All at sea

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There’s nothing worse than letting people down.

Except drowning them. And, for the last few weeks – since starting The Big, Mad Swim Around Britain on April 24th – those have pretty much been my options.

Option One: Continue with the plan (bear in mind, the plan was a year in the making, involved five people and all available savings). Keep having panic attacks in the sea. Rely on team to drag me out of water. Risk team’s safety every day.
Option Two: Admit defeat. Pull carpet from under pride and suffer the fall to come. Face up to reality of failing, even when trying my hardest. Tell people that I just couldn’t do it. Bear their disappointment.

I’m ashamed to admit it took more time that it reasonably should have for me to cut through the muddle that anxiety was making of my mind, and boil things down to what they actually were: one option, one face-saver.

In truth, I was crumbling, falling back into old patterns from which I could only fashion a pathetic costume of a person. I was already avoiding people, clinging to ‘safe’ places, and begging those close to me to do the same. The smallest shifts underfoot unnerved me, and I was crying more than I wasn’t. Everything was changing; there was no longer a rock for me to cling to, since even the very floor beneath my feet rolled with each passing wave.

All the while, every sea swim was being lived in three parts.
The preamble: Anxiety taking hold, as I struggled to keep things in perspective long enough to remember why I was doing this in the first place. Organising and reorganising my kit as a way of controlling even the smallest facet of the situation. Beginning to twitch again, blinking and flinching; having nightmares about drowning that bled into reality. Background stress limits setting off nearby Geiger counters.
The swim itself: Gasping for breath, trying to calm my stroke as Maria (my ever-patient support kayaker) cheered me onward each time I pulled up for air, just seconds before panic immobilised me completely. Begging my brain to quieten, to stop reminding me how scary a place the sea really is. Constantly, desperately afraid.
The aftermath: Cowering on a support boat on which I could never find calm. Isolating myself from everyone, in order to minimise their exposure to the pitiful shadow I had become. And worrying; fretting instantly and incessantly about the next one; the next time I had to leave the known fear of the boat and clamber into the unknown terror of the water.

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There was just no let-up – not a flicker of comfort on which to anchor the sinking ship of my mental health. You see, I can face fear. Only a few short years back I wasn’t able to walk over a bridge without dissolving into a puddle of tears, in which, ironically, I could have drowned. These days, I’m a half-decent swimmer with some three-quarter-decent distances under my tow float, and I wouldn’t have made it here without forcing myself to move forward even while terror was tugging on the reins.

But in order to overcome a fear, to learn from facing it down and move towards healing, there has to be respite. There has to be time to recover from the heightened stress on the body, to rest and restore and allow the brain to absorb the lessons learned. That way, next time, the brain remembers surviving the experience and can be convinced it will survive again – probably.

Living on a sailing yacht afforded me no respite. Time spent in the sea was bookended by time spent on the sea, so that even rests were steeped in anxiety. It was bad, but necessary, planning on my part. There were sections of the swim that simply wouldn’t have been accessible without the boat, and I hadn’t realised just how exhaustingly frightened I would be every time the boat was moving… or stationary… or anywhere in between.

So there it is, the end of the swim – and a whole new challenge ahead. A challenge not only in making The Big, Mad Splash Around Britain something worth doing, but also in living with this new version of myself: the one who tried to swim around Britain and didn’t succeed. Every day since stopping, I’ve had the same thought: maybe I could have continued, pushed through until I broke, kept my ego intact and avoided the sting of letting people down. At least my headstone would have said World Record Holder, right?

Instead I chose to be a failure. I tried, I gave it all I had, and I failed. And, you know what, I think I’m probably alright with that too.

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12 Comments on “All at sea”

  1. Fail = first attempt in learning we all fail that’s how we grow and achieve to avoid failing to how to stagnate and fade away

  2. Paula, you have failed nobody. NOBODY. Do you even realise how much of an inspiration you have been, not only in stepping WAY out of your comfort zone, but in chronicling the battles with your own inner “paranoia weasel”? Failing to reach some illusionary touchstone such as the world record does not detract from the enormity of the physical, emotional or mental journey you have done so far. Tell that inner rat-faced bastard to do one, and give yourself proper time to recover. You, above everyone else, deserve it.

  3. Paula I have so much respect for you. You tried your hardest and that is what matters. It’s time now to regain your composure and reflect on how far you have come. I wish you all the best for the future x

  4. It was a terribly brave thing to attempt, something I couldn’t even begin to think about, probably an even braver thing to recognise you couldn’t continue. I’m sure there is a saying, “It’s better to have tried and failed than to never try” If there isn’t a saying like that, I have just invented it especially for you. Go forward with the knowledge you tried and as a person grew from the journey you embarked on. Well done you.

  5. You did not choose to be a failure!
    Sounds to me like you have met soma amazing challenges head on and won. For a person who could not cross a bridge to be on a boat, never mind swimming in the sea, seems incredible to me!
    You pushed yourself as far as you could go and then you acknowledged that you could go no further… that takes amazing courage too!

    Oh and ” paulamusttryharder?!” – seriously?! Give yourself a break!

  6. Hi,
    Look forward to hearing what you do next. If it’s something you don’t like or frightens you perhaps a week at most would be better. Life’s to short to be trying to prove things you don’t need to. Overcoming your fear of performing in front of others is much more impressive than being a super hero record breaker.

    Jo x

  7. Paula
    For my money, which you are welcome to keep for MHF, you have nothing to beat yourself up over.
    I love that you tried, I’m honoured to have met you, and I get your description of bringing it to an end.
    If nothing else, I’ll be cheering you on to whatever you do next, big or small, because every step counts; next time out, if I could offer some small support, I hope I can.

  8. You, a failure? Don’t make me laugh. After all you’ve achieved it’s hilarious to call yourself a failure.

    You haven’t managed to swim round Britain…. something no other person has achieved. At least you tried, I’d never have even thought of doing it! So you’re not a failure, unless everyone else who hasn’t swum around Britain is a failure….. that’s an awful lot of failures!

    Head up, you’re an inspiration.

  9. Hey Paula,

    You chose to make a decision which addressed your wellbeing. Which was about looking after YOU. It was also about saying “I don’t need to do this” to raise awareness for mental health. What you’ve done with ‘The Big Splash’ and written about here has increased awareness ten-, hundred-, even thousand-fold. Because what this Big, Mad, Bad, Adventure has done is show that mental health is fickle, it ebbs and flows, it sweeps over you, it comes at you like a ripple, or worse, a tsunami. It pulls you into a whirlpool from which you feel you cannot surface.

    But you did. By golly lass, you so did. You made the most important decision ever, to stop, to say “stop”, and, to tell us you’ve stopped. That doesn’t make you a failure, lass. That makes you a heroine for many. To raise that hand, that waving hand and say, I’m stopping. I’m stopping for me. I’m stopping because I have to. I’m stopping because I need to. I’m stopping because staying on will drag me nearer the abyss. That abyss that ruled my life for so long and from which I broke free to explore the world that was out there, to undertake Commonwealth Sports, to accept challenges on behalf of others and to write. I did that for me and for others as well. To show them, that one can face fear, and manage it.

    And you’ll find that we’re completely with you and that decision because we needed you to stop too. To help us manage our own fears which included our fears for you. So there is relief. Relief that all can be well with the world. That small steps are fine. That too much is made of comparisons with others. That we can be content with our decisions and, heck, not even feel we have to explain them.

    Heavens, that you took the decisions you did doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you one of us, and just as surely as you are hurting like blinking mad, so are we. But above all, we are so proud of you. For what you set out to do. Well, I am and I’m here to wave my hand in the air and say so. Getting wet in the sea and saving on bath water is one thing, but to do it in order to put the spotlight on mental health and, then, by accident, show just what a relentless daily battle it is, is quite another. That’s what you did, kiddo. And bloody well done for that.

    Sending lots of hugs.

  10. Thank you all so much for such lovely, kind comments and words of encouragement. I would love to respond to each of you individually, as you so greatly deserve, but I’m still a bit overwhelmed with things at the moment, and am trying to sort through the muddle of anxiety in my head. But please know that I appreciate all of your support, which will help to push me onward. All my love and thanks. xx

  11. Without failing we would learn absolutely nothing. Sad to see the swim end but love how the adventure has done what all adventures do and morphed into a new set of challenges. All the best

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