By Jo Gifford
I hate swimming. I can’t stand being cold.
So to end the year as a fully signed up cold water swimming addict is as much of a surprise to me as to anyone else. But hey, it’s 2020, so nothing surprises anyone anymore, eh?
So, how did I end up taking the icy plunge, and — more importantly — why on earth would anyone anywhere near their right mind want to?
Well, I lost my mind a bit this year.
And the magic of the water saved me.
Hey, I’m Jo. I’m one of those smiling girls on Instagram in a bobble hat*, advocating the self torture of cold water swimming.
Earlier in 2020 my world as I knew it had started to fall apart, as had all of ours, in this transformational, chaotic year.
With the backdrop of Lockdown 1.0, my Dad died. My lovely Papa had suffered from dementia for a couple of years since having a second stroke, and he passed away from COVID in May
A casualty of the care home system during the time a virus is rampaging the world, and a really vulnerable frame that was a shadow of himself, we said goodbye, via FaceTime.
Losing a loved one is devastating enough.
Losing a loved one when you can’t be with them, when you have to say goodbye via an iPad to your hero, when you can’t hold their hand?
That’s a whole other level of cruelty.
Grief came in waves.
My partner had also been made redundant.
Homeschooling was happening.
Some other huge personal shifts were taking place.
By early June I was an anxious heap; a human accumulation of panic attacks, tears, and exhaustion, steeped in rum and clutching a bottle of Diazepam.
During days when I just didn’t know how to get through each moment, walking in the fields behind our house had been a daily practise.
The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other seemed so symbolic, so certain — often the only thing I knew to be true that day — and I felt held by nature as each day unfolded.
Poem from June 2020
The fields outside my house are the keepers of my range of raw emotions.
Over the last 3 months they have been where my tears fall, where my heart opens, where I howl into the rain.
It’s where I walk barefoot on the grass, where I tell the trees my pain, grief and loss, and whisper my fears in the boughs of their ancient wisdom.
It’s where the lakes absorb my salty sadness, the light reflects love and vibrates with my vision, and the cherry blossom tells me of a fragrant hope.
They are where I share my open and broken heart, where I feel my humanity burning, hot in my veins, dream the treasure maps of my future, and breathe in the oxygen of now.
Walking the same paths on different days in different states, I see the paradox of growth and transformation.
Some days feel peaceful, expansive, promising.
Some days are tumultuous, visceral, raw, my knees buckling with pain on the gravel track.
Some are hollow. Some are happy.
Some days have all the human in every moment.
Some seem to glide, unscathed, while others leave scars.
And all the while the leaves on the trees bud and unfurl, the grass finds its height until walking through the dew feels like rain.
The wheat emerges from the ground and reaches for the sky- and the sole, red poppy stands bright and alone in her temporary glory.
Transformation is everything and nothing.
All the things and none.
It’s rapid expansion, whole love, and deep loss.
It’s moments, lifetimes, seconds.
It’s the spaces between the heartbeats, the silence between the breaths.
It’s me. It’s you.
It’s us. It’s here and it’s now.
It’s cells, soul, soil and surrender.
And I keep walking.
I am sure I am not the only one to have re-discovered the beauty of where they live during lockdown.
Being part of All That Is seemed to be so crucial during those months.
I sat in a a tree I had adopted as my favourite one. I cried. I meditated. I had long walks.
The lakes in the nature reserve shimmered, and felt like a soothing soul balm, a sanctuary to sit near.
I began to crave the water. To be near it felt like a physical need.
I live pretty much on the river. I am from this area, and had never felt the call to water so strongly as in 2020.
In the summer, I started walking to the river and taking a dip.
I first when entirely naked, in a secluded spot by some fields close to my home.
In a time when freedom felt so compromised when the whole world felt constricted, dangerous, controlled – there was such freedom in re-wilding.
The water seemed to clear my head. All the fogginess and grief of the day felt washed away.
I felt lighter, refreshed, free.
I loved having my feet on the earth, toes in the mud, sliding into the water and letting it hold me.
I started paddle boarding on a local lake.
I needed the water, the space, the nature, the air, the oxygen.
I needed the healing water magic.
I hadn’t thought beyond Summer for swimming; I knew I would miss the water and usually I often struggle in winter with the lack of daylight and ability to unbox my day due to hibernation.
So, when a couple of fellow local wild swimmers reached out to me to be a wild swim buddy throughout the cold months, I was excited to give it a go.
At the same time, a dear friend of mine, Lisa Monger, had started a group of BlueTits Chill Swimmers in Leigh on Sea, and I was seeing a social media feed full of smiling women splashing about in the ocean.
I was inspired, excited and intrigued to see if the magic would still work in the cold.
On October 31st I had my first cold swim, in the sea at Chalkwell Beach, with Lisa holding my hand.
As the waves crashed over me, and I yelled with joy and freezing cold elation, I let the sea wash away the anxiety, depression, and profoundly human experience of the year.
I stood with my feet in the sand, my toes grounded, soaking up the energy of the beach and of autumnal nature, and I sobbed into Lis. Apparently, it’s not unusual to experience a raw, elemental release in the cold water. It doesn’t surprise me, either.
There is something so primal, so wild, so natural about letting the cold heal us that it seems to all make sense (albeit a cold, shivery sense.)
After my first dip I felt elated, I felt alive, euphoric, clear headed and vital.
I was hooked.
The next day I had my first dunk with my new wild swimming buddy.
Yasmin and I immersed ourselves in the Ouse river, ecstatic to have discovered the magical euphoria I had heard about from other cold swimmers, and excited to find a spot to do it locally.
At the same time, a friend from my gym also reached out to swim, and suggested we form a local BlueTits Chill Swimmers group, the Cambridgeshire BlueTits.
Within just a couple of weeks, Elise and I had 100 members in the group, we had been interviewed on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, and we had discovered many more people locally who wanted to take a cold, wild dip and dunk.
I have a couple of chronic illnesses — endometriosis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia — that I thrive with, but whose presence is often known in my life.
I began to feel energy and elation after each dunk, but also pain relief. My healing journey from these conditions has been long, complex and varied, and this extra piece of the jigsaw puzzle is a new one for me. The benefits of cold water immersion are well documented – from reducing inflammation, helping with depression, staving off dementia, and increasing our immune systems to many more.
For me, it’s all these and more.
It’s the soul food of a waterside chat and a sense of achievement with every dip.
It’s knowing I can endure stress and come out elated.
It’s testing my body and my mind.
It’s finding like-minded humans.
It’s the pure joy of being part of nature – walking on a river bed on a foggy morning with my breath turning to mist and raindrops falling onto the water from the trees is a pretty spectacular experience.
So, how does it feel?
For my first river swim in November the water was 10 degrees. Since then I have dipped in 4.5 degree water with an air temp of -1.
When you first get in, it really is an assault on the system. The whole body focuses, and every sense is acutely heightened – after all, the body registering being put into immediate danger does sharpen every nerve. Breathing with intention at this point is essential (as is yelping, as I often do).
It’s like a sharp focus combined with an immediate hug.
A freezing cold body of water activates the parasympathetic nervous system pretty quickly, and it’s like accessing a state of meditation.
I stay in for as long a feels appropriate, and it changes day by day depending on how I feel, the water temperature, air temperature, where I am in my monthly cycle, how tired I am, and what I feel able to endure.
Sometimes I dip for just a few minutes, sometimes I stay in for 10–15, or longer. Afterward, I feel AMAZING.
I feel invigorated, yes, but also connected, clear, alive, fully present, and surprisingly warm…until the after drop kicks in.
Learning to get dressed and keep heat in while my body is still dropping in temperature has been fun.
I favour a Dry Robe and a onesie with layers of thermals to make the whole thing as quick and easy as possible (the bag lady look has become a staple, and a quick way to recognise fellow cold swimmers at a glance).
I learned the hard way that neoprene socks and gloves are game-changers as the temperature drops; crying in pain as my feet rewarmed from blocks of ice taught me that one.
So what has cold water swimming given me?
It has given me a way to connect with nature, to feel acutely alive, and to experience freedom during lockdown and a pandemic.
It has given me resiliency, bravery, confidence, a new community of likeminded humans.
It has given me human connection, connection to myself, my body and my emotions, and a huge appreciation for the nature on my doorstep.
I have a goal to swim in 10 new locations over the next couple of months.
As the UK opens up more, I have my sights set on all kinds of places to strip off and freeze myself in.
Often, I feel increased anxiety as I drive to the water, as though my body knows it’s about to have a primal, sacral release.
Knowing I have a place and space to process embodied emotions feels really important to me right now.
Grief and stress took me to the water to re-wild, but people find cold swimming for all kinds of reasons – dealing with mental health, stress, depression, life changes – or just 2020.
It’s no wonder wild swimming and cold water swimming exploded in 2020.
What we have all been processing is just beyond all comprehension.
But we have nature.
We have water.
And we ride the currents and go with the flow.