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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

I’ve always loved water. As a kid, I never made a fuss about bath time. It was getting out of the water that took convincing. Pulling me out of the sea is next to impossible. “You’ve been in there for two hours. It’s not good for your ovaries!” my friend Daria shouted from the shore on one of our trips, long before “ovaries” were part of my everyday vocabulary.

It’s no surprise, then, that water helped me heal.

Years of severe pain from endometriosis changed my body and made my mind fearful of movement. Surgeries removed the assailant from my system, but shadows of trauma remained; my posture was irreparably bent, my muscles tense, my lungs quick to fill and quicker to empty. Healing meant relearning what the body was supposed to know how to do. Friends encouraged me to try yoga, but I gravitated to water.

When the pandemic hit and winter hit on top of it, I worried that hibernation would derail my healing. I’ve never been a winter person. To keep my winter blues at bay and continue moving, I challenged myself to 100 non-consecutive days of swimming at the indoor community pool by the time I plant my garden.

As I collected days in my imaginary jar, I also found myself collecting unexpected lessons.

I am safe in the water

The problem with pain is that its perception tends to be entwined with fear. When the pain alarm goes off in the brain, it’s hard to quiet it down. It’s extremely counterintuitive to move when you’re in pain, especially if it’s pulsing in your abdomen. Water manages to quell that fire nearly every time I swim. I surrender to it and ease into weightlessness. I float, stretch out like a starfish and expand my lungs. I focus my attention on how my legs move under the blanket of blue and listen to waves smack the edge of the basin as tireless athletes swim laps past me. I massage the tender spots beneath my ribs and near my hip bones where discomfort lingers and I tell myself, “I’m safe here.” The water turns my pain dial way down, and my goal becomes to remain weightless when my feet touch land again.

It’s not all or nothing

My 100-day project taught me what psychologists have been saying for years: It doesn’t have to be either/or, black or white, all or nothing. I was often tempted to cancel, too swamped with work or too exhausted from a night of “painsomnia.” But I gently reminded myself that I didn’t have to stay the whole hour, that I didn’t have to swim a single lap, that I could just go and try. I left early twice, stayed in the shallow end once and clung to the edge a few times. But I tried. And I celebrated trying.

Stillness can be more challenging than movement

The strangers at the pool affectionately nicknamed me “floating lady,” “dolphin” and “nenuphar.” I was in my element and it was noticeable to others. I often spent the hour in the deep end trying to release tension by acting like a corpse. It was much more challenging to relax my muscles (and my racing mind) than to tear through the pool like scissors through silk. Shaking out the tension from my limbs and dangling freely without tightening my pelvic floor or balling my fists was no easy feat. The pool taught me, in no uncertain terms, that holding tight is easier than letting go.

Near-cancellations make the sweetest victories

For weeks, I didn’t miss a single day. I beamed with pride with every new tally mark in my agenda. But the sweeter victory came whenever I gently talked myself out of cancelling. There were days when the last thing I felt like doing was trudging through the snow at -25 C. I learned that routine both helps and hinders motivation. Swimming at the same time almost every afternoon got me into a “don’t think, just do” rhythm, yet I sometimes felt, “Ugh, do I really want to be there again today?” I’d convince myself to go and let me tell you: Showing up after nearly not showing up is even more rewarding.

I owe myself that time and space

When life got stressful, I made the mistake of hauling my worries into the pool with me. “You’re wasting your precious hour,” I chided myself once. From then on, I vowed to be mindful and to leave my worries on land. I’d made a real effort to show up for that hour of self-care. Not everyone had that privilege. I wasn’t dismissing my feelings, only postponing them. But, to my surprise, my worries wouldn’t be waiting for me in the locker room.

I am a nicer person after my swim

I learned that I take better care of others if I take better care of myself. My relationship with my husband benefits from my self-nurturing. Literally locking up my phone and tending to myself for a slice of the afternoon replenishes my energy so I can be a better listener, a more patient conversationalist, a slightly more balanced overachiever and a more joyful human.

I am not too old to make new friends

Most of my friends have been in my life for a very long time. I recently began to wonder if I’m too old or too tired to sustain new friendships. With the perpetuity of healing from endometriosis and all the grief the condition has brought, I’ve become selective about the plans I make, carefully weighing whether they may energize or deplete me. This self-protectiveness puts the brakes on burgeoning friendships. I never expected to connect with anyone at the pool, especially during a pandemic that made us all fold in on ourselves. But I saw the same faces week after week, and soon those faces had names. Soon, I knew those faces’ likes and dislikes, triumphs and traumas, and they knew mine. And what an unexpected gift that’s been.

Winter is doable with the right clothes

When I dreamed up my 100-day project, my goal was to embrace winter. Winter blues hit me hard by January and hardest by March, just in time for the last cold snap that rattles my spring-craving bones. I equipped myself with merino wool, a coat as warm as a house and boots fit for an astronaut (but with better traction). Though there’s more to winter blues than a wardrobe, feeling invincible motivated me to walk, no matter the weather.

Water holds me up, rekindles my joy and resilience. It grounds me in movement that feels safe and sustainable for my chronically healing body.

One of my friends asked, “What happens when you reach 100 days? Will you stop?”

Oh, no way. This is my new way of life.

Kristina Kasparian lives in Montreal.

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