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.
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!