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Season 2, episode 12

In Depth with exceptional sibling Jack Symonds

Jack Symonds never considered himself to be much of a swimmer. In fact, before deciding to swim the English Channel to raise funds for Butterfly, it was probably twelve years since he swam a single lap in a pool.

Jack is the sibling of a beloved sister who battled an eating disorder for close to ten years. “They say that people don’t get eating disorders, but families do”, he says. “And in my experience that was certainly true.” With this background, Jack was compelled to do something significant to support people with eating disorders, “Because every time someone receives proper care their life could be saved.” Jack’s swim also benefitted Black Dog Institute, an organisation that helped him when he was dealing with his own mental health issues.

What’s amazing is that he started out with a modest goal to raise $10,000, but instead raised more than $275,000. Listen to him talk to Sam about why he did it, what it was like, and what he learned from this epic and life-changing experience.

READ MORE ABOUT JACK’S CHANNEL SWIM

READ MORE ABOUT BLACK DOG INSTITUTE

Sam Ikin:

This month’s guest for Let’s Talk in depth is Jack Symonds. In September of 2021, Jack raised more than a quarter million dollars for two causes that he’s very passionate about supporting— people who are living with eating disorders and depression. It was a huge feat and physically one of the most difficult things that he’s ever done. Another thing that made Jack’s swim across the English Channel such a monumental achievement was the fact that he doesn’t describe himself as a swimmer. In fact, he had done very little open water swimming before he decided to swim from one country to another.

Jack Symonds:

I’m not a swimmer, or at least I wasn’t a swimmer. Living in the U. K., I think it was the first kind of exposure that I had to knowing that the English Channel even really existed, to be honest. And then the idea for the actual swim didn’t come from necessarily wanting to do a big swim. It more came from wanting to do something to raise a bit of money and a bit of awareness for mental health and that’s kind of how the idea for the swim came about.

I completely let go of trying to achieve any kind of short time in terms of the swim because my whole mentality was like, if I can do it, then I’ll be super, super stoked. I was pretty happy just to get across and that was my goal. In the end it was 13 hours and 35 minutes, which you’ll have to take my word for is a respectable time. Not rapid but respectable.

Sam:

But I mean as somebody who has done a bit of ocean swimming,13 hours, that seems like a monumental task. That’s phenomenal.

Jack:

It wasn’t an easy thing. It wasn’t an easy swim, and I was very relieved when it was over. But yeah, look, it was, it was the longest I had ever swum by a massive margin. And it does start to take its toll after a few hours only. So, it’s a tough thing, but just super glad that it went the way it did in the end.

Sam:

Are you allowed to stop and tread water for a bit?

Jack:

Not really. There’s a channel swimming association. And the rules state that you, you can’t. You have to be making forward progress at all times in some way. You stop every so often, roughly every half an hour to drink what they call a feed, which is like some sort of carbohydrate drink, different types of carbohydrates that they rotate and that kind of keeps you going, to stop you getting pneumonia. But no treading water, just quick feeds every half an hour.

Sam:

Well look, it sounds like it was a very taxing kind of a thing to do. What on earth did you do it for?

Jack:

Good question. So to be honest, it started as mental health as a broad, broad topic which has affected my life in in various ways, particularly in my earlier life when I was from the ages of say 14 to 22. I’m now 26. I did it basically to raise awareness and to raise money for mental health and to contribute to the causes that have been part of my life, which have been depression and eating disorders. I guess depression kind of splits into depression and anxiety. And eating disorders is a very broad term, but those are kind of the two areas that I care about because they’ve affected me. And my family, I should say. So that’s why I did it and, more specifically, when I was 14 I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Then when I was around 16, my younger sister Sami was diagnosed with an eating disorder. And so, as a family, we we’ve dealt with a number of kind of challenges in that space. And I think, you know, after I moved to the UK, I had some time to reflect on my own journey and that’s why I decided to do it.

Sam:

So tell us about your sister’s experience, why you chose to give the money to an eating disorder charity.

Jack:

I actually split the money 50 /50 between the Butterfly Foundation and the Black Dog Institute. To reflect those two pillars that I was talking about and why I chose Butterfly, to be honest, is because I spoke to Sami about the swim, to tell her that I was doing it. And I asked first, obviously, was she comfortable with the idea. I didn’t want it to be front page news, but we would have to tell people that, you know, I was doing it for these reasons and part of that would be her experiences and my experiences as a sibling of it. I asked for her advice on which organisations she respects and to me, if somebody who’s been through that says that to you, then that means more than anything that you can read online. And so that was a decision there. I think on the depression side Black Dog Institute is just an unbelievable organisation. I met the founder Peter Joseph over lunch, and he told me his own story of losing his son to suicide. It was so unbelievably moving to hear that at that lunch. I knew straight away, in both instances, those are the two organisations that I would support, and I never looked back. So that was how it came to those organisations.

Sam:

Having that experience in the family, even if it’s not directly your own experience, isa huge thing as well. So tell us, how did your sister’s eating disorder affect you and your family’s life?

Jack:

Such a hard question to answer. And I guess I’ve never really answered it to be honest. I guess I’ve never even been asked it directly like that, but I think the short answer is deeply, right? It affects you really deeply and in many ways. We also as a family did the Maudsley program, which is a family-based therapy for eating disorders, which basically means that each of the entire immediate family is involved in therapy. So, you attend, like weekly sessions? So we were, for me personally and for my brother as well, probably more involved than maybe we even wanted to be if that if that’s fair to say, because it can be quite hard to be in those environments. So, I think practically speaking, it affected us in the sense that we were often talking about it and trying to solve it as a family with therapists and medical professionals. That’s kind of the practical side. And then obviously emotionally, it’s very hard in a number of ways. I think in one sense watching someone that you care about so much go through such a difficult time is very hard. And then there are times, to be perfectly honest, you just get frustrated because you want someone, you want them to get better. You can love somebody right, but at times you can become impatient because you just think like, oh God, this is so hard and you want them to get better and it can be emotionally taxing.

Sam:

Absolutely, I totally understand. One thing, I think, a lot of our audience—we have a big audience of mostly people who have experience with eating disorders—we know that eating disorders hardly ever exist on their own. We know depression and anxiety are very common comorbidities and occurring conditions. Can you tell us about your experience, and I guess it didn’t lead you to an eating disorder, but how did anxiety, depression affect you?

Jack:

For me personally, I was 14. I went to a boarding school for a year, and I’d say that was my first experience with depression and anxiety. I kept a journal that year, it is the only time in my life that I ever kept a journal. I was reading through these old journal entries, and I actually came across the journal entry from the day that I was taken to a doctor. The doctor said, you know, I think you have anxiety and depression. I went home and wrote a journal entry about it and it’s quite a sad journal entry because you know this is me at 14 saying, you know, a doctor told me today that I had depression. It’s funny, I never thought of it that way, but I kind of understand. I wasn’t angry or anything. I just said I kind of see the signs, I understand it was kind of sad reading that back, from your younger self. But anyway, that was my first experience with it and looking back on those years, I had a bit of a difficult time. My parents had been through quite a bad divorce and our home situation was a little bit tumultuous. I should say that in the broader context I’m extremely fortunate in so many ways. All of this happens within the broader context of being extremely lucky in many ways and having a wonderful family and a wonderful group of friends and so much to be thankful for. But nonetheless there were a lot of difficult things happening at that time. And I did fall into a dark place to be honest. And I think that manifested in a number of ways. But I guess, in terms of my behaviour, I spent extended periods of time not really going out or not wanting to go out. I would watch a lot of T. V. I didn’t feel happy, obviously, which is kind of a classic.

Jack:

I felt very worried about myself socially. Just in general I would have a kind of a feeling often of like a having a hot stone in your stomach if that makes sense. You feel like you have this hot stone in your stomach.

Sam:

Sometimes people describe that. I’ve heard it described as having an animal inside you scratching, trying to get out scratching you from the inside.

Jack:

It’s a feeling that you can sort of relate to but everyone describes it differently. I remember it so well but that’s how I would feel, that I kind of had this hot stone in myself again and it was almost like a realisation, at times you feel like okay and then all of a sudden you don’t feel okay again. For me that is what it was like. It kind of hits you and you have this awakening that you don’t feel so great. And it’s easy to get so used to that feeling that you just go about your day but you feel horrible.

Sam:

I think that’s exactly right.

Jack

Looking back at that time I didn’t really appreciate that I wasn’t doing so well, or perhaps I knew I was unhappy, but I had accepted it to a certain degree. It was only years later when things really did get better. Like genuinely maybe 10 years later, or 8 to 10 years later, when I realised that actually the behaviour that I was exhibiting at those times wasn’t normal and isn’t normal. Like I remember, you know, having Netflix spirals at home where I would do like 48 hours or so of just straight watching TV the dark and not leaving the house. And I think for me, personally, I’m quite an extroverted person and I’m actually quite like talkative and come across quite social. So I don’t think anyone ever suspected of me or ever really questioned my state of mental health because of that, which I think is an interesting one.

Sam:

How are you now?

I would say I’ve been really good for years to be honest. I was very fortunate in the sense that I moved to the UK and it was a bit of a reset for me to be honest, in terms of I had been not having such a great time for maybe the ages of 14 to 19. My first year at university over here, I was able to get a breath of fresh air through my life. I was in a new environment; I was starting to feel better. There was a bit of separation from a lot of the things that were causing pain and also just time passing. I think it was a steady process of getting better throughout that time. Now I’m doing really well and I would say I’m as happy and healthy as I’ve ever been, which is obviously great. Just one thing I would add is when I look back on my first year at university, I remember one of the girls who was on my floor with me in college, like we were really good friends. We still are -Nicole. I would have episodes of not being so great, when I would kind of stay in my room for, you know, a day or two? And people didn’t really realize what it was. Like you just say a classic, he’s in his room again. And I’m looking back, you know, that was mental health correct?

Sam:

Yeah, totally. And it’s something that again, you never realize, well, probably a lot of people don’t realize that that’s what’s going on at the time. So how is this process of raising money for and doing this amazing physical feat. How has that affected your knowledge of mental health in general? And I guess eating disorders more specifically?

Jack:

I think the first thing I would say it’s affected my knowledge of how common mental health is.  I was really amazed when I started the process of trying to raise money. You know the initial target was $10,000 and the amount of people who came forward and donated and said I had this situation, or I suffered with depression, or my son or daughter or dad or mom had depression or had a certain type of mental health problem. They were coming forward and wanting to talk to me about it. In terms of how it affected my knowledge, the first thing was, I just became acutely aware of how common it is and how still, even today, how unspoken so many mental health issues are for so many people. That was probably the first thing.

Sam:

I just think that it’s amazing how many people truly are affected, and we don’t know about it, I think. I think a lot of it’s unspoken. It’s an interesting thing. I know I have a lived experience of suicide and I lost my father to suicide when I was 16 and for years, I didn’t want to tell anyone what happened. I was, you know, for some reason I had this embarrassment about not wanting to do it and then I didn’t want to start telling my kids too much about it. But I’ve kind of got to the point now where I just named the son that we’ve just had after my dad because he was a wonderful man, a hugely positive influence on my life. And just trying to raise him and say that you know that he did, he wasn’t a normal human being who was suffering just like all of us, I thought was a ridiculous thing. So I can relate to what you’re saying there as well. And you know, I feel like this is a process that you’ve started now in learning what’s out there, it is going to carry on with you. Are you going to continue to advocate for mental health into the future? Is that something you’ve thought about?

Jack:

I never thought I would be doing anything like this a few years ago; I never thought I’d be doing any kind of advocacy of any kind in mental health just because it never really crossed my mind. But this process, you know, the swim, and realising that you can make a difference and people do care about it. And seeing the generosity of others. I think it’s quite amazing. And so, I do think that it’s not the end for me in terms of mental health advocacy, it’s been an amazing process. And I also think that when you care about something personally, you put more into it. It’s something that I do care about personally and these are issues that I have been personally affected by and really believe in helping. Like I really believe in kind of in the work that you guys are in, the work that Butterfly is doing, in the work that Black Dog Institute is doing, in the work that is being done in this space. I want to be involved in it. So yeah, I think it’s probably the beginning for me rather than the end.

Sam:

And what have you learned through your involvement with Butterfly?

Jack:

I’ve learned a lot about eating disorders themselves. I’ve learned that I think it’s reinforced how important it is as an issue and I think how kind of unique everyone’s experience is who experiences or lives with an eating disorder. I think each experience is incredibly unique. I’ve also learned about the value of sharing. It sounds like a bit of a cliche, but actually one of the first things I was told in the swim process was from somebody who I went to for some advice and it wasn’t a close connection, but they said, you shouldn’t do it.  They said you shouldn’t do it for eating disorders because it will put too much pressure on Sami and other people who have eating disorders because, you know, it can be negative. And you’re mounting pressure on people isn’t a good thing and I at that point, didn’t know any better. So, I thought, oh, well I’ve made a big mistake, I shouldn’t do it. And I kind of backtracked quite a lot and then I eventually started to tell Sami about and I said, what do you think? And she said you should definitely do it, it’s really positive thing, I really want you to do it, you know, and for your own reasons as well. And so that massively reinforced it for me.

Jack:

But what I’ve learned is that—and I learned this from speaking to Kate from Butterfly is that eating disorders thrive in solitude and they fester in solitude and in darkness a little bit. And actually, coming forward and talking about your experiences either as a direct experience or as a sibling of somebody who’s had an eating disorder, by sharing your stories you’re normalising what goes on. You really help others because it can make people feel that they’re not alone. And it can also just help people to come forward and say I also might need help; I’m also not going through the best time. So, I think the importance of sharing is super important and not just for people’s own experience, but for general de stigmatisation. So, I think that the more people are aware of issues, the more that things can be caught early.

Sam:

I’m so glad that you went to the person with the lived experience to just see what their feelings were and whether this advice that you were getting from someone else was true. This is the diversity of thought that we need in every day.

Jack:

And the person who told me not to do it right, like they were coming from a good place as well, because they, you know, they didn’t want to shut it down, they were just genuinely concerned. And so I took that advice genuinely, I was like, oh God, I’m now really worried, am I doing the wrong thing? But in the end of the day, we decided that we would share. I think that the process has been extremely positive. I hope that people feel comfortable sharing their own experiences, whether that would be with eating disorders or other mental ill health, because I do believe that sharing is kind of the roots of the stigmatisation and de stigmatisation is the route to effective treatment and early intervention.

Sam:

Now, one thing that we absolutely know is that people like yourself who are out there getting people talking and having these stories told, raising awareness are helping phenomenally. Absolutely, we need more people like you who are prepared to do something publicly and just get that conversation rolling. What advice would you have for someone who was thinking about advocating or doing some sort of fundraising thing, how do you get it off the ground?

Jack:

I think that people say men aren’t good at talking about this kind of thing, and it’s like, I just don’t think that’s necessarily good enough. Because, yes, it’s true, men aren’t good about talking about mental health, but then again, you have to go further, you have to ask why, because if you don’t ask why men aren’t good at it, then how do you change it? Right? My personal view is that there’s this subconscious belief that sharing mental health, sharing your own experiences with mental health is like a sign of weakness of some kind or perhaps people just don’t feel comfortable because they don’t want to be portrayed in a certain way. And I think that, to be honest, that comes from people worrying that they will appear weak in some kind of strange way.  I have learned that actually by sharing or comfortably sharing your own experiences, it’s the complete opposite, right? If you’re able to say, like, oh yeah, I went through this and I suffered in this way and you’re just kind of 100% okay with it because, you know, you’ve got through it, or you know, that you will get through, that’s like the ultimate sign of strength, right? I don’t think there’s anything weird.

Jack:

So, to answer your question to people who are wanting to get out there and share their stories and maybe feel that they shouldn’t, or they can’t, I think it’s about reframing your thinking. Sharing openly and being 100% comfortable with who you are and what you’ve been through is like the ultimate sign of strength and the ultimate sign of self-confidence, because it doesn’t define you. What you’ve been through or the experiences you’ve had don’t define you and being entirely comfortable in who you are is the ultimate sign of strength. Everyone goes through things. Everyone has hard times and anyone who says they don’t, it’s full of [expletive].

Sam:

I shouldn’t let it through but that was that was a very authentic moment. I think this is a pretty good place for us to wrap things up. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

Jack:

One thing I would add is that looking back on the swim as an experience, the thing that really sticks with me is towards the end of the swim and I was completely exhausted and really just had nothing left. What I was thinking about was the experiences that I have had with mental health, not the good ones, right? Like the bad ones, things that the memories that kind of stick in your head for all the wrong reasons and I think a lot of us have those, it kind of made me emotional in the last age of the swim, but it also kept me going. I used those experiences to give myself whatever tiny amount of energy was left in my body, right? And I’ve thought about that a lot since then and what I think it means is that you can look at mental ill health experiences and adversities and challenges that you go through in your life as things to be ashamed of, the things that you wish didn’t happen, but equally, when push comes to shove and you’ve got nothing left in a difficult situation, those challenges and those things that you went through are your biggest source of strength. Looking back on the worst moments of my own life where I genuinely feel like those moments made me who I am, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. Yes, it’s, it’s incredibly hard, but when you eventually do get through it, you look back on that and actually realise that it’s probably like the greatest source of strength that you have and you wouldn’t be the person you are today if it wasn’t for those experiences that you went through.

Jack:

I think we all need to reframe our thinking. Mental health challenges are really hard but equally once you get through them it can be like a tremendous deep well of strength.

Sam:

If you want to know more about Jack’s English Channel swim, he’s written a great piece about it for the Butterfly website. There’s a link in the show notes. And remember help is available for anyone struggling with an eating disorder through the Butterfly Helpline on 1 800 ED HOPE, that’s 1 800 33 4673. If you think you’re at risk or fi you’d just like to know a little bit more, we strongly encourage you to go and have a look at butterfly.org.au or go to the direct links which are in the show notes. If you like this episode of the Butterfly podcast you might want to write a review, leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. We would really appreciate it and remember as always please share it with a friend, I’m Sam Ikin. The Butterfly podcast is an Ikin Media production for Butterfly Foundation.

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