Into The Blue: Swimming my way through burn-out and grief

Tessa Moriarty
Mental health nurse Tessa Moriarty explains how the brisk release of sea-swimming helps her manage symptoms of grief post-pandemic burnout.

Into the Blue

Like many of my Nursing and Midwifery colleagues, off the back of two years working full-time in a pandemic, I finished 2021 exhausted. So, over the middle months of last summer, I took a five-week break. But, come March, I still felt tired and irritable. I was sleeping poorly, and unable to finish tasks around the house. Everything was an effort, and nothing seemed to shift the cloud that hung over me. The day had lost its shine, the nights were long — fitful. I’d wake more tired than when I went to bed the night before.

Despite that, I dragged myself into the morning, and like many others — soldiered on.

I went back to work (albeit part-time), and though I could work from home, the drive for it had gone. I wasn’t running, but limping, on autopilot and empty. No back-up engine, no fuel in reserve to get me the distance I need to travel. By April I was in trouble.

Beneath the pittance of energy I could muster each day, I also carried the weight of having lost my eldest and closest sister, just six months before.

Her death, sudden and devastating, left me wandering in a daze, unable to make sense of why she had been taken.

As a mental health nurse, it was hard to admit that I had reached such a complete low — that I was burnt out and grieving. Rather than see where I was as the result of what I’d been through, my view was that I hadn’t taken care enough to prevent myself from falling. In the business of supporting and telling others how to monitor their own mental health and wellbeing, it was hard to acknowledge that my own had slipped from my grasp. I felt fragile and ashamed. Then — almost simultaneously — I made an appointment for counselling and discovered the local sea swim group.

Routine: The day begins with a swim

The sea water temperature — sometimes warmer than the air above it — stays relatively stable between 10 and 11 degrees through the winter months. So — though cold initially — in a wetsuit for thirty minutes it’s manageable. It took time to build my stamina and ability in the open water. I had to adapt my rhythm and stroke to the changing conditions. In the swell of the waves, movement forward is slow, so I raise my head more often and keep my arms wide. When it’s flat and there’s an offshore wind, it’s like gliding, head lower, arms higher. But, learning to manage whatever the sea throws up, or washes in on the tide, is all part of the experience. Whether it’s choppy, raining, misty or bright sun, or the water is full of weed and murky — it’s about getting in, braving it, and finding the discipline to make it part of my early morning routine.

The Pull of the Sea

We know from human experience that spending time in and around water restores us and improves our mood. There’s something about water — and for me it is the sea — that draws people close. It has an energy and pull that we feel from nowhere else. Proximity to the sea is associated with many positive measures of physical and mental wellbeing, from higher levels of vitamin D to better social relations. Water is also considered by some to be the elixir and source of life. Marine biologist Wallace Nichols believes the mere sight and sound of water can induce a flood of neurochemicals that promote wellness, increase blood flow to the brain and heart and induce relaxation.

Personally, I’ve always loved the sea. I spent my childhood along the coastal shores north of Wellington, New Zealand. Funny though, I never learned to swim properly until I was in Australia, living in suburban Melbourne. Since then, I’ve been avid. I’ve been spoilt by the comfort of public swimming pools. I’ve used the meditative repetition of the lap-lane to maintain my fitness.

Six years ago, my husband and I moved to the Mornington Peninsula, primarily for the experience of life-at-the-beach in summer. It’s become more than that. The beach has more to offer than a cool-down after a hot day of work. Through the pandemic months, before I found the benefit of cold sea swimming, I sought the restoration of walking the shore. At high or low tide, in the wind and rain and everything in-between, I’d tread the early evening sand to find the calm and balance I’d lost through my working day.

Tessa on Beach

Connections: to self, others and community

A spin off from the healing process of the sea swims has been the joy of connecting with others, who like me are drawn to the restorative powers of the water. We are not the only ones to find and make connections through the water. Open water swimming groups across the world share their love of the wet. The pandemic brought on a swell (pun intended) in the number of people taking to the water to heal — searching for a way to recover, like me, from the spin and calamity of self-in-a-world-in-trouble. In rivers, lakes, oceans, bays and beaches, people have and are finding solace, strength, fitness and fortitude in being outdoors in the cold water. The connections to those I swim with has brought so much, but mostly it’s the shared “we can do this” at the start of the swim, the whoop-whoop calls as we enter the water on Saturday morning, the convoy out to our marker, the break we have at 500 metres to savour in the experience, and the high fives as we emerge, cold, shivering, proud of our effort. Alive from head to toe, and so very happy.

Tessa on Beach

Swimming also helps me connect back to myself. When I lose my way in the tangle of the day, or the pitch of other’s needs against my own makes me cranky, or there is too much going on I can’t keep up with — being in the cold water brings me back to who I am in the moment and what really matters. Through the challenge and stretch of the cold swim, I find my way to the essence of who I was before the light in me burned low; to the person I’m looking to be more of.

Swimming on for my mental health

After 5-months of sea-swimming (and some supportive counselling) I know and feel that my mental health has improved. Indicators that signalled my burnout have dissipated but not disappeared. The weight of grief I was carrying is lighter. The fog over my head has lifted, as has my irritability. I am still tired, but not exhausted. My tank, though not full, is filling — mostly with sea water and glee I get from swimming in the cold. I’ve also noticed a sustained calm and resilience that enables me to manage the rumble that shakes my day and week, with less turbulence. My passion for the work I love, has returned. Still part-time — and staying this way — my heart is back in caring for the carers, and taking good care of myself. The person I was before the pandemic has gone. In her place, someone with a renewed sense of self, is swimming on, for her mental health.

Tessa swimming

Reach out

If you’ve been struggling to stay afloat, Nurse & Midwife Support is available to nurses, midwives and students nationwide — free, confidential, 24/7. Give us a call on 1800 667 877 or email us.

We thank Tessa for sharing this excerpt with us. This is an abridged version of a longer piece.