Autism, anxiety and wild swimming

Autism, anxiety and wild swimming

For the past few weeks, I’ve been struggling to enjoy swimming in my local lake. There are people who will tell you all about how swimming saved them or how wild swimming is their safe space. As an autistic person, it’s complicated. I enjoy swimming. There are times when I’ve been floating in the River Mersey as the sun came up and I’ve been calm, happy and content with myself. Wild swimming hasn’t “saved me” but it’s helped me become OK with my body. Unfortunately, my local safe spaces have changed, and my autistic brain does not like change.

Earlier this year, the company who were managing the lake pulled out. They were doing regular tests on the water to make sure it was safe and they organised the lake into sections for various sports. I liked that. I liked knowing all I had to do was swim in a straight line, back and forth, and I was safe. Now they’ve left and taken 95% of their stuff with them. I must admit, they did a good job taking their buoys and ropes, but there are a couple of things they left that make me anxious.

For some reason, I don’t like swimming close to lake furniture. Pontoons, metal things, bridges, ropes, etc. I have an irrational fear of them, so I stay well clear. Knowing that the previous owners have left a few things makes me worry about what is below. In recent swims, I’ve encountered… stuff. My wife has fished out at least 3 crab line kits. They’re unrelated to the previous owners’ activities, but it worries me. There’s stuff in there. Dead people maybe? Ghosts wanting to drag me underwater to hell. I keep knocking them and it puts me on the verge of a panic attack in the middle of the lake. This could be Submechanophobia, which is a fear of manmade objects underwater.

Couldn’t I just swim a different route? Yeah, no. Change my route? It wouldn’t be right. A new one would need to be peer-reviewed and well researched before I could embark on such an endeavour. Technically, this is my second route, so I have changed things before. How did I manage? No choice. The company forced change on us and I had to get used to it. Can’t I just get used to it then? I am desperately trying to.

This isn’t helped by it being jellyfish season and while the ones in our lake are moon jellies, and harmless, I still bump into them. I feel them on my skin. As an autistic person, that’s not helpful for my calm. Suddenly, I’ve got sensory experiences I don’t need at that moment. I wear gloves, but I still feel something, especially on other body parts. I could get a wetsuit, but I enjoy the connection to the water. There’s a chance this is Scyphophobia, a fear of jellyfish.

Another issue is that the dry month of June has caused the water level to drop, meaning I’m closer to whatever is at the bottom of the lake.

Basically, I’m having a classic autistic issue of change isn’t good. My lake is not “right”. It’s simply not right and try as I may, my brain can’t handle it. It’s frustrating because I started swimming before this company moved in, so this is the second major change to the lake since I’ve been going. I think it’s the combination of factors making it a complex place to swim.

When I can, I enjoy swimming in our lake, as it’s safe from stingy jellies and you won’t get swept out to sea. It’s usual a calm space to swim and float at the start of the day, along with chatting with friends and strangers. Just right now, my brain isn’t handling the change.

It’s a lot to overcome and I’m trying. I spent over an hour in the lake yesterday and an hour today. This can’t be dealt with from the comfort of my couch. I need to be in the place, absolutely terrified and trying things to feel OK. There are moments when swimming clicks with me and it’s a joy, but wow it’s a lot of work to get there.

I would love to be free from anxiety. It is why I push myself to do these things like wild swimming, night climbing Snowdon, skinny-dipping, being a portrait photographer with social anxiety. I need to find out what I can and can’t do. It’s just hard work when the space you practice in changes and your brain can’t accept it. I think that is going to take the rest of my life to deal with. Keep pushing.

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