Tonic of the Sea is a beautiful award-winning short film directed by Jonathan J Scott about open water swimmer Katie Maggs’ journey with mental health and her refreshingly honest account of falling into and recovery from burnout, anxiety and depression. Upon the incredible success of the film at 2018 Film Festivals and after being nominated for the BAFTA short films award Katie has gone on to write her first self-help book also titled ‘Tonic of the Sea’. Within her book and in the publishing of her writing in UK magazines she describes more details of her journey with mental health, crucial factors that supported her recovery and clear achievable suggestions to stay well in the future.
Picture Credit Emma Winks
Katie will also be presenting at the Wild and Well Festivalin Bristol this coming October on the topic of ‘Nature Cures’ and is showing her film and discussing the chapters of her book at the Kendal Mountain Literary Festivalin November. There will also be an exhibition of her inspirational wild swimming photography in the small coastal town of Penzance, Cornwall at the beginning of the New Year.
For up to date details on the publishing of Katie’s book or to hear more about her current projects and upcoming exhibition you can do so through her website www.tonicofthesea.co.ukor by following her on Twitter and Instagram @tonicofthesea.
A Lotus Rises #WSC caught up with Jon and Katie to find out more about their collaboration.
How did the collaboration come about?
Katie: The collaboration with Jon came about from a swimming friend of mine who teaches at the same College – she saw a post Jon had put on a Wild Swimmers website searching for someone who had had difficulties with mental health or physical illness and had found the sea to be helpful in their recovery. My friend sent me the information and I emailed Jon to see if my story might be something that he was interested in. Luckily after a brief phone conversation he was.
Jon: As a travel and adventure filmmaker, I’m always drawn to unique stories that are connected to the outdoors. I had been hoping to get my latest project off the ground (or into the water…) for quite some time. But, due to logistical and technical difficulties, I had struggled. Having never shot underwater properly, I wanted to embark on a project that would challenge me both creatively and technically — goals this project certainly fulfilled. Having reached out to the UK’s wild swimming community via social media, I was inundated with requests from those who were keen to be involved. On speaking to Katie Maggs I was immediately struck by her openness and honesty when talking about how she had struggled with mental health, and how wild swimming had helped here recovery. I knew immediately that I wanted to tell Katie’s story.
What things did you have to consider as a film maker in addressing the issue of mental health and also how best to convey the relationship with the water?
Jon: When making a documentary I find its extremely important to let the story tell itself rather than trying to force out a story, my job as a film maker is to facilitate that storytelling and do my best to express it through a visual medium. Katie’s openness and honesty along with her passion for swimming meant that this was quite a natural process. Once we had shot everything, it was a matter of working with the footage and audio in the edit shaping it to best tell Katie’s personal story.
What enabled you to share your story in this way?
Katie: To convey my mental health journey I just felt I had to be as honest as possible about what happened to my physical body and my mind. Everything had just collapsed through ‘burnout’, it was almost like my brain had turned itself off in a bid to protect itself from further damage.
I was indecisive about sharing my story to begin with, I was concerned that people would think less of me, that I wasn’t capable to do my job anymore or to be a good Mum. I’ve always been an active independent person, positive and as fearless as possible when it comes to living life and experiencing new things. But all of that was slowly stopped through exhaustion and my body and mind gradually giving up.
I wanted to share my story because the process of how it happened to me can so easily happen to other people. When we ‘do’ life every day we lose sight of allowing ourselves some quiet time or stillness. I was doing what I thought to be ‘normal’ I’d worked hard for a responsible job as a department deputy at a College, I was caring for my father before and after work, I was trying to exercise regularly but pushing my body to extremes in a bid to ‘be fitter’, trying to be a good Mum, a loving partner, all of the normal life stuff. I think if you are a kind, giving and empathic person and you feel things deeply, you can so easily start to fall out of balance.
When did you realise that “all those have too s” had become too much?
Katie: Looking back the warning signs had started to show. I often felt overwhelmed and teary, I became so unusually exhausted, even though I had slept well the night before. I was suddenly suffering with headaches, skin rashes, blurred vision and neck and shoulder pain. I kept going to the G.P with health concerns – asking for bloods to be checked, my eyes to be tested, moles to be examined that I was worried had changed. I can see now that the health anxiety was part of the deterioration of my mind (it was giving me warning signals, but I was unfortunately ignoring them). My once vibrant mind through so much stress, worry and sadness was gradually becoming dark. All the negativity in my life was coming out as physical symptoms in my body. Unfortunately, I realise now that when we are ‘busy’ and when busy is our norm we all try to keep ‘going’ and we ignore the warning signals that we are becoming dangerously overwhelmed.
The final health problem was that I developed restless leg syndrome that later transformed into Myaclonis of the larger muscle groups (Muscle Spasms). As my anxiety took hold and with the ongoing fear of my new and very alien condition unfortunately I deteriorated. I was so terrified by what was happening to me that I developed severe insomnia, becoming afraid to go to sleep as a result. I couldn’t escape the night time body spasms and in the early hours of the morning, sleep deprived and alone I felt like a stranger in my own body. It was the loneliest experience of my life. I had lost control of my mind and it didn’t matter what I did, I just couldn’t find my way back.
What advice do you have for anyone else in that position?
Katie: Advice I now offer to friends and family or even strangers at Battery Rocks is that we need to slow down and listen to our bodies when we are tired or feeling overwhelmed. It can be harder to try to fix things once they have got as far as mine did. All in all, my recovery took about a year. It came about through a mix of regular yoga, seeing a sleep therapist, low dosage anti-depressants, and most importantly my regular morning sea swimming. Here I was able to find myself again and rebuild what the breakdown had taken from me. Through meeting new and inspiring people at Battery Rocks and feeling part of a swimming community, I was able to rebuild my confidence in my body, my sense of self, my courage and my belief in who I was as a person. All these things were just for ‘me’ and about ‘me’ and before I had become unwell that is exactly what I had been missing.
Before I suffered at the hands of burnout I wasn’t doing anything solely just for myself that meant that I rested, experienced joy or took some quiet time simply to get some daily clarity. I was giving out regularly, but I wasn’t putting anything back. With so many elements of worry in my life my mind had understandably become fatigued and overloaded. I realise now that the brain behaves like a muscle, it can become weary and overworked just like any other muscle in the human body. To protect it we must anticipate that negativity and stress is bound to occur but if we have factored in our daily ‘me’ time and cared for ourselves first then we will be better equipped to deal with whatever daily chaos comes our way. Protection from burnout can be achieved by factoring in time every day that is just about ‘you’ and ‘your’ happiness or creativity. If warning signals are there already them it is vital that you take drastic steps to pull back from as much as you possibly can in a bid to try to regain some balance in your life. Even small gradual changes can make all the difference in terms of how severe the outcome can be.
What does your swim community mean to you?
Katie: The Battery Rocks swimmers changed my life, they provided me with new friends, people to lean on and learn new things from, I felt inspired by the older swimmers (some 80 +) who got in every day all year round in swimming costumes. Through conversations I slowly learnt that many of these people had experienced their own struggles in life, it helped me to feel less alone, more supported, and it gave me confidence that I too could get better.
Please describe your relationship with the water?
Katie: The sea reminds me that there is something bigger than me, that there is a world out there full of mystery and beauty. It takes me away from worrying about insignificant things or things that I cannot change. When you are swimming you can only really think about swimming – it’s like a quiet underwater world where all the noise from land can’t reach you. It’s peaceful and still and even on choppy days you can feel like you soak up the positive energy from the water somehow. It is my time, my space to be me, there is no falseness, no pretence, just me, a free mind and the sea.
Overcoming anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, is a powerful journey, please describe how the sea helped bring back your confidence and how it influences your life on land.
Katie: With my breakdown/burnout I lost all confidence to do anything I had previously been doing. I felt like I couldn’t do my job, I wasn’t strong enough to exercise or see my friends, I felt scared and anxious about going out or enjoying time with my family – whilst my mind was recovering my confidence in living my life had been lost. Sea swimming every morning brought that feeling back, it made me feel proud of myself, I felt I had done something different, something extraordinary, and something most people feared doing. It made me feel brave and like I was capable again. It rebuilt my self-esteem and confidence in myself and in my own body’s physical and mental ability. For the first time since I was a child I felt like a real-life adventurer!
Have you always been a swimmer?
Katie: My father was a keen diver and loved being in the sea, as children he would take us to quiet Cornish pebble coves after a school and we would swim underwater to look at the crabs and long lines of sea kelp. As I got older I swam at school, but it slowly dwindled. I was never a front crawl swimmer I always just got in and would do breaststroke. As I got older I started pool swimming and found a love for front crawl, but I was always afraid of swimming front crawl in the sea. It wasn’t until I became unwell that I just ‘let go’ and thought how it can get any worse or any scarier than my current situation. One beautiful morning at dawn, after yet another sleep deprived night and whilst out with my camera I met the Battery Rocks swimmers and slowly over time they gradually managed to coax me in and I have been swimming with them ever since.
Do you always swim without a wetsuit?
Katie: I have always swum without a wetsuit, I don’t feel like you have really been in if you have a wetsuit on. I like the feel of the cold rush of water and how it makes you feel so invigorated afterwards. You feel alive and reenergised after going into very cold sea water, like all has been washed away and I am brand new again. In the winter I wear a thin neoprene body suit – it is the connection with the water that holds all of the magic.
What do you think the future holds for you in terms of swimming?
Katie: Swimming every morning has really changed life and my swimming ability. I used to panic a bit when I first started sea swimming and my breathing would suffer as a result but now I feel like I could swim forever! Someone once told me that once you get into a calm space and you relax then swimming should feel no harder than walking. I can completely agree with that now. My lung capacity has dramatically improved and I have so much more energy. I will sea swim until I physically can’t get in anymore. The sea has brought about so many incredible changes and opportunities in my life and I owe it so much more than just my recovery. The sea has become a part of my future now, part of my own healing but also part of my work. I would never be doing all the incredible work that I am doing now if it had not been for the Battery Rocks swimmers and the wonder of the sea. We have so much to learn from the great outdoors, so much good can come from time spent within it, our minds are free to wander, to explore and to create. When we take real time each day for ourselves, just like the sea, anything is possible.
Favourite Swim Cake?
Katie: Something light with fruit.
Favourite piece of kit?
Katie: My favourite piece of swim kit is my wider lensed goggles from aquasphere. I like to be able to see as much as possible under the water, when we are finished swimming I often float around looking at all the starfish, crabs and if we are lucky some very friendly grey seals!
Thank you Jon and Katie: Out of the water A Lotus Rises #WSC