From behind bars to surfing freedom. How I changed my life and how you can do the same...

In 2008 I was working in one of Britain’s highest security hospitals.  Not the sort of place they make movies about; THE place they make movies about. You’re probably thinking dark rooms and shadowy corridors but it was the opposite.

Brightly lit to ensure everything, in every room, down every hall, in every corner could be seen on camera. Monitored. I still remember the 1-week induction training on restraining patients. Conducted on gym mats. Learning thumb holds, pressure points, and safe room-exit strategies.


I remember the sound of my key belt. And the sound of the escape siren during testing. Like your standard fire drill just more chilling.

It was a hospital for prisoners. For particularly tricky prisoners; those who weren’t getting ‘fixed’ just by being deprived of their freedom. I received a death threat on my first day. Pretty standard I was told.

I was busy, tired, and a bit stressed. My work was highly rewarding, but it was a hard slog and I didn’t realise the impact working in a high secure setting was having on me. Have you ever felt like this…? Helpless, with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that won’t go away? Or a tightness in your throat? Like you know how to cope right? ‘Head down, bum up’. Push on, til home time – the countdown starts from lunch time. Or morning tea. Or Sunday.

I just knew I needed a break. (But I blamed it on the weather.)

It was a typically sunless British summer and I wanted to defrost. So I planned a ‘learn to surf’ holiday in Portugal.

I had wanted to learn to surf for years and the idea of a sun-filled, active beach holiday, of clearing my head, and doing exactly what I wanted to do sounded super attractive.

And I loved it. I mean, I REALLY loved it.

I made friends, stood up on a surfboard (eventually) and basked on the beach in the warmth of the autumn sun. You know that feeling, of the sun warming your skin? We spent our whole week on the beach. Surfing, reading, laughing. Drifting in and out of our dreams. I didn’t arrive there looking to make friends. I had nothing to give. I needed me time. But I left with lifelong friendships.

I returned to the UK tanned, happy, and refreshed – albeit not that excited about going back to work.

After a holiday like that, who would be, right?

That holiday stuck with me. A few months later, without hesitation, I had booked another one – another escape – back to Portugal. It was the happiest, freest, I’d been in a long time… more sun, sand, and surf. More likeminded people to surround myself with… more adventure.

I didn’t know at the time, but this trip would change my life.

It was during this holiday, while sitting on the beach, that I ‘had a moment’.

Nothing I’d planned for, nothing I really knew how to explain at the time. However, because I’d stepped away from my problems, left work behind for just a few weeks, I had a clear mind.

I was free to stroll down mental corridors I’d not visited before. To dream a little. To indulge thoughts I might otherwise have ignored had I been grinding away at work.

Here’s what I’m talking about...

Learning to surf is hard. Really, hard. Especially if you’re not naturally sporty, which I am not.

It’s hard because nothing is ever the same.

The surf changes, the conditions change, you change. One day you have perfect conditions, silky smooth water, no wind, and perfect balance. The ocean is your friend.

The next day the swell comes from one direction, 20-knot winds come from another. You can’t see your board from the salt spray in your eyes as you try to jump up. Is the ocean mad at me?

So you can’t replicate the great day you just had. And you can’t use your work strategies to manage it – you can’t just work harder, concentrate harder, understand it harder. So you have a great day, then you have a terrible day.

Everything. Always. Changes.

So, on one of my particularly tragic surf days there was me and my big fat 8-foot beginner surfboard, trying to get ‘out the back’ – to that calm and magical place beyond the breaking waves where you can just sit, paddle around, hang out with your mates, and relax while you wait (recover) for your wave.

(It’s the second best part of surfing).

However, I just couldn’t get there. And I’m not a giver-upper-er, I’ve done hard stuff. Like marathons, and high secure hospitals. But I was hit by wave, after wave, after wave. “Waves come in sets”, I told myself. “Be patient”, I scolded. More waves, more sets. More waves, more sets.

After what felt like an eternity battling those waves I was spent. Exhausted, I sat on the beach watching as the waves kept rolling in. (“Sets, my arse”, I thought.)

And it was then that it occurred to me…

My job was like this endless barrage of waves. Over the past 7 months I had been hit by wave after wave. And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get to the outside; I couldn’t make it to that calm resting place. To sit, and enjoy.

And I cried a little.

A part of my battle was external. I’d moved to a new country, taken up a new job, in a high stress environment. I knew no one, I didn’t know the systems, and I had no routine. You know the ‘learning curve’ of starting a new job, right? How the hell does the photocopier even work?!

However, an equal part of my battle was internal. The pressure that I placed on myself, the strategies that I used to solve problems and learn tasks, and most importantly, the internal voice I used to beat myself up for my ‘not trying hard enough’, for ‘not being as good as all the other psychologists’, for being ‘weak’ and ‘not tough enough’.

Head down, bum up. Wave, after wave, after wave.

Through surfing I realised something had to change. And this moment was the start of my search – a search for waves all over the world, and a search for new strategies to help me conquer my internal waves.

New ways to cope with change, to battle my fears, and to construct my life into something which is uniquely my own.

It hasn't been a straight path but it has lead me to where I am now.

I’ll talk more about that in my next post.

In the meantime, if you remember your ‘moment of realisation’ I would LOVE to hear about it, and what you did next.

I read and reply to every comment.