Written by: Ashley Branagan
Published by: Holly Ruvo
Ashley Branagan is a recently graduated Swimmer/Diver for the University of Vermont, originally from Easton, Massachusetts. In her most recent season, she finished 10th on the one meter (194.35) and ninth on the three meter (205.30) at the 2019 America East Championships. Branagan additionally placed second on the one meter (202.88) and three meter (207.50) at Niagara (Sept. 30) as well as top-3 in five other events throughout the season. She was named Most Improved Diver for the second time in her Catamount career. Branagan is now a fitness coach. View the link below for a full bio on her career.
I decided to write my story one day recently when one of my teammates opened up to me about her personal struggles. I realized I had held myself back from telling my story for so long because I was judging myself. Before I even opened my mouth, I was stigmatizing myself. It is time for me to share my story.
This past fall, I was on my way home from a meet and the bus got really quiet towards the end of the trip. Usually everyone’s excited to get back to their own bed and see their roommates but on this ride, there was an uneasy feeling in the air. I didn’t know what it was but it seemed to be like a fog across the campus. My roommates told me when I got home. One of our classmates on the track and field team had taken her own life on the track the night before. Nikisha, we miss you. This is for you, and anyone who is struggling now, or has struggled in the past.
It started my sophomore year of high school. I vividly remember getting up onto the three-meter springboard at MIT with tears in my eyes preparing to do a dive I was terrified of. I remember looking over at my coach. But he stopped mid-sentence and said “are you having a panic attack?” Through short breathes, tears, and shaking hands, I said “no…maybe…” I got off the board and sat down for the rest of practice, never able to catch my breath, watching my fingertips turn blue. This was the first of many and not the worst of them. This panic attack was the first physical sign I showed. I had been fighting depressive symptoms for about a year but did not know it. And this wasn’t the wakeup call. The anxiety I felt during practice caused depression post-practice. When I wasn’t anxious, I was depressed. And when I wasn’t depressed, I was anxious.
Thinking back to my junior year of high school where everything seemed to be going against me, my coach would tell me I’d never make it to college athletics. My grades were slipping. The “friends” that I did have bullied me. And I did not get along with my parents. In the winter, I was deeply depressed. Worse than ever before. I saw no light and I saw no point. On top of it all, I didn’t want help. The sadness was consuming, but almost comfortable. I actually felt relief when planning how I would end my life. It seemed so easy. I would no longer dread waking up in the morning. I would no longer have to hate what I saw in the mirror. I would no longer drag myself through each day, wishing I were at home, in bed, asleep, or just gone. I confided in one friend with this. When they went to the school counselor, that should have been my wakeup call. When the counselor called my house phone and notified my parents, they sat me down to talk. My parents crying at the end of my bed should have been my wakeup call. The thing is, when someone makes up their mind about ending their life, no one person can change their mind. Nothing can stop them. And nothing could stop me because if I put my mind to something, I was going to do it.
But I went to my three required counseling sessions, resisting the whole time. Shortly after, I was convinced I “fixed” myself. I gradually got out of my dark place and had a real smile. I vowed to never go back to that place. But mental illness isn’t a one-time thing. It’s not something you “fix”. These counseling sessions were not my wakeup call.
Going into freshman year of college, I thought I was prepared, but I was not myself. I was angry and closed off. It was a whole new facet of my depression that I’d never seen before. I wasn’t interested in the same things I used to be, including diving. No one thought I would make it through that year. I was unrecognizable to friends, family, and former coaches. Diving had been my passion in high school and making it to a D1 school was a goal I was ecstatic to have achieved. That fire that I had had within me seemed to be snuffed out by the stressors offreshman year. At the end of the season, I knew I was done. I rebelled against team rules, distanced myself, and I went to our associate athletic director to tell her I was done. That’s right. I sat down in front of our associate athletic director and said “I’m going to quit, here’s why, when should I tell coach?” Once again, this wasn’t my wakeup call.
I went home that summer, preparing to tell all of my family and friends, who were so proud of me, that I planned to quit on my dream. I told my mom and dad with tears in my eyes. I told my brother, my aunts and uncles, everyone, that I didn’t think I could continue. Then I told my high school club coach. He sat me down, one-on-one, and said we’re going to work through this because you are good at diving and you know diving. At the end of the summer, I ultimately made the decision on my own. I overcame the troubles of freshman year so that I could continue to live my dream. All it took was asking for help. But this still wasn’t the wakeup
The wakeup call came at the beginning of my junior year, in the form of an actual phone call. It was a Sunday morning; I was just getting home from my coffee run when my friend Spencer called. I’ll never forget it. I thought she was calling because she did something she needed my advice on… I wish that was it. Spencer was the first person to call me about my friend and classmate, Rebecca Ryan, passing away in a rock climbing accident the night before. I was in shock. I hadn’t lost someone close to me since I was about seven years old. This was my first real loss. I sat next to her in two classes that Friday. She raised her hand at the end of class but said “I’ll save it for Monday.” Saturday night she was gone. We were supposed to work on a project together that Sunday night. Her death hit me hard. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I definitely couldn’t focus on my academics or my athletics. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until she was gone that I realized how much of an impact she had on me. There were so many counselors around for the next few weeks. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking how I was doing. It was a dark time for me and a lot of my classmates. This was the point where I finally went to see a psychiatrist. I knew counseling alone wasn’t doing it for me and now I had found another option. I started on medication after my first visit. It changed my life. Since then, I’ve been taking this medication daily and seeing a counselor on an as-needed basis. I truly believe that 2018 has been my best year yet because it was the year I found the kind of help I needed. Mental health struggles are NORMAL. It’s okay to speak up or cry out for help. It’s never too late. We always will be Better Together.
Thank you to my parents for staying by me even if you didn’t know quite how to help. Thank you to all the athletic trainers, counselors, coaches, sports psychologists, and physicians who have always been by my side. Thank you to my teammates and fellow student-athletes for making me feel comfortable and confident enough to share this story. Finally, thank you to America East for helping me to change my perspective on one of my “deepest secrets” and turning it into a passion for helping others. Much love to you all.