Inside the pool, my most pressing concerns are “where are my sunglasses?” and “I hope my headphones don’t fall in”
Fact: I have always been a water baby. Countless family photo albums show me at varying stages of my childhood in *some* proximity to it; my father holding my infant belly in the palm of his hand as I kick against the surface of a swimming pool wearing giant water wings or posing next to the hypnotic fountains that were popular features in all shopping malls across the UK during the ’90s where I grew up. As a typical only child, my imagination was my best friend and I would often reinvent myself into a mermaid and even insist to anyone who listened that I saw fellow sirens with glittering rainbow fish tails in the river that threaded across my hometown or staring back at me as I peered into puddles.
Some of my favourite memories are of the fried egg-hot summers between school years, where your toes would curl around parched grass and your body was always half-damp from hopping in and out of the kiddie pool. Ours was cactus green, shallow and stiff in structure with faded turtle illustrations on the bottom. During the summer holidays, I was transplanted to my grandparents house in a bucolic village about as far east as you can get in England, where a second kiddie pool sat waiting all winter to be extracted with eager hands from the eaves of their garage. I understood happiness in the water. I understood that the feeling of being completely unburdened was the most desirable emotion a person could experience. As an adult, I have chased this feeling like an animal chases an elusive prey: always moving, always just out of reach.
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As a pre-teen, I swam competitively for a time, before it dropped off in my late twenties and evolved into brief swims caught during lunch break at work when there was corporate access to a gym. Like a lot of activities that had once interested me, this was one that fell easily by the wayside as my mental health grew more complex and terrifying as I got older. I found myself struggling to cope with life, at first with university and then with jobs or relationship stuff. Every minor setback felt devastating and my self-esteem plummeted to the point of self-harm and frequent episodes of mania. Last fall, a psychiatrist with salt-and-pepper hair and a substantial price model for services rendered diagnosed me with bipolar II, a mental illness characterized by moods cycling between high and low. All the fragments of past incidents of mental trauma snapped together like pieces of a jigsaw. I now had a label to explain the whys and whats; a proper medical term to feel protective of because it was part of my identity.
I was instructed to take a type of medication that is also prescribed to those with epilepsy, noting that the common denominator in these illnesses is that our bodies do things we can’t control. As my relationship with these new chemicals became harmonious, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The world became a different type of scary and my standard issue anxiety transformed into something bigger, something humanity was sharing and that was tangential to my mental health label.
Having left London after a career change shortly before the pandemic hit, I shuffled around my beautiful new house in the English countryside like someone had attached ropes to my shoulders, pulling them up taut like a marionette. Nature offered a meagre amount of comfort at the beginning of lockdown by delivering some early, unprecedented good weather for Britain and I scrambled to think of a solution for mental respite now that we couldn’t leave our homes. The answer was to buy myself a kiddie pool. I can’t recall the genesis of this Great Idea—was it suggested by my infinitely patient boyfriend? Was it browsing the seasonal homeware aisle of the discount superstore I love?—but I zeroed in on an adult-sized pool for my adult backyard and parked it on the flattest terrain I could find. I’m barely a lick over five feet tall and what luxury to have room to “swim” for one and a half strokes! What fun to realize there was serious floatie potential. (A pink donut! A pineapple!) What privilege to be able to revisit a joy I felt as a kid. As I inched down into my pool for the first time, my mind began to calm itself and my body responded to the water as if it was finally back in its natural state.
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It’s almost impossible to be anxious in a kiddie pool (unless you’re listening to a true crime podcast at the same time.) The nostalgia of it all is a huge comfort, and our millennial fondness for blurring the lines of age-appropriate pastimes makes it feel absurd and hilarious (rollerskating is apparently the quarantine sport). There’s also something to be said for the pool’s zen-like attributes. By virtue of choosing to place your body inside the confines of its walls, you are choosing to disengage from everything outside of it. This is healthy! Inside the pool, thoughts—if you have any at all—naturally shift to “do I need to boil the kettle to get some warmer water in here?”, “where are my sunglasses?” and “I hope my headphones don’t fall in.”
My kiddie pool is certainly no outlandish cure for my mental illness nor will it make our world’s immediate future any easier to navigate but it has and is providing tangible help with happiness, if only for a lovely hour or two. It smooths the sharp edges of my cycling thoughts, calms the waves of inner tension that manage to gain height and gives me something right here in my own home to look forward to. This is all any of us can hope for right now. The wrinkly skin is so worth it.