SUP, brain injury and me

In my case, I was dazed, confused, and scared. I didn’t recognise who I was anymore. That person staring back at me in the mirror – was that me?

Words & pics: Clare Rutter

2021 British Canoeing #ShePaddles Ambassador for Canoe Wales

Long story short. In 2016, I finally realised a lifelong goal to move abroad, not to Australia as originally intended (I aged out) but to Gran Canaria, a pretty good substitute by my reckoning. After several trips, lots of research and a Spanish learners night course under my belt, I made the brave move to leave everything; a job I’d studied and worked so hard for, family and friends, my house, my whole life. Gran Canaria had won my heart – year-round sunshine, four-hour flights and fairly doable on a budget. 

Faceplanted the pavement
Fast forward to 2017; my dream came crashing to the ground – literally! Some kind of medical episode; a scorching hot lava wave spread rapidly up through my torso, through my neck and into my head. I don’t remember much else. I’d hit the deck – hard, faceplanted the pavement, convulsions and 30 minutes spent unconscious. Next came hit and miss treatment in the Spanish health service; the professionals shrugged their shoulders; nobody seemed able to help me at a time when I needed it the most, at a time when I didn’t even know I needed help myself. The brain is a funny old thing, often taken for granted all the functions it performs and its role in our social and emotional being, our behaviour, physical abilities, and so much more. The brain is everything. No one brain injury is ever the same, each one as unique as the person it afflicts and the range of impact it has.

In my case, I was dazed, confused, and scared. I didn’t recognise who I was anymore. That person staring back at me in the mirror – was that me? I couldn’t think, be or act the same. I was ill, seriously ill. Fatigue, headaches, migraines, nausea, balance issues – only when I was asleep did I have any relief from my new normal, and that’s when I wasn’t being plagued by insomnia. Cognitively, it took around eight months to realise this in full that I’d done some real damage, and it wasn’t going away. I’d learned little techniques trying to fit back in with ‘normal life. Work was exhausting; multi-tasking was out the window; I kept making mistakes but felt I hid it well. After work, I’d be straight home, eat and go to bed in an attempt to recuperate enough energy for the next day and the next and the next. Portraying myself as my old self was near impossible, and I realised it was being noticed. My mental health was taking a hit; trying to understand and come to terms with the fact that you can’t do what you could so easily do before is soul-destroying. I was crumbling. I was broken. I couldn’t do it anymore. 

Returning to my Welsh roots
Deciding to give up the paradise I’d longed my whole life for was tough, but I knew I had to; it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t in a fit state to look after myself, let alone anything else. Once the decision was made, the rest was pretty easy; friends helped me pack up my life and return to my Welsh roots. As I bid my life goodbye and stepped on the plane, there were still no regrets; instead, there was a relief, that maybe, just maybe, I could have some hope and would get the medical help and support I so badly needed from the time of my accident and in the days, weeks and months following. At my first doctor’s appointment, in shock at my story, the GP made arrangements for every test and scan to be done and prescribed medication to help tackle some of the symptoms that I had been left so seriously ill with. These actions, together with support from Headway, the UK Brain Injury charity was exactly the help and support that I needed.

In my former life, I’d been a country girl, brought up on the coast where the land and sea were always so dear to me. Climbing trees, jumping hay bales and getting wet and muddy was the norm, and I loved it! Aged six, my parents took me to an open day where I tried kayaking; I don’t remember it, but the bug was already there, I’m sure! I later joined the Brownies, then the Guides and later the Scouts, where I had lots of kayaking and canoeing opportunities throughout my childhood and into my adult life, I loved the water, and it was so much fun! 

In 2019, I was assigned an Occupational Therapist from the local Brain Injury Team. As part of my rehabilitation, I was encouraged to do some voluntary work working back eventually towards employment. I was already back helping in my old Scout Group as illness allowed but more was encouraged. “Well, I know a guy with his own adventure business,” I got in touch with Jet Moore of Adventure Beyond. We’d been in Scouts together, so it was a great link to reform. I explained my limitations and motivation (and probably stubbornness!) to try to get back to the ‘old me’. He took a chance, and soon I was assisting on activities like coasteering, surfing, white water tubing and school residentials.

SUP boarding
Still, it was the canoeing and kayaking that was grabbing my attention again. I was always absolutely exhausted but seized the opportunities that were being given to me. Medicated as much as I could be to mask my symptoms, I felt a spark coming back; I was feeling more alive, more enthusiastic, more excited, happier – just WOW! It wasn’t quite the old me, but it was pretty close! Then came the SUP boarding. Hmmm… I wasn’t quite so sure about this! As an off and on lifelong canoeist and kayaker, I didn’t get this standing up thingy! I didn’t understand what people were raving on about! Never one to want to live with regrets, I had a go, then another go and then a bit more. I was slowly warming to this SUP malarkey! I think my biggest fear, like many beginners, was falling in; my balance since injury was really poor, but the more I tried, the more determined I became, and my confidence, belief in self and skill increased with it. 

Full-time contract
Onwards to 2020, coronavirus and lockdown! After having completed the 2019 season at Adventure Beyond and completed my British Canoeing safety and rescue training and Paddlesport Instructor Award, I was offered a full-time contract; I couldn’t believe it! But now, my life was being ripped away from me yet again. How could I be an outdoor activities and paddlesports instructor working from home? My mental health was retaking a dip, but having been there before, I knew I had to take action fast. Working from home, I had a little more income than usual, so I decided to bite the bullet and invest in not only my career as an instructor but in my continued rehabilitation. After spending a month researching the kind of SUP that would suit both my work and assist with my balance issues – I hit the ‘Buy’ button! It arrived three days later, and I was overjoyed, now to wait for the ‘Stay at Home’ lockdown rules to be withdrawn! My first time out on my SUP – incredible! I adored it! I knew I’d made the right decision! 

SUP is now the thing I love to do most – if I’m not instructing SUP, I’m out on it in my own leisure time or failing that, I’m reading or watching videos about SUP! It has saved me. SUP brings me new energy, so much joy and happiness and a determination to paddle many different locations and meet new, different and interesting people along the way. I’d pretty much class myself as a SUP addict now – it makes me feel so alive and free, and even if I do not feel my best or my balance is out, I can adjust my pace or even sit down or kneel. I will always find a way no matter what! 
ShePaddles Ambassador

Not long after getting my board, I was informed that I had been selected from some outstanding applicants to become the first British Canoeing #ShePaddles Ambassador for Canoe Wales! This meant even more paddling, even more SUP, even more, road trips and destinations, meeting even more people, having even more fun – EPIC! I’ve never believed in fate or that things happen for a reason, but somehow, I’ve ended up somewhere phenomenal through my experiences, and I have zero regrets. I’m still poorly, but I fight on having had a second chance at life, and as long as I have SUP and paddlesport in my life, I know I’ll be just fine!

See you on the water!

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5 Comments on SUP, brain injury and me

  1. Truly inspiring – a great comeback Clare

  2. I took up paddling after my brain haemorrhage and it’s been crucial in help improve my balance, health and brain peace. Like you I’m not back to normal but when I SUP life feels steadier .

  3. Fantastic gutsy determination, Claire. You’re an awesome ambassador for Paddlesworth. See you on the Teifi sometime.

  4. I also had a brain haemorrhage & surgery & found Headway really useful. From one She Paddles Ambassador to another you are awesome!! 🏄🏻‍♀️

  5. Amazing determination & very inspiring.
    I had a stroke in 2020 & went to stay with a friend on the coast for a week of recovery, She had a board which I didn’t try at 1st, bit scared, but the next time I was there I tried it & now I’m hooked. I’m lucky to have the Thames & Kennet & Avon Canal locally & I get out as much as I can. Paddleboarding is definately a healer & helps my mental health so much.

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