The restorative properties of swimming
On the back of my good friend and Hispanic studies scholar Fiona Noble’s blog post about going walking to get the writing juices flowing, I thought I’d chip in with my recent experience of swimming and walking in helping my writing process in tandem with recovering from debilitating mental health issues.
Swimming is an activity I’ve avoided for many years due to poor eyesight, not being terribly good at breathing, and body shame. Now that I’m an old has-been of 32 (a dig at my last lot of students who practically said as much), I give less of a damn.
Firstly, I’ve had the contact lenses/prescriptions goggles conversation too many times than is acceptable for anyone’s sanity, so spare me. I’m not an athlete, nor a rich person. I never could do head-under-water stuff anyway, largely due to point two, so wearing old glasses isn’t an issue. But the embarrassment of bumping into people was.
Secondly, I’m an odd shape. I’m a long, gangly sort of person, but my torso is short, and my internal organs are small relative to my full size. My little lungs can’t breathe as deeply as they ought to. I also live with anxiety, which has been severe in recent months, and tends to give me asthma-like symptoms. Let’s face it, I’m also a horrific klutz, and often go by the alter ego of Captain Disaster.
Finally, I was overweight when I was younger. In my early twenties, I lost six stone in weight (c. 84lb or 38kg) – over a third of my body mass. No matter how much I worked out at the gym (I went obsessively during my PhD), the loose skin and silvery lines that used to be stretch marks never went away. My fat, unhealthy body transformed into a healthy but flabby, saggy mess. At least at the gym you can cover up, but not so much in the pool. I’ve learned to embrace my body, though, and feel proud of my achievement. In fact, I’m fascinated by bodies that bear the traces of lives lived. Bodies and the things that mark them should not be sources of shame.
The struggles I’ve had lately with the physical effects of mental ill-health have led me to consider the experiences of differently-abled bodies. Going for a stroll isn’t that simple for everyone. Like Fiona, I find walking ideal for getting the mind working. For example, I thought out much of this post while walking to and from the pool today. I also had the privilege of working close to the stunning Botanic Gardens in Belfast, nestled between the main Queen’s University campus and the Ulster Museum, and frequently made a point of dandering round them or having lunch there in good weather throughout my doctoral studies.
Lately, though, the severity of the bout of anxiety attacks I’ve had over the past five months have caused faintness, dizziness, imbalance, breathlessness, general pain, and heaviness in my limbs. I’ve had blackouts before caused by sudden drops in blood pressure while running about like a numpty trying to do all the things because in academia anything less than that is viewed as weakness. I think the wonderful NHS staff of Belfast and England could do without me bothering them further in their overstretched A&E departments. Best to avoid walking when it risks exertion. As well as such physical barriers, motivation is difficult when at loggerheads with depression.
Upon reconnecting with certain friends in North East England I increasingly considered the benefits of swimming as a kind of rehabilitation. A friend living in the area to which I’ve moved spoke highly of the local community library and swimming pool, conveniently sat side by side. She assured me of the warmth of the welcome, and how good it felt to support them. The library’s brief opening hours have been great for structuring protected writing time and gets me out of the house. I battled with fatigue for three weeks this month, and it took that much time to build myself up to trying the pool. I had fallen into a rut of needing to sleep in the afternoon, so overwhelming was the sleepiness. Determined to combat it and regain energy (I’ve got work to do!) I pushed myself last Thursday and, not only did I make it, I had a great time and broke the cycle. I’ve reached more manageable levels of tiredness since, and feel fine for it. I am pleased that I did quite a few lengths, and swam naturally on my back, which is something I could never do before. I chatted with friendly strangers, and left feeling tired, but energized in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I went back again today and managed to do even more. I mean, I think I inhaled half the pool and people more than twice my age put me to shame, but the atmosphere is lovely. I apologize every time my flailing arms bump somebody a little, and they laugh and smile and tell me, ‘it’s fine, we just go round each other’. The kindness and friendliness of these short exchanges – even just the lifeguard recognizing me from last week and saying hello, looking pleased to see me back – is a huge boost after months spent in a working environment where I dreaded going into my office and checking email, never knowing what torture or insult was next. Kindness, honesty and transparency are treasures to me.
It was just over a year ago that I began to consider more seriously the silent, hidden struggles of differently-abled bodies. I’ve always tried to be mindful but perhaps in an under-informed way. In February 2016, a bad fall resulted in some broken ribs, and a week of teaching and speaking at public engagement events while off my face on codeine. My commute to work involved overcrowded buses. I looked perfectly ‘able’, so was never offered a seat. Mind you, these were students who didn’t give space to people getting on with small children or walking frames either. Gripping on for dear life brought tears to my eyes from the searing pain for weeks. I’d have walked, but this was the winter of the many alphabetical floody storms (reaching all the way to Katie for flip sake) and I lived over two miles from the campus. I felt much more empathy and anger for those who endure physical difficulty in navigating spaces which privilege the ‘fully’ able. Invisibleness and the silencing of suffering happen to dovetail with my research interests in affectivity and post-conflict traumatic recall, so perhaps I was drawing that out more into other kinds of situations.
Recently, I’ve been shocked at how physically disabling mental illness can be. I had no idea it was this bad. I never doubted anyone’s pain when I heard or read about it, but I wonder now if I bought into the idea that it wasn’t as ‘authentic’ or ‘bad’ as physical injury or illness of the visually undeniable variety. Mental pain is very real and suffered by people who often feel unpermitted rather than unable to admit it, given the stigma of projected weakness and failure. On the contrary, it takes a special kind of strength to battle through mental torment and despair while exuding a surface image of ‘normality’. The strengths and abilities we do possess ought to be celebrated.
If I leave any readers with anything, it’s to consider the idea of re-framing what is generally regarded as weakness or in-/dis-ability. Differently-abled people have different skill-sets to the averagely-abled; they are not lesser. Bodies and minds in pain are not lesser. Engage with what you cannot see as well as with what you can. If you are in pain, there is no fit-all solution, and all solutions are only ever temporary; find what works healthily and positively for you. If something doesn’t work, rather than seeing it as failure, understand that ruling stuff out is good and move on to the next thing. Be kind, because there is an awful lot of quiet, invisible pain being suffered. Reach out, because you are not alone.