Mirror Image: When Trauma Meets Positivity, Paddlesport & Adventure

"Family, friends and medical support are vital but with paddling in the mix, I’m unstoppable."

When we look in the mirror and see ourselves staring back; sometimes we smile, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes we ponder. How did we not notice that bit of something stuck in our teeth? Where did that zit come from? Remember to put the rubbish out, pick up some bread, milk and a birthday card after work. But, what if you don’t recognise the person staring back at you anymore? What if you don’t think and feel like you know you should anymore? Well, that’s me! And do you know what… I’ve come to terms with it… or nearly! I’ve been seriously tough on myself, found courage with a big dash of hope thrown in and dragged my sorry butt back towards positivity!

In 2016, I made the brave decision to realise a lifelong dream: to move abroad. Australia was always where I wanted to be but I kinda got too old. I had limited finance and poorly family members needed me to be reasonably close by - just in case. So I settled on the Canary Islands, a pretty good compromise by my reckoning! With nothing but four bags, a completed night course certificate in Spanish and a tonne of hope and enthusiasm, I set about creating my dream life in the sun.

I found accommodation, work and new pals. I’d hit the pool or beach before work and got used to life in shorts, vests and flip flops. Life was pretty sweet, yes shifts as a chef were long and hard, minimal time off meeting tourist demand, lame wages (who needs money anyway?!), permanent, oven-hot, sweaty temperatures and can’t-breathe hot sandstorms. Despite everything, I was there, living my dream and enjoying life to the max!

But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. After work one evening in early 2017, I went with nothing but my house key in my pocket to see a friend who worked outside a restaurant, encouraging tourists in for food and cocktails – you know the type! It was always understood that if she was talking to punters then I’d step back and let her do her thing. On this fateful night, after stepping back I experienced some kind of medical episode – a feeling that I’ve only ever been able to describe as a scorching hot lava wave surging up through my body, through my torso, into my neck and enveloping my head. I quickly said I was going home and not feeling well and then… BAM!

Well, I don’t actually remember that bit. I’m told that I took two paces, passed out and faceplanted the pavement followed by 5 minutes of convulsing and 30 minutes unconscious. Fortunately I woke up - but dazed, confused and babbling some crazy talk. And then I discovered the wrath of the Spanish medical system.

Thinking I was a tourist out on the drink, I was stretchered by ambulance to the local health centre and left in a side room while my friend left work rushing to mine to find my papers. With my phone at home, I had no way to be in touch with her. Despite no appearing papers, I was blue-lighted to the main hospital in the north of the island. By now, I knew I was very poorly but relieved I was heading for caring hands.

Unfortunately not. I was left in a freezing cold waiting room in a wheelchair with nothing but a sheet to keep me warm. Each visit to the bathroom through the night I didn’t dare look in the mirror. I was petrified of what I was going to see. I knew I was a mess and I really couldn’t face it. In the morning, after a CT scan, a doctor spent 5 minutes with me saying he couldn’t see any bleeds to the brain but I’d broken my nose and had two cysts in my brain. That was it. End of story. Go home.

My friend had contacted another friend who came to visit but ended up taking me home. I remained housebound for 6 weeks, looking like I’d gone 12 rounds in the ring (yes, I finally looked). By now, I was as sick as a dog, helpless, so much swelling and in so much pain, nausea, a permanent migraine and limited sleep. There’s one particular photo that I uploaded to social media which I genuinely believed was to be my last. I honestly believed I was about to die. That’s a pretty scary place to be – alone, in a foreign country, unable to walk out the door and definitely too ill to even think about calling friends or seek medical help. I was on the brink.

As the months went by, the swelling and the bruising faded and I could get back to normality. It wasn’t normality as I knew it though. I couldn’t think, act or be the same. I was still very poorly; my brain just wasn’t firing. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognise who I was anymore. Yet frustratingly I remembered who, what and how I used to be. I’d been left with ongoing headaches, migraines, nerve pain, nausea, fatigue and cognitive, dexterity and balance issues. Over time, I realised I wasn’t getting better and the medical support I needed wasn’t there. I’d attempted to hide my symptoms outside of my home, but as each day passed it got harder and harder - so I made the decision to leave my life in the sun.

The move back to Wales in 2018 was easier than I’d imagined. Once I’d made that decision to return, it was such a relief and I finally had optimism for getting the support I desperately knew I needed. By this time, I was so ill that I was bedbound 4 in 7 days and walking using a stick. My doctor, shocked on hearing my story, immediately arranged for almost every test and specialist going. We trialled different medications to tackle some of my symptoms, that I later found to be known as Post-Concussion Syndrome, where symptoms following a Traumatic Brain Injury don’t dissipate. I received support from Headway, the UK brain injury charity and from an Occupational Therapist from my local NHS brain injury team.

It was this OT that led to where I am now. She encouraged me to undertake some voluntary work as part of my rehabilitation. I was already back assisting in Scouts as I’d done for years before but she suggested more.

“Well, I know a guy who runs his own adventure company!”

Life made! I was back doing all the things that I used to do in Scouts and it was so much fun! Juggling voluntary work and my symptoms was hard… really hard. But I’ve always strived to be the best version of myself, that hadn’t changed! I assisted with activities like coasteering, white water tubing, surfing and paddlesports. At the end of season, I was offered a full-time position! Wow! OVER. THE. MOON!

It was the paddlesports that had really captured my heart and attention though. Having first tried kayaking age 6 at an activity centre open day and having paddled canoes & kayaks off and on my whole life, through the Guides and the Scouts, paddling was never far from my mind. I’d worked hard for it but I had an opportunity on a plate – could I do it? Were my symptoms controlled enough? Was I kidding myself? I looked at the reflection in the mirror…

“Of course I can do it,” I told myself, “I’ve never been a quitter and I’m not about to start now!’”

That winter, I started getting some paddlesport qualifications under my belt. I found each one so tough physically, emotionally and cognitively but fought on through. I was nervous but ready and excited for the upcoming season and started my new full-time job in March 2020. Oh wait… no, Coronavirus. Here I was, an Outdoor Activities and Paddlesports Instructor, working from home – go figure!

This was not how my comeback was planned at all! Since injury, I’d been up and down with my mental health. But this new, once again isolated, world in which I was scared to even breathe was getting me down. I was sinking… fast. I needed a way out, something to look forward to and refocus my energy.

I decided to invest in a stand up paddleboard (SUP) for when ‘Stay at Home’ measures were released. I’d only tried the sport a couple of times at work and I wasn’t totally convinced by it. As a kayaker and canoeist it was pretty alien to me and combined with my balance issues this was surely a bad idea, right? No. With measures extended to a 5-mile zone, I couldn’t get down to my local river and beaches quickly enough! Wow! Freedom! The happiness was profound and, as the weeks went by, my mental health and balance awareness were steadily improving. Result. I was absolutely hooked! I needed more.

During this time, I was notified that a volunteer role I’d applied for prior to lockdown was mine. I was suddenly the first ever British Canoeing #ShePaddles Ambassador for Canoe Wales, a role that was designed to address an identified gender imbalance in paddlesport. It was to encourage, motivate and inspire women and girls to have a go, stay involved and, if desired, embark on a pathway towards becoming an athlete, instructor or coach.

The time came for the zone restriction to go and I posted on our newly created #ShePaddlesCymru Facebook group. I suggested as a networking base that I fancied a paddle further afield and invited others to join me. My volunteer coordinator Gayle at Canoe Wales phoned saying there were ladies wanting to go but didn’t have any of their own gear and could I help? A quick call to the boss solved that and a few days later I rocked up at a local beach with a van loaded with kayaks, SUPs, buoyancy aids and wetsuits met by lots of smiling, happy ladies, keen to get on the water.

It was a hit! We all had an amazing time, lots of chit chat, swapping stories, belly-ache laughter and made some great new friends in the process. At the end, when everyone had left, we discussed how it went.

With a beaming grin I said to Gayle, “We should go on tour with this!”

… and that’s exactly what we did. A week to do the day later, we were at North Dock, Llanelli with equipment, female instructors and 25 new and beginner women and girls ready to go again. It was again a success and by now, news of #ShePaddlesCymru was spreading fast and each tour date sold out from within a matter of days to a couple of hours! We had the best adventures travelling all over Wales instructing beginner paddling and finished the summer tour with a 10-mile canal expedition. (Next up - #ShePaddlesCymru On Tour 2021!)

I’ve never spent so much time on the water, or been so exhausted, but what an experience! Paddling really is my ultimate rehabilitation. It gives me everything I need to fight the condition I’ve been left with: love, friendship, travel, happiness, positive mental health, inspiration, motivation, challenge, fitness and fresh air. Family, friends and medical support are vital but with paddling in the mix, I’m unstoppable. What should have killed me made me stronger and I now get to inspire and motivate others through my own journey, helping them on theirs. For me, every day is a battle but it’s also an adventure. My adventure.

That person in the mirror? I’m growing to love who she is… she’s braver, more courageous, more resilient, more positive, more enthusiastic, more inspirational and more determined than I ever was and I’m proud to call her mine!

Clare Rutter is the British Canoeing #ShePaddles Ambassador for Canoe Wales. You can find her on social media
Facebook: clarerutter.DBA
Twitter: clare_rutter
Instagram: clare_rutter.ba.hons

For more information about the #ShePaddles tour in Wales, visit: canoewales.com/shepaddlescymru

All images courtesy of Clare Rutter.