Healed by water: An Aquarius account of her first swimming class

As a kid, I convinced myself I was a mermaid.

My favorite season of the year was always summer, the time when my finger-pads would stay puckered from chlorine long after I (finally) emerged from the water.

Though I never took a formal swimming class, I was infatuated by the water — perhaps that’s the Aquarius in me. People with pools were my idols. The twisty water-slides and cannonball-zones were my little-kid thrills. An indoor water-park? My version of Heaven-on-Earth. The ocean? A dream come true.

But once puberty hit, and my eating disorder insecurities took hold, pool-side relaxation days were converted into public-shaming nightmares.

When you have to squeeze your already self-conscious body-self into a swimsuit that never seems to fit, especially for a girl struggling with anorexia, it can be triggering. Just the sight of my body exposed to the world was enough to send me hiding in a towel on the outskirts of the pool, sweating it out under the sun instead of jumping headlong into the deep end like I desperately wanted to.

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Eating disorders ravage the mind, slice it from the rest of your body like a guillotine. The body becomes the enemy, the oppressor, the one thing you can’t change or control.

So you learn to sever it from yourself.

You are walking limbs of discontent. You constantly berate your flabby arms, distended stomach, awkward toes, saying: ‘How could you? How dare you? How ugly are you?’ I always found something wrong with my body: my skin, my hands, my legs, my thighs. My mind, though, was flawless: pristine, untouchable, productive, envied.

You can understand why I had such a hard time loving all of myself — not just the parts I thought were perfect.

I signed up for swimming 7 months before I knew I would need it again.

Stuck 1 class-credit short for fall semester 2017, I enrolled in ‘Fundamentals of Swimming’ thinking I would balance my cardio days of running and sprinting with a new athletic skill. I never imagined I would be relying on swimming, let alone a wheelchair, to push me through this semester.

Tugging on my 1-piece and limping out to the pool for the first time, I realized I had a lot to learn here. How to *fundamentally* swim, how to regain endurance, and perhaps how to love my whole body.

Weightless in the water for the first time in months, I shivered back feelings of inadequacy and shame.

When you’re swimming, the water touches all of you. Seeps into all the places you try to hide. It lurks in all the crevasses and clogs your nose, eyes, mouth, ears. It’s everywhere and all up in you. There is no escaping this sensory overload.

And it works your whole body, too. My stomach is talking with my feet and talking to my hands and talking to my lungs to remember to BREATHE. There is a comfortable syncopation when my coordinate position is coordinated altogether; there is disruption when my brain moves faster than my arms sweeping past my legs.

The first day I got in the pool for class, I was a-frenzy. Splashing chaotically, clawing desperately just to get to the other side of the pool, I soon sputtered out like a boat motor gone dead. I barely made it halfway across the pool.

Because my brain was moving at a different pace than my body, I ended up gulping waves of water every time I mentally instructed myself to take a breath. I knew I needed to breathe, and I knew I needed to keep moving forward towards the other side, but I wasn’t working the two thoughts together.

My mind was acting independently from the rest of my swimming self.

Not to undo the competitive, ambitious person I am, I continued plunging forward into the waters of the unknown — the perfect metaphor for this un-perfect injury of late.

The first time I swam across the length of the pool, I remember the moment I knew I was going to make it.

Time in the water is suspended from dry-land time; seconds feel like minutes, if you’re not moving with pace and endurance. I was nearly halfway across the pool — my normal ‘dead end’ zone — when the rhythm of body and mind clicked like a lock. All of a sudden, I found the timing for my shoulders and legs to allow for breath. It required me to go slower than my originally attempted Olympic speed-race, but it was the speed my body could enjoy.

The first time I touched the wall and relaxed from the exertion, I looked up for the first time since that first massive breath. I looked back lengthwise at the pool: The distance is not incredible by any means, but it felt like an enormous feat for me.

Here I am, with two broke legs and a horribly disjointed sense of herself, having successfully crossed the pool in her third week of swimming class.

And it was all because I listened to my body.

Though my arms are sore today, returning to the water has already proven to be a comforting healing process in these slow-going days.

It’s ultimately why I flocked to the shores of Lake Michigan every morning before my internship days began, why I have my walls at home painted a deep-sea navy blue: Water heals me. Water has always healed me.

Now, 21 years later, I’m reclaiming that lost-at-sea part of me. The part that works her body and mind together, the part that gives me pleasure and suspended weightlessness from my weight-ful worries.

The part that makes me, me.

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Mermaid memories