Six years ago, Paula McGuire’s social anxiety was so severe she was almost housebound. With no option but hospitalisation left, she dreamt up an extraordinary sporting challenge in the hope it might save her life. It did. Six years on, Paula recalls how sport and adventure changed her life immeasurably, and chats to me about her latest challenge to become the first person to swim 1800 miles around the coastline of Great Britain.
Paula, let’s rewind. What was life like for you at the height of your anxiety six years ago?
I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since I was about five; it has been a really long road. I was at the point that doctors and psychologists were saying there’s no other avenue to try, although they weren’t washing their hands of me. The next step would probably have been hospitalisation.
I couldn’t answer the phone. I could barely answer the door, even if it was the postman. I couldn’t eat in public, so I wouldn’t eat at all if I was at work. Basic things that you just do routinely as an adult – I just couldn’t cope with them.
I managed to do all the things I needed to be a ‘responsible adult’, because with social anxiety you don’t want people to judge you. I would go to work most days – my husband would walk me to the car – then come home and my door would be shut. I got to the point where I was mostly cutting out friends and I was starting to cut out family as well.
What made you go from being almost housebound with anxiety to taking on huge challenges?
I would love to say there was a Eureka moment where I woke up and decided that this is what I should do, but it was over about a year. When I turned 30, I couldn’t leave the house for my 30th birthday – it was awful. I’d always expected that when I got to 30 I would be doing something; helping other people or making a difference, but I couldn’t even help myself and the doctors at that point were saying, you’ve had all the medication, we’ve tried everything. I was just feeling that somebody else was going to make a really hard decision about my future and I thought, I’m going to try and do it. I’m going to give myself one last chance to beat this, or at least live with it.
And that’s where the idea came from really. It had to be something really big because I’d tried doing little things. I’d tried going to the shops on my own – I couldn’t make myself do it. So I thought, maybe if it’s something really huge, something terrifying, and I can prove to myself that I can do it, maybe it would make a difference. It started off just for me, just for my own sanity, for my own mental health. And it just became something bigger than that over the years.
What was the big challenge you dreamt up?
I decided to try all 17 Commonwealth sports before the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. I live in the East End of Glasgow, which is on the doorstep of the venues for a lot of the Games, and came up with this funny idea that somebody who had never tried a sport before should try all 17. It quickly became clear that I was the only person who had never tried a sport before. I was terrified of water so I couldn’t swim; I’d never learned to ride a bike.
My husband suggested I set up a blog to hold me to account. I’d always loved to write anyway, but I’d never put anything out because I was too frightened. So that’s what we did.
What sport did you try first?
I tried cycling first because I thought it was really solitary – I could just get a bike and go out the back yard and not see anyone there. I’d never had a bike before. Growing up, my sister had one and she used to go out with her friends. But me? No. Because with social anxiety you don’t want to try anything that you don’t know whether you’re going to succeed at.
Was your social anxiety a fear of failing in front of other people?
Yes, it’s a fear of people’s judgement. I think we’ve all got a little bit of that in us, but once it starts to takeover absolutely everything, that’s when it starts to become a problem. And it was a problem for me really early on, from about five or six-years-old. I remember being really worried about what people thought, so I wouldn’t try any sports or anything where you had to perform. I thought, what if I can’t do this and people laugh at me? So it never happened.
How did you find learning to ride a bike as an adult?
I eventually had to go and have cycling lessons, but it took me a month to go in and ask, I was so frightened. They were lovely and told me they teach adults all the time. But it took me ages to learn because I had none of those skills. Plus, I was dealing with the fact that there were parents there with their kids, and I was constantly just mortified. But I kept going and that was the first time I’d ever pushed myself in that way – to keep going with something I was really struggling with and I wasn’t a natural at; something I didn’t know whether I was ever going to succeed at. That was a huge lesson for me. Once you’ve done that, it spurs you on to keep going.
How did you feel during your Commonwealth challenge – were you still anxious every day?
I’ve got lots of happy photos of me during the two years that I tried the Commonwealth sports but in between those days it was awful. I was not only trying to learn 17 new things, but I was also trying to learn how to be an adult, to learn how to interact with people socially which I’d never really had the skills for. I cried pretty much every single day because it was awful. But the days where I was actually there, doing it, and I was running about or I was doing a triathlon, those were really special moments and they were moments of success that I could really build on. And the days of crying became a lot easier to deal with. The anxiety never went away, I just became a lot stronger.
It was difficult for those two years, waking up in the morning and not wanting to do another sport. Now, I kind of enjoy the anxiety a lot more because I frame it as excitement. So I love getting those feelings of nerves because I know those are the days that I’ll take the most out of, and I’ll learn the most from and look back on most fondly.
It’s remarkable that you continued your sports challenge when you were struggling so much…
Anxiety is so time-consuming, I just don’t know how I had the time for it. And not just for me, but for my husband as well. The night before I was going anywhere new we’d have to go there first so I could look round, so I knew where the toilets were, where the exits were, where I could stand. I always had to prepare myself before I had to make a phone call. So you had an hour of me making a list of all the possible things they could say and all the possible things I could say… it was absolutely exhausting.
With social anxiety you’re constantly on alert, constantly on edge, you constantly feel like there’s something out to get you and that’s why I used to come home and just lock the door; I had to have those hours of just sitting at night and resting because it was so tiring.
So you did two years of Commonwealth sports – how did those two years change you?
I was a completely different person by the end of those two years. I was doing radio work on Radio Scotland, I had a little slot every day during the Commonwealth Games which was called ‘Paula Presents’ where I spoke about different sports. People really got behind it. And I think that’s what made me keep going the most.
The first time I admitted on the blog that I was struggling with my mental health, people got in touch to say ‘You’re making it alright to just go and be rubbish at something’, to go out and just try something. And just enjoy it for what it is, not because you’re the best at it. You’re making it alright to talk about mental health, and that really spurs you on. By the end of it, I really felt I was doing it for lots of other people as well as myself. But at the end of the two years I was also really worried: what if I stop doing these sports and go backwards?
Was it a fear that you could go backwards with your mental health?
I still felt like my mental health recovery was really fragile. I felt that it was the sports and adventure that was keeping me going and I didn’t know what would happen if I stopped. So I had a couple of weeks when I thought, let’s stop and let’s see. And I was fine, but I was bored! I didn’t really know what normal life was anymore. I’d had these amazing two years and so I decided: let’s just keep going with this. This can be your life now, you don’t have to go back. You can keep going – and I did!
What has been the most challenging sport or adventure you’ve tried?
The triathlon I found really difficult. That was quite early on and I couldn’t swim yet – I was still absolutely terrified of water and it took me absolutely ages to enter the pool. So there were months and months of me just stepping in the pool, but I couldn’t take in any information because I was so scared. So it got to the point weeks before the triathlon where normally that would have been an excuse for me to say, ‘Oh, I can’t swim, so I can’t do it’, but this time I emailed the organisers and said, ‘I can’t swim, can I just come along and do it with a float?’ They agreed and I went along with this big pink children’s float and I did the lengths just kicking.
There was a para-triathlon champion in the other lane and she was powering up and down and everyone was looking at me, but I thought: You know what? If you can do this, you can do anything. So I used the big pink float in the pool and then, because I wasn’t a good cyclist, I fell off the bike a couple of times on the way round. There were loads of people there and I was head-to-toe in Lycra, which was awful [laughs]. When I got to the finish line it was one of the proudest moments of my life because I’d found it so tough and it was so difficult mentally and physically. My dad was there and he burst into tears. The triathlon was probably one of the toughest things I had to face as it was still early on and I didn’t feel very strong mentally. But that was a huge turning point for me with my mental health because once you’ve done a triathlon when you can’t swim and you can’t cycle and you’re a terrible runner, opening the door to a postman can’t be harder!
Which of your sports, challenges or adventures have you enjoyed the most?
Probably being a pilot for a day. It was incredible. It was with the Blades Aerobatic team and we flew loops and we flew rolls and I got to fly a couple of the loops which was amazing. There was a moment where I said to the pilot, ‘I shouldn’t be here, I’m just a girl from Glasgow. I don’t have any qualifications to do this!’ It just reminded me how much life has to offer if you start saying yes and start trying. I’m not in any way privileged and I come from a very working class background – I’m just out there giving it a go really. And that was one of the most incredible moments for me. And wing-walking as well.
Wing-walking on a plane?
Yeah! That was incredible. Honestly, one of the calmest, most serene experiences of my life because when you’re up there it’s just you and the clouds. It was a blue-sky day in Yorkshire, and England turned on the weather for me. It was glorious. I was just up there on this little biplane and again had one of those moments thinking, I don’t deserve to be here but I’m glad I am.
Let’s talk about your Big Mad Swim. You only learned to swim in August 2017 and you’re planning to be the first person to swim around mainland Britain in April!
As soon as I realised that nobody had ever attempted even to swim around Britain before, that was a red rag to a bull. The thought that you could do something that no-one else had ever done. I think that if I, someone who has no business swimming around Great Britain, can do this, it will show that you can have a really healthy, happy and engaged life with anxiety. As long as you go into it with the right support, you can do anything. I hope that it will be a light for other people who are struggling: there’s a crazy woman who is just like me and she’s out doing it. And that’s what’s keeping me going when I’m waking up in the middle of the night thinking Why on earth are you doing this?!
Even more incredible is the fact that you were aquaphobic until recently?
I only learned to swim in August. I scalded myself when I was about 18 months old by pouring boiling hot water over myself. I don’t remember it but I have a huge scar all the way down my chest, which is a constant reminder. After that, when my mum used to take us swimming when we were younger, I would scream any time I went near the pool or the sea. I just had this fear of water.
I once went for a walk at night and accidentally ended up in the middle of this bridge. Gerry, my husband, had to carry me off it because I just froze and was in tears. Genuinely, even just big puddles would terrify me. I became a pathetic mess of a person any time I was near water. It’s been a long road to get me even just to go near a pool!
How do you feel about swimming and water now?
Now, I love it. I think I’ll be a swimmer for the rest of my life. You know when you have to go to your happy place in your head? Where I go in my head is to water. I love it so much and I love the swimming community as well, all the people I’ve met who love being out in lakes and lochs and in the freezing cold. It does something incredible for your mental health, it really does.
How have you been training for your Big Mad Swim?
Pretty much seven days a week I’ve been either swimming or at the gym. I do one or two cold water sessions a week, although they’re getting more difficult to do because of the cold. Mostly it’s just pool swimming at the minute. I went back to taking more lessons just for technique to try and get myself as efficient as I possibly can. I’m not at the point where I’m even counting lengths at the moment but when I stop work in the New Year, I’m just going to be training pretty much constantly for three months until the swim starts in April.
How long will you be swimming for each day during your round-GB swim?
I’ll be swimming in every single tide I can possibly swim in, so swimming for 5 hours then I’ll have seven hours waiting out the tide, then another 5 hours swimming. I’m hoping to do 10 miles a day on average and that will get me round in six months. But there will be bad weather days – we live in Britain, so I’m prepared for that! I won’t take any scheduled rest days, I’m just going to use the bad weather days for that.
What challenges will you face doing your big open water swim?
Things like the Bristol Channel! Also, maintaining support – I’ve got an incredible woman, Maria, who read about my challenge online and is going to kayak the entire trip with me. She’s taking 6 months off work and she’d never met me before she decided to do this. She’s training really hard to do the kayaking alongside me, as it’s really important for me to have someone who is there the entire time.
The mental side, I think, will be the biggest challenge. People think it’s going to be a big physical challenge, which of course it is, but I’m going to have to be in my head, on my own, for five hours at a time and that could really destabilise things. It could be really difficult. But I feel like I’m in a really good place mentally because of everything I’ve done so far. I feel like all of it has been a journey towards this big swim, because I feel really mentally strong for it.
So I need to get my training right, and nutrition is going to be a big thing. I’ll have to eat around 8000 calories a day just to maintain weight so I’m looking forward to all the cake!
Have you taken advice from any distance swimmers?
Yeah, I spoke to Sean Conway who did the Land’s End to John o’ Groats swim. He got in touch and he’s been fantastic, telling me things I need to think about – even things like keeping up the morale of the support team. I feel like I’ve got some really good people behind me.
We’re still looking for a skipper for the support boat though, so if you know anybody who might be interested get in touch! The swim is only four months out now, and I’ve had some nice offers from people to do sections of the course so I might just mean we have a relay team of skippers all the way round.
Do you have any sponsors who are supporting your Big Mad Swim?
I have people who are giving me things in kind, so the Youth Hostel Association both in England, Wales and Scotland are giving the team 100% of accommodation all the way around, so any time we get to land we can stay in hostel, have a shower. They’ve been brilliant.
Speedo have given me loads of kit – loads of wetsuits. And if you ever need a swimming cap, I have lots of them! Loads of people are sending me things, but I don’t have any corporate sponsors yet and I’m still looking for them.
Until recently, I didn’t realise that goggles weren’t meant to leak, so I’ve been using a pair for six months that have been filling my eyes with chlorine. It’s because I’d never swum before Katie, so I didn’t know stuff like that! I now have goggles that don’t leak and that’s been making a huge difference!
Where did the blog name Paula Must Try Harder come from?
It was a nod to my PE teachers because that’s all they ever wrote on my PE report card. I never participated, I wouldn’t try anything. And because my first [adult challenge] idea was the sports, I just thought it was going to be a sports blog. It kind of stuck and I think that now, trying has become my mantra really – I don’t care if I go out and I’m the worst at something or if I’m terrible at something if I’ve tried. That’s where the learning comes.
You’ve gone from not being able to answer the door to doing TED talks in front of hundreds of people. How do you feel when you’re up there?
I absolutely love doing it and that was one of the biggest surprises because as I say, social anxiety is a fear of people. I once crashed my car into a bollard instead of doing a presentation at university because I was so frightened – and that presentation was in front of six people! This was one of the biggest surprises for me. After the Commonwealth Games, it was all about the legacy and bringing children into sport, and I did some school talks as a favour for different friends who were teachers. I was nervous but I really enjoyed it. People are really forgiving when I’m up there telling them my story. They think, she looks a bit nervous but that’s fine because that’s what she’s talking about!
I think it helps that I am a bit jangly and a bit twitchy. I think it puts it across better that I’m still dealing with this and that you don’t walk away from mental ill health, you just cope with it better. But things like the TED talks, I had butterflies, I felt sick that morning but there was never a point where I was talking myself out of doing it or when I didn’t want to do it. And that’s the difference now. Even when I feel the nerves and feel the anxiety, there’s never a point that I feel ‘I’m not going to do this’. Instead it’s: ‘Alright, so there’s nerves, but I’m going to learn a lot from this. I’m going to benefit from this.’ And it spurs me on a lot now.
Have people’s positive reactions to your story helped your confidence?
I used to think that I was the only person that was this much of a basket case, but when I started opening up a bit people were like, Me too. The people who I thought were the most confident, well put-together people I’d ever met said, ‘You know what, I really struggle with that too.’
We’re all just bumbling through life – none of us have it completely sorted, we’re just trying our best. And once you realise that every single person in the audience is dealing with something as well, then if I can give them ten minutes of entertainment, or comfort, or a little bit of hope, then it’s totally worth being a bit scared up there because it might just make a difference to them.
You’re writing a book about your anxiety and adventure experiences – can you tell us more?
It’s part of the inspirational series that Trigger Press are doing, they’re a mental health publisher. And it’s based around my story of having anxiety and turning it into adventure. It’s not a self-help book, it’s more an inspirational story of what I did. So I’m not telling anybody that they should go and jump in the sea, but it’s that they can get through anxiety and come out the other end. It will be out before the swim.
Where do you think you would be now Paula, if you hadn’t found sport and adventure?
Genuinely Katie, I don’t think that I would be sitting here. And that sounds really dramatic and maybe a bit trite, but it’s true. I was at the point where I was taking 40 pills a day, just to get me through an ordinary day. That was prescribed medication as well as just stuff that I was buying from the chemist. I was in a really awful, awful way and I’m not ashamed to tell people that – I was ashamed at the time. I would have done myself some damage or I would be in a hospital somewhere, not getting out any time soon.
I genuinely wouldn’t still be here without sport. That’s why this is so important to me to get the message out. Sport should be prescribed for mental health. People should be given free gym memberships. I swear by talking therapies and counselling and taking all the support that you can get, but just getting out and doing things can make such a difference for mental health.
I wouldn’t be here now without sport.
If you can help Paula’s Big Mad Swim with either corporate sponsorship or by offering your services as a skipper, please contact Paula via her website, www.paulamusttryharder.co.uk.
You can follow Paula’s inspiring journey via her website www.paulamusttryharder.co.uk and via her social media accounts: www.instagram.com/pmusttryharder, www.twitter.com/pmusttryharder and www.facebook.com/pmusttryharder.