By HEIDI RUCKRIEGEL
I’ve always been a big coward. Yes, I’m the toddler who burst into tears at the sight of a balloon, the kid who found horse riding absolutely terrifying and the painfully self-conscious, gawky teenager. I was so shy that I could barely answer the phone and I used to cross the road to avoid having to – gasp – talk to people.
It’s a midwinter morning in Hobart, after the longest night of the year. White frost covers the grass. The air temperature is 2°C. The sun’s not even up yet, because it’s only 6.45am. So why would people be driving, walking, and riding their bikes down to suburban Long Beach and assembling near the water, dressed in whatever clothes are the warmest things they own?
There they stand, in track pants, uggies, down jackets, scarves and beanies, casually chatting and laughing. I join a small group. We’re stomping our feet and rubbing hands together to keep warm. Organisers, dressed in black, are bustling around near a black tent. Gradually, things happen. People line up casually, collect towels and caps, have a number drawn on their hand. There’s a safety briefing. Over to the (vaguely heated) change room. Out we come in our white towels and red caps, down to the beach, kicking at the frosty sand. We tentatively dip toes in the water, a relatively balmy 12 Degrees. Then – ACTION! The orange flare goes off, towels drop and we all run whooping and yelling into the water, as bare as the day we were born.
Cold is no longer a word, it becomes a part of our bodies, it takes over legs and arms and goes way beyond ‘refreshing’. We stumble out with numb feet, but big smiles, and grab a towel. The sky is brightening, the mountain has a rosy cap of cloud. It’s a glorious morning and I feel totally alive.
Many people thought I was very brave when I did the Winter Solstice Swim, but the truth is that my comfort zone used to be the size of a sofa, my fears were crippling my life. It took me a while to realise that, like the balloon, there was really not much substance to them. Just air, mostly. The rest was all in my head. I decided I had to do something about that annoying little negative voice, saying “ooohh, you can’t do that! It’ll never work! It’s too scary! Don’t even try!”. So I got the whip out and trained myself to be less shy.
I didn’t realise I was being my own psychologist and practicing ‘exposure therapy’ without a licence. I just gradually forced myself to make phone-calls and talk to more and more ‘challenging’ people. It was hard. Really hard. I persevered and worked my way up from ringing my Mum to calling a friend, and talking to people in shops and at the bank. Eventually I graduated to a job in a pizza restaurant while I was studying. In time, I even came to enjoy meeting new people and I now happily chat to people on the bus, in a shop, anywhere, but I have never forgotten how difficult it was to overcome that fear.