Faced with the stark, often devastating realities of mental illness from a young age, with no other option in sight, Ashley became a full-time carer for her mother while also battling the everyday pressures that came along with being a Year 9 student at school.
Living on welfare with no money for school lunches or uniform, Ashley says it was almost impossible to envision what her future would look like.
“When taking on this huge responsibility I was so young and had no idea how much it would affect my own mental health, social life, and academic performance,” admits Ashely, now 22.
“I was very quickly burnt out and was starting to assimilate into my own mother, sleeping in every morning, arriving at school any time I pleased, if at all, not eating an adequate diet, over-analysing myself and being really critical on myself.
“As I was very young, I was so easily influenced by those around me and I was always looking for an ‘escape’ from my home environment, which was very dark, depressing and toxic.
“I started staying up all night, sleeping all day, ruining all my relationships and being a menace to everyone around me.”
At the time, Ashley says she had no idea of her potential in life and how destructive her behaviors were becoming.
Her teachers were always there to assist her with physical things like food, uniform, advice, and guidance, but they had no control over what happened outside of school hours.
One day at school Ashley heard a student in the year level above talk about her Geelong Kokoda Youth Program experience at a school assembly.
She was immediately in awe of what this individual had achieved, but never thought of it as an opportunity that would arise for her only a year later.
“Once my teachers nominated me for the Geelong Kokoda Youth Program I started to wake up and realise, while I had no support at home and it was unfair, I was incredibly loved at school and I had so many adults in my life who wanted to see me succeed,” beams Ashely, who was nominated in 2015.
“I couldn’t believe my ears and instantly felt sick in the stomach. I had just recently been through a really tough time with my mental health and was starting to lack motivation and drive.”
Ashley’s teachers were quick to highlight that it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and that, out of the entire school of more than 600 girls, she was chosen for a reason.
“I didn’t want to disappoint and let those people who nominated me down, so I said yes, thinking to myself, ‘what’s the worst that can happen? Even if I die, who cares?’
“At that time, I didn’t care whether I was alive or dead, I just accepted the opportunity so that I didn’t have to disappoint anyone.”
Ashley’s main concern in entering the program was that after all the training and preparation, she still wouldn’t be able to complete the track.
From all the research she did about the conditions and how hard it was to hike the Kokoda Track; she had such little self-esteem, and it did get the better of her at times.
“I often worked myself up with anxiety and would almost drop out of the program – but I never did – I was too scared to have to tell the teachers who nominated me,” she says.
“I come from a family where I have six older siblings, every one of them has a mental illness, none of them have completed high school – all I have ever known is being on Centrelink and not having many life goals or ambitions.
“Because of growing up around this lifestyle I had no hope for my life being any different.”
Ashley says she was so mentally unhealthy when she was accepted into the program, which led to poor physically health.
She says her life revolved around staying in bed as much as possible and “eating my feelings”.
“When I started training, I found it extremely hard as I had never done anything like it before,” she recalls.
“Once I started training and was able to build up enough fitness, I decided to start going to the gym as well.
“This was a really great way for me to get out of my house and clear my head without doing destructive things in the community.
“As I watched my fitness levels increase and watched my physical body change and become leaner, I was incredibly proud of myself and realised how much I enjoyed getting outdoors and exercising.
“Doing this became a regular part of my daily routine and still remains a big part of my self-care to this day.”
Ashely can count many highlights throughout her journey, but one stand out happened during the preparation day-walks.
The walks provided an opportunity to test endurance, as well as have long and meaningful conversations with other young people and mentors.
“I didn’t realise it at the time, but my mindset grew so rapidly when I was exposed to functioning adults who were able to give me advice on getting my first job, getting my L-plates, navigating teenage years, school, anything I needed to talk about they were there to listen,” Ashley says.
“When I was able to feel like someone genuinely had my back, I then started to focus more on school and create achievable goals of what I want my life to look like.
“Sometimes when you’re young and you have such huge setbacks in life it can seem like everyone else around you is looking down upon you and would never understand how hard your life is.
“Just like my mum, I had developed a ‘victim mentality’ that made my life always half empty instead of half full.”
One of the mentors in the program was able to relate to Ashley’s situation, she too had also cared for her own mother when she was young and faced many similar struggles while growing up.
Hearing this and seeing what she was able to achieve in life, despite her setbacks, opened Ashley’s eyes and inspired her to give life a go and say “yes” to opportunities.
When it came time for Ashley to leave for PNG, she admits she was terrified.
“I think about two weeks prior to our departure it really hit me – I was actually doing this and there’s no turning back now,” she says.
“My anxiety was through the roof, especially considering I had never been on a plane, let alone to another country, walking one of the hardest tracks in the world.”
The enormity of it became too much for Ashely to comprehend, so she says she tried to distract herself and focus on the small steps, like getting on the bus, then on the plane, check into the hotel, and so on.
“I remember feeling so anxious and sick when we were boarding the plane to Kokoda, I think my mind went into survival mode because I can’t remember much about that day besides wanting to cry and vomit,” she recalls.
“Once we started walking, I think my mind started to clear up a little bit, the first half of the day was really flat and easy, so I found my groove pretty easily.
“Once we reached the first hill, I was thinking to myself ‘why did I agree to do this?’ and genuinely believed there was no way I was going to complete.
“But, at the same time, for someone who has never even been on a family holiday it was pretty wild to me that I was standing on THE Kokoda Track.”
One of Ashley’s biggest track challenges arrived when she became unwell on during the trek, struck down with gastro.
She says she was absolutely exhausted from the second she woke up to the second she went to bed.
“I cried more on that day than I did all the other days combined, I was starving but couldn’t keep food down, I was sweating bullets and I just wanted to go and lay in a clean bed and use a clean toilet and shower,” she says.
“That day was one of the mentally hardest days of my life, as it was also the longest and hardest day on the track.
“It was the day with all the false peaks, and to make matters worse I was walking alone for most of the day as nobody else wanted to get Gastro from me – fair enough.
“I really had to zone into my mindset and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, but having done that has really shaped my mindset, even still to this day.
“I will never take toilets for granted and I find myself still practicing extreme gratitude for everything I have access to.”
While the excitement of the trek was ongoing, Ashely admits there was no greater feeling than reaching the finish.
“I remember waking up that morning feeling so eager and proud to only have a short half day walk left,” she says.
“That day was really cruisy and fun, we had a big splash in the Goldie River, we made flower crowns out of the native flowers, everyone just relaxed and had a laugh on our final hours together on the track.
“There was a real sense of achievement and ‘family’ within the group and I can remember it so clearly.
“It’s seriously so difficult to explain to someone the feeling you get when you complete the Kokoda track.
“There was a sense of relief, pride and exhaustion all at the same time.
“I was so relieved that I was finally finished and there was no more walking.
“I was proud and shocked that I actually did it, despite telling myself I couldn’t complete it for 10 months prior.”
Absolutely exhausted from all of the emotions she faced throughout the track, once she could finally stop and take it all in, her mind was pulsing with pride and shock.
“I couldn’t wait to tell everyone all the details but at the same time I couldn’t believe it was completely over, I almost didn’t even want it to be over,” she says.
“I remember thinking on the track ‘I don’t even want to go home from here’ – so many of the other students were home sick and wanted to go home, however I was the exact opposite.
“I loved the free atmosphere where your days are as simple as taking one step at a time, there is no stress or responsibility, life is very simple and easy.
“I felt like I could stay there forever and be happy, which made me realise how much pressure I experienced at home and how much of a toll it had taken on me up until then.”
Another somber moment touched Ashley upon visiting the war cemetery. She found the experience to be quite unforgettable.
“It’s something I think every Australian should do,” she says.
“To stand over all of the graves and see so many soldiers who didn’t make it home is so mind blowing and really gave me an appreciation for the country we are lucky to live in.
“Also travelling a little around PNG gave me a sense of gratitude also, because even though this country is only 45 minutes off the coast of Australia it feels like a whole different world.
“We are so lucky to live here.”
Life has never been the same for Ashley, the experience showed her just what is possible and gave her steady motivation to achieve more.
“I established a goal that I really wanted to get my license, buy my first car, graduate Year 12 and move out of home so that I could do my Diploma in Community Services,” she explains.
“These were huge goals, something I had never even considered I would be capable of before the program.
“I was able to get my driving hours up pretty quickly with the help of my mentors picking me up from school and taking me for driving hours.
“I got my first job with the help of a mentor I met when I was doing public speaking on behalf of the program, which helped me build workforce skills and confidence in communication.
“I saved up enough money to buy myself a really great little car and get my license, and I finally graduated Year 12, being the first of my six older siblings to do so.”
After graduating Year 12 Ashley moved out of her mum’s house and got accepted into a Diploma of Community Services.
Dedicating herself entirely to the course, Ashely had a great passion for helping others in the community and had so much experience around mental health after caring for her mum and experiencing her own mental health issues.
She received two major scholarships during her time studying which further instilled a passion and drive to give back into the community once she graduated from her Diploma.
“Since graduating I have had two years’ experience working with DHS with children who live in Out-Of-Home care, as well as a child-therapist in a Geelong primary school,” Ashley says.
“Both of these jobs mean the world to me and provide me with so many heart-warming experiences and opportunities to grow as a person.
After completing the program in 2015, Ashely remained involved in the Kokoda Youth Program, always catching up with her mentors and offering support to the future students.
Because of this, she was sponsored to come back in 2019 and walk the track again alongside the students as a peer-mentor role.
“This was such an eye-opening experience, as it showed me just how far I had come since I was a student in this program and all that I have achieved due to the skills and insight this program had given me,” she says.
“I loved training with and getting to know the participants and being able to provide them with first-hand knowledge and guidance throughout their journey.
Ashley walked the track for the second time in September 2019 and was blown away by how incredible the program remains to this day.
She admits the program pointed her into a life path she only dreamed of and says becoming a mentor and seeing the next generation being able to change their own lives, just as she had, has been as great a gift.
“As I have grown into my adulthood it’s been really rewarding to show my mentors from the program how much their time has positively impacted my life and what I have become due to them believing in me when I was only 17 years old,” she says.
“Completing this track with someone is an accomplishment that creates a strong bond and appreciation for life that you can only understand by doing the track itself.
“No pictures, videos or pieces of writing will ever do justice for what you physically and mentally face over in PNG.”