I edge down the steps gingerly, taking my time to let the shock of the change in temperature ripple across my skin. The water folds over my feet, ankles, my shins, knees as I lower myself bit by bit, inch by inch, one step at a time. I pause for a moment when it reaches the mid-section of my thighs, to steady the ragged breath as it comes in and out. There’s an uncertainty to it, as if no matter how many times I do it, there will always be a moment of learning that comes with every visit. I walk slowly, submerging my body bit by bit, taking my time to notice the sensations as they change. There’s a pooling in my belly button under the neoprene of my swimming costume, the momentary shiver as the water rushes down my back and my hands rest on the surface, the cold edging under my neoprene gloves. I lower my chest, the sounds of the world around me distorting as I push my face through the pool’s icy surface, and I begin to swim.
And it is as if a switch has been flicked. As if the noise of the world around me and the noise inside my head has been dulled. There is a release. I escape. No longer am I wondering if I am enough. No longer do I question every movement, every thought. I am certain in myself. Certain of myself, certain of my ability to glide through the water, to propel myself for length after length, to control the breath as it enters my lungs, prickling with each expansion and contraction.
I have been swimming through the winter months at Brockwell Lido, one of London’s unheated, outdoor pools. If we’ve spoken over the last few months, I will have told you. If you follow me on social media, you will have seen every snap documenting the season. I have swum in the rain, I have swum while the wind has whipped around me, I have swum while the sun has glistened on the ends of my eyelashes. I have swum in water as cold as 4.8 degrees and as warm as 9.8 degrees (earlier today). The water has been different every time I have pulled on my swimming costume and made my way across to Herne Hill. I have been different every time I have pulled on my swimming costume and made my way across to Herne Hill. I have been sad and I have been desolate and I have been excited and I have been hopeful. I have been lost and I have been found and I have felt loved and I have felt lonely. But one thing has been constant. And that’s the awe I feel at my body’s ability to adapt and change to whatever is thrown at it and the appreciation I have for the quiet I feel in my chest when the cold water rushes across it.
It has been a strange few months. The book I have written now exists in the world and at the moment, I feel very little. I have no sense of pride in my achievement, and I am feeling little to no joy from completing this project. I have had flashes of delight and gratitude – when so many people gathered at the book launch, when I saw an advertisement for it on an enormous billboard that someone had offered me on a pro bono basis – but most of all, I have felt an overwhelming concern that it is not enough. That I am not enough. That I will never be enough. Enough for who, I have no idea. At the moment, I just feel nothing.
But in the pool, I’m forced to feel everything. Every milimeter of the skin that covers my organs and holds my blood inside fizzes with sensations. The feminine layers of subcutaneous fat that exist around my hips and on my bum become electrified. I’m brought right back to the very bones of what it means to be human – our bodies. I stop thinking about all the things I need to do, all the things I haven’t done, all the things I wish I could do. My tendency to berate myself harshly and unrelentingly does not exist in the pool. All that matters is my breath, the lengths, and knowing when I’ve had enough. When my body has reached it’s limits.
I have learned a lot about myself over the recent months and I have no doubt these learnings will continue. There’s something to be said for the resilience of our bodies, their ability to adapt and change regardless of what we put them through, whether it’s cancer treatment, or training for a half marathon, or having the wild idea to submerge your body in dwindling temperatures of water every week. Your body knows what you need. And it knows what to do in most situations. It’s the way we are designed. And that is marvellous and magnificent to me.
There’s a lot of chat about the idea that cold water swimming cures depression. I do not believe that it does. But I do believe that it can be a great tool to have in your arsenal should you and your brain regularly get into clashes with one another. If you already like to swim, you might find that the buzz you get from temperatures that drop and rise with the changing seasons helps you feel alive, reminds you what it is to be a human, which can be a useful thing to experience when the demons in your brain are telling you that you don’t deserve to exist. But to say that cold water swimming cures depression is, to me, about as helpful as telling someone to stop doing chemotherapy and just introduce broccoli to their diet. It minimises an enormous problem. Broccoli might be a great addition to your diet if you’re going through cancer treatment, but it is just that – an addition. It should never be used as a replacement for conventional treatments. The same goes for cold water swimming. It’s a tool that might give you some relief. It might keep the beasts at bay or it might not. I can’t tell you what it will do for you, all I can tell you is what it has done for me, and it has become as crucial for my mental welfare as my antidepressants, my CBT techniques and it’s become a key part of my mindfulness practice.
I love swimming. I love cold water swimming. It has kept me going through some really weird times this winter. But let’s not get carried away and start presenting it as a miracle cure. Let’s enjoy it for what it is and reap the benefits it rewards without asking it to do more than bring a bit of joy to the life of those who love it. A lifeline. A love affair. But not a cure.