Step change

On the first night he got so drunk that on the second day he couldn’t walk – Jake Tyler says his 3,000-mile route to mental health recovery was far from a straightforward one

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“It still really baffles me how I landed there,” says Jake Tyler, reflecting on his decision to embark on a 3,000-mile walk around mainland Britain. But the 34 year old’s decision had much to do with a depressive episode that left him suicidal.

“I’d never thought about doing anything like that before. All my friends are drinkers and scumbags, and I don’t mix with a lot of endurance athletes, but for some reason I felt deep within me it was something I had to do.”

Tyler was working as a bar manager in East London when he reached the depths of despair.

‘All my friends are drinkers and scumbags, and I don’t mix with a lot of endurance athletes.’

“It wasn’t even misery; I was just in so much pain,” he recalls. “I’d lacked confidence since my teens and to over-compensate, I started drinking and got into drugs, which I don’t think is an objectively bad thing but, over time, drinking to elevate my confidence became an everyday thing. The more stressed I got, the more I mismanaged that by taking less care of myself. It was the perfect crash.”

He believes it was the instinctive urge to call his mum one morning in March 2016 that saved his life.

“Opening a door and sharing your mind with another person isn’t about seeking answers – it’s about no longer being alone in your pain,” he writes in his book A Walk from the Wild Edge.

She listened to his “disjointed, jarring” thoughts before giving him two jobs – to speak to his bosses and then a doctor. It was his GP who asked: “Do you actually want to die, Jake, or do you not want to feel like this anymore?”

Realising things had to change, he resigned from his job and moved on to his mum’s barge in Maldon, Essex. In time, he found solace walking her dog Reggie, and it was during one of their long ambles he conceived the idea of walking around Great Britain.

“When I was working in this bar and going through the worst mental time, I was around people constantly. The thing I craved was mental and physical space, to be on my own for a while. I just wanted to be away from everything and have everything stripped back.” says Tyler.

After raising the necessary money through crowdfunding, he set off from Brighton on 26 June 2016 with only the bare essentials and a dogged determination. But this isn’t a movie and it wasn’t only an anti-climactic start – “I just sloped off” – it was a messy one.

“The first day of the walk I ended up getting absolutely bollocksed [at a friend’s pub in Worthing] and couldn’t even walk the second day. Within three weeks, I’d lost my only boots,” admits Tyler, who felt compelled to include the less salubrious moments in his book. “I wanted to write something I wish I’d read a long time ago. I’d much rather someone like me pick the book up and then potentially use nature as an escape from the reality of poor decisions and destructive behaviours.”

Despite an “unbelievably cavalier” approach, “whether or not I could do it never really entered my mind”, he says. “It was more like, well, if I keep going then I’ll finish it. There was a sense of purpose driving me beyond my capability that was so loud and profound I had blind faith I was going to pull it off.”

From Worthing, he made his way along the south coast to Cornwall. He slept in a one-man tent, as well as bunking with people. Some of these were friends, others were strangers he encountered along the way and online as news of his journey spread. “I turned into this real ‘yes’ person once I’d stayed with the first few people and survived it and realised that most people are kind.”

He recalls the “deep, honest conversations” he would have with people, “and one of things I noticed is that when people were talking about their mental health, they’d talk about the reason they think their mental health is bad, so trouble at work or interpersonal relationships. No one talked that openly about the emotion they were feeling at the time,” says Tyler.

“It’s become a lot more acceptable to talk about mental health in recent years, but it’s the gut feeling people should be talking about more. That’s properly talking about it.”

By the October, he’d strode 800 miles and reached Wales. At this point, the walk had begun “to feel like a lifestyle. It had become less about the physical challenge and more an exploration of myself, of friendship, of humanity and life in general.”

It also generated unforeseen challenges, like taking part in the London Marathon as part of BBC documentary Mind over Marathon, which meant living in Brighton for six months while it was filmed.

He picked the walk up again in Edale, Derbyshire in June 2017, before agreeing to take part in Race to the Stones, a 100km ultra-marathon across the Wessex Ridgeway on behalf of Heads Together charity.

“I hitch-hiked for two days and got there 13 hours late, but somehow managed to do it even though I was hallucinating with tiredness. I suppose I wanted to know my body was more capable than I thought it was and kept upping the game,” says Tyler, who then resumed the walk, carrying on into Yorkshire and then the Lake District, where loneliness crept in for the first time.

“The beauty of the place was sort of lost on me as I’d started to feel really low. My perspective switched from being this adventure to thinking it was lame and silly.

“I thought, what am I doing when everyone’s working and getting married and I’m out here living in a tent? By the time I got to Newcastle, I was feeling like I wanted to give up.”

It was a chance meeting with a woman called Vickie that turned things around. “She was just life and love personified and said all the right things basically that saved the trip.”

Venturing north of Newcastle and then on into Scotland, Tyler says he felt good and decided to run sections of the walk from that point – not only from Inverness to John O’Groats, where he was met with the sight of the Northern Lights, but from Edinburgh to Brighton, where he completed the journey on 12 February 2018.

“Getting towards the end of that was a different kind of exhaustion. It was more mental than physical because by then I was just running, like it was a motor, no aches or pains. But achieving what I did is more than I ever could’ve envisioned I was capable of.”

Tyler’s 2018 TEDx talk, I’m Fine – Learning to Live with Depression, has been viewed 2.7 million times, and he also hosted a regional radio show, Open Up, but he says he’s wary of becoming a sounding board for strangers.

“During and after the walk I’d give people advice and found conversations with people really moving and illuminating. I thought that was something I really wanted to pursue but those messages didn’t stop, and I started to feel quite drained by it all. I’m a lot more mindful these days about how much energy that takes from me. It’s not something I’m mentally equipped to do all the time, which I why I feel like running away a lot of the time.”

Towards the end of 2019, Tyler moved to Cambodia with the aim of beginning a new life, but the trip was cut short by the spread of Covid-19 and he returned to Brighton last spring where he focused on editing the book.

He hasn’t given up drinking but has “quit hangovers” and is training for the Brighton Marathon in September, “just so I’ve got something to work towards to help stay balanced and happy”.

“I feel like I need running now and it made the lockdown situation a lot more bearable,” notes Tyler, who hopes to embark on another epic adventure when restrictions allow.

“I’m really fascinated by Scandinavia – not only the physical aspect of it but the dichotomy of somewhere with such high suicide rates and substance abuse issues that’s also listed as having some of the happiest nations in the world. It’d be really cool to explore the mental health there, rather than explore myself this time.”

A Walk from the Wild Edge by Jake Tyler is out now (Michael Joseph)

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