I have near-constant back pain and the remnants of complex PTSD to live with. I am also getting older, on the downhill slope to 66, so not yet decrepit but with all the slowing down and loss of stamina involved.
I shall not give in to aging too easily.
I take no medication.
Instead, I go swimming.
I am lucky I live near the ocean, the English Channel to be precise, all that lovely Atlantic seawater coming up towards us, or the North Sea taking it back the other way, depending on currents, winds, and tides of course. I have also swum in icy cold freshwater; in very deep mountain lakes in Austria, France, Sweden and Germany. But these were all in the summer months, so the air was warm to come out to.
I swim all year round.
For half the year I exit the water to cold or even icy winds, occasional thin winter sunshine, and dull chilly days most of the time.
This does not put me off.
It is all cold water. I have no local deep mountain lakes, and they are even colder, but freshwater lacks the buoyancy of saltwater. So now I stick to the sea.
My first attempt was on 26th December 2018, taking part in a local charity raising, organised mad sea dash, with a few hundred other souls going in, many in fancy dress. This is an annual ‘thing’. I loved it and was amazed by myself that I did it. So I carried on.
Regularity and availability
The island has an abundance of sea to swim in and usually, one side or another is sheltered a little from prevailing winds, so maybe slightly easier to stay afloat in. Safety must be the primary factor. I have had bruises on my shins and ankles the size of the boulders hurled against me by the strong waves on stormy days, and just occasionally I have had to say, “No, it is not safe today.” But other than that I try to swim at least three times every week and sometimes 5–6 days.
Favourite and special moments
My favourites are the full moon and starlit night swims. Heavenly and delicious. October is often the best one, the water still slightly warm, and the moon at a good size early enough in the evening. We went as a group last year and it was wonderful, but this year I went earlier in the day as the weather was turning wilder, though friends who did make it said it was great in the right bay.
I have loved sea swimming for a very long time.
I do remember once, roughly 1975 or ‘76, swimming at midnight in a very warm summer sea off the Kent Coast and finding ourselves swimming in total fluorescence, each splash we made lighting up our entire bodies. We were skinny dipping too, five of us and a dog, a Labrador called Tor, I seem to remember.
There are a few addictive aspects of this strange activity, but there are also challenges.
We are getting into colder weather, mid-October and it feels like the water temperature is dropping daily, around 15C now — just above hypothermia temperature. It takes determination to just walk and then plunge straight in and not think about it in advance. If I do I fiddle around at the edges I get more cold more quickly and will not want to go in. I will think ‘why am I doing this to myself’, and I might even hold myself back. It is a mental challenge in the colder months.
I know why I am doing this.
I enjoy being pain- and medication-free. I enjoy being depression-free. I enjoy keeping an aging body as toned and strong as possible, whilst never visiting a gym. I enjoy knowing I can face up to challenges and not chicken out of them. I think instead about how I will feel afterwards.
There’s a sharp intake of breath when you hit the cold water but then you just swim. Slowly the cold numbs the surface of your skin, so it no longer feels cold, and your exertion helps to make you feel warmer on the inside.
Then follow the exhilaration, and elation, the sense of achievement when you go ahead anyway. That lasts for the rest of that day, ensures a good night's sleep and I wake the next day feeling pain-free and alive.
Often I get swimmers high afterwards. This is the rush of oxytocin and endorphins that come after exertion, especially in cold water, but this is not guaranteed and I don’t pursue it. This is where it could be addictive and probably is for some people. When it does happen, the effect on my mood is as good as the best meditation sessions can be, but mostly the other perks are sufficient.
I find swimming is a very meditative experience, mindfully focused on the moment.
It is just me and the water, nothing else exists. It is enormously tranquil and peaceful and surprisingly feels very freeing from all the rest of life. I do love my life, though it is still good to check out from time to time.
There is little competition in this swimming. Just getting into the cold water is the competition, against yourself, the main achievement between now (October) and next May when it warms up again. You can’t measure your achievement in distances, or people you have overtaken, though some people clearly swim fast and do cover longer distances than I can yet, but the only competition necessary is against your own self.
Perhaps, when I have been at this game for many years, I will also be able to stay in and swim for longer and faster and further and stronger, but for now, I am making progress and am much stronger and more confident that I was a year ago when I started this malarky.
Solitary versus social swimming
There are a lot of people now joining the sea swimming community. There is always someone to swim with if you are prepared to travel across the island, which at most can only be 23 miles from corner to corner. There is safety in numbers.
Some days I swim alone but my husband always comes and walks along the shoreline, following me, making sure I am safe at all times out there alone in the waves, and ready with my towel when I get out. I like being alone or just with him, we are both great loners.
But I also have friends who swim and am getting to know more and more people. We have a whole Facebook page or two dedicated to swimming on our island, sharing which beach has the safest water on rougher days, who is going where and when, and so on.
For someone like me, who is not a great or confident socialiser naturally, and has had to force herself to mix for much of her life, it helps enormously to have something physical to be doing together to talk about. Or I can just quietly dry off and get dressed again and say ‘bye’ having shared that time with others but not needed to say too much. There are a couple of people who have become much closer friends though and when we swim just as a pair, then I chat with them very freely.
We all agree that even after the hardest days, it is like having a reset button on our bodies, a drug-free pick-me-up, a re-energiser.
It is great. It is confidence-boosting, a challenge, pulls you out of your comfort zone and makes you feel more able to deal with the other challenges life keeps throwing at us all at the time.
More lockdowns coming, more swimming for me, just in my depth and parallel to the coast and only when it is safe, so I am not putting myself at risk or likely to engage emergency services who are direly needed to deal with genuinely sick people.
And speaking of sickness, according to a study called ‘Cold Water Immersion, Kill or Cure?’, a joint report by the University of Portsmouth and Royal Sussex County Hospital, I am improving my immune system, reducing inflammation (maybe that is why my arthritic vertebra hurt so much less) and reducing my stress responses. (That probably explains why my PTSD symptoms are receding slowly and finally as is the time I take to recover from being triggered and other stressful incidences.)
I will also apparently benefit from shorter and less severe infections. My stress and inflammatory responses will be lower. A 2015 study found I am likely to develop fewer colds than my nonswimming husband. Apparently, women respond more positively to these benefits than men, though it helps both. Might all be more than just helpful in these Covid times.
The Free Radical Biology and Medicine journal reported that a regular cold water immersion routine helps to boost levels of antioxidant glutathione, which regulate all other antioxidants in the body.
Coldwater also activates brown fat, which burns through calories at a higher rate. It has the same therapeutic effect as ice packs but for the whole body, because it constricts arteries, prevents swelling and soothes muscle soreness. So that is why it makes my back feel so much better and releases the muscular tension that develops from the area trying to protect its damaged parts.
For me it is the mental health, the courage it took for me to get into the sea several times a week to begin with, that showed me I still had courage to do things after a long and very dark mental breakdown from PTSD.
If I could summon that up, then I could summon up courage in other places, other situations and not just let myself get railroaded while standing there opening my mouth like a goldfish.
I have guts still, and my sense of fun comes out too. Woohoo, off we go, a bunch of jolly older women leaping into the sea all year round, come rain or shine (you’re going to get wet anyway), with huddled and over-dressed walkers watching in awe or astonishment.
Perhaps I am a closet exhibitionist after all.
My personal safety rules
I never swim out of my depth and only just far enough from the shoreline that I can get back to it easily if I get a cramp or something else.
If you are swimming in freshwater at great depths, wear a towing buoyancy aid, attached to your waist by a line, so it does not interfere with you swimming but is with you if you need it. I am thinking of getting one anyway as I do sometimes find myself out of my depth without realising it and currents can take you out further than you are aware.
Never swim alone. Even if it is my husband walking along the shoreline, someone is keeping an eye out for me and my safety.
Never disrespect or under-estimate the power of the ocean or the force of a wave.
As a friend reminded us all last week, when you consider that one cubic metre of water weighs a tonne — the size of a small car — and moving (remember school physics —force = mass x acceleration) then a 3m wave would be like three small cars hitting you! I still clearly remember, fifty years ago, grabbing my younger sister's long streaming hair as she was being pulled away from me by an undertow in wild seas once, and I only just about got her back to safety. I was about 17 and she was about 13 and we were on our own on holiday together.
Make sure you have warm wraps and towels waiting for you the minute you come out of the water. This is the time when the chill factor can be seriously fast, when you’re wet and the air is chilling you down even faster because you are no longer exerting yourself in the water. I have a dry robe which is thick fleece on the inside and fully rain and wind resistant on the outside. It is also large enough to change inside if necessary or just to wrap around yourself, to remove a wet bathing suit and get into a warm vehicle just as you are. Woolly hats are also essential. They stop any more heat being lost from your body and warm you up on the inside.
I only wear a swimsuit all year round, but I do wear neoprene bootees to stop my feet getting too cold and the skin being brittle and open to wounding on any stones or even rocks I might kick against by mistake or have to struggle over to get out again. I also wear a rash vest to stop my shoulders getting too cold. Some people wear wet or dry suits but I have not done so yet and have managed to get in at 4–6 C even if just for a few dozen swim strokes. Again it is the cold that seems to be what matters as much as the exercise for my purposes, so staying warmer longer doesn’t matter that much. I keep my hands clear so I can feel how cold I am getting at my extremities, but some people do wear neoprene gloves too. Some people also wear swim hats and goggles, earplugs and even nose clips. I am not one of those, though I can see the advantages—I don’t want too much paraphernalia. I might consider a swim hat to protect my hair though, as it can get very dry with all the salt.
Hot drinks — even just a flask of hot water can make a difference to your inner core heat, and perhaps a biscuit to give you the instant energy as fuel for heat. Also if you can, a brisk walk or small jog will help
My car has heated seats so I jump into them and put them on max so that by the time I get home again I am usually feeling warmer, though my skin will still feel icy to the touch, according to my husband.
Don’t do bravado — it is too risky to be worth it. I want to live a better life, not threaten my life.
Don’t have a hot shower or bath when you get home, or not too quickly, you may pass out from the shock of it. Try to warm up from the inside as fast as you can. I do light my log-burner so my kitchen is toasty warm when I get back, but that is still much safer and effective compared to a hot bath too soon.
Don’t stay in too long. I try to keep moving but I don’t stay in the water once I stop swimming. I will feel cold on entering the water, but bodies will adjust to the water temperature. Don’t overdo it on your first dip and don’t wait until you are uncomfortably cold to get out, a few minutes is enough.
Give it a go if you dare. Two years ago I would have said ‘no not me ever, you much be joking’. Now I say ‘me stop swimming because it is cold — you must be joking’.