'How Swimming Saved My Life After a Breakdown'

In February 2017, a combination of issues had brought me to breaking point. One Thursday morning, I turned up for my job as a high school teacher and suddenly felt a sense of panic that convinced me I couldn't remain at work. My line manager said they hoped to see me back soon, but as the weeks passed it became obvious to me that I could never return to work. The students deserved better than a depressed teacher who was struggling to cope.

For the next few months, I didn't leave the house. Despair weighed me down like a lead bedsheet. Unable to function, I stayed in bed watching daytime TV, but watching the game show hosts ask the contestants about their jobs brought it home to me that now I wasn't a teacher anymore, I was nothing.

I didn't know what to do. I felt trapped by my depression and, having officially left my job, had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. My friends were my work colleagues, so while they were very supportive, they were at work all day. And though my husband was sympathetic, he wasn't sure how to help. My doctor was also supportive, but I chose not to take medication and there was a long waiting list to receive therapy through the National Health Service (NHS). As a last resort, I tried swimming, something I'd loved as a child but not done since I became an adult and life had got in the way.

It wasn't easy leaving the house in May that year to venture into my local pool, but as soon as I reached the poolside and took a breath of the chlorine-scented air that took me back to school swimming lessons, I felt strangely comforted. Up to my neck in water, as long as I was moving, it didn't seem to matter if I wasn't doing it right—and it was reassuring to me that no-one could see my less-than-perfect body. I watched the swimmers zooming along the fast lane enviously, thinking how I'd just be glad if I could manage one length after so many years away from the pool.

As it was, I completed 14 lengths of breast stroke in 30 minutes, having to give myself a little break between each one, but I came away exhilarated and determined to return. It had been the first thing that had made me feel good about myself in months.

swimming, mental health, breakdown, recovery
Stock image of a woman swimming. Getty/iStock

Soon swimming became part of my daily routine, so much so that the lifeguards noticed on the rare occasion that I missed a day. When you've felt invisible for so long, that's powerful medicine. There were other swimmers who'd start to talk to me, too. We only exchanged polite conversation about the weather and if the water was a bit cold that day, but just meeting people and talking to them after so much time alone—as my husband and children were at work all day—felt wonderful.

I started to feel confident enough to go out for other reasons, because the more I swam, the more I found myself feeling happy and confident and the more I saw my physical fitness improve. Within a few months I was able to complete 30 lengths of breast stroke without stopping, then 50.

One day in September that year, seeing it the fast lane was empty, I tentatively bobbed under the lane rope that divided it from the main pool and entered the fast lane. When someone else joined me a few minutes later, I expected them to be annoyed with me, but then I realised that I was swimming as fast as them! It was a huge boost to my self-esteem to think how far I'd come in a matter of months.

After another couple of months, something happened that, in a strange way, would provide the final step in my recovery. I was about to enter the pool when I saw the lifeguard on duty tapping his feet to a song on the radio, which was the Fontella Bass classic, Rescue Me. As I swam, I laughed at the irony of the song title, while considering how swimming had been a rescue from my breakdown. Without it, I'd have still been stuck at home, depressed.

The incident gave me an idea, and I began writing a story inspired by the incident and my own journey to recovery as soon as I got home. Having both swimming and writing to focus upon really helped me to forget the things that had brought me down. When the book was published ten months later, I was a different person. I even went on to write a water safety book for children with the toe-tapping lifeguard, who has since become a good friend.

swimming, mental health, breakdown, recovery
Sue Bordley began swimming after struggling with her mental health. Sue Bordley

Unfortunately, pools have been closed during lockdown in the U.K. and I've missed my daily swim terribly, but I'll never give it up because it changed my life at a point when it could have gone irreparably downhill. I could give advice to anyone who's struggling with their mental health now as I was in 2017, it would be that, as well as seeking medical advice, you should try to leave the house and find something you enjoy. It will be difficult—it certainly was for me—but it's likely to be worth it.

Perhaps, as I did, you could return to something you enjoyed in your youth: riding a bike, sewing or baking cakes could all bring you enormous satisfaction and achievement.

Above all, don't give up. I'm glad I didn't.

Sue Bordley is an author from the Wirral peninsula in the U.K. Married with two children, she released her first novel after a twenty-year teaching career, but has been able to return to teaching in recent years. Her novel, Rescue Me is available from Amazon.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.