Woman cannot live on Swims alone

I’m all come swim with me until the summer when I have no desire to swim. Or is it because I have no need to swim?

It’s that time of year again when the inevitable summer swim slump occurs. Life gets busy and the beach gets busy. I find myself muttering under my breath about fair weather swimmers as I approach our increasingly crowded favourite spot of shingle in front of Hove Lawns. Hardly aligned with my belief that swimming is for all and everyone should give it a go. The warmer waters remove the temperature barrier that prevents so many from swimming in the sea. This is a good thing. But still it keeps me away from my sacred sea.

It’s not that I like solitude when I am swimming. I have written many times about the sense of community and connection I gain from swimming with others. But I also do not like crowds. Too many people, too much noise, bodies invading my fiercely protected personal space overwhelms my over sensitive brain. I also fiercely protect my swimming space and when I see plastic all over the pebbles I want to weep. Hardly my happy place in the summer months.

My swim squad also disperses across Europe on their holidays. They share images of Italian Lakes, Yorkshire Tarns, French Rivers and Greeks Seas. They have all found secret swim spots, a Salty Seabird haven away from our busy beaches. There really is nothing better than finding a swim spot with family and friends and there is no one else there. You’ve hit the wild swimming jackpot. This is impossible in Brighton and Hove as the beaches are always busy in the summer and good old Sussex by the sea is a wild swimmers dry spot. There are rivers and lakes in abundance but they are not accessible to the public. I scroll through neighbouring Surrey’s wild swim group in envy at the access they have to the Thames and the River Wey. The Wild Swim guide books offer no real alternative to the sea in Sussex.

The alternative would be getting up at sunrise before the beach gets busy. Not really a hard task for an early riser like me. What ever the season I will wake up between 5-5.30am every day. During the summer months it is light enough to head down to the beach for a swim. Seabird Christine runs the 6.15am club and most mornings partakes in a dawn dip so I would even have Salty company. But I just can’t seem to muster the enthusiasm during the hot months. I think I may be a cold water junkie. If the sea temperature is below double digits it seems to be more appealing. During the summer the sea is room temperature, which for me, is a bit bath like.

I am currently on holiday in France where they have a much more tolerant attitude towards swimming outdoors than we do in the England. There are Lakes and rivers in abundance close to where I am staying. But, in all honesty lakes just don’t do it for me, especially when they are 25 degrees. I class the Mediterranean as a Salty Lake – not a sea. The water level is low so the rivers near by are too shallow to swim in. With lots of research and driving around I could no doubt find a suitable deep bend in a river. But I came on holiday to relax and read not to swim. And I am just as happy to be dry for the duration.

So what happens to my mental health during these times of drought, when I am an advocate of outdoor swimming as a way of managing wellbeing. As I write this, with a glass on rosé sitting on a veranda in Provence in the cool outdoor air I am happy. I have in fact been happy all summer long, even with a reduction in regular swims. Life has been by no means smooth swimming, life isn’t for anyone, but I have experienced no significant episodes of anxiety or depression. Which has made me consider why. Don’t get me wrong I am glad not to be sad but I wonder why.

Cold water swimming is just one thing in my arsenal against my mental health demons. I have lots of other things that are working alongside regular sea swimming. They have been been doing their thing in the background consistently as the dips have dwindled. Supplements, talking, rest, new experiences, good books, digital downtime, exercise, dog walks; are just some of the things in the mental health ammunition box that allow people to continue to cope. I am fortunate to have access to them all.

I have a husband and a business partner that keep me in check and tell me to slow down when I am accelerating at a rate of knots that is not necessary. Down time away from digital distractions is a necessary part of my mental maintenance but difficult to balance when you run your own business. Being disciplined with my down time and clever with scheduling has had a positive impact on my wellbeing.

I am currently well rested. Lots of early nights and saying no to too many evenings out has enabled me to manage and recover from numerous Seabird evening sessions, lessons and events. Now I am on holiday and the pace has definitely slowed to a crawl. If we are lucky, the kids may rise before lunchtime, so our excursions are mainly low key and local. I have entire mornings to read, write, think.

I know these things, amongst others, are working on my wellbeing. They are the hidden cogs that aren’t as visible as my sea swimming. My shoulder was injured for months preventing me from doing any swimming of substance. Yes I was frustrated but I accepted it. The busy beaches have reduced my swim time to once a week but I don’t mind. I am on holiday and the main focus isn’t finding a swim spot and that’s OK.

Don’t get me wrong the desire to jump into any body of water I happen to stumble across is still there. And I cannot wait to get back to the pebble, waves and community of my favourite Hove beach. But for now I am just as happy out of the water

Author: Seabird Kath

Connect 4 – The connections I make when Sea Swimming

A couple of months ago, Seabirds hosted a wellbeing talk led by Dr Catherine Kelly who wears many hats, one of which is super supportive Salty Seabird! She also has decades of experience as a wellbeing practitioner, more qualifications than anyone I have ever met and an incredible passion and enthusiasm for helping others find their happy place. Hers, like mine, is on the beach or in the sea.

Recently, Catherine facilitated a free Wellbeing and Water presentation – which was booked up within 24 hours! The 3 speakers, all academics, shared some of their research work  on how being in or near the sea can make us feel well. The theory of water and wellness that has stayed with me, resonated with me, made me consider me, was Catherine’s reference to connection. Our connection to others (1), ourselves (2), the sea (3) and environment (4) are all made possible by sea swimming.

I have talked and written at length about the sense of connection I experience from swimming with a group. In a fragmented world, the need for connection, collaboration and community has never been more necessary. The Salty Seabirds have grown from a few to the many, some I have never met, some have names I don’t know, some swim in different spots, some swim long distances and some dip. But I am connected to them. So incredibly diverse and different but connected. Connected by a shared passion for the sea. Connected by a shared belief in it’s healing properties. Connected by the shared need for respite and rest and the ability to find it by the sea. Connected by sharing cake and tea post swim.

I have considered my adult relationships over the last few years, as many of my close friends have drifted away. My aunt always says “friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for life”. Whether you connect for a reason, season or for life, as long as there is human connection it will enhance your wellbeing. Connection with the Salty Seabirds gives me a sense of belonging to a group, a sense of identity, a great support system, and reason not to feel lonely when I am overwhelmed. I have learned so much from the Salty Seabird awareness and acumen, and we have learned  together by sea swimming alongside those we connect with in the group.

I also feel more connected with myself by the sea. As much as I love the company of others I tend to keep my connecting conversations on the beach. Once I enter the water I search for solitude. Even if we are all swimming together in a group I will swim head down for lengths of time or distance only lifting my head to check everyone is still together or to wait for people. Like many other swimmers, I get into a rhythm while all of my senses experience the water. Strangely this distraction makes me feel most connected to myself. I can have a conversation with myself. Check in with myself. The self that I can only be when I have prioritised self care.

I love being on a beach and again even if I am with a group, I am not. A family walk on cliff tops, a sunbed snooze, a cosy cup of tea hidden in dunes, I am still very much in the moment in my mind, which I am unable to do anywhere else. Or rather I do not allow myself to be in the moment in my mind anywhere else. Here my mind is allowed to drift, noise of others talking, playing, arguing fades into the background. This is my mindfulness.

“So that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again.”Virginia Woolf

My mind creates its own connections during these rare times when it is not taking self awareness into the realms of anxious fantasy, causing a riot of ridiculous, but to me very real thoughts. I always thought with a free reign my mind would continue to negatively overthink every situation, encounter, experience, But quite the opposite. It seems to find self awareness solutions and solace. The sea’s assault on my senses works as a trigger for me to subconsciously re-connect with myself. According to Dr. Wallace Nichols, science shows that being by the sea (he says ocean), we become more self-referential, more thoughtful, with greater insight, creativity, and awe. I have my best thoughts by the sea. I make my best decisions by the sea. I have the best ideas by the sea.

When I swim in the sea, I feel part of it, connected to it at a fundamental level. It is very different to the other ways humans connect with nature. When you walk in the countryside you are not really in it, just an observer. When you cycle across mountains or climb to the summit you are aided or propelled by your equipment. But when you are swimming, you are in it. Not on it, or around it, but immersed in it. And you need no equipment other than yourself. When you enter the water you do just that, you enter it become part of it it, connect with it. You connect with the sea in a way like no other. And it provides you with perspective. We are insignificant in terms or our size and strength. It’s a thing of wonder, which allows you to wonder.

The only way we will protect our seas reverse the damage already done is to connect with the sea and the beach environment. It is only when humans connect with their environment that they will become it’s protector and custodian. Think of the projects that have been successful in inner cities where crime and antisocial behaviour was high. They encourage young people to take pride in their locality and create safe spaces. As a direct consequence vandalism and littering is reduced. I feel fiercely protective of my playground, the lungs of the earth, the sea. My heart breaks when I see the state of the beach after the summer crowds have left for the day. They haven’t connected to it, it isn’t their happy place, they feel no responsibility for keeping it clean. It is only when you feel connected to your environment that pollution, at an individual level, can be tackled.

Connect 4, the four ways I can connect by swimming in the sea. I connect with my community, myself, the sea, my environment. It is only when we connect that things really work!

Author: Seabird Kath

We Came, We Swam, We Conquered

A reflection on our Women, Wellbeing and Water course

For as long as we have been swimming together, Catherine and I have talked of making the sea accessible to others. In the sea, where all the best ideas are borne, we came up with Women, Wellbeing and Water. A course aimed at giving women the confidence to get in the sea for respite and relaxation and to escape the day to day. 

With the help of a National Lottery grant and funding from Paddle Round the Pier Charity Festival, we have been able to turn our talk into action. We have the beaches of Brighton and Hove on our doorstep but it is still under-utilised by so many. The idea was to help women that wouldn’t normally have the confidence to don a swimsuit or wetsuit access the benefits of sea swimming that we have both experienced over the last few years. We know how much sea swimming has helped us and people around us, to get through some difficult times.

We ran a pilot session in September 2018 after funding was secured, which allowed us to try out our ideas and gain valuable feedback from participants. Then in June this year we launched our first course. All swimmers on the course were referred to us by Brighton Housing Trust’s Threshold Women’s Services. The service supports those with issues including anxiety, depression, self-harm, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, parenting issues, birth trauma and perinatal depression. The demand for the course was high and it was full within 24 hours.

We very much intended the course to be participant led, free from arbitrary goals. As part of the pre-course paperwork we asked them what they hoped to gain from the course. We knew our aims, what were theirs? Confidence was a reoccurring theme.

Greater confidence around other people and in the water particularly. More knowledge about being in the water and it’s benefits.”

“Confidence and resilience”

“Confidence and company”

“The confidence and momentum to swim regularly in the sea”

“Happiness, enjoyment, confidence”

And this aim really struck a chord as it echoed our reason for swimming in the sea!

“Positive mental and physical wellbeing and a return to who I truly am rather than the stressed version of my current self”

After our pilot session we were contacted by Dr Heather Massey from the University of Portsmouth. She and her colleagues are working on a research funding application to investigate the use of outdoor swimming for depression. As a result they need as much controlled quantitative data as possible relating to ‘new’ swimmers. If you ask an existing wild swimmer if they think it has a positive impact on their wellbeing they are liable to wax lyrical for what seems like forever. What Heather and her team need is data relating to swimmers that identified as having wellbeing issues and were ‘new’ to sea swimming. So our swimmers completed questionnaires before their first swim, after their first swim at at the end of the course to measure any changes in their levels of wellbeing, which we hope will provide more insight. Whilst we understand the need for this type of data collection in the world of academia, especially if you want to effect change, we were more drawn to the wonderful anecdotal comments………

How have you found outdoor swimming?

It was amazing experience, so freezing, joyful and hypnotising. Life giving and relaxing. Friendly atmosphere and felt so looked after.

Fantastic. It has been great learning about the sea, current, tides etc but the sense of a group experiencing the water together is lovely

Life affirming. It has lifted my mood and given  the confidence and encouragement to plan on making it a regular habit.

Will you swim in the outdoors again?

Definitely yes. It was life giving experience to feel nature,  waves and still feel safe as I was look after well in the water by Cathy. I loved sound and feel of the sea, which made me feel happy, relaxed and enthusiastic. I feel energetic, optimistic included and better to deal with problems and chronic pains in the future. Thank you for a great experience.

Yes. I’ve joined the seabirds and started swimming with others. Its life enhancing actually life changing. Thanks so much!

I will definitely swim outdoors again – in fact I have already ventured in a couple of times between lessons. I feel so grateful to have had the privilege of being amongst such kind and encouraging experienced swimmers and I would really like to start meeting up. I would also like to maybe learn how to do the crawl, and would like to hear of any lessons….

The reference to swimming with others, the sense of community and connection which provided the confidence to swim in the sea. This is at the heart of the Salty Seabird Sea Swimming group. So much so, that many of our group volunteered to join the new swimmers each week to swim, guide, assist, chat with them. And drink tea and eat cake with them at the end of every session of course. It is these swimmers that encouraged the new swimmers, happy to pass on their skills and experience, happy to welcome them into our flock. As the new swimmers gained confidence, the Salty Seabirds gained new members. That was our aim. And that was the new swimmers aim.

A huge thank you to Catherine, Mel, Alex, Claudine, Emma, Maria, Sam, Hannah and  Libby. And welcome to our new Salty Seabirds.

Right time to start planning the next course………..

Like Mother Like Daughter

An extract from a Seabird mum’s diary from 1980 – wild swimming is not a new thing!

The Diary of Ann Steward

This week I received a letter in the post from my mum. There is nothing unusual in that. I often receive letters, cards, newspaper cuttings and books in the post from my mum. She is fierce in her protection of the analogue and unless I put pen to paper, literally, she will never read any of these blogs. Which is a shame as this one is about her!

So the letter I received was short and to the point. That is my mum in a nutshell. “Dear Katharine, Looking thro’ my many ‘diaries’ I came across “A Selsey Summer” written in the 80’s? I thought you might enjoy this extract. Obviously you have inherited your love of the sea and swimming from your Sainted Mother! Lots of Love.”

To put the extract in context – my mum was a school teacher – and every school holiday we would relocate to Selsey, West Sussex and live in a converted railway carriage on the beach, called Nutshell, with all manner of foster siblings, cousins and anyone else that my parents swept up into their very un-nuclear family.

“We’d swum everyday – to begin with there was time to get in two swims – one before lunch and one after, but for the rest of this week we’d have to wait until 6/7 o/c for deep water unless we cared to try for a swim early morning. 

I was better than ever at ‘getting in’. I still needed that preliminary paddle up and down to knee height, then up to the middle and a pause before a step or two to reach my armpits when I could bob down and launch into my school girls breast stroke.

It was always worth it – even if on a chill, sunless day you didn’t stay in too long. What a feeling of wellbeing – superiority and freshness it gave. Half a dozen strokes towards the breakwater – half a dozen back, bob up and down and repeat. 

The most important purpose of the daily swim was to timetable the day. It set an immovable hour in the day – for it took that time on a chill day and twice that on a hot one, to follow the ritual of gathering the party – pulling on costumes, finding towels and in the case of adults forcing feet into still damp plimsolls as protection from the shingle. 

What time’s high tide? Then we must have breakfast/lunch by such and such. before our swim we could do this and after the swim we’ll do that. And so our day was mapped.”

I remember my mum wrote diaries. I remember our endless summers swimming in the sea. I remember days dictated by tides. I remember how bloody long it took her to get in – but she always did – eventually. And still does. But, I’d forgotten that this life that I live is not new to me. It’s always been my life, me and the sea. All I’ve done is remember and come home.

Author: Seabird Kath

3 generations of Seabirds

mum2

The extract goes on to say ” A couple came to look over ‘The Summer House’ next door which is for sale. They have left their large expensive motor outside Nutshell while they have the guided tour around the quite extensive grounds. How well I remember it years ago when the old gentleman lived there as a recluse. The garden overgrown – little of the house visible, fruit trees laden in the Autumn, banks of primroses in the Spring. We’d dreamed of it being ours.” It never ended up being theirs but they have a beach hut and home on the Isle of Wight now – which I am sure comes a close second.

 

 

Floating

Floating – an essential pastime!

All I have done is float for the last couple of months. With trapped nerves caused by knotty and gnarly trapezius muscle I can’t do much else. Whilst I love to float by choice, when it is enforced, it’s not only my nerves that are trapped – I feel trapped!

I have never been good at resting for recovery. Being active is my therapist couch. As the seas began to warm, and after some technique coaching at Sea Lanes I was looking forward to a summer of long lazy point to point sea swims. But it just wasn’t to be. Instead I have been coaching our Women Wellbeing and Water courses and reading for relaxation. A good distraction but it all keeps coming back to floating. On our confidence courses I have been encouraging participants to relax and float on their backs. My relaxing reads have included re-reading “Floating – A Life Regained” by Joe Minihane. I cannot get away from floating………..

Teaching people, new to open water swimming, to float allows them to experience the buoyancy of their wet-suits or their body and the salt water. It provides them with reassurance that if they feel scared, panicked, unsure, they can flip onto their back and take some timeout to adjust to their surroundings and situation. We create, what I like to call, a Selkie Circle or a Mermaid Ring, where we all float in a round at the beginning of the session. It’s a really good way for the swimmers to become comfortable with each other, with me and their environment. It also looks pretty cool.

Floating is a  vital life saving skill. Drowning can be prevented in lots of instances if the swimmer relaxes to conserve energy and float on their back as per the RNLI Float to Live campaign. As the sea warms up and the sun continues to shine the masses are flocking to the beach. Unfamiliar water and not being used to sea temperatures can result in poor choices and people getting into difficulty. In Brighton and Hove we have a number of drownings every year. The RNLI advice is;

5 steps to float

1. If you fall into water, fight your instinct to swim until cold water shock passes

2. Lean back, extend your arms and legs

3. If you need to, gently move them around to help you float

4. Float until you can control your breathing

5. Only then, call for help or swim to safety

Floating on your back is also a really good way to acclimatise to prevent cold water shock. Nothing like that first trickle down your back! If you spend time floating before you start your swim you are able to acclimatise, regulate your breathing and get used to your environment in controlled way so hopefully the RNLI advice will not be needed. I include it as part of the warm up. There are stretches on the beach first before entry, then a few dolphins dives and front crawl stroke before flipping onto your back to catch your breath and get ready for the swim ahead.

Floating is a great way to feel the tidal flow, experience the impact of wind strength and direction, find a static sighting point and consider which direction you need to swim in. I am famous for swimming in the wrong direction even after studying the various apps that tell me which way the flow should be going. I blame mother nature and the moon. Although it could be my sighting as I aim for one buoy and arrive at a completely different one on a regular basis. After doing everything at pace and being particularly crap at going slow I have learned, the hard way, to take my time and float before I set off on a swim. Having earned the Salty Seabird nickname of Tidal Bore due to my obsession with tides and flows, floating allows me to practice what I preach.

Finally floating is the best way to be one with your salty environment. Ears just below the surface and eyes to the sky you become part of the sea in tune with its sights and sounds. Taking time to really appreciate being in the sea, looking at the colour or the water, feeling the energy of the swell and listening to the shingle being dragged around on the seabed. All of these experiences write your swim story and wouldn’t be possibly without floating.

And the best thing is….everyone can float!

Author: Seabird Kath

A little farewell note on floating.

“And out floated Eeyore.
“Eeyore!” cried everybody.
Looking very calm, very dignified, with his legs in the air, came Eeyore from beneath the bridge.
“It’s Eeyore!” cried Roo, terribly excited.
“Is that so?” said Eeyore, getting caught up by a little eddy, and turning slowly round three times. “I wondered.”
“I didn’t know you were playing,” said Roo.
“I’m not,” said Eeyore.
“Eeyore, what are you doing there?” said Rabbit.
“I’ll give you three guesses, Rabbit. Digging holes in the ground? Wrong. Leaping from branch to branch of a young oak-tree? Wrong. Waiting for somebody to help me out of the river? Right. Give Rabbit time, and he’ll always get the answer.”
“But, Eeyore,” said Pooh in distress, “what can we–I mean, how shall we–do you think if we–“
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “One of those would be just the thing. Thank you, Pooh.” 
― A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

 

A Seabird out of her depth

My experience of completing the STA Open Water Swimming Coaching award in the midst of anxiety.

And I was, I really was. Although I was treading water, on a STA Open Water Swimming Coaching Course, I was definitely a Seabird out of her depth.

So how did I end up here? The rhetorical answer is, I was hoping to gain a qualification that would enable me to be the lead coach for our Women Wellbeing and Water sessions and any future Seabird sea swimming courses. The literal answer is by train from Brighton to Welwyn Garden City.

The timing of the course could not have been worse. My husband was working away at the same time. We are trying to sell our house and buy a new one. And my 16 year old was embarking on her first trip abroad, to France to watch the Women’s World Cup with her mate. Plus June is a busy month on the Seabird calendar with lots of events, sessions and get togethers.

The days before were challenging. My anxiety was spiralling out of control and the internal chatter telling me to withdraw was relentless. Flicking through the pre-course material did nothing to quieten the hard time my brain was giving me. Buoy turns! I float at the buoy and take smiling snaps. Drafting! I draft more people into the sea by providing them with encouragement and a safe environment. Pack swimming! We forget to pack our knickers and laugh about it over tea and cake. The manual had very different descriptions of these open water swimming skills. I quickly flicked to page 99 on the skills section entitled ‘ Acclimatisation and Overcoming Panic’ desperate to ease the worry.

Is it possible for one human to produce an infinite amount of cortisol? In constant fight or flight mode for days I was hanging on by my finger nails and exhausted. And the course hadn’t even started yet. I busied myself with helicopter parenting of two very capable teens and left packing and considering train times until the last minute. Classic avoidance. So it was no surprise that I ended up on the wrong bloody train! Cue the first fighting back of tears. I even remained on the wrong train until a minute before it’s departure, frozen in fear with my M&S nuts and wine. Finally I plucked up the courage to retrieve my kit bag and suitcase and made my way to the correct platform to board the correct train.

The rest of the train journey was uneventful but provided a lot of time to think with little to distract. Cue more more tear fighting and a ridiculous amount of texts to my husband who was waiting in a German airport for his flight home. As the train pulled into Welwyn Garden City I was very ready for a walk to my hotel and some fresh air. Living my best life I was curled up in a Premier Inn bed, in a town I suspected was the set of Stepford Wives, watching Netflix on the iPad by 9pm.

You’d think I had never swum in open water, put on a wetsuit or coached/trained groups of people in the water before. But I actually have a ton of experience in all three. But the impostor syndrome persisted into the next morning when I woke up at 4.30am. Thankfully breakfast started at 6.30am so just 2 hours of worry time between me and a full fry up! My depression and anxiety have never come between me and a meal.

By 8am I had received a lifeline call from Will. Will and I know each other from a previous course and he too lives in Brighton. He is an incredible swimmer, but his best quality is his infectious enthusiasm and capacity for kindness. He was travelling back and forth from his parents house rather than experiencing the delights of the Premier Inn on the outskirts of a purpose built town. He had arrived early and was trying to find the course facility. With his clear directions I set off to start the course.

I know, I know. It makes no sense to be nervous about completing a course when there is a familiar friendly face there to greet you. And it was a huge relief to see his smiling face when I arrived. But that is what anxiety does. It robs you of your ability to reason. Gradually the room began to fill up. I scanned their faces, looked at their physiques, considered their kit backs – trying to ascertain their swim ability. We then did a round table introduction starting with me. Stories of swim teaching experience decades long, huge endurance feats completed or about to be completed, our coach was Keri-anne Payne, Olympic silver medallist for goodness sake. Any respite Will’s welcome had provided was very short lived.

The course is 3 days long, mainly classroom based, with coaching practice in a lake. Keri-anne created a wonderfully inclusive learning environment which set the tone for the next few days. Her stories were inspirational but not because of the phenomenal feats, medals and wins she has achieved. They were inspirational because they were relatable. She too has been spooked in the water – by a twig of all things.  But I was still apprehensive about getting in the water. Yep, you heard it right. Me, nervous about getting wet. But wet I did get. And it was fine as everyone except for me knew it would be.

The next day was more of the same but better. By now we were all getting to know each other and I was able to appreciate what a wonderfully warm group of people I was with. Our backgrounds, swimming experiences and goals couldn’t have been more different but our passion for swimming, in all it’s different guises, had bought us together. I swim for community and connection (and cake) and it was still here, in a lake in Hertfordshire with a bunch of strangers that were fast becoming my support network.

Then it happened. The tears. On day 2. Holding it together for prolonged periods of time can only end one way . Day to day functioning is, for me, the hardest part of my mental illness. I can do it, but I need to factor in rest, relaxation and respite. The days leading up to this course, the lack of sleep and unfamiliar faces and surroundings were fast eroding my game face. It happened when we were split into groups of 3 to practice coaching an OWS skill with each other. Rob, 34 years in the armed forces, was tasked with coaching myself and Christine on pack swimming. My biggest barrier is swimming in confined spaces. In indoor pools, in close proximity with other people I have experienced my one, and thankfully only, panic attack. To say I was going outside of my comfort zone was an under statement. But I did it. Part of the coaching methodology is for it to be swimmer led, asking questions to consider their needs. Poor Rob asked me how I found it. The response was initially a whimper and then a full on sob. I quickly reassured him that his coaching had been all the things it needed to be to get me to do something I didn’t want to do and the tears were because I was beyond chuffed that I had done it. I think everyone saw, I am not a quiet crier.  The compassion with which my tears were met made me cry harder. I was caught in a crying loop.

That night I felt well enough to have dinner with some of the others at the local Beefeater – living the dream. May be the release of crying was just what the doctor ordered. I certainly felt less uptight and restless. And now that the others had seen the real me, the vulnerable me, the over-thinking me, the crying me, the worst had happened. The mask hadn’t slipped, it had totally fallen off and I was OK. My crying had been met with kindness. Sleep was still evading me and we still had to be assessed the next day, so I wasn’t out of the woods yet. But pretending to be confident in my abilities was one less thing I had to worry about. That floodgate was well and truly open and there was absolutely no point in trying to close it again.

The next morning, Will picked me up and we arrived early as we had to complete our written assessment too. This is where depression makes his appearance after being pushed to the back of my mind by anxiety. Where anxiety tells me I can’t do something, depression physically stops me from doing it. The thought of doing something, anything, is met with lethargy and avoidance. On the outside it looks like you can’t be bothered, but in reality you don’t know where to start and feel totally overwhelmed. We’d had plenty of time to complete it in  the evenings, mornings, breaks but I just hadn’t done it. Sometimes the only way round this is a deadline. I needed to complete it, I needed to pass the course, the Seabirds Women, Wellbeing and Water project was relying on it. So I started.

What was reassuring was that everyone was nervous that last day. Everyone had questions about the written assessment. Everyone had worries about the practical assessment. We were connected in our concern and we were community in the comfort we provided to each another. I wasn’t alone. I was with a group of Seabirds.

So day 3, the last day,  started. We had a round table discussion on what we had learnt and what we would take away from the course. A really positive way to start the day as we shared our stories. Then it was time to be assessed in the water. We were split into 2 groups and had been given a skill to coach the night before. There would be pack swimming in a group of 9 at the end. My mind started searching for the fear, but it just wasn’t there. The whole group had witnessed me at my worst, they knew I hated it and Will who was coaching the pack swimming session was able to adapt it. I was at ease. So we did it, with me right on the furthest edge obviously. Christine, a very gentle woman positioned herself right beside me to ensure I was OK. And never left my side reassuring me with her calm presence. But then Will asked the question. Did anyone want to change position? And I did. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in the middle, amongst melee. He shouted go from he other end and I swam. It wasn’t long before I was kicked hard in the leg (still bruised now), swallowed a gob full of water and was left behind by the faster swimmers. This time there was a smile, not sobbing. I’d done it.

It was with heavy hearts that we all said good bye to each other and swapped details at the end of the course. But we were all really excited to get home and put our new coaching skills into practice. It’s an incredible course and one which  would thoroughly recommend. And I will, in another blog………

My mental health is the biggest challenge I face on a daily basis. It tells me I can’t do things, when I can. It tells me I don’t need to do things when I do. But the sense of achievement of when I can and when I do in the context of my anxiety and depression is my Olympic medal. And as my mum always said, a smooth sea never made a good sailor. Or in this case a skilled Open Water Swimming Coach.

Author: Seabird Kath

Note: The featured image is a coaching session on pack swimming before we lined up at the start line. As Denise says – “we’re all friends here, until someone says go!” And my goodness did she go – I quite literally ate her bubbles. I managed to keep up with them for at least 2 strokes and I survived the washing machine it created. I put myself right in the middle and I survived.

Big thanks to Will, Rob, Christine, Amanda, Julie, Ellen, Lisa, Denise and of course Keri-anne for spending an amazing three days with me.