Waves of compassion

Inspired by her own personal challenges, young local Ashleigh Webb has
made it her mission to champion the mental wellbeing of others.

T his October, 32-year-old Ashleigh Webb hopes to become the first Novocastrian woman to swim across the English Channel, adding another entry to a list of (so far) 2,678 successful, officially recognised crossings of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
She will lather on a generous helping of her custom, greasy mix of zinc, lanoline and Vaseline to protect her pale skin against the sun and the chafing that comes from swimming non-stop for 15 hours in chilly waters with plenty of debris and less-than-friendly jelly fish as her sole company.

Yet she isn’t just after an entry into the record books. Ashley hopes to raise $50,000 for the Kallan Lodge Library to sustain mental wellbeing resources in NEXUS at John Hunter Hospital (JHH), an inpatient unit for children from five to 17 years of age with mental health problems. And her motivation couldn’t be more personal.

Conquering the past

In January 2007, one month after her 17th birthday, Ashleigh had been taken to JHH after an attempt to take her own life. Filling the family home with music, books, movies and games was but one of many ways her parents tried to help her escape the darkness she had found herself in. Still struggling, she completed her HSC and moved to Canberra to study at Australian National University. She was in the campus library one afternoon in 2011 when her mum called to tell her that fellow Novocastrian Kallan Lodge, the son of a close colleague of her mum’s, had died by suicide.

It was this traumatic news that ultimately set Ashleigh on a journey of learning how to accept and deal with her own mental health problems.

“I was relieved for him, and this scared me because I was jealous. His death highlighted that I’d been running through the world like a crash test dummy; daring life to hurt me enough to justify trying again and getting it right the next time. The weight of Kallan’s absence, watching his parents, and seeing my parents grieve another’s child drew a line in the sand for me. I knew there could never be a next time,” Ashleigh says.

She had been swimming competitively from an early age. Being a high achiever in primary school had led to severe bullying and by the time she was eight, she started thinking about suicide. By age 14, she began to self-harm. Around the same time, it also became obvious that she wouldn’t be able to compete on the highest levels, so she gave up swimming and focused even more on her schoolwork.

“It was hard to accept that I simply wasn’t tall enough to make it to the top as a swimmer and I became a bookworm. Through reading, I was able to identify with people more like me. I thought if there’s someone writing these stories, then there are people whose mind is different, just like mine is.”

Five years after Kallan’s death she finally felt ready to unpack memories, to decide what to leave behind and what to take with her as she was moving forward with her life. Establishing the Kallan Lodge Library is part of this healing process.
Plans for the future
“I wanted to do something to add to the patients’ stay at NEXUS. I wanted to help make their stay more empowering. Only since turning 30 have I realised what helped build me up. That it was often the memories of a book or a particular album, memories that still stayed with me decades later.

“It’s my goal to one day have the Kallan Lodge Library supply every mental health facility in Australia with the resources my parents, who had nothing else, were able to give me.”
So why did she pick this particular challenge for her fundraiser?

“I’m asking for donations and that’s a big ask, so I felt that I needed to do something significant in return. Also, crossing the Channel is 80% about your mental readiness.
“It’s the Everest of the ocean and I reckon Kallan would be shaking his head at my audacity, before smiling and cheering me on right to the finish line.”

More stories in our Spring edition of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story by Cornelia Schulze, photos courtesy of Ashleigh Webb