GERRY CORNER on achieving peace with himself after years of depression, fears and anxiety . . .
STANDING poolside, aged 11, in a decaying Victorian public baths, the reek of bleach mixed with urine fuelling my nausea, I am given a simple choice. Jump in, or get changed and don’t come back.
Other than brief humiliation, the abrupt conclusion to my first and last childhood swimming lesson established not only my terror of water, but my fear of life itself, a fear that would remain, on and off, through the teenage years, through all the years considered to be one’s prime, and beyond.
Half a century later, on the brink of my 60th birthday, I study the Atlantic rollers, having finally found the nerve to act on a lifetime’s ambition and place my trust in 23inch-wide polyethylene platform moving at speed through the wildest ocean on earth.
This is the story of that journey, from a boy told by his teacher he was the least likely person ever to say “no”, through years of social anxiety, depression, zero self-belief and chronic fatigue, to the about-to-be sexagenarian, at last achieving peace with himself, and knowing his best years, God willing and surfing tragedies excepted, are to come.
My connection to water has mirrored my life, Shortly before that swimming lesson, I walked into secondary school for the first time and everything changed. Gone the homely primary in whose embrace I felt valued and safe. In its place, intimidation on an industrial scale; peers intent on exploiting weakness, teachers whose first instinct was to punish, not praise.
Each Monday the trauma of a new school week left its mark in the form of a brutal headache. Even now, it’s hard to fathom how that happy, academically bright, confident child could become so rapidly and profoundly drained of self-esteem, languishing in the bottom third of the class, every muscle taut with tension, body on constant high alert.
The tone was set. In my working life I hid, avoided, shrank into my seat. Abandoned by articulacy, I dared not enter into conversation, knowing – from grim experience – that even if I found courage to begin a sentence, my brain would stop dead long before I reached its end, resulting in embarrassment, confusion and further confirmation of my low self-worth.
Everything in my physicality reflected frail mental health: body stooped, shoulders slumped, my gait uncomfortably self-conscious. Occasionally I tipped into depression, the worst of times, a round-the-clock churning stomach – that physical manifestation of grim apprehension – broken only by sleep or alcohol. Drink brought blurry relief, but at a cost; as the effect wore off, the churning returned, only all the more intensely.
Through it all, I clung to the belief that there was another me, a better me; the life and soul, lucid, calm, content. I was shut in a dark room with no way out, no windows, just a locked door with a tiny slit presenting a tantalising view of a beautiful, bright world outside.
I must not overstate it, there were good times too. I had friends, laughter, lovers, the glory of children. Fun came intermittently, some drink-fuelled, sometimes courtesy of Prozac, or CBT, psychotherapy or hypnotherapy; I tried them all. Other times precious minutes’ peace of mind were bought by running long and hard until my heart felt like it would explode. None of it lasted, all of it achieved on shaky foundations.
The sea soothed and scared me. Standing at Mizen Head, Ireland’s most south-westerly point, as a spring tide forces gargantuan waves crashing on to the cliffs, you understand its terrifying power. Walking a Mediterranean shoreline as the sun dips gently into late afternoon, you know its capacity to heal.
Surfing seemed the ultimate physical expression of freedom, but one I would merely witness, not experience. Born in Liverpool, beside the Mersey estuary, salt water courses my veins. I don’t remember a time when I did not love the sea, its motions and rhythms and melodies. Yet for all its solace, it would take an age for my dread of it to recede.
In my thirties, I began in earnest to address that ambivalence. Through sheer persistence I managed a couple of makeshift strokes, starting waist deep and barely an arm’s length from the edge of the pool. Eventually, I could splash inelegantly from one side to the other, but still confined, physically and figuratively, to the shallows.
Meantime, after decades of stress something had to give and in 2011 I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. CFS, otherwise known as ME, has several suggested causes but it’s widely accepted that those whose lives are marked by anxiety and self-criticism are susceptible.
There followed several years of low mood, exhaustion and, at rock bottom, inability to work, denial of benefits. My search for a remedy finally took me to Wales and a course employing Neuro Linguistic Programming, an alternative therapy which they use to harness the power of the brain to break negative habits.
Still, more years would be needed for lessons learned in Carmarthenshire to bear fruit. After so long trapped in a bleak mindset, it was to take time. I was turning round an ocean liner. A toolkit of therapies, together with yoga, meditation, massage and exercise all contributed to an increasing wellness. Finally, the foundations were in place, with NLP underpinning it all.
As my confidence increased, so did my courage in the water. Eighteen months before checking into Surf School Lanzarote, I finally touched the furthest point of the pool, and it was around then that I began to believe surfing might become more than fantasy.
And so, with my sixties mere days away, I find myself off Africa’s west coast, at Playa de Famara, a Shangri La for surfers, golden sands fringed by a great shard of imposing volcanic cliff. Prepared, excited. Terrified too; for some of us, turning your back on a wave moving fast enough to knock you off your feet and hoping for the best calls for a certain courage.
By good fortune, Vicky, my brilliant Polish instructor, differs from her colleagues in one regard; unlike they, who have surfed since they could walk, she learned as a teenager and thus has an inkling of my apprehension.
The first day is about acclimatising, dragging a 19lb surf board against the tide, hauling yourself on to it, tumbling off it. Despite my age, I have never been fitter. Just as well since this is the most physically demanding endeavour of my life. By day’s end, my eyes, red and sore, are closing on me. My whole body aching and fatigued, with barely the energy to lift my wine glass.
Day two and the waves are appreciably bigger, stronger. Nevertheless, I pretty much master pulling myself to my knees. Getting to my feet will be another matter; doing so as the board beneath you plummets through the water requires another level of brave again.
Before I know it, it’s my last day, time and my strength ebbing away, and still I have failed to stand on a moving board. I decide I have two more attempts in me.
We wait patiently for a wave that will provide impetus. Then I’m riding, on to my knees. Fighting the fear, I get on to one foot, then fly off and hit the surf, the momentum taking me down, disorientated, at the mercy of the water. In this moment it seems the outcome I dreaded all my life – drowning – was not after all an exaggerated, irrational fear, but the reality, the here and now.
Months of preparation, building my strength and stamina, jumping into the deep end with my eyes closed to prepare for just such an eventuality, now seeming wholly inadequate.
And then my head breaks the surface, Vicky close by, retrieving my cap which has gone its own way, fleeting panic negotiated, another fear faced.
I rest awhile. Time for one last effort. I summon my reserves. “This one!” Vicky shouts. I clamber on to the board, put my body in position. The wave hits, carries me forward; now I’m on my knees again, concentrated, eyes fixed front. “Come on”, I urge myself. I jump to my feet, then I’m falling again, but not before I’m standing, a lifetime’s quest for contentment encapsulated in one glorious moment of pure exhiliration.
Darkest days behind me
“One second!” Vicky declares, indicating the time I achieved on my feet before the ocean took me. Honestly, it’s probably half that, but I’m taking it. “I’m proud of you,” she says, and tears damp my eyes.
Through the worst periods of my life, I never truly contemplated suicide, but there were days so grim I could not bear the prospect of waking up feeling that way for years ahead.
My life is not perfect; I am still prone to anxiousness, I still get tired, self-doubt creeps in. But I’m as sure I can be that the darkest days are far behind.
In the end, balancing on a surf board was not the point. There’s time for that. What mattered was being there, having the audacity to try, keeping on. I will never claim to be “cured”; mental health requires vigilance. The journey goes on and, while I still breathe, the journey does not end.
Fatigue answers, based in Llansteffan, Carmarthen. Tel. 07969 384634, www.fatigueanswers.com