When Ashley Bishop was 18 years old, she was given a choice: She could go back to living with her older sister or she could live in a homeless shelter. She chose the latter, and in all likelihood, that choice saved her life.
The decision was posed to her by mental health professionals at Southwood Psychiatric Hospital in Upper St. Clair, a behavioral health hospital solely dedicated to children and adolescents. Ashley was there because she swallowed a bottle of pills and contemplated killing herself by jumping off a bridge.
How she was going to kill herself was not just happenstance. Ashley grew up in Virginia, and eventually she, an older sister, her mother and brother were living in Belle Vernon.
When she was 11, that older sister, who was 27, jumped to her death from the Belle Vernon Bridge, and Ashley’s life descended into a hellhole of mental illness.
She speaks freely and openly about her abusive childhood and her illness. “I am disabled. I have mental illness,” she said matter-of-factly. “I have borderline personality disorder, I am bipolar, suffer from depression and have post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
She speaks of these devastating diseases as if she were reciting her hobbies and the latest books she’s read.
Perhaps the cliché, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” applies to Ashley.
For whatever reason, she did not jump off that bridge.
After her sister’s suicide, Ashley was in and out of a lot of hospitals during her early teen years. “I was in three residential treatment facilities when I was 13, 14 and 15,” she said. And then, when I turned 17, I went to live with another older sister. “We didn’t get along; we were always fighting, and my mom was now in a nursing home, so my sister was really all I had,” Ashley said.
Then came her suicide attempt and a found salvation at the Family Shelter in Washington.
It was 2005, and Ashley had just turned 18 when she arrived at the shelter. Looking away, Ashley said, “I was without a place to call home.”
Ashley slept on a cot in the nurse’s station at the shelter. “It is not a place to make friends, not when you are my age,” she said. “I was very scared, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to.”
Every day she took a van to Canon-McMillan High School, came back, did her homework and her chores.
“Look,” she said. “There are a lot of reasons people become homeless, and it’s not always because of something they did. Sometimes it’s just the circumstances.”
Ashley said when she made that choice to go to the shelter, it changed her life. “I was on the verge of killing myself. If I had gone back to my sister, I probably would have done it,” she said.
But while she was at the Family Shelter, she met someone from Connect Inc., which provides housing, case management and supportive services to homeless and near-homeless people. A caseworker embraced Ashley and made arrangements for her to go to Waynesburg, where Ashley had spent part of her life.
For the last six years, she has been living in Connect housing “all by myself,” she proudly said. She receives a monthly stipend from Supplemental Security Income, but she manages to make ends meet.
She has since graduated from Waynesburg High School and attended classes at Westmoreland County Community College.
But four years ago, Ashley ended up back in a hospital for 22 days, and one day she had a surprise visitor – her sister, with whom she used to live. “My sister began crying and said she wanted to be back in my life. She lives in Washington with her four children, and we see each other regularly,” Ashley said.
Ashley admits her mental illness caused her to become homeless. She attends therapy sessions twice a week and sees a physician who regulates her medications.
She continues to work through issues, particularly the self-blame for her sister’s suicide and her mother’s illness.
Ashley was fortunate to make contact with Karen Bennett, the executive director of Greene County Human Services. “I had nobody, and nobody else cared, except Karen,” Ashley said. “She gave me an opportunity to be a certified peer specialist and a volunteer at human services,” Ashley said.
Ashley said her dream job is to help people, give back and prove that she can succeed.
“I want everybody to know me as being successful, having a job, having a life, having a car, having friends, getting married and having a baby. I don’t want people to remember me as that crazy person,” she said.