I Rediscovered Swimming

One of the most common pieces of advice with anything mental health or mental illness related is to exercise. And while that’s not bad advice, it’s not necessarily good advice in the practical sense. It’s about as helpful as saying, ‘eat healthy’ or ‘get enough sleep.’ It’s something that has to be tailored to you. Specific types of exercise will help where others may make you feel worse. So you need to find the one for you.

For example, I hate running. I would love to love it but I hate it. I find it at best uncomfortable and at worst painful: it’s like my bones are rattling inside my body. I’ve heard this from others with Autism but I don’t know if it’s specific to that or whether it’s a coincidence. But anyway, running is not the thing for me. Swimming however…

I have always loved to swim. I love the feeling of moving through water and when I was a kid, I loved the silence that comes from being underwater. I would’ve given anything to be able to breathe underwater so that I could stay in that silence. That’s pretty ironic given that I would grow up to develop anxiety that is triggered by a lack of noise and distraction.

I got back into swimming a couple of months ago. At the beginning, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even swim: the lack of stimulation for my brain meant that I just spiralled and my anxiety became completely overwhelming. So me and my Mum would walk and talk, planning the day or talking through whatever thing was on my mind that morning. Eventually my anxiety mutated into a different state and I was able to swim. It’s had such an impact on my life so I really wanted to write about it.

Swimming pools have the potential to be very difficult for me, from a sensory perspective. When it’s busy, the sound bounces around and around, making it one big fog of noise, which makes me very anxious. And the fact that I’m so short sighted I can barely see without my glasses makes that anxiety even worse: I can’t see anything and the sound feels like it’s coming from everywhere and that causes me paralyzing anxiety. It’s how I imagine it would feel to be on a carousel but if the carousel was going at ten times the normal speed. It’s scary. The best times to get in a quiet swim seem to be first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve been sticking to the morning; it makes for a more productive day for me.

Knowing that this is the time that allows for the best swimming experience, I’ve been getting up early and getting to the gym for about seven forty five (sometimes I even get the pool to myself, which is glorious). And knowing that I have to get up that early, I’m going to bed at a sensible time, rather than accidentally staying up until three in the morning. So a routine sort of formed by accident and that has been so good for me. My relationship with sleep has never been so good.

Exercise has always been difficult for me given my historic struggle with energy but also because ‘weight bearing’ exercise often feels very jarring. As I’ve already said, it makes me feel like my bones are rattling inside my body and each impact makes it worse. Sometimes it’s not that bad and I can be distracted by whatever I’m doing but sometimes it can actually be painful. So swimming is perfect. It takes that whole aspect out of the equation and makes exercise actually enjoyable. It reminds me of my arthritic dog: he goes for hydrotherapy and as soon as he’s in the water, chasing tennis balls, he’s like a puppy again. He loves it and I can totally relate.

The best thing about swimming is that it’s something that makes sense and that’s something I really need at the moment. The world feels hard and unfair and this is something that I can control. The more I swim, the stronger I get. I can see the results. I’ve been swimming most days for the last three months and I see my own progress: I’m swimming further; I’m swimming faster; I can see my body changing. It makes sense. That grounds me.

The one thing I do have to be careful of is my tendency to obsess: about the number of laps, getting to the next ten, getting to a hundred… Once it’s in my head that I ‘have’ to get to a particular number, there’s not much I can do to change my own mind and it causes me serious anxiety if I don’t reach the number I’ve ‘decided on.’ So I have to be aware of that. Sometimes I can avoid it by distracting myself or by deciding on exactly how long I’m going to spend in the pool but sometimes I just have to manage it. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

But overall, rediscovering swimming has been one of the major highlights of this year. It’s helped my physical health and my mental health, as well as my day to day life. So I feel very grateful to have found it again.

And since I can’t take my phone into the pool with me, here’s a photo of my dog, enjoying his fortnightly swim.

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Birthday Rules

A few years ago, I found this post on Tumblr about celebrating ‘grown up birthdays.’ This person talked about how stressful they found birthdays as an adult and so they’d implemented two rules: do something you wouldn’t normally do and buy yourself something you wouldn’t normally buy. They said that, since starting these rules, each year has been distinct and memorable.

I really like this as an idea. I can definitely relate to feeling anxious around birthdays: I always feel like I’m not enjoying myself as much as I should be, like I’m not happy enough. It’s silly but it gets me all twisted up. And when I was in school and university, my birthday always felt rushed, what with the start of the academic year.

More recently, as I’ve been struggling more with my mental health, I find myself thinking something like, “This is the year I’m going to feel better,” or “I’m going to feel better by my next birthday.” It causes me such anxiety. And the longer this period of depression goes on, the more anxious I get. I’m aware that it’s not a helpful thought to have but it’s not an easy one to unpick. But maybe a possible answer is to associate my birthday with positive memories.

So here we go…

Rule #1: Do something you wouldn’t normally do.

I had a couple of thoughts about this one but then one just fell into my lap and just seemed perfect.

My dog has had hydrotherapy for years. He’s fifteen and very arthritic and it’s helped massively. Plus it’s probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. He used to surge through the water after tennis balls, kicking so hard that the hydrotherapist had trouble figuring out which joints were working and which weren’t. But now it’s much calmer. He knows the ball will be there when he gets there. Anyway.

Usually he works with a hydrotherapist but this time, the hydrotherapist taught my Mum and me how to do it. And oh my god, it was hard work. They make it look so easy! Trying to gauge how much he’s extending and the angle his legs are at when fully extended was really tricky but as an experience, it was so much fun. I was exhausted afterwards but I really, really enjoyed it and it was a special experience.

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Rule #2: Buy yourself something you wouldn’t normally buy.

I get very anxious about spending money (this post is turning into a list of things I get anxious about…) so carrying out this rule was probably a good exercise in challenging that anxiety. Anyway.

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved typewriters. I like how they look, I like how they sound, and I love the tangible quality that they attach to stories and poetry and words. I’ve been fostering one – if that makes sense – for the last couple of years and I love it dearly but there’s always been one I’ve had my heart set on. It’s the most beautiful typewriter I’ve ever seen and then a couple of weeks ago, I saw one for sale on Etsy. I’ve had these rules in mind for a while and given how rarely it happens to see this exact typewriter for sale, I went for it.

It’s so beautiful and it does actually still work. I haven’t had time to try it out yet but I’m really excited to.

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Despite my current mental health struggles, it was a good birthday. It was quiet and low key but with some really positive experiences. It was a good day.

A Holiday Bubble

From the age of about two years old, I’ve been going to a little town in Norfolk almost every year on holiday. While I was in school, we – me, my parents, and our dog – would go during the October half term but in recent years, we’ve been going in the early summer, before the schools break up. We stay in a caravan less than a ten-minute walk from a stunning sandy beach and I absolutely love it.

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Some people find it strange that we always go back to the same place but as far as I can tell, there are two basic types of holidays: going to explore and going to relax. Both have their pros and cons. This is definitely a relaxation holiday. It’s familiar and calm and beautiful. It’s a bubble away from reality where I can just be, in a way I can’t at home. And, of course, familiarity and Autism go together like fish and chips. We also ate a lot of fish and chips…

I’ve been back from Norfolk a few days and I just really wanted to write about it. After having had so much change with the house move, the changing of medications, and the decision to keep my cat’s kittens, it was really nice to be somewhere so familiar and safe. And as much as I love the cats, I really enjoyed having some dedicated dog time with Lucky. Because he’s now so arthritic, we have to be careful to not over walk him (his enthusiasm far exceeds his physical ability so he’s not much help there) but we manage a couple of trips to the beach, which he loved. He can’t really run anymore but there was a fair amount of skipping, one sure-fire way to know he’s enjoying himself. It’s very cute.

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The beaches in Norfolk are just beautiful. The closest beach, the one we jokingly call ‘our beach,’ is particularly close to my heart. Every year, I step onto that beach and everything just clicks into place. It’s subtle but I suddenly feel like my head’s a little clearer, like I can breathe more easily. Something inside me settles. It’s like I leave a little piece of myself there, that I miss all year round, and then, when I get back, it’s an overwhelming relief. I’ve spent some glorious evenings on that beach.

It was ridiculously hot all week so I spent a lot of time inside with all the windows and doors open. I’m really not good with heat. It’s something I’ve heard from quite a few other people with Autism; I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a link, given the hypersensitivity that often comes as part of being autistic. Anyway. It gave me the opportunity to do a lot of writing and catch up a bit with my diary (if you’ve read this post, you’ll know that my writing can be quite compulsive). That felt really good. I also rewatched some of my favourite films and played chess. The latter is something I haven’t had the concentration to do for months so that felt like a victory in itself, much more exciting than actually winning at chess.

Being there doesn’t eradicate my anxiety entirely but it does a pretty good job of dampening it. Sometimes anxiety feels like this constant vibration that I can’t stop, can’t take a break from. But in Norfolk I can. I still get anxious about specific things but that relentless vibration momentarily ceases. And that’s such a relief.

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The Importance of Pets

The last post was a heavy one with lots of emotional stuff in it so I thought I’d go for something that was a bit more light hearted this time – try and maintain a kind of balance. So here we go. The animals in my life have had a really big impact on my mental health so I thought I’d introduce them and talk a bit about the positives of having pets when you struggle with mental illness.

This is Lucky, our thirteen-year-old Labrador. We first met him when he was two days old and we’ve had him since he was about eight weeks old. He’s endlessly friendly and enthusiastic. One of my favourite things about him is how unashamedly excited he gets about everything: people arriving, food (even though it’s the same thing everyday), any kind of attention. It’s a good little reminder to appreciate the good things, even if they are everyday occurrences. As he’s gotten older, he’s become very sensitive, especially to people’s emotions. At it’s most extreme, he’s left the room when people on TV get upset. Poor boy. I can relate to that.

And this is Lucy, my two-year-old cat. She’s all energy and adventure, in the daylight hours anyway. Come the evening, she’s very happy to curl up on my bed with me. She sort of reminds me of a teenager that doesn’t want to be seen with her parents because it isn’t cool but once there’s no one around, she enjoys a good cuddle. She loves Lucky and often tags along on the evening walk around the block. I absolutely adore her. She’s incredibly calming to watch and play with; she’s so present and that’s really good for my anxiety. And having her sleeping beside me helps me to sleep because I can focus on her breathing (and purring) and block out any anxiety I have.

She also had kittens last year, which was a great holiday from real life. They were gorgeous and when I was watching them or playing with them, everything else fell away. It was like the world outside my bedroom didn’t exist. They were the only thing that helped me when Christina Grimmie was killed. I’d been watching her videos for years and she was the same age as me; it was very upsetting (and I’m still dealing with the emotions of that but I’ll save that for another post). Watching them play and wrestle and explore my bedroom with such focus and such fearlessness was very soothing. I’m so grateful to have had them for that period of my life. And I was very aware that, as one of the few humans in their lives, I was affecting who they would become, consciously or not. It made me feel like I was making a difference, even if it was only on a small scale.

But back to Lucky and Lucy. They frequently accompany me to therapy (although not together). Neither are actual therapy pets but having one of them with me often helps, especially when we’re talking about really tough stuff. They can be a distraction, a tension diffuser, a comfort.

So there you have it: my animals. They are so important to me and have such an impact on my life that I couldn’t not write about them. I hope you enjoyed this and if you need me, I’ll be curled up with either or both of them.