first person

A Sea Change

Transforming — and healing — my relationship to my body, one open-water swim at a time.

Photo: by Samantha Ladwig
Photo: by Samantha Ladwig

The burning cold is the best and worst part: Being both consumed by the sharp sting of the sea but also free, its bite simultaneously feeding on every thought in my brain until it’s licked clean. I’m addicted to that experience. Probably because I’m always thinking about my body whether I’m aware of it or not, concerns about how it feels, looks, or exists woven into everything else. It’s exhausting. The water offers me a reset, a new perspective. I can begin the day again just by getting in. All it requires of me is to trust my legs to start kicking when I submerge. And like every time before, they do.

It’s been a year and a half since I started swimming. Now I do it nearly every other day, no matter the season. After just months, in the middle of winter, I ditched my wetsuit. Sure, it allowed me to stay in longer, but it also interfered with what I’d grown to see as a transformation. That 5mm neoprene was my last-minute attempt to remain in control, and I sought out the sea to let go of that very thing, to strip myself of every impulse and bring me back to basics to find out who I actually am.

I’ve spent what seems like my whole life ignoring, pushing, or manipulating my body, pulling myself apart to let others’ expectations in. I’d brushed off my self-destructive habits — sex, substances, self-harm, food — as typical teen behavior, until, at 22, I ended up in an eating-disorder clinic. I finished my final year of college just ten miles away from campus, across Lake Washington, examining all the ways I’d spent my childhood and adolescence trying to make myself small and palatable without being disruptive.

My family moved a lot when I was young, bouncing between houses, duplexes, an apartment, and some time in foster care for reasons that, at 33, I still don’t know. Because we don’t talk about it. Regardless of where we lived, there never seemed to be enough room for me. There was a hierarchy to who could feel what and when, and my parents were always at the top. I watched my siblings yell and act out and get sent away, so I learned to stay quiet, to absorb, to put myself aside.

In treatment, my therapist informed me that because I didn’t feel safe speaking up, my body found a different way to scream. It was the first time I ever thought of it as being in communication with my brain, that the two had never been in sync.

We talked about joy, too, during those 12 months, about moments when I felt comfortable or something close to it. I discovered that waterlogged memories were some of the easiest to grab: river floats with my dad, end-of-the-school-year swim parties, lake days with my parents, trips to the coast, icy mountain plunges at the end of a long hike. I thought about jumping in and stretching out, twisting and kicking, feeling weightless and therefore free.

By the time I’d left the clinic, I’d learned how to feed myself, how to pay attention to my body. But it still felt separate, like someone else to care for.

A couple of years later, on the way home from a bar in L.A., where I’d moved after school to take an archivist job, my driver asked if I was from the area. I was depressed. The job I’d moved for was shaping up to be a disaster. I told him “no” in a way that gently implied I wasn’t up for chatting. He said I didn’t seem like I was, so I told him I moved from Seattle. “We don’t get many of you down here,” he said. I laughed because I understood why. Only recently I’d confessed to my therapist that I thought the city was suffocating me, that I was in a constant, painful state of trying to catch my breath. I was feeling very dramatic about the whole thing because I realized that once again, like all those times growing up, I’d ignored what my body was telling me, this time choosing instead to live in a place that was too hot and too dry and perpetually sunny for a job that made other people happy despite being one of those rare people who gets SAD in the summer.

“Like a fish out of water,” she said, before suggesting the beach just ten miles away. I explained to her that without a car, it was over an hourlong bus ride and a 45-minute walk to the Santa Monica Pier, where hundreds of people flocked to stand in warm water. I wanted to be surrounded by it again, to be constantly cold and damp.

I did eventually leave L.A., nearly three years later, for the Olympic Peninsula, where during the following two years, I got married and bought my small town’s bookstore in October 2019, just months before the end of the world.

Wintering, by Katherine May, found me a year into ownership. It’s an inspirational memoir that reframes winter as a time of healing rather than one in which to grit your teeth. May takes readers through her own embracement of the season, one effort being cold-water swimming. As I read about her sea-perience, I started to look at the water as more than something to walk alongside. Working retail at that time, publicly trying to keep a business going while processing everything else, was unbearable. I was overexposed without a reprieve. May’s words reminded me of the clinic and conversations of joy, and also about my time in L.A. My gut knew that the sea was my solution. But I didn’t know how to start. So, when I saw a picture of two acquaintances on social media, all post-swim smiles and wet hair, I reached out to learn about what I needed in order to get in.

It took six months for me to work up enough courage to commit. It’s hard to walk willingly into that kind of discomfort. Even in the summer months, the average temperature is 50 degrees. But when I finally did, in the middle of July, I felt the sea bring me back to myself. It was seamless, uncomplicated, and exhilarating. I kicked out to where I couldn’t touch the ground before turning to swim parallel with the beach. I don’t swim one style but an unprofessional yet strong mix of all of them. With that first plunge, I learned that this wasn’t exercise for exercise’s sake, but an exercise in learning to be in my body as it is.

I’ve read about the effects of cold-water swimming, that walking in and submerging completely engages the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems simultaneously to create a moment of euphoria that results in confidence and clarity and positive self-worth. I’ve heard all about the strengthening of the immune system and weight loss. But I’m not swimming toward thinness. If I were, I wouldn’t stop at McDonald’s on my way home as often as I do.

For me, it’s the forcefulness of the sea calling me to attention, pulling me away from the to-do list, creative blocks, that bad customer interaction I can’t shake, and pushing me into my body. It’s my hand slicing through water so deep and expansive that I’m left in a state of wonder for hours, sometimes days later. It’s the salt that collects in the corners of my mouth. It’s adapting to the seasons and currents and tides, each a reminder that I’m not in control. It’s that every swim is different and often accompanied by seals, otters, and jellyfish. It’s the ripples that sparkle during the bioluminescence. My briny swim is what I imagine church is for a lot of people, a place to go to ground yourself. Because it’s there, in the sea so big I can’t see its edges, that I return to my body of water.

A Sea Change