Two years ago I had the worst summer of my life.
I was suffering from the most intense wave of anxiety I’d ever experienced and it was making it difficult to leave the house for long periods of time. One of the things that helped a lot was swimming.
Swimming didn’t cure my anxiety, that’s an ongoing process which has evolved as I’ve gotten older, but it helped me to gain a sense of control over a body that I felt disconnected from. Like a moving meditation, I used to repeat mantras to myself with each stroke to block out the thoughts and feelings which threatened to overwhelm me.
I heard the voice of my childhood swimming teacher:
Pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide, pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide
I replaced it with the words I needed to hear:
I am alive, I am alive, I-am-alive, I-am-alive
I am ok, I am ok, I-am-ok, I-am-ok
This will end, this will end, this-will-end, this-will-end
I spent the last two summers in Berlin where I was working for my year abroad. I lived in a suburb in the south west, an easy train ride away from large lakes perfect for swimming. I took every opportunity to go, alone or with friends, to feel the cold water and the rhythm of a good swim.
When I moved last summer, I needed that calming feeling again. I needed to feel a sense of control after it felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under my entire life. People talk about how a year abroad is fun and life changing, but they forget it’s also terrifying and settling can take a long time. Swimming gave me the feeling, if only temporarily, that everything was normal again. For a few minutes I could be back at the pool with my mum, thinking about the coffees we were going to have when we got out. Or I could be nowhere at all, zoned out and trying desperately not to think about anything at all.
This summer I’ve been back to the lakes more times than I can count. I waited all spring for the water to melt and for the temperature to rise enough to make swimming bearable. I am able to swim now just because I love it, rather than to escape my reality.
The lakes surrounding Berlin are deep, formed by glaciers, and as I swim out to the middle I like to think about the massive expanse which has opened up below me. I am floating above a chasm which I will never see the bottom of, made by something so huge and ancient. I sometimes find it hard to see what people find so interesting about pots and vases in museums, but when I am in the middle of the lake, I feel a deep sense of connection to the past. I imagine it is the same feeling they get when they look at objects made by humans long ago. I know that I am just a tiny slice of this lake’s history. I am a passer-by.
I am not a particularly good swimmer, but I love to swim, especially outside. There is something deeply satisfying about the feeling of pushing off into water. It feels like breathing out. There is nothing like the weightless glide and cold shiver of the first dive. I’ve been swimming so long that my movements are automatic and I can let my body take over. For the most part, all that runs through my head is the steady rhythm, pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide. It is time to myself and to look after my body.
Looking towards the coming year, I want to keep prioritising looking after myself. This year away from Cambridge has been great for my mental health as I’ve taken more time for self-care and self-reflection. I want to keep my focus on my well-being and remember that personal success is more important than academic success. And of course, I’m planning to keep swimming when I can. Because at my worst I still need reminding: I am alive, I am ok, and this will end.
Image credit: pics_by_nics