As recently as this summer, I told my younger brother how I hated wearing a wetsuit. I hated getting into, and getting out of, a wetsuit. Getting into a wetsuit is like putting very thick, and extraordinarily expensive, panty hose on your entire body. You have to maneuver the fabric so there are no wrinkles or saggy bits anywhere. These not only look ridiculous but also interfere with moving. You can’t dig your finger tips in, even with short nails, as they could tear the material. Given my abysmal track record with nylon stockings, the thought of wrecking a wetsuit intimidated me. Having seen others get stuck while trying to put them on or take them off, I worried what would happen if I became trapped in a neoprene straitjacket. Would I have to hop around helplessly until aid arrived? No thanks.
The first time I squeezed into a wetsuit, with assistance, was in preparation for SCUBA diving nearly 20 years ago, when I lived in Mexico. My then boyfriend, a native of India, was an experienced diver. Moi? I recall being slightly more terrified than curious about an activity my fellow ex-pats loved. Not wishing to miss out, and afraid of being perceived as fearful, I agreed to try it. After a successful trial run in the outfitter’s swimming pool, we donned full gear and piled into a boat that took us into Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Dark, choppy water rocked the vessel as the skipper dropped anchor and hooked a ladder onto one side. Others in the group eagerly descended into the blackness. As I watched them disappear from view, dread churned in my belly and my heart pounded. Still, having gotten that far, I decided to step onto the ladder, too, and lowered myself into the ocean. Without a clear view of beautiful fish to either calm or inspire me, I panicked and felt suffocated by the dark surroundings and my mask. Unable to smooth my ragged breathing and lower my pulse, I surfaced, gasped for air, clambered aboard and, still shaking, sat on the deck. Despite the instructor’s encouragement, I had zero interest in trying again. Later that day, someone took a photo of my boyfriend and me, all suited up: to an observer, we looked like an adventurous and athletic duo, even though I was acutely miserable. I don’t have that picture anymore. The wetsuit symbolized overriding my misgivings in order to fit in.
Fast forward to the recent past, but before I began Feldenkrais, when a sporting goods store allowed swimmers to try wetsuits, free of charge, at the reservoir in Boulder, CO. I went to the store to get sized and reserve one for the trial day. Could I develop a new relationship to the wetsuit and expand my world, if only by a few millimeters of neoprene? Again, I couldn’t get the suit on by myself. Still, the next morning I drove to the reservoir before 7am to test the gear and my old narrative. Did I still hate wetsuits? It took me about 15 minutes to wrestle it on. While I enjoyed its warmth, the added buoyancy made me feel like a rubber duck. The high neckline irked me. Unzipping the suit came as a relief, as if my skin could finally breathe. I confirmed the story that wetsuits were not for me, that I’d simply swim when it was warm enough to do so. When the seasons changed or the weather was too cool, I’d honor nature’s rhythms and go to a pool. I didn’t need to be one of those “extreme” folks who swam outdoors no matter what. Nor was I a triathlete, needing a wetsuit for training or speed.
Case closed. Or was it?
As a Feldenkrais student, I’m curious about how changes to the self-image occur, how it is we can believe a story about ourselves for decades but not forever, or grab tightly to an idea of who we are one month but release it the following. Do these shifts happen mysteriously, on their own time as awareness grows, or can we facilitate them by gently challenging ourselves with small approximations towards a new self image?
During my last training segment in San Francisco, I went to the beach a few times. On the first visit, I walked barefoot along the damp sand, allowing the waves to lap at my feet. At one point a beaming, wetsuited woman strode out of the water, eliciting a pang of envy. Suddenly, I longed for the freedom to enjoy the ocean for more than a few chilly minutes at a time. I filed that awareness and continued my stroll. A few weeks ago, before chilly rains ushered in autumn, I chatted with some Walden Pond regulars after my swim. A silver haired woman told me that some years she’s been able to swim with a wetsuit into November. I told her I didn’t like wetsuits, but even as I spoke those words I didn’t believe them completely. It’s as if I were echoing an earlier version of myself who’d been caught in resistance. This woman suggested an insulated swim shirt and cap. She let me try hers. I looked for the shirt online but couldn’t find it.
End of story? So I thought.
Last week, I returned to the pond on an overcast but mild day, following a period of rain. A few school groups walked along shore and on the surrounding trails. A loon stood by the water’s edge. Ducks drifted quietly. I spotted two swimmers, each silently making their way across the pond. I left my towel, clothing and water bottle on a rock wall. Wading into the water, my breath caught in my throat as I braced against the brisk temperature. From past experience, I knew it was warm enough for me to swim safely, but just barely. As I swam across and back, savoring the tranquility, I wondered if it would be my last Walden outing this season. I noticed I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Stepping ashore, I saw a man rinsing his insulated swim cap and asked him where he’d bought it. He couldn’t remember the store’s name, but gave me enough clues to Google it. I looked it up and learned they were having a sale on rental wetsuits.
A day before the sale ended, I drove to the shop in the rain, half expecting they would not have a wetsuit in my size anymore. Yet, the employee found one at the back of the store. She explained how to get into it, demonstrating an unusual set of movements involving a plastic bag (to minimize friction between skin and fabric) and odd finger positions while handling the material to prevent ripping it. As I stood in the dressing room and painstakingly inched the suit from my ankles up my legs, over my abdomen, up my arms and around my neck, it dawned on me that I could either consider it a massive pain in the arse or approach it as an Awareness Through Movement lesson. Getting into a wet suit requires moving slowly in unfamiliar ways, something I’ve done many times while lying on a mat. Was it such a stretch to do the same while standing, with the addition of finicky fabric? If I practiced at home, perhaps I could get into the suit with greater ease if not elegance when outdoors. Maybe I was now comfortable enough in my own skin to wear this second skin without feeling overwhelmed by it.
The price of the used wetsuit was less than half of a new one. I considered following an old habit and shopping around to make sure I got the best value. That can often be a recipe for endless comparison, indecision and procrastination culminating in either paralysis or a joyless purchase. I decided to take the plunge. I also bought an insulated cap. Perhaps these items now make me an “extreme” person, one of the crazies swimming outdoors in October. Except I don’t feel “extreme” as I got to this point gradually, practically imperceptibly, and with serendipity. Had this shop been crowded or I’d felt pressured, I might have left empty handed while still clutching a tattered version of my “I hate wetsuit” story. Furthermore, I did not buy insulated swim socks, as that seemed…nuts! But, who knows, “I”, whoever that is, might change my mind.