Swimming with Schizophrenia

Swimming with Schizophrenia

I love Sunday swims. It’s a time of respite after a week of endless pings and the intense pace of work. For that hour, I get to be completely undisturbed, almost unrecognisable in my swimming cap and goggles, as I swim lap after lap next to 10-15 others. Each lap washes away the stress of the week, the cool of the water slowly helping me to breathe a little easier and the blistering heat of the sun taking me back to simpler days of swim training in secondary school. As I write this, I remember how thankful I am to be able to swim… I remember struggling during the 2-3 months of lockdown when the swimming pools were closed and I had no escape from the pressure of living.

I didn’t quite expect today’s swim to be an eye-opening experience. But it turned out to be impactful enough for me to want to write about it… after failing once again to keep this website alive.

Unlike my normally very practical and logical self, this post has no structure and no key solutions or suggestions, just thoughts. And, I guess, sometimes, that’s okay too!

As I do every Sunday, I walked past the turnstiles leading to the pool and greeted the pool guard who always looks out for me. He makes sure I get to swim in a lane with fellow ladies, instead of older men. I trust him, he knows the regulars! I collected my lane pass, a new system as part of Covid-19 tracking measures, and headed towards my lane: No. 13 (or Lane 5) today.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a lady in her late twenties, someone I’d never seen before, dressed in a dark orange bikini. She was tan, had an athletic build and looked like someone with a strong, independent personality — I immediately thought she was the kind of person I’d enjoy hanging out with.

She was talking to someone, perhaps through her wireless earphones (or so I thought), and seemed rather annoyed so I kept a polite distance instead of trying to make friendly eye contact.

After swimming a few laps, I realised that she was in the lane next to mine, and as I stopped for a breather, I heard her speak. I thought she was talking to me, but when I turned to look at her, she wasn’t even looking in my direction. She was talking to the air or just someone I couldn’t see.

“….The stupid virus is the cause. I am the vaccine. I am the anti-dote…”

I didn’t know how to react.

I continued swimming but it was hard not to notice her: Every lap, I’d see her pausing to hold on to the lane rope to keep herself afloat and berate someone. For the less aggressive scoldings, she would keep swimming and keep her head above water while talking to “someone” on her left or right. Even if I didn’t see her, I could hear her conversing to someone – sometimes in English, other times in Chinese or a mix of both. Occasionally, she’d pause and smile and raise a salute to her left in acknowledgement of someone or something.

I decided to stop for a breather and could hear her once again as she swam towards the end of the lap, this time angrily in Chinese: “You say you have responsibilities and children, but I also have responsibilities.” Followed immediately with English: “It all boils down to one simple thing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” And then she turned and continued on the next lap as if she hadn’t said anything.

I describe this experience with the intention to share as factually as possible what I observed, not to condemn or mock her. If anything, I felt troubled. I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been to keep up swimming and talking for an hour… or to constantly feel like there’s someone next to you that you have to respond to.

The odds of meeting someone with schizophrenia is so low, let alone swimming next to someone who possibly had schizophrenia.

I wonder why I’d never even considered what living with schizophrenia would be like for someone: I’d always thought about it from the perspective of the illness and the diagnosis/treatment but never from the person living with it daily. Seeing how it could affect an activity as simple as swimming made me wonder how her entire life was affected by this illness. It made me worry if she felt overwhelmed by the “people” she needed to constantly talk to or scold or defend herself against… or if she felt lonely that no one could quite understand.

We bumped into each other as she was leaving the showers and as I was walking in. This time, we made eye contact. She wasn’t talking anymore. She still looked like that strong soul I saw when I first entered. As I walked past her, I noticed through the reflection of the mirror that she had turned and continued to stare at me as I walked away. I wonder what she was thinking. I wonder if she was wondering the same about me.

I wonder how life is like for people living with schizophrenia… who live in the same world yet interact with it so differently. I wonder how they see us. I wonder how I could make their lives a little more comfortable… I wonder if they even see it as uncomfortable.

I wonder what she would say if I spoke to her. I wonder if she even wants me to. I wonder what I’m supposed to do – for other people in the world who experience the world differently from the way I experience it. Am I supposed to adapt my reality to make it accessible for them? But what makes my reality of comfort/necessity right for them or anyone? Do I try to engage in their reality and adapt my understanding of the world to theirs? Is that intrusive?

How do we appreciate our differences and yet not let them divide us?

I honestly don’t know.

If you’re reading this and have any wisdom to share, please drop me an email or comment below! I’d love to learn from your experiences in living differently from what might be considered a societal or cultural norm in your community, and how you would have liked people to better engage with you and embrace your differences – whether this is in terms of mental health, being differently abled, following an uncommon career path, being a foreigner, anything!

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