Mental Health: From conquering waves to conquering fears

For Northern Ireland’s big wave surfer Al Mennie, tackling some of the most dangerous swells in the world has given him a special insight into facing other anxieties and fears.

Although he is regularly to be found surfing off the North Coast he calls home, his travels have taken him around the globe.

That includes to the notorious waters of Nazaré in Portugal – a surfers’ haven where waves can reach well over 70ft.

The risks are very, very real, so the planning and preparation has to be meticulous.

“I love the anticipation of the big swells, big storms coming,” Al told UTV, in the run-up to World Mental Health Day on Saturday 10 October.

“I love looking at the weather chart a week in advance and seeing all the big storms down in the Caribbean coming up through the Atlantic, up north to us here.

“I love that – I get on edge, I get sort of antsy about it.”

Al in action. Credit: UTV

Al added: “I’ve got a paramedic who works with me and he said to me: ‘You’ve got a really good understanding of anxiety and fear because you deal with it in the build-up to these big days, these big swells.’

“And it made me realise I do actually, I have a very good understanding of it. Because, at the end of the day, I want to go out in these big, dangerous seas, but it’s all calculated.

“If I was really anxious and really anxious about it, I might not want to do it. But I do want to do it, so I fight through all that and I overcome it.”

In putting pen to paper to explain his processes when it comes to overcoming the nerves that come with that territory, Al hopes it will help others looking to face their own hurdles in life head on.

Social distancing while filming on the North Coast. Credit: UTV

And writing about his experiences has in itself been cathartic.

“I write a lot and I’ve written since I was a kid, and I think that in some way has probably been some sort of therapy, so you can work through things in your head,” Al explained.

“So, for men who don’t want to talk, I think this is a good piece of advice – if you can write stuff down and get it out of your system, it’s a great way of dealing with whatever you’re going through.

“And that might actually open the door to you then going and speaking to somebody.

“But if you don’t do anything, if you just sit there and do nothing and just bottle all this up – whatever it may be – I think personally probably you’re getting into trouble there.”

Al talks to UTV about his experiences. Credit: UTV

As someone who spends a lot of time embracing nature at its most extreme, Al also believes getting outside can play a part in providing a boost for those who may be struggling.

“It broadens your horizons, it makes you think outside the box that you may well be sitting in thinking about whatever you’re thinking about,” he said.

“Not that it’s the magic answer, it’ll go away, but the outdoors is a great place to spend time and experience things and you overcome challenges outside as well.

“And that teaches you things about yourself and what you’re capable of and what you can overcome - and then you can relate that to other areas of your life.

“So, outdoors, I honestly believe it’s one of the best things for you.”

For Al, it certainly seems that life on the edge comes with a unique sense of serenity.

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