Cold Water Swimming: Pandemic Edition

I discovered something about myself this year.

My cold water season kind of petered out last year; I didn't swim nearly as much as the year before, my swims were filled with more stress then fun, and my attempt at the 24 hour relay did not go well (I signed up for 45 minute shifts, but only managed 2 before I had to drop back to 30 minutes). I felt a bit lost, depressed and aimless. And then covid hit.

I didn't see anyone outside my home for months. In a way, it felt like an excuse to do something that a very dark part of me wanted to do anyway. Disappear.

And so I did, and my sense of happiness went away as well. I'm not generally very aware of my feelings or emotional state, it's really only later in hindsight that I see sort of what was happening, and it's never clear to me why it happened or what fixed it. Just that I was depressed and now I'm not, the end.

But there was no end this time. Nothing to distract me from it. Everything felt impossible, even just turning on the robot vacuum felt like a monumental task. During the summer I had additional stress of dealing with housing for my parents, which kept us home many weekends when I would usually have been out camping. I stopped communicating with pretty much everyone (sorry, it wasn't just you!).

We didn't spend a single night away from the house until October, and I can count on one hand the number of times we saw friends in person (at a distance, outside, of course). Near the end of summer I began wondering if it was covid, or if it was depression that was keeping me so isolated; depression was certainly to blame for feeling completely unable to do any sort of planning of any kind.

So what does this have to do with swimming. I didn't swim much, with pools closed and my self isolation. I would get motivated and go swim by myself regularly for a few weeks in the mornings when the beach was deserted, but I would lose steam quickly. I had no real plan or reason to swim per se, and I just couldn't muster up the energy to go out and just do laps of a boring beach by myself.

Some time in late August, I began therapy. Something she said to me a few sessions in has been ringing loudly in my ear ever since, and it's one of the things that has truly dragged me out of this hole. Say yes. I told her I had been avoiding people and turning everything and everyone down. She told me to say yes to everything for a week, which honestly was terrifying. At the same time though, I figured most people had quit asking, so probably nothing would really happen. I was wrong.

It was right after the week of being stuck inside from the wildfire smoke that I asked if anyone wanted to start doing regular weekday morning swims in the Columbia. I just felt like I should swim 3 times a week to get some momentum and form back. Some people said yes, which meant I could not back out. I decided something that has proven critical to keeping up these swims: I will always go. If I say I'm going, I will always be there, no matter what. Even if I go and don't swim, I just have to show up. I have to say yes.

I'm not going to lie, I had to drag myself kicking and screaming the first week or two. At first, it was all about just keeping that commitment to myself, to the folks who wanted to swim, and to my therapist. Getting ready at 6am, stretching out and filling a warm thermos, I didn't really want to go at all, but it was no longer about wanting to go, it was about needing to go.

These swims became my life line overnight. With the changing of the seasons came the sunrises over the river, the fog over the teeth, the pinks and oranges and blues shot through the sky, it was life-changing. It's not like I had never seen it before, but it was like I was seeing it with new eyes, and I felt grateful for every moment in the water. For the beauty in the world.

And I was grateful for the chitchat before and after with friends; I was seeing humans, outside my house, on a regular basis! What joy! Even though we could not huddle together for warmth in the car, we learned to love walking around after a cold swim instead.

I learned to approach my "workouts" with a completely different lens. No longer am I training for a race or anything specific, but for mental health. I swim because my soul needs it, not because I need to burn some calories or get my yardage in for this or that. I swim because I need to see that sun peek up over Mount Hood, or watch the big stormy clouds roll over the gradually lightening sky.

I crave the endorphins I feel from sliding into the cold water and letting it all wash over me, every nerve ending suddenly alive, a rush of feeling from every direction. I even crave the shiver, the way warmth feels so good after being so cold. Depression is a numbness, a lack of feeling. Cold water swimming is the opposite (well, you might go numb in the 40s, but you will feel it coming out!)

And only now, after a couple of months of regular swimming, do I feel mentally equipped to actually take on a challenge. I don't have any goals or end points, my only "goal" for the year was to make the swims less panicked and stressful, which has been the case so far. But this has taught me a few powerful lessons that extend beyond swimming.

I like to pride myself on being very independent and self-reliant, but it turns out I depend on people much more then I acknowledge. My community is important, and I haven't been treating it that way.

It is in the beauty of nature and the outdoors that I get a sense of awe, and that moment is what connects me to the world and fills me with gratitude and love. This is vitally important to my wellbeing, and therefore something I need to intentionally seek out.

And finally, it is only when I feel supported and connected and curious and engaged in the world that I feel like I can take on new challenges and grow. So yes, that boring beach taught me all this, with a little help from my friends.

Me after a swim, still in the water