Can, Can’t, Shouldn’t… But Will.

It isn’t even a case of mind over matter. My mind is there, living in the synthetic illusion that my body is capable of the things I want it to be capable of. It is ready. In my mind, my goals are perfectly achievable, and I seem to have convinced myself of that.

But I am physically incapable. My body just can’t. I push it, I become convinced it can and will manage the things I ask of it and it just isn’t there – my heart just isn’t ready. I got it into my mind that I just needed to push through the difficulties, that after a few minutes longer (than is comfortable) of attempted gentle exercise, the awfulness would subside; but four hours after swimming a mere ten lengths, I found myself paying the price. For the first time there was disappointment alongside this sensation. Because when I say that I was paying the price, I mean that in my physical state I was bankrupt. Was it worth this? (Yes) Really? (…No. Wait, why do I even have to weigh up these odds?) I laid out on the bed, feeling as though I were breathing the air from a steam room – it was thick and heavy, an effort to inhale, not satisfying to my lungs no matter how deeply or slowly I breathed. I had no energy, my heart was racing and there was an ache in my chest. My body just cannot.

No amount of hoping or denial will change that. My dreams of running or swimming with university societies and settling into the structure of regular, casual training (not to compete… ok to compete at some stage… but for social reasons too) are exactly that – dreams, separate from reality. Let go. Come on, accept. Move on. I thought to myself over and over.

How do you do that? How do you give up on a dream that to most people is an effortless normality? How do you stop reaching out for all that your teenaged/ childhood self wanted? Not success, not major competition (although low level competition would be awesome) I just. Want. To run. One lap of a track. One swimming session where I don’t feel like this afterwards, where my muscles can work at maximum effort for even half a length – proper maximum, not the limits my heart imposes upon them but their true capability.

The answer is simple. You don’t.

You just don’t.

You live for the moments before those that make you question it all.

You accept reality… and then you dismiss it.

I went from, I can’t do this to my body. [My cardiologist] was right. I can’t swim again. I feel broken. So many regrets about getting in that pool. I can’t breathe STILL. No more. No swimming. No running. Who am I kidding? Let’s be real. This body cannot do those things. Time to let go and scale down our ambition.


Screw it, I’m swimming in the morning. Body, screw you, get over yourself. 

But realistically no, I should not be swimming. If I listen to my body, I should just take it easy and find a way to get my entire self used to any level of activity before I get in a pool (and even then my cardiologist was more or less all “do something where you aren’t going to drown if things go wrong”). The trouble is, any level of activity above walking (and sometimes even that) is too strenuous for me at the moment. So my theory is that I might feel completely awful, but in pushing my body it will learn to adapt with the new demand on it. There’s no other way to make it learn other than to force it to. So far this plan is not working. That plan belongs in the land of denial, and in reality it just doesn’t produce results (at least not positive ones).

The thing is, I could do it. Swim properly, I mean. I could do it. I have the technique and I try to move in a way that allows me to put that technique to use; but once my heart says no, I don’t have the energy to pull (which is all I can manage, because flutter kick is death), my muscles scream, and I feel like I’m drowning.

I laid there late into the night and I felt so unwell. I felt… limited. And I let it all sink in, I let reality breach the walls of my denial and seep through the cracks of my hopeful ignorance.

This body can’t. 

But I’ll break it trying… (this isn’t even a realistic thought, it’s a thought I seem to think in order to force optimism upon myself, and I hide behind stuff like that a little) Is it worth breaking it? (Sensible finally hit me).


Over the next two days I swam again. 10 lengths and 15 lengths on the second day. 20 on the third. For the first time since my health properly hiccuped, I swam two lengths of a pool without stopping to catch my breath. And the next day I repeated the achievement and swam three lengths before the world started to fade to black even though my eyes were wide open. I couldn’t kick in any stroke other than breast stroke, and all my strokes were slow so I could focus on technique (as I don’t have speed or power). Despite the fact that when I swam front crawl I could only pull and was the only one in the pool not doing full stroke, I was faster than anyone else in the pool. And it was easier than it had been on that first night. I got out of the pool and my heart was racing (it continued to do so for hours). Initially, my lips where pale and blue, and my fingertips were drained of all colour. That fixed itself as my heart decided to slow a tiny bit and rectify this issue.

A few weeks ago I’d been able to swim 61 lengths before I felt how I did on that first night. And I think that’s what shocked me, what made it all hit home. A stubborn stupidity is what made me try again. Inevitably each time I feel lousy afterwards, but I’m starting to build some sort of agreement with my body. When it tells me to stop, I sort of do now (after I test it and push on a little more. But a little more is less than telling myself I can’t stop until I’ve done another ten lengths – which ended very badly and resulted in me almost losing consciousness in a swimming pool).

Life is about accepting new limitations. Or is it? Is it not instead about pushing them? Maybe not, maybe that makes you take ten steps back and either way your body starts to feel like a prison. Maybe life is about finding your limitations, acknowledging them, and working with them – about finding a balance between not letting them rule you, and ignoring them until they bring you to your knees to remind you they are there. 

I could spit out this optimism and tell you that I won’t back down, give it all the talk that I am stronger than whatever and will achieve the things I set out to. But that feels false. Because I say those things, but realistically there’s a very real chance that I will fall far short of the places where I aim to go. Those words bubble from denial, but they also stem from a determination that likes to rumble on in the background. My body told me no, and my brain finally backed down and listened to it… briefly. Because I know how hard this is going to be, but part of me is still convinced that it is worth it. And none of me knows how to let go. This is stupidity, stubbornness, an inability to let go, a hopeless dream of being something I will realistically never be.

But life is full of hopeless dreams, and this particular hopeless dream just happens to be my reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

So yeah… This is the other narrative of my mini-break with my mum. I gave up completely, and then I got up the next day and tried again. And it wasn’t so bad the next time, my body wasn’t so outraged (it wasn’t happy, but I could function). To be honest, I expected to be left very unwell again (and I’d felt unwell enough to decide that swimming wasn’t worth it, and if you know how much I love swimming, you’ll understand how awful I felt). But this little part of me was kind of defiant. It was curious. It wanted to try again, with no expectation of itself, and then anything felt like an achievement.

I guess the point is (oh hey I seem to have just thought up a point to this post) don’t give up. Three words that are so easy to write but so difficult to stand by. Perhaps a better way to say it is…

Do give up. Stop. Stand back. Detach. Pause. And think. And let it all go, give up, give in. It’s ok. When you feel like giving it all up and letting it all go, you probably need to. It’s your mind’s way of asking for a break, I guess. And give it that break. Let yourself breathe. The crushing weight of the feelings that drove you to want to quit is unbearable, and giving into it feels so right and so wrong all at the same time. Don’t give up on yourself, or on being on the planet, but briefly let yourself let go of the things that your REALISTIC thought processes tell you that you need to step away from. But wake up the next day, and even if you don’t want to, even if you think it’s pointless, try again. And see what happens. And if it’s crap, then fair enough. But if it is crap, my brain occasionally kind of whispers “one more chance, one more time” and then I (very, very stupidly) try again, a refusal to accept my incapability makes me repeat the process over and over, trying and failing in hope that one day I will try without failing. Is life about the results? Or is it about the journey? I don’t know. But I do know that perseverance is difficult. I also know that it pays.

No way but through. 


(On the subject of water, I’m kind of reminded of the weather (yes, how stereotypically British of me to talk about the weather). But the weather here right now is weird. Yesterday my mum and I drove home to 32.5 degrees of heat. Today as we drove to see the new Bridget Jones film, the sky was so thick with cloud that it was dark, it was only 14 degrees. It has rained non-stop all day causing flash floods all over the country – train stations have had platforms submerged under water, motorways are flooded, so many towns have lost streets and streets to feet of water, a landslide derailed a train and pushed it into the path of an oncoming train… I mean… British weather is a temperamental beast. Summer one day, almost winter the next! But I kind of love it. It’s been so humid – and strangely free of rain – that we’ve all been hoping for rain for days!)


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