Helen Fowler: My struggle swimming on a loch with MS

STANDING gazing at the waters of Loch Voil, I am regretting not bringing my swimming costume with me for this particular adventure.
Helen Fowler updates her blog with daughter. Picture: Julie BullHelen Fowler updates her blog with daughter. Picture: Julie Bull
Helen Fowler updates her blog with daughter. Picture: Julie Bull

Never mind. I decide to disrobe down to my underwear, placing my clothes on the ground. Modesty be damned.

I’m back on retreat at Dhanakosa, in the Highlands of Scotland - it’s not a place where I was expecting to do any swimming. Especially not now, in the late autumn. Not that I’m worried about meeting Nessie - it’s more fear about how my Multiple Sclerosis (MS) will affect me.

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I was actually planning to spend my time here in a spiritually-minded community by “sitting” or meditating. And, ideally, doing so while swaddled in some of the many blankets stacked in neat piles for just this purpose in the Shrine Room.

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But I’ve heard shrieks of laughter through my bedroom window from others who have taken the plunge - I want to join in the fun.

Okay, I’ve got a chronic and progressive illness that is only going to get worse with time, not better.

But that doesn’t half make me focus on what is important to me – my family, my writing and, of course, jumping into a Scottish loch in my underwear.

The mist covering the loch earlier this morning has disappeared. Sunshine has taken its place.

I’m wobbly on slopes like the one that leads down from Dhanakosa to the neighbouring loch. To my left a fellow retreatant, Matt, is supporting me.

Another guy I see mostly in meditation is holding onto my other arm - he’s doing so with the vigour of a life guard. It doesn’t feel inappropriate, given how shaky I am from the illness.

Pebbles are pushing into my bare feet as I go. Wet grass sticks to my skin.

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But, like a triumvirate, we eventually reach the water’s edge. As expected, the loch feels cold against my feet, almost shockingly so. But it’s still a relief after the struggle to follow the path.

With water this cold, every sensation except an icy numbness disappears.

The guys let go of my arms. MS makes me clumsy and I feel like an awkward adolescent again, stood uncertainly in the shallows of Loch Voil, just a few hundred yards from the house where we’ve come on retreat.

“Do you want to go for it?” asks one of them, looking as if he wouldn’t blame me if I decided against it. But when am I ever going to have the chance to go “loch-swimming” again? It feels like now or never.

“Okay,” I say in a low voice, anxious to avoid the embarrassment of flunking out at the last minute.

Further out in the loch fellow retreatants are splashing each other with water. The water isn’t getting any warmer as I edge further into it.

I feel the water come up to my knees – ouch – then my thighs. MS or no MS, I am still vain enough to feel happy as the water covers my tummy.

The cold of the water envelops me; I allow my body to sink into the depths. My body doesn’t adjust to the new temperature the way I remember it doing in the past.

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The wretched MS again. It means I’m super-sensitive to heat and cold.

Finally, I realise I’m in deep enough to swim. I put out my arms in front of me until they touch, then push them apart. Good, my legs are responding to my order to flip back and forth.

The cold still isn’t going away. Rather like my MS, I’m stuck with it.

But I can swim despite the cold. And despite the MS. In fact, I can move more easily in water than on land.

And, when I’m swimming, I can even forget about having the stupid illness.

As I get out of the loch, the stones dig painfully into my feet again. But the chilly Scottish weather now feels almost balmy after the cold of the water.

Getting a diagnosis of MS is making me focus on what’s important to me.

Before I got sick I would have scoffed at the idea of swimming in a Scottish loch in autumn, dressed only in bra and pants. And I would have been missing out.