How Wild Swimming As A Black Woman Helped Me Heal From My Grief

·8-min read

Cat White is a writer, filmmaker, gender expert for the UN and founder of Kusini Productions, a Black female-led platform created to champion voices of Black women and girls. Her upcoming film Fifty-Four Days follows the journey of a girl who starts wild swimming in the wake of losing her father to suicide. Here, she tells us the real-life inspiration behind the project.

When I went swimming for the first time it felt like freedom. I can still remember 5-year-old me bouncing in my car seat, the sharp tang of chlorine as I entered our local leisure centre and the bright, harsh lights and loud, excited voices. I remember changing in the humid cubicles and taking extra care to walk not run as I made my way to the edge of the pool, even though everything in me wanted to run – to fly, even.

Fast-forward 10 years or so and the place of my childhood jubilation was a prison for my teenage self. My freshly relaxed hair would be destroyed the moment water so much as touched it. And if I didn’t wear it straight then my swimming cap wouldn’t fit over my afro. I couldn’t win. There was no one I could ask for advice about this. The other girls had the sleek, straight hair I burned my scalp every six weeks to get. They wouldn’t understand. I started hiding in the changing rooms, correctly making the gamble that my swimming teacher wouldn’t follow up on my absence if I showed my face every once in a while.

Eventually, hating everything about the tight lanes, the tight swimming caps and the tightness of the space itself, I began to recognise that the brightness and the whiteness of the swimming pool made no space for me. So I stopped. For almost the next decade, this was how things stayed. Swimming was not for me.

Then, in January 2020, as the earliest strains of coronavirus – at that time still nothing more than an unfamiliar word at the bottom of the weekly news cycle – began to ravage our world, my complicated, brilliant, deeply loved Uncle Delroy died without warning. It was so unexpected that when I found out all I could manage to mutter was: “What? What? What?” I didn’t understand. We had just been together at Christmas, 10 days earlier. He’d seemed fine. We’d had an argument about Stormzy. I’d offered to make him an Aperol Spritz and he’d said he was off the hard stuff. We’d done our annual Christmas quiz and he had been quizmaster. The only son out of seven siblings, he’d helmed our family since Granddad had died. So how could it be possible that he was no longer here? And even more importantly, how could he already be gone when life had been so unkind to him? When he had suffered so much? Things were supposed to get better, they were supposed to work out eventually. But they don’t always – and they didn’t for him. I fell apart. My whole family did. And then, mere weeks later, the world followed suit. Death and loss and pain, unbearable pain, was all around us – everywhere we looked. I constantly searched over my shoulder, fearing it would happen again and reassuring myself that it couldn’t. The worst had already come for me.

But then, in January 2021, as the third lockdown hung insidiously over our lives, the hardest one yet, I received a text in our group WhatsApp chat, apologising for the medium – and the message – and letting us know that our friend Simon had taken his own life. I couldn’t even ask the question “What?” this time. It was beyond all comprehension. I was silent. And somewhere deep, deep within me, I screamed. Inside I screamed for the minutes, hours and days that followed. But I was locked in my house where I did not live alone and could not find peace, locked in my mind which was knotted with the devastating anxiety of words that I understood on an intellectual level but could not believe to be true. And so I did not scream, desperately as I wanted to, because I could not. I choked on my own sorrow and wondered how I would go on.

With no other option available to me in lockdown, I walked. Headphones in, India Arie soothing the thick, choking feeling that consumed me. Right near my house was a lake. It looked mysterious and imposing but I was drawn to it and kept going back there. Instead of raw pain, when I was by the water I felt something closer to a simple numbness, which was a comfort and a reprieve. It started to feel like a holy place. I was in awe of it, although I didn’t know why. And then one day I decided to get in.

It was freezing. Really, really freezing. This was January and I didn’t have any fancy equipment. Just my bra and pants on that first day. I probably stayed in for less than a minute: just over to the buoy and back again. But as I gasped at the cold and struggled to mobilise my arms and legs like I’d been taught all those years ago – “Breaststroke, arms: scooping round for ice cream. Legs: bend, round and snap together” – I realised that I had released something.

I became more proficient and adept, used to the temperature. As I started to swim more frequently and for longer, I began to shift the thick wedge that had lodged itself in my chest and my throat. It was as if each stroke, each splash, each gasp as I slid into the water loosened it a little each time. I started to feel freer, sometimes feeling waves of euphoria even though that thing still gripped my throat like a vice. And then, after some weeks of this routine, it dislodged itself completely. My body still followed the same mechanical motions – “Bend, round and snap together. Scooping up that ice cream” – but I started to cry.

I knew from that precise moment that I would be okay. Even as my cry became a bigger and uglier sob and I started to choke, exiting the water to hold onto something so that I wouldn’t fall apart, I knew that it marked something monumental. My swimming turned from being something that I didn’t quite understand to being something that was anchoring me – keeping me. It become personal. It became political.

I became mental health first aid trained and learned about warning signs for those suffering from mental ill health. I became aware that men (and Black men in particular) are most at risk but also that Black people are disproportionately represented in mental health institutions, more likely to encounter inpatient mental health services and be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people. I learned that stopping swimming when I’d been good at it wasn’t just teenage vanity or boredom – it was me being pushed out of a space where I didn’t belong because nobody looked like me and had ever thought to make space for anyone like me. I learned that despite wild swimming being proven to boost dopamine levels and increase overall happiness, according to Swim England 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim. One in four Black children leave primary school not knowing how to swim.

These facts both terrified and angered me. Being able to access that lake every day in the aftermath of my grief not only healed me, it saved me. Swimming should not be inaccessible to Black people or working class people or any group at all. Desperate to do something about this, I started working with Soul Cap, the inclusive swimwear brand which is rewriting the rules around accessibility to swimming.

And somewhere along the way of doing all this learning and grieving and swimming, I also started writing. I put pen to paper and wrote a film called Fifty-Four Days, following the journey of a girl who starts wild swimming every day for 54 days in the wake of losing her father to suicide. It looks at loss and how we grieve but, more importantly, it looks at hope and how we heal. As well as teaming up with Soul Cap, I also partnered with Dry Robe (the ultimate outdoor changing robe) and Papyrus (a young suicide prevention charity) with the aim of setting new standards in mental health, wellbeing and inclusivity in the film and swimming worlds. I hired a dedicated mental health and wellbeing co-ordinator, something that is still not the norm in the film industry. We had open and honest conversations about our mental health. It was groundbreaking, liberating.

Even though it tackles a subject as heartbreaking as suicide, Fifty-Four Days – and my own journey as a swimmer – is about healing. It is about remembering and honouring those we have lost, knowing that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It is about challenging the narrative that says Black people don’t swim and fighting for the little girls and their afros bounding into their swimming lessons on Saturday mornings. It is about checking in again on the older men who have lost their way and the friend you’re long overdue a catch-up with. It is about holding the people who are being choked by the thing inside their chest and the people who just want to embrace what life has to offer. It is about checking in on yourself.

It is for every single person who deserves to feel the freedom of the water and bask in its holy silence. It is yours. Jump in.

Fifty-Four Days is produced by Kusini Productions, Intermission Film and Broken Flames Productions. It stars Celia Imrie, Cat White, Juliet Cowan, Delroy Brown and Josh Williams.

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