Swimming Helped Me Feel Valid in My Disabled Identity

BY CATRIONA MORTON

As a child, I loved swimming – working my way up through the Duckling Awards, earning Kellogg’s patches to sew onto my Little Mermaid towel. I remember the echoes of the weekly school swimming lessons, the comfort in feeling my body thud to the bottom of the stillness as I expelled all the air out of my lungs. Incidentally, I’m terrified of swimming in the ocean, but bring me to any pool or lake and I’ll rush myself through the water in glee. During my time at university, I would swim once a week at its hospital’s pool. Struggling at the time with complex-PTSD and depression, I found solace in the rhythm and clarity I gained there. But then, when my physical pain got worse, I had to stop.

In January 2021, after a decade of 'mysterious' symptoms including pain and fatigue, I was diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder called Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder (HSD). Upon diagnosis, a concoction of relief and fear consumed me. How could I accept that this was a condition I would live with forever? How could I cope with the ongoing pain? Would I finally accept that I was worthy of relief?

Alongside medical prescriptions, I was prescribed swimming. My long-time and long-lost love, it turned out, could return to help me. Swimming is often prescribed to those with my condition, and other similar conditions linked with chronic pain, for its low-impact and core strengthening effect. So, I started swimming at my local pool, which runs free sessions for people with disabilities. I finally took the plunge and signed up in a step toward accepting two things: that I am disabled, and that it’s okay to accept help.

Despite living with other disabling conditions, it wasn’t until I was officially diagnosed with HSD that I finally believed myself about the pain and the debilitating symptoms that I’d lived with daily. Of course, internalised ableism and the fear that people will think I’m not really disabled still seep into my mind. Yet, allowing myself to access this space created for disabled people helped me feel valid in my own identity and body.

The first time I went to one of the sessions, I was nervous. Would people look at me? Would they think I was faking it? When I arrived, it was quiet and I felt instantly safe. People took their time and smiled at one another as we clambered in to float ourselves in the warmth. I slipped into the water - slowly at first, and then all at once. I felt the warm wet close over my skin, my body suspended in weightlessness. I pushed off from the tiled walls and glided through the chlorine blue. My muscles groaned with relief, my joints graciously supported by the molecules of the water. I took my time and focused on the joy of my body moving and healing.

I felt safe in the company of other people slowing down and taking their time in the pool. Rather than the speed segregated lanes, and the pressure to swim faster than the person behind you, common in most public swimming pools, this pool was now open and calm. Children laughed, whilst older adults stretched and smiled. I swam lengths slowly, opening up my arms in the breaststroke and kicking my legs in the backstroke. I could feel the movement of my muscles, felt my body strengthen each time I returned to the water.

Whilst the onus placed on disabled people to exercise their way out of their conditions is wrong, finding myself in the water again and letting my body carry me has been a special and validating experience. Everything I worry about clears away with the crystalline clarity, and I feel my pain recede, giving me respite in the healing waters. I get out, and my body thanks the water, and myself, for the movement that has been granted. I walk home, my ears still carrying water, and feel softer. There’s a certain warm sleepiness distinct to post-swimming, and I go home to take a nap, dreaming of when I’ll get to meet my long-time love again.