Motivational speaker Mike Shoreman was living his dream as a paddleboard instructor when he was diagnosed with a life-changing condition that forced him to have to ‘retrain’ his brain.
Mike, who lives in Toronto, Canada, became hooked on paddleboarding around 12 years ago, when the sport really began to boom in the country. After first taking it up as a hobby, he was on holiday in India when he had a ‘lightbulb moment’ and realised he wanted to turn his passion into a business.
The 37-year-old described his desire to have students who would ‘shine bright and light up the water’ in the same way he saw candles placed in lotus flowers on the Ganges River during his trip, so he became certified as an Advanced Level Flatwater Instructor to pursue his vision.
The instructor taught for several years on the water in front of the Toronto skyline, where he watched people’s confidence with paddleboarding grow from ‘sometimes nothing to becoming fully confident and sure of themselves’. Mike would spend as many as 12-14 hours a day teaching his students, helping ‘build an experience that was special for them’.
In October 2018, Mike went to California to set up a business partnership that would have seen him doing retreats and workshops in LA. Shortly after his trip he began experiencing intense, ‘excruciating’ ear pain which progressed to nausea and dizziness.
He visited a walk-in clinic and three emergency rooms over five days in an effort to get to the bottom of the pain, but once he told doctors that he’d recently travelled they failed to run proper tests.
Several days later, Mike woke up feeling like he’d had a ‘big night out’. He couldn’t walk well and felt like a ‘stranger’ in his body. His mum guided him to the mirror where he saw the right side of his face had collapsed, making him appear as if he had suffered a stroke.
He underwent tests two days later and was diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome – a reactivation of the chicken pox virus.
Recalling the moment he learned of his diagnosis, Mike told UNILAD:
While sitting down, unable to walk, I was asked what I did for work and I said I was a professional paddleboarding coach. The response was an overwhelming ‘Oh boy’.
[At first] it didn’t sink in. I was exhausted. They say the pain is worse than when both your knee caps are shattered. I was just wanting the pain to stop… I broke down when we left that appointment, defeated. I was a mess! I said: ‘How am I ever going to have a normal life again?’
It was really hard emotionally when the realisation hit me that what I had built was gone. I thought my life was not worth living with being a burden to others and not recognising myself physically in the mirror emotionally and mentally. I felt like I looked like a monster. I felt broken down and like I had nothing left.
Mike recalled how his life changed ‘overnight’ as he went from an ‘athletic, vibrant guy’ to ‘not being able to walk from the living room to the kitchen’.
He experienced vertigo and constant dizziness, which would often make him sick, and relied on both a cane and someone to support him while moving around.
With the help of his family, Mike booked in to a physiotherapy clinic specialising in vestibular rehab therapy, where he went through walking activities and practised moving his head from side to side; an action which can make people with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome extremely dizzy.
His therapist proved kind and understanding when Mike didn’t want to show anyone his face, and though his progress was extremely slow, the sessions allowed him to interact with people and helped him feel good about what he achieved.
The 37-year-old admitted that it was sometimes hard to stay motivated when his progress was so slow, noting that it’s easier to stay focussed when you see development no matter what the goal. To help him stay on track, he joined a support group with other people with his condition on social media, allowing him to recognise the progress other people were making and reassure himself that it could happen for him, too.
In May 2019, shortly after he stopped relying on a cane to walk, Mike tried getting back out on his paddleboard. Just three weeks earlier he had been told the sport, as well as going on planes and long car trips, were a thing of the past for him as they would make him feel sick; however, he was determined to persevere.
During his first attempt, Mike was able to sit for three minutes on the board. With a friend on hand to help, Mike said the experience gave him the confidence to try again, and the following occasion he was able to sit for five minutes.
Though he pushed himself to recover, Mike admitted the most challenging part of moving on was the fact that he didn’t know what he would move on to.
I didn’t have a paved road in front of me to walk down and I wasn’t in a place physically, mentally to build my own road yet. The mental part of this was extremely trying.
At times I didn’t want to go on, I isolated myself from friends and family not wanting to be seen and I felt like I wasn’t me anymore – an identity crisis. It took a lot of mental health treatment to process the grief, anger, rage I held. I was so angry.
Eventually over time that anger turned to sadness, which I felt was easier to manage. But dealing with our emotions and what we are feeling is something I wasn’t used to and definitely something I didn’t embrace for a long time.
A few months after returning to his paddleboard, one of Mike’s friends suggested he tell his story at North America’s largest inspirational speaking competition, Speaker Slam. After giving a speech on power and confidence, titled ‘I Said Yes’, Mike ended up winning the event, sparking his new career as a motivational speaker and author.
His speech quickly went viral, being shared on huge platforms and racking up millions of views. Mike received a wealth of support from fellow paddleboarders, with images showing people holding their paddles up in salute of Mike, his inspirational speech and other people out there who are facing struggles.
These images became known as the ‘Paddles Up Movement’ and spread across 36 countries including the USA, the UK, Italy, Norway and Australia, in what Mike described as ‘one of the most amazing things I have ever seen’.
Mike, who now goes by The Unbalanced Paddleboarder online, went on to be named the International Stand Up Paddleboarding Man of the Year and the People’s Choice Paddleboarder of the Year, as well as writing a book titled Diaries of the Unbalanced Paddleboarder: Crash and Rise which is out now.
Mike now sees his diagnosis as an ‘awful thing that happened for him’, rather than to him, explaining:
It took a long time to get there. I feel grateful that I have been given a second chance in many ways but the truth is that every day is a new day and every day we can decide to start something new and have a new beginning.
I think fear is never a good place to live in for anyone. What I have come to learn the last few years is that our struggles aren’t meant to break us. Life might look a little different when we are knocked off our boards and come back to the surface but our challenges and obstacles that we have to overcome make us stronger.
Though Mike’s experience is unique to him, he noted that this past year has been ‘one of the most challenging years on record for everyone’ due to the coronavirus outbreak. Having experienced ‘isolation, the loss of [his] career and mental health anguish’ following his diagnosis, he can relate to many of the struggles being faced today by people across the globe.
Mike stressed the importance of being ‘kind to yourself’ when faced with challenges that seem insurmountable, and advised switching ‘expectations with hope’.
When we take expectations out of the equation we are not setting ourselves up for disappointment. Set and make realistic goals and work towards achieving them and when we don’t meet them, give it another go until you do.
When we come from a place of gratitude and are thankful for what we do have – we are surprised at what life brings us. As I say in the book, ‘Get back on your board and finish the race – finish YOUR race.’
Mike stressed that overcoming challenges, no matter how big or small, can help create a ‘mental toughness’. With that in mind, being able to push on towards goals, even if it takes ‘blind faith’, is always worth doing.
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