CASE STUDY: RACH

“I’VE WALKED AWAY FROM A BREAKDOWN”

Voluntary worker at Southmead Hospital Rach says being part of the challenge has inspired and energised her recovery from mental health difficulties.

How old are you, and where are you from?

49 – born in Bristol and lived here all my life.

How did you get into walking, and what kind of walker are you?

My earliest memories are of walking the North Devon coastal paths on family holidays and walking to school from the age of 4. In 1981 I was one of the first girls to join the Army Cadet Force and I have fond memories of an annual camp based at Okehampton, tramping over the wet and wild moorland on navigation exercises, enjoying the feeling of being out in all weathers. As I got into my 20s life became somewhat dull but I recall going to North Wales with my Mum and doing some walking along the coast but left my Mum to walk Snowdon on her own!

My darling Mum died just before my 30th birthday. For many months after I existed, going to work, paying the bills, feeling numb. In early 1998 I decided that I couldn’t stay in for the rest of my life and, taking the plunge, went on a walk organised by a local walking group. I walked over ten miles that day in the Mendips. The day after I could barely move. I decided to get fit by increasing how far I walked every day, walking to the next bus stop and then the one after that. By the time I did my second walk with the Group over Sugar Loaf in the Welsh Mountains I was hooked. I had some great weekends away in Youth Hostels and met the wonderful man who would become my husband.

I walk for the pleasure of being out in the natural world with an open mind and an interest in where my footsteps will take me.

How long ago was your breakdown?

My breakdown came in March 2009. Like many of us know life has a way of throwing us off course and in the months preceding I had experienced family estrangement, the pressure of studying for a degree and my husband undergoing a serious operation to remove a large tumour from his pleural cavity. This was very fortunately benign but was a tremendous worry for a long time.  I have suffered with anxiety and depression all my life and that day in March 2009 was the day my mind and my body said no more. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even go outside. Wave after rolling wave of panic, thinking I was having a heart attack, I was afraid to move from the sofa in case I collapsed. It was an incredibly frightening time and in the midst of it I thought I’d never be able to do anything ever again. With the support of my husband and the help of a good counselor life began again albeit slowly. I remember stepping out of the house and stumbling the 100 meters to my local park, each step feeling like I was ploughing through sticky tar, panicked that I would faint. The world seemed so huge and I couldn’t find my place. But as the days and weeks became months I got mentally and physically stronger, enjoying being outside, hearing the sparrows in the hedgerows, watching the neighbourhood dogs bound after balls, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin.

It took a long to time feel myself again and there are still times when the anxiety/depression flares up. But I recognise the signs and slow down. Strange though it may seem, the breakdown ended up being the catalyst to living a more contented life.

Where in your personal journey were you when you came across this challenge?

I came across this challenge in June 2016 via a suggested groups prompt from Facebook. This seemed extremely coincidental as at the start of the year I had decided out of personal interest to log my weekly mileage.

What did it contribute to your journey toward health and happiness?

It is incredibly inspiring to be part of this challenge and to see how others in the challenge are doing. The wonderful photographs and stories are motivational in themselves and I love the camaraderie in the Facebook group and how supportive everyone is of each other and the milestones reached. Being a part of this challenge has certainly added to my happiness.

Where do you think you would be without walking?

Probably twice the weight, eating junk food, watching rubbish TV and probably mentally, physically and spiritually deficient! Oh and I probably wouldn’t have started orienteering which I am obsessed about but that’s another story…

Can you describe as if to an “outsider” the cumulative effect of little-and-often walking on your body/mind/spirit?

Simply being out in the fresh air, noting the changing of the seasons, being aware of the subtle changes there are in my local patch, being alive to the natural world brings a calmness and richness to my mind. The simple act of walking helps me to meditate on issues that might be bothering me and very often I find a solution to a problem when simply allowing my feet to take me along the path. Being awake to what nature has to offer allows me to keep walking, to increase the mileage, but slowly as walking is to be enjoyed, never a chore or something that must be done. The miles add up and before you know it you’ve reached 100, 500, 1000.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

Breakfast, strong black coffee and finishing the Guardian Cryptic Crossword in under half an hour! Followed by a walk in the hills of the Lake District (where my husband proposed). It’s a sunny day, not too warm, a gentle breeze blowing, the sound of lambs bleating, skylarks singing with the sheer joy of being alive, being in and part of our beautiful country, keeping my senses alive to what the natural world has to offer.

Is there anything else we should know about you?

I sing with a choir and have had some wonderful experiences including singing on the pitch at the Memorial Ground before the start of the Rugby League World Cup match between the USA and The Cook Islands; singing at the Roundhouse in London with folk singer Sam Lee and musician Kathryn Tickell; performing the premiere of jazz saxophonist Andy Shepherd’s piece entitled The Divine Paradox of Human Beings in Paradise and soon to go into rehearsal for a contemporary work which will involve singing the movement of the stars whilst clad in a silver cape in a tunnel on the Bristol to Bath cycle path!