Just keep swimming

Well, I’ve just returned from a family holiday to Florida. It was 90% Disney just like the last time we went. Both my wife and my youngest are big Star Wars fans, so my youngest had a light sabre battle with Darth Vader and my wife got a hug from Chewbacca among the many highlights. If anything, it was just nice to have a fortnight away in 40 degree heat.

The return trip was a bit arduous though as it involved a faulty aircraft and a four hour wait on the tarmac in Philadelphia.


Needless to say, sitting in such cramped quarters for such a long time while the captain repeatedly switched the plane off and then on again, is not good for me and my MS. I don’t sleep on flights anyway, I find it impossible, and for the six hours after the 2am take-off I think it’s fair to say I suffered a bit.

Anyway – I now know the following:

  • I like warm / hot weather. I’ve been suspecting this on previous holidays but now it’s official. A few years ago I would’ve said the opposite, but it’s far more pleasant to take it easy and carry around a t-shirt, shorts and sandals than jeans, coat, pullover etc. I feel much better for it.
  • Disabled loos in the places we visited seem to be an add-on to the existing gents as extra wide cubicles. This means that even if you feel justified using them they’ll be used by the general public anyway if the others are engaged. There doesn’t seem to be the same stigma around non-disabled usage as at home.
  • How to swim.

So there you go, all things I . . . hold on a minute – what was the last one again?

Yes, that’s right, I’m so proud of my older teenaged daughter, who succeeded where so many have failed, by patiently and good naturedly curing me of my 45 year deep-seated phobia of water and swimming pools. I’ve faced up to some pretty scary things in life both generally and (especially) as an MS patient, but my fear of swimming is right up there.

“Think back to the dawn of time and of all the millions of people who have ever died. How many of them drowned in a swimming pool?” she smiled as she persuaded me to doggy paddle a handful of metres to the edge of our villa’s pool.

Without batting an eyelid she skillfully turned me from someone who panicked each time I slightly lost my balance into someone swimming the backstroke, breast-stroke and even the crawl (with my head underwater the length of the pool), within an hour.

I ended up tiring myself out making up for lost time. Every day afterwards I gave myself a big grin by double-checking that I hadn’t forgotten how to do it.

The next step, I feel, is working out how to breathe and swim at the same time, so I might be looking at taking extra lessons now that I’m back in Blighty.

The thing that amazes me though, is how easy it was to take that extra step and stop panicking. Once I realised how I naturally float, I was away. I did the starfish float, I tried to get my bum to touch the floor of the pool and failed, I even held my breath and tucked my knees into my chest and let myself roll in the water.

Why on earth didn’t I do all this years ago?

Also when I mention it to others, I find that most people I know haven’t really made it to the next rung of the ladder. I suddenly seem to be in the middle of a sea of people who aren’t that proficient at swimming. When I jokingly mentioned the fact that I like swimming backstroke because I can actually breathe, a workmate agreed and said in the event of a ship going down he’d backstroke to the lifeboat for that very reason.

Is it difficult to progress as a swimmer, then? Is it because most people don’t swim regularly enough to have built up a stamina for it? All these years I’ve been labouring under the misapprehension that everyone is as good as Ellie Simmonds or Steph Millward albeit a good deal slower.

Of course, my daughter and all her friends haven’t reached a lifetime of apathy yet, so they’re all fantastic swimmers apparently.

So why have I spent a lifetime as a non swimmer? Well, I mainly blame moving house from Manchester to the rural redneck backwater of East Anglia for a few years as a kid; my crippling shyness at the time, coupled with an inexperience of swimming pools, particularly freezing open air school ones and the fact that goggles didn’t seem to have been invented in the late 70s / early 80s. Also, the lack of encouragement from teachers and parents.

Various family members did attempt to teach me to swim, but they tried to do so while up to their chest in the balmy sub-tropical waters of the North Sea. Claiming, while I steadfastly kept my arms crossed and my feet anchored to a pebbly beach, that their sadistic dads and uncles did the same to them so why wouldn’t it work with me? Or they’ve dangled the ten-year-old me by the ankles off the ends of piers for fun – memories I’ve obviously repressed until now.

Even as a teenager, I pulled an outstretched hand (and the fully track-suited swimming teacher attached to it) into the deep end of the school pool after thrashing around in a panic when a float torpedoed from my slippery grasp.

If I can keep on swimming in an environment I’m comfortable with, it could be just the exercise I need. The local MS Society branch have a pool meet-up one evening a week in a special school within walking distance. Here they obviously have hoists and the like for those with mobility issues but also a nice warm pool. So I might explore that option if it’s suitable. Also, the local authority where I live have nice friendly looking teachers who do group and one-on-one sessions for adults.

Until then I’m looking forward to my next holiday – camping in Cornwall – and yes, I’ve made sure there’s a pool.


Hairy Angels (!)

Well, I’ve just had the stomach bug that seems to be going around.

This bug floored my kids a week or so ago and put my eldest off her food for two days which is no mean feat.

It floored me too, but not in the way it floored my wife, who is still having trouble keeping things down two days later.

I was sick only the once, but because my better half seemed to be worse off than I was and because it was a nice day, I looked after the kids while she got much needed rest.

Halfway through the morning I realised that I wanted to curl up and go to bed. I seemed to be made of concrete. I felt dizzy and my eyes kept going flickery. My head was buzzing. I eventually lost the feeling in the little finger end of my left hand. It even felt like little worms were trying to weedle their way out from under my eyelids. More MS symptoms than typical stomach bug symptoms, I think you’ll agree.

But I carried on… I managed to do some gardening with little rests between each task… ie. between each bulb I planted.

I even managed to carry out a conversation with my elderly neighbour who stood on her tip toes to talk to me over the fence, while I was slumped in a garden chair feeling the vomity knot building in my stomach.

It was only after my sickness became physical (to put it politely) that I called in the help of my mother-in-law who descended in a welcome whirlwind of helpfulness.

I managed to put the kids in the bath and their respective beds and saw to whatever my wife needed before her fitful night’s sleep. I then got the sofa bed ready downstairs and flicked on the telly.

I don’t know what it was. Maybe it’s because I had the grand total of four slices of toast to eat all day (two at breakfast and two as a putting out the sofa bed celebration). Maybe it’s because you’ll watch anything on telly when feeling under the weather. Maybe it’s because they appeared on the cover of MS Matters magazine and I felt like they were friendly spirits warming me with their gentle geordie bonhomie… But I really enjoyed losing myself in the bellies and beards of the Hairy Bikers.

For those of you outside the UK, the Hairy Bikers are an amiable pair of large (let’s be fair – chef-sized) blokes on motorbikes who travel round observing how local foods are prepared and having a go themselves, while swapping matey banter with each other and relevant onlookers.

Nibbling at some cold hard toast and butter and sipping from a glass of water, whatever sumptuous strudel or interesting bread the hairy bikers were cooking (they were biking round Austria) – this is what my toast became.

When they came across a man with a gargantuan grey beard, seemingly sticking out at right-angles to his chin, dressed in lederhosen caught in the shadow of yet another generous belly, and dropping the odd yodel into his broken English, I was there with them, feeling a little better about my belly and admiring the view from the top of his alp.

The Hairy Bikers to me were like my guardian angels motoring into my MS addled evening.

And after they had motored off, my eyelids drooped and I snuggled down for the night.

One fit of fever in the early hours and I reckon the illness was purged from my body. The next morning I was weak and hungry and craving strudel, so I braved adding marmalade to my toast pick-me-up. And all was more-or-less right again.

This leads to a question that has intrigued since diagnosis…

My sickness bug departed in less than 24 hours, but wiped out the rest of my family for at least 48 hours. As MS is a disorder of the immune system, does this mean I have a particularly killer immune system? I always seem to avoid being ill, while my wife and everyone else I know seems to pick up everything. I have about one head cold a year for instance, and that will be on a bad year. Also, I’ve noticed that my MS symptoms will be bad on a particular day and this will tend to coincide with when those close to me are suffering from whatever ailments are going round. I wonder what other MSers have experienced.