For Katherine May, being diagnosed in adult life as autistic helped her make sense of her relationship with the world – and her relationship with water. From overcrowded swimming pools in her childhood to the serenity of shedding the world to swim alone in the sea, she charts the history of her autism in bodies of water.
If everyone has a vice, then mine is water. I crave it. In difficult times, I’ve been known to devote whole days to sitting in the bath, continually topping up to keep warm. At a pinch, I can fill the sink and submerge my hands for a while. But best of all, I can swim in the sea.
I’ve never been a lover of the indoor pool. Somewhere between the aggressive scent of chlorine and the terrible, echoing acoustics, the joy of swimming gets lost for me. I end up disorientated and often panicked. But the sea gives me something different. I’m oblivious to the seaweed, the algae blooms and the occasional jellyfish. I can withstand the fishy scent that rises from the beach sometimes. And I find the waves irresistible: their rhythm, their changing colour, the white noise they generate. I love the floaty feeling I get after a long swim, as if my blood is still mimicking their movement.
I wouldn’t really count myself as a swimmer though; more a seeker of watery sanctuary. Perhaps I need the sense of calm it lends me more than most. A couple of years ago, just shy of my 40th birthday, I became one of the growing number of women who are learning they’re autistic in adult life.
“I could tell you the history of my autism in bodies of water. I never learned to swim properly because lessons at the local pool sent me into meltdown. I had a dreamy habit of wandering into ponds, or drifting towards the sea as if called by siren song. My skin itched and burned after contact with the world; water made it feel right again.”
When I was young, little girls diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome were vanishingly rare. Nobody would ever have dreamed of pinning that label onto me; I was, after all, highly creative and expressive, and doing well at school. I didn’t fit the stereotype, so I grew up wearing other labels instead: difficult, rude, aloof, distant, hyperactive; a loner; old beyond my years. Later, I was trouble: an over-reactor, a self-harmer, a teenager drinker, always depressed. Frequently ill for mysterious reasons. Incomprehensible. Other.
I could tell you the history of my autism in bodies of water. I never learned to swim properly because lessons at the local pool sent me into meltdown. The instructor thought I was being obstinate and threw a bucket of water over my head when I refused to put my head under. I had a dreamy habit of wandering into ponds, or drifting towards the sea as if called by siren song. Early on, I learned to soothe myself by sitting the bath (often with my socks on), or standing under a warm shower. My skin itched and burned after contact with the world; water made it feel right again.
After I had my son, I trained to swim a metric mile to try to shake the feeling of dislocation that motherhood brought. It didn’t work: I hated the sensation of the other bodies close to me in the pool, the endless negotiation required to swim my stately breaststroke without touching anyone else. After it was over, I decided to walk by the sea instead: another hare-brained project that I was ill-equipped to complete. I could have taken a few strolls by the local estuary, but instead I set off on the 630-mile South West Coast Path, dreaming of the Atlantic crashing beside me.
As I document in my memoir, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, it changed everything, but not for the reasons I thought it would. Walking opened up a space for reflection, and, with the help of an overheard radio programme, made me realise that I needed to seek an autism diagnosis. The sea made this revelation possible, staying by my side as I processed my life-changing news. It glowered and crashed and reflected the clouds, gave me a far horizon to gaze at, and soothed my aching feet at the end of a long day’s walk. It made me realise that I already knew how to find comfort when my nervous system was jangling. Over and over again, I had been drawn to the thing I needed the most. My diagnosis meant that I could finally state that need with more certainty.
Water resets me. I now swim in the sea several times a week, sometimes alone and sometimes in a group of other women. We’re all seeking solace for different reasons. I don’t race, and I don’t measure distances, but I do seek out the thrill of the cold, craving the way that it blanks the rest of the world for a while. Sea-swimming gives me a sense of communion with the elements, and with myself. Having waited a lifetime to understand what – who – I am, I’m grateful for a place where I can come to feel perfectly at home.