WILD SWIMMING HAS GIVEN ME BACK MY SENSE OF SELF
Anxiety and a breakdown left Katie feeling like a stranger in her own body. But the sea helped her put the pieces back together again.
As a healthy and happy 36-year-old woman I worked hard, enjoyed life and passionately cared for those around me. I was an organiser who liked to get things done. Rarely sitting down I was always doing, sorting, fixing and providing. That was until two years ago, when I became gravely unwell. Without realising it I had become a victim of doing far too much.
As a deputy and lecturer at a local college teaching hundreds of teenagers, a mother to my son and two step sons, a homemaker and a carer for father, I’d begun to buckle under the weight of it all. I had always been so healthy, a regular runner and a lover of the great outdoors but I now I felt abnormally fatigued, suffering with constant headaches, twitching muscles and overwhelming nausea. I felt anxious and dizzy and my sleep became disrupted with constant worries and racing thoughts.
Looking back the warning signs that I was slowly collapsing had started to show. I felt overwhelmed and teary at work and my bright and vibrant self was gradually fading to dark. All the stress and chaos in my mind was coming out as physical symptoms and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“Sleep deprived and alone, I felt like a stranger in my own body.”
Without so much as a day off for a cold in the previous 10 years I was eventually signed off indefinitely by my GP and quickly spiralled into an anxious depression. With no job to go to my sense of self-worth had been completely eradicated. As my anxiety took hold I developed chronic insomnia, becoming too afraid to go to sleep. 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 and I just couldn’t find my way back. I was inconsolable, my heart destroyed by the haunting fear that my son would never get his mum back and that I would never be the happy woman that he once knew.
After continued sleepless nights I would regularly walk at dawn, exhausted and defeated, down to Battery Rocks and the sea at Penzance where I live. I would sit and watch it as the sun rose, sobbing silently into my sleeve for hours, staring at the horizon and willing it to give me answers. There is a real comfort to be found in Mother Nature, the expanse, the vastness of such a large open space. I felt less alone, like I was part of a bigger picture and in all my isolation I still belonged to nature.
One morning a man smiled at me as he passed on his way for a swim and asked if I was OK. As usual I said I was fine, trying to pack up my things and scuttle away. 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.
“I was inconsolable that I may never find my way back to me.”
He was one of a group of swimmers who regularly took a dawn dip at Battery Rocks and I gradually explained my story to them. 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.
Every day from then on I was greeted by a smiling swimming tribe, many well into their 70s and 80s, 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, but strangely I felt looked after by the older swimmers, some of whom swam just in their costumes every day whatever the weather. I felt so inspired by their own stories of stress, anxiety and loss and how swimming helped them, but I was still terrified of the darkness of my own mind.
People always ask me how I even managed to get in the sea if I was so terribly unwell, but by then I didn’t care anymore; I had fought and fought and become so incredibly weary that I’d given up the fight. Little did I know that in letting go I was finally going to find the key to setting me free.
“If I can swim in the cold winter sea at dawn I can cope with anything that might come my way.”
The sense of friendship, security and community was amazing and from just standing in the water, terrified on the steps, to gradually managing a few strokes, swimming slowly made me feel a little more like me again. My breakdown had stripped away my sense of self, my courage, joy, motivation and pride. It was daily swimming in the sea that brought all that back. Anti-depressants lifted me to a level of basic existence, but it was the battling of the winter storms, braving snow and hail showers in just a swimming costume, laughing in the rain and powering through spring’s rolling waves that rebuilt the entire jigsaw.
The sea 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.
Daily sea swimming brought my confidence back. It made me feel proud of myself, like I had done something extraordinary that 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.
“I could just get in and let myself be part of something that was bigger than me.”
My recovery took just over a year and I still swim every day at dawn before work. I now realise that my breakdown was caused by not doing anything just for me and having no quiet time and daily peace of mind. Swimming gives me that. I still have all my responsibilities and I’m back at work, but I ensure that I regularly top up my energy levels by honouring my daily morning swim.
It can be life changing to suddenly stand up and say “Hey what about me?” I am now more productive and creative, my life has changed in so many ways since following a road that was just about my interests. My perspective on my whole life has shifted dramatically. I’m no longer trying to be a selfless super women. I now know when to say no, when to protect myself and what is my role – and what isn’t. Swimming helped me to let go of what I could no longer carry.
If I can swim in the cold winter sea at dawn then I can cope with anything that might come my way. It restores the natural calm and childlike wonder that we all need to flourish and to grow. And after being so afraid of my own broken mind for so long I am not afraid of the sea or what I might find in it.
Daily swimming in the sea rebuilt all the parts of myself that were lost. Medication can give you back a slight sense of normality, but it cannot 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.
Tonic of the Sea is an award-winning, BAFTA nominated short film directed by Jonathan J Scott about Katie’s recovery from her breakdown caused by burnout. Katie’s self-help book, Tonic of the Sea will be published imminently.