Thursday, 19 July 2012

In At The Shallow End

So, when we last spoke, I was finally leaving hospital after my proctectomy (rectum removal, anus sewn up, tra la la) and going home to recover.  I’m going to leave that there, if you don’t mind – and yes, even if you do – just for this one post, while I go slightly ‘off piste’ with a monumental (for me) tale of something I finally did this week. 

Regular readers, and I’m convinced there are some, will know that I’ve been longing to swim.  Ever since I had the bag, I’ve wanted to get in a pool and pootle up and down it to the best of my ability, but I’ve been so scared.  So worried that, somehow, my bag will detach and poo will trail around and behind me and terrify and disgust everyone; that there will be screaming and throwing up, and in just moments I will be banned from swimming, not just in that pool but, from every pool in the Greater London area, because communication between pool management would be that fast in the light of such horror. In less than 24 hours, I would surely be banned from every leisure centre in the whole of the United Kingdom, and the tale of the baglady who pooed in the public pool would be legend amongst swimmers everywhere.

So when I did swim, I didn’t want to be on my own; I wanted some moral support, and I needed it from someone who would baulk at nothing.  Who would cope admirably and still talk to me if the worst happened. Fortunately, I have a very dear friend who fits that bill. A friend who is a writer, a keen swimmer, and who just so happens to blog about swimming pools all over London.  In a revolutionary feat of blog synchronisation, you can read her take on our adventure together here.

Swimblogger had told me she planned on doing a post about Southgate pool at some point, and I bravely and thoughtlessly told her that when she did, I’d like to go with her. I lived in Southgate ‘til I was 9 and have fond memories of swimming there with friends and coming out afterwards into the cold north London air (I only ever remember it being cold), munching on a Double Decker and climbing up an incline towards a waiting car with somebody’s parent at the wheel.  It seemed like the perfect way to do my first swim – in a pool that had nice associations, with a dear friend who was more experienced at swimming than anyone I know of who isn’t a professional swim person.

On Tuesday, we did that thing.  Luckily, Tuesday was the day this week that had been randomly selected for a bit of sunshine in our corner of London, so that was a good start.  I’d been panicking, of course – should I wear my costume under my clothes on the way there, or would that look amateurish?  I’d worried about showering – if it was a communal shower, I wouldn’t do it, I’d decided; I didn’t want to shower with my bag on in front of a bunch of strange women who would doubtlessly stare, point and laugh and leave me cowering on the floor of the shower, weeping, as Swimblogger told them how thoughtless and unsympathetic they were.  You can see why it wasn’t safe for me to try this swimming business alone; I’m a paranoid lunatic.

We said goodbye to husband as we left the house, his cracks about my struggling to swim a couple of widths still ringing in my ears as we headed for the car, and we were off.  I remembered the way to the pool, and drove us there with little incident (that’s my version anyway). The incline I remembered was still there, though now it was covered in what looked like a thousand portacabins.  The place was a building site, but it was still the swimming pool, according to a sign.  We were there. This was actually happening. I hadn’t swum since we were in Australia in December ’09, and obviously I hadn’t swum at all with my ileostomy, so this was big.  And so exciting.  And a little bit scary, as I think I’ve made clear.  We went to reception and asked to buy our tickets but were told we couldn’t swim ‘til 12.  It was 11.55.  We asked if we could just buy the tickets then, but were told we couldn’t do that ‘til 12 either.  Incredulous, we started to giggle, which caused all the people who’d previously been patiently, unquestioningly, and very Britishly, sitting on chairs until 12 to start laughing, too.  We stepped outside to wait in the sun for 4 minutes, not wanting to create too much of an incident. I was a bit miffed though – I’d waited more than two and a half years for this swim, and now bureaucracy was forcing me to wait another 5 minutes.

When we did buy our tickets, I found myself mesmerised by the receptionist’s face – she was wearing enough make-up to warrant a job on a cosmetics counter, and I found that curious in a health club employee. So curious, in fact, that I hadn’t managed to marvel at her false eyelashes and listen to what she was saying at the same time; I had no clue how to get to the pool. Luckily, Swimblogger had taken it all in, professional that she is, so I followed her.  I told you I could never have done this alone.

Getting changed was easy enough, using the lockers was simple, and we saw that the showers were in individual cubicles – if this went well and I didn’t end up sullying the entire pool, I might well use one later on.

And then we walked to the pool itself.  The main event.  I did wonder what had happened to the veruca pool, but Swimblogger tells me they don’t seem to exist any
more.  I missed the veruca pool – the soupy warm, band-aid filled walk-through foot bath where you got verucas - but then I realised that nothing about Southgate swimming pool was as I remembered; the pool was huge and the water looked bright blue and inviting.  The nearest lane was designated ‘slow’, and an old man was swimming in it at an obediently leisurely pace.  I told Swimblogger I reckoned I’d be faster than him.  I expected her to slide quickly and easily into the fast lane with barely a ripple, but she wasn’t going to do that, because she’s my friend first and the Swimblogger second. She came in with me to the ‘do what you like’ lane. It wasn’t labelled as such, but that’s clearly what it was.  She got in first, and before I knew it I was in, too.  The water was 3ft deep – it was just past Swimblogger’s waist; on me it came up to my tits.  I’m a lot shorter than she is.  We looked at each other, she asked what I wanted to do, and then we did it.  We swam.

I stretched out to do breaststroke, let the water hold me, and I was off.  Swimblogger was beside me, grinning gleefully. ‘This is great.  You’re doing great.’ She said.  And I was.  I’d forgotten just how wonderful swimming is; how liberating, how satisfying, how brain-freeing, and I swam.  I’d imagined I’d manage a couple of lengths, with a bit of struggling towards the end, and after I’d done 2, we stopped, talked a bit, laughed a lot, and then set off again.  And I did 2 more.  I was tired after the second one this time, so I relaxed a bit while my friend enjoyed herself swimming without the encumbrance of me for a couple of quick lengths.  She wouldn’t want me to oversell her, but she looked pretty impressive as she did the crawl faster than anyone in the speedy lane next to us.  Did it proper, like, with her face turning in and out of the water and everything.  And then – hang on, this is really true, and most unexpected – I did 2 MORE LENGTHS.  That made 6 in all.  According to a chart on the wall, 5 lengths was 0.3 of a mile, which might not sound like much, but it is to me, and anyway I’d done 1 length more than that.  I felt good.  Happy.  Slightly heavenly, even.  And a bit knackered.  It wasn’t ‘til we climbed out of the
pool, my legs slightly gelatinous, but my satisfaction overriding that, that I realised I hadn’t even thought about my bag.  Nor had I sprayed its contents all around me.  I took a moment to find a man doing a shabby crawl with a flapping dressing on his balding head disgusting, and we headed back to the changing rooms.

Victorious, I showered just like a normal person.  As I came out, Swimblogger pointed out a couple of changing cubicles for the chronically shy. I should’ve been one of them, but somehow I wasn’t.  I’d swum and I’d showered; I could conquer the world.  Well, I couldn’t, but I could get dressed in a communal changing room without dying of shame.  I didn’t exactly flash my bag to the whole place, but I didn’t hide it either. We were all just women in a changing room.  Getting changed.  I did find I was in more of a hurry to get my waistband on over my bag, than I was to get my knickers up, but that’s fair enough, I think.  My bum may have been sewn up, but you can’t tell by looking at it; my bag, however, is pretty obvious, swinging as it does from my stomach, full of poo.  It was still stuck on, nobody seemed to be bothered by it, but I didn’t want to push my luck. 

As we left, I was exhilarated.  So happy to have swum, so grateful to my lovely friend who had managed to make it comfortable and easy without once making me feel like she was sacrificing anything to do it. (Even though I know she loves a good, long, uninterrupted, fast swim.)  I think the laughs we had, and just the general fun of friends being together, made it worth it.  I hope so.  I’m going to swim again.  Soon. But for the sake of our friendship, and her sanity, I’m going to go without Swimblogger the next time.  But not always.  Swimming with a friend is a wonderful thing to do. 

When we got home, we asked husband to guess how many lengths I’d swum.  7 was his answer.  He expects too much of me, that man.


  1. So happy you swam! It's on my list of things to try out too.

  2. I'm really nervous about swimming and haven't dared venture anywhere near the pool yet. I have fears about whether the bage wil start to fill up and look really obvious, whether, my, much larger since surgery stomach will just look gross, whether the bag will come unstuck and so on. I was curious as to whether you wore a special costume for people with stomas and also whether you wore a special bag, mine has a felt covering and when I shower it becomes quite soggy and takes ages to dry. I think you are incredibly brave to have got changed in front of other women in a communal changing room. I don't think I'll ever be that brave as my scar is so hideous and paired with the bag I feel quite sure someone would make some kind of judgement on me which I'd rather not deal with. Congratulations on this big step forward, I hope you now get to go swimming in with full confidence, your experience has definitely made me more open to it :)

    1. Having had my holiday booked for six months when I had to have a bag fitted I was really worried about swimming the stoma nurse got me a catalogue of swim suits for us bag users and told me about the plugs which I ordered
      I had so much medical supplies I was worried if I would have any weight left for my other halfs trainers when my sister suggested phoning the airline which I did and got extra weight free
      But to get to the point I swam with the plug and the bag and a normal swim suit and enjoyed my holiday ladies we have children cope with what the world throws at us daily so a swim should not faze us but it can be difficult taking the first one so why don't we start a swim day for bag ladies where we can support each other