A FEW WEEKS back, See Change put out a call for volunteers to take part in a firewalk in the hope of sparking a conversation about mental health. Ordinarily this is something I’d baulk at (I’m not a fan of pain, or even of pushing out of my comfort zone for that matter) but for some reason, this seemed a good idea.
The last six years have been challenging, and the last 18 months even more so. I’ve long been trying to get my depression under control, and more recently discovered that attempts were constantly being hampered by underlying borderline personality disorder. But, I finally seem to be coming out the far end of it – I’m on a combination of medication that’s working, I’m engaging in a new form of group therapy called DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy) through the the psychiatric unit at hospital, and I’m continuing to work with my therapist.
In terms of general life situation, I’m finally in a position to make changes that I know will benefit not just me, but my husband and kids as well – I’m fortunate enough to work somewhere that allows me to take unpaid leave for the summer, and once I go back to work, I’ll be reducing my hours to half time, working mornings only.
The combination of all the above is huge, and will go a long way towards maintaining the stability that I’ve long sought and finally seem to be achieving. It feels as though we’re about to enter a new chapter in our lives, and I think that’s probably why I jumped at the idea of the firewalk – it would present me with a huge challenge but, if successful, would not only be a fantastic boost to my self-confidence, but also would allow me to symbolically close the door on the last six years.
So, on Friday, donned in my finest check (a nod to the 4th of July western theme) I duly arrived at Celbridge Manor to meet my mentor, Howard Hughes of The Path I Choose Life Coaching, and the other firewalkers. I expected to spend several hours working up the courage to walk once across hot coals. I did not, for even one second, expect to bend an 8mm metal rod simply by holding it to my throat and walking against it, or to walk across broken glass in my bare feet, or to punch through a piece of wood on my first attempt. I also did not expect to walk across burning coals not once, but four times. I didn’t expect any of these things, but I did them all.
I think if I’d known ahead of time the challenges that were going to be presented over the course of the evening, I’d have run a mile and refused to go. To be honest, even getting there was a challenge as I used to struggle with crippling social anxiety and still get apprehensive about unfamiliar situations. At its worse, I’d almost be scared to walk around town on my own, wouldn’t even contemplate eating out alone, and was terrified of group gatherings. I’d even get anxious before going to meet friends, and speaking up at a meeting at work brought me out in a cold sweat.
But on Friday, I walked alone into this event, with almost no knowledge of what lay ahead. Even a year ago that would have been an impossibility for me, so that in itself was an achievement, and I think even had that been as far as I went, I’d have been proud.
As for the rest? To be honest, I can’t quite believe it happened. I came away from the broken glass walking without a single scratch. It felt strange, and the sound of the glass crunching and breaking under my feet was unnerving, but it didn’t hurt, not in the way that I’d expected.
As for the metal rod bending? Ok, I’ll grant you, that one was scary. The idea was that I would hold it against my throat, with the far end being against a partner’s throat. All we had to do (!!!) was focus on each other completely, and then walk slowly towards each other. I was almost at the point of giving up, convinced I was about to choke, when the rod suddenly began to give way, and before I knew where I was, the pressure was gone, the rod was bent in half, and I’d met my partner in the middle for a massive hug of relief and elation.
Rising to the challenge
The wood punching was my personal favourite of the evening. Again, the instruction was simple - see the piece of wood as a problem we no longer wanted, focus on a point somewhere underneath it, and punch through to that point. I got it on my first try (OK, yes, a little uncomfortable but my god did it feel good!).
The final challenge was, of course, the firewalk itself. We all lined up, and Howard announced his last surprise - we weren't just crossing this fire once. Between the 30 or so of us that were doing it, we'd cumulatively cross the fire 108 times. The significance of the 108 escapes me I'm afraid. He did tell us why, but I think my sense of hearing stopped functioning when I realised this was going to happen multiple times. But, we did it.
I'm not going to lie, it was HOT (500 degrees, apparently) and I certainly wouldn't have been hanging around. We'd been advised to walk with our feet as flat as possible, and avoid tiptoeing or running as we'd be more likely to get embers caught between our toes (I only needed to hear that warning once). And so, over I went. Four times.
A phenomenal experience
I had done it. The sense of relief, elation, excitement and achievement were just phenomenal. My husband and sister had come along to support me, and all I wanted was to find them both and hang on to them for dear life. I was rattling, probably down to a hefty dose of adrenalin, but so, so pleased with myself. I had two pretty sore spots on my feet at that point, and was sure I had come away with burns, albeit exceptionally small ones considering what I'd just done. But, half an hour of a salt water foot bath and a hefty application of aloe vera later, there wasn't a bother on me. No blistering, no cuts, nothing.
The whole experience was absolutely phenomenal, I still can't quite get my head around it. I keep looking at the pictures and finding myself thinking, 'Really? I really did that?' Just over a year ago I was so severely depressed I was in hospital for weeks. Less than six months ago I was so volatile I couldn't be trusted to be left alone. And now? Now, just by believing I could do it, I bent a metal rod with my throat, walked across broken glass, punched through a piece of wood and walked across burning embers four times.
I’m choosing to be optimistic
I’m looking forward to a very different future for my family and I. I’m finally daring to hope that we might just be able to put the last six years behind us, and move forward without the spectre of depression and BPD constantly looming over us. It’s very, very early days yet, and anything could happen, but I’m choosing to be optimistic. A week ago I would have laughed at anyone who tried to tell me what I’d achive last Friday, and yet I have photos to prove it all. If I can do all that, anything is possible, right?
Fiona Kennedy is a 30(ish) year old, happily married, mam of two, living in a small town in Connemara. She has two crazy dogs, wonderful friends and a loving, supportive family. Oh, and clinical depression. She blogs at Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @SunnyScattered. Fiona is an Ambassador for See Change – a national movement to change minds about mental health, one conversation at a time’.