Raeleen's Patient Story: Just Keep Swimming

“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability” – Brene Brown

When Andrea asked me to write a testimonial she caught me at a weak moment.   I was on a high after accomplishing a huge goal, and the enormity of that commitment struck me later when I realised that baring my soul was well and truly outside my comfort zone.  Talk about vulnerable!   But here goes……

I first met David and the WLS team in June 2015 when I limped into his office with a walking stick and in pain from arthritis in my knee.   I had previously had one knee replaced but was too overweight and high risk to have the second one done.   I had tried everything to lose the weight that had crept on over the previous 60 years – Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, dietitians etc.   Results were always the same.   Managed to lose 20 kg or so, and then put it all back on again …. plus some more.   My weight peaked at 172 kg, although I had managed to lose 10 kg before my first WLS appointment.

I had high blood pressure, sleep apnoea, severe depression along with its nasty cousins, anxiety and panic attacks.   I had isolated myself from friends and stayed at home where it was safe – not even venturing outside to the supermarket.   The only time I left the house was to attend a Mental Health Recovery Centre.   In short, I was only one step away from being hooked up to the national grid!   My self-esteem was at rock bottom ….. I didn’t like myself so how could I expect anyone else to like me either.

I approached my first WLS appointment with some trepidation, scared of being judged - being thought of as weak for allowing myself to get so overweight.   However, everything was carefully explained and in retrospect there have been no ugly surprises.   That is except for being told that I would look 45 instead of 40.   I think there was a silver-tongued devil there somewhere!    Everyone was just SO LOVELY.   I left with hope that things would get better, and determined to take on a whole new and different lifestyle.   After all, this was my last resort to lose weight.   Later that week I got the phone call giving me a surgery date, and so started the journey.  

I told anyone that would listen that I was going to have weight loss surgery.   I figured I needed the support to fulfil this lifestyle change, and used people’s reaction as a barometer for the positive energy that I now wanted in my life.   Some people didn’t make the cut and that’s OK.

Exercising was a major problem.   Moving just hurt!   Walking and exercycling were not an option with my knee.   The staff at the Recovery Centre I attended designed circuit exercises that I could do seated, but I knew it wasn’t enough.   Swimming at the local aquatic centre seemed like a good idea - it was something I could do without too much pain and impact on the joints.   If I timed it right then I wouldn’t be seen by too many people.   A couple of times I only made it as far as the car park and drove back home to safety, but persevered and eventually made it inside to the pool.    Getting inside and changed left me out of breath and ready to go home!   I knew if I kept at it, it would get easier so I waddled out, leaving the walking stick poolside and started walking the length of the pool.   Eventually after a few weeks I could swim 6 lengths (300 metres) and felt so pleased with myself.   If I swam 3 times a week for an hour, then I would reach the recommended target of 180 minutes exercise a week.   Little did I know that this would eventually increase to 2 ½ hours per day, 4 times a week!

Somewhere in the middle of all this, my surgery date had come and gone, and the weight was coming off.   After years of ignoring the scales, I looked forward to seeing a new set of numbers on them and finally getting some control of my life.   Each week I would increase the number of lengths I swam and decrease the “down time” between them.   Swimming became my relaxation – the time when I could download the previous days activities and just breathe.  It had to be good for the panic attacks.

Towards the end of 2015 I was doing 20 lengths (1 km).   It was then that I read that the NZ Ocean Swim Series was having an inaugural event at the Blue Lake in Rotorua in February 2016 and there was a swim distance of 1 km - made just for me!   A phone call to my very supportive son followed and he agreed to be my swim buddy.   Problem – the swim had to be completed in 40 minutes, and I was a slow swimmer.   If I continued to increase the number of lengths and speed, I might just make it.   Besides it was a goal to aim for, and a reward for the early starts and effort.   Another problem – the cold!   I was spoilt by swimming at the pool in 28 degree water, being able to stand up at any time I wanted to and have a black line in the bottom of the pool to follow.   Not to mention the lack of wind or “chop” of the water.   Apart from one small swim in Wellington I didn’t have any open water experience.   That swim, some 6 years earlier, ended with a “wardrobe malfunction” – exposing my top half as I got out of the water!   I wondered why everyone was cheering!!!!

So being smart, I told everyone that I was going to do this swim.   Figured that if I told enough people I would be too embarrassed not to go through with it.   Swim day arrived and I was overwhelmed with the number of people taking part – people of all ages, disabilities and shapes.   If they can swim the longer distance, then I can swim 1 km.   However, there was one major problem that I hadn’t really counted on – the COLD.   In hindsight, I should have “dipped” before the start to get used to it.   I just panicked.   The water was way over my head and it was dark – could only just see my hand in front of me.   My supportive swim buddy kept telling me “just breathe mum” as I dog paddled my way to the first marker.   Finally got into a rhythm and finished in 34 minutes.   Beat it!   My family were lakeside to welcome me in, and my beautiful little grandson walked into the water to give me my walking stick so I could cross the finish line.   Sweet!

Retreat came along shortly afterwards – a weekend where I learnt a lot about myself.   Just getting down to Ohakune on my own was an accomplishment, let alone spending the first 2 days fighting off panic attacks.   I had my own walking buddies as I  couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group with their morning walks, and was never made to feel a burden.   I came away with renewed confidence in myself.

May 2016 arrived, and so did a date for my knee replacement, looking forward to ditching the walking stick FOREVER!   Looking back on it now, it is amazing how being in pain can drag you down to a whole new level of “low”.   Swimming took a back seat for 6 weeks as couldn’t drive to the pool, and found myself getting decidedly grumpy.   I was so pleased to get back into the water, swimming back and forth, relaxing, breathing, when there was a lightbulb moment.   What if I swam Auckland Harbour!   The NZ Ocean Swim Series had the Auckland Harbour Crossing in early December – enough time to build up to it, but only if I could fit into a wetsuit.   I had already learnt my lesson about the cold.   Distance was 3 km and had to be done in 1 hour 50 min.   Besides, I was already doing 20 lengths (1 km) in the pool – what’s another 40!

So ….. just like Dory in Finding Nemo, I kept swimming – increasing the number of lengths each week.   It was now mid-winter, and there were times when I questioned my sanity going to the pool in minus 1 degree weather.   The good thing is that you can have the pool to yourself!  Again, I told everyone that I was going to swim Auckland Harbour, just to make sure I didn’t back out of the commitment.   Besides, I really needed all the support and encouragement for this big one.

October arrived.   Swim buddy and I went shopping for a wetsuit.   I had eventually lost enough weight to fit into one.   Took it for a test drive to the lake at Huntly (15 degrees) and discovered I needed to find a whole new way of swimming.   This was NOTHING like swimming in the pool.   As I later read somewhere, swimming in the pool is like driving a Ferrari.   Ocean swimming is 4 wheel driving in the mud!   Solution…… join the RATS, a group that encourage triathlete sports, and swim with them at the Blue Lake each week.        I could get open water experience, get used to the wetsuit and have someone else in the water with me for safety.   Confidence growing, I became a RAT and would head out to the lake on a Monday night.   The group gave me tips on my swimming style and how to breathe from both sides, depending on which way the waves were coming.   However, things were starting to get a bit overwhelming, nerves that the Harbour Crossing was now only 6 weeks away, and doubt in myself was setting in.  

Time to organise the head!   I focused on something that I really wanted to do once I had succeeded, and kept this in my head, repeating it over and over when I swam.   I put motivational quotes into my phone, and played up-beat music whenever the doubt started to creep in.   This continued right up until race day.   I wrote on my hand NGU – standing for “never give up”.   And I kept on breathing!

I was one of the last into the water at the Viaduct as was terrified of being swum over.   My first stroke was greeted with a mouthful of salt water – welcome to ocean swimming!   Before we got to the open water I glimpsed a more competent swimmer holding onto the wharf and other swimmers being pulled into the rubber duckies.   It did NOTHING for MY confidence.   Swim buddy kept encouraging me and I finally got into a rhythm.   It seemed forever to make the 1st marker.   Only another 7 to go – repeating “never give up” in my head.   Mentally I was going to pick those babies (the markers) off one by one!   One hour 45 min later I could see the feet of the volunteers standing on the bottom at Bayswater to help me out and was finished.   Beat it!   That feeling was amazing!

My next goal is a 3.3 km swim at the Blue Lake in February 2017, and maybe the epic swim of 5 km at Lake Taupo in the future ….. who knows.   Swimming is my new found relaxation and happy place, plus I get a fabulous tan to go with it.

Am coming up to 18 months post-surgery and am 80 kg lighter, and working really hard to stay focused as my weight loss has slowed dramatically.   I am hoping to lose another 15–20 kg.

I think back to the years when I was reluctant to go to my son’s school functions in case he was embarrassed or teased for having a “fat mother”, so you can imagine my delight when he posts this on his Facebook page …..

“Proud of my mum today.   Completed her first long distance ocean swim in Auckland Harbour no less.   She did awesomely.   So proud of this achievement.”

Life is good!