MyStory: Triathlon is my chocolate

by World Triathlon Admin on 10 Sep, 2007 12:00

Although the Hamburg BG Triathlon Championships are over, its never too late to hear inspirational stories of how triathlon has positively impacted peoples lives.  For the past two months, the International Triathlon Union has invited age-group athletes to send in their stories about their personal journeys to Hamburg.  We invite you to read a selection of the ten finalists stories.  We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.  Thanks to all for entering and good luck in future races!!
ITU Media team

By: Anne Garton (AUS)

Ill start with a familiar statistic: One in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime.

Mental illness does not discriminate.  Mental illness is real. It does happen.  But I didnt think it could happen to me

I was the Golden Girl. Everything I touched turned to gold.  I graduated DUX of my high school.  I also won every sporting trophy the school offered, and succeeded at inter-school athletics carnivals. 

At university I won four academic awards and graduated with Distinction. After university, I joined the Queensland Police Service and was DUX again at the Police Academy, and won the Police Academys Leadership Trophy.

I was sent to Redcliffe Police Station where I began to excel as a first-year police constable.

I wish I could leave the story here and say and I lived happily ever after

Unfortunately, behind this happy/successful faade, a horrible truth lurked.

It started two months after graduating from the Police Academy as a first year Constable.

It was like a thousand voices were screaming in my head.  The noise was agony, and many times a day I would fall to the floor, clutching my head screaming silent screams. Screaming and screaming and screaming

Voices screaming. You must obey me or you will be killed. All the children get killed. You are evil. You belong to the devil, you must be crucified for your sins

Somehow, at work, I managed to ignore it and push it away pretending it didnt exist. And once again I excelled became earmarked as a very promising police officer.

I thought it was just a phase and would go away.

But it didnt. Things deteriorated. The screaming got worse.  The stalkers pounced.

These voices became shadows and they started stalking me. When outside or walking down the street, I could feel them watching me, following me Id hear their footsteps behind me, and when Id turn around to try and catch them, I would see dark shadows dart away.

When driving, I would see the cars in my rear view mirror they were following me. I would drive like a rally driver, ducking down side streets, but I could never lose them.

And when inside or at home, they would watch me from video surveillance cameras installed in the ceiling.

I would watch thousands of cockroaches and maggot pouring out of my mouth and nose. Dead people lying on my bed.

Blood pouring down the walls of my house.

Codes and numbers repeating thousands of times in my mind.

Home-life consisted of lying in bed for hours, catatonic states, staring blankly at the walls, hallucinating, flashbacks, violence, voices, screaming, crying, self-harming and fear, unimaginable fear and terror

I lived alone so no one ever saw or knew.  I never told my family what was going on would play perfect daughter whenever I visited them.  And at work as police officer, I would smile and laugh, and perform my duties as if nothing was amiss.

I couldnt tell. I couldnt ask for help. Me, the golden girl who succeeded at everything having to admit something was wrong, that I was damaged, that I was going mentally insane.

I didnt tell because I couldnt understand what was going on. I didnt want to understand what was going on. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted it go away.

I didnt tell because of the fear. I was so afraid. Oh so afraid I was afraid of the people who were stalking me. I was afraid what I was hearing from the voices, would come true that I would be crucified, I would be sent to the devil.

I didnt ask for help because I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse as a child, over and over, the perpetrators drilled it in too me that I must never tell they told me that they would hunt me down and murder me, if I told.  And also, that no one would believe me - messages I carried through to adulthood.

I didnt ask for help because I felt ashamed. Ashamed to be like this. And humiliated that someone else would know the truth about me.

I was too afraid to ask for help because I didnt want to lose my job.  My job was my life being police officer had been my lifetime dream. I always wanted to be a police officer ever since a child.

So what did I do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing I kept my mouth shut. And it became my secret. My private nightmare. 

But I was sinking fast the people stalking the flashbacks, the voices, and me got worse. The depression even darker.  To the point where I was desperate I HAD to make my head stop.

Death became my only option. By death, I mean suicide.

So I did. I attempted suicide. I ended up in hospital. Two days later, upon discharge, I attempted suicide again.

I was put on sick leave from work, and sent to a police psychiatrist. Police also came and raided my home I had taken bullets home from work, with the intention of shooting myself.

Eventually, I was allowed to return to work full operational duties, including having my gun but was on probation I had to stay well and stay stable for 3 months.

I tried so hard to stay well so I wouldnt lose my job. I forced myself to ignore all the voices and shadows stalking me.

But it came at a price. At the end of a shift, when I walked in my front door, I would crumble and collapse on the floor next to door sometimes for hours from exhaustion. Curled up in a ball

Then cracks began to appear at work. I would cry on the way to work, or lock myself in the station toilet for long periods, hands squeezed tightly over my ears desperately trying to shut out the voices.  But I couldnt contain it any longer. 

One day, I just snapped at work and walked out mid shift. I went home, folded up my police uniforms, and placed them just inside my front door. I put a note on the top of the uniforms. It said I dont need these anymore.  I then barricaded myself in my bedroom and attempted suicide.

This is when my initiation into the mental health system began Intensive care, then transferred to a mental hospital, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, medication an endless list. 

But all interventions failed I was treated for bi polar, then treated for schizophrenia, then treated for Depression, and then back to schizophrenia, and then bi polar and treated for all of them at once…

No one could come up with a diagnosis or solution as to what was wrong. And I just
I descended further and further into madness.  The agony was unbearable.

Suicide again became my escape I had to make it stop. Pills didnt work so I tried gassing myself in the car in the middle of the bush. The pipe fell off and I was left unconscious in the bush for days. I tried gassing again, but the heat from the exhaust pipe melted the hosepipe.

Another time, I tried gassing again, but the heat from the exhaust pipe melted the hosepipe.

I poisoned my body with every pill, chemical or drug I could find. I was that desperate.

My half dead body would be found in different locations around Brisbane in the bush, parklands, in the gutter, in my home, in my car

If I lived, within days I would try to die again. And again, and again, and again. Not attention-seeking para-suicidal attempts but hardcore real attempts - borne from sheer desperation and excruciating agony all I cared about was making it stop.

Every minute in my head was pure agony. I just couldnt cope with being conscious I needed to kill my mind.

Consequently, from then on, for many years, padded cells/seclusion, locked wards, and 24/7 observation by nursing staff became my life I didnt want to live and the only way doctors could keep me alive was to lock me up. I was watched 24/7 when I slept the nurse would sit in a chair at the end of my bed. They watched me when I showered, and even when I went to the toilet. I was medicated senseless, had ECT, second, third and fourth specialist opinions you name it, they tried it.

And many times when I was really unwell, it would take six nursing staff to stop me and hold me down they would hold me down and drag me into a padded cell, strip me, and inject me with sedatives. 

My family did not expect me to live. My doctors did not expect me to live. No one did. So all they could do for months was to lock me up on 24-hour suicide watch.

Hospital admissions would be five/ six/seven months at a time. I spent five Christmases and birthdays locked up. They would let me out for half an hour with my parents to go to the hospital caf, to celebrate with a coffee and cake.

And the few months per year that I was well enough not to be in hospital, I lived in a boarding house in the city, sharing with druggies and criminals it was all I could afford as I now relied on welfare Disability Pension. Because when I lost my job, I also lost my townhouse and my car.

And because I didnt care what happened to me, I made friends with the druggies and started smoking cannabis.

I didnt think it could get any worse (i.e. sicker), but I did.  At my lowest point, when I was locked up in hospital, I hung myself in the bathroom of my hospital room. I remember losing consciousness, feeling so happy that it was over. No such luck, nursing staff found me just in time and cut me down.

The next day, the nurse who cut me down, came to me with a piece of paper and told me to write a wish-list.  I wrote a list called: Things I Wished To Do Before I Turned Thirty.

Top of my list was To compete in a triathlon. It had always been a fantasy of mine and it was the hardest thing I could think off I couldnt swim or ride a bike!

I was rock bottom and had nothing to lose. So I did it. As simple as that - I did it.

And this was when my life changed:

I was 25 by this time and I joined a beginners triathlon squad. It was difficult fitness wise, I couldnt even swim one lap of the pool let alone a 1.5km ocean swim.

Same with the bike a 40km time-trial is very different from riding the BMX in my backyard!

But the hardest battle wasnt my lack of fitness. It was my mind.

Before I could even swim one lap of the pool or turn the pedal of the bike, I had to fight my mind.  And I mean fight!!! I have to push past the loud voices and screaming/horrific roar in my head, push past the hallucinations; push past the paranoia, confusion, and overwhelming apathy, zero self-esteem, crippling depression an endless list.

Tears poured down my face during training sessions it was that hard to push past the illness in order to train. But I did it. I refused to quit. If I quit, my illness has won.

Besides fighting my mind, I had to fight doctors and nurses fight to get them to let me go for a run, swim or cycle.

Initially, they banned me from triathlon.

Their words, and I quote:

Unhealthy obsession;

Disbelief.  Mentally ill people not well enough or capable of doing something as strenuous as triathlon.

But I was too determined, refusing to accept their ban on triathlon.

It took years of relentless stubbornness and nagging to convince doctors that training was beneficial and was helping my recovery.

Gradually I wore them downa half hour walk, grew to one hours leave to go for a run, then it grew to two hours for a bike ride then to being permitted to train twice a day (morning and afternoon).  Eventually, I had persuaded the doctors to let me do my full training workload including joining a triathlon squad and attending squad training sessions.

Full training load three times a days (approx 4.5 hrs), seven days a week. 

Yes, I was allowed to do all this training even from hospital

Now, if I don’t turn up to hospital with my bike and running gear sent home to get it!!!!! 

From my hospital bed, off Id go for a run, cycle or swim. And for the time I was running or swimming or cycling, I could always give nursing staff a guarantee that I would stay safe because I loved the feeling of exhilaration when running, and the muscles working hard pushing the peddles on my bike. I could push all my agony and mental pain out of my body into those pedals, or the pool, or the pavement

Even when seriously unwell, I still trained everyday. If I was locked up, my mother would come and chaperone me to training she would sit beside the pool or running track whilst I trained. 

And if I was too unwell to be let out with mum, I would drive the nursing staff nuts, by running hundreds of laps around the tiny 2m by 2m locked ward courtyard. And push-up and sit ups, and

And on race days, I would get special permission to leave the hospital to attend the races.

And guess what happened:

I won the Queensland Triathlon State Titles I won the whole series for 2004/2005 race season.  I was the fastest person in Queensland in triathlon in my race category: 25-29 age group. 

Little old me had won a State Championship Series!  Little old me had succeeded in a normal persons world, despite being really ill and in hospital!!!

I also won or placed in most races I did and finished Top 10 in National races against hundreds of women in my race category.

In 2005, I spent 8 months in hospital yes 8 months. But I trained everyday. On bad days if I stayed in bed, nursing staff would come into my room and drag me out of bed telling me to get on my bike. And on race days, friends or family picked me up pre-dawn from hospital, drove me to races, and dropped me back afterwards.

And then the most amazing thing happened:

I made the Australian Team for the 2005 World Triathlon Age Group Championships!!!

In November 2005, I went to Hawaii and raced against the best in the World.

Once again, I was in hospital right up until I flew out to Hawaii, and went straight back to hospital when I returned but it was worth it!

Ten weeks ago, the Australian Team for the 2007 World Triathlon Championships in Hamburg, Germany was announced.  I made the team. 

Once again, I qualified for the Australian team whilst enduring hardship. I was in hospital for a qualifying race held in Canberra. However, with doctors permission, I flew to Canberra raced and flew straight back to hospital! Cried the entire race and for five hours straight afterwards.  Despite being ill and the tears, I still managed a Top Ten result and a P.B. on the run!!!

However, when the Australian team was announced, I actually declined my position on the team. The disability pension doesnt cater for overseas travel especially not an expensive trip to Europe.

But then, the Managing Director of Wesley Corporate Health (Queenslands leading corporate health provider), and his brother, an orthopaedic surgeon, heard about my plight, and came to the rescue.

Besides donating money, Wesley Corporate Health organised a fundraiser on Brisbanes highest rating breakfast radio show on Triple M.

Task was for radio presenter and me, to cycle 80kms in 2.5 hours on stationary bikes in the studio live broadcast to Brisbane.

In 2.5 hours we raised $20,000 a staggering amount.  I didnt expect anyone to call in and donate being about mental health, but we were flooded with calls.

But it was not the $20,000 that left me speechless, it was the fact that Brisbanes highest rating radio station devoted 2.5 hours of prime-time breakfast radio to mental health to a positive story on mental health!!! This is unheard of!!! 

So in short, thanks to Wesley Corporate Health and the people of Brisbane, Im off the Germany to represent Australia.

And even better, there was money left over from the $20,000 to make a significant donation to a mental health project here in Brisbane.

Why am I so determined, and why do I refuse to quit despite significant illness?

Not because I have won races, medal, or even representing Australia, but because triathlon gave me my first taste of the other side.  The other side is the happiness and pure pleasure I feel when I ride my bike beside the ocean, watching sunrise. It is the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction after finishing a tough run.  Feelings I had never had before.

This other side is like chocolate once you have the first taste, you crave more. And more, and more until you want it everyday, and in every part of your life. 

Now I had a reason to get out of bed. Had a reason to live an uncrushable will to live.  I wanted to get out of bed everyday I wanted to be alive!!!

Triathlon gave me the will to live, hence giving my recovery a huge boost forward.

How???  Attending training sessions 3 times a day, gave me purpose meaningful activity as opposed to sitting listlessly around day in, day out.

Triathlon gave me an identity other than that of mentally ill or disability pensioner. When people ask me now, what do you do, I say, I am a triathlete.

Triathlon taught me self-discipline self-disciple to attend training sessions as we train twice/three times a day. Self discipline as in a healthy diet, and abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

Triathlon taught me not to be a victim. For too many years, I had played victim poor me syndrome - letting it rule my life and control my behaviours. I had given up and was resigned to the fact that I was permanently going to be unwell, permanently incapacitated and destined to a lifetime of illness, suicidality, and no hope. 

But through triathlon, I was defying my illness standing up to it and fighting refusing to accept what the doctors said: that Id never amount to anything and was not capable of doing anything as strenuous as triathlon!!!

But the biggest lesson triathlon taught me is about rescue. For five years, I had waited for someone to come and rescue me with some magic psych pill or some magic words or cure. But triathlon changed that:

My coach could tell me what to do to make me stronger and faster, but he couldnt do the work for me he couldnt run for me or ride my bike. I had to do it. And thats when the penny droppedthe same applied with my illness! I wasnt magically going to get better. To get better, I had to put the work in.  Lots of hard work

So I did. I put the hard work in and made some major changes to my life.

I finally accepted I had a mental illness, educated myself about my illness, and sought treatment treatment being a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

My parents paid for private health insurance, so I could leave the public health system (where my only treatment was medication), and move to the private hospital system. This enabled me to attend a special trauma and dissociation unit, whose primary treatment focus was psychotherapy and teaching adaptive coping skills.

These skills changed my life. I learnt how to sit with uncomfortable experiences and feelings, which would have previously led to suicide attempts. I learnt to manage triggers, how to manage anger, and how to overcome the shame and humiliation and intense self-hatred that came from being a victim of child abuse.

But best of all, I learnt how to reality test I can clearly differentiate between reality and what the voices and hallucinations are telling me. 

Consequently, its been over two years since my last suicide attempt, and even longer since I have self-harmed, and there are no longer crises situations e.g. where I would disappear into the bush or partake in other dangerous behaviours.

Every day I get stronger and stronger. 

Yes, I still get sick, and the symptoms can be just as bad as they have always been. For example, I have already spent two months (2/6) of this year in hospital.

But its different now. 

I am never locked up always a voluntary patient I have total freedom even if this means leaving the hospital at 4am to go to a race and not returning until midnight.

The doctors and nurses trust me impeccably and I never breach this trust I take full responsibility. Instead of being on 24/7 observations like years ago, the only time I get ticked of on their observation list is at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

And I have full participation in my hospital treatment. Upon admission, I set my own treatment goals, and strategies on how staff can assist me to achieve these goals. I also determine when I am well enough to discharge and go home. 

With the combination of my passion for triathlon, and receiving treatment from this specialised hospital program, I am able to stay consistently well enough too start living a life. 

And so I am.

I travel around Queensland and interstate, speaking to the media and speaking at public events/functions, even appearing on Australian Story on ABC television last year.

My goal is to educate people about mental illness and providing a positive a role model to other people who experience mental illness. Showing that no barrier is too high; that it is possible to set goals and have dreams. If I can do it, so can they! Anything is possible.

I also sit on mental health committees, selection panels, reference groups, working parties, and consumer advisory groups.

And I am about to start with a new youth education program called Game of Life where Brisbane Lions players, Qld Firebird players and I, go into youth detention centres, and troubled schools etc, working intensively with young people in the areas of drugs, alcohol and mental health.

But my biggest dream had always been to go back to the Qld Police Academy and teach police recruits about mental illness. (Very limited training when I went through the police academy). Last year, I pitched this idea to the Police Academy less than a week after pitching this idea, I started working with police recruits! 

I have no fear in standing up in front of hundreds of people talking about the stark realities of living with mental illness. Nor do I have any shame or humiliation about admitting I have a mental illness. 


Besides being a positive role model for people who experience mental illness, three other reasons motivate me:

1.  People need to know.  I spoke at a function last Saturday night Football club fundraiser bar the organisers, the dinner guests had no idea about what I was about to talk about. When I started talking, all I saw were jaws dropping open, and eyes riveted, hanging onto my every word literally stunned mullets. Afterwards were comments: we didnt know it was like that, we thought you were all dangerous and psycho like we read in the papers, and one woman said I think my son may have a mental illness

2.  Reduce stigma. I speak at a lot of functions whose audiences are the general public i.e. limited knowledge about mental health. Prior to speaking, lots of people speak freely to me, very sociable. After talking though, many of these people move away, avert their eyes, and cant cope e.g. previously free conversations becomes stilled and awkward.

3.  Educate about the impact of child abuse. A man came up to me after a speech and said:  Did you really go through all this because you were sexually abused as a child? When I said yes, the look of horror and revelation on his face and the conversation that ensued I knew he was a perpetrator.  He was in shock The message got through to him A child/children may have been saved

Everything I have spoken about tonight, began with triathlon. Thanks to my triathlon journey:

I now have hope:

I know that whatever life throws at me, I WILL survive.

I know there is the other side (chocolate).

I know setbacks are only short-term, and manageable.  I am resilient.

But most of all, I know that my mental illness does NOT control my life I do!!!

And despite the ravages of illness, I have found something that makes me truly happy.

Triathlon is my chocolate. 

And I hope that you find your chocolate too

INVITE YOU TO BITE ON CHOCOLATE think what your chocolate is.
And I hope that when you go back to work on Monday you start helping your clients/patients find their chocolate too. They dont need to be an elite athlete or start running 10kms per day its about finding the spark, whatever it is, the smallest thing that brings a life to their eyes when they talk about it. And with that sparks comes hope.

Thank you for listening.

Click here for more MyStory finalists and a full Hamburg review

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