Friday 28 October 2016

The unbearable panic of feeling alive

Published 17/10/2016 | 02:30

A swimmer at sunrise at the Forty Foot in Sandycove, Dublin
A swimmer at sunrise at the Forty Foot in Sandycove, Dublin

As it got darker, we stood side by side contemplating the sea. In places it was like a cauldron, elsewhere less wild. We had carefully walked into a shallow enough area and romped in the waves, brief snatches of swims, a bit of bouncing, but always able to stand up if necessary. It had been exhilarating, to be close enough to feel that power, but safe. We don't take chances.

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I especially don't take chances. I've got the fear slightly recently. One or two times when I was perfectly safe and doing a route I had done many times before, when the sea was perfectly calm, I have stopped and tread water, and had a quiet panic attack, wondering how I can possibly make it back. I've had to call him back just to be near me. I always feel foolish after, but he generously says it happens to everybody. The fear has got in my head now. And your head is your biggest enemy in these situations, not the sea. Don't get me wrong, I never take the sea for granted and I never mess with it. But the head is just as fierce an enemy. Anxiety, when you stop and start paddling furiously to stay still, wearing yourself out, is a killer. So you have to stop, and compose yourself, and slowly swim back, one stroke at a time, getting closer.

Once that anxiety comes in once, it feels like it is there ready to pounce. So I am trying to manage my way out of it now . And that can only be done with lots of swims. Getting back into the habit. Creating new habits, breaking bad ones that have crept in. And habit creation requires regular repetition.

Regular repetition was easy in the summer. I went twice lots of the days, often on my own, up and down, staying close to the coast, putting in the time and coming out cleansed. But the dark and the cold are creeping in at the extremities of the day. Gone are the days when the sun would rise gloriously over the bay at 6am. It's becoming more like hard graft now. And it will get harder. I know this from my vast experience of one winter.

And maybe we knew this as we stood there regarding it. The water is still relatively warm now. It is still what could largely be described as a pleasant experience. But if we keep going, we know what is ahead, mornings when we meet silently in the darkness, too miserable to even speak, dutifully getting in for a while, feeling it biting us, and getting out into air that is even colder, shaking home in the car with the heating on full.

So Wednesday night, even though it was dark and not even eight o'clock, even though the sea was wild, we both knew there was worse to come.

We can go home now, I said to him, home to our houses, but we will have felt alive. There was a moment of smugness as I lay on my back bouncing on a wave, and a train passed by. And I didn't envy them in there, warm in the train, with the lights on, heading home. I felt sorry for them, that they were not as alive right then as I was.

It was also awe-inspiring in the true meaning of that word. The power of this thing, that was sometimes so benign, suddenly turned to turmoil. It was biblical. He said that when it is like this he always realises how small he is, how tiny we are. We talked about why we do this. Why we are drawn back to what some people think is insane. This was our second outing of the day. We were there at dawn too. I think we are force feeding ourselves to get back into it a bit. We each had our reasons for being there. The unspoken one we share is perhaps that we are there to feed our madness. The call of the wild after a day in sterile environments, having to pretend.

Slightly reluctantly, we turned and went, suddenly needing the heat of the car. We threw away the last dregs of the tea he brings, which is part of the ritual that helps him, we snapped out of it, and we ran to the cars. The spuds were on when I got home. I did the peas and the fish from M&S and by the time she came down from settling the kids it was ready. Nothing was ever so delicious. The elder came down with a headache. I gave her a piece of my lightly dusted cod. She loved it. And I glowed inside and felt alive again with love and with how excited she gets over food.

And then I sat on the couch sated, sedated, the madness fed. I had felt alive, just for a little while. And now I was happy back in my cave.

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