How Swimming Became The Only Place Where I Can Drown My Obsessive Thoughts

Photographed by Mădălina Mihaela.
Marianne Eloise is a freelance writer, journalist and author of nonfiction book Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking. The below is an excerpt from the book about her experience of being neurodivergent and having ADHD.
In a split second, I’m thrown under, my open eyes and mouth full of saltwater. The hair I’d so deliberately tied up to keep it from getting wet and subsequently very curly is soaking, half-hanging out of my bun. I can’t see it yet, but I know my mascara is running, my bikini top loose. I come up laughing, startled; my friends cackle, unsurprised that I got blindsided by a Southern-California wave.
I stand up. I cough, I spit water from my mouth and shake it from my ears, and I face the ocean. Come at me.
I’ll swim with the waves, more deliberately this time, not getting distracted by my friends. I watch for each and every wave as it comes for me, sizing it up, knowing exactly when to jump, when to swim with it, and when to get to shore. Inevitably, in three or five or ten waves, it’ll happen again, and I will laugh, and when I’m on the beach later I’ll shiver and regret not bringing something warmer, but I’ll be glad I braved it. The car seat soaking beneath me as my hair curls tight around my ears, my skin itching, I’ll be proud in my small way.
So much in my life is rigid, either as an anxiety response or out of necessity, and it’s often hard to tell which is which. I live by rules and schedules, by numbers and certainties. If I go somewhere, I plan it meticulously, packing everything four days in advance as if I’m a mother of four taking a day trip: hand sanitiser, medication, cash, spare socks, tissues, notebook, pen, Tide pen, portable charger. If it’s a longer trip, the prep takes weeks, lest I forget a single thing.
Once, a therapist asked me what would happen if I just didn’t do that. Well, what if! I reminded her that I have ADHD, that I need to be stricter with myself than other people, but she was insistent. Despite the ball in my chest and the fear of forgetting everything, I was so desperate to loosen up that I heeded her advice and packed for a press trip to a music festival in Lisbon just a day in advance. I forgot my medication, half my clothes, and my dignity. I spent the week with a group of strangers wearing someone else’s clothes and vowing to never loosen up again.
I am scatty and disorganised, messy and distracted. After years of getting in trouble for forgetting my homework or leaving the door open or forgetting to pack something essential, I developed strict coping mechanisms to make sure I actually get anything done. It wasn’t a choice, not really: to grow up, to get through life without ruining everything, I have to move deliberately, planning every step. Routine is essential. Unexpected changes and the variables of life blindside me, leading to meltdowns. Everything I do, for one reason or another, is regimented. Everything, that is, on land.
The ocean does not give one single shit about my plans, routines or intentions. I can prepare all I want; wear the right clothes, tie my hair up, keep a sweater in the car. But once I am in the sea, everything is up for grabs. I can swim with precision, staying close to shore, and I might still be taken out by a wave or riptide. I’m a strong swimmer and a careful one; I respect the sea, and I don’t do anything that might land me in genuine danger, like going out on a rough day with poor visibility. But if it’s clear, and there are people on land, and I’m healthy and well – I’ll get in, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
I started swimming as a baby, first at the local pool. I took to it immediately, or so I’m told, floating and laughing and swimming. All the things good, normal babies do before they know how to worry or yell. From the first year of school, my class had lessons as part of our curriculum in a tiny six-by-twelve-metre indoor pool in a room that was always dark. Still, I was the first in the water and quick to learn more, winning all of the certificates first and outstaying my time. I attended swimming parties eagerly, befriending a girl just because her dad taught diving lessons and I heard she had a pool. Pools were not something people had where I grew up, so how could I pass up such an opportunity? It was all I wanted to do.
I spent my weekends with my grandad, visiting local leisure centres on both Saturdays and Sundays. If I was really, really lucky, he’d take me somewhere with a wave pool, and I would sit, bobbing in the water as the world disappeared around me, noise melting away as he read the paper and watched. Other times, I would spend the entire visit underwater, my little eyes open, letting the chlorine flood in. Sometimes other children would speak to me, asking to join in my ‘game’, but they’d get bored when the realised the game really was just swimming. The first paragraph I ever wrote on a computer at school, age five, was about my weekend, and I talked about nothing but the water: ‘I swam on top of the water and under the water’, I proclaimed.
The sea, on the other hand, felt less safe, making it impossible to just sit and bob in peace. It was cold, too, and the salt on my skin irritated my soft legs, sending me into sensory overload. There’s a telling photo of me, aged just three, screaming and tearing off my swimsuit in Blackpool because I was in so much burning pain. So ‘I’m not going to swim today’, became an untruth I told when my family tried to drag me to the beach on camping holidays. I wasn’t particularly active. I skipped PE, I didn’t join any clubs, I loathed running. For the most part, I was an indoor kid – a downright lazy one. I couldn’t conceive of wanting to get in the sea until I saw it shimmering before me.
Dragged to the beach in Wales with my extended family, I swore that I would sit on the sand and read. Maybe I would climb on rocks. Maybe I would participate in games. But for some reason I convinced myself, time and time again, that I wouldn’t be lured to the sea. So certain was I that I’d head to the water fully dressed, refusing to let anyone pack me a swimsuit or towel. I thought I didn’t love the ocean as much as I loved the pool, and I was stubborn.
Moments later: on my face, fully dressed, covered in saltwater. I would laugh and stand up again, letting the sea crush my small body over and over. I’d swim out, further than I was supposed to, weighed down by my shorts or simply half-naked. Later, I’d have to strip off, sit in the car wrapped in someone else’s towel. Sometimes, someone would see through my stubbornness and pack a secret swimsuit, but often they wouldn’t. If we were going to a restaurant or for a walk, I’d have to walk in my salt-soaked clothes, my skin irritated. I’d never learn, and the pull of the ocean is still something I can’t deny even if I try. Until I could.
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