I (Alice) had hoped to put something really ‘cool’ together on A Lotus Rises to celebrate this year’s IWD, but I’ve got flu; and I couldn’t quite get it together. The past 12 months have been wonderful for our growing swimming collective, and of course women’s rights are not just about one day. But the plus side of being ill is that in the last few days I’ve been able to sit back and enjoy all the different celebratory posts from the likes of Swim Dem Crew, the Outdoor Swimming Society, and Survival Techniques, felt strengthened by the story of Tiffany Haddish and motivated by the powerful insights from women like healthy relationship ambassador and Safe Lives pioneer Celia Peachey, the Pool’s Marisa Bate and many, many more… It got me thinking, and, almost without realising, I began to write … (Heads up: this post contains some strong language and relates to domestic abuse) …
One of the best drills for developing feel for the water and also a good front crawl hand entry position is the closed fist drill. It’s one of my favourite drills and I regularly include it in a warm up, often switching between a closed and open fist with fingers spread wide every 3 strokes, for a couple of lengths or more. It settles me into the water and sets me up nicely for a main set. But once upon a time, that drill triggered something very different in me.
“Ali, can you make a fist, like this?” I looked at my coach on the side of the pool and stopped still, transfixed by the closed fist he was making. I could see the hairs on his forearm and the lines on his curled fingers. To me, it wasn’t the hand of my coach, it was the closed fist of someone else…
The fist I saw belonged to a man who said he loved me, yet called me a ‘b*tch’; who threw glasses at me; smashed plates; downed a bottle of whiskey and screamed in my face, bucking his head into me like an Ibex… The person who left me sleep deprived by keeping me awake all night with his lectures; punched the walls and doors around me – who punched so close, but not close enough to leave a bruise; the person who pretended to be driving our car off the edge of a cliff top road – with me in it. I remember that final day, when he pushed me onto the bed, covered me in a duvet and pillow and beat down through it on to me. 48 hours of destruction and finally I knew I had to throw him out. But how to really break free? He was ill, I loved him, couldn’t I heal him? A year of soul searching and dreaming of reconciliation, and ‘what ifs?’ followed.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s not in control. It’s red mist,” I said to a male counsellor, who specialises in working with perpetrators of domestic abuse. “On the contrary.” came the reply, “His actions are about doing just enough to scare and control you… Domestic abuse isn’t measured by whether or not you had to leave a relationship in an ambulance… Be under no illusion, what you have described is severe abuse.”
But I still couldn’t quite accept what had happened to me: Alice, the one time lawyer, the writer, the academic, the athlete, the friend, the sister, the daughter, the joker, the smiley, happy girl…I was still an actress, to both myself and the outside world. Yes, the doctor had given me tranquilisers to ease the anxiety from the trauma I was processing, and my mum heard me screaming out in my sleep in the night… but it wasn’t really that bad…was it?
I froze still in the lido water. I couldn’t move. I just stood and stared, having what I now know, is a flashback. “Ali, it’s just a hand”, my coach flexed his fingers out, unlocking his fist and waving. “It’s a hand, just a hand – look it’s me; Ali, it’s me.”
I finally lifted up my goggles and broke the spell. “Are you ok to swim?” Yes, I was. And the lesson continued with a quiet diplomacy.
The mind is an extraordinary thing. We can create layers of behaviours, including OCD and addiction and become experts in denial to protect ourselves – I believe we see that magnified across society about so many ‘difficult’ issues – it hurts to focus on the painful stuff and we can go to great lengths to numb or disguise it. However eventually, no matter how long it takes, one way or another, the truth will confront us.
What I didn’t realise then, but I do now, is that I was severely traumatised. For some reason, despite the help and advice I’d sought prior to that point, it still hadn’t fully ‘clicked’ how vulnerable and hurt I was. Yet in that moment it was so clear, and I finally started to accept my reality.
At the same time, as I moved through the water I found glimmers of my true self. My body that can move with power and grace; and a spirit that can ignite others; and with each glimmer, a feeling that perhaps… just perhaps…life could be something more – That I was worthy of something more.
I finally found the logic I needed to move on – that if seeing another man close his fist to demonstrate a swim drill caused me to be paralysed with fear – how could I ever stop being afraid of my ex – no matter how chocolate box the good times seemed – there was no way I could guarantee that he wouldn’t turn on me again; and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change that. I finally realised that the relationship was irreparable – I couldn’t save it – or fix him; and the only path forward, was to properly, and finally, cut all ties.
About a week after that swimming lesson, that’s exactly what I did. “You f*cking b*tch. Where are you? Where the f*ck are you?!” he screamed down the phone for the last time.
Moving on is a process. And unravelling and understanding how such circumstances came about, why I came to be in that relationship, and healing; has been very difficult and taken a lot of time.
Domestic abuse is a complex issue and I don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer. To identify the causes, help prevent its occurrence, promote healthy relationships and help men and women trapped in abusive relationships, requires us all to look gently but honestly at ourselves, our history and circumstances, both individually and as a society as a whole.
Most importantly, we can’t do that alone. We need considered, well-resourced, holistic and long term support.
It was critical for me to be able to access specialist women’s support services. I was one of the lucky ones. At my most vulnerable I was able to seek out and access initial support through a hotline and counselling service funded by a women’s charity – it saved my life – but because of cuts, that service no longer exists. And little did I know, but that was just the beginning of a journey of understanding, healing and growing, which extends much deeper and beyond that one person and that episode in my life.
I have not previously felt able to share this part of my story for a number of reasons. Fear, shame, and not wanting to put this out there without being clear in myself that I understand what happened. But the support and self-knowledge I have now means that I can, and I hope that by sharing this other chapter in my life, I can help others.
Out of the water A Lotus Rises, and thank you to all the women across our growing swimming collective, for empowering me and so many others, in our lives both in and out of the water… Here’s to a future beyond hashtags; and to positive, considered and practical change in our behaviours, policy, systems and culture.
Some useful resources for anyone needing to reach out for support can be found here.
Copyright Alice Gartland 2018