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From the darkest days to an Ironman high

Written by Fiona

October 17 2016

In the same month as Mental Health Awareness Day, Amanda Brown bravely reveals her story of how exercise has helped her to deal with mental health demons.

I was friends with Amanda at school in England. We lost touch when I moved to Scotland as a teenager. This summer, we reconnected via Facebook as she trained for her first Ironman. On-line conversations revealed her story of how triathlon has helped her to combat a long period of mental illness.

It is not an uncommon story. Many people I know, who push themselves in sport, have suffered with a range of mental illnesses throughout their life, including anorexia, bulimia, depression, post-natal depression, low self-esteem, low confidence and poor body image.

It is, however, more unusual for someone to be courageous enough to allow that story to be told in a public arena. Amanda is revealing her story as a poignant message during the month in which Mental Health Awareness Day takes place.

Looking in from the outside

Amanda with her husband and daughters.

Amanda with her husband and daughters.

Amanda is 48 and the mother of two children, Freja and Erin. She has been married to Andrew for 24 years. At first glance she might be envied for her highly successful career, now a partner in a prestigious accountancy firm and a part-time judge, her beautiful Cambridge home, her family, friends, faith and a busy and active life.

But that life hides a number of mental health problems, some of which have threatened, at various times, to destroy the life that she has built for herself.

This weekend, as she stayed with friends on holiday in South Africa, she recalls the same place and the same situation five years ago. She describes her mental health in 2011.

Amanda says: “As I sat with friends at the same house in South Africa back then I was about as mentally unwell as I have ever been. I had experienced a new kind of low in the year before and I had at times contemplated suicide.”

History of mental ill health

Amanda and her family.

Amanda and her family.

Amanda’s mental health problems go back to at least 1991. Age 23, she was diagnosed with anorexia and struggled with the devastating eating disorder for the following three years.

She was just married, at the beginning of a demanding but rewarding career and hopeful of starting a family. But anorexia made happiness and feelings of self-worth difficult to balance.

As is common for many people who suffer with depression, there can be many low years followed by periods of stability. In the mid-90s, Amanda remembers a time of improved mental well-being and weight gain. She fell pregnant and was delighted to give birth to her first daughter, Freja, now 21.

But joy quickly turned to depression again. Amanda says: “ I had post-natal depression and the anorexia was also never far from the foreground. The eating disorder did not control me as much as it had before but it was always threatening me.”

Within a few years, Amanda was blessed with a second daughter, Erin, and then the family moved from Manchester to her original home area of Cambridge. Unfortunately, Amanda again found herself suffering with further issues of depression, low self esteem and anxiety.

She recognised she needed help and received 18 months of counselling, as well as medication. Amanda says: “In that time, I basically felt as low as I think I could go. Suicide was never far from my thoughts. I wanted out of my life. We visited our friends in South Africa during that time and I felt so awful.”

Amanda presses a reset button

Finally, the counselling and medication started to help and Amanda knew she needed to make some big changes to her life. Exercise had always been part of her coping mechanism and she decided to focus more on what made her feel good.

She says: “I have been a strong swimmer since I was a child and I had done some running over the years so I decided triathlon might offer a good new challenge.

“I started with sprint distance events and I thought I might be quite content at that distance. I am not stellar fast but in the triathlons that I competed in I was usually in the top three for my age and gender.

“While they were mass participation events and so the serious people weren’t competing I still liked the feeling that I got from being in the top three consistently.”

Amanda found that sprint triathlon training fitted with the constraints of her busy work-home life. She had a long commute each day, as well as a stressful job and a family to care for.

In 2014, Amanda had the opportunity to test herself over a longer distance. She was invited to join her firm’s team competing against other accountancy firms in the Big 4 wave of the Olympic distance triathlon at Windsor.

She says: “The thought of cycling 40km at that time felt like a massive step up. I could do the swim and the run. But the first time I cycled 40km from Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds the very concept of then doing a run was an anathema. But I stuck with the training programme and in June 2015 I was delighted to finish my first Olympic distance triathlon.”

At that point the possibility of a half Ironman was suggested but Amanda dismissed it.

After Erin received disappointing AS results, a mother-daughter challenge was conceived. Amanda says: “We started a discussion in which I drew an analogy between training for a big event and revision. I told Erin, if you start early, build the miles, have a strategy/plan and carry it through there’s a much better chance of success.

“I said that if I was to do a half Ironman in June I couldn’t start training in April and expect to pull it off. Instead, I’d need to start training in October”. Erin said: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’. So I did.”

While Erin studied for her exams, Amanda set about training for her first half Ironman. She says: “First of all I followed a half marathon programme and did the Cambridge half marathon. Then I moved on to the half Ironman training programme.

“True to my personality I executed the training plan precisely. I didn’t miss a single day of training. I arrived at Stafford 70.3 as fit for it as I thought I could be. I just wanted to finish it.

“The day arrived and it was wet, very wet. It was a hard event and I was cold, as well as wet, but I finished it. It felt amazing.”

Next step: An Ironman

Ironman Amanda.

Ironman Amanda.

The motto of Ironman is “Anything is Possible”.   Within days of finishing the half Ironman, Amanda was receiving emails from a particular friend about the possibility of doing a full Ironman. She says: “I wondered if I could; if it would be possible for me to do something as huge as an Ironman. Two weeks later I decided I’d give it a go.

“I signed up for the Vichy Ironman but it took me four weeks to tell anyone other than the most narrow of groups. When it felt real, I told people.”

Amanda had swum 2.4 miles before but she’d never cycled more than 90km and only ever run half marathons. She says: “I worried a lot about whether I’d bitten off too much this time. My mum thought so. I was anxious that my desire to do the event was the first sign of my obsessional behaviour returning.

“While exercise had been my sanity through my adult life I was also aware that my desire to compete against myself and push myself was also sometimes part of my mental health problems.

“Was I allowing the need to do more, to aim for an Ironman, to take over my life in a harmful way? It was possible, I knew, but in the end I concluded that I didn’t feel it was the case.”

On August 28, Ironman Vichy in France took place amid searing 30C-plus heat. Although very nervous, Amanda perfectly executed her plan to complete the Ironman and managed to finish almost two hours faster than she’d expected.

She says: “It was not a fast ironman by any stretch of the imagination but it did prove to me that anything is indeed possible.

“I was the kid who could swim and do gymnastics but did not have much ball sense. At school I was also slightly tubby. No one ever wanted me on their sports team and I was always left until last.

“I’d fought demons believing I, and those who loved me, would be better off if I wasn’t alive. And yet that person had crossed the finish line of an Ironman. I would never believe again that I lacked resilience.

“I have been to the edge of mental illness and fallen into an abyss I did not think was possible to recover from. But I have climbed back out and then accomplished a physical challenge not many are willing to try.

“Having done an Ironman means I have one of those little pools of light that will help keep me mentally well.”

A time to reflect

Staying with the same friends in South Africa last week, Amanda realised it was Mental Health Awareness Day. She allowed herself time to reflect on how far she had come in five years.

She says: “From my lowest point in 2011 to now seems like a lifetime. Now, I feel extremely fortunate to be able to say I feel about as well as I have ever been. I feel a sense of accomplishment on both my mental health and physical journey.

“I am an Ironman and now I know I can achieve what I realistically set my mind to.”

The stats

The mental health charity MIND estimates that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. The more we can talk about problems, such as depression, anorexia and anxiety, the more chance there is of helping to remove the stigma of mental ill-health and to help those suffering. Many thanks to Amanda for her honest and frank story. Find out more at Mental Health Awareness Day.

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