When will I draw the line?
Probably not before I break, before I push things too far and my body bails on me (if today is anything to go by)…
I wait an hour for a bus that gets me sort of vaguely near to a swimming pool (after it has spent about fifteen minutes driving in the complete opposite direction), and miss living in London in another way I hadn’t really considered before. I think something I never thought I would – bring back TFL! (Transport for London). London underground, I miss your dark, cramped, hot (occasionally smelly) convenience! District/ central/ H&C lines, I cannot wait to make your acquaintance.
I settle into the seat, the only person on the bus, knowing that I should be revising, and knowing that there are too many thoughts flying around for me to focus, too much of something that I need to let out. Walking to the bus stop has worn me out even though I’ve stood there for almost an hour. I want to sleep, but more than that, I want to swim. So I sit on the bus and message my fellow third wheel in alarm when it turns off down a road it shouldn’t go down because they’ve changed the route (he only just left school, gets that bus, and was not aware the route had changed SO DRAMATICALLY to omit the only stops I usually want).
I am the person who sits on a bus to a hospital that left scars etched deep into who she was, because it is the closest stop to the swimming pool.
A few minutes later I am the person who walks paths too familiar to my feet – paths I walked while tethered to IVs, with nurses alongside me, or sometimes the security guards I befriended. These are the paths I ran down when I was untethered from all pumps for half an hour one time. It is also the scene of my nightmares – where it all started. Behind the walls are the faces of people whose names still give me an adrenaline rush when spoken out loud. They are the people who almost let me die, who screwed up, who saw my health as a puzzle that their pride stopped them seeking help to solve until the damage was done, and who treated me cruelly as they focussed on their reputations and careers and inability to stabilise things instead of… Me. My mind screams. Not audibly, but it generates a panic that makes me want to run. Only I can’t run because it is hurting just to walk, and I am too exhausted and worn out (just from the 30m I must have walked by this point) to increase my pace. I am trapped in the scene of my nightmare and I can’t run. My stomach contents attempts to do exactly that in place of my feet, but I somehow fight harder than the rolling retch that spread up from my stomach. Like a caged animal I want to break free. From here. From this. From this feeling and that flashback. Is this worth it, for a swim? I question myself as the distress almost becomes an aching, physical thing and I want to curl up in a ball and hide from the memories that flood my brain whether I want them to or not. I walk on, knowing that if I turn the other way and walk into the A&E department they’d admit me without question. But they can’t. They won’t. Because I still walk on.
I am the person who walks down the pavement, staring into the field that nurses used to take her to sit in after we’d walked to the bakery. I remember wanting to throw myself out in front of the cars as even nurses said that way I was being treated was disgusting and inappropriate and I needed to be moved to London. I remember being called brave and inspirational by one nurse only a few years older than me as I sat on the grass, and squirming and cringing with embarrassment and shame to counter her words with what I had been made to feel was the case – that I was someone and something to be ashamed and embarrassed of. I am the person who walks by that field while looking at the other side of the road after that. And I feel like I’m going to explode.
I am the person who walks into the leisure centre where my old swimming club still trains, with a swimming bag whose end compartment is full of medical supplies – syringes and cannulas and spare medication. With a knee taped extensively in an attempt to support tearing and irritated tendons and old ligament injuries (and also to attempt to stop my kneecap wandering round to the outside of my leg and in the process annoying my patellar tendon A LOT), I am the person who still makes the call to swim. I’ve been warned about my heart. And it isn’t that I don’t care, because I do. I know this is stupid and I’m nervous. But I need to do this.
I haven’t been here for years and yet my feet remember where to go. Nothing has changed. New memories rush to meet me. Happy ones. Ones I claw at. Ones I want to stay. I also want to cry with an overwhelming relief. I am home. This place wraps its walls around me in a chlorine infused embrace. Seriously, I feel all warm and content as I step into the changing rooms.
I put on a swimming hat for the first time in years.
I walk out into the pool that I know. And I spend ages stood in the showers just staring out at it because again, I remember the hours and hours I spent swimming up and down those lanes, “when the red hand reaches the 30 GO.” “Backstroooooke” “4 lengths fly kick, then 4 lengths full fly. 8 times!” “Kick out PAST the flags” “Stop talking!” … “I said SPRINT” “Put some more effort in” “Come on, what are you doing at the back of the lane? Move to the front, come on!” “Get back in the pool!” “Don’t just hold onto the side, swim!” “I said you’re going to swim first in the lane, get back in front of her!” And then, no more evenings in the pool.
The pool is packed, the swimmers in the fast lane aren’t quick enough to belong there and a young teenager wearing a National Championships 2015 cap swims effortlessly up and down the medium lane with his mum pacing along poolside and shouting stuff at him. I dodge the crowd of people in the half of the pool for public swimming, and dip into the fast lane.
I am the fastest in the lane. And it feels effortless again. This time my muscles don’t hurt. I move my arms slowly, focussing on technique, hardly kicking. I swim 20 lengths in just over 20 minutes. And it doesn’t feel difficult. It doesn’t feel strenuous. My arms remember how to do this, my body remembers how to do this. I look up every time and remember sitting on the lane ropes, unclipping them at the end of the session, diving off of starting blocks into this pool, spending hours and hours staring at that clock waiting for the fly session to be over. And my heart… This time it is my heart that says no.
But it stupidly gives my body enough blood and enough energy to continue to swim, so I do. Slowly, no sprinting (although the urge to race the boy who swims like I used to be able to continuously up and down the lane he is in, is at times almost too much to stand). My heart screams. For some reason I decide to see what flutter kicking feels like now. Breast stroke kick is fine, relatively infrequent compared to a flutter kick, and I stupidly decide that I can manage both with the same ease. Swimming full freestyle just for 25m ruins me. I can’t breathe. My heart screams in the only way an organ can – it hurts. And it won’t back down. I still finish the length. But my heart hurts. Properly. It is beating extraordinarily fast and that familiar feeling has crept back – the fluid catching and crackling in my throat with each exhalation, the wheeze when I breathe, the coughing up water and it catching in my throat as I inhale even though I haven’t taken any in. I feel like I’m drowning, sucking in water, and it still catches and makes me cough, but my head is in air. I am breathing air. And at the same time I’m drowning. And all I think is… ok, ok… So no kick. Got it.
I leave it a good two minutes, and push off. I’m running out of steam now. I’ve been stopping every 25m anyway, but my pace is much slower now and my recovery time is longer. I feel judged. I look at the boy swimming up and down in the lane next to me and I remember the days of that. Of being able to dive into this pool, this very pool, and swim that fast for that long. I feel really embarrassed that I am so much older than I was then and I can’t even swim two consecutive 25m laps. There are pictures of my old swimming club on the wall up in the stands and I stare at them. And with the memories they induce fresh in my mind, I push off of the wall and swim again. I did 52 lengths last time, in the other pool we went to. I have to do better than that. And it has to be a round number.
I don’t push it. I want to but I don’t. My muscles are in no difficulty. I can do this. Without the kick my freestyle is faster than the man who I’ve been watching lap the others in his lane. If my heart would let this body, it could do this again – not a couple of lengths, but proper swim training.
I carry on, slowly. Occasionally I run out of steam to finish a whole lap of the pool, but I grit my teeth and keep going and somehow make it to the wall. I stay close to the lane rope, and as things start to go black I hold on to the end of the pool and hold my face in the cool water, giving my heart time to chill out. It takes 47 laps before I suddenly realise that my head is clear. At first I had been thinking about things, slowly processing them. And then came the freedom of swimming, and freestyle and breaststroke took all of my focus and pulled everything else away. Last week I stayed in the pool for two and a half hours and managed 52 lengths. This time I stop at 60 after just an hour and a half (shamefully slow, at least 40 lengths used to be a warmup). My body would happily do more, but my heart won’t let it. And I listen. I listen because I am already thinking about the next time I will get in this pool, when I will do 70 lengths instead of 60, and that won’t happen unless I get out right now and let my heart chill a little (even though I asked hardly anything of it!)
I get out of the pool and walk to the showers that we used to stand in until the water ran cold and all the lights were off by the pool. My abdomen is hugely distended, my face is swollen, my ankles are a little puffy. I look a bit greyish and the colour has gone from my skin. I look unwell. But the person in the mirror still smiles back at me. Because I am the person who would go to such lengths to swim lengths. And I’m a little worried about where the person in that mirror might draw the line, about what level of risk it will take to discourage her from entering a pool. I then decide to let her live. I know she’ll get it out of her system. I just worry about the cost.
I stand in the changing room, that heavy feeling in my lungs which means things aren’t too great, but reminds me of the feeling I started to get after training sessions in the end. I stand in the changing cubicle I stood in when I was barely a teen, with this same feeling in my chest and this same light wheeze, and I cough a tiny amount of froth. As a Biomed. student, I override my knowledge with denial, and allow myself to be intrigued in order to suppress even the beginning of any sort of alarm.
I don’t get the bus home. My mum has been to buy food for dinner and she picks me up. I’m not panting for breath like I was in the pool, but I can’t breathe, and it’s a lot worse than it was in the pool. She tells me I’ve done too much, tells me that I agreed to GENTLE exercise like slow walks, not swimming faster than everyone else in the lane. But there is a noticeable difference in me which she (an individual who detests all forms of exercise) cannot comprehend how sport induced. I am able to hold and tolerate trivial conversation because my mind is free of all the stuff that stopped me focussing on what she was saying. There is no pent up anything. There is no longer anything eating away at me. And now I am free to revise… But I waited all morning for a lift from my parents that never happened (even though my mum drove that way), left home at 1:30, and got into the pool (a ten minute drive away) at 4pm; I decide there isn’t enough time to revise before I go out again. I eat ALL THE FOOD, which is difficult when you can’t breathe adequately enough to spare precious breathing time to eat some rice (before my actual dinner, which was stir fry, a pork chop, and a load of sweet potato chips)… I walk upstairs to tell my brother and nephew that their dinner is ready, and the benign growth in my nose decides this is a fantastic time to bleed. Blood streams down my face and off of my chin, splashing everywhere even though I try to catch it and shield my clothes and the carpet (unsuccessfully). My little brother runs at me with tissues and wipes the red from my hands and arms as I try to stem the flow. My mum tells me that I definitely did too much. This is rather ironic, given the fact that she does so all the time.
Dad returns from his day out in a foul mood (probably/ usually/ once upon a time seemingly just because I exist and my presence in his house seems to anger him). He drives the boys to the cinema so they can see a film, and I go along to see a different film with my fellow third wheel, who we pick up on the way. I don’t even care that my dad is in an asshole mood, because I am used to his sulking and shouting by now (this time he doesn’t even shout, he doesn’t need to because if looks could kill no amount of CPR could have brought me back from the daggers I was getting).
As the evening draws on my shoulders start to ache, and when I stand my legs ache too, and I stop coughing but the swelling in my abdomen and my legs increases and the heaviness in my lungs won’t leave. My friend calls me from France and tells me I will be fine in my exam on Friday even though I spent most of the lectures in hospital and don’t say I am not confident or underprepared unless I genuinely feel it (she is the sort of person who says she has done no revision yet knows all the lecture recordings off by heart to the point that she can finish the lecturer’s sentences). Things aren’t that easy for me any more. And I cannot find the motivation to prepare for this exam when I am trying and failing to deal with much more pressing issues. I ignore the hospital letter on the side. I turn on the Olympics. I get breathless from walking. So I sit with my laptop in the early hours of my mother’s birthday (today), and blog.
And I realise that I am the person who did all of that just to swim. I am the person who would and who will do it again. Because in that pool nothing else matters. In a pool I’m good at something. In a pool I’m free. Nobody can interfere. And I can let it all out. I am in control. I have a reason for being. And I’m full of endorphins. And I am the person who craves that like a drug; the person who will take desperate, desperate measures to get my next fix.
And in a day or two when I have recovered and started to think things over again, I will crave another hit.
This always used to be my coping mechanism – exercise. I keep wanting to cycle or go for a long run, but I draw the line with swimming at least, because it is so much gentler and can be less strenuous. But this was how I always got through.
And I know there’s no way but through.
But I also feel that swimming is that way. Because sport always used to be.
In a way I am like Icarus, and that pool is a sun I cannot resist.