In the depths of winter, wild swimmers are wading out into the chill waters – not just because it's bonkers, but because it helps them deal with pain, depression and grief. Photographer Anna Deacon and writer, Vicky Allan, now a keen outdoor swimmer, have followed their stories.

THE last swim we did, on Monday past, I stayed in a little too long. It was a beautiful morning – pink skies, gentle, rolling swells – and my friend, Bryony Knox and I bobbed around the Portobello shore for around half an hour, throwing and chasing balls like dogs. The water temperature was between six and seven degrees. I did my first handstand. I was wearing a wet suit, but one so old and ill-fitting my co-swimmers had pointed out it was almost pointless. I’ve been alternating wetsuit swims with what’s called in swim jargon “skins” – swimming costume dips – and one of the things I like about the wetsuit is I can stay in a bit longer. I can focus more on getting my head under and driving myself through the freezing skull ache wild swimmers often call “ice cream head”, to what I hope will be a buzz at the other side.

I knew I’d stayed in a little too long because I started to feel strange and giddy. One of the things that wild swimmers will always tell you is that when it gets to feel too good you should get out – it’s probably the first signs of hypothermia. So I got out, drank a gallon of hot tea, and took half the day to warm up.

It’s been about two and a half months now that I’ve been swimming with the Wild Ones, one of the many wild swimming communities around Scotland that are seeing a phenomenal growth in popularity. Often when I write features, it’s others’ obsessions I’m portraying, but with this one I’m right in there, skins deep. And it’s not just the swimming itself, also its community, the people who come to the sea, and find joy in it and sometimes relief, who pitch up at the shoreline with their anxieties, their losses, their grief, their pain, and find, for a moment, or even longer, it freezes them all away. They come here to play, but also, often, for a kind of therapy. For, as one Wild One, Itamar Nitzan, who is himself struggling following multiple bereavements, told me, he knows hardly a regular swimmer who doesn’t come to the water with some issue.

Into the wild: the joy of open-water swimming

It was my friend, Bryony Knox, who brought me to the Wild Ones. Last summer her mother died and she found in the aftermath, the sea was where she wanted to be. On a visit to Bournemouth during that hot July, a friend of hers had encouraged her to come out and swim, telling her that her “tears will mix with the salt water of the sea”. Knox found it cathartic, and two weeks later, yet again, while on the Norfolk Broads, scattering her mother’s ashes, she was back in the sea, splashing around and pretending to be a dolphin.

She later asked me if I’d like to buddy her and join some of the wild swimmers at Portobello. It appealed. I’d always been a keen outdoor swimmer, and there was something about her story that resonated for me. Three and a half years ago my brother died and in the summer holiday that followed, spent on Lough Mask in Ireland, I found my greatest comfort bobbing around in the water, staring up at the big sky, just floating there, as if I might find him up there among the clouds.

We started swimming, weekly, in November, with a wonderful group, mostly triathletes, who go out in full neoprene and do a proper, vigorous crawl. The first swims were tough –I felt so pummelled by the chill, I actually thought there was no way I was going to be keep going. But my body quickly learnt to look forward to the zing that would follow. I came to understand what one local wild-swimmer, Anna Neubert-Wood, meant when she said she tells new swimmers, “The only advantage I have over them is knowing how amazing it feels afterwards.”

Soon I was strangely looking forward to that “ice cream head”. I also loved the coffee sessions afterwards when inevitably some of the discussion would come round to how our bodies work. The positive effects of wild swimming are not just hearsay. There have, in the past few years been a couple of medical studies looking into the benefits of swimming in cold water. Trust Me I’m A Doctor presenter Chris Van Tulleken, last year, produced a case report, which showed that a programme of cold-water swimming had led to a reduction in symptoms of depression. The BMJ published a case study which suggested that “a short, sharp, cold water swim may offer an alternative to strong painkillers and physiotherapy to relieve severe persistent pain after surgery”.

Around this time I also met, and began to swim with Anna Deacon, a professional photographer and skins swimmer who had been documenting the community in a series of stunning, joyful photographs taken while with them in the sea. Deacon’s project had come off the back of a creative burn-out. She had taken on too many jobs, and was struggling with juggling children and work. “I hit a wall,” she says. “I wanted to stop and concentrate on photographing things I love.” Around the same time, she had started swimming with the Wild Ones. The warmth, joy and inclusivity fascinated her.

It’s a place, she says, in which a lot of people find their home. “I think that a lot of people in this community perhaps have felt quite isolated and then for whatever reasons they’ve found this group that has welcomed them and taken them in like a family. They have then felt this amazing sense of being looked after. Because you’re all doing something crazy and quite dangerous together, you have this instant connection.”

Soon she began to notice that many of the people that she was photographing had some story of why they were there – the loss of a loved one, relief from physical pain, mental health. She, of course had her own reasons. It helped her, for instance, cope with the rest of life. “It felt so crazy and outside of my normal day-to-day life of managing the kids and job. I felt like I would run in the sea, plunge in that cold water, and it would be so playful. The cold just stops you thinking about anything else. And I’m such an over-thinker and a worrier.” In the run-up to Christmas, aware of the putative mental health benefits, she teamed up with fellow wild-swimmer Anna Neubert-Wood, to do a challenge of 24 swims to raise money for Mind and the Joshua Nolan Foundation.

But also, as she began to go more and more regularly, she started to notice that wild swimming might be helping her deal with joint pain which would flare up for her from time to time. “I’ve had days when I’ve been so sore and stiff that walking down to the beach, I’ve felt stabs of pain every footstep. But when I’ve got there and been in the sea, I walk home without any pain. It’s extraordinary.”

There are many testimonies like this within the community. Stories, for instance, like that of Dawn Thomson, who has a chronic pain condition – so severe that while she was in her late thirties she was medically retired from work. A key way she deals with this pain and the condition is by cold water swimming. “That’s my medication now,” she says. Though she is still on strong opiate medication, she has already halved her dose.

It was two and a half years ago that Thomson came to wild swimming. After ten years of being medically retired, she had returned to work at the Thistle Foundation, a charity which supports people living with long-term conditions to live the life they want. She recalls that when the physiotherapist asked her one day what her next goal was going to be, she said “to swim the Channel”. It was partly a joke, but when the physio replied that a friend of hers did wild swimming, Thomson jumped at the opportunity to get in contact with that swimmer.

Thomson recalls the very first swim she went on. “I have never smiled so much in my whole entire life. I came out and I buzzed till the next Sunday. I could not wait.”

The social side of things is as important to her as the pain relief. Like many in the community, she talks about her “swim family”. “The social aspect really helps. You get the buzz from the water, and then the buzz from the people around you is just incredible. As soon as I feel sore now, I think right I need to get in the water. But the best part is I also do it with my swimming family.”

Last year, on a swim trip, she had a revelation about how much the water really was helping. Over a series of swims, she found that the pain she felt at the start was disappearing. “Now whether it was the buzz because I was around all these people, I don’t know, but by the time I went in for the third dip, I had no pain.”

Since then, there have been times when she has pushed herself to get into the water, knowing that it is likely to relieve the pain. “I’ve no idea why it happens. I do wonder if it’s because I’m so numb, I am managing to move more which then stops me going into spasm.”

Thomson’s turn around has been phenomenal. She has gone from struggling to walk and needing walking sticks or a wheelchair to hiking up to the shelter hut halfway up Ben Nevis. She recalls that the day after the climb, she cancelled her disability benefit. “I thought you’re no longer disabled. I’ve done that walk and I’ve done the Cobbler. Huge, huge achievements for me. But, if it wasn’t for the swimming community, they wouldn’t have happened.”

She still has flare ups, she says, but they don’t last so long. When she gets sore, she goes for a swim. What has turned her life around, she says, is two things – open water swimming and the Thistle Foundation. She still works for the foundation, based in GP surgeries across Mid Lothian, and tries to pass on some hope to people who the people who come in. “We say that we can’t change your condition, but what we can change is how we live with your condition. I think if someone had said that to me ten years ago, I might not have been medically retired.”

But cold water isn’t just thought to help with pain – there’s also a belief it helps with depression. Among those who have come to the water to process grief and life stress is Itamar Nitzan. The story he tells of his journey, says a great deal about the power of cold-water swimming, but also its limits. For, recently, he has been delivered a series of blows which started, in December 2017, with the death of his brother following a long battle with a brain tumour ¬ and all the while has kept swimming.

“I was always been a water boy, ” recalls Nitzan. Growing up on a Kibbutz in Israel, with a swimming pool, his days would involve school followed by work in the fields, and then “hours and hours” in the pool. Later, he would study marine science. “Always near the sea,” he says. “But a little bit of a different sea from here. The coldest it gets in the Mediterranean, on the Israel side, is about 16C, and over here that’s pretty much the hottest it gets.”

His first swim in Scotland was an open water swim in Loch Lomond that he did to raise money research into brain tumours. By all accounts Nitzan is one of the community’s most resilient swimmers – the one frequently out there in the cold the longest. It says a lot about his bravado that he started his regular outdoor swimming in March, the month of the year when the water is coldest. He can, he says, think of only one occasion in which he felt he stayed too long in the cold water. “I guess the water was about just below 3C. I overstayed. Everyone was coming in-out and I was like, ‘It’s fine. I can’t feel my fingers and toes, but I’m used to that.’ Usually when you lose sensation, it comes back. The body is protecting the core. It shuts down the extremities and brings the blood to the centre, keeping everything that is important warm. But when you come out of the water the blood rushes back out and you start feeling your fingers again.” On this occasion, though, he noticed that after half an hour of coming out of the water the feeling did not return to his fingers. “It took me about two months to regain full sensation in my fingertips.”

The period of Nitzan’s brother’s illness was clearly a long and difficult one, in which he visited his brother, in Israel, as much as he could during his annual leave. In December 2017, he got a call from his aunt, with whom his brother had lived throughout some of his illness, to say that he was in critical condition in hospital following a seizure. Nitzan flew out to Israel. Two weeks later his brother was dead.

When he came back after the funeral he went back to swimming. “I swam because that’s what makes me happy. I remember we had an ice swim in Gladhouse reservoir. We had to break the ice and get in. I thought the swimming was helping.”

But, his brother’s death was not the only loss to hit him. Just over a month later, he had a call from his brother-in-law, saying that his aunt had killed herself. Nitzan went to the funeral, came home, kept swimming, and, though it was a struggle, he recalls, “I was actually starting to do better. I started almost a tradition of going to Gladhouse reservoir on a Friday after work for a dip. I even took three stones from Gladhouse to put on my aunt, my brother and my dad’s grave. I thought swimming was really helping me to cope.”

Then, he says, around the anniversary of his brother’s death, his grandmother passed away. She was 91 years old, and, he observes, “of all the deaths we had it was the most expected”. But it floored him. “I told my wife, I’m thinking that something is wrong. I’m not enjoying my swimming any more. It’s not making me happy anymore.” She booked him an appointment at his GP, and there, he was given anti-depressants, what he calls “happy pills”. He has been taking them now for five weeks. “I feel kind of numb. But I see that now that I’m on these happy pills, I’m also back to feeling happy after swimming. So it does help.”

Warnings over swimming at night

There’s no doubt wild swimming is having a moment. Portobello’s The Wild Ones Facebook group has exploded to over 1600 members. Of course, on one level we’re just doing what generations have done in the water without any need to give it the prefix “wild”. Sarah Morton, who was one of the original five swimmers who set up the Wild Ones in 2010, observes, “My grandfather used to break the ice in the water and swim. For that generation outdoor swimming was normal. But when I first moved to Portobello in the 1990s you would never have swum in that sea, it was so polluted. It’s okay now because we’ve improved the water quality.”

One of her concerns is that in this sudden rush to the sea, people keep an awareness that this is a risky activity. “I have a bit of anxiety,” she says, “that there’s a kind of inevitability that the more people who are swimming outside the more chance there is that something will happen to somebody.”

That said, she still can’t help but gush the delights of wild swimming: “It’s a way of being outside that’s exhilarating and exciting, and it’s not about endurance. It’s also never the same twice. The sea, the sky, the air, the waves. It’s almost like you immerse yourself in the landscape. I love the frog’s-eyed view of the world and the camaraderie is incredible.”

I can’t help but agree. Nowhere, do I feel more literally immersed in nature – and nowhere more alive. I can’t wait for my next ice cream head.