Whitby mental health advocate’s story – ‘When Hope Breaks Through’ – debuts in Toronto
Published September 20, 2023 at 1:21 pm
The inspiring story of the first paddleboarder with a disability to cross all five Great Lakes hit the big screen last week, with several hundred people making the trek to downtown Toronto – on a Friday afternoon, no less – to see When Hope Breaks Through, a documentary on Mike Shoreman from award-winning director Matthew Wagner.
Shoreman was a paddleboard coach with a thriving business in 2018 when he was diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, a rare and debilitating variation of shingles that affects the facial nerves, causing facial paralysis and hearing and balance problems.
Doctors missed the initial diagnosis and by the time Shoreman was re-admitted to hospital the window for effective treatment had passed, which was especially bad as he had contracted a particularly extreme form of the virus.
“I looked like I had a stroke,” he said in the documentary.
The diagnosis, and the message from doctors that he may never walk again, much less get on a paddle board, was devastating for Shoreman, who fell into depression, a condition that continued to spiral downward until he tried to take his own life.
That was his wake-up call and in the recovery stages he hatched a plan to get back on a board and paddle his way across Lake Ontario and in 2021 he put the plan in motion, only to be beaten by the weather and an unsympathetic lake on the third day of the voyage.
Undaunted, he vowed to try again. “This was the first but not the last attempt by a person with a disability to cross Lake Ontario,” he told reporters that day.
The next year, with a new plan, a team of trainers, nutritionists and a core group of supporters that grew as plan became reality, he took on a far more ambitious quest. Paddle his board across ALL FIVE of the Great Lakes.
This multi-lake crossings and the challenges he faced both leading up to and during the epic summer of ’22, was the subject of the documentary, shot by Michigan filmmaker Wagner and videographer Joe Matteson, which debuted in Toronto Friday at the Jane Mallet Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, part of the Commffest Film & Art Festival.
The film, which debuted Friday and now hits the festival circuit, with stops at the Soo Film Festival in Sault Ste Marie, the Boston Film Festival, the Montreal Film Festival – where it has already won awards for Best Documentary and Best Soundtrack – and even down under, where it will be featured in Australia’s capital at the Canberra Mental Health Film Festival.
The documentary’s distribution rights have also been picked up by Canamedia Partners, who will be repping the film at the legendary Cannes Film Festival to network film buyers.
It was a lot to take in for Shoreman – “I was a nervous wreck,” he said in the days leading up to the premiere, but he was the picture of calm Friday, even after the enthusiastic crowd in attendance gave him and his team a standing ovation after the screening.
“I’m very fortunate to have all these amazing people in my life,” Shoreman told the crowd during a Q and A. “Everything that happened was because people; people who believed.”
The documentary delved into the time between his diagnosis in 2018 and last year’s lake crossings, with plenty of screen time given to the mental health challenges he faced along the way. Shoreham’s lake journey raised more than $60,000 for Jack.org, a youth-based group advocating for more financial support for mental health – the leading cause of suicide among young people – and his efforts on behalf of young people were given their due.
The biggest accomplishment in the journey, Shoreman told indurham after the final crossing in 2022, is the attention now being given to children’s mental health by those levels of government and he is hopeful some of the money his team raised will go towards getting mental health programs in schools.
“It’s unfortunate mental health isn’t more tangible in a way like physical illness are, showing the devastation, because if it were, I don’t think we would lose as many kids as we do. Putting mental health programs in schools makes it easier. It’s convenient, it’s a safe place and it’s where their peers are,” he said.
For his journey with mental health, Shoreman believes talking about is a hugely important first step.
“I felt I couldn’t talk about it for a very long time. It can be a very scary place to be,” he remembered. “You need to tell people and the role of this film is to open up dialogue; to get people talking.”
Much of the 42-minute movie was centred on the people involved in the crossings and how they came together for a common cause.
Perhaps the central figure in the adventure – besides Shoreman himself – is Liana Neumann, who joined the odyssey after the Lake Erie crossing and quickly became Shoreman’s closest advisor and the rock he needed when times were tough.
Neumann, who met Shoreman when he was a paddleboard coach, took care of the logistics, co-ordinating hotels, travel, boats, nutrition plans and even handled donations to stretch the budget far enough to complete the journey.
But even the ‘Handler’ needed a rock to rely on or even a shoulder to cry on and Neumann, like Shorman, found that in the team, which also included Wagner and Matteson and boat captains Jim Peever and Keith Fisher.
“It was a challenge. It was hard. But we had an incredible core team and that’s when you can do incredible things,” she told the audience at Friday’s screening.
“Mike makes every request sound like a bowlful of cherries and once you’re in there’s no getting out,’ she added to laughter from the crowd. “I like to think my passion for mental health kept me going. And the family that we built here.”
For Goderich Marina owner Peever, who joined the team when the boat captain hired to escort Shoreman across Lake Huron cancelled, said saying yes to being part of the adventure was easy. “It was a cool story and it’s always amazing to be part of these kinds of stories,” he said.
The Huron leg of the journey took 28 hours, with three-and-a-half foot swells making the crossing especially difficult and leading to “cracking” in Shoreman’s feet that resulted in a painful final few hours.
“Mike taught us all about resilience,” Peever said. “We have learned that if you say yes, you can be part of something bigger.”
Peever told the crowd, who peppered the crew with questions for nearly half an hour after the film, that doing good things for other people has a rippling effect that continues to create positive waves of energy long after the deed is done.
“There’s a wall that shrouds mental health,” he said, “Everything we do well or good for someone else takes down that obstacle a little bit.”
Fisher, who captained Shoreman’s failed attempt at crossing Lake Ontario in 2021, jumped back on board last year for the whole adventure, assisting on the Erie crossing and taking the helm for the final trip across Lake Ontario.
“I needed some good vibes and it was for a good cause,” he said.
Fisher also remembered how much of an ordeal the night-time paddles were for Shoreman and said the most important message of the journey – and of the film – was to “never give up.”
“Mike was always spent at the end of the night and then there would be this beautiful sunrise and the sun would give him the energy to go on.”
Michigan-based Wagner, who has been busy since the adventure ended finishing the film and promoting it to film festivals, agreed and said the sunrises served as a metaphor for life and a message of hope for all those suffering from mental health challenges.
“Sunrises happen every day. It helps us to look forward to the next hopeful season,” he said. “There’s always something on the horizon.”
Shoreman agreed. “As soon as the came came up over the horizon, it gave me hope. It was hope for all of us.”
The documentary explores the current state of the mental health crisis in Canada and relationships with our own mental health. The film immerses the audience in Shoreman’s epic five crossings, encompassing more than 300 kilometers of open water paddling with his team. Together these strangers came together and form an inseparable bond as they face and conquer obstacles from boats breaking down, medical emergencies to hallucinations and everything in between.
Canada is in a mental health crisis, with mental health a major factor in 4,000 Canadians committing suicide every year. But Shoreman – and filmmaker Wagner – believed it was necessary to counter the stark realities of mental health with a prevailing feeling of hope, like the sunrise that greets every day.
“Mental health can be dark and scary,” he said. “So when we saw the opportunity to add comedy and humour in the right places to lighten the tone it was important to find a balance. Laughter is important.”
“So many people have brought so much into my life because of this journey,” he added. “It’s kind of like walking down the Yellow Brick Road – you never know what characters you meet. And they all meant so much to the story.”
Everyone has people in their lives who are suffering, he pointed out, even if you don’t know it. Being an ally is about “reaching out” and telling the people in your lives you can be someone to lean on.
“Let people know you are an ally. Let them know you can help.”
For more information on When Hope Breaks Through and to see the trailer, chaeck out https://www.whenhopebreaksthrough.com/home
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