I swear I did not mean for this newsletter to be a journey of my personal attempts at self-improvement. Oh boy does that sound obnoxious. Instead what I set out was to just write about what was on my mind every month (and yes, I have failed at that “every month” part, but whatever), and as it turns out what’s on my mind is … me. Go figure. Anyway!
But this one is also about one of the weirder things I’ve done as an adult, which is: decide to take adult beginner lessons. Jumping into something entirely new as an adult is actually pretty intimidating, it turns out.
Lemme back up. The last time I wrote, I mentioned the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. I really, really liked it, but early on there was a section that frustrated me: the part where, like virtually every self-help book, it talked about exercise. Because did you know that exercise is good for you??
My history with exercise is not great. I’ve never been particularly athletic or even mildly coordinated. I played soccer in high school, very badly, and during the seasons I wasn’t a bench warmer because I was terrible, I was a bench warmer because I was injured. My first bout of foot pain happened around tenth grade, and consisted of two rounds of tendinitis that made it hard to, you know, walk. Eventually my doctor realized I had plantar fasciitis that was just expressed super weirdly.
That’s pretty indicative of my entire history of exercise of any kind. I find something I mildly enjoy and immediately injure myself and have to stop. Or maybe that’s putting a lot of blame on myself — because the plantar fasciitis isn’t exactly my fault. And neither is the psoriatic arthritis, which has been my my hurdle in the last few years. Along with a whole bunch of other things: a slipped disc, a thyroid problem, anemia, the psoriasis that goes along with the arthritis…
In short, I’m a mess, and finding a way to work out has felt downright sisyphean. It’s always been something that I felt like I would have to do eventually, if only to keep my body from giving out entirely, but everything I’ve tried I’ve either hated (running, or anything else aerobic), found painful (yoga, as the arthritis developed), or immediately injured myself (weight lifting, for example). So for a long time, it’s just felt… futile, like my stupid body was going to break down no matter what, leaving me unable to walk in a city that runs on public transit but never got around to installing elevators or accessibility ramps, like, anywhere. It was not exactly motivating, and the less I did, the harder it was to work up the energy to try a new, probably pointless form of exercise, anyway.
So back to Burnout, which I gave a bit of a short shrift up there, because yes, it does suggest exercise — but rather than a general “it’s good for you!!” it’s a lot more specific. Basically: every day stress fills you with adrenaline and other physical responses, and if you don’t process that physical part, eventually every day stress will seriously fuck up your body. Exercise is the most effective (but not only) way to do that processing, and that’s why, for many people, it actually feels good.
That…makes sense. I hated reading it, though, because it makes so much sense, and yet here’s me, with multiple auto-immune disorders and multiple foot issues. I can only exercise if it somehow never involves putting weight on my feet, and the only exercise that fits that bill is swimming, and I don’t really know how to swim, so that’s right out, so —
Oh. Wait a minute.
Like I said at the beginning: beginner lessons for adults actually exist to solve that very problem. It took a hilariously long time for me to realize that, though, and actually google “adult beginner swim classes.” Plenty of results came up, so I picked one, fought back a tornado of anxiety, and took the semi-literal plunge.
So let me talk about anxiety that anxiety a little bit.
First, there’s the general dread of being bad at something in public. I felt pretty confident that I would, in fact, be terrible at swimming, because of how terrible I am at everything physical. Plus, I always failed the swim units at Girl Scout Camp as a kid, and at the age of 11 was still doing the first level units with the 7-year-olds. It was awful then and did not seem like it would be less awful now.
Next, you’ve got the anxiety that always comes with trying something new. Or maybe you don’t. I, however, have a mild anxiety disorder, and while I’m doing better now than I have for the last few years, the sheer logistics of picking a place to take lessons, making sure I had all the equipment, tracking down where to go, figuring out payments and online signing of liability waivers and scheduling… Look, those are all totally normal things that I suspect are not this stressful for most people. For me, I spent the day of my first lesson low-key freaking out, left work early to make extra sure I’d be there on time (it’s 10 blocks from my office; I gave myself a full hour to arrive), and checked my bag to make sure I had my suit and my towel and goggles and swim cap more times than I care to estimate.
And then you’ve got the, you know, anxiety anxieties. What if I drown? What if I slip on the pool deck and hit my head? And lurking under those was the really big, horrifying one that I almost quit before starting just to avoid:
What if this doesn’t work out, and there really is no way for me to exercise at all, ever, and the arthritis gets worse, and my stupid body gives out entirely?
And yeah, there’s a lot of internalized ableism in there, I realize as I type it out. Well, that’s something for me to work on. But despite being a pretty optimistic person, the combination of my medical conditions, bad history with exercise, and general anxiety made it feel like the chances of taking swimming lessons actually leading to a positive outcome pretty much non-existent. All of that dread ratcheted up all of the more surface-level anxieties. I talked myself into and out of trying several times before I actually paid for the lessons, which I forced myself to do because I knew once I had money on the line I was more likely to actually go instead of talking myself out of it.
With all that said, what actually happened was pretty anticlimactic. I got to my first lesson 45 minutes early and sat next to the pool in the basement of a church, eventually got in the water and started blowing bubbles, didn’t drown, learned to kick a little, learned the instructor’s name, still didn’t drown, learned to tread water (in the deep end!), tried the arm movement to go with my kick, got chlorine up my nose but still didn’t drown, and decided to come back for a second lesson.
I’m now ten lessons and about six weeks in, and I can swim free style (arms and legs, though I’m still getting the hang of breathing) and breast stroke (arms or legs but if you tell me to do both at once I fall apart). I can swim real laps without stopping, sometimes several in a row. I ordered some prescription goggles so I will hopefully be able to see when the instructor demonstrates things (they haven’t arrived yet).
Since I started, here are some non-swimming changes I’ve noticed in my daily life: I can walk longer before my feet aching, my shoulders are less sore all the time, my posture is better, and I can go up a couple of flights of stairs without being totally winded. Weirdest of all, I actively look forward to class and go twice a week when I can, because even though I’m not great at it and probably never will be, swimming feels good. After an hour-long class I’m tired and sore, but also pretty zen and a lot less stressed out.
Because, did you know that exercise— if you’re able to do it, and find a form that enjoy — is good for you?