Why I Swim - Sam Neary
*Content warning: violence/abuse
I'm Sam, I'm 47 and I live in Mid-Wales. I'm a wild woman and wild swimmer. I'm also a wild single mother of three amazing sons Monty, Fergus and Ruairi.
As a child I was subjected to extreme violence and abuse by the four adults in my home and, like many people whose lives are shaped by fear, violence, my first husband was all I knew, understood and deserved. Love and abuse were the same thing to me and he continued the abuse; that was my lot in life I believed - until, that is, I had children.
Motherhood changed me from a meek and timid yes person into a force of nature to be reckoned with. After a harrowing night where my husband tried to take my life, I walked away from my home with just a few belongings and my three precious babies. Over the next six years I worked tirelessly to give my boys the life they deserved. I'm now a senior emergency nurse and I also trained as a university lecturer in order to train and teach other nurses.
I met my second husband in the autumn of 2015, he made me feel safe and loved for the first time in my life. I also gained three more sons who I loved and treated as my own. We got engaged and just twelve days later we went together to what I thought would be a routine doctors appointment but was informed that I have the incurable degenerative neurological condition Multiple Sclerosis.
Over the following years I learned to understand and live with the condition. We moved to Wales to be close to the beautiful mountains, rivers, streams and sea that have always soothed my soul. I have always been drawn to the water. I swam and dove my way through university and it was the lakes and rivers and proximity to the sea that brought me to Wales.
In 2017 I was the first responder to a particularly traumatic incident. The defences I had erected around my own trauma were breached and suddenly the years of abuse, pain, violation and betrayal came back at me like a hurricane of anxiety. Eventually, I reached out to Rock2Recovery (ever watched SAS Who Dares Wins? It was set up by one of their directing staff Jason Fox and his buddy). I stood shaking and exhausted in this tiny office in Manchester in front of what seemed like a grizzly bear in a cable knit jumper. It turned out that he was actually a 6' 4" Royal Marine who enveloped me in a massive hug and told me that mountains, music and water would save my battered soul.
Back home I gave up drinking and enrolled on my Masters Degree in Extreme Medicine. I decided that it was time to finally admit that I actually was a wild swimmer. I could do something for myself that gave me joy, brought me into the moment and was recommended as a form of pain relief for those of us with neurological conditions. I also had my PTSD formerly diagnosed so that I could get the support that I needed with my studies and my life. I became my own hero, I didn't need anyone else to rescue me – the best form of rescue is self-rescue.
The first time I swam since my diagnosis was incredibly emotional. As someone with MS I couldn't stand the cold enough to be able to instinctively throw myself into the water the way I wanted, it was painful and I only managed five minutes standing thigh deep in the water of the little Llyn where I now swim every day. Over the following weeks I slowly submerged myself in her icy embrace. I would sit waist deep meditating and allowing my body to become accustomed to the cold.
Then I met Jenny who had recently moved here from another part of the country. Jenny was far more brave than me and that first day we swam together in that little Llyn she threw herself head long into the water. My job had been to teach Jenny, a city girl, about kit and about the outdoors, Jenny just wanted to swim and taught me that my fear of going out of my depth was unfounded.
This stood me in great stead when, recently, my second husband walked out and left us for a work colleague. It was a shock and I realised that my swimming, self care and treating my PTSD – becoming my own rescuer – had somehow had an affect on his own ego.
I swim daily now, with or without Jenny and with or without a swimming costume – there's nothing like the silky, velvety feel of cold water on your naked body when you know you won't be spotted. I take my camping stove and my military ration packs, my swimming kit and bivvy bag and head off to the mountain above my home. In the boot of my car is everything I need to instantly erect 'Camp Webfoot', as myself and my boys affectionately call my little outdoor camp. I can swim, make a hot drink and something to eat and enjoy my knitting, now in the warmth of my Turtleback.
My plan now is to swim the Dragons Back. The Dragons Back is the mountainous spine of Wales from North to South. It's commonly a race that is run each year by fell runners over five days, but I can't climb and run up and down mountains the way I used to due to the MS so I've resolved to swim in every one of the lakes along the dragons back just for me.
I swim because cold water and wild swimming saved my life, gave my boys a better version of me and helped me to shed the ties that bound me so that I could learn to love myself. And it's helped me learn that a life of only giving – without putting my needs first – was no life at all.
Our Why I Swim project aims to give voice to our untold swim stories and strengthen our fantastic community. If you would like to share your story, drop us an email at email@example.com
If you are new to outdoor swimming and feel inspired to give it a go, please ensure you do so safely.
We would strongly advise trying out your first swim with an experienced cold water swimmer until you are completely confident of your own abilities.
And if you have any questions, pop a post in the Swim Feral Facebook page and our fantastic community of swimmers will be sure to help.
Happy swimming xx
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