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20) Cold Water Therapy

Present tense: October 23, 2023, Cape Town, South Africa. I am currently living at Liberty House, a sober living facility in Cape Town. I went night swimming a few nights ago. It was beautiful. The sliver of moon lit up the ocean, making a white light sprinkle over the waves. I was with my friends from Liberty House and we all piled into the car, with music blasting. We arrived just 10 minutes later, spilling out of the car, laughing and alive with the adrenalin of the coming frigid water. We ran into the ocean—I plunged into the cold water and gasped as usual. But yet, it didn’t feel that cold. I was used to it. You see, I have been cold water swimming all through the winter here (March through September in the Southern Hemisphere). When I was at rehab in Cape Town for four months from March 22, 2023-July 22, 2023, I swam every single morning, regardless of rain, wind or cold. Around the time I started cold water therapy, my severe depression lifted. I know the cold water helped.

How could it not? We would wake up at 6:45am, while it was still dark. Dressed in sweats and winter coats and hats, we would complete our drudge down to the beach, just a 10 minute walk. I would strip down, shaking, and try not to think about the shock of what was coming. I always walked into the sea with determination and purpose with my swimming buddies for the day. Our friend, Dave, (all names have been changed) used to run a bit along the beach to warm up before plunging into the icy sea. I would want to get it over with as soon as possible, so I would dive under a wave as soon as I could. It would take seconds for my body to feel the shock wash over me. I wanted to scream! Immediately, I would rise to the surface and gasp. My body would go into complete and utter shock. My head would immediately start aching and hurt. It would pound if I kept going under the water. I would only stay in for about 5 minutes, that’s all my body could stand. We were swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Actually, the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet in Cape Town. Supposedly, the Indian Ocean side is a bit warmer. However, where we were, it was freezing. But you know what? I loved it.

As soon as I bolted out of the water, my body would start to glow and I would feel high, as all the endorphins and dopamine would flood my brain. For a moment, with the physical pain of the icy water, I was distracted from my emotional pain. For just a moment, I felt relief. It was a feeling I sought out. It’s something that I didn’t know how to obtain in sobriety, as cocaine had always distracted me from my pain. Now sober, I was left with all my emotional discomfort. As a highly sensitive individual, just like most addicts, I didn’t know how to deal with my rush of very intense emotions—many of them unpleasant and very dark. Only the water could take away these feelings. Thoughts of death dissolved, if only for a few minutes. As I dried off on the cold beach, I would bask in the post-swim glow, taking in the brilliant colors on display across the morning sky. The breath-taking daily sunrises were another reason why I was so committed to these early morning excursions.

I enjoyed these daily dips into the ocean every morning for months. They helped me significantly. They were like a “reset” at the beginning of the day, setting me up for a day filled with hope. I could have hope because I experienced moments of being ok after our swims. I knew it was possible to be ok. If I could feel ok for a few minutes after cold water therapy, why couldn’t it grow and grow and take over my whole day? It eventually did, I am pleased to say. When I moved to Liberty House in July, I stopped doing my daily cold water swims because we live too far from the beach to just hop in every morning. I still go sometimes, as I take surfing lessons weekly, and now that it’s turning into summer, we’re having brilliant days of sunshine and warmth. We have now started a practice of night swimming which is somewhat similar to my morning dips.

I feel closest to my higher power in the ocean, so these morning swims were a way for me to connect spiritually with the nature around me. As a participant of the 12 step programs, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Alcoholics Anonymous, I know that cultivating a relationship with my higher power is essential for me to stay sober. In fact, without a spiritual connection, I can’t stay sober. The Big Book tells us that countless times. This scares me. However, I am taking baby steps to connect with a higher power—somehow being in the sea allows me to believe that yes, there is something bigger than me in the universe. There is an all-knowing power out there, benevolent and loving, who is willing to guide me through the storms of life. Praying to my higher power during these early morning swims was just one way I felt its presence in my life.

I also went swimming daily to build discipline. I needed to construct consistent, healthy habits to beat my depression. I needed a set schedule in place that I could follow every day without much thought. I was too depressed to think things through. I needed to have automatic planned activities throughout the day that I could engage in. Rehab certainly provided that. I desperately needed it’s tight structure. It helped me heal. My cold water therapy, in addition to starting running again, was just another item in place that I could do upon awakening. It grounded me for the day and gave me something to look forward to. I dreaded it, but at the same time, loved it. It was my special ritual, my daily “baptism” and it took a huge amount of discipline to do it daily, regardless of the weather. Some days were freezing. Those days were difficult. Rainy days were also unpleasant, until we actually got into the water. The water would be warmer than the air and so it would feel nice and cozy for a moment. (Until the shock ran through me!) Most of the days I wanted to stay in my warm, cozy bed. But practicing cold water therapy built discipline and taught me that I could do tough things. I could do it and that allowed me to feel like I could do anything! Cold water therapy allowed me to feel invincible.

When I get back to New York City in December of 2023, I hope to join a Polar Bear Swimming Club in Brooklyn. I have heard the Russians have a daily swim club out in Coney Island and that they swim all winter. I have taken the Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day before out on Coney Island, though I was hardly sober. It was electric and dizzying and so much fun. I want to dedicate at least once a week to cold water therapy when I get home. It has been such a huge part of my recovery process here in South Africa. Indeed, it has been a significant piece of my healing.

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