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Keeping your head above water

For 30 years, Paula McGuire faced a crippling social anxiety that left her housebound, unable to even answer the phone. There were times when she couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and others where she didn’t want to live. “My life became my living room,” she says. 

In 2012, she knew she had to do something dramatic. “I decided to scare myself out of anxiety,” she says. She started with cycling — a fear of falling had always kept her from sitting on a bike seat. “I was terrible at it. But it was the first time I kept going at something. Once you’ve had that success of being awful but doing it anyway, you can build on that, little by little.”

In the past six years, Paula has tried to tackle almost every phobia out there, attempting skydiving, bungee jumping, life modelling, wrestling, flying with an aerobatic display team, standing up in front of thousands to conduct a TED Talk. She has spent time working as a police woman, firefighter, pilot, racing driver and astronaut (taking part in the UK Space Agency’s training programme). She’s also completed a triathlon, cycled across Scotland, and competed in judo and weightlifting competitions. Details of these adventures can be found in her book, Must Try Harder, released last week.

Her most challenging adventure has just begun — swimming the entire coast of mainland Britain, a distance of over 1,800 miles, fuelled by FIREPOT. The training for the ‘Big Mad Swim’ has been intense, as she’d never learnt to swim before last year for fear of water. Her goal? To raise awareness of mental health issues and show that it is possible to overcome anxiety. “There’s another side to mental health,” she says. “I want sufferers to know that it really is worth it when you get there.”

Here, we catch up with Paula as she embarks on the Big Mad Swim.

Are you a woman to play by societies rules?

I used to play by ALL the rules. In fact, I would impose new social rules on myself, if I didn't think the rules went far enough. I was a prisoner of what other people thought of me, and how I thought I should be acting, but it made me miserable, anxious and, ultimately, almost housebound. I still feel the pressure to play by the rules because I am a bit of a goodie-two-shoes, but I constantly try to push myself, and that's what’s helping me grow.

Is it a man’s world?

It’s been a man's history. It won't be a man's future.

Fear: what does it mean to you?

Fear has been a constant companion in a somewhat strained friendship. For a long time, fear taught me that the world was too scary for someone like me. It is still with me everyday, but now I'm teaching it a thing or two — especially that whatever it tells me I can't do will be the very next thing I try. Overcoming fear is hard, but it’s not impossible.

What’s the hardest you’ve ever worked in your life?

Learning to swim has been both mentally and physically the hardest I've ever had to work. Being aquaphobic for 30 years meant that I couldn't just pick up the mechanics of swimming straight away. There were so many steps involved in just getting me even near the water. But, like everything in life, the hard work and effort only magnifies the joy. When I could finally swim in a loch on my own without panicking, it was absolutely glorious.

Truth or dare?


When have you felt most alone?

For years, my mental health made me feel totally isolated. I was so afraid to talk about it that I just became more and more alone in my own head. Only when I started to talk more openly did I realise that it wasn’t just me — anxiety affects so many people and we're all just trying to get through life as best we can.

What did you learn from your parents?

To always tell the people you love how much you love them.

Is there an occasion you regret?

I used to regret almost everything. I was so anxious that even the slightest misstep in a conversation made me regret having opened my mouth. Nowadays, I don't regret anything. I don't even regret those years of regret. When I make a mistake, I try and take the positives from it, make my reparations and move on. Everything that’s happened in the past has led me to a place in which I can hopefully help others cope and move forward, and that makes it all worth it.  

When you were younger, what did you want to grow up to be?

From the very first time I picked up a book, I wanted to be a writer. My family are all readers and I'm never without at least two books, wherever I go. As part of my adventures, I tried all the jobs that kids want when they grow up; I tried farming and teaching, and even went on the human centrifuge machine to do some astronaut training. I wanted to prove to myself, and all the young people that I speak to in schools, that we never stop being capable of having the jobs we want — we only stop believing that we're capable. My own book, Must Try Harder, has just been published so I guess I can finally say that I grew into what I wanted to be.

What’s your least favourite thing about humanity?

How easy we find judging other people and how hard we find forgiving.

Describe a single place that means something to you, and why.

There's a small foot bridge in Pitlochry in Perthshire. Several years ago, at the height of my anxiety, my husband and I were out walking. I hadn't realised the path had turned into a bridge over the river until I was almost halfway. I was terrified of water. Panic came on and I couldn't move. I was crying and shaking and genuinely thought I was going to die. Gerry had to carry me back to the path. I recently went back and stood on the centre of that bridge. I looked at the water bubbling below and felt really proud of how much I had achieved. I was still frightened, but I was there, on my own, smiling. That bridge will always be a marker for me of how much I've managed to overcome.

Follow Paula’s progress on The Big Mad Swim here.