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Waving Not Drowning

Does exercise beat Depression? Is that why I swim?

Now, now in high blue white African winter (a misnomer, surely? winter? in Africa?) the pool is brittle blue cold. The sun dances a waltz on the bottom, holding hands with the water. Shifting. Swaying. It'll slow and then stand still when I turn the pump off.

The wind whips across the water's surface in the morning. Nippy, chippy oyster-grey dawns. I don't swim at sun-up in the winter. I swim close to dusk. When the lengthening shadows are not so long that the pool is cast in shade but when I hope the sun is low enough that it won't seek me out and burn me.

A mother with Depression. And an African childhood. What's it going to be then? A mental illness or skin cancer? Neither I say, defiantly. And slap my Factor 50 on thickly so that my daughter asks, in some concern, God Mum, you're so white! Are you OK?

In the winter then, I swim late, in the hope the water has borrowed a modicum of the day's warmth (for my equatorial African winters are just a bit cooler than my hot summers). I don't inch in. I leap. And gasp. And then, goggles on, I plunge and feel the iciness seep right through me. It's delicious. And painful. An oxymoron? Deliciously Painful.

And then I begin to swim. I plough up and down and I watch the waltzing sunlit water beneath me, puddles of brightness in the blue. And I listen to my breathing. In. Out. In. Out. And I hear the quickening of my heart rate. And I plough up and down.

They say exercise is good for you. They say that the endorphins it inspires - the surge of Happy Hormones it urges forth (come on guys, she's gone to all the effort, make her feel good about it for God's sake!) might even help to protect you from Depression.

I have often bullied Mum, when sick, ‘Let's have a walk Mum'. Sometimes she'll agree. And sometimes she won't. Depression hobbles her.

The thing is: I don't think exercise would cure you. Not if Depression had attached its leaden ball and chain weight to you so that you couldn't move. But it might, if you keep at it, with religious daily zeal, stop Depression in its tracks. Before it got a toe-hold.

I swim and I don't know why it feels good. Because I can't hear anybody, anything, except for the steady, reassuring In Out of my breath. Because I am almost birthday-suit naked and cocooned in the womb of cold, clear water. Because all the thoughts and worries and crossness and impatience empty out of my head and words and inspiration and happy thoughts glide up from beneath me. I don't know. But whatever sore mood I might have tipped into the pool with has evaporated by the time I get out.

When I'm done, when I've ploughed (and that's what it feels like, thrashing through water, arms swinging up and over my head until they ache) for the requisite length of time - twenty minutes, half an hour, half a kilometer, three-quarters, whatever it takes - I climb out and lie flat, quite flat, arms outspread, like a starfish, on the sun-warmed stones around the pool and I still my beating heart. I can feel it pounding. And then I can feel it slow and there is a peculiar attendant calm to its quieting.

In our African summer, when we steal the sun from the north so that it faces us full on and bright, I swim at dawn. I slip from my bed and leave my husband slumbering and I slide into water that must match that of my body - blood warm - for I cannot feel it. Like my skin. And I swim and I watch the sky lighten and I see the big ball of fire lumber up over the horizon and above the trees, turning everything it touches to gold. Like Midas.

If I swim fast enough, far enough, often enough, perhaps Depression will only ever be somewhere back there in the distance where I can see it.

But can't ever feel it.

Friends ask: why do you swim?

That's why.


About the Author

Anthea Rowan

Anthea Rowan is a British journalist based in Tanzania.