The Road to Enlightenment

It took a rough road, a pilgrimage and a 9-year-old’s fondness for chocolate milk to show Ashley Jansen the way out of depression. Now she’s here to tell you that every day is a special occasion.

Ashley Jansen overcame depression to become a life coach, a mother, a wife, an artist, a minister, a director and an actress who has appeared in several local productions. Photograph by Jared CastaldiIt happened somewhere in the flat, cornfield-lined roads of Kansas.

For weeks, it had been Ashley Jansen and the music of Shawn Colvin in that Nissan Pathfinder. Shawn had done all the talking—and for hours at a time. “I didn’t have a voice,” Jansen says.

The two previous years had delivered enough stress to silence anyone. Therapy. Medication. Hospitals. Depression. Jansen was a doctoral dissertation wrapped in a Psychology Today case study covered in potato chips. So as she drove toward the Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric center in Topeka, Jansen thought, “Life is not going to turn out like you planned.”

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Then something happened. It started quietly. “I started mouthing the lyrics to the songs,” Jansen says. Then—magic. “I sang a note. I heard it.”

On the scale of human achievement, harmonizing to “Steady On” doesn’t match Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, but for Jansen, it was a miracle—the new beginning she had wanted.

It wasn’t long before she left Menninger—diagnosis of bipolar disorder in hand—for San Francisco, where the journey had taken her a couple years earlier. As she climbed the stairs to her apartment, Jansen knew things were right.

“I felt I was a different person,” no longer the woman who looked in the mirror but didn’t recognize the stranger staring back. She could see her place in a society that had been so hard for her to enter. She called her old boyfriend, Rob, the one she had pushed back to Los Angeles because she couldn’t understand why he was in the relationship for the bad times as well as the good. “I didn’t love myself that much,” she says. But when she opened the door, Rob was sitting on the couch, smiling.

“I knew I was home,” Jansen says. “Not in a sweeping, romantic way, but clean and simple. This was what it was all about. It was where I belonged.”

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Within a year, Jansen and Rob were engaged. They married on October 23, 1999. They now live in Centreville with their two children.

“Being ‘bipolar’ is not how I describe myself,” Jansen says now. But she does describe herself. It takes about 75 minutes because she holds nothing back. “Sometimes it’s light. Sometimes it’s intense,” she says. But it’s always real.

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Jansen is now a life coach, a mother, a wife, an artist, a minister, a director and an actress who has appeared in several local productions. But that’s just the beginning. Don’t worry if you don’t totally know her by the end of this story because she’s still learning about herself. It has been an amazing journey, but if you ask Jansen today, she’ll say it’s just beginning.

She’ll say that tomorrow, too.

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At first, it would seem Ashley Jansen and Martha Beck would be as poorly matched as any two people could be. One was a Harvard-educated master life coach. The other was climbing out of the abyss of depression.

Jansen sought Beck after reading an article by her in O Magazine. “She was so funny and so wise,” Jansen says. “I knew I was in the presence of a teacher.”

The feeling would become mutual. Thanks in large part to Beck, Jansen is now able to help people who have struggled with some of the same difficulties. That, in turn, helps Jansen. “It’s a transformative process,” Beck says. “She transforms people.”

Jansen believes her breakdown was as much spiritually based as mental, emotional or chemical. Her first setback occurred on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she realized her religious education had been rudimentary. The episode landed her in a hospital in Israel. Since her breakthrough, Jansen has attributed much of her success to a spiritual awakening.

Now Jansen looks for magic in her everyday life, so she is a perfect match for Beck. “We share the objective of trying to be gates of the soul,” Beck says.

That may sound like hooey to some, but Jansen believes there is power in self-awareness. Those who learn to see wisdom around them can subjugate themselves to nature and others. Beck and Jansen connect because of their willingness to do that.

“All streams flow to the sea,” Beck says. “The sea is lower than the streams, and that’s where it gets its power, from that humility. We know we’re lower than anything.”

Once, on a group trip to Africa, Beck and Jansen walked into the wilderness to ask a question of nature: Why must there be ugliness and brutality in the world? For seven hours they sat, awaiting an answer. Jansen paid special attention to a small clump of weeds. As she stared at it, trying to figure its purpose, the setting sun cast a ray that tuned the weeds golden.

“That was her beacon,” Beck says. “You can learn from anything.”

Jansen didn’t decide to share her story widely until last July. Beck was the catalyst. The two had become especially close over the previous four years, had learned much from each other. While at a Life Coaches convention in Chicago, Jansen heard Beck speak.

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“She was saying heartful, moving, funny things,” Jansen says. “She was open and real. I was standing in the back of the room and had a deep knowing that ‘That’s where you belong, Ashley.’”

Jansen had the spark, but she needed a place. It didn’t take long for her to choose: The Delaware Theatre Company. “The theater is my first church,” she says.

Jansen had been an athlete until she spent a year at Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland, where she met Peter Firmin, a theater professor. “He spoke about theater not as fame, but as a deeper healing art,” Jansen says. That was enough for a young woman who was searching for a path.

Jansen earned a degree in theater from the University of Vermont in 1988. Six years later, after working in New York, in Connecticut, and with a friend’s theater company, she earned a bachelor’s of fine arts at North Carolina School of the Arts. She served as a director in San Francisco and San Diego. She connected with the Delaware Theatre Company upon moving back.

Jansen has spoken at DTC five times, always without a script. No matter what route the talk takes, it lasts about 75 minutes—before questions.

Jansen tries to convey the struggle to understand her mental illness and how she has overcome it. It’s not a how-to or a vindication, but a way of asking questions of herself and her God. “It’s a conversation with the world,” Jansen says.

Jansen has given her talk in New York and at the North Carolina School of the Arts. She can see herself delivering it elsewhere, inspiring others. “My husband asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to start in Delaware?’ It would almost be easier to sit down with a group of strangers.”

It’s a really special occasion, every day I’m alive.”

That’s Gates Jansen, age 9. Young Gates was referring to the fact that his sitter serves him chocolate milk only on “special occasions.” To procure the treat more frequently, Gates tried to create incentive by imbuing every day with the “special occasion” seal. Nice try, son.

But to Jansen, it was an epiphany. To have undergone so much gives one a special gratitude. That’s why she gives back through her coaching and speaking. Her blog response to Gates’ declaration shows her desire to learn more about herself and her life:

“To some it may sound like I’m exaggerating. I am not. Maybe it comes with age, maybe with experience. I don’t know, but life is good. More accurately, life dazzles. Sure, there are challenges. Yes, we are sometimes asked to grow in ways we’d rather not. But—hello—have we noticed the geese soaring across the fields? Have we been catching snowflakes on our tongues? Did we sing in our car today—I mean really sing? It’s a really special occasion every day you’re alive.”

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If anybody recognizes the gift, it’s Jansen. Each breath carries meaning, and for her, that meaning is the truth. Most of us barrel through the day, looking for success, gratification, happiness. Jansen wants to know—to know what she’s about and where she fits, to know how she can help others, to know how much she doesn’t know.

“I want to share my story to empower others,” she says. “If someone says to me that they’re bipolar and that’s who they are and what they do and that’s their story—I know there’s a big stigma around mental illness in this country. For me, being bipolar was an incredible teaching experience and a gift. It put me on the path of self-discovery.”

She’s still going, and still making plenty of stops along the way. Ashley Jansen may never reach her destination, but you can bet she’s going to enjoy the ride.


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