endurance athlete on how to recover from trauma

He paddleboarded 800km, encountered 21 sharks and nearly quit before finding salvation from the noise in his head.

Aussie athlete, author and speaker Damien Rider was the victim of unimaginable violence at a very young age.

He used his athleticism for ultra-endurance challenges, which gave him the mental space to process his trauma. He has so far completed an 800 km solo ocean paddle from Gold Coast to Bondi, run around Phuket island, finished a 5000 km skateboard journey from Chicago to Santa Monica along Route 66, and a 55-day motorcycle tour across the U.S connecting with thousands of people from all adversity backgrounds, among others.

Here, he shares his story with Body+Soul along with some tips from the Blue Knot Foundation, for which he is a new ambassador, on how to process and understand past trauma in our own lives.

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“Most everyone I know talks about loving grandmothers, but my memories of my grandmother are far different. She was a violent, alcoholic old lady, and I was just a little kid. She could throw me around like a rag doll.

That’s when I started to lose my childhood, my sense of belonging, and finally myself. At the same time, without knowing, I was also developing my survival skills, my strengths and laying the foundation of who I am and what I do today.

When I was five, Mum and I hitchhiked from Ballarat to Adelaide, about 610 kilometers (350 miles), with a garbage bag of clothes to start a short-lived better life.

I remember one night when I was six, looking out my bedroom window of our North Glenelg unit in Adelaide to see police lights flashing everywhere. This big, strong, angry man who must’ve weighed 130 kilos (285 pounds) was fighting the cops—not just fighting them, destroying them!

That’s how I met Mum’s new boyfriend

Life was never the same. Our daily life went up and down like a crazy yo-yo. Sometimes, he’d be all right, knock around with us, have a laugh. Then a switch would go off in his head.

The next thing I knew, I was getting dragged by a foot and smashed against a wall. He’d get drunk and attack my mother…her face was often black and blue, split open.

My mum’s boyfriend left when I was around 13, after one last terrifying and violent night.

I left home at age 17 and drove to the Gold Coast, 2100 km (1300 miles) away, to become a surfer. I had no emotional intelligence or mental understanding of how to deal with negative situations and was suck on a self-destructive cycle. I handled this the only way I knew how, by taking a lot of drugs, drinking, and trying to escape all of it.

The thought of suicide had rung in my head nearly every day since I was six, but when I was 21 was the first time I had actually taken that next step and attempted it.

Each of the four attempts to follow were more intense and became a more normalized decision. After my fourth and final attempt, seconds from flat lining, I found myself on a mission to find a sustainable way out of this crazy yo-yo life:

  • To stop the self-destructive cycles.
  • To find peace with my past.
  • To live an authentic life.
  • To not let the emotional events of my past fuel negative situations today.
  • To bring awareness to the struggle from a male perspective.
  • To share what I know with others.

I thought about the time in my life when I felt the freest; excited, warm, happy, and challenged. It was on the Gold Coast surfing the waves around Coolangatta. The next morning, I packed my car and drove from Melbourne to the Gold Coast, only stopping for food and gas.

Getting back in the water, I could instantly feel what I was searching for. I knew the ocean was a great starting point. I wanted to open up those feelings of a natural high. I would strip myself back to my raw foundation and rebuild myself over again, trusting who I am.

At 6 a.m. on January 3, I left Rainbow Bay, Gold Coast and began my 800 km solo and unsupported paddleboard adventure.

My journey was 21 days total, with 17 days in the water, after making full day stops while I sourced new supplies. I faced everything from sunstroke, cold currents and nights, loss of food and water, being stung, almost breaking my neck, 21 shark encounters, and dehydration.

When people ask me, “what was the worst day on the paddle?” I say, “every day,” then they ask, “well, what was the best day?” and I say, “every day.” Every day on the paddle, I went through physical, mental, and emotional challenges that most people experience over the course of a week or a month in daily life.

One moment stands out for me, though…

I had blown out one of my knees from overuse. I had worn down my stomach lining, creating an ulcer. Every time I lay on the board to paddle, it felt like the ulcer was getting deeper and deeper. My head was throbbing, and my stomach was hurting. My knees, my ankles, even my calves hurt… my whole body was totally trashed.

Then the pain brought forth a wave of emotions. So many loud voices like screams in my head. Everywhere on my body that hurt took me back to my childhood, all those times being struck and thrown against walls. I started thinking, ‘is this going to be too much for me? Have I bitten off more than I can chew?’

I paddled into Coffs Harbour, not knowing if I was going to be able to continue the journey. I bought some food and began to process my pain and the voices to try to make sense of it all. I had an early night’s sleep in the local surf club on a first aid mattress set up on the countertop.

I awoke to Day 6, which I will treasure for the rest of my life. I left Coffs Harbour for Scott’s Head with the water completely still and glassy. Every surfer on earth hopes to see these conditions when they paddle out.

This was also the first day I didn’t hold or entertain a single negative thought about my past, childhood, relationships… anything. My life and its possibilities seemed to open in front of me like an angelic vision. The pain in my body seemed to have gone away. I just paddled and was, so happy with everything. I felt as if I was going for a casual little morning paddle.

That day, my mindset changed in a big way. Instead of thinking I was willing to die for what I believed in, I became willing to live for what I believed in. My mind, arms, hands, and body would work together with an undeniable feeling that what I was doing was right. No elements were going with me in the water, but none were going against me for the first time, either.

I began to see the world in a new way. I saw how the negative barriers of self-doubt and mental walls we put in front of ourselves make tasks, ideas, and goals seem more complicated than they really are. We make it even worse by continuing to build onto those walls, a self-limitation here, self-sabotage there.

For the first time, I saw what it looked like on the other side: the things that seemed to bother, challenge or negatively occupy my thoughts and energy before the paddle didn’t matter anymore. I was no longer thinking am I going to make it through this day? I was now looking 50 years ahead.

I am proud of who I was and the man I am today, which has taken me 38 years to say.

I will be forever grateful for the paddle.”


What is trauma?

According to The Blue Knot Foundation, for which Damien is a new ambassador, “Complex trauma is repeated, ongoing and usually interpersonal (between people). It often occurs in childhood from abuse, neglect and other adverse childhood events. It can also occur from repeated violence and trauma as an adult. Some people experience trauma right through their life.”

“When it comes to trauma, there is no one size fits all. Each story is unique, and there are many ways trauma can manifest…people holding onto emotional trauma often go through overwhelming feelings of shame, guilt, fear, anger, and pain,” says Mr Rider.

What can you do if you experience trauma?

Therapists, nutritionists, personal trainers and so many more professionals exist to assist on a healing journey from complex trauma.

The Blue Knot Foundation is a great place to be connected with the right tools for your journey.

“Their mission is to empower healing in trauma survivors by giving real hope that healing is 100% possible with real, tested, and proven tools for a sustainable future,” says Mr Rider.

“A lot of organisations and therapists use the generic words, “you have to live with this for the rest of your life and all you can do is learn to manage it”. This is incorrect as I have proven that, and this is the positive difference of Blue Knot. They are proactive in making a change and promoting a brighter future moving forward to reach the skies without limits.”

Damien used his athletic achievements to recover, but what if that’s not your thing?

“We are all different. We all cope in different ways and find unique pathways to healing just as we have all experienced unique experiences,” says Dr. Cathy Kezelman the President of the Blue Knot Foundation.

“There are many roads to recovery and each person needs to be empowered to choose their own path. We do know that it is important to attend to the body, mind and feelings as trauma impacts the way these different elements of our functioning work together.”

She says while some people find self-help resources useful, others find they need to heal in relationships (with friends, family, practitioners, other survivors) – and learn trust and safety – as it was in relationships that the trauma originally occurred.

“Not just talk therapy but therapy and approaches which work with the body,” she adds. “The evidence for which is growing – for example – EMDR, experiential and creative therapies (art, writing, dance, drumming, mindfulness, meditation, yoga) and the basics of self-care – sleep, good nutrition, exercise.”

“We have all had moments where we thought it was the worst day or situation of our life, with no way out and even doubting if we can go on, says Rider.

“Talking with people who have overcome adversity and organisations like Blue Knot Foundation, can help you join the dots together and allow you to see the work you have already done to get you through some of life’s greatest challenges. To empower you and let the positives in every experience shine through to strength your confidence and pride, ready to take on any challenge you may face.”

In an emergency please call 000.

To contact the Blue Knot Foundation for support call their helpline on 1300 657 380 Mon-Sun, between 9am and 5pm AEST.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can also phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 46 36 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.

If you or someone you know needs help in a domestic situation, please contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT for 24/7 support.