On Being “All In”

By Ana Wardley


My two favourite party games provide a clue to the intensity with which I live my life. Firstly, Egg Roulette, where players take it in turns to pick an egg to smash on their foreheads where all but one is hard-boiled. Secondly, Yoghurt Risk, where players take out a strategic spoonful from a large tub of set yoghurt before holding the pot upside down above their head for what always feels like an agonisingly long second. I’ve got a solid track record for losing at both, but the intoxicating intensity of both these games always draws me back for another messy defeat.


Admittedly, I’m no stranger to intensity. It’s something that has defined my life and the quest for it can feel like an addiction in its own right. I’ve come to realise over the last years that the desire to experience the full force of life is one of my major drivers.


When I look back at my four decades on this planet it feels like it has been an endless string of wildly different experiences united by their intensity. My deep-seated yearning to feel the full intensity of life has repeatedly manifested itself in quests to undertake audacious challenges.


From going to work in France on my own at the age of 16, moving to Argentina to work for a newspaper in my early 20s, signing up as a crew member in a round the world yacht race despite my lack of sailing experience, teaching myself to swim front crawl in my 30s in order to swim solo across the English Channel, training to become a humanist funeral celebrant to getting plucked out of the sea unconscious due to multiple jellyfish stings whilst swimming from Menorca to Mallorca last year, the list goes on.


My decision to stay at DIMA is no exception to this habit of intense living. With a random mixture of people, the challenges of communal living and intense group work often going on in the background, it can often feel like a pressure cooker. Last week I experienced the bizarre intensity of laughing and crying for three hours at a time as part of the Trinity Process. To say that was intense would be an understatement and it left me exhausted to my core. Yet one of the things I love most about life at DIMA is the way this intensity is embraced rather than shunned.


For me the middle ground is alien territory and I feel far more at home at the outer extremes where I feel really alive. Sometimes it feels that living with such intensity tunes me into my core nature and other times it feels like a devious strategy to run away from myself. I’ve come to accept that it can be one and both at the same time.


So intensity is the degree to which we engage with life. It encompasses pleasure and pain, joy and sadness, love and loss. It’s living at full volume, being “all in” in everything I do and experiencing life in all its glorious bright colours. It can be as intensely fabulous as it can be utterly hopeless. It’s about a profound depth of feeling, meaningful connections and intense relationships. There is no option for sitting on the fence and waiting for life to happen. It’s about jumping into everything with both feet, giving it your all and experiencing the totality of life that comes from living at full throttle.


According to my thesaurus the opposites of intensity are lethargy, apathy and moderation. Not an appealing bunch of words to a self-confessed intensity addict such as myself. Going “all out” can be exhilarating and exhausting in equal measures and living with intensity brings with it inherent risks that can be easily avoided if we decide to approach life with restraint and moderation but, for me at least, living with only half of my heart engaged does not feel like living at all.


This spring I experienced one of the most intense experiences of my life after being diagnosed with a serious parasitical infection called leishmaniasis. In order to eradicate the flesh-eating parasites I had to undergo a brutal month of treatment at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London involving daily intravenous injections of a highly toxic drug along with daily heart scans and blood tests to check whether my body was able to withstand the next dose.


It was a truly hellish experience, and for the majority of the month I was confined to a hospital bed, barely able to move due to the agony caused by the drug as it worked its way through my system. During that time I had an amazing tag team of people taking care of me, and once again I found myself experiencing life in all its intense magnificence. Looking back now having felt the full intensity of losing my health for a while and the outpouring of love and support it triggered, I feel like it was a deeply life-affirming experience. I can’t deny that I thrive on that intensity. It’s like a drug that fuels my life force and it’s infectious. It feels like I’m squeezing every last drop out of life even in the most challenging situations.


I suspect that those of us who grew up in violent, unstable and often frightening environments crave the intensity that we became accustomed to in our formative years. When your life feels like a television drama unfolding, the rawness of life is constantly laid bare and it can feel unbearably mundane and dull when nothing happens. Maybe that creates a lifetime thirst for intensity. I feel like it has for me.


When I took up endurance swimming a decade ago I found the ultimate outlet for this intense way of living. I put my successes down to the relentless intensity with which I trained. “Go hard or go home” was one of my mantras and I soon realised that my results were directly proportionate to the amount of effort I put in. The intensity of pushing myself right to the very edge was what made me feel alive.


Sometimes I can feel overwhelmed and when the intensity leaves me drained, I crave a less intense life but it is always short-lived. Ultimately, I want to feel alive and experience life to the full in all its intense glory whether that’s staring into someone’s eyes and sensing their soul, kissing in the rain with a total abandonment, or being willing to take a risk in the pursuit of some greater goal. Despite the vulnerability that it brings, I wouldn’t trade the intensity of my life for anything.