Over 100 dips in cold water wearing just a bikini, from 0.5 degrees in ice to 10 degrees in the sea, gasping in bitterly cold rivers, running across frosty sand, plodding over snowy ground, smashing ice in lakes and shrieking in my garden bath – I have done them all in the last 7 months from 1st October 2020. It has been exhilarating, brutal, lonely, companionable, scary, invigorating, painful and glorious. I have laughed, often through gritted teeth, groaned and roared with a primal energy. It has been one hell of a ride.
I have learnt that your nipples do indeed stick out and become raw in the water below 4 degrees. I have learnt that your teeth get cold if you open your mouth in very cold water. I have learnt that, no matter how acclimatised you are, one desperate leap into cold water to avoid the sucking river mud will result in cold water shock – a frightening, gasping for breath struggle as your legs peddle frantically underneath you. I have learnt that stoma bags stay on no matter what the waves do, or what the temperature of the water is – which is more than can be said for bikinis! I have learnt that bikini tops do indeed come off in big waves, and bikini bottoms will do the same – and even at the same time if you are spectacularly unlucky. I have learnt that you must shut your legs when jumping into cold water, otherwise an icy river enema of the front bottom will be the distinctly undesirable result.
The challenge started easily enough back on the 1st October, a sunny day, a slight breeze and some clouds, with a calm sea. I did my first chat to the camera, held by my husband Chris who I had dragged along to the beach together with our son, Sam. Sam donned his wetsuit and came into the sea with me, holding hands as we ran into the waves together, that picture perfect Insta moment which everyone wants to have. My beach sign went up onto the beach for the first time, my little money pot sitting hopefully next to it. I was joined by a group of swimming friends, not as many as I wanted as Covid restrictions had come into play and I was unable to have more than half a dozen or so, but still nice to have some company to set me off on my way.
As I was in the waves, I saw a lone woman sitting on the rocks watching me, and when I got out to get changed she shouted over to me some words of encouragement. As she got closer, I could see that she was quite emotional, and I knew straight away that there was something about my story that had touched her in some way. I never did find out her name, but she expressed genuine gratitude and heartfelt thanks for my efforts. This was to be a common theme on my beach dips.
My garden baths were brutal. Hard work. Each dip I did, I did on my own, peering out of my kitchen window at the clouds overhead and the frost on the ground, filled with a deep sense of gloom at the prospect of my solo dip in my grotty garden bath. Gritting my teeth, I would shove my bright pink shower cap on my head, turn my phone onto “live feed” for social media, and off I would go, smiling and chatting away to the folk on the social media feed. But this is where the magic began. Often, I would see friend’s names pop up on the live feed, little words of encouragement, prompting a little smile in me. I began to notice more and more names of people I didn’t know, each with their own message of encouragement. I started receiving private messages on social media from women who had experienced their own birth trauma, many of whom I am still in contact with. The community of support was growing.
Once I had finished my challenge, one of the most common questions I was asked was “what were your best and worst dips?”. It was easy to answer which was the worst dip – these were the icy garden baths, which took a lot of internal chest thumping and roaring to get in. Some days I just didn’t feel like being on social media, but as they all had to be recorded as “evidence” of a dip, I felt that I didn’t have any choice. However, I soon realised that the more brutal the conditions, the more money was donated! It’s a strange concept, knowing that you are about to step into extremely cold water, which is actually painful at worst, and tingly at best. It always took some internal back slapping to get into, but I knew that it didn’t last for long – and the worse it was, the more money I raised.
As for which dip was the best. This was a hard one to answer, not least because I live in such a beautiful part of the world and I saw some incredible sunrises and sunsets in the sea. I even had access to a private lake at Chillingham Castle, a stunning little fishing lake nestled in some trees in a green wood beyond the ancient Castle. There were the dips which took place on riversides, and with my son, with my friends and on my own. All of them were special in their own way. But what has meant the most to me, has been the reaction from people on the beach when they have read my sign. I had an inkling from that very first dip, when the lady on the rocks became emotional on reading my sign. The women who stood in silence reading my sign, before turning to me with a thoughtful, compassionate “Thank you.”. In their eyes I could see that they understood, that they, too, were a member of the tribe of women traumatised by child birth. There was so much more to the simple words of thank you than those two words might suggest, and it touched me deeply every time it happened. I saw this emotion in women of all ages, young, old and everything in between. I saw too, the effect on the men these women were standing with, who also read my sign and offered me a silent thank you with a slow nod of their head. I saw, too, the ripple effect on older parents, those in their 70’s and 80’s like my own, who perhaps had experienced similar trauma - or who had seen the effect of a difficult childbirth on their own children’s families. I felt honoured to be able to go out there and raise awareness on the behalf of all those people, to speak up for those who didn’t feel able to. It was a strangely liberating and cathartic experience, one which I had never expected back in August when I blithely announced my challenge.
Near the end of March, I was contacted by Janet Ball from the BBC World Service, who asked whether I would be interested in doing a live radio interview to talk about my causes, which would be broadcast alongside a short video of my story. I accepted with delight, keen to get the subject of birth trauma and stomas out to the global audience, although the prospect of my first live radio interview was pretty nerve-wracking….must not swear, must not swear! The day before the end of the challenge, on 30th April, the video was released and the interview took place. I received a phone call from the radio producer, with the faint noise of the radio show taking place in the background, a quick check to make sure the line was clear and then I was on. The presenter, Bola, chatted to me about what a stoma is, why I had it and why on earth I felt the need to don just a bikini for winter dips. After 4 minutes the interview was over, the relief immense….but the fun had only just started!
I was sitting in the car with my mum when I got the message from Janet with the link to the video as it was released. I turned off the car engine and we both sat and watched it. Both of us were very emotional - my mum isn't one for bursting into tears (unlike me!), but we both had tears in our eyes as we watched it. I held it together for a few more minutes, before I crumpled. In-between my tears, I said to mum that I wished I had seen a video like that back during my dark days. How much I desperately needed to see something positive, and on such a public place like the BBC. I know I would have felt validated - that childbirth injuries and trauma are REAL, and they do happen. That it wasn't just me, and I wasn't really just unlucky, but one of thousands and thousands of women who experience devastating childbirth injuries, every day, all over the world. My mum became upset too, wrongly thinking that I was depressed about the fact that there hadn't been something like that for me, and remembering how desperately ill and lonely her daughter had been. In fact, my tears were more of joy and elation that my dream had come true - to provide something I knew so many others needed.
The BBC video was on the Most Watched section of Must See Videos for the whole day, remaining in the top 7 for the weekend. By the following week it had been watched over 800,000 times on Facebook and Instagram alone. I was inundated with messages from women who had experienced a traumatic birth, people of all backgrounds who had/have/were facing stoma surgery, and from people with no experience of either who simply wanted to pass on their admiration. It is fair to say I was completely overwhelmed. It was like a dream, the publicity for my passions exceeding even my wildest fantasies. The fundraiser surged, and a week later it was at more than £10,400…!
By the end of the weekend, after my final dip in my Hawaiian costume, and with the claps still in my ears from my family and friends on the beach, I was exhausted. It dawned on me that the reason there was such a huge reaction to the story was not because of me, but because of the subject matter. In many houses across the globe, there are mothers, and families, fighting secret shameful battles against the lasting effects of a traumatic birth. There are thousands and thousands of people with a stoma, who keep it a secret from friends and family, afraid to speak out about something they feel ashamed of. I know only too well, how intimidating it can be to walk into a room of strangers, fearful that your bag will make a noise, and that you will be judged by those around you. I hope that my actions, and the incredible response to them, will demonstrate to all those people who are fearful of taking those first steps with their stoma bag, that people DO understand, and people DON’T judge. The number of donations, the shares, the messages and applause served only to reinforce the fact that society cares – about our mothers, about our ostomates. Why are these topics not spoken of more, when so many people suffer, and yet so many people care? It showed to me that society is ready, willing and able to support all of these people, and that they are ready for a public conversation about this.
Let’s seize the moment, lets bring the topic of traumatic births, and hidden disabilities, to the forefront of conversation, where they deserve to be.