I quit swim lessons at my local aquatics center in the Georgia suburbs when I was a teenager, ashamed of being in the beginner’s class with toddlers and embarrassed of my unrecognizable, exposed, maturing brown body in a bathing suit. In college, where swimming was a requirement freshman year, I managed to excuse myself from the class with a doctor’s note, afraid of never making it out of those dark blue waters.
Yet despite my aversion, in April I stood in front of the untouched backyard pool my immigrant family had always dreamed of and finally got last summer. A YouTube video titled “How to Swim” was queued up on my phone.
A month before the pandemic struck Georgia, I was already confined to my own bed, unable to sit up or stand in any way that kept my spine aligned for more than ten minutes at a time.
I had moved back home in October 2019 after quitting my full-time newsroom job for a more independent, creative lifestyle that could accommodate my mental and physical ailments – a choice made possible by privilege. For the last five years or so, I’d been living with trauma to my tailbone that grew unmanageable in the workplace, where prolonged sitting or standing – or even moving between sitting and standing – made the pain worse.
When my chronic injury flared up again in February, my mother helped me shower, slide my clothes over my head, and even get seated on the toilet. She brought me food in bed on a rollaway cart, and when I’d drop my fork on the verge of tears, she or my father would run over with a new one in tow. My parents were my saving grace.
Desperate to find alternative ways to calm my nerve pain, which seemed to only worsen with my reaction to the state of the world, I turned to online support groups for advice. Aquatherapy, I kept reading, might help. My physical therapist concurred over the phone and sent over some water-based exercises not knowing I’d never learned to swim.
Perhaps it was the frustration with my vexing pain – or maybe the uncertainty and chaos of our reality numbing my life-long fear – but I was determined to finally escape the shallow end and find new relief. After relearning basic breathing skills, I spent days floating closer and closer until, one morning, I noticed the underwater bench in the deep end was just an arm’s length away.
The afternoon my 5ft5in body finally learned to tread water while immersed in 10 feet of it, I didn’t leave the pool until nightfall. It was only while fully submerged, my feet far from the ground, that my pain wholly subsided. Underwater, my body came alive. I could maneuver my limbs in ways land and air didn’t allow me to. I could be still again, align my spine and just be.
Rain or shine, I found myself wading, treading, and eventually actually swimming for at least two hours every day. After a swim, I could attend an hour-long Zoom meeting, do the laundry on my own, or write at my desk in peace without squirming in pain.
The water didn’t just ease my chronic illness during a year that has done everything possible to make everyone’s health worse. It also gave me the energy I needed to work and write again.
Water also played a sizable part in another new hobby I picked up in quarantine. In May, while digging around in my family’s basement storage, I found a dried-up watercolor palette and a handful of old all-purpose brushes I can only assume the previous homeowners left behind. The last time I had picked up a paintbrush was probably third grade art class.
I filled a glass jar with water and set it on my crowded bedside table, grabbed a paper pad and the old palette, and watched water go to work.
So much of watching water play with paint reminded me of free writing, of surrendering control and stringing together words without constraint – everything I felt I’d been deprived of for months with my injury and with the mentally crippling anxieties brought on by the pandemic. Watercoloring wind-downs quickly became an evening ritual, a crutch for the recurring heavy days.
It didn’t matter what the end results looked like; for the most part, my early sketchbook sheets are filled with blotted greens and browns, a result of over-mixing incompatible pigments. But I could tell almost instantly that something in me was re-emerging through this newfound creativity.
The two activities – swimming and watercoloring – have defined my quiet, happier solitary time during this pandemic. Both have taught me to be comfortable with the slow-down. Both have shown me the great power in relinquishing some control in an out-of-control world.
I am still struggling to weather this year, as many are. But I’m doing my best to stay afloat. The water is helping.