes people feel better about their situation. More likely, it’s that in Harris, they see someone who has been where they are, someone who has struggled with depression, witnessed addiction and had thoughts of harming herself.
Whatever the reasons, she’s changing lives. That’s what Ashlyn Harris has chosen to do with her life. That’s where her passion lies, and in doing so she has done herself as much good as she has others.
“I feel like I have been put in a place where I can bring people together and maybe help them to a point where they feel they can enjoy something that’s bigger than their own inner-demons and thoughts and battles,” says Harris.
“I want to really take time with my fans and really connect with them. That’s kind of what I’ve vowed to do from here on out. You never know whose life you can save. For a lot of my fans, being able to talk about it and write letters about it is a big step forward.”
Harris was named the 2016 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year after a season in which her Orlando Pride coach Tom Sermanni called her performance “flawless.” She is in position to earn the starting spot with the U.S. Women’s national team, the best chance she’s had at the starting job in her four years with the team. Until now, Harris has been competing for the backup spot behind Hope Solo and has made just nine appearances for the USA. But Solo is gone now, and Harris and Alyssa Naeher are the current favorites to earn the starter’s job.
— Orlando Pride (@ORLPride) October 4, 2016
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She’s eager for the competition. She’s anxious to show what she can do on a national stage, and she’ll chase that starter’s with everything she has. But there is more to her life now.
“Is my job just to play soccer? Yes,” she says. “But when I put my head on the pillow every night, that’s not fulfilling to me. That’s not enough. When I do these things and when I go out of my way and I’m vulnerable and trying to give everything I can to my fans, I’m tired at the end of the day. But it’s a really satisfying tired.”
“I come from a family that was really hit hard with addiction.”
Some people, too many it seems, listen to respond. Harris listens to understand.
Looking around the women’s national team, the public imagines a group of athletes blessed with talent and good fortune. They see women who have discovered the importance of hard work, commitment to their craft and have been rewarded with fame and public attention. The personal struggles are mostly private.
“You see some people and you think they have it all, and from the outside world, people might think I have it all,” she says. “But, in fact, a lot of people that you think have these perfect lives might be really struggling inside. I just started talking about it.
“I come from a family that was really hit hard with addiction. Mental health has really shaken the foundation of my family since I was a kid.”
Growing up in Satellite Beach, Fla., Harris would spend as much time as possible at skate parks or surfing, anything that got her out of the house. Among the things she remembers most about her childhood is feeling alone. When she couldn’t get out of the house, she built blanket forts, places where she could hide and try to shut out the chaos at home. She suffered from depression, struggled with suicidal thoughts and says she was “extremely aggressive.”
“The only way I knew how to deal with my emotions was to harm myself or harm others,” she admits.
She watched her parents work double-shifts, use food stamps to feed her and her brother. She saw what alcohol and drug addiction did to the family. She watched as her parents divorced and the effects it all had on her and her brother.
Soccer was her way out of the situation, and she played 39 times for the U.S. Under-19 national team and went to the University of North Carolina where she won two NCAA championships and was a regular on the ACC Academic Honor Roll.
Don’t expect Harris to be dispensing advice or telling people what to do and not to do. She’s not going to tell people what works and what doesn’t. What you can expect from her is empathy. When talking to Harris is to find someone trying very hard to be “a good human being.”
“I am not a counselor,” she says. “I’m not a therapist, and I don’t claim to be. But what I can do is give love and spread love, and I think that’s what our culture lacks these days. It’s hustle, hustle, hustle. Keep your head down. What’s next, what’s next?
“Sometimes we have to step back and enjoy what we have. I’m one of those people who is waving at everyone driving down the highway. I’m talking to the person making my coffee. That’s just me.
“When I’m at a game, I’m the last one off the field. I give away every piece of apparel I can possible give away without leaving myself naked. I just want to give happiness to people. Is there a reward? To me, it’s just a duty. When you step into a spotlight, you have a responsibility to go out of your way and do these things.”
“I felt hiding my story wasn’t helping anyone.”
In one of those quirks of fate and geography, the answers Harris had been needing and unconsciously searching for were in a coffee shop right there in Satellite Beach.
“I had a friend, Jamie Tworkowski, who grew up in my town. He created To Write Love on Her Arms,” Harris explains. “One day we happened to meet in a coffee shop, and he was telling me all these things he was doing with mental health and addiction and depression. He told me his story. I was a little hesitant to tell him mine. He kind of opened my mind to a whole other world. He was telling me how many people struggle but don’t talk about it because it’s frowned upon to talk about these kinds of issues.”
Talking to Tworkowski and listening to his story, Harris saw how liberating it seemed to him. With Tworkowski, she felt protected and safe. She learned about To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit organization with the mission to present hope for those suffering from addiction, depression, self-injury and suicidal thoughts.
Being a professional athlete with a significant fan following might deter some from unveiling such intimate details, but Harris saw it the other way around. She decided to share her story partly because of her position in life.
“The wheels started turning in my head because I struggle with some of those things, and if I can’t talk about it with my platform how is anyone else,” she said. “Slowly, I started getting comfortable with my story–and I knew I had a pretty deep one. I think it is important to share. If I can tell people that I have gone through these things and that I’ve had some serious woes, it might help someone. I found a big purpose in life.”
Still, it was a very big step to take, and she was apprehensive. How would her family take it? Was she throwing them under the bus?
“I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” she says. “But every day, kids are going through much worse than I did. I felt hiding my story wasn’t helping anyone. My biggest fear was disappointing my family because they are wonderful people.
“But they were so proud of me for opening up, and certain members of my family got clean. I have such better relationships with them now. Maybe they needed to hear those things. Maybe not publicly. That might not have been the best way. It was important for me to share because I knew it could help hundreds if not thousands of kids.
“Now I just try to be me every day,” Harris says. “I don’t try to be anyone else, and I think people are drawn to that. It’s who I have always been, but I was just so scared for so long to share it.”
— Ashlyn Harris (@Ashlyn_Harris) October 18, 2016
After Harris shared her story, the letters started coming, almost daily, from people who didn’t want to continue with life.
“They find purpose in my story and maybe it makes it easier to live their own,” she says. “It makes people feel valued and important, and most importantly it makes people feel loved. That’s what every human wants.”
There is, however, a flip side. There are consequences when you offer yourself up publicly as Harris has done. To some, it’s just not enough
“This is the harmful part of it,” she explains. “When you share a part of your life with the world, they want completely in. They want everything. You give them a little piece and they want all of it. It’s hard because my personal life is very, very important to me. That’s the one place I keep sacred from the spotlight.”
What the spotlight sees, though, is plenty. It’s certainly enough to invite people to open up to her and feel better after they do.
“I think people have gifts and once they learn to tap into those gifts, there’s no turning back,” she says. “I just feel like I can see into people, and people feel safe around me and feel safe talking to me.”
So the letters keep coming …
“I’ve been struggling so hard this year with suicidal thoughts. I’ve always had depression and anxiety but this year it’s been exponentially worse due to chronic health problems. Some days, I don’t know how I’m going to go on. This stuff really helps people like me who need to know that people they respect and admire also go through it. I appreciate your candor and transparency with this. You and Ali and everyone else at TWLOHA pick me up on the days I don’t feel like I can go any longer. And the thing that makes it even better is that you don’t have to. You could keep it to yourself and your close friends but instead you open yourself up and make yourself more vulnerable than I could ever imagine. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. I wish I could say this to you in person and hug you, but this will have to do.”
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First 30 Years of the U.S. Women’s National Team.” For more information, go to the 56th Minute