This week marks the 10 year anniversary of my cycling accident that triggered all my current health issues, including my Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. After the day of that accident my life changed forever but at the time, I didn’t realise the result of the accident would be so drastic and have an ongoing impact on my life. Afterall, it was just a sprained ankle and a few bruises.
The anniversary always brings up mixed emotions and normally they are all negative and I can’t help thinking about what would have been if my accident never happened. For the first time ever I am going to be honest publicly about how such a simple injury changed things for me.
After I had been checked out at the hospital after my accident I was given crutches to use because of my badly sprained ankle, I’d used crutches before so it was nothing new to me and I figured I would be off them in a couple of weeks. However, the pain I was experiencing in my ankle felt more like I had broken it and it was incredibly swollen making it difficult to wear shoes. At first, I tried to carry on as normal and after 4 weeks on crutches I started to get back into sports. I tried getting back into training for Triathlons and being the stubborn person/athlete I am I just pushed through the pain, no matter how bad it got. In June 2012 I still tried to compete in triathlon and swim events. I decided that I wanted to do a Triathlon close to home (Hastings) so that my parents could see me compete for the first time in a couple of years and so I decided to participate in the Triathlon at Ashburnham.
It was a beautiful setting for the event and the swim and cycle had gone well, although I was getting some pain in my ankle, it was time for the run and it was 2 laps. On the first lap I slipped over but got up and carried on, despite my ankle throbbing and begging me to stop. On the second lap about 250m before the finish I put my foot down a rabbit hole and twisted my ankle – again. I was in absolute agony but was determined to finish so hobbled to the finish and fell over the finish line in tears. I was tended to by the paramedics and told to go to A&E. After many hours at the Conquest Hospital, I was once again old “its not broken, just badly sprained, use these crutches for a couple of weeks and then you should be ok”. Deep down I knew that the pain I was feeling wasn’t normal for a sprained ankle, but no one was listening. It felt like my foot was on fire and the pain had begun to spread into my foot and even up my leg and the pain was getting worse over time, not better.
When I got back to University, I was backwards and forwards to the hospital for tests and countless doctors appointments. I had doctors who told me it was all in my head and there was nothing wrong with me, doctors that said I was doing it for attention and others who knew something was wrong but just had no clue what. Eventually about 18 months after my initial injury I was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
My pain was still out of control, I was getting used to new and strong medications and regular physiotherapy sessions, not to mention I was also trying to get used to a lack of mobility and struggling to get around! Eventually, I was ending up missing so much university that I did my 3rd and final year part time over 2 years and I stopped all sports because I simply didn’t have the energy and was in too much pain. My entire life changed, the thought that I would spend the rest of my life living like this was soul destroying. All my life I had been active, cycled everywhere, did triathlons, was a competitive pool swimmer and an open water swimmer and suddenly it was gone. I was struggling to walk, let alone run. Part of my CRPS is hypersensitivity so water hurt meaning I couldn’t even swim and as a result I completely lost my identity.
I found myself, age 20 not having a clue who I was.
I fell into a deep and dark depression; I was trying desperately hard to finish my Music Degree but I struggled to concentrate because of the amount of pain and the medications I was on and getting to rehearsals was difficult for me too. In the music department as a result of my accident I gained the nickname “Unfortunate Etheridge”. I brushed the name off but, it hurt me deeply, I was doing my best, but people made me feel like whatever I was going to try it would go wrong so eventually, I gave up trying. This got even worse when I began to use a wheelchair and I know that a lot of people were talking behind my back saying I was making it all up for attention. My confidence was suddenly non-existent. I felt like nothing would ever get better, I would never accomplish anything I wanted to and that my life was completely pointless.
I somehow managed to finish my degree and after graduating from University in 2014 I moved in with my parents in Sawtry and I lived with them for about a year whilst still trying to get my health under control. In 2015 I moved into my first flat in Huntingdon and I was sent on a Pain Management Programme at Addenbrookes in Cambridge. It was on this course that I set myself the goal of getting back into open water swimming
A friend from the course and I set ourselves the challenge of the 1 mile Great East Swim, it gave us a year to train and be able to swim 1 mile. For me, the most difficult bit was getting in a swimming pool! I started trying to get in the water in the hydrotherapy pool because a normal swimming pool was too cold and painful for my feet and leg. After a few months of Hydrotherapy I attempted to get in a pool, my first try in the local leisure centre involved me sitting on poolside with my legs hanging in the water for 5 minutes; that was all I could manage before the pain got too much for me. Each week I went to the local pool in the Ladies only evening session and over a period of 6 months I gradually managed to get in the pool and built up the amount of time I could spend in it, and finally managed to swim consistently for about 30 minutes. Once I had built some confidence in the pool, I knew I needed to try and get into open water and I needed a wetsuit. The thought that I would have to wear a wetsuit terrified me, I struggled to wear trousers because it felt like my legs were being squeezed and suffocated when I wore them. A wetsuit would be tight, it would squeeze my legs and then on top of that I would have to get in cold water!
I eventually convinced myself to buy a wetsuit and it was another month before I even managed to get my wetsuit on because of the pain it caused. Over the month I had spent my evenings sitting on the sofa watching TV partially in my wetsuit and gradually increasing the amount of wetsuit I was wearing so that I could get used to it and learn to tolerate it. Once I could spend 45 minutes in the wetsuit I contacted the local Triathlon Club – BRJ Run and Tri as I knew they would offer some form of open water swimming locally.
I contacted the Open Water organiser from the club who said that I could attend a session. I was so nervous, it was the first time I had been to any club or group in Huntingdon, I didn’t know anyone, and I still seriously lacked in self-esteem and confidence. I was grateful when someone offered to swim with me for the first few weeks, the wetsuit was incredibly painful, the cold water was incredibly painful and all I wanted to do was cry from the pain but, I kept going each week and slowly learnt to tolerate the pain. I built up my strength both physically and mentally and finally on 17th June 2016 I travelled to Alton Water to take part in the 1 mile event at the Great East Swim. I completed the swim in 36 minutes and 47 seconds. Completing the swim gave me a huge confidence boost and I finally felt like I had a tiny bit of my identity back and from that first event I have never stopped!
Despite the positive feeling I had when competing I was still struggling with my mental health and my health in general was going downhill; to say I wasn’t coping is an understatement. To make it even worse, it didn’t matter where I looked, I was struggling to find any help or any support. I tried using the CBT Wellbeing service through MIND but you only get 6 sessions and with all I had to deal with it wasn’t enough. I had 3 or 4 blocks of 6 sessions through MIND but I saw a different person each time and so each time I had to start from the beginning and retraumatised myself.
In 2017 I still had little confidence or belief in myself, apart from in my swimming ability. I didn’t think I would ever amount to anything and also didn’t have any plans or know what I wanted to do or even could do in life.
Thankfully in 2018 I was approached by someone that has now become a dear friend and she said she wanted to help me. Ever since then I have been having regular counselling sessions with her and I still have sessions with her now. I have worked incredibly hard over the past 3 years trying to find my identity, work out what I can and can’t do and I have worked particularly hard on building both my self-esteem and my self-confidence.
In 2018 to help me cope with all the emotions I had from my counselling I set myself the challenge of swimming 10 miles in Lake Tal-y-llyn in North Wales so that I had something to work for and focus on. This then led me onto deciding to take on Windermere 2 way so that I had something to aim and work towards and I added in the fundraising to try and increase my determination to complete the swim so I could help others. I worked incredibly hard for the swims, but I could never have predicted the journey that planning, training for, organising and completing the swim would have me on. It has been incredible, and my entire mindset has changed.
It has taken me 10 years to find myself, my identity and to finally feel happiness and be at peace with who I am now, even with my disabilities, my struggles physically and mentally, I know that I can do whatever I want to and I have the confidence to at least.
I want to thank everyone that has supported me over the past 10 years, my counsellor, my best friends and of course my family, I am not sure if I would be here without you. Below are some pictures of the amazing people I have met who have helped me, supported me and of course, swum with me too!