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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

Small Seeds of Hope: Knowing My Limits...or..."Into the Icy Depths"

Anti-Anxiety Tool of the Week

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. This is just what it looks like—a long, relaxed verbalized sigh. According to neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time , when your exhale is longer than your inhale it sends a message of safety to the brain. Repeat as often as feels good. from the first Toolkit And here's a link to the Index of all toolkits.

Knowing My Limits...or..."Into the Icy Depths"

I think I've mentioned that I swim laps for exercise (and enjoyment). It has been a lifesaver for me and though it's hard work, it is something l love to do--a whole body exercise that usually leaves me feeling wonderful, and also, importantly, keeps depression at a blessed distance, even if I moan and groan sometimes in the midst of it. So I felt kind of lost when all the pools closed early in March due to the pandemic. A minimal problem, I know, compared to what many people were--and still are--facing, but still rather distressing for me.

I increased my walking, added in some stationary bike time but it wasn't the same. (Ever since my knees went on strike in my twenties when I first tried running, that has not been an option for me.)

So I was thrilled to learn that a private outdoor pool club in my neighborhood would be opening, with strict social distancing rules, once the COVID regulations eased a little. Since swimming is so important to me, I just bit the financial bullet regarding the membership fee. I've been swimming there since early July, every other day with rare exception. Even when it rained. Even when it started getting chilly earlier than usual. It was pretty darn cold getting in but I just did it anyway.

Until about a week ago. When those depths changed, overnight it seemed, from cold to C-O-L-D!!! I wouldn't have been surprised to see ice cubes floating around.

But I wanted to swim as long as I could, since indoor pools likely won't be opening for many months. Not owning a wetsuit, I added a second long-sleeved swim-T, and a winter hat sandwiched between two bathing caps to avoid the cold-related headaches I am prone to. I also brought along a fleece jacket and another (dry) winter hat for afterwards, even though the daytime air temperature has been in the high 60s to low 70s--this week. Then if I stayed totally focused and just kept swimming, my body adjusted and I managed to swim my 3/4 mile--two different times. I don't quite know how.

I was so proud of myself! There were only a few of us brave enough to tackle that cold water. I felt quite invigorated afterwards too--there is research that shows that cold water swimming is really good for you. I hoped I could keep swimming into early October, at least.

I was curious about the water temperature, so Lawrence and I rigged up a weighted thermometer I could hang in the water from the racer's platform at the end of my lane. Based on my childhood experiences in Maine surf, and the intensity of cold I'd felt in the pool, I figured the water would be at the very highest around 65°, if not lower. I was probably swaggering just a bit, at least internally, thinking how courageous my relatively nonathletic self was to be doing this, especially at my age.

So imagine my surprise when I went to the pool three days ago, to find that the water temperature was 70°, no matter how long I left the thermometer in. Damn! I thought. Maybe I'm not so brave. But I suited up, plunged into what still felt like icy depths (colder, I swear, than they had been the last time I'd been there) and took off.

And then my goggles started to leak, which in the best of circumstances I don't tolerate well. So I'd struggle to finish a length, hang onto the lap divider and try to readjust them. Over and over. And over. But it didn't work. And stopping so often meant any heat I'd produced disappeared almost immediately.

I made it, somehow, for a 1/4 mile but in that last lap, with water pouring into my goggles, I found myself getting totally stressed--furious, and yet feeling helpless too. And I lost my confidence in my breath, which hasn't happened in years. It was almost as if the water had stopped being my friend and become my enemy.

THAT'S ENOUGH, some part of me roared, as I approached the end of the lane. Another part of me whimpered the same thing. So it seemed wisest to get out at that point, which I did. But I have to admit, I was kind of disappointed in myself.

All this has gotten me thinking about limits, which ones to push past and which ones to accept. Am I pushing myself out of joy, for my health, or out of a need for approval? Then a voice pipes up inside me: There are lots of people who swim in 50°, even 40° water. You wimp, she adds. She has more to say. There are people well past your age who do all kinds of amazing physical feats. You undisciplined coward. (That part of me? She is not nice.)

Another part responds: Yes, and there are people who are driven to achieve, for whom achievement becomes a god. That's not me. Happiness, well being, connection--they are all more important to me than achievement.

Still, there was that nagging sense of failure, of having given up too soon, too easily.

Then yesterday morning, being a bit of a weather geek, I was poking around on the internet, curious to know what Hurricane Teddy might be doing to the waves and tides in New England (where I grew up and where my siblings still live). I happened across a newscast from a town on the northern shore of Massachusetts.

Speaking to boat owners, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard said: "A. Know the weather. B. Make sure you have all the proper safety equipment. You know what your vessel is capable of but you also know your own experience level. It's always important to know what you are able to handle." For a boat owner, not answering honestly, or answering with the desire to impress others--or out of bravado--could easily lead to disaster.

It was, remarkably, exactly what I needed to hear: What's the "weather" like around me? What will it be like in the near future? Do I have the right equipment? What is my "vessel" capable of? What are my abilities? What can I handle?

I went back to swim yesterday afternoon, hoping I could perhaps better manage the cold somehow, not wanting to end my tenure at the pool on the difficult note of the previous swim.

My goggles were okay this time. But the earplugs I find necessary (especially in cold water) and the snorkel I use for some laps both malfunctioned. And I also realized that in the cold water (which will only get colder as the season progresses) I was getting too tense to be able to maintain my normal breathing rhythm. And that tended to elicit some bodily panic. On my limited income a wetsuit would be a major investment in order to add just a couple more weeks. So I struggled through a 1/4 mile. And decided it was time to say goodbye to swimming for this year.

As I noted before, this is not a significant problem compared to what many people are suffering this year, but I don't want to minimize the loss either. Facing the loss, and being kind to myself in the midst of it, hopefully allows me to offer that same compassion and acceptance to others.

I didn't go quite as far, brave quite the storm--or cold--that I thought I could. Or should. But I did swim in water almost 30° lower than my normal body temperature. I did swim when my entire body was saying, "get me out of here! this could kill me!" I did keep swimming after most everyone else at the club had stopped. If I am not in the absolute upper echelon of brave and hardy souls at the Fry's Spring Beach Club, if my body is different now than it was decades ago as a child playing in the Maine surf, I still swam for long periods, fully immersed, in much colder water than I've ever done laps in before. At my age.

I'm really, really going to miss swimming for the next few months. But if I spend much of my day, and way too much energy, dreading my next swim, it seems that it has changed from a blessing to a curse. As Bruce Springsteen sings, “Learn to live with what you can’t rise above.”

Knowing what I can handle. Accepting my limits. Admitting and allowing loss. Rejoicing in the abilities I do have. Rejoicing that I can trust myself.

It's all very humbling. And though not easy it is, in a quiet way, kind of invigorating.

Until next time. Dawn

Photo credits:

Lap swimmer, Serena Repice Lentini, unSplash

Icebergs, Anders Jilden, unSplash

Sailboat, Boba Jovanavic, unSplash

Underwater swimmer, Guadalupe Garcia, unSplash


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