Water Human #4 | Ice swimming reminds me I am well

ICE swimming is hard but depression is harder, and the power of contrast makes the challenge seem smaller. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

As if the physical pain of being submerged in very cold water overrides the emotional or mental pain felt.

When I signed up for a 2km swim in 2015, I started meeting swimmers at the sea. They talked about ice swimming and that intrigued me. It was a challenge that spoke to me.

I was slow. Head up breaststroke slow. It took me well over two hours to finish Killary Harbour’s 4k and I finished cold and tired. But it proved I could stand swimming in moderately cold water for a long time. 

Would that mean that I could stand very cold water for a shorter time? On this premise I began my ice mile training.

‘Obliteration’ was the mantra that ran through my head when I entered the icy water at the Forty Foot, because of the promise that your mind would be obliterated.

The cold takes you out of your head, and if your head is a horrible place to be, all you want is to escape that. Then, I got better.


Shortly after completing my first ice mile, my doctor sent me to a consultant. I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder II.

It explained everything. It was something tangible. Something that could be treated.

I had begun to think that I was intrinsically a miserable person, that I would be that way forever. Now I knew that it was chemical.

I was given the right medication. It sounds too simplistic, too easy. But that’s how it happened. I got lucky.

I was happy and well for a sustained period for the first time in my life. Now life is amazing.

Well, sometimes it’s shit and frustrating but mostly it’s amazing.

I now swim in cold water not for relief, but for exhilaration. Submersion, going through trauma, emerging on the other side and leaving it behind. I get to relive that.

Inadvertently, dealing with depression has made me a better ice swimmer.

A tool that I used when I was depressed was withdrawal.

The physical equivalent would be hiding out in a darkened room. You’re not really present, not really engaged with the world.

This room still exists, and I can find it mid ice swim. I can escape from engaging fully with suffering.

I would always, every time, rather spend an hour in icy water than live with depression for a day.

Ice swimming has not helped me overcome depression. However, ice swimming has been a salve. At very hard times it has alleviated the pain, and so have the ice swimmers.

To all those who swam with me, encouraged me, inspired me, recovered me, hugged me, fed me jelly sweets , and kissed me when I demanded it in a delirious hypothermic state, thank you for being part of the best two years of my life.


Claire Ryan – Water Human

And what couldn’t you swim without?
I always bring my Arena swimsuit to the pool and the sea. It has survived the chlorine and the elements and shows no sign of wear.

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