Swimming: ultimate sanctuary/sensory nightmare

At time of writing, the forecast maximums for the next four days where I live in the suburbs surrounding Brisbane are 34, 31, 33, and 35 (that last one is today!). That’s Celsius. And it’s spring, not summer yet. Smack bang in the middle of spring, in fact.

The Bureau of Meteorology, or BoM, (though they don’t care for that acronym anymore and have rebranded to ‘the Bureau’, with mixed success) have said in the media that it’s going to be a long, hot summer for us Aussies with: “November to January maximum temperatures…at least twice as likely than normal to be unusually warm for almost all of Australia.”

They say it’s because of El Niño and positive Indian Ocean Dipole events (whatever they are), and record warm oceans globally. So, really, this is the worse time for me to be in the midst of a ‘swimming crisis’.

What is my swimming crisis? Well, I’ll come to that soon. But first, a little more background. (Don’t groan. I can hear you! 😁)

I’d say that apart from writing, when my face is in the water and hardly anyone else is around, swimming is just about my favourite thing to do.

(I do also love spending time with my wife, seeing my son, my parents, and my sister and her family, drinking coffee, eating – boy, do I love eating – reading, watching TV, playing tennis, travelling, and a bunch of other things I can’t even think of right now – but I’m trying to make a point here okay, so let me have this.)

Writing, I hope, is self-explanatory (if it isn’t, jump on over to the about page on the website to check out a bit more about me), while swimming’s hooks go all the way back to my childhood.

Most of my fondest memories from my youth revolve around water – either being in it or on it.

Looking back, it feels like whenever we went anywhere, especially when I was much younger, it was to the beach. My dad had, at one time, been a surf lifesaver, so he had a natural affinity for the surf that he seemed pretty keen on handing down to his kids.

My mum meanwhile was always taking me and my younger sister to the pool for a swim, where I would spend equal parts swimming and eating Twisties or Burger Rings, neither of which, I would learn the hard way, mix very well with water.

Somehow, goodness knows how, maybe my dad stole it (sorry dad! 😝), we also had a boat. We lived in a less than affluent suburb, in a pretty modest house, without much of anything – but we had this fantastic half-cabin fibreglass-hull boat. And we went out in it a lot. As a family, with friends. The years we had the boat are definitely some of my fondest.

(We also had an above-ground swimming pool for a while but my memories of that are largely traumatic. It was always leaking and dad was always swearing at it so let’s leave that in the past, where it belongs.)

But I think by now you get the idea: water, the ocean, swimming pools (even the crappy above-ground one that ultimately left us with just a dirty great concrete slab smack bang in the middle of our backyard), have always been a huge factor in my life, and I loved everything about it – the water, that is. Everything else, the aspects ‘surrounding’ the water, not so much.

And that’s still how it is with me to this very day. My local pool is like a heavenly sanctuary when I’m swimming laps. The moment I put my face in the water and begin following the long black line on the tiles beneath, everything leaves my mind and a kind of peace envelopes me.

It’s before and after the act of swimming itself, however, that I find it a sensory nightmare, so much so that I don’t know if it’s something I can continue to do anymore.

I’m a fair skinned fella, you see, and the UV index in Brisbane is, for all but a few months of the year, through the roof. (Not) BoM recommends skin protection from 8am until after 3, and I have always found applying the thick globs of obligatory goo a stressor, as is, especially as I get older, the heat.

Above ground view of a local Brisbane swimming pool from behind the lane blocks looking down the length of the pool
The local swimming pool where I have swum so many laps…

If I go to the pool earlier, before the sun is at its most ferocious in terms of peeling back the layers of my now ruddy (but once lily white) skin, there is the problem of “lane competition”, something else I have considerable issues with.

Peak lane occupancy begins at 5am, when it’s the swimming squads one has to contend with. There is no world in which I can compete with, or even swim in the lanes alongside, those ultra-fit, ultra-vibrant, young people completing their drills as instructors pacing poolside growl at them, before they all pack up and head off to school and whatever it is instructors do between the hours of 7 and 3.

After that, usually around 7am, it’s the pre-work crowd you find yourself jostling with. While they might not be as fit or vibrant as the recently departed hordes of Olympic hopefuls, many of them are no less competitive.

Sharing a lane is something I almost always have to do since it seems that whenever every lane is occupied new arrivals stand at the top of the pool and survey the water in front of them before choosing to jump into my lane – each and every time.

This isn’t paranoia talking – it has happened to me far too often to be mere coincidence. My sister believes it’s because I swim at a steady rate and that if people do have to share a lane, they will do so with someone they know they won’t catch, and who, consequently, won’t catch them.

That’s kind of her to say, but I believe it’s because I’m smaller framed and wirier than most (the men and the women), and so when we do pass each other, which you are forced to do once every lap you swim, it will be much easier because I take up far less space between the lane ropes.

It’s this moment in fact, when we pass one another, that causes me the most extraordinary levels of stress. So much so that all enjoyment, all fragments of ‘sanctuary’, evaporate, and I’m ripped back into consciousness again in order to avoid our bumping coconuts mid stroke.

Finally, there’s the issue of the chlorine that’s used in public swimming pools to make sure we don’t all catch something we really, really don’t want. I react to this each time I go swimming but won’t say anything more than it results in a nasty sensation – one that burns.

Afterwards, from exhaustion, from sensory overwhelm, I need several hours to recover from what began as – and what actually is if I do get a lane to myself – a largely reinvigorating experience.

But it’s everything else that goes along with it – the sunscreen, the sun and the heat and humidity, the lane sharing, even the concoction of necessary chemicals – that has driven me from the water and back to stomping the footpaths for my daily walks.

Once, in desperation, I tried swimming at the local indoor pool at the gym very close to my house. The pool is small, 25 metres long instead of 50, and has half as many lanes, 4 instead of 8, and is beset with a smell I can best describe as a potpourri of chlorine and feet.

It isn’t any cooler either. If anything, the indoor pool’s terrarium-like environment and lack of natural breezes makes it worse.

It’s expensive, too, for the privilege of swimming indoors, away from the glower of the 8-3pm sun. An annual pass, the only way they’re sold in my parts, costs more than double that of a comparable number of visits to the outdoor swimming pool because (of course) access is only available once it’s tethered to a full gym membership.

This swimming conundrum of mine obviously isn’t life-threatening. I will eat today, I have a roof over my head and will do tomorrow. But to me and my Autistic ways it is an issue; one that I find myself agonising over with increasing vexation as the weeks pass.

The answer most likely lies in the fact that I have already stopped swimming and have baulked repeatedly at returning. I still have the shower (and shower therapy), and I can make the most of the beach during the sporadic visits we make to the coast.

A white bathtub resting on stones outside in a garden behind an oil-stained wooden screen
Maybe I need to try and add a tub like this to my backyard. Looks expensive!

Perhaps ultimately the answer for me is to invest in a bathtub, something we (foolishly) did away with years ago when we bought and renovated our house. A tub or a spa or anything that will allow me to immerse myself in a body of water and disappear from myself.

For that is largely what the lure of swimming laps is about for me: a chance to escape, from my thoughts, my routine, and all the things I’ve been working through since discovering that I’m Autistic.

Walking does help, as do many other things I consider myself so very fortunate to have in my life.

But it’s water I crave – that liquid gold reaches inside of me and nourishes my soul like little else.

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