I’ve never been much of a swimmer. Sure, I can swim, I’ve got my 200-metre badge to prove it but, unless there’s a water flume and a pretty waterfall to play under, I’ve never really found too much enjoyment in it. I’ve never even mastered the art of the simplest dive; there are only so many belly flops one can withstand. I’m pretty sure much of my aversion lies in the communal-ness of it all. Splashing around half naked in a giant bath with other half naked people has always felt a bit icky. Perhaps the clearest sign of this aversion is the fact that my current swimsuit was purchased in 1996 from Debenhams using my babysitting earnings.
And yet, swimming has become one of my biggest MS losses. When I was first diagnosed with the condition it was recommended that I take up swimming as a gentler form of exercise to pumping iron at the gym. My husband and I took to hiring a private pool for 45 minutes once a week but, despite persevering, the reality was that my new, lesion-ridden body just wasn’t compatible with the suffocating humidity found in most pool areas. Being intolerant to heat, even the slightest touch of humidity will cause my body to tighten and my legs to seize up; it’s a painful and unpleasant experience, not to mention dangerous.
Sidestroke forward to 2014 and my life as a mum desperate to take my baby swimming for the first time. Surely swimming can’t be as painful as I thought, and certainly not painful enough to deprive my child of so basic and fundamental an experience. And so, we bobbed about in the baby area of the leisure pool where I had spent so much of my own childhood. My baby loved it but, devastatingly for me, my body did not react well and, had I been on my own with him, it would not have been safe.
Desperately suppressing the guiltiest of mum-guilt, I have since left all my children’s swimming fun and learning to my ever-supportive parents. It’s just another one of those things that MS has taken from me.
But stubbornness is a funny thing. As with my many (failed) attempts at running and riding a bike over the last 12 years, this weekend saw me determined to get in a pool with my kids.
We were staying at the Legoland resort hotel, which houses a pirate-themed swimming pool and toddler splash zone. Last time we were there I sat watching from my wheelchair as my family had the best time playing together in the water. I wasn’t about to repeat that depressing scenario again. And so, donning my vintage swimming costume, I gingerly edged my way into the 0.3-metre-deep pool, while my 3 excited munchkins leapt around with happiness because it was the first time they’d been able to play with me in a pool. To most ‘normal’ people, the temperature didn’t feel too bad, especially compared with the soaring heat outside on one of the hottest days ever. However, my body knew otherwise, and I could feel that familiar heaviness taking over my legs. I ignored it and allowed my son to spray me with the water cannon, delighting in his delight. But they soon wanted to venture into the big pool, being the grown-ups that they now are at ages 5,7 and 8.
I honestly don’t know how I managed to get into the pool without falling, but I did. My children were happy enough playing and my husband was on hand to help, so I thought it might be an idea to have a little swim myself. Bracing myself for the first breaststroke I have done in 8 years, I clumsily lifted my leaden legs into position and swam. My arms worked fine; I was at least moving forward, alas my legs lay limply behind me. No matter how hard I tried to get them to work they just wouldn’t. The weight of my legs was so intense and a far cry from the weightlessness that I seem to recall from my pre-MS days of being in water. In fact, I just googled it in case I was imagining things, and sure enough we (supposedly) feel lighter in water because “the water exerts an upward force or buoyant force on our body [as per Archimedes principle].” I doubt whether Archimedes encountered anyone with MS, for my body felt as though it were being pulled down by weighted chains.
After this ordeal I felt a conflicting mix of triumph and despair. I had enjoyed an hour in the pool with my children looking the happiest I’ve ever seen them, and yet my body felt destroyed and I was hit with a wave of fatigue that I needed to brush aside in order to get through a night spent in a Ninjago themed room with a 5-year-old who was far too excited to sleep.