I can still remember the moment, even though it was some years ago now. It was the moment the woman kicked me, and then shouted at me, and I went into a total panic, terrified, unable to articulate anything, unable to cope, and my senses went haywire and I needed to scream and run away and not be where I was any more and everything felt terribly terribly wrong.
Running away at that moment, however, was really really difficult. The best I could do was to get to the side of the pool, get out as fast as I could. Shaking and trembling I managed to retrieve my stuff from the locker, put minimal clothes on over my wet costume, then slammed the locker door, screamed in anguish, and ran towards the exit of the leisure centre, and to my car, and to safety.
Except that I never reached my car. The manager of the leisure centre stopped me and wouldn’t let me leave. She made me sit down and I started to feel really sick. She started talking about police. I started to think “Oh fuck, this is seriously bad news”. I managed, just, to say the words “Mental health” to her, hoping desperately that once she realised I was in the middle of what I believed at the time was a really bad panic attack she’d let me go. She didn’t, although she did decide not to call the police on me, but instead called the local doctor’s surgery, taking my name from my leisure centre admission card.
Eventually I was deemed calm enough to be allowed to leave, and I returned home, where I then received a call from the surgery, which didn’t help matters at all because it reignited the panic. I slammed the phone down on the doctor, desperate to be left alone.
I never went back to that particular leisure centre, even though I had a membership that had some time still to run. I swam a few times again at a different pool, until it became too much and I just gave up swimming, even though it was something I loved doing, and, at the time, was the only regular exercise I took. Somehow it was just too difficult and the memories of that “panic attack” were just too painful.
I saw my own GP shortly after the incident and tried to explain to her what had happened and to get the incident erased from my medical records. It had been reported and noted that I was “violent and aggressive”, which I disagreed with. I didn’t feel violent or aggressive – I felt scared and distressed and not in control of my actions or my head, like there was some sort of explosive reaction inside me that I was powerless to stop. There was no violence. If anything I was trying to STOP anything that might have been perceived as violence, trying really hard to stop whatever it was that was making the world feel so awful at that moment.
My GP was sympathetic but said she couldn’t erase the record completely, however, she would add to my notes to put my side of the story on there and to point out that I had a history of these rather extreme “panic attacks” and that none of it was my fault. It was a damage limitation exercise at that point, but it was the best I could do.
Just over three years ago we moved to a different area, and to a place within easy walking distance of a swimming pool. I was aware that it was there. I took up running shortly after we moved and ran past it fairly regularly. Before the “incident” (as it is now known) I’d have been straight down there and joined, but I hesitated, because swimming had ceased to be my thing, even though it had very much been my thing for many years. Running was now my thing – it was safer, easier to be alone, with no time constraints, and so on. However, I did eventually take out a membership, which I only used once – after I’d run my first marathon someone said to me that swimming was a really good way of recovering, so I went down to the pool and did 42 lengths (one length for each full kilometre of the marathon distance) a couple of days after the race.
Then last September I went to see my GP again, following the suggestions from several friends that I might be autistic. My husband and I took quite a lot of notes we’d made about my childhood and my subsequent life and a list of things we’d taken as examples of autistic traits that were listed in various books we’d used for research. I think I started by saying something like “This is going to sound really random, but some folks have suggested I might be autistic…” before letting my husband take over the narrative because it all felt so weird.
My GP almost literally kicked herself and said something along the lines of “Of course, why didn’t we see this earlier?” or similar. And then, in a further “lightbulb moment” she mentioned, unprompted by us, the “swimming pool incident” and at that moment it became obvious that what had happened that day, several years earlier, was not a panic attack but an autistic meltdown (one of rather a lot of such things that have happened over the years). Bizarrely, the incident I’d tried so hard to have erased from my medical records actually confirmed the autism hypothesis, and my GP was writing the referral for a formal autism assessment pretty much before we’d even left the room.
After that one post-marathon swim, well over 2 years ago, I never went back even to the new pool. I discovered quite quickly that I could recover from marathons perfectly well without swimming, and something I’d enjoyed as a child, absolutely loved as a student, and done reasonably regularly throughout adulthood simply disappeared from my life. I had running now in any case, so it really didn’t matter whether I swam or not.
I’ve pondered for the last year or so whether I’d ever swim again. I vaguely have in mind that I’d like to do a triathlon some day, so thought that swimming might feature in my future somehow, although it was always “in the future” and since I don’t currently have a working bicycle or anywhere to keep one, triathlon is still firmly “in the future” and will probably require another house move in any case.
But last week a friend of mine went swimming. And I was suddenly rather envious. And I googled the opening hours of the pool to see when they might be. And I found my swimming bag, as it had been left, over 2 years ago, with costume, goggles, towel, and so on, all ready to go. Maybe? Just maybe? Then this morning on my facebook memories from a few years back there was a status saying that I’d been swimming for the first time in a year (evidently one of the times I was trying to get back into it, but that didn’t stick).
And the temptation was finally too much. Armed with the knowledge that it would be a total sensory overload experience and that how far I’d get with it depended not upon my physical swimming ability, but upon my system’s ability to cope with noise and light (even though my goggles are slightly tinted, they’re not as dark as I’d like) and being in close proximity to other people. KNOWING this was the case I was better prepared than I have been in the past, and the magic of the internet was also able to provide a little graph showing when the “least busy times” were, so I picked the time when it was likely to be emptiest (over lunchtime as it turned out), and it was indeed quite empty in the main pool.
And I bought a single swim, not a membership, so there’s no pressure to go again. If it turns out to be something I can manage to do regularly I’ll consider a membership at that point – rather than going in fast and crashing out, I’m trying to take it gently, one swim at a time, and not pushing how long I stay in the pool until I work out what my sensory system can cope with because I really really want to avoid a repeat of the meltdown scenario, which should be easier now that I know what it was all about and what caused the “incident” all those years ago.
Being back in the water was lovely. My arms aren’t as strong as they were, and my cardio isn’t what it was a couple of years ago (I already know that from recent running exploits), but I happily swam 40 lengths – I thought I’d go for a kilometre to be gentle, rather than the mile that used to be my regular swimming distance for many years. I was conscious that the real challenge wasn’t the swimming at all, but just being in the pool with people and noise, and I was trying to monitor how that felt. So far, so good, although I was pretty wrecked when I got home and needed total dark and silence for a while to calm down.
Who knows what happens next. One swim at a time for the moment. But I’m hopeful I’ll get back something that I used to love, now I know what caused it to go wrong several years ago.