As a healthy, happy and positive 36-year-old woman I worked hard, enjoyed my life and passionately cared for those around me.
I was an organiser, I liked to make plans, to get things done and to feel on top of things. I rarely sat down and was often on the go, always doing, sorting, fixing and providing. That was until two years ago, when I became gravely unwell. Without realising it and in all my busy I had become a victim of doing far too much.
As a deputy and lecturer at a local college, a mother, a homemaker and in the role of caring for family members that were significantly unwell at the time I quickly began to buckle under the weight of it all. I often felt abnormally fatigued, suffered with constant headaches, twitching muscles and overwhelming nausea. I felt anxious and my sleep became disrupted with constant worries and racing thoughts. I became a regular at the doctors, trying to find a cause to my concerns. I became convinced I needed glasses for my migraines or that I was suffering from intolerances, allergies or deficiencies.
All the negativity in my life was coming out as physical symptoms in my body and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Looking back the warning signs had started to show. I often felt overwhelmed and teary, I became so unusually exhausted, even though I had slept well the night before. I was suffering further with skin rashes, blurred vision and debilitating neck and shoulder pain. I can see now that the health anxiety was part of the deterioration of my mind (it was giving me warning signals, but I was unfortunately too busy to notice them). My once bright and vibrant self through so much stress, worry and sadness was gradually fading to dark. All the negativity in my life was coming out as physical symptoms in my body and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
With no off button and no understanding of the word ‘no’ I continued to care for all of those around me but with no thought for myself or for my own sense of calm. Six months of torture passed, the physical symptoms became unbearable and I became addicted to monitoring my symptoms and lack of sleep. I kept diaries of caffeine intake, foods I had eaten, sleep I had failed to achieve – all in a bid to try to ‘control’ my situation. Little did I know that by trying to control it I was making it worse. I was fighting against it and causing myself more stress.
In my bid to be well I had exhausted all my tools – yoga, counselling, medication, mindfulness – all of which helped me to feel that I was still in fact a small part of this world but none of which cured me of the complete and catastrophic loss of myself. The final health problem that I developed was restless leg syndrome that later transformed into Myoclonus of the larger muscle groups (Muscle Spasms). As my anxiety took hold and with the ongoing fear of my new and very alien condition, I unfortunately deteriorated further. I was so terrified by what was happening to my body and mind that I developed chronic insomnia, becoming too afraid to go to sleep. I couldn’t escape the night time body spasms and in the early hours of the morning, sleep deprived and alone I felt like a stranger in my own body. It was the loneliest experience of my life. I had so quickly lost control of my mind and it didn’t matter what I did, I just couldn’t find my way back.
I was eventually signed off work by my G.P. and for the twelve long months of my illness, I was a mere shadow of my former self. With no job to focus on, I became obsessed with my physical symptoms and terrified of my own mind. I was inconsolable that I may never find my way back out into the light, that my son would never get his Mum back and that I could never be the happy me that I knew before.
After yet more sleepless nights I would regularly walk exhausted and defeated down to the sea.
A familiar friend from my childhood, the sea gave me comfort. I would sit and watch it for hours, staring at the horizon and willing it to give me some answers. I notice that people seek out the sea when they feel lost, they search for something that is bigger than themselves. There is a comfort in Mother Nature, the expanse, the vastness of such a large open space. Maybe it gives us hope that there is more to our story, maybe we feel that out there we can find the answers that we so desperately seek – that we can finally feel free.
I would spend the dawn perched in my usual place at Battery Rocks tucked behind Jubilee Pool in Penzance patiently looking on as the sun rose behind St Michael’s Mount. I had always enjoyed photography and the stillness of dawn, with no human noise and just the gulls for company, I could take photos and find a small amount of comfort there. One morning a gentleman passed me on his way for a swim, he smiled and asked if I was ok. As usual I said I was fine, trying to pack up my things and quickly scuttle away. I did not want to talk, I wanted to hide, to retreat to not be seen – but sometimes, some things, they are simply meant to be. Not taking no for an answer he said he could sense something was wrong and I might feel better if I went in the sea.
As more time passed and I explained my story to the swimmers further I noticed how many of them regularly swam at dawn at Battery Rocks. I hadn’t swum in the sea properly for years and in truth it scared me a little, the deep water, the seaweed and the seals. I politely declined every time they asked, and I would quietly creep away.
The next day like clockwork however, I would somehow find myself struggling to the sea, greeted by a smiling swimming tribe trying their hardest to coax me in. After a few more weeks and with an overwhelming sense of ‘how can anything really get any worse’ – I took my swimming costume with me and tried to get in.
It was so hard at first, I had lost all faith in my own body and mind
Strangely I felt looked after by the older swimmers – some in their 80’s who swam just in their costumes every day. I felt so inspired by their stories and I had always enjoyed the sea, but I had completely lost faith in myself and my physical ability to swim. I was essentially broken and still terrified of the darkness of my mind, I had gone to another place, a world where I was always only ever outside looking in. I saw no end to my suffering, it seemed that whatever I tried there was no finding my way home. People always ask me how I got in the sea if I had been so terribly unwell, but I had just lost all hope, I didn’t care anymore, I had become so tired I had eventually given up the fight.
As I battled on I would keep finding myself at the rocks, I would feel like people were waiting for me and that they would feel let down if I didn’t turn up. After eventually meeting my now swimming partner Mike, one of the regular Battery Rocks sunrise swimmers and a retired lifeguard, he assured me I would feel safe with him if I wanted to try to regularly get in.
From just standing in the water on the steps to slowly over time managing a few more strokes, swimming in the sea became something each day that made me feel a little more like me again. My breakdown had stripped away all that made me ‘Katie’. I completely lost my sense of self, my courage, my joy, my motivation and pride. It was daily swimming in the sea that brought all that back.
Daily swimming in the sea is something that offered me its own support, a purpose and a natural ‘tonic.’
I felt looked after by it and protected somehow. I could just get in and let myself be part of something that was bigger than me. With a swimming tribe at my side I felt safe enough that I could let it all go, all my fear, sadness and anxiety. I could let it be taken by the waves and entrust my pain to something so much greater than me.
As I continued to swim further each month and I front crawled my way through winter I realised that slowly I had started to feel better. I had battled all that the weather had thrown at me and I no longer feared the cold dark and icy waves. I started to notice colours again and the scents and sounds of the sea. I enjoyed my time with the swimmers and found myself laughing for the first time in what had felt like an eternity. I realised that throughout all my suffering I had forgotten what it felt like to be free.
Daily swimming in the sea rebuilt all the parts of me that were lost
Being in the sea in the calm of the morning’s dawn is a constant reminder that we are all just a part of the natural earth.
If we don’t spend enough time in nature our physical bodies and minds just can’t cope. With modern day stressors we can so easily become overloaded, run down, exhausted and fatigued and with self-care often ending up at the bottom of our to do lists, we are all at risk of burnout, anxiety, depression or chronic fatigue.
With my breakdown/burnout I lost all confidence to do anything I had previously been doing. I felt like I couldn’t do my job, I wasn’t strong enough to exercise or see my friends, I felt scared and anxious about going out or enjoying time with my family. Whilst my mind was recovering my confidence in living my life had been lost. Sea swimming every morning brought that feeling back, it made me feel proud of myself, like I had done something different, something extraordinary, and something most people feared doing. It made me feel brave and like I was capable again. It rebuilt my self-esteem and confidence in myself and in my own body’s physical and mental ability.
My recovery took just over a year and I now swim every day at dawn before work.
I realised I wasn’t doing anything just for me, something that was for me and about me – allowing me to get some quiet time and daily peace of mind. I still have all my responsibilities and I am back at work, but I ensure that I am regularly topping up my own energy levels by honouring my daily morning swim. I recognise now that I cannot care for all those around me if I neglect to look after myself. I need that small amount of peace in my own mind to prepare for what the day might throw at me. Sea swimming makes me feel like I can tackle anything now, I often think if I can swim in the cold winter sea at dawn then I can cope with anything that might come my way today.
Daily swimming in the sea rebuilt all the parts of me that were lost, medication can give you back a slight sense of normality, but it cannot physically bring back feelings of strength, worth, achievement, pride and belonging. When we experience struggles with mental health we often lose all the parts of ourselves that make up who we are but, in my experience, regular sea swimming has the capacity to bring all of that back.
Wild swimming naturally involves a range of factors that are necessary to ensuring our basic needs in life are met. Things like having a strong sense of community, finding our joy, challenging our own perceived capabilities, regular exercise and quiet time spent in the natural world. All these things keep us levelled, they help us to stay balanced in a world that is often so very unstable and unpredictable. We cannot always foresee what the future holds, but we can better prepare for it by going for that regular morning swim!