Freezing swims save 'adrenaline junkie' novelist from constant pain

·7-min read
Charlotte swimming with her son (Collect/PA Real Life).
Charlotte swimming with her son (Collect/PA Real Life).

An adrenaline junkie has hailed swimming in freezing water as her 'salvation' after 20 operations.

In constant pain because of hyper-mobile joints that dislocate in her sleep, Charlotte Leonard, 41, has written a novel inspired by her experience. Often in agony growing up, the advertising professional started to think her problems were psychosomatic - until she reached 30 and was finally diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome hypermobility type – an often inherited condition causing unusually flexible joints.

Prescribed a cocktail of medications over subsequent years, she reacted badly to many drugs and was finally offered liquid ketamine, commonly used as an animal anaesthetic.

Instead, Leonard had a "eureka moment", and discovered cold water swimming as a mood boosting pain reliever.

Charlotte and her husband, Nils, surfing in Newquay in September 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Charlotte and her husband, Nils, surfing in Newquay in September 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).

Charlotte, who lives in Muswell Hill, north London, with her entrepreneur husband Nils Leonard, 44, and their sons Jack, 16, Finn, 14, and Noah, 11, said: “Swimming replaced drugs for me and it has worked so much better without any side effects.”

A lover of extreme challenges from skydiving to bungee jumping despite her condition, she said: “At school, I kept getting joint pain and was just told I was growing. I thought it must be what everyone goes through and what everyone feels.

“I was born with this condition, so I didn’t know any differently.”

Read more: Top tips for wild swimming

But, even as a child, she remembers the pleasure of swimming in the sea in Cornwall where she grew up and how it helped her to forget about her pain. “Wild swimming is a funny term to me, because I’ve always swum in the sea and in rivers.”

Refusing to let her persistent injuries – which saw her break fingers, fracture her elbow ice skating and break her foot – hold her back, she continued to enjoy sports including skiing, even though she has also broken her arm on the slopes.

Charlotte at Kenwood Ladies Pond in January 2017 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Charlotte at Kenwood Ladies Pond in January 2017 (Collect/PA Real Life).

Charlotte once ended up with a plaster cast on her entire leg after simply stubbing her toe, because her fifth metatarsal smashed.

“I’ve had 20 general anaesthetics in the last 15 years when I’ve had operations to fix things I’ve broken like my elbow, where I had three surgeries. I’ve broken quite a few bones just sledging down the road near my house.

“I stubbed my little toe on a door and ended up with a plaster cast up to my knee.”

After a succession of specialists were unable to give her a specific diagnosis, fearing her aches and pains were psychosomatic, Charlotte even consulted a psychiatrist when she was in her 30s, who assured her that her pain had a physical cause.

She said: “I’d seen a huge number of doctors over the years who couldn’t tell me what was wrong, but I knew something was. I started to think it was all in my head, because I couldn’t explain it."

Kenwood Ladies Pond in February 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Kenwood Ladies Pond in February 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).

By the time she had her third son, Noah, in 2011, Charlotte’s pain became unbearable and she went to see a specialist at Charing Cross Hospital in London. “After I had three babies my body wasn’t in a good way, so I couldn’t ignore it.

"I was in more and more pain to the point where I needed to find a solution. My joints would ache and dislocate really easily. If I simply rolled over in bed, my shoulder dislocated.”

After investigating her family history, a doctor at the Pain Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital discovered she had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

Read more: Teacher endures freezing temperatures to go wild swimming every day for a year

Charlotte said: “It was so difficult to deal with that because I finally had an answer but it wasn’t the one I wanted, as it’s incurable.

“The treatment is basically just physio and pain management. I remember being told that I could never do anything like skiing or skating again.

“I’m allergic to a lot of drugs. I spent the first year after the diagnosis trying absolutely everything and I would end up with a rash, or I’d fall asleep somewhere I shouldn’t.

“The medication was creating even more problems.”

Charlotte stubbed her tow which caused a fracture of the fifth metatarsal in July 2016 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Charlotte stubbed her tow which caused a fracture of the fifth metatarsal in July 2016 (Collect/PA Real Life).

Charlotte feared her future looked bleak. “I really like adrenaline, sports. If I can throw myself out of a plane or bungee jump I will. But I kept reading stories about the condition and it sounded like a miserable life. I joined a Facebook group and so many people progressed into being in a wheelchair.”

The turning point came when she was offered liquid ketamine in early 2014 to kill the pain.

“I was in so much pain and I couldn’t take any morphine because of horrific side effects as I got rashes all over my body. I was told I could go to hospital for regular epidurals, or have liquid ketamine“That’s not something I wanted to do. I needed to find other ways to cope.”

Watch: A brave swimmer has endured freezing wild waters wearing only a costume, every day for a year

Remembering how she would “lose herself” and her worries as a child, when she swam in the seas and rivers in Cornwall, she wondered if this could be her salvation.

So, in 2014, from September onwards, once there was a nip in the air, she started swimming in Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath in north London.

“I always swam during the summer," Leonard explained, "but it wasn’t until after my diagnosis, once my youngest son started nursery, that I found more time to go to the ladies’ pond.

Read more: Wild swimming: The best places to swim in the United Kingdom

Charlotte swimming with her son in the Thames near Marlow in May 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Charlotte swimming with her son in the Thames near Marlow in May 2020 (Collect/PA Real Life).

“I was struggling to deal with all the medical appointments, so I started swimming with a friend of mine.

“We went three times a week and we never stopped.”

Reinvigorated by her surroundings and the challenge of swimming in the chilly water, she found her adrenaline pumping again. Suddenly her world opened up, as she delighted in taking her family to the River Thames outside London, the Irish Sea and to an array of rivers, lakes and even quarries in Cornwall.

She said: “Having medical conditions can be so isolating, so I found swimming a wonderful way to come together with likeminded people.

“It was so nice to be in an all female community. It got to a point that if we saw snow outside we’d be even more excited about getting into the water.”

The Outdoor Swimming Society in the UK now boasts more than 100,000 members, while 7.5 million people in the UK enjoyed open water swimming in 2020, according to Sport England.

Charlotte swimming at Parliament Hill Lido in November 2018 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Charlotte swimming at Parliament Hill Lido in November 2018 (Collect/PA Real Life).

“Staying active is so important to me, as it’s part of my identity, without which I feel completely lost," said Charlotte.

As well as lifting her spirits, swimming has replaced her pain medication. “It makes me feel so much better that I don’t have to take painkillers, which is so positive.”

And using the way in which swimming has helped her to combat her grief over the life she has lost, she has been inspired by her experience to write a novel, Afterwards, which is being published on April 14 by Simon and Schuster.

It tells the story of a widow who finds her husband dead and travels to Cornwall to unravel the truth about what happened, where she meets cold water swimmers who support her through her grief. Charlotte said: “I understand the support the cold water swimming community provides.

“My own personal support network comes in the form of family, a very close group of friends and the cold-water swimmers at Kenwood Ladies’ Pond.

“The act of cold-water swimming itself has also provided me with a huge amount of solace over the years and has helped me navigate many of life’s challenges - including grief."

Charlotte with friends at Kenwood Ladies Pond in February 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Charlotte with friends at Kenwood Ladies Pond in February 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).

Additional reporting, PA

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