Ash’s journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance

24 March 2021
Ash with a golf trophy and playing golf.

Ashley Harris, 29, is a professional golfer and founder of Enable Golf. He lives with rheumatoid arthritis and axial spondyloarthritis.

Here, Ash tells us how a failed suicide attempt led him to accept his condition, work at his own pace, and ultimately pursue a dream.

“The naïve, 18-year-old me thought this would just disappear.”

Since fourteen, golf has been my passion. After playing it throughout my childhood, I studied golf management at university and then took on work as a caddy from there. My dream was to become a pro.

Then one day, while working at a tournament, my knee suddenly tripled in size. At first, the doctors I spoke to thought it was a torn ligament and decided to do keyhole surgery.

I was fully expecting to wake up and crack on after a bit of rehab. Instead, I was told there was no tear, but rather a heavy dose of rheumatoid arthritis on my left knee.

I just wanted to get going and move on. But within eighteen months I was missing lectures, struggling to get out of bed, and taking lots of medication. I was tired and in pain all the time, and eventually dropped out in my final year.

“I’d lost all the drive and enthusiasm to do anything but keep myself awake.”

By 22, I’d moved in with my now-wife who had four kids at the time. I’d stopped playing golf and found work selling cars. But eventually, after many days off sick, I had to resign and claim disability benefits.

I realised then how lonely and outcast I was from my old self - the aspiring athlete.

Gambling became an issue, and there were all the common scenarios of addiction. Things just got worse and worse over time.

It all came to a head in 2014, soon after I had my own daughter with my wife. One day, I put myself in front of a car. I wanted to end it all.

Half an hour later, I was in the back of an ambulance. The car never actually hit me.

I saw a psychiatrist in the hospital and poured everything out onto the table. Every emotion. The weight off was ridiculously big. I had a very different approach to life coming out of the hospital that day.

“I let go of the self-loathing.”

The next year I spent getting back on the road. Part of that process was finding disabled golf.

At my first disabled golf tournament I thought, “What have I been doing?” I’d spent the last four years burying myself into a hole of self-pity, but everyone at the tournament was having fun, enjoying life, and doing what they love – golf.

It gave me a massive kick up the arse. It helped me understand that although you have arthritis, it doesn’t need to stop you from doing what you want. At the end of the day, there are ways around it.

In that moment, my journey started.

“It’s been a journey of learning what I can and can’t do.”

Certainly, there are things that a version of me without arthritis could do, like big four- or five-day tournaments. But my body can only do certain things at certain times, and I’ve now accepted that this is out of my control.

I started with just going to the driving range for half an hour and being knackered next day. It’s frustrating to feel fatigued by something that is “normal” for everyone else, but you can build things up very slowly and make it work for you.

My medication does its job to a point, but I believe you have to go out and add on to your strength too. Even if it’s just one short walk a day, you’re putting the blocks in place to allow you to be stronger.

Plus, you get an hour of mental space – which is especially helpful during the pandemic. Breathing fresh air and relaxing takes your mind away from being in a box, even on a bad pain day.

“People newly diagnosed need to know that life carries on.”

I created Enable Golf to support golfers who have been recently diagnosed with a disability.

Essentially, I guide people through how to continue playing the sport. It’s also about increasing awareness and understanding of disabled golf, which is little-known in the industry.

I play professionally myself, so shielding throughout the pandemic has been frustrating, because golfers need to train and practice. I’ll automatically be weeks behind other athletes once the UK lockdown is lifted.

But the way I see it, you need to be aware of everything around you instead of being totally absorbed in your own life. You have to let certain things be.

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More information

If you need help and support regarding some of the topics mentioned in this story, the following organisations can help.

  • You can reach out to organisations like Mind and Anxiety UK for emotional support.
  • Young Minds UK provide mental health advice for children and young people.
  • If you’re struggling to cope, the Samaritans is a registered charity aimed at providing emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, or at risk of suicide throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.

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