With today being World Mental Health Day (October 10, 2020) World Record Paddleboarder and dryrobe® ambassador Cal Major shares her own personal experiences with mental health and how being out on the water helps her manage her mental wellbeing…
Let’s just get one thing clear from the outset. We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. Each of us may need to tackle certain mental illnesses throughout our life, just as we might physical ailments.
I never truly appreciated this until I fell ill with depression myself a couple of years ago. It was after I had just completed the biggest expedition of my life so far: stand-up paddle boarding 1,000 miles from one end of Great Britain to the other – Land’s End to John O’Groats.
I had spent two months on the water every day and had just achieved something that nobody had ever accomplished before, and yet afterwards, instead of that feeling of elation and self-confidence, I plunged into darkness and self-loathing.
Prior to my expedition, I had also recently lost one of my best friends to suicide and hadn’t been able to get my head around how she could have done it. But this was a point where for the first time in my life I understood, and I forgave her.
Difficult to cope at times
It’s hard to describe depression to somebody who hasn’t experienced it and I suspect a lot of people who have experienced other mental health illnesses might say the same.
We can empathise with a broken bone or a headache because most of us have experienced similar physical pain before, but the utter despair and hopelessness that accompanies depression can feel very isolating. Even the idea of getting out of bed gave me a feeling of such deep pain and anguish.
I have always been very connected to the sea, as a surfer, kite surfer, scuba diver and stand-up paddleboarder. It’s the place I feel most at home and as a vet I’m fascinated by the wildlife there.
I love nothing more than feeling like I’m a part of the ocean, whether that’s face to face with the wildlife as I’m diving through kelp or coral; harnessing the power of the wind in my kite as I skim along the water; or feeling the connection to a wave as it propels me down its face and I dance along its surface.
Getting back into the sea on my long road to recovery from depression was sometimes very difficult – the ocean holds no prisoners and demands respect.
Helping with my mental health
However, she also doesn’t judge – you might be having a fantastic day or a terrible one and she’ll treat you the same, greet you with the same energy and the same endless horizon to help you find your place in the world.
When I was at my worst with depression, I couldn’t surf. I judged myself so harshly, and my fitness had dwindled so much that the sport that used to bring me so much joy now brought me to tears.
However, I could just about manage to pull on my swimsuit and wade slowly into the cold water, and the feel of the ocean on my skin was the elixir I needed to guide me towards recovery.
Swimming in the sea, sometimes even just for two minutes, brought me crashing so quickly back into the present, away from all the dark thoughts circulating through my head, that I would often find myself giggling or even belly laughing for the first time in weeks as I ducked my head under the waves, threw water into the air to watch the mini rainbows made by the droplets, or bobbed silently watching the horizon.
I didn’t need to be fit enough to catch a wave, just getting in was enough, and the thrill and sense of achievement would make everything seem okay for a few minutes, and sometimes a few hours.
Recovering from depression
I am grateful to have mostly recovered from that depressive episode now, but I’m hyper-conscious of the warning signs that I might be slipping back. Spending time in nature, particularly in or on the sea, is my absolute priority for maintaining my mental health now.
If I’m starting to feel the despair or unhelpful self-talk creeping back in, I take myself to my nearest swimming spot and slip into the cold water.
Cal Major is an ambassador for dryrobe®, producers of the world’s most advanced change robe. To find out more visit dryrobe.com