Swimming after a Setback

I’ve accepted that my brain, can at times, be broken. But when my body lets me down, I’m not quite so accepting……

I write a lot about my mental health and how swimming in the sea with a supportive and kind community improves my wellbeing. What is less known about me, and until now not written about, is my physical health. I have gone back and forth about whether to put this into the public domain. Will I sound ‘poor me’? Do I want to reveal another layer of my vulnerability? At a time when happiness is hard to find is it the right time for me to share my frustration and anger? The decision was made for me when my physical health took a downward turn this week and I was unable to leave the house, let a lone swim. But the kindness of my swimming community kept me going. So here it is, my I can’t make do and I certainly won’t mend story.

15 years ago I slipped on some leaves and fractured my skull. I was unconscious for 2 days and in hospital for a week. As a result I am deaf in one ear and I have no sense of smell. Sounds manageable right? Just wear a hearing aid and really who needs smell? Well me. I do. We all do. Smell and more importantly scents are processed via the amygdala and hippocampus meaning scent can immediately trigger an intense emotion and/or memory.  Your amygdala enables you to feel, to process emotions and respond to situations but, in my case, part of its supply chain has been cut off. Which just leaves rage and anger.  And I can’t wear a bloody hearing aid in the sea, when I’m running, anywhere windy i.e. anywhere outdoors in the UK. But that’s ok I have another working ear. Well no actually it’s not. Due to the way sound waves travel, high-frequency sounds don’t make it round my head to my working ear, I am unable to judge distance by sound when crossing a road, and being in a busy pub, shop or room is totally unbearable at times.  And that’s not the worst of it……..

I have tinnitus – sometimes known as a ringing in the ears but actually it’s more like a whine, a constant never ending whine that fingers in the ears cannot block out. Imagine the sound of static searching for radio or TV station in the 1970s by turning a dial or the morning after a night stood by a speaker at a loud gig. It’s that, but it never goes away. And here’s the one head injury legacy that appears rarely but when it does it leaves me totally floored, Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). This wonderful condition is caused by the crystals that tell you which way is up in your semi-circular canals (inner ear) escape and go off on a little jolly. So they start sending your brain the wrong information about which way you’re facing or which way up your head is, which is complete contradiction to the messages your eyes are sending your brain. The symptoms are dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and falling over. The only relief to be found is lying totally still with your eyes closed. In my case this can go on for days until those pesky crystals find their way home with the help of head manipulation.

If I sound angry, resentful and embittered it’s because I am. I have slowly, over time, come to accept my mental health and although there is no cure I can manage it via medication, rest and of course swimming in the sea. But for my physical health there is no cure, I will not hear or smell again, the tinnitus will never go away and every now and then, normally at the worst time possible, I am totally incapacitated by BPPV. And just to rub salt in the wound, being at logger heads with my physical health results in poor mental health.

I am often referred to (by my mum) as head strong. But I’m really not. My head is broken. I have shoulders of a Russian shot putter and legs that can run and walk for miles but my bloody head is bust. One of the things advocated for good mental health and wellbeing is self-care including time on the sofa, bed and bath. Read a book, watch a box set. But when that is your retreat when your mental health is bad, the irony is you feel worse. And when this is your only option because of BPPV, the accompanying low mood is inevitable. The way I deal with my physical disability is distraction. If I keep busy I can tune out from the tinnitus. If I swim in the sea everyone with me is hearing impaired due to the wind and the waves. If I play and perform the iconic Seabird handstand in the shallows my world is upside down, quite literally which then matches the messages in my brain. In the sea we are the same.

Upside down – an award winning headstand

The relationship you have with your body and it’s impact on your mental health is well researched  and written about. But it focuses more on the shape and size of our body. Body positivity and body confidence campaigns tend to concentrate on the appearance of the body rather than what the body is capable of. I don’t hate my body because of what it looks like. I hate the bit above the shoulders that is broken and stops me from doing the stuff I love and improves my mental health. Not being able to hear stops me from spending time in large groups and in noisy places like pubs and restaurants. I am constantly having to turn my head to be able to lip read which isn’t great for the dizziness and nausea symptoms associated with BPPV. It is also incredibly tiring lipreading and trying to process and filter out of the balance, hearing, sight activity going on in my brain that is in conflict with each other. When your ears say you are looking left but your eyes tell you you’re looking straight forward it’s exhausting.

The relationship between my physical health and my mental health is intrinsically linked. A symptom of my depression is tiredness and staying in bed and it is also a symptom of my BPPV, and impaired processing abilities. A symptom of my anxiety is not being able to face large groups of people and it is also a symptom of not being able to hear what people are saying. So the stuff my mental health stops me from doing is also the stuff my physical health stops me from doing. It’s hard to swim when you can’t turn your head to breathe without wanting to throw up or walk across the shingles without falling over.

But, my love for sea swimming  has been a life saver. Yes I need to use my head to make decisions and assess risks etc but I’m predominantly reliant on my arms and legs – my strength. I don’t need to do front crawl to swim, I can breast stroke, back stroke, float or sit in the shallows. It makes me feel good about myself. I can mask my disabilities in my swimming community. The details of my disability were, until this week, unknown to even my closest swimming friends. The Kath the see in the sea is not the person I have described in this blog. I’m not broken in the water and this is the Kath they know.  It was only because I could not get out of bed, let alone make it to the beach this week that the salty community became aware of my head injury legacy.

Once aware the kindness of community was incredible. I was inundated with offers to drive me places, help me onto the beach and supportive messages of love. The sea was stormy this week, big waves and wind. My BPPV began to improve throughout the week and by Thursday I was ready to give swimming a go. And on Friday I went again. Both swims were wonderfully warm and full of smiling seabirds. I’m always the first into the sea and this was no different.  I love to stride with purpose when I get in. After being knocked over by waves so many times I kinda don’t care if it happens. In fact it is part of the joy, the thrill the exhilaration. And I like this version of me. The capable me.  They say the view you get from the sea is like no other. For me the view I have of myself in the sea is like no other.

Water is a real leveller. Long term the physical damage to by brain is permanent. And there will be times when I cannot swim. But, the sea will always be there, ready, for when I can. And so will the collective consciousness of kindness that is the salty seabirds. And swimming after a setback is oh so so sweet!

Self Love this Valentines Day

Guest Blog by Salty Seabird Claudine and embracing Self Love this Valentaines

Guest Blog by Seabird Claudine.

“Wow, she really loves herself.” It was a serious insult to others when I was growing up.  Conceited, cocky, arrogant.  Probably an offensive slur I had thrown at me at times, when the brash exterior self I showed to the world belied the insecure reality underneath.  “Self-love” was certainly not something I was striving to achieve.  I thought it was a bad thing.  It seemed better to be self-loathing, self-deprecating, self-conscious – all whilst being bubbly and confident, but not too confident, or else you loved yourself.  See the conundrum here?

That was back then.  Over the years, with all the personal development I’ve done, it slowly dawned on me that loving myself wasn’t an act of arrogance and it didn’t mean I thought I was better than everyone else. I realised that self-love was not only acceptable, but maybe even preferable for my mental and emotional wellbeing.
In 2017 I discovered the body image movement, when a friend suggested going to a screening of Embrace, that’s when it really struck me as more than “OK” to have self-acceptance. After a lifetime of dieting, striving for a smaller body, putting things on hold until I’d just reached that next size down, lost those last few pounds, hoping then I would feel more comfortable in my skin, I discovered it didn’t have to be that way.
The content of the documentary about positive body image hit me like a ton of bricks; a ton of bricks I didn’t have to diet-away.  I heard messages I’d never considered, and had a number of genuine light-bulb moments whilst watching the film, as well as some tears at the sadness of the time wasted on diet culture and self-criticism.  We can take for granted that we need to be slender to be attractive, have curves in the right places and not the wrong ones, and that the only way to be healthy is to be slim.  That our skin can’t show the signs of ageing, wrinkles or cellulite, and god forbid we have hair anywhere but on our heads!  We are told from a young age we must strive for the ideal of beauty that we see everywhere, but these days, that ideal is fake.  Big lips, bums and boobs, small waist, ankles and arms.  Photo-shopped, botoxed, filtered, surgeried, dieted, obsessively exercised, waxed, shaved, sat with a make-up artist and hair stylist for hours.  We can’t look like that and it’s not just young women thinking they can and should.

The beauty industry has told us we have flaws so they can sell us creams, exercise plans, diets, pills and even lollipops to fix them; and we fall for it, making them billions of pounds.  Restrictive eating is a slippery slope to eating disorders.  Living our lives striving to be smaller, fitter, smoother, creates a perfect breeding ground for anxiety and depression.  And putting our life on hold and waiting to feel happy when we’ve made that final change that definitely will be the last one, is a recipe for living an unfulfilled life.

I listened recently with sadness to a radio story about a mum whose daughter had stolen her credit card to get botox, fillers and even surgery to improve her looks at 16 years old, and her parents found out the night before she was booked in for a nose job.  The daughter begged her parents to let her go ahead with it, and they eventually agreed, as she was absolutely convinced that the surgery would sort her out, solve her problems, and make her feel good.  And it did: for a few days.  Her problems weren’t physical, they weren’t about the bump on her nose but she had been brainwashed to believe they were, and they’d be fixed by the surgeon’s knife.
What if we started to really believe beauty comes in all forms?  Because it truly does.
What if we saw getting old as something to be celebrated as not everyone gets to do so?  We should welcome each wrinkle as it shows another laugh we shared with loved ones.
What if we learned to value people for more than their looks?  We should realise that we are so much more than the shell that carries us around.
What if we stopped assuming we can tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them?  We should know that thin people get ill, so do fat people, and fat people get ill, and can be healthy.  Also, that people aren’t worth less even if they are unhealthy.
What if we weren’t glorifying obesity by being body positive, but recognising that the mental health crisis we have in society could be somewhat eased if we took this beauty burden off our shoulders.  We would still take care of ourselves, we would move our bodies for fun and to make them stronger.  What if we worked with girls from a young age to believe this, to value and take care of themselves and see beauty inside themselves and others regardless of the outer casing?


I have totally changed my attitude towards exercise.  I do the kind I like as there isn’t only one way of being fit and strong.  I don’t have to force myself to run when I hate it.  I don’t have a marathon in me, or a half, or even any more 10k’s, but I can swim 4km and can yoga like a yogi.  I don’t always do as much exercise as I’d like, but I don’t beat myself up when I don’t, then turn to the biscuit tin because, “well, what’s the point now?”
Since seeing the film, I have felt so much more comfortable in my skin.  The road to self-love, of which a positive body image is just one part, is a journey, and body neutrality is on the way.  For some, that’s where they will get off the train and where they’ll stay, and that’s good enough.  Feeling neutrally towards one’s body is far better than loathing it, and it will give you so much more freedom.
Since seeing the film I discovered outdoor swimming, now in my second winter, and this helped on my body image journey.  It’s pointless worrying about how I look when I’m trying to get dressed and it’s blowing a gale.  I’ve come to respect my body for what it can do, that not everyone’s can, such as walking into 4 degree water and having a swim.  I truly believe this body is worthy, I value my health and wellness, and at times even love it.  There, I’ve said it, some days I love myself, and whilst my 14 year old self still cringes a little inside, my 43 year old self knows that’s OK.  So this Valentine’s day, if you haven’t already tried saying it to yourself, go on, have a go.  You might even believe it.

I hope you can join us for our next screening of Embrace: 13th Feb, 7.30 at the Walrus pub in Brighton.  Tickets on Eventbrite, here:  https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/embrace-the-documentary-hove-tickets-90587253915

claudine8

It’s not only fine feathers that make fine birds

An afternoon modelling swimwear with creative, kind and accomplished women left this Seabird walking on water.

So this week I have been a swimwear model. Fortunately it was a sunny day in Brighton as I was photographed wearing very little apart from Deakin & Blue Swimwear. An easy collaboration for me.

The company was created by a formidable female, who promotes body positivity and rejects mainstream media and it’s enthusiasm for airbrushing.

As a sea swimmer who cares deeply about the state of our seas, this swimwear is made from ocean friendly econyl.

 

Photographer         

The photographer for the shoot was Coral, the face behind the camera at Salt Images. Coral is not only brilliant at what she does she is also brilliant with people which evident in the images she creates. She has a very gentle approach and is almost ethereal in her movements. You cannot help but be drawn to her and when you get there, you feel safe. She, like me, is a big believer in the healing power of the sea and captures this in every photograph.

Concept and Direction

Rosie is a woman of many talents. She set up Deakin & Blue swimwear brand as a direct response to not being able to find a swimming costume that fitted and made her feel good.  She has a hands on approach when it comes to her business and when she is not revolutionising swimwear she can be found answering customer queries, providing a very personal approach. On this day, she was the creative director as no-one knows the concept better than the woman that created it!

Models

There were 5 models that day, myself included but due to the timings of the shoot I only had the pleasure of meeting Mel. Mel had travelled all the way up from the West Country and was staying in Brighton for a few days so she joined the Salty Seabirds for a couple of swims while she was here. Mel has an infectious smile and a strong sense of adventure. She epitomises wild cold swimming and I can see why she stood out from the crowd and was asked to be a model for the day.

Me

I was modelling a couple of cosies and I stripped off quite happily as I am accustomed to doing on the beach on a regular basis. When I realised everyone on the seafront could see me, I just turned around to preserve a modicum of dignity. I have never had a problem with body confidence. When asked to adjust my swimwear, again I was more than comfortable to pull it down and have a good root around until I had put it on properly. But I was dreading being in front of the camera.

I have been eating and drinking a lot lately and am in a bit of a funk. So not overly happy with the way I look at the moment. Along with low resilience comes low self-esteem – like an unhappily married couple. But it was more than that. It was a low level, quiet but constant, internal dialogue that I really didn’t know was there. Until I listened and it gained an external self-depreciating voice.

I cannot believe how many negative comments I made about myself all day. It began to get embarrassing. Loosely disguised as humour I pointed out all of the bits I am less than fond of. Teenage tattoos, small boobs, pebble pedicured feet. Even in response to the positive comments I was receiving I was able to turn them into a negative. Think “Your hair looks amazing in that shot” “yeah I had it cut and coloured recently, it normally looks like a bleached birds nest”.

The reasons why we think such negative thoughts about our bodies is well documented. No one is immune and body confidence doesn’t translate into body positivity. But I was still astonished at the volume and frequency of my negative thoughts. I assumed I was body positive as the older I get the less I give a toss what others think of me. But it turns out that’s not as true as I thought. Yes I have a strong attitude, yes I wear what I want, and no I don’t wear makeup, brush my hair or shower very often. But the internal dialogue is still there.

Alongside an awakening that I have more work to do in the body positivity department was a wonderful afternoon in amazing company. An all-female cast of photographer, make-up artist, models and CEO all creating a hugely positive environment. The energy was off the scale. I learnt that what I see as flaws others see as beauty and strength. Turns out these ‘flaws’ are what makes me stand out and why I was asked to model. I felt fierce in front of the camera!

In the company of other strong, successful, kind and considerate women of the water I felt at ease and empowered. Seeing myself through someone else’s eyes uplifted me and encouraged me to see myself as others do. A sea swimmer with a strong and capable body that can rock a mango and coral swim suit. In that moment I was body positive. Their comments, and how I felt that afternoon will stay with me forever.

Try it. Say something positive to people. If we do it enough to each other it may just drown out the negative thoughts.

Author: Seabird Kath

Note from the Author: I am now the proud owner of the mango and coral swimsuit and have taken her out on her maiden voyage. Two complete strangers complimented me on how wonderful it looked as I made my way into the sea.  I could have walked on water – but I didn’t – I got in and had a swim!

 

AnyBODY can swim

The thing about swimming is anybody can do it. No matter how big or small or able bodied, anybody can get in the water

I love open water swimming. I love the cold. I love the friends I have made. I love the sense of community. I love the tea and cake afterwards. I love the stillness of floating. I love the joy of jumping over waves. I love the calm of being submerged. I love the way I feel post swim. But most of all I love the total and utter rejection of the idea that only certain body types can swim.

The thing about swimming is anybody can do it. No matter how big or small or able bodied. Anybody can get in the water and experience the texture, movement, temperature on their skin. You may need a hoist, or a wheelchair. You may need a flotation device or some one to physically support you. You may not be able to propel yourself through the water but you may be able to float. You may not be able to see it, hear it, smell it or taste it, but you will be able to feel it. Feel the weightlessness, feel the cold, feel the energy of it. However you experience it, anybody can swim.

The Salty Seabirds really are all shapes and sizes. One of the many things I love about our flock is the contagious body confidence that has spread as we strip on the beach in full view of passing tourists, dog walkers and other swimmers. You don’t have time to worry about who can see your bits as you race against the tide and swim shakes to dress your numb stinging body. And contrary to what the name Seabirds suggests, we have some, albeit few, male sea swimmers in our numbers. They have seen ours and we have seen theirs.

Along with body confidence there is a huge amount of body positivity which again is infectious. You would assumed the two go hand in hand but they don’t. I have masses of body confidence, brought up with a practically naturist mother, there were naked bodies constantly on display in my youth. However, I had 2 caesarians which left me loathing a body that had failed at the 11th hour and has left me with a permanent physical reminder. I was unable to see it’s strength at carrying two babies. I had the confidence to be naked but I didn’t have a positive relationship with my body as I focused on the aesthetics and the final few minutes of my pregnancies.

This has changed since sharing swims with the Salty Seabirds. The people I share my swims with have had a profound impact on my relationship with my body. No longer do I measure my body’s strength and success by how many marathons I have run, or how fast but by the everyday things I rely on it to do. How it can get me to the beach to meet my friends. How it adapts to cold water and keeps me afloat. How all of my senses process the sights, sounds and smells of my wild swimming experiences. This is it’s strength and success. It didn’t and doesn’t let me down. People often ask me how I do it? How do I get in water that cold? My response is a kind of shrug. Hopefully not an arrogant or nonchalant one, but definitely a shrug. I have come to take my body’s ability to adapt to the cold sea temperature for granted – it is only when I take a step back and consider what an accomplishment that is, that I can see it’s strength and success. But it isn’t just my body that can do it. Anybody’s can!

Without intention we are pigeon-holed by others and ourselves as a ‘type’ of person from a very early age. Seabird Cath refers to herself as ‘not your typical sporty type’ because she didn’t fall into that category at school. However, she has forged a new relationship with her body since cold water swimming. She is able to see past her previous label and see herself as a resilient sea swimmer which her strong body enables her to be.

How we see ourselves and our bodies has a profound affect on our confidence in its abilities. We are quite literally bombarded with the opinions of others on our bodies from a very early age. From people we know – think elderly relative squeezing our cheeks and calling us chubby, to people we don’t know – think glossy magazines telling us what every celebrity weighs and it is less than us. (This is a particularly pet hate. Unless you are stood in said celebrity’s bedroom looking at the number of the scales they are standing on, how on earth do you know how much they f@?king weigh?)

Two Salty Seabirds Christine and Claudine have come together to create a workshop called ‘Think, Eat, Move’. The ‘Think’ part encourages participants to question how we see ourselves and challenge the media messages of what a body should look like. Once you’ve come to terms with the ‘Think’ you then move onto the ‘Eat’ and ‘Move’ parts. The focus being no good or bad foods but rather fuel for our bodies and no arbitrary goal driven forms of exercise but movement being enjoyable and as a way to look after our bodies so it will look after us later in life.

We weren’t born feeling a certain way about our bodies or focusing on how our limbs, skin and hair look to ourselves and the outside world. Tanya Shadrick spent a season as the writer in residence at Pells Pool. She wrote in long hand on scrolls for her project ‘Wild Patience: Laps in Longhand”, a mile of written word. I had the pleasure of listening to Tanya read an extract one summers evening at Swim Talks hosted by Sea Lanes and it has stayed with me every since. Not only did the smooth velvety tones of her spoken word captivate me but so did her written words as she recalled a time when she was 9 years old, free from being labelled a type she loved herself which she only learnt to do again in her 40s. We all need to be that 9 year old girl again.

I, along with many Salty Seabirds have managed to find our 9 year old selves – she hides herself well and can be really hard to find but if you look for long enough she will appear. At every moon gazey swim, jump through a wave, dive off a jetty – she is right there smiling and screeching happy to be found again. She is able, she is confident, she is positive and she is inside every one of us. Come swim with us and you will find her because anybody can swim!

Author: Seabird Kath

P.S. Read the Tania Shadrick extract – it is incredible – click on this link