• Personal Stories

Into the blue - Swimming my way through burn-out and grief

Victorian mental health nurse, Tessa Moriarty, writes about how sea swimming has helped her manage symptoms of grief post-pandemic burnout, including forging a closer bond with her husband.

Written by Tessa Moriarty

Burnout and grief

Like many of my healthcare colleagues, off the back of two years, working full-time in a pandemic, I finished 2021 exhausted. 

So, over the middle months of last summer, I took a five-week break.  But, come March, I was no better. 

Still tired, irritable, sleeping poorly, and unable to finish tasks around the house, I had little enthusiasm for the people and activities that would normally bring me joy.  Everything was an effort, and nothing seemed to shift the cloud that hung over me.  The day had lost its shine, the nights were long; fitful.  

I’d wake more tired than when I went to bed the night before.  But I dragged myself into the morning, and like so many others – soldiered on. I went back to work (albeit part-time), and though able to do so from home, the drive for it, was gone.  I wasn’t running but limping, on autopilot and empty.  No back-up engine, no fuel in reserve.

By April I knew I was in trouble. 

In addition, beneath the pittance of energy I could muster each day, I carried the weight of having lost my eldest and closest sister, just six months before.  Her death, sudden and devastating, left me wandering in a daze, unable to find a way without her, or make sense of why she had been taken.

As a mental health nurse, it was hard to admit that I had reached such a complete low; that I was burnt out and grieving. 

And, rather than see where I was as a result of what I’d been through, my view was that I hadn’t taken care enough, to prevent myself from falling.  In the business of supporting and telling others how to monitor their own mental health and well-being, it was hard to acknowledge and see that my own had slipped from my grasp. I felt fragile and ashamed.  So, I kept it quiet, even at times, to myself. 

Then, almost simultaneously I made an appointment for counselling and discovered the local sea swim group.

Routine – the day begins with a swim

Within the sea swim group, I found a buddy who swims regularly in the mornings. A woman with fortitude, who gets in, without a wetsuit. Me, I need that extra layer to go the distance of a kilometre, that I aim for. As a long-time lap-lane pool swimmer (and given the effort and time it takes getting into my gear), I wanted to make it worth my while. I also needed it to make a difference to my mental health.

The water temperature – sometimes warmer than the air above it – stays relatively stable between 10 and 11 degrees through the winter months.  So, though cold initially, in a wetsuit for thirty minutes, it’s manageable.

It took time, however, to build my stamina and ability in the open water. It’s nothing like pool swimming, and I soon learned I had to adapt my rhythm and stroke to the changing conditions. In the swell and push of the waves, movement forward is slow.  I raise my head more often and keep my arms wide. When it’s flat and there’s an offshore wind, it’s like gliding, head lower in the water, arms higher. And, if the water is glassy as well, it’s bliss.  

Learning to manage whatever the sea throws up, or washes in on the tide every morning, is all part of the swim.  

Whether it’s choppy, raining, misty or bright sun, or the water is full of weed and murky – it’s about getting in and giving it a go, and the discipline of making it part of my early morning routine.  It’s also about digging deep to find the courage and strength to brave the waves.  In the effort it takes to focus on the task of moving forward in the cold briny water, everything else drops away.

The Pull of the Sea

We know from human experience that spending time in and around water restores us and has an upbeat effect on our mood. There’s something about water – and for me, it is the sea – that draws people close. It has an energy and pull, that I feel from nowhere else.  

Proximity to the sea is associated with many positive measures of physical and mental well-being, from higher levels of vitamin D to better social relations (White, Blue Project, 2020).  Water is also considered by some to be the elixir and source of life.  Wallace Nichols (Blue Mind, 2014),  believes the mere sight and sound of water can induce a flood of neurochemicals that promote wellness, increase blood flow to the brain and heart and induce relaxation.

Personally, I’ve always loved the sea and spent my childhood along the coastal shores north of Wellington, New Zealand. Funny though, I never learned to swim properly, until I was in Australia, living in suburban Melbourne. Since then, I’ve been avid. Spoilt by the comfort of public swimming pools, which I’ve used for the meditative repetition of the lap-lane to maintain my fitness.

Six years ago, my husband and I moved to the Mornington Peninsula, primarily for the experience of life-at-the-beach in summer. But it’s become more than that. The beach (and now I know the sea), has more to offer that a cool-down after a hot day of work. 

Through the pandemic months, before I found the benefit of cold sea swimming,  I sought the restoration of walking the shore.  At high or low tide, in the wind and rain and everything in-between, I’d tread the early evening sand to find the calm and balance I’d lost through my working day.

Connections – to self, others and community

A spin off to the healing process of the sea swims has been the joy of connecting with others, who like me are drawn to the restorative powers of the water. 

To swim with those (and now my husband), who find the same exhilaration and joy in the cold of the sea gives me a sense of comfort and belonging.  And we are not the only ones to find and make connections through the water, open water swimming groups across the world share their love of the wet.

The pandemic bought on a swell (pun intended) in the number of people taking to the water to heal.  Searching for a way to recover, like me from the spin and calamity of self-in-a-world in trouble.  In rivers, lakes, oceans, bays and beaches, people have and are finding solace, strength, fitness and fortitude in being outdoors in the cold water.  

The connections to those I swim with in our local sea-swim group, has brought so many gifts. But mostly it’s the shared experience of “we can do this” at the start of the swim, the group whoop-whoop calls as we enter the water on Saturday morning, the convoy out to our marker, the break we have at 500 metres to savour in the experience, and the high fives as we emerge, cold, shivering, proud of our effort, feeling alive from head to toe, and so very happy. From the inside out.  

Swimming regularly in the early mornings with my husband has brought us closer – made me love him more.

He is fearless in the water and also likes to have fun. Even in the cold, he’ll splash or remind me to be careful not to step on a sting ray or watch for the sharks. We are different swimmers. He dives in like it’s summer, without goggles, forging ahead of me at great pace, until he’s puffed out.

Then he’ll stop and wait. I prefer to work gradually into my rhythm.  Eventually, I catch him. I am grateful he is there with me on this journey. Sometimes we stop-still in the water, to marvel at what we are in. 

The sunrise glistens across the water as we bob about or the sea mist – close or distant.  So small we feel in the immensity. So awed at being in it. Often, in the early morning, there is no one else around.  Just us, in this blue wonder; this cold morning sea.  In those moments and through the swim, the angst of the everyday that we share is washed away.  The sea heals the hurts of our love and brings us closer through something that is bigger than both of us.  As we give ourselves to the cold and wet of the morning, it gives back something I can barely describe, but I know is special.

Swimming also helps me connect back to myself. When I lose my way in the tangle of the day, or the pitch of others needs against my own makes me cranky, or there is too much going on and I can’t keep up – being in the cold water brings me back to who I am in the moment and what really matters. Through the challenge and stretch of the cold swim, I find my way to the essence of who I was before the light in me burned low; to the person I’m looking to be more of.

Swimming on for my mental health

After 5-months of sea swimming (and some supportive counselling), I know and feel that my mental health has improved. The indicators that signalled my burnout have dissipated but have not disappeared.  The weight of the grief I was carrying, is lighter. The fog over my head has lifted, as has my irritability. I am still tired, but not exhausted.

My tank though not full, is filling – mostly with seawater and the glee I get from swimming in the cold. I have noticed a sustained calm. A resilience that enables me to manage the rumble that shakes my day and week, with less turbulence. 

My passion for the work I love has returned.

Still part-time – and staying this way – my heart is back to caring for the carers, and taking good care of myself.

The person I was before the pandemic has gone.  

In her place is someone with a renewed sense of self. Someone who is swimming on, for her mental health.

  • Written by Ocean Swims on 14 March 2023
  • (Updated on 3 August 2023)

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