With thanks to Culture Club for the music, and the title of this post. Tumble turns are what you do at the end of the pool. This is the second in a series of posts talking about my late ADHD diagnosis, today I’m concentrating on swimming. Before we start there is a mild content warning with some of my other MH diagnoses. I don’t discuss anything, but the words are there.
I started swimming over the Easter holidays when I was 9 and my brother was 7. We lived in a seaside town, during the summer, we lived on the beach. Mum and Dad wanted us safe in and by the water. This was an intensive course, with lessons every day during the school holidays. Edit – Mum said I was 7 and my brother 5 years old.
On the first day, I’m in the first group. Water makes sense to my body; I just slide through it. If any of you have read Ian Thorpe’s autobiography, This Is Me! he describes what it feels like to ‘catch’ a perfect stroke. The water feels different in your hand, over your skin, when you get it right. Each stroke you try and replicate it, sometimes more easily than others.
Before the first week of my swimming lessons had ended, I was taken aside by one of the teachers, who was the wife of the coach at a local swimming club. I was asked to demonstrate what I could do after four and a bit days of lessons, about 2 hours total. I still remember showing her, over 40 years later; she pulled me out my lesson, to the middle of the pool (that I would later teach in for years). I remember how proud I was I could do something effortlessly, see previous post about not being able to do anything quite right…
That club told my parents they thought I was a future backstroke Olympian. From there on in, I was being coached and guided towards that. I was swimming training, land training. When I got to my early teens, I began lifting weights under supervision, and was given a diet to follow with ratios of proteins to carbohydrates. I had special warm up program to follow at galas. And because people were telling me to do it, I just did it.
Which is another way ASD presents differently with Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB). Because we as a society, have had it ingrained to pat little girls on the head. Telling them to sit down, be quiet, don’t fuss – there, there, there. And it is also partly why ADHD and ASD are mis-diagnosed for years in AFAB, because we don’t present like Assigned Male At Birth, and what a lot of the out-of-date schemas for diagnosis rely on. We don’t bounce around in chairs or charge around in the playground. Instead, we sit with our hands in our laps, bouncing our ankles, twiddling our hair, and in my case, biting my nails.
When I was 10 or 11, I was flying at swimming. And I mean flying, competing against people 8-10 years older than me and beating them. I was invested in this, simply because I enjoyed being in the water. It was a safe space for me. I can remember one Saturday morning, watching my brother’s swimming lesson. I was sat on the pool deck, next to Mum, sitting on a wooden bench in full sun, wiggling as the bench was scratchy under my butt. The urge to jump in, clothes and all was intense. It was a real yearning. The water made sense to my body, still does. Also, as I had to concentrate on constantly improving my stroke, focussing on what my body was doing, my mind was relatively quiet.
The constant raising of my heartbeat also squirted enough dopamine into my bloodstream to help me concentrate at school. I hate to imagine what my life would have been like if I didn’t have swimming as a framework to hang it on.
The only other time my mind was silent, as I said in my previous post, was when I was reading voraciously. Reading by my nightlight if I was ‘this close’ to finishing a book, waking up fuzzy headed and grumpy the next morning.
One day, I was maybe 11 years old. I was pulled aside after a training session and got told that I needed to give another child the backstroke, because that was the only stroke she had. I was told, I was such a good all-rounder, that I could afford to give it to her. What this means is in swimming galas, I wouldn’t be the first choice to swim backstroke for the club in my age group, this other girl was being put in to races instead of me. Even though I was faster.
Remember, I was predicted to be a future Olympic champion, that disappeared. I don’t know what happened for this decision, maybe her parents talked to the coach. Mum and Dad moved my brother and I to another club.
That rejection hit hard. I got in the pool, and it was like I’d forgotten how to swim it. From there on in, I managed to get through individual medley races, but I felt like I was thrashing around, not getting anywhere. My only explanation is that my muscle memory had switched off with the trauma response.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with our son, who I had at 36, and I found myself in an outdoor pool doing laps before work. It was a beautiful morning, I thought to myself, ‘I want to look at the clouds.’ I suddenly found my stroke again, because there was no pressure on me.
Before I was diagnosed with ADHD these were my diagnoses.
- IBS, I also have coeliac disease, so the symptoms do cross over, but IBS is really exacerbated when your system is on fire with cortisol.
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder
- Complex Anxiety Disorder
- Complex PTSD
- Suicidal ideation
- Body Dysmorphia
It is really hard living in your skin, just hanging out, taking up space with the carbon form that carries your soul around. But your soul is wrong, different, odd, strange, quirky (if you’re lucky).
It’s really hard constantly being told you’re not worthy. That you don’t belong. Being bullied day in, day out at school. That you look just like a boy. That you look wrong with short hair, that you don’t like wearing dresses to parties. That you’d rather be colouring in, reading, cross-stitching, patchworking until your eyes give out. That people don’t understand that you’re happiest in water; be that at the beach, or in the pool. Water gives you something that is lacking across your life, and you’re proud of what you can do with it. During the summer holidays, you will float on your back and watch clouds go by until you get called out the sea to go home, to be able to do it all over again the next day.
I’m going to blow smoke up my butt here. I am a really good swimming teacher. I have taught thousands of people either to swim or to improve their strokes, because I can explain to them what the water feels like when they’re doing it right. And can give them shortcuts to help them find it when they’re doing it wrong. I love teaching adults, particularly people who have feared water their whole life. I am loudly enthusiastic even when people learn how to stand up for the first time. In my lessons I would encourage all of them to cheer each other on. The joy it gives everyone in the lesson when someone starts kicking and moving is beautiful.
Back in 2002 or 2003, I was rebooking a swimming school for the new term. Phones were ringing off the hook, people queueing out the door. I stood working the computer, taking details of the people queuing up, one customer came up and said ‘I’ve been told I need to book in with Emily’, I said ‘That’s me!’ At another pool, another child talked about me so much, her pregnant aunt called her new daughter Emily.
But living with ADHD can mean rejection sensitive dysphoria, an extreme reaction to an outcome that other people wouldn’t worry over. This is what I had when I was told I wouldn’t be swimming backstroke anymore. This has also happened numerous times at work; as we’re concentrating on swimming, I’ll share this story then we’ll close, as I’ve rattled on long enough.
At one leisure centre, I was covering a lesson for another teacher who’d called in sick. These were tiny tots who hadn’t met me before, as at this pool I specialised in the school classes, as I could handle lots of children in one lesson. A couple of parents didn’t like what I was doing, only as I was different to their normal teacher, they stood on the poolside to watch me. The children hadn’t met me before, I’d got them all sitting on the steps to the pool playing with toys, blowing bubbles and a few games, just improving their water confidence to ease them into the lesson. When I stopped the lesson to ask the parents to go back to the viewing gallery, they called the Duty Manager out instead saying that I didn’t know what I was doing. We went back and forth a bit on that I’d been teaching for at least 10 years now and I did know what I was doing. The DM came onto poolside and backed them up – ignoring the policy. My reaction isn’t one I’m proud of; I got out the pool in tears and left him to sort them all out.
Because I knew, (know), I am a good teacher, my pride was hurt as I wasn’t listened to, let alone backed up by the DM doing his job.
A sense of hubris is always fun to live with too. When we know we’re good; we can be insufferable.
Not long after that, I stopped teaching swimming and never got back into it. It was like the backstroke thing all over again, it felt like it was taken away from me. Instead of me being able to give it up when I was done. RSD is what I think I’ve been living with as part of my ADHD, not some of the other labels I’ve picked up along my travels. Particularly when RSD ruminates, it can present as anxiety and depression, spiralling down further as your brain believes its’ thoughts. Remember, you are not your thoughts, you are thinking your thoughts.
But there’s more on that in my next post.
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