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.

Phew!

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.

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Giving in

View of East Moor, Derbyshire - 8 January 2003

View of East Moor, Derbyshire - 8 January 2003

Yesterday I gave in.

I rang work to say that I couldn’t make it to the bus stop (one mile away up an icy hill) because of the weather.

In January 2003, I put my books to one side (I was doing a masters degree at the time), donned my walking boots and headed out of the front door to go for a twenty mile circular walk across the snowy moors.

I was pondering my future at the time, so I was in limbo as far as starting a family, or gaining proper post-graduate employment was concerned. My most immediate worries were house-hunting, coursework and finalising a dissertation topic.

My feet had instintively led me along a route I had planned on the map and imagined in my head numerous times as I had lain in bed at night.

I spent a happy day winding through local farms, along lanes that linked nowhere with nowhere, through copses, across the moors, past prehistoric barrows and back via a middle-of-nowhere pub.

I remember one particularly cool moment dangling my feet over a gritstone edge, watching the sun breaking on distant snow (see picture) while exchanging texts with a friend in her central London office.

I made it back as dusk was setting in, the fiery sun anchored to the horizon, mirroring my rosy-cheeks, satisfied and happy with the exercise-induced endorphins doing their thing.

I felt rather wistful watching the thaw setting in, dripping the branches and slushing the roads.

“That’ll be the last time I ever do that,” I muttered, quietly resolving to prove myself wrong.

Since then, a few milestones have been passed: I (post-)graduated, got married, found a job, bought a house, had two kids, lost my mother, extended my house, found a better job…

…got diagnosed with MS.

All this time, I have held onto the thought that one day, one distant crisp white snow day, I would do it all again. I would brush off my walking boots, wonder at the previous walk that had caked the mud into the soles, layer up, pull on the pack full of the day’s essentials (map, sandwiches, hip flask), and set off again across my beloved Derbyshire countryside.

Yesterday I couldn’t even get out of town.

Halfway up the local hill, the snow and ice got the better of me. Oscillopsia set in and my legs felt like lead.

Phoning into work felt like I had given up, like I had lost a key battle. For the rest of the day my legs and feet nagged at me in the cruellest way possible by feeling like they actually had walked twenty miles, but without the endorphins to show for it.

Still, I’m the optimistic type.

Part of me knows there are other factors involved – I had worn myself out after abandoning my car to the snow the day before. I had also walked, with a sledge in tow, the four and a bit miles – there and back – to pick up my kids (actually, I cheated and we caught a bus some of the way back).

I may have lost this battle, and I know that ultimately I will lose the war (how heavily or lightly remains to be seen), but there are other battles.

I am resolving again that when the kids are a bit older and I have the spare time, I’ll be taken with the urge and I will head out again across those hills.

I’m planning it now.