Original Danish version by Tommy Byrne
Stig Pryds lost his health, his wife and his job. He was disabled and hobbled the streets of Nyborg using canes. He was a medicine junkie. He had hit rock bottom but he had seen nothing yet. Today, he is one of the world’s best freedivers and has reached a depth of 100 meters without oxygen. Read the story about Stig’s battle against his illness, the morphine and his own frozen attitude.
Stig has already started sharing his story before reaching out his hand to greet me. The force of his handshake informs me of the strength it requires to become one of the world’s best freedivers.
His curled thumb with the bone showing tells a story of an illness that ruined everything for him.
And the tatooed weddingband on his right ring finger bears witness to the way in which a chronic disease will destroy selfworth and love. The name on the ring has been crossed out with doodles like when a child crosses out an unsuccessful drawing.
In order to understand the incredible upheavals of Stig’s life, we must go back to a time when nothing was like it is now.
It is the summer of 2008 and Stig Pryds is driving the comfortable Citröen Xantia family car towards Denmark after an incredible summer vacation in Italy.
The girls are in the back seat with dvd players and walkie talkies so they can chat with the kids in the other car who have spent their vacation with their parents and Stig’s family at a great resort in Venice. They have enjoyed every minute by the swimming pool and in the sun.
Stig Pryds cannot remember when he was last on a real vacation. He has been slaving and working relentlessly. He has been building his company, expanding the business and finally building a combined home and work space in Nyborg.
Stig is proud of what he has achieved. He is proud of his business that sells and installs wood stoves. He is proud of his wife whom he has known since his young and crazy years bartending the night life of Nyborg. He is proud of their home and their things, and naturally he is proud of their girls, Alberte and Karen that are relaxing in the back seat as they are leaving Italy behind.
Now, they just want to go home. When Stig’s left knee begins to hurt, he is certain that the pain is a result of the long drive that he is making on his own so his wife can take a much needed nap.
”Actually, it was not until we got home and I was able to take off my pants that I realized how extremely swollen my knee was. It looked odd because it was not like I had hit my knee on something,” says Stig Pryds.
However, he needs to go back to work. A few days later the other knee starts causing trouble as well.
The Enemy’s Name …
Things are beginning to move fast. The doctor acknowledges that something is very wrong. A scan shows that there are grave damages to the meniscus in both knees.
”It is not like I was a soccer player or the like, so it just did not make sense to me,” says Stig Pryds.
The surgery goes according to plan. However, it does not really solve the problem.
“That is when my hands started acting up and I kept dropping things. My elbows hurt horribly and my jaws would start swelling as soon as I chewed on something. At the same times my knees kept getting worse. It felt like two pistons banging against the bones in both my knees,” he says.
Stig suspects that the surgery went wrong somehow, but it is much worse than that. Blood tests show an extremely high bacteria count. In most people the count is five to six and double if you have the flu. Stig has a constant bacteria count of 18-20.
Many tests and examinations later the monster can be named.
Psoriatic arthritis it is called.
This is a chronic condition where inflammation may attack both the joints and the spine and cause extreme pain.
Knowing the enemy’s name is no consolation. Stig already knows the character of psoriatic anthritis. His aunt suffers from the condition and Stig has seen how her hands and toes have been curling up as a result. Also, her way of walking has become increasingly difficult.
”It was horrible news. The illness did not at all match the kind of person I was. I simply could not fathom it all,” Stig Pryds explains.
A Toiler with a Walker
His letdown and physical decline go so fast that it is hard to keep up. It has only been three months since he left Italy in the car towards Denmark. Now he is using canes and a walker to get around.
”I could do practically nothing. I just sat in my chair.”
It is the worst imaginable situation for a restless man who moved out of his family home at 15-years-old and has worked hard ever since at a machine shop, as a waiter, chimney sweeper and finally creating his own business, S.P. Service.
Now, he has transformed into someone who is admitted to the Rheumatology Department with all the other patients who struggle with rheumatic conditions when things get too bad to handle at home.
Also, the stack of pills he goes through every day is growing. First of all there is the rheumatic drug, Methotrexat which is a mild kind of chemo. It makes Stig nauseous and brings him great discomfort five days a week. Then, there is the morphine and the morphine-like drugs that are supposed to keep his pain at a minimum. However, all the time it takes more and he becomes addicted to it. Also, methadone is part of the daily stack of pills along with other painkillers.
“It was insane. Those things are for addicts and I am not an addict, I kept thinking”.
Very soon, Stig Pryds will have to realize that he is much more of an addict than he thinks.
Not a Real Man
At this point, however, his biggest concern is to keep the swelling and the pain as much at bay as possible, so he can hold on to what is his. It is difficult for him to tend to his business.
”I could no longer visit customers and install their wood stoves. I had to outsource my jobs. I did however, try to manage the store but I could hardly stand up talking to the customers. Instead, we put a large armchair in the store where I could sit,” Stig Pryds says.
The financial crisis is not making things easier and after a year, he is forced to give up. He pays whatever debts he has and shuts down his business.
”I should have done that from the start. We lost a fortune trying to hold on for so long”, he says.
What he built is gone. All that is left is a man he does not really care for.
“I was increasingly isolating myself and I felt sorry for myself. It must have been pretty awful for my wife to look at me sort of dissolving in front of her eyes. I could do nothing with the girls, all intimacy with my wife was lost and all in all nothing seemed to work,” Stig Pryds explains.
Their relationship was as challenged as can be. In the aftermath of things, Stig does not want to get into who did and said what. Today, he understands perfectly well why things went as they did;
“I could not stand my own company and could not expect others to feel differently. I pushed her and the children away from me. In fact, I was only hoping that someone else would come and take my place. I used to hope that she would find a new husband who could be a real man in their lives.”
Alone and on His Way
Consequently, Stig moves out the house. First, he moves into a weekend cottage and later a little terrace house, formerly owned by an elderly woman.
”It was almost like a house built for a disabled person with banisters and handles everywhere, so it was well suited for me,” he says.
It feels awful and very wrong to move away from his family. And absolutely necessary.
”Noone expected anything from me anymore. It was quite a relief not having to live up to anyone’s expectations any longer,” he says.
During this time, Stig starts seeing a psychologist in order to cope with his new life situation. It does not really change anything in him.
”So, when the psychologist asked if she could hypnotize me, I just said, ‘Good luck with that!’ I did not give a damn about that kind of therapy.”
However, the psychologist succeeds in putting Stig in a kind of trance where he is supposed to act the role of a small man touring inside his own body and describing what he sees.
”It was a dark, black place. There were large cogwheels that were trying to turn but their teeth were broken. It was pretty awful and she later concluded that I despised my own body from the neck down. And she was right,” he says.
The psychologist asks him if he is willing to try whatever it takes to turn his situation around.
”I was willing to walk in the yard and sound like a chicken if she thought that would make a difference,” he says.
The psychologist does not have sounding like a chicken in mind, though, but rather tantric massage. Very soon, Stig finds himself in front of a house where he is greeted by a woman his own age. He tells her how he basically hates everything about himself and she asks him to shower and enter a warm room with dimmed lights, Bordeaux-red walls and meditative music. Stig places himself on the couch wearing only a towel around his waist as instructed.
”She entered the room wearing panties only. I had not been intimate with a woman for nearly two years so everything sort of came to life,” says Stig Pryds.
What is about to happen now is pretty intimate but has nothing to do with genitals or sex;
”I placed myself on my stomach and she started the tantric massage. She used her entire body to provide the massage. Her hands, her feet and her belly. It took almost two hours and afterwards – for the first time in four years – I felt comfortable in my own skin. I just wanted to stay there forever. I started to believe that maybe I could have a good life despite all the crap with my body,” Stig explains.
Anja and the Hot Water
The next important step is named Anja. She turns up a couple of weeks later in Nyborg Swimpark where Stig comes to relieve the pain in the hot water pool.
“We started talking and we talked really well together. And for a long time. I did not at all understand how a girl like Anja could be remotely interested in a semi-crippled person like me. Perhaps I exuded something else after the tantric massage,” Stig says.
They start dating and Anja, the veterinarian nurse, knows things about drugs.
“She opened my eyes to the kind of drugs I was taking and what they were doing to me. The drugs were only able to diminish my symptoms but they did not heal any diseases. We started talking about the possibility of going in another direction,” says Stig Pryds.
At the same time he has taken up diving a bit at the swimpark.
He does not have the strength to hold a fishing rod like he used to but he has bought a wetsuit from an acquaintance who has suggested he tries underwater hunting with a harpoon. Stig starts practicing his ability to hold his breath under the water.
He has also been talking to a dad of one his daughter’s friends. He teaches yoga and teaches Stig meditation and how to breathe correctly.
“That whole meditation thing sounded a little strange. But he said that I would be able to hold my breath longer which was essential if I were to hunt under the water,” says Stig Pryds.
Things begin to make sense. Stig is still in pain and has sleepness nights but he has also found out that water, warmth and breathing exercises are good for him.
“I started spending a lot of time in my bathtub in the basement to do breathing exercises using an app. When the water got too cold, I refilled the tub with hot water. I would just lay there with my earphones and do breathing exercises. After a while I could slip into a meditative mode, the tiles on the wall started melting together and everything just felt so nice,” he says.
This new discovery and his falling in love with Anja make Stig feel high. He starts to think differently. He decides to quit the drugs and go all in on the new diet which he and Anja are already practicing.
“When I told the doctor that I wanted to quit both the morphine, the methadone and the rheumatic drugs, he advised me to gradually reduce the intake over a period of three months. He strongly advised me against doing it faster than that when I asked him if I could go cold turkey like some drug addicts have done.”
However, Stig Pryds cannot wait and he has reached a place where he believes more in himself than in any doctor.
Cold Turkey in Langeland
There is no Christmas cake, glögg or Christmas dinner in the car when Stig and Anja head toward the property in Langeland in December 2012. They are headed towards the worst Christmas ever. And the best.
The car is loaded with cabbage, carrots and other vegetables. At this point Stig takes six methadone pills a day but the three paltry pills he has brought with him in case of an emergency will need to last for an entire month. On the other hand, he has taken with him a huge load of pot.
“Anja had studied everything to do with diet and cleansing and I had talked to someone who knew how to make it through a cold turkey. I had an acquaintance who knew an addict and he told me in detail what was going to happen during the process. He suggested pot as the best alleviation,” says Stig Pryds.
Day one without the medication goes well but after that the body starts to scream for drugs.
”It came like a bat out of hell. The pain kept getting worse and I started itching all over. On the inside too. I was going crazy. I would cry, laugh and cry again. Mostly, I cried. The emotional oscilliation was extreme and I didn’t sleep. I just smoked all the pot I possibly could. Anja kept filling me with vegetable juice that she would make from cabbage and all sorts of things. It tasted horrible.”
Stig does not sleep at all for ten days. Besides pot, he can only find relief in the hot water of the bath tub, try to hold his breath and do breathing exercises.
“After the first ten days, I was able to sleep a little in between but only three to four hours tops at a time. I was very cold for a long period of time and my stomach was beaten. It took several months for me to reach a normal sleeping pattern where I would sleep at night and be awake during the day.”
Although Stig is suffering, the side effects of the medication start to wear off. He continues to eat and drink his vegetables, tends to his meditation exercises in the tub and after a couple of weeks he can feel that something good is happening to him.
“The vegetables really affected me the same way the medication would when it worked best. My bloodwork wore evidence of that as my bacteria count was improving. That really encouraged me to stay on that green path,” Stig says.
By the middle of January 2013, he kicks his canes to the curb because he is determined to learn how to walk again. Slowly but correctly.
Beneath the Surface
Walking is not required in order to do good under the water. By the end of January 2013, the detoxicated Stig Pryds signs up for the Aqua Club Odense diving club. He learns new techniques to hold his breath longer. Two months later, he participates in the National Championships. He wins fifth place.
It is about this time he starts attending yoga school in Nyborg with a bunch of elderly ladies. He is still pushing on with his new veggie diet. These are all things that the old Stig who drove home from Italy in 2008 would have laughed at. That was the man who grew up in a family where carrots were considered rabbit food. His granddad was a butcher and you were sure to die from malnutrition if you did not eat meat.
“Back then, it was all about being Mr. Cool who could do anything and make a good buck. Everything had to look good,” he says.
It is all about keeping your head cool and being able to relax when it hurts. Stig Pryds has had to learn this the hard way in order to be able to live with his illness.
“I do not have bigger lungs than other people and I am not a natural. However, the pain in my joints have taught me that the more pain there is, the more I need to relax. If you keep tightening your muscles in pain, it gets worse. The same principle applies to freediving. The more the body screams for oxygen, the more you need to relax. It’s a bit challenging in the beginning, when the blood runs from your arms and legs and your hands fall asleep,” says Stig Pryds.
He has already proven that he can hold his breath for long time but now he wants to dive deep! Let go into the deep, dark blue which he has seen in the French movie classic, “The Big Blue”. Two months after he took fifth place at the Danish National Championships, he is on a plane to Egypt to get a freediving certificate down to 30 meters.
The water is nice and warm and from the surface it is only 100 meters to the bottom of a hole in the seabed. Stig, who is a rookie, has been instructed how to equalize the pressure when he has reached a couple of meters. Normally, a new diver will make it to a depth of 10 – 15 meters the first couple of times. Stig’s experienced Kiwi instructor has told him that as long as he equalizes the pressure, it cannot go wrong. Stig starts to pull himself down a line which disappears into the darkness underneath the boat. He is attached to the line, so he can pull himself up in a hurry.
“Suddenly, I realized I became weightless. I did not need to pull myself down so I just let myself fall. It was absolutely awesome and insane to feel the pressure building up while I simply kept falling through the water. It was the greatest shit I had ever tried,” Stig Pryds says.
He is suddenly stopped by a kind of locking device and has to return to the surface along the line. At the surface waits a shocked Kiwi!
”What the hell were you thinking, he said, when he saw that I had made it to 40 meters during my first dive. He was a bit shaken but at the same time he acknowledged that I had potential,” says Stig Pryds.
Pure Bliss at the Bottom
Stig Pryds is almost high on joy because of what he has just experienced. When he reaches approximately 10 meters, the pressure on his entire body doubles compared to when he is above the water. The pressure comprises the air of his wetsuit, his lungs and all other bodily spaces, so he becomes heavier and automatically falls towards the bottom of the sea.
During those two weeks in Egypt, Stig Pryds earns the four star freediving certificate down to 40 meter on top of the 30 meters, he came to achieve. But that is not all.
“I fell completely in love with it and I made it to 60 meters before I had to get on that plane back home,” he says.
Just a few weeks later, he returns to Egypt where he sets his first Danish record at the National Championships in the discipline Deep Apnea. He makes it to 68 meters without fins.
“I did get a little attention because people had heard rumors of a crazy Dane who had made it to 60 meters after having dived for two weeks,” Stig Pryds says.
Since then, the crazy Dane has only improved his ability to reach new goals beneath the surface. As a man, he has something to feel proud of. However, that is not what matters most. No, what matters even more are his two daughters, Alberte and Karen – which his left forearm bears witness to with portraits of both of them tattooed into his skin.
”I have realized that it does not mean a damn thing whether I have money and can give them all sorts of things. That is what I thought mattered when all I wanted was for someone else to take my place. However, they just want to spend time with their dad and I want to spend time with them,” he says.
It is difficult to make enough money freediving, underwater hunting and giving talks and presentations. But that does not mean very much to the new Stig Pryds;
“I have regained a great love for life and I am deeply grateful. Now, we live in Langeland and we have started growing our own vegetables. Okay, so most of them get eaten by snails but don’t you think we’ll manage somehow anyway?”