Escaping from a Diagnosis of Disconnection: Our Pod of Three Take to the Sea Embracing the Wild Atlantic Way & Resiliency
Niall MacGiolla Bhuí, PhD
(Extract from the book, Mental Health For Millennials, Vol 5 ‘On Resiliency’. Book Hub Publishing. Galway. 2021. pp1-8).
No talk is ever given without first indicating your humility. “I am an ignorant man; I am a poor man” – all the talks start this way – “I don’t know nearly as much as you men sitting around here, but I would like to offer my humble opinion”, and then he’ll knock you down with logic and wisdom.
— Allen C. Quetone, Kiowa
Back in the day I researched a doctorate on the theme of resilience in psychology. Over a three year period, it took me to special projects, youth offender centres and prisons from Limerick to Cork to Tipperary to Dublin. It also took me to a beach in Kerry, Ireland with a cohort of research participants from inner city Limerick and I’ve never forgotten their pure joy at being out in nature, running and stumbling in equal measure over sand dunes and then, in the afternoons, swimming in the cold, cold, cold Atlantic Ocean when their usual landscape was one of concrete and steel.
UK domiciled, Dingle man, Alan Creedon (2021) has a beautiful passage in his book where he states of his home place in Kerry, “It is a stunning place and a tough place in many ways. It’s fantastic for storms, watching those big rollers coming in can be an awesome sight and sound. It’s a place of raw, unspoilt nature, which gets into a person, there’s no doubt. It’s possible to feel separate from the rest of the world there. Seabirds are plentiful, grass capped sandstone cliffs and brown-gold sandy beaches define the boundary between land and sea. And on a warm summer day it’s the most beautiful place in the world when you see the sun sparkle on the gently rippling ocean.” Such a landscape speaks of many locations around the south, west and north west of Ireland. These are our places of refuge in this time of pandemic.
A Time of Disrupted Belonging
One of the most prominent psychiatrists of recent times, Dr. Karl Menninger, contended that modern youth suffer from what he termed ‘disrupted belonging’. He noted that in earlier times, children and youth were nurtured by extended family, church, and community but that today, many detached young people seek ‘artificial belongings’. The resulting epidemic of emotional disorders is described by psychiatrist Edward Hallowell (1999) as the ‘diagnosis of disconnection’ (cited in Brendtro and Long, 2005: 66).
A sense of disconnection is now all around us with COVID-19 seeping into practically every social interaction be it study groups, work groups, whilst having dinner, in shops, businesses and on every mode of public transport. But, there’s one place I’ve found to be disconnection free – the ocean. Here I can embrace resilience.
Ann Masten defines resilience as a ‘class of phenomena characterised by good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development’ (2001: 228) and it is commonly considered that there are two types of resilience, unhealthy and healthy. ‘Healthy’ resilience is expressed through pro-social, compassionate, harmonious, adaptive behaviours. In contrast, ‘unhealthy’ resilience is seen in the use of aggressive, controlling, withdrawing, or self-destructive behaviours (Brendtro and Long, 2005).
I actively chose in January 2021 to, once again in my life, embrace healthy resilience when I got an offer via message (how else?) from millennial friend, Cliona, to come join her and another great friend of mine, Phil, for an ocean swim. ‘What the hell?’ I thought to myself, ‘It’s January and it’s freezing outside’. I then reflected on the invitation and somewhat hesitantly replied…’Would love to’. I didn’t realise it then, but that text fundamentally changed how I was coping with COVID-19 and my mental health. Eight months later, our swimpod3 is still busy swimming off Blackrock Diving Tower. More of that later in the chapter.
Resilience is a term really used to describe a set of qualities that foster a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite risk and adversity (Benard, 1991). Persons who are resilient have the capacity to withstand, overcome, or recover from serious threat (Masten, 2001). Simply put, resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. Resilience is not simply an absence of psychological symptoms despite having experienced adversity, it is the possession of a positive adaptive ability that enables a person to feel competent despite risky living conditions (Sagy & Dotan, 2001).
The open sea is certainly a risky environment and it is in that space I have come alive again over the government imposed pandemic response lockdown of 2021. But, for me to understand why I have returned to the sea this year, it’s important to go back to my childhood. Oh, my psychotherapist friends must be rubbing their hands in glee.
Confronting ‘Disrupted Belonging’: The Slanted, Sideways Rain of Galway
I’ve swum all my life; rivers, lakes, ponds, pools and the sea. It didn’t and still doesn’t matter. I carry a wet bag in the boot of my car with goggles, a towel, shorts and a wetsuit from my Triathlon and Ironman days. If there’s water and it’s deep enough, well then, it’s worth exploring and there are so, so many beaches along the west coast of Ireland. I’ve always loved the feeling of gliding under water, the sensation of the cold, the sights of the sand or stones shimmering under me. It’s hard to believe now, but as kids in St. Pats Primary School in Galway City, in the Spring and Summer evenings we swam for hours in the filthy canal that broke the journey from our home in St. Mary’s Road to the school in town.
We delighted in jumping in off the bridges that dotted the way from Claddagh up to what is now NUIG. We sometimes mitched school on particularly warm days and, a couple of times, one of our favourite teachers at the time might join us muttering, “Say nothing lads.” Good times. Of course, we said nothing.
Speaking of resiliency, I don’t ever remember any of my three brothers or friends ever falling ill with infections from our canal escapades in the murky and reedy waters. We were more terrified of potentially getting bitten by eels (and you can guess where we were most afraid of being bitten as pre and barely teens) and mindful of those dangerous reeds. When bored of the canal water, we would seek out open sea water and would often walk or cycle up to Blackrock in Salthill and spend an entire day, regardless of the weather, hopping off the Tower daring each other into contortionist acts of bravery – or was it stupidity? Happy times.
Here’s an interesting fact. The average air temperature in Galway in January and February is between 3 degrees and nine degrees. The average sea temperature is just 9.6 degrees so why, oh why, would anyone desire to wade through the sideways, slanted rain and wind of our little coastal community, strip off, and start swimming in the froth bowl that is Blackrock in Salthill? One answer is, it’s a challenge. A challenge of one’s resolve, determination and staying power. It’s also backed by science and my friend, colleague and seaswimpod member Dr. Phil Noone mentions the work of Wim Hof in her chapter. Perhaps it is more about friendships and trust with one’s swim partners. Connections and connecting at a time of profound disconnect, of sustained hate and haters across all the virtual platforms with a new international and national pastime of calling each other out and cancelling diverse opinion.
At the time of writing this chapter, COVID-19 is devastating economies and the social and personal fabric of societies the world over. We are no different in Ireland. We await the various vaccines, some with open hands and others rather begrudgingly. We are daily inundated on the news, in newspapers, on TV, on radio and on social media with advice as to what we should take, what we can do, what we should not do to ‘avoid the virus’.
So, what to do? We pod of three long-term friends, Phil, Cliona and I, decided to sea swim our way through January 2021 as an exercise in wellness and resilience. And that’s just what we did…So, two oldies and one millennial. What could possibly go wrong?
Physiology of Open Water Swimming
There is no doubt that exercise increases our happiness. Physiologically, there is an immediate increase in our heart rates when we exercise. Our brains recognise this change as stress and respond to it. A protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), is released which helps protect and repair our memory neurons. We release endorphins which block the discomfort of exercise and make us feel, well, euphoric. Who needs the dance floor when you have the cold, cold water of the Atlantic? My own view of happiness is more about a sense of calm than the chase for and obtaining material things.
There is now a very established body of science that has examined the benefits of open sea swimming (Hof, 2020). It’s not a good idea to swim open water by oneself (I got a really bad cramp in my left thigh when competing in an Olympic Triathlon one year and had to drag myself through the water to make it to the safety of a pier) so there is a great sense of comradery when swimming with a group of friends. We are social beings. We need to interact in the real world with real people. It is here we find deep connections in the deep water.
The Ocean Calls our Names
Day after day, the three of us in our little protected seaswimpod braved wind, rain, hail and eventually amazing sunshine to get into the open water. There were days when none of us wanted to swim, when we wanted to stay in our respective homes on our respective couches with coffee in hand and a good book for company. But, we would text each other and issue the usual invitation ‘Swimming this afternoon guys’ and we would get up, get dressed and show up. We would walk our 7k first and then strip off and merge into the water. It was, and remains, a feeling of accomplishment to complete what on the surface appears to be such a mundane thing, but you know what? It has become a truly joyful, transformative experience. We are now swimming a kilometre+ each time, we have, quite literally, left the safety of the shore and embraced uncertainty in these COVID-19 times.
We notice there are more and more millennials swimming since the weather has improved. Many of them have also found calm in the sea, comradery in their swim groups and a rest from the constant negativity. Try it. You won’t be disappointed. And, gratitude to Cliona for her text last January. Turns out millennials have excellent ideas. And are resilient.
Brendtro, L and Long, N. (2005). Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol 14, Issue 2 (Summer 2005): 66-68.
Creedon, A. (2021). The Search For Still Waters. Galway: Book Hub Publishing.
Benard, B. (1991, August). Fostering Resiliency in Kids: Protective Factors in the Family, School, and Community. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
Hallowell, E. (1999) Cited in Brendtro, L and Long, N. (2005). Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol 14, Issue 2 (Summer 2005): 66-68.
Hof W. (2020) The Wim Hof Method. Activate Your Potential, Transcend Your Limits. London: Ebury Publishing.
Masten AS. (2001). Ordinary magic. Resilience processes in development. Am Psychol. 2001 Mar;56(3):227-38. doi: 10.1037//0003-066x.56.3.227. PMID: 11315249.
Sagy S, Dotan N. (2001). Coping resources of maltreated children in the family: a salutogenic approach. Child Abuse Negl. 2001 Nov;25(11):1463-80. doi:
10.1016/s0145-2134(01)00285-x. PMID: 11766011.