Amongst all the chaos that life throws: How Sybella Davis reclaimed her life over her chronic illness
At Ryderwear, our philosophy is that the gym should be a space where everyone belongs. We believe in living your best life through fitness no matter your size, gender, body shape, physical ability, identity or sexuality.
Our ‘Lifting is for Everyone’ series showcases the voices of those who show up, work hard and lift heavy - just like anyone else. Still, society places them in a box because they don’t necessarily fit the typical stereotype of a lifter. But that’s where we come in. We’re here to smash that stigma just like that new PB you hit last week and shine a light on the people doing incredible things and defying all odds.
We teamed up with the incredible and #chronicallyfitwarrior Sybella Davis. Sybella was only recently diagnosed with the chronic illness of Lupus, a debilitating inflammatory disease where her immune system attacks its own tissues. Discover Sybella’s courageous story of how she reclaimed her authority over her illness and mental health in the fitness industry, while redefining herself as the strong woman she is.
RW: Can you tell us where your journey began?
SD: Firstly, I see life as a storybook, with many twists and turns, highs and lows. My purpose is to share my story to connect with others who may relate. So here it goes:
Growing up I experienced a lot of adversity through institutional racism, as well as surviving abuse at a young age. I channelled my internalised rage and trauma into the Arts and developed a thirst for performance. I was considered a triple threat: Singer, dancer, actress and I loved it!
In my early 20s life took a turn as I found myself homeless and I quickly developed a keen sense of hustle and drive. I moved from place to place trying to find my feet. I decided to leave the UK to explore the world as a solo traveller. I travelled through South America, South East Asia and New Zealand, where extreme activities like skydiving, paragliding and bungee jumping were normal activities for me. I felt strong and courageous, wild and free. I was addicted to the thrill of exploration and experiencing new cultures. I helped out in child orphanages and animal shelters where I could. Which brought new meaning to my life. I went on to settle in Melbourne, Australia and was happy performing in bars for a while.
RW: When did you notice things start to decline or change for you?
SD: After 7 years away, I returned to England due to a gradual decline in my mental and physical health. I stopped performing and completely closed myself off from the world. I found my love for fitness training during this time, which helped lift me out of my depression. Personal training is where I ended up because motivating people comes naturally to me.
RW: Can you tell us about your experience on the hit English reality series SAS Who Dares Win?
SD: It’s where four ex-Special Forces soldiers recreate the SAS's secret selection process and put 30 men and women through it, in the ultimate test of resilience. This show tested my physical, mental and spiritual fortitude to the core and pushed me to my limits. I left with an injury that then unearthed a very serious life-changing chronic illness: Lupus (SLE).
This caught the attention of Joe Wicks, The UKs most influential Celebrity Fitness Coach. Joe Wicks shortlisted me out of 5 thousand applicants as one of his Top 30 personal trainers, in his nationwide search for a PT. I wasn’t selected in the end but that experience post diagnosis really allowed me to regain autonomy of myself in the fitness industry with such a debilitating disease. I felt seen, heard and accepted.
I’m now reclaiming my authority as a black woman, healing my chronic illness, working as a Health and Fitness Coach all while plotting my next moves in life.
RW: Are you able to you share some insight into your autoimmune disease?
SD: I have Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. It sounds like a magic trick, but alas it’s no fun at all. Lupus is a debilitating, degenerative condition where the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the body, from the heart, lungs, brain, eyes, skin rashes/ discoid lesions, hair loss, joint issues - practically everything. It also causes fatigue, photosensitivity and brain fog - see I told you, it’s no fun.
The only way I can describe how lupus affects me is to imagine having shards of glass in every joint, and then being whacked with a hammer! Yes, it's truly nasty and extremely painful. I have had to adapt and although I can't train like I used to, I am learning to redefine myself against all odds.
I was diagnosed with Lupus (SLE) days after my birthday in February 2020. From then on Lupus had really turned my life upside down. It was like my body had been taken over, I couldn’t move or think clearly and my hair started to fall out - I was in severe pain all over every day. I would often lie in bed and count backwards believing that once I hit one, I’d break the spell and be returned back to normal!
3-2-1…Nope, still crap. At my worst, I would slide down the stairs on my bum because I couldn’t bend my knees. And to get into bed I would gingerly cross my arms, brace myself and fall onto the mattress like a seal flopping into the ocean. I would scream and cry all the time not just from the pain but because I was so angry this was happening to me. It was like a living nightmare!
RW: What was it like dealing with Lupus during the global pandemic?
SD: The pandemic hit and my mental health suffered. I was alone 90% of the time with this debilitating condition, unable to chop food or wash my face. From enlarged fingers and wrists to a frozen shoulder that prevented me from raising my arm to do my hair. But I persevered with mild stretches in bed and I had a team of Rheumatologists who were very quick to treat me. I didn’t think it would be possible but 6 months in and I started showing signs of improvement.
RW: If you feel comfortable sharing, how has your chronic illness impacted your physical and mental health?
SD: Sixteen months on and every day with Lupus is different from the next. It is very hard to plan anything and it’s equally as hard to be spontaneous because my condition is constantly changing. Lupus is mostly an invisible illness so I often feel like the liability in a team or that perhaps people don’t believe my symptoms. Sometimes I need help walking, bathing, combing my hair and then other days I feel energised and I'm training/ teaching and making positive progress. Then like a hard slap in the face, I’m hit with fatigue and want to sleep for an eternity and all the horrible symptoms come back. It’s like the bipolar of chronic health conditions. I always worry about what people must think; “You don't look sick” or “You seemed fine yesterday” are remarks often laced with suspicion.
RW: What are some strategies you use to deal with Lupus?
SD: Lupus is a minefield. It has the power to be all-consuming and to bring me down but I choose not to let it. If there is one positive from having Lupus, it’s that it has taught me to be more thankful for what and who I have in my life. It’s taught me to slow down and seek a slower, more patient existence.
I have been welcomed into a larger community of people with chronic health issues and they have been so helpful and supportive. This has allowed me to be more compassionate towards myself.
This is who I am now, if I put energy into hating Lupus then I would be hating myself and that's not the mindset I wish to choose. My daily mantra is “Get the mind right and the rest will follow.” But it isn't all easy. I have my down days and I certainly would prefer to exist without Lupus but this is where I am right now and I can only keep moving forward.
RW: Our community has been inspired and motivated by the fitness content you’ve shared. What role has fitness and the gym played throughout your life? Do you have a specific outlook or approach to fitness?
SD: Although I was never into ‘intentional’ fitness training, I always led an active lifestyle. It was only when I was chin-deep in depression and anxiety that I knew I needed to do something. I was overwhelmed with sadness and truly unhappy. I didn’t want to do anything.
A counsellor once told me “FOLLOW THE PLAN, NOT THE MOOD”. I liked it, it was a quote I could gel with, not one of those “LIVE FOR THE DAY” memes that just seem to irritate me further. So I set myself a goal to try and make it to the gym. It quickly became my safe haven, nobody spoke to me if I kept my head down and this worked for me. Soon I decided to take another step; into the world of group exercise - this was like a light bulb moment. The group classes allowed me to be a part of something which was a distraction from my thoughts and feelings. I could be around people and choose whether to interact or not. I started to open up like parting clouds and I came often and started to make friends. I became so inspired by this metamorphosis. It's the reason I became a trainer myself.
Fitness and working out is something I do to let everything out. It’s where I feel most at ease, it’s my superpower.
My approach is to remind myself that I am doing it for me. This deep understanding never changes. The need to be a better functioning person, utilising my body to free my mind beats all of the outside noise; as well as the fitness trends and fads. It’s important to remind myself of the simplest reason which is to FEEL GOOD.
Training with Lupus does remain a challenge and I’m constantly in maintenance mode because when I put my body under too much stress I seem to have a flare-up in my joints and have to pair back my training. It's frustrating but so long as I remain mobile I hope I can remain in the fitness industry for good.
RW: How has fitness and lifting helped you overcome challenges in life that you’ve faced?
SD: Training is a time where I can be unapologetically self-involved. I can discover hidden strengths and work on maintaining stillness in my mind. In short, it’s a time to cultivate the power within. I truly believe that in modern-day living, this is the only time we humans get to tap into our primal selves. Especially when we remove the ego, which is a massive part of modern life now.
Exercising can really be a time to practice conscious meditation. This is a winning combination for me when I manage anxiety, which is still a fleeting visitor in my life. And, is especially helpful in aiding my physical recovery from the effects of my chronic health condition.
“I check in to check out” - Having a bad day? Go lift some weights. Experiencing limitations? Stretch and mobilize. Inside my head? Go for a walk. Don’t want to do anything? Meditate. There's something for every scenario!
RW: You seem to have upheld a really positive, powerful outlook through adversity. How have you managed to do this?
SD: To me a positive outlook is survival; do I want to live or die? It sounds dramatic but it’s because I know depression, and for me, it's like being a zombie; dead inside and barely functioning. I don’t want to go back to that. So sharing my experiences is cathartic to me. It’s my therapy… Talking isn't for everyone but finding a way to positively express oneself is a key component to the healing processes of stress and trauma. I have a need to help others by sharing my lived experiences, for me it allows me to connect better and to live within my purpose. For every one person who reads an experience of mine, or an outlook that makes them feel less alone is a win for me every time. Like breathing in oxygen it's essential to my existence.
It’s important for me to assess and digest what's occurring for me in my life. How I choose to tackle each obstacle is just another chapter in my book - literally and figuratively. An autobiographical book is definitely in the pipeline.
RW: Do you have any words of motivation or encouragement for those reading this who might be experiencing adversity right now?
SD: Most would agree that butterflies are beautiful. But what if the process of emerging from a chrysalis was in fact agonising for that butterfly? It’s quite a dark analogy but It’s one I think of often.
What I'm trying to say is that I think it is important for people to understand growth emanates from all life situations - even the painful ones. Amongst all of the chaos that life throws at us, there is room to emerge more spectacular than ever. Like a butterfly or a phoenix. So I encourage those to dig deep and take ownership of themselves and their situations.
Here are a few things I like to check off to keep me focused.
Focus on yourself and where you are at that moment. It's so easy to only see the end goal but the end goal may seem so far. At times we miss the small wins because we are looking for the big ones. But the big ones only happen by consistent little ones.
You come first. Fill your cup and the overspill is for everyone else, you can't work from an empty cup. I heard this and my initial thought was, “isn't that a display of selfishness?” Nope, more like exercising self-preservation. Plus those who rely on you, who truly care about you, need you to be on form so you can really and truly be there for them as well.
Spring cleaning is not just for spring! And by this I mean removing all, or some, of the people and images in your life that trigger negative and limiting thought patterns. You may have unsupportive people around you or you may follow people online that subconsciously make you feel bad about yourself even if you actually ‘like’ them.
Do a little bit of what puts you into a state of calm/stillness each day. Maybe that's a bit of meditation and or stretching. These practices may not need to be lengthy and may not need to be obvious. Such as wrist stretches because you are always on a computer.
Only consume content that genuinely uplifts you and it's ok if sometimes it doesn’t.
Take breaks. Reduce your screen time, go for walks, read a book, improve better sleep hygiene, switch off your notifications, put your device on silent or turn it off completely for a few minutes, hours or the entire day! That in itself makes people panic and there lies a problem in itself.
“It’s ok, not to be ok”, experience it but just don’t park it there too long. Start the engine and slowly move on.
Find a supportive community. This was a lifeline for me after my diagnosis. I thought I was going to die, but after joining a Lupus group on Facebook I could read the forums, and jump in and share my experiences and ask questions. It was incredibly helpful and completely reassuring.
Devise a self-care ritual. Bath, essential oils, self-massage, something that allows you to treat yourself, for yourself, by yourself.
“You’ve survived 100% of your worst days, this too shall pass.” This is a rewording of a famous Norm Kelly quote, the reason for rewording it is because the original quote reads: “So far, you’ve survived 100% of your worst days, YOU’RE DOING GREAT”. For me I don’t always want to be told things are great, it trivialises my experiences because sometimes it's truly the stuff that comes out of a dogs rectum! Need I say anymore on that one. So to switch that out and be told that the moment will pass. This 100% of the time gives me a sense of calm and I prefer that. Times can be hard and a total bitch, these truths will never change, but how we respond is always the decider. Experience the hurt and sadness but try to push away from the docks and set voyage on a new perception as soon as you can.
RW: What does it mean to be a #chronicallyfitwarrior?
SD: Being a #chronicallyfitwarrior is for everyone but especially those who have a Long Term Condition (LTC) and are activating their superpowers through activity. Fitness isn’t limited to the gym environment. To some people just getting out of bed is a challenge, so even trying a few simple movements in bed is a huge achievement. To those people I applaud, they are just as much a #chronicallyfitwarrior as anyone else.
RW: Are there any other causes you’d like to talk about or messages you’d like to share with the Ryderwear community?
SD: I am an avid advocate of mental health awareness. Mental health is an epidemic I’ve seen in myself and close ones. It’s like a toxic fume that cannot be seen but we all experience the effects of it at some stage in our lives. Nobody is exempt. I like to promote charities like Headspace Australia and Headspace UK that support mental health awareness and provide a safe talking space and referral scheme for those who are struggling. It is important to watch for signs in others who we believe may be vulnerable and always do our best for ourselves to ensure we are allowing our minds to breathe toxin-free.
The world is a noisy place full of fast content and the need to perform like a little dancing monkey on a conveyor belt to nowhere. It's scary and tragic, but thankfully it's not all hopeless. There is an awareness beyond this madness, that sets us free, wakes us up from the spell of feeling ‘less than’ and it starts with talking and sharing and that's the reason “I do what I do, the way I do it.”
RW: What can the health and fitness industry do to be more inclusive and represent a more diverse range of people?
SD: Here’s where I take a big gulp of air and exhale with these home truths: Health and fitness is essential for anyone especially those managing underlying health conditions. There simply needs to be more education around the training of instructors on how to train those with long term health conditions including mental health and physical disabilities. The public need to see a fair representation in fitness professionals and build adaptations of the gym environment and online technologies, with access to classes online and in-person which fit their needs. With the increase of long term health conditions and mental health in the world post-pandemic, we should adapt with the demographic and create a space welcome for all.
The fitness industry needs to be more cognizant of those seen as the “other”. There needs to be more conversations and uplifting of people from all spectrums. Fairer opportunities in large corporations and social media platforms. Having lived experience of struggling with my own mental and physical health, sexuality and physicality, race, colour and gender; I’ve seen and felt how society can outcast groups so easily. The only way to eradicate this is by spotlighting non-traditional conformist ideas of what and who is beautiful and deemed acceptable.
RW: Do you have any favourite Ryderwear pieces or collections?
SD: To be honest I like all of the pieces with a scrunch bum! It’s so flattering and doesn’t look odd at all!
BASE RACER BACK SPORTS BRA
STAPLES SCRUNCH BUM BIKE SHORTS
INSTINCT SCRUNCH BUM LEGGINGS