After My Suicide Attempt, Swimming Brought Me Back to Life
In February 2019, I tried to kill myself. Acetaminophen, codeine, so many handfuls stored over so many weeks, swallowed before I could think too hard about it. Depression takes away all perspective, eroding your safety nets until you're certain you'll be in free fall forever. You want it over. You just want to hit the ground.
My husband, Tom, was determined to find me a soft place to land. The very next week, he bundled me out of bed and into the car. He drove east from our home in Oxford, past the honey stone of the university spires, golden in the dusk. We drove through the unremarkable countryside of middle England, under its austere gray sky, past petrol stations and potholes.
Four hours northeast, the countryside starts to breathe out. Cities turn to towns, parks to fields, trees multiply into forests. And behind the pines is my favorite place in the world: the expanse of the North Norfolk coastline. I have been going there, to the small harbor town of Wells-next-the-Sea, since I was a baby.
Tom drove me straight to the place I have always been happiest: the beach. It was 9 p.m., the dark crystalline with cold. I was silent—I'd been unable to find my words recently—as we walked hand in hand across the sand. The tide was out, and I slipped off my shoes to feel the ridged grains, shaped into a memory of water. My feet prickled from the chill. "You going in?"
The answer to that question is always yes.
I took off the nightdress I'd been wearing for two days and walked into the sea. It burned and stung, then numbed. Shit, I thought, and then aloud: "Shit, shit, shit!" They were the first words I'd spoken in days. Tom and I laughed with the shock of the cold. The physical pain felt like a blessing after weeks of mental torment.
We spent three nights in Wells, days filled with walks and the gentle making of plans for the future: therapy, medication, less work, more vegetables. Evenings I'd swim while Tom watched, and then he'd wrap me in a towel and we'd share a bottle of the local Baltic Trader stout that we love so much, we'd served it for our wedding toast. It was a perfect cocoon of peace. We knew it wouldn't last. But it would be okay, I told my husband, because I had decided I would live—and I'd wild swim.
I've always loved taking a deep dive in the outdoors, whether dipping into Ireland's fairy pools or running screaming into the icy waters of England's Lake District with my little brother. But this was different. There would be an intention, something to look forward to. I would seek out these places, be deliberate in my swimming and my living. Over the next few months, as my mind healed, swimming became essential to living.
Possibly winter in England was not the ideal time to launch this project. And for a while the river in Oxford was all I had. But in May, I was invited to a literary festival on the Channel island of Guernsey. This was, terrifyingly and thrillingly, my first trip away alone since my overdose. I rented a car and twice a day drove to one of the many beaches to swim. I swam in rock pools warmed by the sun; I swam in frigid seawater lidos populated by sturdy old men who took great delight in telling me the water was 4 degrees Celsius. I swam in a white-sand bay with a fellow author's daughter on her 13th birthday. It was the first time she'd ever swum in the sea.
I've tried to tease out the alchemy that makes wild swimming so vital to my mental health. Perhaps it is the physicality of plunging myself into water, the cold so absolute it is all I am, taking me out of my mind and into my body so I become a heart beating fast to pump blood, muscles working to keep warm, on fire in the best way. Perhaps it is being in beautiful places, or even in the less beautiful ones, discovering the sublime at the edges of urban life. Perhaps it is that it began as a solitary pursuit and has morphed into a social one. Like life, swimming can be done solo—but we don't have to go it alone.
This has been the greatest joy of my near year of wild swimming: forcing numerous friends to join me. And they all, without exception, have begun to wild swim themselves and drag others in with them. The thought of this makes me understand the cliché "my heart could burst." The water gave me connection. To my body, my mind, my friends, my family. To my life. It remade my safety nets so strong—I hope nothing will ever fray them again.
For a long time, the main thing I remembered about the aftermath of my suicide attempt was a then-close friend saying "overdoses never work." In my fugue state of self-hatred, I nodded and said "Oh, yes" with a sort of Hugh Grant–ish, silly-me giggle, inwardly chastising myself that I'd failed not only at ending my life, but at choosing the right method.
I know that was an absurd reaction—on both her part and mine. I drew a line under our friendship, under those words. Now when I think back, I don't remember pills or hours with a therapist or crying so hard that sometimes my ears popped. What I remember now is the sea, how it makes me feel weightless and completely in my body, absolutely where I'm meant to be, whether someone is in the water next to me or not. The shock of submersion is sharp every time: the screaming nerves and pumping heart, and the ferocious joy of being alive.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is the author of, most recently, the novel The Mercies.
View the original story on OprahMag.com: After My Suicide Attempt, Swimming Brought Me Back to Life.