Forgotten River podcast: Meet farmer Brendan Cullen, who is preparing for an English Channel swim by training in the outback

Brendan Cullen is training to swim the English Channel in one of the unlikeliest places on earth, the outback of far-western NSW.

It's not just a demanding physical challenge for the sports mad station manager. It also keeps at rest the inner demons that in 2016 saw him diagnosed with depression.

It all started when he watched his brother take part in the Bondi to Bronte ocean swim in Sydney.

"I watched them do it and I was in awe. I thought, that's it, I've got to join a swimming club in Broken Hill."

He turned up on the first day thinking the club members would all be adults only to discover most were children. He was convinced to jump in demonstrate his style.

"I thought I could swim alright but they said, 'Mate, we've got a lot of work to do with you'. I got put back in my box pretty quick."

We're in Outback NSW as part of journey to listen to the people living along the banks of the Darling River for a four-part podcast special called Forgotten River.

Listen to the full story on our podcast.

Brendan and Jacinta Cullin with their dog at their homestead in Kars Station, NSW. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Brendan and Jacinta Cullin with their dog at their homestead in Kars Station, NSW. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

His style improved and he took to ocean swimming on visits to Sydney and to Brighton in Victoria. In the change room at Brighton, he found a brochure calling for people to qualify for the Channel swim.

"I looked at it and thought that's interesting, a two-hour swim, a six-hour and an eight-hour. I wondered what swimming in the cold water would be like for a couple of hours."

He got in touch with Mike 'The Tractor' Gregory, a Melbourne-based open water swimming legend and veteran of four channel swims, who encouraged him to give it a go.

"I managed to clock up the two hours and to the core, I was cold - proper cold." The Tractor talked him into swimming another half hour, after which he had to be helped to the steam room at Brighton Baths.

Brendan started to swim distances in the 50-metre pool in Broken Hill. Soon. five kilometres wasn't enough for him, then seven kilometres was no longer satisfying.

Then the distances became 10km. He called Mike and asked if was possible for him to become a long-distance coach. In turn, Mike suggested Brendan attempt the Channel swim.

Brendan trains in the lake for his English Channel swim. Picture: Supplied

Brendan trains in the lake for his English Channel swim. Picture: Supplied

"I brushed it off at first then thought, well why not give it a go? There's nothing to lose."

That was two and a half years ago.

Swimming in the lake system is an important part of the training regime, Brendan says, because he needs to normalise cold water experiences. He averages between 13 and 15km a week.

As he gets closer to the Channel attempt - in July 2022, COVID permitting - he thinks he'll be averaging 30km a week.

When he's on those long swims, he says, his mind wanders away from the day-to-day concerns, endorphins are released and it's a tonic for his mental health.

"it's wonderful to see those lakes filling now. It's so important for my training. I would be lost without them."

Sitting around the dining room table at Kars Station near Menindee, it's hard to imagine the darkness which once overshadowed Brendan Cullen. His wife Jacinta flicks a rubber band at him.

He bellows with laughter. The mood is happy, playful and loving.

It was not always that way.

At the last property he managed, he found himself burnt out, exhausted from all the work involved in getting a sheep station through a drought. It was 2009. A couple of good seasons followed but Brendan found himself in a rut.

"I was cooked. A lot of it was self-imposed, just working nonstop, drinking too much grog and there was some other stuff attached," he explains.

That "other stuff" involved having to walk off the family property, a place he'd yearned to get back to since being sent away to boarding school as a six-year-old.

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"At the time I didn't realise I was struggling. I just built up what I thought was a form of resilience to what was going on in my head but ultimately I was exploding inside."

It was only when he attended a Royal Flying Doctor Service life-coaching seminar he realised something was wrong. That he needed help.

"Over that two-day period that I realised I ticked a lot of those boxes."

One of those boxes was anxiety. Brendan says his heart was beating so fast he feared he was having a heart attack. He decided he needed to reach out and get help. But that wasn't easy

"There's a lot of places out there where you can search for help but when you actually go looking for it you can't find it. So I just figured the best for me was to walk into the Broken Hill Base Hospital. So I walked up the steps, opened the door and said, Can I see a doctor, I'm struggling.'"

Jacinta and Brendan Cullen at Kars Station near Menindee. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Jacinta and Brendan Cullen at Kars Station near Menindee. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Seen by two psychologists, he was diagnosed with depression.

That diagnosis, in 2016, and the medication prescribed to treat it, were the tickets to begin recovery.

"From that point on I started to feel better because I was able to release whatever was burning inside me. Release it, get rid of it and start making myself better.

"It was like someone pressed a pressure release valve and I was able to breathe again."

Recognising in hindsight the symptoms of depression comes easily but it was not so when Brendan was in the midst of it.

At the time he thought little of the internal voices which had begun arguing out loud when he was alone.

"I was basically arguing with myself all the time, behind closed doors. And even at that point I didn't think there was much wrong with that. But ultimately I'd be grabbing stuff from the past and dragging it into the future and carting it around with me."

Kars Station near Menindee in Far Western NSW. Picture: John Hanscombe

Kars Station near Menindee in Far Western NSW. Picture: John Hanscombe

The clinical diagnosis gave him the permission he needed to make changes in his life, among them forgoing drinks with mates.

"Being diagnosed with depression gave me the tick of approval to be able to say, 'I can't do that, mate, I'm not doing that.'"

Having come out the other side of the ordeal, Brendan now uses his experience overcoming mental health problems to help others.

He is one of four "champions" in the Royal Flying Doctor Service's We've Got Your Back peer support program, designed to help people in the Far West recognise and act on their mental health issues before they spiral out of control. He was also made an ambassador for Lifeline.

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"Self-assessment is really difficult. We all cart these egos around with us, that bravado - 'I don't want to have a chat with this person, I'm fine'. You need to get that and throw it out the door and completely expose yourself to to how you're feeling. Easier said than done."

The first step, he says, is to try to get people to open up in a one-on-one chat. Brendan's warm and easy manner no doubt helps. It's hard not to feel completely at ease in his company.

"In most cases if I'm talking to someone one on one they will expose their vulnerabilities and they feel a million dollars better for it."

"Beyond that I try to create a link, a handful of people around them that can care for them and look after them so they can express themselves not only to one person but to five, which works really well.

"But there's plenty out there who don't look for help so certainly for me recognising people who are doing it tough, whether it be men or women, I can see a lot of that in those people. It's important to have the courage to ask those individuals if they are travelling OK."

Brendan says the state of the Darling River and the nearby Menindee Lakes has a clear effect on the mental health of the community. When the system is down, he says, the mood goes down with it. And when it's up, the mood lifts.

"Water is everything."

Listen to the full story on our podcast. Search Forgotten River on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred app. You can also click here, or use the web player in this article.

This story The Aussie farmer training in the outback for English Channel swim first appeared on The Canberra Times.