How are you? Another long year since last week. Treat yo self. It's a day ending in y.
What a year of open water swimming did for my mental health
This week is the anniversary of my cold water swim adventures. I documented my thoughts before and after on this very newsletter. The year did not go as I expected. I thought that by now I would have a strong series of portraits on a project looking at people who swim all year round in the Mersey. I have none but I have connections. On the flip side I originally planned to swim in the Mersey by the end of 2020 and by March I was taking my first dip of many.
I did not expect to fall in love with this sort of swimming in the way that I did. I did not expect to be affected in the way I was. Living with anxiety where every new experience is filled with fear you become accustomed to feeling anxious about everything. I have to ask myself if I want another thing to be afraid of in my life. Do I have room for more fear? What a life of anxiety has given me is a fear of trying. Imagine my surprise to take a chance and find something that frees me from anxiety instead of adds to the pile.
When my wife and I go away on a beach holiday it takes me a few days to feel comfortable in the water again. I'm sharing the space with marine life, trash and my fears. It's a complicated space to relax in. After a few days I'm relaxed. After a week I never want to leave. I'm swimming constantly on holiday though. Swim. Nap. Swim. Lunch. Nap. Swim. Nap. Swim. Repeat, daily. It's exposure therapy. I repetitively face my fear and adapt. I thought that by doing a dip once a week it would take me months to get used to it not weeks.
1 year after starting this adventure what have I learnt about myself? I'm reminded of the quote from Back to the Future.
"If you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything." - George McFly, 1985
Walking into a lake filled with ice wearing nothing more than thermal socks, gloves, a Fjall Raven hat and swimming trunks on, with my beer belly and nipples on display, a purple tinted beard, nail polish on and with a crowd of people watching me somehow made me feel like I could accomplish anything. I absolutely loved my dip the other week in the ice lake. I've tried medication for anxiety. It didn't help. Maybe I expected too much? I was expecting to feel ok again as if the world wasn't constantly a harrowing place to exist. I didn't though. I had that experience while I was swimming in the lake. I find that incredible.
The way the water attacks your body makes you acutely aware of your situation like nothing else. You can't drift off to other thoughts. It's like a mental reset. For 5 minutes you are free from anxiety. 5 whole joyous long minutes. It's a lifetime. There are videos showing what it is like for a blind or deaf person to have their senses restored and it is an experience reminiscent of that. Suddenly I have confidence. I have belief in myself. I feel ok with my body. I feel like I can actually exist in a way that enables not disables me. Can you imagine that?
I remember when I first got into running 10 years ago and I would run around the back streets by my apartment. I was terribly afraid of someone seeing me. I was 23 stone and felt like a disgusting sweaty fat blob. I didn't want anyone to see that. Of course it took years to come around to the idea that I'm at least trying to get fit. Now when I run I feel fine if someone sees me in tight fitting clothing. I understand why those types of clothes are good to run in. More importantly I am happy to be seen because I hope it inspires others. I'm not the $6 million dollar man. I'm more like $1 pizza man. Confidence is what makes me feel like the $6 million dollar man. For me to get into an icy lake with my shirt off with my beer/chocolate belly flopping over my belt and not only be fine but feel great is incredible.
Doing this has given me such confidence to be ok with who I am because I've had a taste of it. I know that inside me there is someone I want to be. Armed with the actual evidence to challenge negative thoughts I can get to be that person. I've felt anxiety free. I've felt fine about my body issues. Are my lifelong troubles over? No. Not at all. Do I have a strong way of fighting back now? You're damn right I do.
To confirm all this lets go back to my 2017 post on my journal about a video of a woman swimming naked in the lakes around North Wales and challenge the negative thoughts I had back then.
"It’s just you vs what you can’t do."
Everyone watching me will be thinking the same. "I can't do that." Try. Seriously please try. If its not for you its not for you. I do believe now that it is important to try and find what is for you because who knows what experiences out there will open them up.
"What else can you do? If you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything. A phrase I grew up hearing a lot as a kid, because I watched Back to the Future time after time. A phrase I never really really took to heart. I got it, sure, but did I ever really do it?"
I absolutely get that now. I chose to walk into an icy lake rather than a calm river knowing full well that the lake was the harder choice to make because I put my mind to it and achieved it.
"I doubt, seriously doubt I’ll be doing this any time soon. I’m 40 next year and as I get older I do think about the things I’m not doing a lot more because I’ll be 80 one day and what will I have done?"
I've done it and I've had people look on in amazement. I don't just do this because it is there. I do it because I am here.
"My parents both climbed Snowdon before they were 30."
Done that now too. At 1am no less.
"I think there’s a part of me that would love to have the mental strength of this women to not only swim in a lake in Wales, which would be scary enough, but also to do it naked."
Oh I'm there now. 100% there. I feel like I have that confidence now. I'm a 16ish stone man powered by Polly's beer and Omnom Icelandic liquorice chocolate with purple hair, a purple tinted beard and rainbow nails. "Think Different." I'm different to a year ago, to 3 years ago when I wrote that post, to 10 years ago when I was fearing being seen. I am not cured and will unfortunately always live with anxiety and depression. However, I have found a freely available reset that challenges my negative thoughts and reminds me;
"Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Courageaous."
Remind me about this tomorrow when I'm tired, depressed and life has no meaning. That will happen and I won't want to swim because that's depression. Yay...
I feel like I need to add a footnote here. This isn't inspiration porn. I'm not suggesting you absolutely have to take up open / cold water swimming to "cure" your anxiety / depression. I have read many articles on "how <insert hobby here> saved me from <condition>." I've tried various hobbies and came out feeling more depressed because they did not save me. For the first time I feel like swimming actually does have an affect on me. I cannot say the same for you. What I can say is be open to new experiences because you never know which might reset you and help deal with the world. Please don't get depressed if you try and it isn't for you. You tried. That's awesome. You're awesome. 💜
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This weeks photos have been taken during 2020 looking at the landscape I swim in. The glorious vista of Burger King.
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