Peace by the Water

Stephen Lightbown

UK

I am sat on an endless beach on the southern tip of Barbados watching the sun get lost in the waves. I’m with Carly, my girlfriend of the time, and now wife. Our bellies are full of the most incredible fish, cheese, egg and lettuce burger from a seafood shack on the beach called the Cuzz Café. The queue for hot fried fish had told us this was a place to eat. On our chins there are runny egg yolk stains from trying to eat too quickly, evidence of our delight at what we are tasting. All around us was silent and if I listened hard enough I could almost hear the wind whisper through the palm trees, “you’re here, you’re safe, be happy.” 

In many ways I was amazed I was here. I’d fallen ill with a virus and in the weeks that preceded this trip I had lost a significant amount of weight, was weak from not eating properly and exhausted. Feeling the setting sun on my face, with the Caribbean Sea sprawled before me, finally full with fish and with Carly by my side, I was starting to feel like me again. I was starting to feel peaceful. 

The next day I’m on the same beach, only now cross-legged on a paddleboard. Beside me is my wheelchair, grounded in the sand. I know full well that for days to come I’ll be finding sand in my wheels, in my cushion, caught in its bearings and I’m ok with that. I’m lathered in suncream and my heart is beating so hard, I’m worried everyone on the beach will think it is continuous rounds of thunder. 

Carly is holding the rope at the front of the paddleboard and is about to drag me towards the water. She is also holding off the attention of numerous topless, baggy shorted, sunburned men who having seen me climb out of my chair and onto the paddleboard have decided it is them, not Carly who will launch me into the water. We tell them to back off. It doesn’t work and so off we all go. Me on the board, Carly furious by my side and about four strangers dragging me along the sand like a beached whale being returned to the ocean. 

*****

The date is the 27th of January, 2015, nineteen years after my accident, which happened when I was sixteen years old. I was sledging in the snow in my hometown, a small place called Darwen in the north of England, with a population of around 30,0000 people. I hit a tree whilst travelling backwards. I broke my back in multiple places, shattered every rib and punctured both of my lungs. Unlucky, you might think. Lucky to be alive was the reality. 

At the time I was the epicentre of my own sorrow. The accident happened to me, I couldn’t understand what had happened, how such an innocent act of playing in the snow would have lifelong consequences. For many days after the accident I just wished the pain would cease, even if that meant not waking up again the next morning. 

I was incredibly fortunate to have the support and love of not just my family and friends but of my whole town. Looking back, I realise that a trauma such as mine might happen to an individual, but the impact can be felt by whole communities. Only now, with retrospect as my friend, I am so grateful that the collective goodwill from my town rallied round my mum and family. This meant they could be supported and in return be there for me when they would have been devasted in their own way watching a son and brother in such pain. 

I spent six months in a specialist spinal unit to recover, rehabilitate and to adjust to my new life as a wheelchair user, paralysed and unable to walk. It’s fair to say, even all these years later, that I hate the snow. I hate the way it sounds when I hear people walk on it, I hate how cold it is, the memories it brings back. I hate how it makes it incredibly difficult to move around outside and how it takes away my independence. It’s easy to see how when the summer comes to a close and the leaves turn brown and start to fall, my mind becomes fearful that snow will come as we move towards winter.

*****

I hit the water in Barbados, navigate the first few waves and unfurl my legs so that they are in the deep blue acting like rudders. Now, paddling furiously with my hands I head out into the water until the beach is a speck in the distance. I take three deep breaths, attach the paddleboard rope to my ankle and throw my entire body into the water. It takes a few moments to acclimatise. The water feels warm against my body, I’m gently lifted up and back down again with the sway of what is below and around me, and then I start to cry. Saltwater tears mixed with the water I am at one with. This is the first time in almost twenty years I have been back in the sea. It feels magnificent. 

Much has been written about the therapeutic benefits of wild water and when writing this essay, I came across the article, “Blue Spaces: Why Time Spent Near the Water is the Secret of Happiness” by the UK journalist Elle Hunt, in the Guardian. It quotes Dr. Mathew White, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and an environmental psychologist, who says: “spending time in and around aquatic environments has consistently been shown to lead to significantly higher benefits, in inducing positive mood and reducing negative mood and stress, than green space does.”

I very much subscribe to the concept of water as something which has a restorative and healing effect. Being in the water allows me to move freely under my own steam without my wheelchair. The benefit this has on my wellbeing and state of mind is not easy to put into words. The freedom of not relying on wheels to move around is liberating. 

Seen from the beach here in Barbados, I look no different to any other head bobbing like a buoy in the water. People just see me, not my chair, and at this moment I feel like everybody else. I feel what it is like to be normal. 

Still by my side is Carly. I look at her and smile. A huge ear to ear grin which exposes all of my teeth and means I take in a huge gulp of water. I choke laugh, cough and hold out my hand for her to take. I have known Carly for less than six months but I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Of all the people I have met since my accident, family, friends and care workers, it is Carly, still almost a stranger, who I share this moment with. It wouldn’t have happened without her and yet she wasn’t even meant to be here with me. 

I had booked the accommodation and flights before we’d even met. Each winter I try and find ways to escape the UK and had saved for many months to indulge myself with a trip to the Caribbean. It was new romance naivety and two swelling hearts that booked Carly’s ticket so soon after we had first met. 

In many ways up to this point it had been a difficult trip for us. This was the first time Carly had known me over the anniversary of my accident. A dark cloud normally falls over me at this time and I completely withdraw into myself. I’m short-tempered, irrational and actively look for opportunities to argue. Carly, for her own reasons, will not back down from an argument if cornered and so for a new couple, thousands of miles from home and in an unfamiliar place, this caused a strain on our new relationship. 

It is fair to say we had had our fair few niggles with each other and looking back now Carly is honest enough to be able to say she certainly had her moments when she asked herself what on earth she was doing in Barbados with a guy she barely knew, still coming to terms with his accident almost twenty years after the injury.

*****

Five years earlier I had taught myself to swim again properly for the first time after my accident. My motivation for this was signing up to take part in a four-kilometer outdoor swim on behalf of the UK spinal injuries charity, Aspire. The setting for this swim was the breath-taking Llyn Gwynant lake at the foot of Mount Snowdonia in Wales. The swim was in the August of 2010 and in the March of that year when I signed up for the event I couldn’t swim the 25m length of an indoor pool. 

Part of the reason for this is after my accident and due to my paralysis, I quickly learned that my legs don’t float, they become a dead weight and trail behind me acting as an anchor keeping me where I am. I am also 6ft7inches tall, so I have a lot of leg to deal with. The first thing I had to do was find some floats and attach them to my legs to increase my buoyancy. Once this was mastered I could attempt the front crawl. Again, not easy when I only have my arms to pull me forwards. However, meter by meter I gradually increased my distance. 

Four months later and I was ready for the swim. The lake itself is incredibly deep and has strong, cold currents. In fact, the water temperature was so low that once I started swimming, I actually felt drunk from trying to stay warm. I felt the cold everywhere I could feel. I am a slow swimmer at the best of times, so slow that from a distance I think I must look like I’m stationary. Keeping warm was a challenge. Not just for me but for the whole group, most of whom were experienced swimmers. Out of the twenty or so of us who took part in the event a handful were taken back to shore by boat, suffering with hyperthermia. And yet I kept going. Not only did I keep going, but I adored it. 

It took me over two and half hours, but I could have stayed in the water all day. There was a moment about halfway through the swim when I stopped and just floated in the middle of the lake. I looked around me and couldn’t see a single other person. The other remaining swimmers were on their way back to dry land. My friends and family who had come to support me were just pebbles on the beach. All I could see around me were the epically beautiful green hills and mountains of Wales. The poet Elizabeth-Jane Burnett has written a startling collection of poetry called “Swims” about her love of wild swimming. In it there is a poem simply called “Llyn Gwynant” about swimming in this same lake and I’m reminded whilst writing this of a passage which beautifully sums up what I am trying to articulate: 

Then always after the calm
that flattens out the body’s crease,
the water holds me in its palm
and always afterwards a calm,
a wash of mint and lemon balm
and wallflowers (once known as heart’s ease);
then always afterwards a calm
that flattens out the body’s crease. 

It was here in Wales, feeling totally small and un-creased, when it started to become clear why I am drawn to the water. Wherever I go, I find water be it oceans or fountains. I am immediately calm if by the water’s edge. On my phone I have recordings from the sound of waves I have captured from all around the world. 

Thinking back to the article in the Guardian again I am reminded of the words of Dr. White who suggests the ebb and flow of the tide when people are by the coast may help them to think outwards towards the environment and put life into perspective. I like this idea a lot. 

When I had my accident, I felt like I lost a part of me in the snow. I took solace in thinking that when the snow melted I would be returned to the water. So whenever I am near, and especially in water, I feel like I’m trying to reconnect to a part of me, to remember who I once was but also to recognise how strong I am now; that I don’t need my wheelchair or my legs to move. That even though I did lose the power of my legs, I gained so much more in other respects. That moving forwards, even if incredibly slowly, is progress powered by the kind of resilience and strength that doesn’t come from lifting weights in a gym.

*****

Back in the Caribbean Sea, still holding Carly’s hand, I tell her I am ready to return to shore. She doesn’t say anything in return. She doesn’t need to. We both know that whatever happens from here we will be connected by this moment. That whenever we are in water, whoever we are with we could swim back to here if we wanted to. Carly has shown me it is possible. I think of her in this moment not as my girlfriend but as my life jacket. She kept me afloat on that day and still does. 

In the water she holds the paddleboard steady so I can lift myself back on to its surface. My arms are tired from swimming, from the release of whatever it was I let go of in the water. For a moment I don’t think I have the energy to move. Is it fatigue that keeps me from climbing back on to the paddleboard? Maybe it is a desire to stay here in the water where I am floating, away from my wheelchair, away from prying eyes and offers of help and pity? 

Eventually, I am almost out of the water, the sun burning my sea salt raw skin as we head back to the beach. But the water has one last message for me. With the sand in touching distance I look at Carly and shout, “We did it!” 

We hadn’t. A final Barbados wave hits me from behind and knocks me off the paddleboard, face first into the water. I’m gasping for breath and slightly bewildered. The paddleboard, as if instructed by the water knocks against me with ever increasing force as if to remind me not to forget who I am. 

It’s at this point that the familiar feeling of being unasked for help returns as numerous unknown hands grab at me. They lift me out of the water and carry me aloft back to my wheelchair where it has sat quietly observing me with increasing curiosity from its place under a sun umbrella.

*****

Some eighteen months later Carly and I are sitting on the sofa of our apartment in London. Naturally, I have chosen somewhere to live which is a few minutes walk from the Thames. I’m never going to swim in the water that cuts through this vast city but it reassures me to know it is there. We are talking about the trip to Barbados and I tell her properly how grateful I am that she gave me that moment in the sea. It is now that she tells me something for the first time. She has a fear of the sea and swimming anywhere where she can’t feel the floor with her feet. She talks about the panic she felt the whole time we were in the water, confessing that she didn’t relax until we were back on the sun loungers where she was able to lie still and let her heart rate return to normal. 

Our eyes meet. I am astounded that someone would put themselves through such an ordeal just so I could swim. Somehow the act of neither of us not being able to stand was, at that moment, a bond we shared that no one else could see but us.

*****

Stephen Lightbown is a Guest Contributor for Panorama.