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Achilles heal: The comeback from a downfall is a winning feeling

CC Claire Coakley

Knowing your Achilles heel is the first step to conquering it. We're not just talking the ankle tendon but, in the wider meaning, the weak spot which can lead to a downfall. Once overcome, the sense of achievement can be golden. Here, four men reveal theirs, from dramatic fear to an everyday character flaw, and how good it feels to heal…

Mike Millen

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I summoned up all the courage I had – and more

I was doing an AFF course to become a qualified skydiver. I'd always wanted to skydive as much as it scared me. It's a series of eight levels, rising in level of competence, so by the end of level eight you can deal with any kind of situation or emergency. Level seven, for example, is exit the plane and complete both a backward and forward summersault while falling at 127mph. They're to be completed in a minute of free fall before pulling your 'chute and landing safely. So it’s not for the fainthearted!

I'd done one tandem jump before and even one jump leaves you mentally and physically exhausted with sensory overload, where everything in your body is telling you not to jump and stay alive. On day two, I was due to do a jump from 15,000ft – my first unattached to an instructor – and free fall for around a minute. I was excited and hadn't slept much the night before.

We got into the plane, up we went, and then they open the door. I'm up three-miles high and it’s time to jump out. There are two instructors and we're all exiting at the same time but not attached. So… I jump and out I go. I stabilise myself to some degree. Then it's time to pull the parachute so I wave away the instructors as they don’t want to be close in case we tangle as my 'chute opens. The parachute opens and I feel a massive pull on my body. I look up to check it only to see, with horror, that it’s failed to open correctly and the lines are all twisted. I’m obviously on my own and have to deal with it or it’s 'goodnight nurse'.  

All the instruction I’d had so far had been on the ground. So I tried to focus on what I’d been taught, this time as I was falling to the ground. 

We're taught to work out which way the lines are tangled and induce a spin, with a kicking action, in the opposite way to untangle the lines. So I and kept on kicking. This was all happening in the space of about 20 seconds. I just kept kicking to induce a spin. It worked, and the lines untangled. I was able to land safely. 

Afterward, I was dazed with adrenaline. It was all new to me and I'd thought it was completely safe. Of course, it's not. And it’s not like you're floating down, you'ree hurtling towards the ground at 127mph. 

Pure fear was my Achilles heel now. And I overcame it by strapping on another parachute, to get to the next course level. I had to dig into all my fears, concentrate and summon up all the courage I had (and more) to get in that plane again for level two. I just emptied my mind of all negativity. I did it and, within a few days, eventually reached level four. It was such an incredible thing to do that I wasn't going to give up after just one jump.”

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Lawrence Price

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The emotional resilience I developed changed my life for the better

I have many of them – ha, ha! From a physical standpoint I learned early that 'injuries are opportunities' and we can flip weaknesses onto their heads to become strengths. At 21, I had my anterior cruciate ligament blow out on the rugby pitch and I had to come back, post-operation. I came from finding even walking the most painful act right through to playing premiership rugby again. It was a fight, a battle, but the emotional resilience I developed, alongside the knowledge of the rehab process, changed my life for the better. 

This is where I first learned the Stoic philosophical approach that 'the obstacle is the way'. Therefore, nowadays, whenever I encounter an emotional or physical challenge, I understand that, by tackling the issue head-on, I will come out the other side stronger and further developed on my personal growth journey. 

Emotionally I suffer from bouts of anxiety, and at times it can feel like an emotional injury, again a real battle to overcome. But every time I grind through it and come out the other side. The voice in my head that tells me 'I can' and that things are going to be OK starts to shout louder than the voice of 'I can't'; and things won't be OK. So my anxiety is actually making me a stronger person. It's a part of me now and I welcome it instead of rejecting it. Automatically this helps to quell its hindrancing symptoms.

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Fiann Smithwick

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It taught me to prioritise the things I enjoy

When I was 18, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). This knocked me for six and I was housebound for months. It took weeks to be able to walk to the end of the road without my feeling as if I was going to collapse. This really affected my mental health and made me feel like my life was over. I started exercising as much as possible, little by little, over many months, and I embarked on a healthy diet. Slowly but surely, this led to my recovery and, 16 years later, I feel the fittest and healthiest I have ever been.
It took a lot to find the motivation to get on the road to recovery, but the lifestyle changes I made have helped me find the life I always wanted to live. 

I am sure that following my passion [for paleontology] also played a huge role in getting me to where I am both physically and mentally. I now see my CFS as a blessing in disguise as it taught me to be healthy, to look after myself, and to prioritise the things I enjoy in life.

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Tom Trotter

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I flip negativity into a do-it mentality

Lockdown has been a still, silent tough time for all of us, dealing with all of that spare time, bad news, cancelled plans, changes in routine, jobs lost and lost ones. The mind has been truly tested. For me, we are all on that psychological mental challenge through life. Motivated, demotivated, happy, sad… It's a rollercoaster! I'm truly blessed and appreciative to be predominately happy.

In lockdown, I've found a new love for walking, getting outdoors, being silent within myself, thinking about life and how short it is, and how it's all so unknown. That can be scary and seen as a negative, so I just flip that into a 'do it' and 'why not?' mentality. Don't overthink it. 

Watch Ricky Gervais's Afterlife. That gave me a new outlook on life that truly helped me. In the end, we just grow old or die. It sounds like negative thinking but my approach is to negativity is, let's flip that. It makes me so pumped off that gift that is… Living, breathing, being present. It's about living in the now and not making do but making the best of what we have. So, thanks, lockdown for letting me appreciate the tiny things in life. A walk, podcasts, exercise – that's been good. And gin!

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For more information on World Mental Health Day please visit:

Mental Health Foundation
Mind
World Health Organization

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Achilles heal: The comeback from a downfall is a winning feeling

CC Claire Coakley

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