Waves of anxiety

Wallasey has a long history of outdoors swimming, as this photo from our Maritime Archives shows. Open water swimming has had a recent resurgence in popularity and a lot has been written about its benefits for both physical and mental health. In our second article for Mental Health Awareness Week, guest author Pete Carr explains why they enjoy open water swimming.

Article Featured Image

Derby Pool open air baths, 1932. One of two lidos in the area in the 1930s, with the larger New Brighton Baths nearby on the waterfront. Part of the Stewart Bale Ltd collection at the Maritime Museum (SB/9590)

It's winter. The air is cold and crisp. The sun rises behind me and the clouds are pink and fluffy. The River Mersey is silent, still and a sublime reflection of the sky above sits softly on the water. It is a beautiful morning. One of many but not the reason why I'm walking along the Mersey. On this fine day I'm heading to the marine lake in New Brighton for a quick dip. 

Marine lake at sunrise

I've been doing this off and on for over a year now. No fancy gear. I've got neoprene socks and gloves to take the edge off the cold but essentially it is just me in my swimming trunks getting into a lake which occasionally has moon jellyfish in the summer and ice in the winter. 

Arriving at the lake I see a beautiful blue body of water perfectly reflecting the sky. There's no-one in it. It's all mine. My own private lake surrounded by restaurants, chippies, doughnut shops and confused people walking their pets. What must people think, I briefly wonder before undressing in a car park. They must be thinking I've confused New Brighton with Brighton Beach or a secluded lake in North Wales. "One doesn't simply strip off and walk into water. Oh no they're doing exactly that - and is their hair purple?" 

Marine lake with lighthouse and fort in background

I am someone who suffers from social anxiety. I have had sessions with NHS psychiatrists over the years and we've worked through some issues I've had using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Generally with social anxiety it is a fear of being embarrassed around people. Making a fool out of yourself. That sort of thing. For example while ordering a coffee you could say you want a "cap of coffee". Utterly meaningless but enough to make you worry which makes you go red and you worry about that which makes you sweat and you worry about that. How do you get past that? Using exposure therapy you, unfortunately, put yourself into these situations to prove to yourself that nothing bad will happen. OK so you may say something stupid but its not a big deal. Eventually you begin to accept this and build confidence. 

So here I am on a cold winters morning standing at the water's edge wearing my swimming trunks and neoprene socks and gloves about to get in the water. I have a purple beard, purple hair and also rainbow nails. I am overweight. I am getting in. My feet get cold. Even with the socks on they are feeling the cold more than my thighs are. I get up to my waist and stop for a few seconds. Only a few seconds because any longer and I'll overthink it. My brain will start freaking out and throwing absurd ideas my way. It will get harder and harder to go any deeper. I carry on. It is so so so cold. I'm dancing and shouting. Imagine someone running an ice cube down your back. It's so cold. The water runs over my shoulders and I'm in. What was all the fuss about? This is fine.

Pete Carr swimming in marine lake

That right there. That moment is why I do this. Every time I get into the water I have this battle with my brain. It pleads with me not to go in. It's classic flight or fight. Living with anxiety means most things tend to be flight. My brain is a quitter. It wants the easy way out and will attack me in the worst way imaginable to get me to quit. Afterwards it will attack me for quitting. It will tell me I failed and that I always fail. I don't know why my brain is this way but it is. It hates me with a passion. 

This is why I get into the water. While my brain does the whole haters got to hate thing there is a part of me that knows it will be OK. I have the memory of when I last did this. I remember feeling OK once I was fully in the water. This is exposure therapy. My brain believes one thing, totally without evidence to back up its claims, and I challenge that idea ultimately proving it wrong. Afterwards I feel great. I feel fantastic because not only have I had a swim in a beautiful lake watching the sunrise and listening to the birds. I've defeated my anxiety for the time being. Doing this reminds me that I can overcome it and do amazing things. 

Arm of a swimmer and ripples on the surface of marine lake

Getting into the water empowers me. I can overcome anxiety and do things that most people couldn't dream of doing. When I'm in there and people are looking at me I feel great. I don't feel embarrassed. I have no social anxiety. I feel like I just lifted up a tree or something. No big deal. People will arrive in wetsuits and spend a few moments in the water while I float by peacefully like I'm in the tropics. They don't understand how I'm coping. As the kid who was never picked for sports in school and who was always laughed at for my appearance this empowers me. I walk out the water with my beer belly on show, my rainbow nails, my purple hair, my purple beard and I feel like I just ran a marathon. No-one can say anything because I just spent 5, 10, 30 minutes in that lake in just my shorts. 

You'll read a lot of articles about how open water swimming has healed/cured/fixed/saved someone. For me it hasn't done anything like that. I fight my anxiety and depression every day. I fight my body issues every day. I struggle to find confidence in my ability to be someone able to function, every day. I'm not cured. It does give me a reminder that I am capable of being more than what my anxious depressed brain tries to make me believe I am. Every swim I do is a battle that I overcome and I do it in front of an audience without fear. It makes me wonder what else I can do if I put my mind to it. 

Pete Carr swimming in marine lake

All additional images © Pete Carr