The reality of COVID hit home for my family nine months into the pandemic. My husband lost his job, my kids were out of school, and I was working all hours to get my start-up off the ground. Every time I drove on the highway, I experienced a mini panic attack: tightness in my chest, difficulty breathing, wondering if I was going to pass out at 70 mph.
That’s how, in April 2021, we found ourselves packing up our New Jersey home to make a massive transition to the U.K. Even though my husband and I are both British citizens, we’d built our entire adult lives and family of five in the United States. I was terrified, to say the least.
The first three months in the U.K. were dominated by to-do lists filled with tasks starting with the phrase “figure out how to.…” Everything was new and hard, and lonely. Every day, I questioned our decision to move.
For weeks, our kids cried, shouted, and pounded fists at us.
It took all the strength I had to keep myself together. Fortunately, we chose a town to live in that sits on an estuary. I loved the idea of living close to water, though I’m not one for boats (too seasick) or fishing (too boring). And swimming—well that’s what pools are for, right?
I soon noticed groups of mostly women swimming together in the water around high tide—smiling, singing out loud, giggling. There was an air of excitement, and it made me wonder what kind of magic was in that cold and murky combination of river and seawater.
I did like to swim, and I needed to make friends, so one day in July, I decided to go for it and found myself walking into the River Stour.
It was scary in all the ways.
As the water hit my ankles, I fixated on what lurked below. By the time the water reached my thighs, my fists were clenched and I reminded myself to breathe.
A woman strode past and told me to turn around and go in facing the shore. “The cold hitting your back is less bracing,” she said. It reminded me of a trust exercise, only rather than a person, I had to trust the water to catch me.
I faced the beach, closed my eyes, and sunk in. Hearing my squeal, she shouted, “Don’t worry about the jellyfish, they don’t sting!” I didn’t know then that I’d found my passion; I just knew that I felt free from my burdens.
I felt buzzed. I felt joy. I felt alive.
I swam every day that summer as my family seemed to relax and settle into our new life.
Wild swimming with my mermaid friends provided the perfect self-care trifecta: social, mental, and physical.
We swam through all seasons, including winter, when the water was frigid—that’s when I realized how deeply it fed my soul. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling spiritual. When I’m agitated, the water calms me. When my body hurts, the water provides relief. When I’m faced with a tough conversation, the water empowers me. This is why I swim.
Anna Helm Baxter is a cookbook author, food stylist, cofounder of Poppikit.
This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Women's Health, on newsstands now.
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