Esther’s note….. This post was originally written back in 2017 by my friend Alex Small for Balance and Breathe. Alex is a fellow writer who has found another way to deal with the demons in his head. When I was looking through the posts on that site, I felt strongly that this post belongs on this new site. Alex finds his Space to Breathe out on the water. As I will take to the mountains, to my mat, or when I can, to the coast, Alex finds his sanctuary on his board, paddling until he finds peace and quiet both around and inside himself. I thought about asking Alex to rewrite and update the post, but I actually like it as it is. His observations at the start of his paddle boarding journey are powerful, especially as I know how important his board is to him now, and how it has helped him recover. I may ask him to write another post at some point, and there may be a post about my own attempts to paddle later this year, but in the mean time this is a beautiful account of how one man found his space to breathe on the water.
Esther has asked me to write about the mental health benefits of paddle boarding…
I’ve always suffered from depression yet have never taken medication to help. Gut instinct tells me to stay clear… My personal black dog haunts almost every waking moment to a greater or lesser extent.
Recently it became far worse, almost to the point of the final solution, despite the semi-colon tattoo on my wrist. I was struggling with an MA that my heart was not fully behind, coping with the increasing sense of failure so many in their 40’s and 50’s seem to suffer. Life had not turned out the way I had been told. The fairy-tale of work hard and be loyal and then things will be OK, is just that, a fairy-tale in the classic sense. A warning, a horror story that so many buy into thinking it is one of less sickly-sweet Disney ones.
So, as I sunk deeper and deeper I dug out an elderly little 9ft inflatable SUP, (Stand Up Paddle) board that my brother had given me last year. This was early May. I’d only been on it once then in both swell and on the river here in Falmouth, Cornwall soon after I got it.
Even crossing the little bay from Pendennis Point to Gylly beach was a major achievement without falling in. (About a mile there and back.) Slowly I learnt to use it and it gave me an opportunity to be on the water. I made some lovely new friends thanks to the little café/ van near the carpark. (Ahoy café…) Yet still the darkness would almost become overwhelming, all consuming.
After a month or so of paddling I spoke to my brother about a better board. In exchange for some fire wood he gave me a big wave board… For his skill level, yes, he could paddle this board in any conditions, for me, apart from the calm, I fell off a lot. Still fun, yet it not quite suited for the mix of sea and river paddling I would want to use it for. When I picked it up my brother mentioned that they had more suitable one but it would cost more than wood.
I watched some tutorials online after struggling in rougher conditions and then set about learning the skills on both boards. The constant challenge helping me find a sense of inner peace. In the past I used to sail, but my little boat sat unused on the beach for too long. I truly thought that the water would be denied from me. I had become landlocked. The paddle boards allowed this access and the sense of fun that comes with it. After an exhausting day working as a gardener I would normally sit at home and snooze… Now I had a board on the roof and I went out and played.
The challenge attracted my intelligence, and it was a certainly that. After I stepped back onto dry land it felt as if it was moving, a sensation that since I stopped sailing I had not felt.
If sober living rocks, now so did the land.
By chance a little money came my way, the sensible thing would be to sort a back-log of things that need doing…. In this spirit, my main strimmer along with both the washing machine and the shower died… I spoke with my brother to get advice and he mentioned that his wife was selling her little used 11 ft touring board… So almost sight unseen I bought it. When I popped over to see it on my motorcycle it was love at first sight. There was no need to test with something looked so right and beautiful. My brother looked after me by throwing in a board bag and a carbon paddle.
That was barely a week ago, since then I’ve done more paddling in a larger variety of conditions than ever before. As it is Cornwall in the summer, this means a lot of strong winds, unsettled seas and of course cloud and rain. The new board and I are learning to trust each other, from the challenge of the coastal swell to pottering about on the river. We share a love of freedom and adventure.
I have a sense that there is spirit within it, something that transcends the explainable. Now what would have seemed impossible only a week ago has become the everyday…. Not in a mundane way, but a joyful one for it means that much more is possible.
My depression is still there, but for the moment it has met its match…
The sea is endless and so life should be…
One stroke at a time.
My advice is try something new, Esther controls her demons with yoga and I’m fighting mine with paddle boarding… Keep an open mind. When things seem truly hopeless, hang on.
I’m paddling through the darkness and so can you.
Alex Small grew up in Cornwall where has spent most of his adult life avoiding a proper job. After being made redundant in 2010 he entered Falmouth University to study English with Creative Writing… Following graduation in 2013 the economic recovery that the government promised never arrived so since then he has been trying to survive by doing such varied work as life-modelling and gardening… Oh and the odd little bit of writing. He can be found on Facebook as the Naked Writer or on Twitter and Instagram as Classicaraddict, and blogs on classicaraddict.com and West Country Writer