Guest post: "Swimming gave me back my sense of self when IVF had taken it away"
Alexandra Heminsley says learning to swim was among the greatest challenges she’s faced - but being in the water gave her solace in a turbulent time
Journalist and author
Posted on: Thu 12-Jan-17 15:36:02
(23 comments )
Learning to swim was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do - not least because I had believed I could do it already. With the positive attitude of someone who had conquered five marathons driven by little more than grit, cluelessness and a determination to prove everyone wrong, I hopped in the sea two and a half years ago assuming all would be fine. It really, really wasn't. I had an almost immediate panic attack, swallowed enough water to leave me retching for hours and held my breath for longer than I had since I watched Jaws.
I couldn't swim. I could merely 'get from one side of the pool to the other without drowning'. And I was very far from being able to swim continuously, head down, for more than a single length. Even that one length rendered me puce, panicked and gasping for air by the time I slammed my hand on the tiles at the far end of the pool. Worst of all, unlike my attempts at running, I knew it wasn't my fitness that was the problem. It was all down to terror, and technique: and it was this deadly combination that meant I didn't just have to learn how to swim properly … I had to learn how to breathe properly too.
Later that summer I committed to a course of swimming lessons - thirty-six hours over nine months, starting from scratch in the pool and ending up back in the sea, swimming between the two piers of Brighton. It wasn't just physically exhausting, it was one of the biggest mental challenges of my life. The experience of taking on a new skill - especially one that leaves you so vulnerable and requires you to don swimwear throughout the year's darkest months - is exceptionally gruelling.
I found confidence in my ability to take on something new, that it would be worth it even if I didn't excel, that it had more to offer me than merely exercise and that hanging out in swimwear could be relaxing rather than traumatic.
The admission that you can't do something, that you need help, and that you look daft attempting to do it was crushing. The lessons were exhausting and for a month at a time I would feel as if I were getting nowhere. It took until October for me to have the confidence to shove my face in the water and properly exhale. When you're scared, your instinct is to hold your breath, to cling to the air you have in your lungs, and to see how far you can get that way. But when you're trying to learn to swim, inflated lungs are effectively little more than a giant bag of air you're dragging along with you, slowing you down. Convincing myself that to exhale would be to survive, that I could do it, that it was worth it, was months' worth of work.
It took until spring before I could swim even half a kilometre in the pool, and there were still a few wobbles when I finally made it back into the sea. But in the process of learning to swim I learned more about myself than anything else. I found a renewed confidence in my ability to take on something entirely new, that it would be worth it even if I didn't excel, that it had more to offer me than merely exercise and that hanging out in swimwear could eventually be relaxing rather than borderline traumatic. And it had an even bigger impact on tethering my body and mind: it's not that I discovered how swimming relaxed me, it's that I discovered that you can't swim stressed. In order to get anywhere you have to repeatedly empty your lungs of oxygen under water; you have to have that faith in constant, rhythmic exhalations, until your breath is calm and your body is moving in synch.
And it was this, during a time while I was undergoing a turbulent couple of years of IVF treatment, that proved to feel like a superpower. To feel free in the water was my solace while my body shape changed and my mind whirred with anxieties. Slowly, as I swam in the sea almost daily despite the onset of winter, I learned the amazing things that my body could still do - it could conquer fear, it could swim after all, and it could feel free and weightless when on land it felt anything but.
Above all it reminded me that it was still worthy of confidence and pride, regardless of whether I was carrying a baby or not. I might not have coped with last year if I had not had swimming: it returned me to my sense of self, in a body I could respect as mine, when nothing else could.
Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alex Heminsley is published by Hutchinson on 12 January, £12.99
Leap In is one of our non-fiction picks for January - apply for your free copy.
By Alexandra Heminsley
Lovely story! Congratulations on the publication of your book!
I too took swimming lessons and got a lot out of them. It was anazing to learn to swim without inhaling loads of water or hurtin my neck from avoiding going under.
And like you I found exercise a solace in difficult times with fertility.
Haven't swum in the sea properly since childhood. You have inspired me to do so! Thank you.
I remember seeing your tweets about starting swimming after your running book (which I loved). Bloody well done for all the hard work (physical and mental) to learn to swim properly. I've identified with the themes you've raised regarding vulnerability etc. thank you!
A lovely story, I heard it on the radio yesterday and stopped what k was doing to listen properly.
I'm a swimmer, most days and it's the only breathing focussed activity I can do without getting a panic attack because you cannot overbreathe in the water. It is a meditation for me. So nice to hear other women's swimming stories. I will read the book.
Inspiring thanks for sharing - I will dig out my googles and give it another go. I've been teaching myself front crawl for the last two years and the breathing is SO hard to master!
I read your book while I was training for my first marathon, you were an inspiration then and you remain so. However, I will never swim! I'll stick to dry land
I loved your article in The Guardian magazine! Swimming is an absolute godsend for me - I have an anxiety disorder and a swim always calms me down, even if only for the time that I'm in the water. I swim every day now and would love to swim outside too. I have always been crap at exercise and sport of any kind (I spent more time making running playlists than actually running) but I'm so proud that I am a confident swimmer.
Long may you enjoy it
We mentioned the Guardian article and the Woman's Hour interview on the swimming for fitness thread yesterday - all welcome to come on over!
Think I linked to the last post so scroll up.
I have been going to an adult advanced swimming lessons for the last 14 years and itOnc has been my lifeline. I have made lovely friends who lunch afterwards. I was never good at sport except for swimming as a child. I learnt to swim when i was 10 when they built a new pool in our area. In those days when we passed our red badge i think, we got a book of 30 swim tickets so my friends and i used to go swimming every week. I passed my gold badge 18 months after learning to swim.
When my dc were born i took them to baby lessons at the local swimming pool and they had lessons until they got their bronze medallion at 12/13 and then the NPLQ at16. My ds 21 has been employed as a lifeguard p/t since he was 16. I hadnt been swimming for years but the swim teachers encouraged me to go to the adult classes and i have been going every since.
This summer i bought myself a waterproof mp3 and started swimming for 4 hours a week and lost nearly 2 stone in readiness for my holiday of a lifetime roadtrip to California and Arizona so i was fit enough to keep up with the family hiking and riding etc.
I had a brilliant time but unfortunately didnt get a chance to swim. The only chance i had really was the Colorado when we stopped off rafting but it was far too cold to swim in.
Wow bruffin, good for you! And other swimming posters.
Waterproof MP3?! With earphones that can go in the water too? That'd be amazing!
As a swimming teacher I definitely agree with the many benefits of swimming-I trained myself up to the end of both pregnancies and it was amazing to feel weightless and have a chance to focus and think without being aware of my aches and pains on dry land. So much admiration for you learning to swim, can't wait to read more!
the MP3 was £15 on ebay, but you can get much more expensive sony ones.
I read your piece in the guardian yesterday and found it so moving!
All swimmers that find swimming later in life have a story, a reason to be in the water.
Mine was as a result of battling agoraphobia, leaving an abusive relationship and rebuilding myself for the inside out.
I've had a lifetime of others telling me what I can't do. I too used to limit myself to spaces I felt safe in, and never put myself forward or up front to anything achiement based.
My journey began when I heard an adventurer speak about his Say Yes More movement. He was talking to other adventurers, or so he thought.
It was a challenge for me to leave the house, talk to people or push myself in anyway. Forget setting challenges... surely I'd fail. That's what I've been told I'll do all my life.
When my son's swimming school started adult lessons, I tentatively enquiries. I knew I had a face in water issue and wanted to challenge it.
That was 18m ago.
Swimming is such a joy, a release, a challenge and for the first time in my life I've set myself challenges and then bizarrely achieved them. So I set more, and more!
Your island swimming sounds heavenly, and daunting. My boyf knows that area and he says your description is spot on. His dream is to see me swimming in the Aegean.
Bring it on I say.
I set myself a mile challenge in August last year, that I wanted to set myself A goal of starting to train for a continuous mile before Christmas.
At the time I could swim 100m at a time. At a push.
I achieved my goal of the continuous mile in mid December!
Last night I swam 2k. The peace, serenity and calm I get when I'm well into the distance is indescribable
You have to work sooo hard to achieve it, but it's so worth it!
I look forward to reading the book. It sounds amazing. You Alexandra, sound amazing.
Thank you 😊
You all sound so inspiring, well done, I'm also trying to teach myself to swim a length, but i run out of breath, swallow too much water, and panic, I wish i could learn to be comfortable in the water, I havent given up, and your post shows there is hope.
Canary look at adult lessons. The swim and stamina class i go to has all levels from beginners in their 60s and 70s. One of my friends wouldnt put her face in the water before she started and now swims a mile of the most beautiful front crawl.
Thanks bruffin , im sure i can muster up a bit more courage to take lessons as I want to master the water, everyones description of freedom in the water, and feeling really great is something I want to experience.maybe one day.sigh.
Honestly Canary, adult lessons is the best thing you could do! Most leisure centres have them, and there are all kinds of people at all levels
In my case I could swim, but stopped learning at 9 because I didn't like getting my face wet.
Best thing I ever did was sign up!
Have a google and see what's available, please don't be nervous about it, we all have to start somewhere
Which part of the country are you?
Def do some lessons - at the public pool or 1:1 at a private pool. I had to relearn to swim after I lost the use of one arm, and literally could splash 5m. I had lessons with a fabulous guy who has an endless pool (they pump water against you so you stay still) in his garage and after 4 lessons it had all clicked into place - he was able to give me snorkels, fins, floats so I could worry about one thing at a time which really helped. Not having anyone else watching helped too as I was very self conscious about my scars etc
Im from london, hissy, I dont really like my local pool, i'll try to take a course that helps me with conquering my fear of the water and how to breathe better in the water,and well done cmotdibbler, it must have felt great learnig to swim again after losing the use of your arm, i think I need a guy with a pool in his garage!
canary if your near north london / herts?
I'm a swimmer and whilst I haven't been through ivf nor learnt as an adult it has saved my sanity many times. When my dad died, when I had a miscarriage, and then when I went on to have twins. Half an hour in the pool gives me back my sense of self, it's just peace. I listen to music sometimes but it's still just me and my music, no demands from anyone else.
I'm doing 10k this year!
I read your Guardian article yesterday. It's lovely
My mum learned to swim as an adult, started at 60. She goes to a group twice a week now & loves it. She's not afraid of the water anymore. I learned as a baby, with my dad. The first time me & mum went swimming together was brilliant. Looking forward to swimming with her on holiday, now that she'll get into the sea!