When Luke Richards is in the ocean, he doesn’t think much.
He can feel his hands slipping through the water. He can smell salt as he surfaces for air.
But his sole focus is his next breath, his next stroke.
Everything else is left ashore.
When Luke took up open-water swimming, it wasn’t meant to be a coping mechanism.
In fact, it had nothing to do with his mental health. Or his long battle with substance abuse. Or the multiple attempts Luke made to take his own life.
Yet three years into Luke’s recovery, it became all that and more.
“It’s meditative for me. If I’m having a good swim, if everything is working well, I don’t really think about anything. It’s probably the only time I practice true mindfulness.”
Rewind seven years and to Luke, the idea of achieving such clarity would seem farfetched. Farcical even.
Because up until 2013, he was an alcoholic.
“I was a daily top-up drunk. The physical effects of drinking copious amounts for a long period of time were starting to show. My hands would shake, I was nauseous most of the time, I could not hold or use utensils well.
I had to sneak a small bottle of vodka into the office during the day to calm the physical effects of withdrawal. I spent every spare cent I had on alcohol.”
This behaviour persisted. For years.
Luke tried to get sober. He didn’t.
“I went to the doctors. I was still at the stage where I thought I didn’t have that much of a problem. I was still holding onto the hope that I could just control my drinking.
He told me I had early onset Korsakoff syndrome (a chronic memory disorder, commonly induced by misuse of alcohol).
I freaked – like far out, I’ve got brain damage.”
This could have been the catalyst for change.
“The sad thing is that it didn’t actually change anything. You can’t shock someone like me into sobriety."
Luke continued to wrestle with his addiction. Until he hit rock bottom.
“In 2012 I had my last suicide attempt and that was a result of drinking basically. That experience was so bad that I really didn’t want to go back to that place again and I knew that that’s where I was heading.
I was just shattered, that’s the only way to describe it.
Luke pauses when asked if he had to want to quit drinking more than he wanted to drink.
It’s hard not to fill the silence as he tries to find the words.
“I had to be broken enough to be able to let go of the loop that was there and to want something different.”
“I had to want life.”
Luke’s recovery was slow going but he made gradual progress.
He went to rehab, participated in Alcoholics Anonymous and in 2013, he got sober.
It wasn’t easy. As he tells it, going cold turkey puts an enormous strain on both body and mind.
“The hardest bit is obviously when you come off (alcohol) and you’re not just shaking and shivering, you’re in pain.
The physical pain is one thing but when you combine it with psychological pain, it’s an incredible thing to deal with.”
Luke wouldn’t wish his experience upon anyone. However, he says the impact on loved ones is also incredibly taxing.
“Family members have it the worst. It’d be like having a drunk person driving a car with you trapped in the back not being able to get out.”
Luke credits much of his recovery to the support of his loved ones – his wife, his parents, his siblings. He believes that recovery is a team effort.
Even his penchant for open-water swimming started out as a family affair.
“My wife had a bucket list and she wanted to swim in the Lorne Pier to Pub. She’s from the UK, terrified of swimming in the open water and I decided I’d do it with her because I didn’t want her to have a panic attack in the middle of the water.”
Luke took to it immediately. It’s now part of his routine. He has become an Ultra marathon swimmer and is even tackling the English Channel in August 2020.
He does this to show people who are struggling that you can come back from the darkest places and do amazing things.
Despite first grappling with poor mental health at the age of 11, it wasn’t until decades later that Luke’s condition was formally recognised.
“When I was in rehab, that was when the psychiatrist was like, you’ve had trauma and that’s when I was officially diagnosed (with anxiety and depression).
The trauma came in the form of severe bullying.
“There was never really talk about a lot of that stuff at home. It’s just the way things were.”
Luke recalls the incident that sparked it.
“I think it all started when I stood up for someone else. There was this thing that happened on Year 7 camp. They were picking on some kid and I stepped in. From that moment, that was it. I became their number one target.”
The treatment was relentless.
“There was one particular guy who was connected to some pretty bad gangs in the area and I couldn’t touch him, I couldn’t fight back. There was nothing I could do about it.
Even when I was 19, going out for the first time, catching the train into town from Carrum to Mordialloc, I’d be terrified that I’d see these people on the train because I knew if they saw me alone, that would be it.
“As far as things that had a significant influence on my life, that was probably the number one factor that put me on the journey, combined with the fact that nothing was ever treated or dealt with.”
Not once does Luke’s voice waver. He maintains eye contact. His tone is calm, matter of fact even, void of bitterness. He has dealt with these demons.
Today, in addition to a loving wife (who he met in sobriety) and two beautiful children, Luke works, swims and speaks extensively about his mental health journey.
He doesn’t take anything for granted.
“I consider myself to be recovered however I still treat myself as if I’m not. The reality is I still have moments when the anxiety gets the better of me. The difference is that now I just revert back to the things I know.
“It’s an ongoing thing but I’m not debilitated by it anymore. It doesn’t own me the way it used to.”
If you need assistance visit Beyond Blue’s support services. Our mental health professionals are available 24/7 on: 1300 22 4636. Click here for a web chat (3pm-12am AEST). Alternatively, contact us via email (responses within 24 hours).
For immediate support call Lifeline on 13 11 14 and in an emergency, always call triple zero (000).