Updated: Jan 3
I often catch myself mentally taking stock at how the hell I got into this new career. This is not the plan I had for my working life. Yet here I am, and I love the work.
I never imagined I would be working for a gym or that I’d consider striding towards a lake for a dawn swim in November a completely normal part of my week. But equally, I hadn’t predicted my mental health deteriorating a few years ago in the way it did either.
Life happens, illness happens, and recovery is hard graft.
Recovery starts with you believing you are worth the fight. The combination of depression and PTSD left me feeling helpless, weak, pathetic and completely depleted of all energy, tolerance or ability to cope. It sounds dramatic, but as I write this down, these words do not do enough to illustrate the intensity of those weeks and months that followed. My ability to act 'well' had ebbed away and I came to a full stop. A complete halt in my life, where focussing on getting better and getting help became the non negotiable obstacle which I had to get around. It was a long exhausting process and by no means linear. It took a hell of a lot of effort and I lot of help and love from the people around me.
When the March 2020 Lockdown hit, I quickly realised it felt remarkably familiar and doable. It was very reminiscent of my recovery. I'd done this before, but my own personal lockdown. It was long, with no defined finish date, it was tedious and restrictive. Both took a lot longer than hoped. I was lost and every belief I had about myself had been flipped on its head and I was convinced I would never recover. I also didn't know how I would be able to work or function normally again. This was my new reality.
As someone who had worked consistently since my teens with drive, focus and tenacity in my work this was overwhelming. I had to realise these things which I considered the true essence of me had been taken away by trauma and depression and I had to work to win them back. A gradual creep of dread and anxiety sat with me most days, and my days were interrupted by the manifestations of my illness. I knew I had to get better, but only I could do the work.
I would often have vivid dreams about being outdoors, in the middle of water and out on hills. My subconscious was telling me I needed big open spaces to get better and it was right. I needed space and movement. Without consciously knowing what I was doing, I found myself pushing out in new directions to counteract these feelings of being weak. There was a drop of tenacity left in me somewhere, lurking. Flashes of energy and interest in Life would rise up...usually sparked by the chance to meet some cold wild water. I would study OS maps for new of bodies of water, and then go and find them. I photographed every swim as a record of something that was pure and positive amongst all the mess and untangling I was dealing with elsewhere.
The initial seeds of my own strength work were planted by this new obsession of swimming outdoors. Hiking to cold wild water and getting in it, experiencing the magnificent sensory overload and going back for more became a weekly practice. I kept going week on week, ticking off the weeks swimming through Autumn, Winter and then Spring. It felt incredible.
I discovered weight training around the same time. Learning to use my body to lift weights taught me I had physical strength, and swimming outdoors taught me how to breathe again. In the gym or water I didn't need to talk, I just had to move and follow instruction. My physical and mental adaption to the water led to better resilience, which led to rewards in the gym and so on, the cycle continued. This teamed with talking therapy and later EMDR became the props which supported and enabled my new found strength to grow. My focus sharpened through consistency and my ability to manage my life improved. A steady new version of myself started to form, one who felt remarkably better covered in sweat or cold water after a hefty dose of discomfort.
Upon reflection I know now that I was looking for physical and sensory interruptions to the symptoms of PTSD, as if I was needing to shock myself out of my stasis . I started seeking physical activities which pushed me.....I didn't want to think, I wanted to move. I wanted to be in my body, not my head.
Trauma rocks and rolls you into the past, but wading into a body of water with a temperature of 10 degrees or less brings you sharply into the present, and that brings relief. These actions were non verbal and demanded me to be physically and mentally in the present. The elation and endorphin filled hours afterwards became THE positive time and space to exist again. Fundamentally, I had started to explore my own concept of strength.
During my recovery I knew this game changing way of being had to become my work. I knew I couldn't sit at a desk for work ever again. I explored the idea of becoming a personal trainer but I was convinced it would be met with mockery, dismissal or laughter, but surprisingly to me it was met with incredible support. A lot of learning later with a few lockdowns later, here I am, recovered and working as a PT with the simple message that if it worked for me and it will work for others.
My instinct as a trainer is to create the opportunity for people to go beyond their perceived limits in both the mental and physical capacity but gently and with understanding. Following mental health breakdown or illness - whatever description you choose to define your own experience, finding something that makes you feel strong and capable again is fundamental. There are also multiple set backs and relapses and I understand this too. I found ways of exercising that brought me into the present, shot energy back into my bones and taught my body about resilience.
I am not saying lifting weights and getting into cold water are the perfect prescription, but used as an adjunctive treatment I am convinced challenging your body on a level that connects your physical and mental focus, will free you.
I have used my body to repair my brain, and I now work hard at maintaining my strength as insurance for the future. There is a lot of life left to live and it is undoubtedly going to present more challenges, and living with PTSD provides enough already. By setting up a physical practice we can create a reliable and rewarding place to increase resilience and reconstruct ourselves, however broken we feel. I see my work as a way to galvanise myself against those challenges and to enable others to do the same.