Swimming outdoors helped comedian Angela Barnes combat her mental health issues
We did have swimming lessons at school, but as an expert getter-outter of any physical exertion, I think I only ever got in the water two or three times over my entire school career.
I’d been body-conscious for as long as I could remember. Even at primary school, getting changed for PE became a feat of contortionism and clever arrangement of clothing to ensure no part of my body ever be exposed. I don’t know what I was hiding, I can’t even remember what I thought was so wrong. As I got into my teens, it got worse. The thought of being seen in a swimming costume made me feel utterly sick. So, I just never got around to learning to swim. I never had a fear of the water; it was purely the fear of being judged on what I looked like.
Depression and anxiety
By the time I was in my twenties, I
was pretty convinced I was a hideous
monster. I became increasingly unwell
with depression and anxiety and I ended
up in hospital on several occasions.
Skip forward to my thirties and things were looking up. I was on the right medication, and benefitting from that thing that happens when you hit your thirties – you know, that thing where you suddenly stop giving a wotsit what anybody thinks about you any more. But I was putting on weight. I had to do something. On a whim, aged 37, I signed up for an adult swimming class at Crystal Palace Sports Centre
I almost bottled it on that first day – a 50m pool, with no shallow end? It felt utterly unconquerable, but Jill, my teacher, was so calm and encouraging, that I took to it like a duck to, well, water. By the end of my first lesson, I was swimming. Nothing mattered, nobody was watching me, nobody cared what I looked like. And something happened: in the water my brain switched off the negative thoughts and focussed on nothing but the stroke and breathing. By the end of that lesson, I had swum a 50m length without stopping. It turned out the ability was there all along. That moment changed my life
After four lessons, Jill suggested I sign up for my first swimathon, and three months after learning to swim, I did my first 1.5km. I was euphoric.
Looking for a lido
A few months later, I was working with fellow comedian Mark Thomas and we got onto the subject of swimming. He told me that his wife, Jenny Landreth, was a keen swimmer. “I have her Swimming London book, it’s brilliant!” I said. So he put me in touch with Jenny, and she took me on a chilly September morning to Tooting Bec Lido. I took the plunge, and it was incredible, as if I could feel the endorphins releasing into my bloodstream. Afterwards I was as high as a kite. There’s no feeling like being in the water feeling the open air around you. I swim in lidos as often as I can now. My kit is always in my car, so wherever I am gigging in the country, I’m looking for a lido.
It’s no exaggeration to say that swimming has saved me. My mental health has never been better, it is definitely no coincidence that I have dramatically reduced the amount of medication I am on since starting to swim outdoors regularly.
Next stop for me? Open water and wild swimming. I have been terrified of it, and have a fish phobia that doesn’t help, but I’m signed up for a course and determined to nail it. Watch out Britain’s rivers and lakes, here I come!
Angela Barnes recently completed Macmillan Cancer Support’s All Out Swim challenge. To take on a Macmillan swimming challenge of your own visit www.macmillan.org.uk/yourswim