I wanted to write a piece this week that touches on some very personal parts of my life. I’m going to talk about my struggles with mental health throughout my teenage years and twenties and how adventure has helped me to really grow into myself, develop my confidence and also in turn help me to turn my life into something that I really enjoy, and look forward to. I’m also going to talk about how this has actually helped me in my business as well. Especially when I think about how I am now in my business, the centre of my brand, and where I came from just a few years ago, in the throes of Body Dysmorphia and an eating disorder – it could not be more of a flip turn. For me, the fact that I feel comfortable writing about this and sharing my story in such detail shows me just how much I’ve healed – and getting into adventure and showing myself just what is possible outside of my comfort zone has been a huge factor in that. When I look at the change that has happened inside and out from where I was at that much younger version of myself, to where I am now and what I’m doing, I barely recognize that old version of me, but she was important in the journey I’ve been on of self-discovery and self-love that has brought me to where I am.
As a kid, I’d never felt particularly attractive. I wasn’t very popular, and I liked to spend quite a lot of time on my own. At school, I was laughed at for a huge number of reasons. I was too fat, when I lost weight, I was too thin. I had spots. Apparently, I walked like a penguin. I sounded posh compared to everyone else. I could spell. I lived on a nice street and that made me apparently ‘better than everyone else’. Apparently, I had a weird shaped head. I had crappy trainers because my parents didn’t have a huge amount of money and they chose to spend it on good things like feeding us. They were all really good reasons to pick on me, and we’re all easy targets of things that would just make me feel awful. It seemed like everything I did I just couldn’t win. There was always something that I was doing wrong and it was then, at about age 11 that I developed a complex where I felt like I wasn’t enough. I felt like I couldn’t speak to my parents about it, they loved me, but they didn’t really understand. They told me that I needed to develop a thick skin, and I just didn’t feel like I was getting the support I needed. At the time, it seemed that telling a child to develop a thick skin was really a viable source of emotional support – but I needed a lot more.
I found school incredibly hard. I was incredibly intelligent in certain subjects and found others hard. My teachers would make me feel that because I wasn’t the world’s best mathematician, and instead was good at the arts, that I wouldn’t be able to make anything of my life and this further added to my feelings of not being good enough.
There was one particular event that I can remember that really triggered me into a couple of different things. I was walking home from school one day, and a boy who had been making fun of me a lot over the last few weeks started following me and telling me how ugly I was and how I should go and kill myself. I was in floods of tears as he and his friends all laughed at me as I walked away. I remember I went home that day, trying to hide my tears as I went up to my room and looked in the mirror and thought, ‘you’re so incredibly ugly, nobody will ever love you.’ I looked at my stomach, which was perfectly normal for a child my age, but all I could see was fat. I decided at that point that if I dieted, I’d somehow be more acceptable. That maybe people would like me.
Over the next two years, I developed anorexia, which I managed to keep hidden to myself for that entire time. I would take a packed lunch to school, and I wouldn’t eat it and just bring it home, hide it for a few hours and then replace it in the fridge later as if it was a new lunch. By the end of the week, I’d throw the moldy sandwiches away ready to repeat this again the following week. My life became obsessed with calorie counting and what I ate. I told my mum I was on a strict diet and would go crazy at her if she ever made something for dinner that I considered to be a bad food. I weighed and tracked everything. I started skipping more meals until some days I’d eat absolutely nothing apart from a glass of diet soda, to keep me feeling full. One Christmas, my mum asked me to lick the stamps to go onto the cards we’d be sending out. I freaked out when I learnt that there were calories in the stamps.
As time went by, I’d become very good at hiding my eating disorder, and as well as anorexia, I’d developed Body Dysmorphia Disorder as well. To everyone else, I just looked like a normal girl, by this age, 16, who had achieved great success in her exams and was heading to college. Behind closed doors I was showering myself with nothing but hatred. I was convinced people were laughing at me and judging me as I walked down the street. I was so tied up in my own head that I could barely concentrate on anything else in my life, other than hating myself.
Until I was around 27, I fluctuated between various different weights and had three terrifying experiences with anorexia. I’d get so low in weight that I’d start to faint and become very ill. Then I’d have intense amounts of time where I’d binge eat to the point where I’d make myself sick. One of the moments in my life that I thought would have been a wakeup call was when I was rushed to hospital and died for a few seconds in an ambulance as I’d gone into hypoglycemic shock due to the fact that’d I’d been living on a cup of vegetable stock, three times a day for about three weeks. I’d always felt that somehow, if I could get myself to look a certain way, that people would think I was enough. Or that I’d have control over my life. There were also the relationships, and I’d go from one bad relationship to the next. One of those was with a man who, when I started to gain a little weight due to eating again, actually told me he preferred my anorexic body.
I’d spent my first few years after University working in London as a photographer’s assistant and then started out my career as a photographer. I had devoted a lot of my time working on highly technical rigs with still life photographers and I felt like this was the route for me to take. Through those first few years of working, I’d spend a lot of my time trying to not eat through shoots. These were incredibly long, demanding days and I’d often find that by the end of it, I’d be close to feeling like I was going to die. I relied heavily on stimulants to get me through. My mindset was awful at this time, but I just concentrated on being successful. I was deeply unhappy, struggling with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder and BDD.
When I met Matt, I was a tiny, shadow of myself. I was lacking in confidence. We met when I went for an interview for some freelance work at an agency he was working at. We clicked very quickly and realized in spending time together that we had a lot of shared interests and days would feel like they became weeks when we were talking late into the night. When I finally plucked up the courage to tell him about what I was going through, I was incredibly nervous. His support was truly a turning point for me. At last, I felt like I had someone that I could really talk to about how I was feeling. I’d tell him how I felt when people walked past us laughing to themselves; how I felt that was about me. It felt good to get it out there, and it also felt good to have things brought back round to me from someone who could see it from another perspective. It was through Matt’s support that I decided to get therapy and I began CBT with an incredible therapist who has helped me immeasurably.
At the same time as this, Matt and I set up our own studio, where we handled both my photographic work as a still life photographer and his work as a photographic retoucher. We we’re working with some of the biggest names in the advertising world. But that didn’t seem to matter to me, because in my head, I was struggling so much with anxiety and depression, and trying to work through that, that I just felt like it was going to come crashing down around me. On the outside, I was a successful business owner, I had everything. I had a loving partner, a gorgeous apartment in London, a studio in central London. But I was unhappy. I was constantly worried. I stopped myself from trying new things in the business because I just always assumed that nobody would want to know, because I wasn’t enough. I stumped my own growth considerably in this time. My relationships with friends suffered because I just felt like they wouldn’t want to be around me.
A selection of my still life advertising work, which couldn’t feel like more of a lifetime away…
Then my dad died of cancer and I was absolutely beside myself with grief. It had been a long, drawn out process of seeing him go from this wonderful, intelligent, kind, caring and funny man to a shadow of his vibrancy. Cancer removed my dad from his body, took him away and threw him away before we could say how much we loved him. Cancer stripped him of his love for life. This time had been horrible; my hair had started to fall out, and my anxiety had worsened due to everything we were going through as a family. One day, whilst we were going through his belongings, my mum handed me a little box. I knew what was in it instantly. My dad had been an avid traveler in the 1970’s and he always showed me a seahorse that he picked up from a flea market in Morocco. I used to hang onto all of his stories – of sleeping on rooftops with music playing in the background. Of the markets and the vibrant colours. Of the haggling and all of the incredible things he told me he’d seen. I used to look up to him as this explorer. To me, he was just the same as Shackleton or any of the great explorers. When I held the seahorse in my hand, I heard a voice in my head say, ‘just start walking’.
My wonderful dad and I…
I listened; it was too hard to ignore. Soon after that, we started going for hikes. We’d already been doing lots of urban walking in the evenings, but this was different. One of our first hikes was to the New Forest in England. It was the longest hike I’d ever done. In fact, it was probably the only hike I’d ever done. As we got into the hike, the sun shining through the trees in a way that seemed to soothe and talk to me, I started to feel a wave over me. It felt as though some of the fog and depression from losing my dad lifted. I felt lighter. I started to feel like I was in the moment. I didn’t even notice that I was in the moment, because I was so busy loosing myself in taking photographs of the grass and leaves and touching them as I brushed past with my fingers. It sounds like such a magical and romantic moment, and it was. That hike formed a fascination for me. I returned to the studio on the Monday afterwards feeling refreshed. I was beginning not to enjoy my chosen photographic path at all, but somehow, I felt like I had the strength to move through the week. Tasks that had seemed difficult on Friday seemed somewhat easy come Monday. This was not the usual feeling that I got on a Monday, and I started to wonder what else being outside could do for me.
Over the coming months, I’d spend hours obsessively finding new places that I’d never heard of that we could go hike. These hikes started off easily and developed into more challenging routes. I couldn’t get enough. The relief that I found from being in nature was like the therapy I’d never been able to find. Being mindful and being in the moment became the thing that I looked forward to, and that I longed for. Due to the fact that I was busy shooting most of the week, our hikes had to be contained to weekends, but I felt like I needed my fix of the outdoors – or rather, that mindfulness that it gave me. So, I started looking at how I could apply the same kind of mindfulness techniques to my work as a photographer that I was able to use in the outdoors. I made sure that each task was broken down into smaller segments and treated as a series of things that needed to be completed. I concentrated on one thing at once until I was ready to move onto the next thing. I didn’t worry myself with what was racing through my head at that particular moment for the next thing, and instead concentrated on what was actually happening in my head right then and there. Over the next couple of months, even though I was losing a lot of the love I’d originally had for photography, the shoots that I produced during the starts of my adventures and practicing mindfulness were some of the most technically brilliant pieces of work I produced in my time as a still life photographer.
We quickly began heading off on longer trips. We decided to turn holidays into adventure holidays. Turning up at the start, I think back now, we were woefully under prepared. Thinking that these altitude things would just be a piece of cake. The length of that hike would be no problem because we could do that in England. The hikes on our first few adventure trips kicked us back into our places. It didn’t matter though, because I was in love with how I felt and who I became in the outdoors.
When I look at my past and now to working on campaigns with the likes of Sweaty Betty, it feels like whole lifetimes of change apart…
For many years, my BDD had brought me to a place where I barely wanted to leave the house. I spent many times curled under my duvet hoping that it would just swallow me up. I felt like there was no place for me in the world. I would wear so much make up that I was barely even recognizable. I’d spend absolutely loads of money on beauty products, hoping that they’d be the answer to make me feel like I deserved to be alive. To me, I was ugly. I was actually the ugliest person to have ever lived and I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be around me. I used to cry myself to sleep some nights asking the universe why it had made me so ugly and what I’d done to deserve this. I never received my answer, but I kept getting worse. I had panic attacks when I had to leave the house without makeup on. I couldn’t bear to see pictures of me. I’d dread nights out where some pictures might end up on Facebook. I’d spend my time walking around in my head, fortune telling and predicting what people were thinking about me. I was living in a prison inside my head and it was getting to a point where I couldn’t handle it anymore.
When I was outdoors, I felt relief from this. I was so in the moment that all thoughts of how I looked seemed to disappear. I felt a smile on my face. I felt a smile inside – one that I couldn’t locate, but it seemed to make me feel complete. For the first time in my life I felt complete.
I remember those first hikes felt seductive to me. I felt like part of my spirit had been brought home to my body. I felt beautiful. I felt the wind gently brush over my arms in the same way that it brushed over the trees and I felt equal for the first time in my life. I reacted in the same way as the trees did to the wind – I’d follow their lead, and I’d often find myself dancing slightly. I felt in flow, I felt in tune. I started to love my body. I started to treat my body with respect. I started to talk to her in the same kind of kindness I experienced when I felt soothed by nature.
I started to develop confidence. I found myself taking and making meetings that before I’d shy away from. I started to feel more upbeat and positive about my life. My confidence was really starting to have an impact on both my mental health in general, but also on my business. I started saying yes and no when I wanted to.
Then I found mountains. Our first trip where we were mainly going to explore and climb mountains was one of the biggest advancements I had, both in the outdoors and with my confidence. I found myself limiting my movements by saying I couldn’t do something, and then, low and behold, I found I’d managed to exactly what I thought I could not. This had a huge impact on my confidence, as I started to realize that I could do so many things if I focused and believed in myself. As well as the confidence I was growing in my abilities, I found that I was spending less and less time thinking about my appearance. Or rather obsessing over it. This felt so freeing. I found myself choosing not to wear make up on some days. On other days I chose to leave my hair to dry naturally and curl as it wished. It didn’t matter when the sun shone on my skin, I felt beautiful. It didn’t matter because I felt embraced by nature. I felt a tingle inside me as my cheeks lit up with emotion so much of the time in this period. It was a feeling that I hadn’t spent much time experiencing before. I found myself curious to explore new things in the outdoors and spent most of my time thinking about what was happening to me in the moment. It was at that point that I realized that the feeling I was experiencing was joy.
We soon made the decision to, at any cost, go after the dream that was becoming a shared dream, of making travel and adventure our fulltime. This was when our photographic partnership began, and later, the blog under the same name. To begin with, we had no idea how we were going to make it work, but it didn’t matter. We just needed to be because the difference we saw in both of us whilst we were in the outdoors and the love that we created by creating together in the outdoors was simply undeniable.
I genuinely don’t think that if I’d still have been deep into BDD and my eating disorder and anxiety that I’d have had the confidence to start realizing just how real this could be and what we could create. Instead of all the things that I was worried about, I chose to focus on the people who’s photography I looked up to as examples of what was possible. The more time we spent outdoors, at first making this our side hustle and then making it our fulltime, I felt free. I felt confident, I felt like this was my calling; to be showing the beauty of the planet we live on, telling stories about it and spending my time on adventures all over the world that truly pushed me out of my comfort zone. Anything felt possible and the idea of limits seemed to fall away the more and more I got out there.
The more confidence I developed, the bolder the moves I was taking. I was aiming for and booking meetings with big potential clients. Clients that at one point in my life I would never even have dreamed of working with. I soon hired a development coach and we worked through to elevate what we were doing even more. It was incredible to see just how much the confidence I’d developed in the outdoors had moved my BDD so it wasn’t even in my mind and I was able to concentrate on growing a truly incredible business that I loved.
Up until now, I’d focused on photographing landscapes, but as we worked on this more and more, we started to introduce ourselves into our work; our clients were extremely excited by the idea of seeing us more involved in our stories and our brand. This filled me with such intense dread. In some ways, I spent quite a bit of time resisting this because after spending so much time working in advertising fashion, I just felt like I didn’t look like any of the people that used to be in those ads. All of my limiting beliefs started to return. Who was I to do this? Would anyone really want to work with us if I was in the images? It turned out that, like so many of the beliefs I had, that I was wrong. The difference was, that in the past, I would never have even let myself see that I was wrong. Because I never would have tried. A couple of years previously, I wouldn’t have been able to look at a picture of myself. Now I’ve been in countless campaigns based on stories and expeditions we’ve created. That would never have happened if I didn’t put myself out there. If I didn’t face those fears and worries.
Recently, we took part in the Kendal Mountain Festival and I was honored that we were asked to speak at the Lowe Alpine Friday Night Adventures about how to make your life more adventurous. Getting up on that stage was difficult, sharing our lives was difficult, having those 200 people looking right at us nodding at our words was incredible but also terrifying. Yet I think back to how I was a few years ago, and there was no way I would have ever had the confidence to do that.
When I think about the difference that finding adventure has had on my life, I can’t even begin to explain what it has allowed me to open inside myself. Today I write this feeling completely healed from BDD and my eating disorder. I’m confident, I see the light in life, and I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing. The passion I feel for what I’m doing now makes me feel truly elated. The confidence that hiking and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone has been an incredible gift that keeps developing the more I do this. The abilities that the confidence I’ve gained has given me in my business and how I approach what I believe is possible has changed beyond measure. The mindfulness that I developed through being in nature has helped me cope with many situations in my life, that has improved both my mental health and business in ways I could never even explain. The comfort in my own skin and the ease I feel in my body now, well, my body feels like home.
Nature has provided me a home that I never knew existed. It has taught me so much. It has taught me everything. It has allowed me to become the person I am today. It has allowed me to expand, stretch and morph. It has allowed me to become kind, compassionate and giving. It has allowed me to build a wonderful life with the man I love. It has allowed me to build a life and business beyond my wildest dreams.
Then verses now…
It has allowed me to find happiness.
It has allowed me to find ease.
It has allowed me to feel like I’m home.
I hate to think where I would be today if I hadn’t have found adventure.