Swimming the Pain Away

In the water I feel no pain.

I first walked into the water on crutches eight weeks after a bi-lateral osteotomy. I desperately needed something other than drugs to take away the pain of major surgery. And the pain in my head: the fear of never being able to walk properly again, never being able to run again, never being able to cycle up mountain passes again. Everything hurt in April 2017.

In the water I feel weightless.

When you’ve had both your legs broken and the bones have to heal, then the soft tissue and then you have to learn to walk again, your natural spring vanishes, along with your sense of self and confidence. I long to bounce again, skip, dance, run up and down stairs, but all that has been taken away from me and I feel like a heavy lump. My body and my spirit weigh me down.

In the water I feel strong.

When soft tissue: ligaments, skin, veins, arteries, viscera, muscle fibre, fat and connective tissue are sliced through with a surgeon’s scalpel they take what seems like forever to heal ~ and if they don’t heal correctly you develop scar tissue. And then that has to be broken down through intensive sports therapy. The tissues need time to heal properly so that the mechanics of your legs can function normally. Your legs are weak because you haven’t been able to use them properly for four years or more: two pre-op and two post-op. I used to run up fells, reveling in the power of muscle to get me there, loving the ache I felt afterwards, nurturing my body with all the right foods. Swimming and moving through limpid lake water allows muscles to stretch and repair under no pressure.

In the water in winter the cold numbs all feeling.

Physical and emotional pain leaves me from the moment the chilli prickles attack my body and my brain calms me down, until the moment a delicious euphoria of swimming in sub 5 degree water envelops and cradles me. The more often I swim the less time I have to be in pain – so it becomes a necessity, a craving, a lifeline during the hardest of post-op recoveries.

In the water in summer there are no chilli prickles.

The brain can work more intensively on thoughts, emotions and worries, opening closed doors, flushing out dark corners and revitalising dulled senses. I immerse my body from toe nails to hair follicles in the softest of lake water, or the oxygenated bubbles of river pools and waterfalls. I surrender my whole to the minerals, algaes, nutrients, bacteria and watery wonders beneath the surface.

Back on dry land, the pain returns.

Less piercing now, but still ever present, reminding me that full recovery is a long way off, those mountain passes not quite within my ability. Raw determination, combined with the power of the body to heal itself, challenge my spirit to dance again to the music of life and love.

One day I will cycle up an Alpine pass and at the summit leap off my bike, run across to the turquoise tarn and dive straight in.

I’m Sara Barnes, 57, an all year round, skins swimmer from the Lake District. I took up outdoor swimming following major surgery on both legs in February 2017 as a way of being able to exercise outdoors safely and sociably. I’d been an extremely active road cyclist and trail runner up until a prolapsed disc in 2016 and then was told that osteo-arthritis had destroyed the cartilage in both knees. Chronic pain, increasing physical immobility and a terrifying sense of loss and fear of the future inhabited my daily life.