July 2017

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Three things happened in July. Firstly, I took a ‘vacation’ to Lake Arrowhead. The week unsurprisingly involved a lot of wild swimming in the glittering mountain waters, and as I revelled in the feeling of nothingness beneath my feet and my heart pounding with each stroke; somewhere in the back of my brain I started wondering why on earth I hadn’t been to a swimming pool once since I moved to Los Angeles. The same week, my mum accidentally attended the celebrations of David Hockney’s 80th birthday in our shared hometown of Bradford and she kindly sent me a photograph of the giant birthday cake that was made depicting one of his vibrant acrylic swimming pool paintings. Finally, my dear Kerry started sharing photographs of her regular visits to Bramley Baths in Leeds. The Edwardian baths have been there in some form since 1904, and are a now a Grade II listed building. Amongst these occurrences, an urgent desire burned for me to revisit a thread that has run consistently through my life and last weekend I finally because a member of the The Culver City Municipal Plunge.

1. Shipley Swimming Pool

I started swimming lessons at a very young age. I had an amazing terrycloth swimsuit that was bright blue with an orange goldfish on the front; that I’d enviously watched my older sisters wear before me, and was crushed when I too grew out of it. I splashed about in the baby pool working towards my Watermanship Badge. I can very clearly remember the terror of ‘jumping in’, the excruciating rub of pulling armbands onto dry skin, the ‘lightbulb’ moment when I thought that if I just walked along the bottom of the pool, but did the correct arm movements, I would fool everyone into thinking I could swim (clearly forgetting that the pool water is, in fact, transparent) and the heavenly taste of the raspberry slush puppy I was allowed after each class. I was an instant water baby and threw myself into taking as many classes and exams as possible. I quickly worked up from regular classes, to underwater skills during which I  remember a misguided test that involved picking a brick off the bottom of the pool whilst wearing pyjamas. I moved onto my 10 metres, 25 metres, 50 metres, 100 metres, 200 metres, and eventually so many metres that I did a charity swim for OXFAM where I swam for three hours without stopping. Next it was time to take the bronze, silver and gold certificates and after that my Saturday morning routine, which had existed for half a decade at that point, was ending. With no more classes to take, I had two choices. I could specialise in either diving or, synchronised swimming. I am pretty sure I took one look at the high-board and figured I would rather spend my time in the water than standing 10 metres above it, most likely paralysed with fear.

2. Belle Vue Swimming Pool

I’m smiling to myself as I type out the name, as I am guessing that Belle Vue means Beautiful View and there was absolutely nothing aesthetically pleasing about this building or the part of Bradford that it existed in. I tried to find a photograph but went down a Google rabbit hole and can only assume it’s long since been demolished; which would not surprise me. My secret life as a synchronised swimmer began at the age of 11. I can’t even tell you how UN-COOL ‘synchro’ was in the mid ’90s. There was none of this kitsch or quirky association of the now-Olympic sport; it was something I could not admit to anyone that I did. I went to great lengths to hide my swimming kit on practise days, and was forever having to scuttle off to the pool from school before anyone could ask me to walk home with them. My time as a synchronised swimmer was my one and only experience of competitive sport and having a coach in anything. I was part of the “City of Bradford Synchronised Swimmers” and would participate in meets and competitions around Yorkshire. It was quite a shock to the system. I arrived at my first lesson to be directed to a white board that had written on it: 20 x breaststroke, 20 x front crawl, 20 x back crawl, 20 x butterfly, 20 x sculling – which is the arm + hand movement that you do during synchro to keep the rest of your body looking completely still on top of the water. Yes, 100 laps was just the ‘warm-up’ before we even began doing our routines and positions. No wonder my body resembled a spaghetti strand at that age.

I wish someone had the foresight to make a documentary about pre-teen synchronised swimmers in Bradford in the nineties. The stranger-than-fiction lengths of bitchiness that a group of competitive pre-teen girls will go to is staggering. Tickling feet mid group-routine, hiding nose-clips before a big competitions and endless vying to be the one that was selected to perform a ‘solo’ routine at the next competition. I enjoyed the training and the craft, but back before the sport was taken so seriously there was still a strong ‘beauty pageant’ element to any competition. We wore ridiculous matching sequinned outfits, vaseline on our face to stop the caked-on make up running and our hair was covered in yet-more-sequins, flowers and then set with gelatine; which you could only remove after with near-boiling water. Each swimmer would perform various positions and then have a panel of judges hold up scores. It’s a tough age to receive a wall of 1’s for your wonky ballet leg. My one and only solo routine featured a self-selected musical accompaniment of East 17, Ace of Base and Eternal. Oh and The Power by SNAP! and you can just imagine how special that was for everyone. The clearest memory that stays with me from these days is the way the music vibrated through your body and cued the various moves. You couldn’t wear goggles, so vision in the deep water was pretty murky and it was the beats that guided you. As I slunk into my teens and puberty crept in, I started to buckle under the pressure to stay a certain shape that my body just wasn’t blooming in to. The previously harmless in-fighting took on a darker body-shaming tone, and I was absolutely sick of training when all my friends were ligging about watching telly or shopping at Bay Trading Company or planning sleepovers.

3. Central London YMCA Club

In my early-twenties I finally made the move from Yorkshire to London that I had been craving since my teens. My timing could have been better; as a week or so before moving, we found out that my mum had a serious health issue. She was still adamant that I go, and of course I did, but my heart was very much back home with her. The big smoke is a tough, rough and gritty city. I do adore it, but I am pretty sure nobody gets out of their first year unscathed. I had my chirpy, friendly northern edges quickly rubbed off. I missed everyone back home like crazy. I was in a disastrous house-share with two friends in a black hole part of Streatham that was nowhere near any form of transport; clocking my commute up to over an hour each way. I was working in my first high-pressure ‘career’ job, for ‘expenses only’. Looking back I was just completely clueless and bumbling through each day as best I could. It was at this time that I retreated back to old habits and spent every spare minute I could under water. I found a swimming pool at the YMCA just off Oxford Street, that was under a ten minute walk from my office. It’s not an exaggeration that I would sometimes go there morning, noon and night; re-using the same soggy costume after a quick blast with the hair dryer. The swimming pool at the time was in the basement of the building. You accessed it from the changing rooms by taking a long spiral stair case deeper and deeper until there was no noise and no natural light, which was as creepy as it sounds. The stairs led you to a dark dingy pond-pool that was actually demolished (there’s a theme to these stories!) later. In all my memories, I am alone in the swimming pool. This seems absolutely impossible with hindsight; as it was a busy central London facility. Why wasn’t there even a lifeguard for company? Maybe it really was that unappealing? Or maybe it was the fact I was probably there on a Saturday night when most people were spilling out of pubs. When I look back to this time, it has that sepia nostalgia film of un-realness. I think I owe those hours spent slowly-pruning, for transitioning me through that first foreboding year and into a London life that I loved.

I wrote a short story called ‘Chlorine’ at the time, about this swimming pool. I desperately want to edit it as it feels so clunky and cheesy now, but that would be cheating.

The shock of the air against my damp skin caused a blanket of goosebumps to sprout across my arms and chest. The swimming pool was empty, and I was alone apart from the echoing of my wet feet slapping against the tiles. An hour of monotonous lengths and playing chicken with my lungs, as to how long I could stay under the surface, hadn’t helped to clear my mind. The watery salvation absent that usually comes with tracing my fingernails along the lines on bottom and starving myself of oxygen until a thousand sparkles swarm my vision. Instead I ripped myself from the stillness that always looks such an enticing aqua marine from the edge. The stench of chlorine followed me as I stood at the top of the staircase back to the changing rooms. The one that twists and turns in spirals that seem to last forever, forcing you to spend an excess amount of time out of the water lusting for the hot soapy shower waiting only moments away.

Your figure shocked me as I turned the last corner. My swimming costume clung and creased into an itchy second skin. I told you my eyes were scarlet due to the chemicals that make the water that tempting toxic blue. You knew I was lying as you reached a long arm around my tiny frame. The one that shrinks and shrieks since I moved to this stupid city. Crevices appearing where softness existed before. Bruises sprouting on corners of my body that protrude instead of retreating coyly. The walls sang back the drip drip drip from our soggy embrace and our bones creaked as we broke away.

4. The Culver City Municipal Plunge

My last blog post talked about anxiety and taking control over unwieldy thoughts and feelings. Well I think it’s evident that there has been quite a key location missing in my life. Every night that I now pack my swimming cap, towel and locker padlock in advance of a morning dip, I feel some of the days stresses and strains just melting away. I’ve made no secret that moving countries and re-setting life has it’s ups, and it’s downs. When we first moved here I actually bookmarked the swimming pool information, but instantly found the prospect of working out when I could fit in going, what the membership fees were and just not knowing the etiquette of lanes and lessons completely overwhelming. I’m angry at past-me for giving up so quickly and taking nearly two years to fall back on what is clearly such a tried and tested method for my brain. On my first trip there, everything was a disaster. I paid the wrong fee (I should have got a ‘resident’ discount) and I misjudged the lanes so badly that I got into the fast lane, and was instantly yelled at by a butterfly-ing man. And it was FINE. I retreated to the medium lane and basked in the fact that I can swim outside, in an unheated pool, all year round. My view from doing backstroke is palm trees, and bright yellow diving boards. I like to do my laps underwater, watching the the sunshine dancing on the tiles and the bubbles from my nose obstructing my view.

I get into the swimming pool with questions, and I leave with only answers.

And this time around, I get to do it inside a real-life David Hockney painting.

 

 

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I’ve spent pretty much all my life skirting around the fact I’m an incredibly anxious person. I hide behind calling myself a worry wart, a control freak, a Monica-from-Friends and most commonly an over thinker. It’s a relief that nowadays anxiety is better understood and widely discussed. However, that doesn’t mean I’m anymore comfortable with it being a dominating part of my personality and an exhausting presence within most of my decisions, desires and dreams. I’ve mostly dealt with my anxiety using two methods; denial and flooding. Denial is the veneer of confidence, togetherness and surface level cool-cucumber I attempt to fool the world with, whilst silently wringing my hands under my desk at work or laying awake at night re-running conversations and analysing them into oblivion. Flooding is when I force situations onto myself such as backpacking around Latin America or moving my life to another country where my anxiety almost implodes with possible scenarios to fret about, and for a short time I’m left with the type of calm that potentially most people live with all the time.

I was a teenager when I was first diagnosed with a heart condition. It was an excruciating time to suffer the symptoms I initially had; palpitations and fainting. At the age of sixteen, where all I wanted to do was melt into the background and avoid the judgement of my peers, I felt like the world’s biggest attention seeker. My condition was quickly under control with medication and I have lived without any real impact on my life, other than the fact I can’t take drugs and I can’t ride rollercoasters; which let’s face it, is an over-thinkers dream existence anyway. When I arrived in America, I started getting some new and alarming symptoms which led to getting a fancy Beverly Hills cardiologist and an ultrasound of my heart. The scan was a far more emotional experience than I expected; it felt like a privilege to get up close and personal with the organ that enables me to live this huge life. And boy, was it NOISY. I can only compare it to listening to a full orchestra. The obvious comparison is the persistent and booming drum beat which you’d expect. What I wasn’t expecting was the reedy, wind-section whistling of the valves or the high pitched sinewy string-section.

Shortly after, my cardiologist shed a little light on my heart-life. Firstly, the ‘condition’ I thought I had been diagnosed with as a teen, was actually just the name of my symptoms (tachycardia) and not the cause. Secondly, he could clearly diagnose that I had Mitral Valve Prolapse. The marvellous mitral valve sits between the left atrium and the left ventricle and helps control the flow of blood as it passes from the left atrium into the left ventricle. The valve has two flaps of tissue — known as leaflets — that open and close together like a pair of swinging doors. Each time the heart beats, the left ventricle pumps blood out to the body and the flaps of the mitral valve swing shut to prevent the blood in the ventricle from flowing backward into the left atrium. In my case, one of the leaflets is oversized; causing it to occasionally ‘stick’ in the incorrect position and causing the (as you’d expect) frightening sensation that something is very wrong in the ticker department.

The sensation is always (always!) corrected by the heart and only lasts seconds, so I am extremely fortunate as it’s a completely safe and common condition, and more of an inconvenience than anything to be concerned by. The reason I am telling you this; is that the diagnosis was instantly followed up by him asking if I would consider myself an anxious person. I was totally bemused and my ‘denial’ brain was on the cusp of absolute outrage and the million reasons I am absolutely together and cool, calm, collected thank you very much. But instead I was honest, and explained that anxious is basically my default setting. He explained that he’d actually been part of a study where they investigated the link between MVP and anxiety and found it to be disproportionately high; the reason being that the condition keeps your body in a daily state of physical anxiety. This explanation was followed up with the advice to avoid stress, to reduce the symptoms. (lol)

So, after a life of denial and flooding; two very short term solutions for being anxious; this was the nudge I needed to stop being so passive about my constant over-thinking. I’m finally investing some time and effort into a journey that will see my brain grow out of those bad habits and cycles I find myself in. I’m having faith that perhaps I’m way more in control over the way I respond to situations than I have previously thought, and that I don’t just have to accept this as my forever-state. I took a month to actively reduce the time I spent on my phone, the time I spent communicating with others and the boundaries I needed to just to give myself space to stop, and re-start. I’ve found Start Where You Are by Meera Lee Patel a great source of plots + plans for areas to focus on both short and long term. I’m finding the 52 List for Happiness Journal a great way to mark my progress each week. I’ve also discovered bottomless mimosa brunches with my friend Karolina, where we seem to be able to put the entire world to rights by the time we reach number 5. It’s felt like I am getting to know an entirely new part of myself (peace sign emoji!) which is unexpected at the age of 33. One of the top recommendations from, well, everywhere has been meditation.

I signed up for Headspace and started the ‘Take 10’ programme in earnest. Firstly I was horrified by my prioritising of time. Why oh why do I think it’s acceptable to spend hours scrolling through Instagram, or logging onto my work emails at the crack of dawn, or snoozing for an extra twenty minutes, or vanishing down a conspiracy theory about Avril Lavigne; but claim I cannot find ten minutes each morning to meditate? I’m an idiot. It’s really taught me a lot in how I place value on my time and how ten minutes should not feel like such an impossible daily hurdle.

The next issue was that when I am meditating I just don’t know how to stop thinking! The nice Headspace man starts chatting and I feel totally committed to listening to him for oooh about twenty seconds, before my chain of thought goes something like:

“OK! Listen to my surroundings. Well I can hear my neighbour stomping about and Buttercup whining because I have closed the bedroom door. Maybe this would be better if I was somewhere relaxing like the beach. Then I would just hear the sea. Except the closest beach is so close to the road. And LAX. So then I’d just hear the aeroplanes too. When am I next going back to LAX anyway? Oh Kerry’s visit is soon, I can’t wait for that. I need to prepare the itinerary though. I wonder if we can get a reservation at Mama Shelter. What even is Mama Shelter? I’ve just heard lots of people talking about it but I don’t know if it’s food or drink or what. So maybe we should go somewhere I have actually been and know is good. But maybe it’s fun to try somewhere new? etc ETC ETCCCC!”

By which point, I’ve totally tuned out every tip, tactic and instruction that Headspace man is telling me. I find the Headspace blog really insightful and interesting, and their recent How to stop overthinking and start living article was great, but not specific to the meditating process.

Do you meditate and are you an over thinker? Is there hope for me yet? It feels like a key to unlocking some better brain behaviour; but at the same time it provides the perfect un-distracted space for my thoughts to run riot.

 

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