Mental Health and the Sea
Not many people know this, but when I was in my second year of University, I was deeply unhappy. I was 19 years old and had left home at 18 to go to University like everyone else. When I left home, it coincided with my parents going through a divorce, years of secrets and deception being discovered, my family home and base sold and within the first year of my degree, an accident one night where I fell on a glass bottle, which severed one of the nerves of my right hand. To say 2001 was a dark year for me would be an understatement.
I lost my independence, because I only have one hand and had to go back to living with my mum and her doing everything for me. What should have been an exciting new chapter in my life, was turning out to be a living hell. Looking back at that time, I should have sought help.
However, I carried on quietly, sinking into a deep depression in my second year, unable to connect with anyone; friendless and adrift.
Swimming became my saviour that year, long before I even started my journey at elite level. I joined the local disability swimming club purely for a social connection and something different.
I was at University in Newcastle and the sea was close by. I remember distinctly one night, at 3am in the morning, lying in a fog of complete desperation and unhappiness, so alone and isolated and I just got up, through my insomnia which had lasted weeks, got in my car and drove towards the coast. I parked the car on the edge and got out.
There was a moment where I just looked at the dark, beautiful mass in front of me, softly lapping on the shore below, gentle noises of nature all around me and I considered going in there to be consumed, to forget my problems and to not have to face them again. In that moment though, standing alone, I was acutely aware of the smell of the salt in the air, the freshness, the gentle soothing noise, the beautiful way that the water was shifting and moving around as one enormous mass.
It reminded me of my love of water and the ocean and that if in that moment, I could still find a shred of happiness or a little bit of salvation here, then there was hope. I got back in my car and drove home.
Fast forward over a year later for my 21st birthday, my Mum and sister surprised me with a trip to the Maldives. It cost the earth, but it was an incredible week living in a hut that jutted over a coral reef, a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.
At night, I would sit on the steps of the ladder down to the water and watch for hours as the nurse and reef sharks swam elegantly beneath. I find being in the sea and watching the water quite meditative and think it has transformative impacts on the mind.
That is why I believe so strongly that we need to protect it. In a world of stress, social media, fast pace, we have lost our way and connection with nature. I still listen to ambient sounds of nature on my phone on a loop when I am on the underground or if it is busy somewhere. That is the power of nature for me. During the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, I used nature sounds at night to stave off the insomnia that creeps in slowly still whenever I am anxious or under stress.
You see children at the beach so excited to be there, you see adults smiling in the sunshine. The ocean connects people, it brings families together, to marvel at the beauty and wildlife. It brings out happy memories for most people. It is said that open water swimming in cold water can have a positive impact on people’s anxiety levels. I am not sure of the science around this but certainly have read about it more than a few times.
It is easy to forget sometimes the beauty on this earth and to be consumed in our minds and thoughts, as I was, back at University. That is understandable because trauma and anxiety are real and can be debilitating.
But for me personally, whenever I need a positive injection in my mind, I try to get to water and if possible, to the ocean. It instantly distracts and reminds me that there is something I truly love right in front of me and it hopefully, if we look after it, will always be there and I find that thought so comforting.Tweet