«La natation sauvage a changé nos vies» – Braver les eaux froides aide un groupe de femmes à améliorer leur santé physique et mentaldecember 15, 2019
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Dawn Craig pats the surface of the reservoir, breaking the ice ahead of her so she can walk in. The edges are sharp, but the cuts and scratches are barely felt as the water is so numbingly cold. She runs her hands under the ice and lifts up the fragments, peering through them and laughing.
A decade ago, Dawn would barely have been able to walk down to the water, requiring a stick or wheelchair to get about. For 10 years she suffered so terribly from pain – following a back injury, but also associated with the genetic condition Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – that she would be unable to leave her bed. She was, in her late thirties, “medically retired” from work. At one point she was so depressed she came close to suicide.
Women are disproportionately affected by chronic pain, and yet illnesses such as fibromyalgia – affecting seven times as many women as men – tend to be under researched and, often, incurable. In medical and scientific circles there is a growing interest in whether regular cold-water immersion can help reduce the pain and inflammation associated with certain chronic conditions – mirroring how athletes use ice baths to deal with punishing training schedules – but the research is very much still in its infancy.
Chronic pain is at the heart of the Taking the Plunge project, started by wild swimming enthusiasts photographer Anna Deacon and writer Vicky Allan. Cold-water therapy is not a new idea. In the 18th century, sea swimming, especially during winter, was recommended for the treatment of a range of diseases. Whole seaside resorts were founded on these perceived health benefits. Centuries later there is still very little scientific research, but anecdotes abound of cold water’s pain-relieving benefits. Below are some of the moving stories Deacon and Allan have collected.
Katie Lawson, 40, Edinburgh
“I swam for Scotland at junior and senior level. Then, in my early 20s severe back problems meant I faced an operation, or stop swimming. Every so often I’d go back into the pool but it was a love-hate relationship. The smell of chlorine. It was too easy to not go after years of dedication.
“A rollercoaster of health problems hit me in my adult life, including polycystic ovary syndrome, a molar pregnancy (very rare cancerous tumour) and a late missed miscarriage. A genetic condition called haemochromatosis meant weekly bloodletting in hospital. I suffered from acute urticaria and viral meningitis. Basically, my health was in freefall; and endless hospital stays and endless bouts of illness forced me to re-evaluate my lifestyle.
“My second pregnancy was difficult; I was diagnosed with birth trauma from the birth of my daughter. I lacked strength from years of health problems. I tried maintaining fitness but even getting to the pool took energy that I just didn’t have. After my son was born, I had post-natal anxiety and severe memory problems. Last year I was diagnosed with functional neurological disorder – a cognitive impairment problem, as a result of trauma to the head, the meningitis I suffered, and past traumatic experiences.
“It was Anna who got me into the open water. Wild swimming makes me feel strong again. And I’ve felt healthier than I have in years. It gives me time. It switches my mind off and there’s only me, and the water. Sometimes friends. And the occasional jellyfish. It reminds me that my body can do this and is something to be celebrated, instead of something that has let me down in the past. And it lets me show my daughter strength, fearlessness, and delight. At six years old she follows me in.”
Andie Katschthaler, 35, Austria
“I love how getting into the cold water melts away my issues. About two years ago I developed anxiety. I have ADHD and am well-adjusted, but the anxiety caught me unawares and I still don’t know how to deal with it well. Wild swimming helps with that. It’s like I’m shedding all my stress, anxiety and aches the moment I walk into the ocean. The cold water quiets my brain. And the exhilaration of it all gives me a dose of endorphins to boot. It’s temporary relief from feeling broken and, fortunately, it always lasts a while after a swim.”
Dawn Craig, 48, Midlothian
“I got to the stage where I couldn’t go on any longer, with the pain. It wasn’t a planned suicide; it was just that the pain was so bad I’d taken all my tablets. I have a daughter. I’m so pleased it didn’t work.”
Dawn’s turnaround – from being retired in her 30s and suicidal, to hiking up Ben Nevis and summiting the iconic Suilven – has been phenomenal. The day after her Ben Nevis climb, she cancelled her disability benefit. “I thought, you’re no longer disabled. I’ve done that walk and I’ve done the Cobbler. Huge, huge achievements for me. But, if it wasn’t for the swimming community, they wouldn’t have happened.”
Dawn’s pain hasn’t disappeared entirely, but one of the ways she now manages her condition is through cold-water swimming. “That’s my medication now,” she says, describing how – over a series of dips – she realised that the more she swam, the more the pain went away. She has long been on strong opiate medication, but she is working her way towards coming off it, and has already halved her dose. “I actually don’t think I need medication anymore. I know I’m not in pain, so why am I taking opiate painkillers? I’m addicted unfortunately. I’ve been on this medication for ten years and for that time I constantly said I was in the worst pain ever.”
She says that swimming, as well as providing pain relief, makes her feel happy. “I never smiled so much in my entire life”, she says, describing her first cold-water swim. “I came out and I buzzed till my next swim.”
Karin Mackinnon, 57, Cairngorms
“The first cold-water swim I did was 300 yards in a lochan. It was 14°C and I thought it was Baltic – I now know different. What struck me was it was the first time in years I hadn’t felt any pain.
“I’ve been swimming for two and a half years and I’ve had fibromyalgia for 15 years, and alongside it depression. My coping mechanism for stress or anything that was going on in my life used to be exercise. But when I developed chronic fatigue I didn’t have the energy to exercise. You’re stuck in the house and all you’ve got to think about is yourself. I had periods in hospital because I was so low. I was in a dark place.
“But when I started doing the cold-water swimming, I came off the opiates and antidepressants for the first time in 25 years. I’d been through every pill they could think of – modern ones, old ones – nothing helped. Then when I started swimming, because I could get out of my own head – even if just for five minutes, when all you’re thinking about is, God, am I going to survive this cold? – it had such benefits.
“My consultant psychiatrist signed me off. He said, you don’t need to come any more, as long as you keep swimming. It’s now part of my official health plan. I’ve gone from not being able to walk more than 12 minutes, to my biggest swim last year being 3.4km. I would never have spoken about my mental health issues before. But if swimming can help just one other person from thinking suicidal thoughts then I’ll tell my story to anyone.”
This is an edited extract from Taking the Plunge by Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan (Black & White Publishing, 2019)