As a kid growing up in land-locked Wiltshire, the sea was something that my parents drove me to a few times a year – to look at. We would never get in, except for that laughably British scene on a hot Summer’s day of rolling our trouser legs up, then tentatively putting a toe in to the water and squealing that ‘it’s freezing’ before running back up the beach for an ice cream. And so, to me, the sea became something to be feared: lovely to watch, but terrifying to get into. And that fear stuck with me in to adult life. I’ve travelled the world, been to some amazing beaches, but can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve actually got in the sea, let alone tried to swim in it.
Fast-forward forty-odd years and I found myself battling a different demon. December 2019, my body and mind stopped working properly, they just shut down one day and I went to bed and didn’t get up in any meaningful way for many, many weeks. I’d suffered burnout. I’d been spinning too many plates for too long and my body just said, ‘enough!’. And as I fought to get myself upright and functioning, depression crept in.
That led to four months that I hope I’ll never experience again. The darkest of times, which in all honestly, I feared I may never get through. But, I’m pleased to say, six months on, I’m well. In fact, I’m feeling better than I have in years. A combination of therapy, medication and self-care sees me back to my best. But what has this got to do with the sea? Well, having faced the fear of going public with my burnout experience and come through it stronger, I thought perhaps I ought to address my fear of the sea, especially when I’d become aware of the positive benefits that open water swimming can have on mental health. Also, living on an island 9 x 5 miles, I’d be crazy not to take advantage of that huge, free mood-boosting playground on my doorstep, right??! And particularly at a time when I was trying to withdraw from the anti-depressant tablets that had shored me up for so long.
It was the fear of the unknown that was stopping me taking the plunge (literally) with sea swimming. So I called upon Sally Minty-Gravett, a local swimming legend whose name will be known to swimmers world-wide, and booked six half-hour lessons with her. I figured her unflappable ‘seen it all before’ experience would reassure me. For my first lesson, she took me to St Catherine’s slip, at high tide, on a gloriously hot sunny day. The water was clear, calm and inviting. Had I not been terrified. I stood on the edge of the slip and gibbered and prevaricated whilst she coaxed me in. One. Foot. At. A. Time. I was waist-deep. Then I put my shoulders in. Then my face. This was okay! Then I swam (an embarrassing breaststroke/doggy-paddle combo) over the slip, checking every few seconds that I could still see the bottom. The sense of euphoria was immense!
Three lessons and ten sea swims later, I’m hooked. And it’s not just physical enjoyment I’m getting from it, the mental benefits have been immediate and profound.
Whilst I may not look elegant as I try to control my breathing, my stroke and my fear, inside a sense of calm and clarity washes over me as I focus solely on getting from one end of the bay to the other (no mean feat for a novice like me!). The cold water immerses me and – literally and metaphorically – washes away whatever might be troubling me. My heart pumps harder and yet the inner chatter quietens. Couple that with the cameraderie and support of new-found swim-friends (thanks Bella, you’re a star!), stepping out of the water after a swim – even a swim of just ten minutes – brings a rush of endorphins, a feeling of wellbeing and sense of achievement. Indeed, I’ve felt so well that I’ve managed to halve my anti-depressant dose and am now transitioning to come off them completely within the next few weeks. I’m convinced that the mental strength to overcome my fear and to swim regularly has allowed me to do that without the ‘brain zaps’ or the sudden lows that are often experienced with anti-depressant withdrawal.
If you’d have said to me six months ago that I would be off medication and a regular sea swimmer, I’d have said you’re mad. But I guess it just shows that if you can conquer your fears, be open about your experiences, seek support from others and take the plunge, a whole new – and better – world opens up. Sea swimming is now a fundamental part of my self-care toolbox, buoying me up against those waves of self-doubt, low mood and stress which will inevitably crop up again in the future. But this time, I know that sea swimming will see me safely through those waves.