Speak Your Mind. Part 3 of 4 - Lewy Finnegan

Photo:  @joshuatabone

Speak Your Mind. Part 3 of 4. A Story From Issue 44.

This story is a continuation from Part 1 and Part 2 of Speak your Mind. This week we talk with Lewy Finnegan about the mental health challenges he has faced in the past few years. The story was originally published in Issue 44 of Movement Magazine. Written by Ricardo Miguel Vieira

Mental health has been a subject that was often prisoned in the shadows by its keeper, hidden there like a murderer of masculinity. But, after the recent deaths of two of our beloved brothers - Tyson Williams and Jarryd Wingfield - we feel that it is a subject that needs to come out of the shadows and is discussed; after all, one in five Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year so chances are someone in your close circle of friends - or you - are struggling with mental health right now.

Part 3 Lewy Finnegan

‘It’s true that you are not you when you’re hungry. I know this because I was hungry for 18 months. It all started in 2015 when I decided to become the fittest version of myself. Soon after breaking my back in Mandurah, which had me bedridden for months, I put an end to my rowdy, teenage lifestyle and turned to living like the athlete I envisioned becoming. In the course of a year, I cut out refined carbs and fast food from my diet and eventually embraced vegetarianism. At the same time, besides surfing everyday, I went from little daily workouts to performing high intensity training at the gym, and attending numerous classes of pilates and yoga.

Fast forward to late last year and that’s when strange symptoms started creeping up in my body. I was freezing cold all the time, waking up in cold sweats every night and barely able to sleep. My energy levels were low, I lost all my libido and generally felt disconnected from everything and everyone. My life started revolving around my weight, diet and exercising to an obsessive point, while eating very little. Then I stopped feeling hungry anymore as I developed little techniques to dodge eating. I started to view food as something that I didn’t need anymore, and actually felt guilty every time I ate. I went from 65 kilos down to 55 since changing my exercise routines and diet, and my close friends and family started worrying, asking if everything was okay because I wasn’t my usual energetic self. Still, I kept convincing myself that I was feeling good and on the right track, when in fact my body was shutting down.

"I had too much pride to ever go to a counsellor, but maybe it would’ve sped up my recovery.”- Lewy Finnegan

While on a trip to the Canary Islands, I finally realised that I wasn’t well. Some mornings, getting out of bed seemed hard work. Still, I would drag myself from bed, surf Frontón all day and then workout, but it seemed that the enjoyment had been sucked out of me. I didn’t drink or go out at night because I was too tired and had a strict routine to follow. Yoga was the only thing that kept me going, helping me to escape the rest of my life. But this too was full of physically challenging activities, which made me dig myself deeper into a hole.

When I flew back home, I performed a series of blood tests, later revealing that I was deficient on every level and my hormones were completely out of whack. Eventually, the diagnosis came in as anorexia, an eating disorder that causes people to obsess about their weight and what they put in their mouths so much that it consumes their mind. Looking back on it, my diagnosis stemmed from a desire to become super fit, taken to an extreme level. It came to a point where I had to admit that I was wrong in the way I was treating my body; in thinking that I was one of the fittest guys on the tour, when in fact it was the opposite. Contrary to most cases of anorexia, I actually had a positive image of my body, with people constantly praising my physique. With time, my focus shifted from trying to feel my best to trying to look my best. So I kept pushing hard, fearing I’d lose my six-pack abs and bulging veins – testaments to my hard work and determination.

Photo:  @joshuatabone

After doing a good job at drilling my body, my mind had started to go downhill too. I had pretty big mood swings, blowing up at my parents over nothing and feeling incredibly frustrated with minor things. The worst of it was feeling detached from everybody – as if I was living in a different world. My mind was running rampant, probably from my body screaming for food all the time. It’s really hard to pinpoint how my illness messed with my performance and career. On the one hand, I was very flexible and determined; on the other, I was a lot weaker and stripped of energy. But I was still surfing pretty well, and could force my body through long and draining sessions given my grit to prove I was one of the best riders around.

If my diet was on point and I ate three times more food back then, I would’ve really benefited from all my training. So the road to recovery has been about eating and resting more. I don’t feel that I’m totally out of the woods yet, although I’ve been recovering for a year with only a few relapses along the way. I’ve now encountered enjoyment and pleasure in exercising, but also in balancing it with different activities, like reading or writing a chapter of my book, which will document all these life experiences. I had too much pride to ever go to a counsellor, but maybe it would’ve sped up my recovery. But since I overcame the hardest part of the recovery – accepting that I was unwell and treating my body poorly – it’s been fairly easy to get back on the right track through eating and resting.

The support of my family and close friends was decisive. They were always there when I needed it, even during the periods when I was in the dumps, grumpy and exhausted. But I was also fairly surprised with the lack of support from people that I’ve regarded as friends and who ended up making fun of me for being anorexic. It was a pretty shocking behaviour towards someone struggling in life. Although some of them are still in my life and I hold no grudge towards them, their attitude changed my relationship with them forever. So nowadays I try spending my time with people that lift me up and make me feel good, instead of the opposite.

Perhaps because I’m a very open person, I wasn’t held back in revealing my condition. I don’t live behind a fake mask anymore with anyone. Opening up to my parents was like lifting a heavy weight from my back. It took a long time for me to actually figure out that I wasn’t healthy, but coming forward to them meant that I wasn’t on my own in this arduous journey of flipping the script. I have no doubts that I’d still be as ill – or even worse – if I hadn’t asked for their help a year ago.

For young riders like me, it’s also inspiring to see professional bodyboarders like Ryan Hardy and Andre Botha being open about their stories with mental health. When you’re a teenager, you’re all about being cool, and exposing a mental health condition doesn’t exactly fall into that category. I’m a very open and confident person, so even if they hadn’t shared their stories, I would’ve still reacted the same way I did about my illness. Still, I think that if some of the coolest people in the bodyboarding world come forward, then perhaps young riders could observe and accept what’s happening on the inside for them. Those who place a heavy importance on what others think or are very shy may find it easier to open up about their mental health if more people are doing it, especially their idols.

Yes, mental illnesses can make you feel lonely and disconnected from everyone else on this planet, but the truth is that there’s always someone there who cares about you, who loves you and wants to help you – if not in your close circle of family and friends, then counsellors or psychologists. It’s important to accept the fact that you don’t need to battle with your emotions if you feel shitty. It’s perfectly okay to accept the way you feel, even if it’s negative. You’ll then have a better chance of coming to terms with why you’re feeling unhappy and work on finding peace in your life again. Once in a while, it’s important to take some minutes to stop and breathe. Sometimes it’s easy and simple; other times, it’s hard work, but it will always be worth the effort.

This whole experience really drove home to me that you never know what people are going through. You never know what challenges people are facing and the truth is that we all have our own inner battles. Personally, my outlook on life is to be healthy and happy. I’m going to strive to achieve the best things I can in bodyboarding, for as long as I can, and be the best rider I can be. But more importantly, I just want to enjoy my journey.'

We dedicate this feature to Tyson Williams and Jarryd Wingfield.Need someone to talk to? Reach out to Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636; beyondblue.org.au), Lifeline (13 11 14; lifeline.org.au) or your national support service.

This story will be continued as Part 4 of 4 with Andre Botha, to be published at 6:PM 06/01/2018 AEST