From Healing to Healer: The Journey of Ashley Hughes
I first met Ashley Hughes when she came to the Building Hope office last July to offer a demonstration of her “Healing through Yoga” class as a community connectedness event. I was struck by her presence; she had a fierce honesty, dominated by curly auburn hair thrown back in a loose tail, big blue eyes and not a lick of make-up. Combined with her physical strength, she possessed the kind of energy that commanded space and respect.
“The reason I can teach this class with guidance and authority is because I have severe trauma,” she begins. “It took me a long time to admit that there was a problem. My doctors along the way told me that I was lucky to have yoga in my background because what happens with trauma is that the mind and body disconnect.”
She continues with how yoga helped her learn to sit with emotions that are challenging for longer periods of time; learned to determine where she feels those sensations in her body; and what kind of things she can do to either help shift those feelings, make them decrease in length, or allow her to just sit through them. In addition, yoga has a mindfulness and meditation component, which, she says, can help heal the brain.
For an hour, Ashley led the Building Hope staff through her growth in personal wisdom and understanding of scientific knowledge, movement and breathing, stillness and focus. Her words were crisp and efficient, scripted over the years to remind herself and to teach others about the healing powers of the mind/body connection. We learned to “body scan,” to tune into the parts of our bodies that are feeling emotion; and we went through each of the seven chakras – energy centers located in the spine that are connected to various organs and glands in the body.
At the end, at least one of us cried, having released a portion of the toxic emotion that was bound tight in different parts of our bodies. It was then that I knew that Ashley’s story could help others with their own.
She says it’s normal for people who experience trauma to go through three phases: 1) not telling anyone anything, trying to suppress feelings and emotions; 2) telling everyone everything because that energy and story needs to be released, while understanding that it reduces personal power; and 3) telling the story but being mindful of controlling the narrative.
Here it is, the mindful narrative she shares to pay it forward for others who have experienced trauma in hopes that they, too, can learn to write their own brave new endings – and beginnings.
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Ashley Hughes grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. She says her mom, who grew up in Chicago, raised her to think everything’s better in Chicago, but she remained loyal to “C-Town” and its grace on the lake. “I mean, c’mon, we have three national sports teams, big company headquarters, good universities -- and ‘The Avengers’ was filmed on 9th St! I had it good,” she says, clearly protective of the city that nurtured and helped heal her. It’s as if she identifies with the strength it took for Cleveland to rebuild itself after being dubbed “The mistake on the lake,” due to lake pollution in the 1970s; and later becoming the epicenter of foreclosure, abandonment and decay following the 2008 financial crisis. “Cleveland has become so vibrant,” she says, unconsciously reminding herself that all things are possible.
She attended undergraduate school at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Political Science, Italian and German (she’s also proficient in Spanish and can read and write in French). Combined with her love of sports, she was a shoe-in for an elite international graduate program in sports management, marketing and law. Her studies would take her to England, Italy and Switzerland to study each component intensively in quarterly chunks.
When asked to describe herself during this time period, Ashley speaks quickly, as if she’s racing to rewind the clock to her pre-trauma self. “I was an overly ambitious energizer bunny version of a human, “she says. “If I could figure out a way to do something I was interested in, I’d make it happen. I had the energy and ability to mobilize an entire room. When I'm really passionate about something, my energy level skyrockets — that's probably why I find it easy to motivate people — especially in fitness and yoga."
Ashley’s trajectory to World Cup sports marketer took a sharp turn three weeks before her 28th birthday and three months before graduating, when she experienced a traumatic event.
“Over the next two weeks I missed a few classes,” a no-no for this 9hr/day intensive program, she says. “I began having suicidal thoughts and didn’t know why. I saw a therapist for three weeks. I just wanted to leave. There was just darkness. Pieces of my past or future no longer fit together,” she says. “I felt lost.”
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Ashley moved home to Cleveland in September 2017 in a state of confusion, depression and anger, having basically shut the door on the sports world.
Returning home without a job; feeling shame for not having one, as her classmates dotted the globe in prominent positions; and feeling confusion and depression from something she couldn’t remember, Ashley sought medical help, thinking she was vitamin-deficient given her erratic diet abroad. She was given a low dose of an antidepressant and told she was going to feel better in six months. That didn’t happen.
Perhaps the only silver lining of her return to Cleveland was meeting a man – Wilbur Pyn -- who himself was returning home after testing out life as a snowboard instructor in Summit County. A few weeks in, the mountains called for his return. After two months together in Cleveland, Ashley and Wilbur moved to Summit County. Ashley admits it was an impulsive act, but she trusted Wilbur, felt safe with him, so they headed west together.
The brain and body work together to protect you by suppressing memories that can cause harm, says Ashley. But feeling safe brought about its own uprisings. “When my brain started to feel that it was safe enough, it began to release certain memories, when triggered. Bad timing,” she admits. “I had just moved in with a new boyfriend 1,000 miles from home and now my brain began hosting flashbacks. I couldn't even begin to understand in a community where I knew no one, had no doctors, family or friends for support.”
Following six weeks abroad with Wilbur, where she felt “happy and normal,” she spiraled back into suicidal thoughts upon returning to Summit County. “He was afraid to leave me alone. I understand now why he felt so helpless; he couldn’t fix me, couldn’t make me feel better,” she says.
In the fall of 2018, she returned to Cleveland and this time, at her father’s urging, sought help at a crisis center that offered free therapy for her up to five months, and to secondary survivors -- like her parents, to better help them support her. “This is why traumatic events are so cruel,” she says. “It doesn’t just hurt the initial victim, but anyone they're close to in life, including parents and all significant others."
"When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories,
we get to write a brave new ending. -Brené Brown
With a solid connection with her therapist, she availed herself to various treatments, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and read voraciously about anything trauma-related: PTSD, triggers, cognitive distortions; she watched TED Talks, “everything I could get my hands on about neurology,” she says. After three months she put a deadline on her recovery: she had been hired by the Dew Tour and needed to be in Breckenridge by December 5, 2018, and she wanted to be ready. “I’d wanted to work for Dew Tour since I was 18. I couldn’t let this dream opportunity be taken away from me.’”
Then an amazing thing happened: “A week before I left, I had a breakthrough. I began reframing my experiences,” she says. “It wasn’t a malicious intent on Ashley Hughes. Taking the identity of myself out of the experience helped.” She returned to Summit County and reunited with Wilbur.
“Wilbur and I originally met the day after I was incorrectly diagnosed with low-grade depression,” she says. “Somehow he was able to encourage me to open up about it. He told me of his own childhood trauma and I genuinely felt ashamed about feeling depressed —as a woman with amazing parents, friends, experiences and opportunities, it didn't make sense,” she says. “He reminded me that everyone, no matter their circumstances, has something going on. He made me feel comfortable and normalized my challenges.”
She says she’s grateful for the dimension of their relationship. “He is both supportive and open to learning” she explains. “When I struggle, I get a strong urge to run away; he's able to sit with me and work through the challenges presented. We continue to improve boundary setting. I’ve learned he may lack the space to care for me on days when I experience a trauma level and that I do in fact have the power to reach out to others for support. He’s learned to tell me when he needs a moment so that we can avoid him feeling the full weight of my trauma. We constantly work to identify small triggers and he's become both thoughtful and mindful as to how certain situations and experiences might impact me.”
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It’s now 3+ years post-trauma and Ashley is admittedly still a work in progress. She has more coping skills. “I’ve been told by so many doctors that I’m going to be equipped to handle so many more challenges than most people,” she says. “That’s comforting, and I believe I will get there.”
She often feels frustrated that the recovery process is too slow for her, that it’s become very cyclical; she improves for periods and then she feels what she’s gained is lost and she needs to start again. “But I have to remember,” she says, “a year ago I couldn’t do the work I needed to do on myself and have a job. Now I have six jobs. I can see progress.”
Part of her therapy has been aimed at taming her negative belief system, her relentless lifelong push both toward and against a self-concept that she’ll ‘never be good enough.’ “That existed before trauma,” she says. “Trauma just amped it up. I used to be a bit of a firecracker, quite sassy and reactive. Now I tend to spend time with stuff, ruminate on it, try to tease out if it’s a cognitive distortion. While I see this as an opportunity, I am very much a work in progress.”
She’s now teaching virtual and in-person yoga for various studios across Summit County, is head of marketing and development for Breck Film and was a featured speaker at the TEDx Breckenridge event in late 2020 (titled “Currencies for Connection”). She also started teaching introductory workshops, 1:1 coaching, and group seminars on mental wellness that focus on education, self-care and stigma reduction.
And in late October, Ashley started working with professional athletes and sports federations on providing tools and knowledge around mental health and wellness. She’s started her own company, Supple[mental] Sports, with the slogan, “get your head in the game.” She’s poised to return to the global arena to teach what she’s learned in support of professional athletes’ mental health. “I think the sports industry has come a long way -- certainly since I was in grad school being told, ‘don’t show your emotions. Doing so will inhibit your job prospects.’ I think we owe a lot of that to effective stigma reduction, for which I’m very grateful. Overall, I know what I went through, I know what I’ve learned, and I know I can help.”
She continues her healing process and tries to take the best possible care of herself through journaling, coloring, doing puzzles, writing letters, reading books, walking, meditating, practicing yoga.
Anxiety and depression are slowly being squeezed aside for hope. “Trauma made me smarter,” she says finally. “It forced me to learn a tremendous amount about mental health and it has allowed me to educate others. Pre-trauma if I’d seen someone behaving like me, I would have said, ‘what’s up with that person?’ Now I say, ‘what did that person experience? Are they getting support they need? How can I help?’ I have a greater understanding of how my brain and body work together. That’s going to help me dramatically through life, and I wouldn’t have had that without trauma. Trauma has forced me to take steps back; forced me to take the opportunity to shape the Ashley Hughes I ultimately want.
“I’m getting there,” she says, her blue eyes shining, “and I think it’ll be a pretty cool result.”
Watch Ashley's TEDxBreckenridge | Currencies for Connection
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Story by Suzanne Acker, special projects writer for Building Hope Summit County. If you have a story to share, reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Liam Doran / Liam Doran Photography
Video by @dragonfruitvideo
- To talk to a peer with lived-experience call Building Hope’s Peer Support Line: 970-485-6271 Option 2.
- Building Hope Therapy Resources
- Community Connectedness events
- Supple(Mental) Support