"Some women are lost in the fire. Some women are built from it."
—Michelle K.
The Fire Within Blog
Painful Choices About a Safe Space

It’s no secret.

In my book, there’s no better medicine than self-care. To that point, I’m a proud member of my local YMCA. In fact, it’s been my ultimate safe-space for 15 years – around the block, accessible, a generous lap swimming pool, topped by a loving community of warm and caring people. A lot of perfect for someone who can’t walk a block due to Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, but can swim a mile.

To give back some, I’ve done quite a bit of fundraising to provide low-cost memberships for families in need, and landed one of the Y’s aquatic teachers a national ABC News print piece, the angle being the benefits of pool therapy for women in pain as I believe devotedly in the healing power of water.

All was going swimmingly, until COVID. When we returned in mid-2021, my heart sank when I spied a new member, Annie, who I sensed was going to be trouble with a capital T. What little lap swimming she did was overwhelmed by her excessive yelling and joke-telling mid-pool with the life guard.

Day after day I became increasingly stressed while others rolled their eyes and donned ear plugs. To make matters worse, Annie soon blew passed personal boundaries by jumping in on my conversations, often physically pulling friends away from me. My place of serenity was turning into a high-decibel scrum.

It dawned on me that what was driving Annie’s aberrant behavior was a boatload of childhood trauma. She was deregulated and manic, showing ear marks of a deeply wounded woman. Annie flouted pool rules by wearing inappropriate, oversexualized swimwear (shorts and a braless t-shirt) with no cap for her long, black locks.

In one of the few encounters with Annie before things went south, she boasted about freezing her brother out, emphasizing all the legal folk he had to circumvent to get to her. Annie’s cackle as an exclamation point, her pure joy of hurting another person, was darkly disturbing.

One day, out of the blue, a deep freeze set in as Annie began avoiding me. This was terribly awkward, compounded by the Y pool and dressing room being an intimate community where everyone knows everyone’s business. I continued basic pleasantries until Annie yelled me down for doing so.

Next day, in an attempt to fix things, I asked Annie if I’d done something to offend her. Without looking my way, she briskly responded, “No, nothing’s wrong. We’re fine.” But I knew better.

Bad turned to worse when, at that point, Annie completely shut me out. It was as though I didn’t exist as she avoided eye contact altogether. This tact was deeply uncomfortable and hurtful as she appeared to be in good standing, even sweet, with others.

Due to Annie’s puzzling cruelty, I started dreading going to my “safe-space.” My lower-body pain amp’d and my nervous system was in fight or flight mode before I’d head out to the Y. Even my anticipation the day prior was becoming unhealthy, and I often woke in the night with worry.

Because I couldn’t bear to lose my beloved pool and community, I went to a therapist whose assessment provided strong insight. She suspected Annie was “negatively transferring”, meaning that because I remind her of an abusive person in her childhood, she’s delusional about my power over her. My psychologist advised that this is a targeted psychotic process and, for safety sake, I swim elsewhere.  My close friends seconded that emotion.

With heavy heart, I tried other Ys and fitness centers. In the end though, none of them worked because of my pain and limitations, e.g., I had to use my wheelchair to get to the pool, there were no exit stairs, and/or my partner and caregiver John couldn’t run necessary errands because we were far from home.

When I fearfully returned to my now toxic Y, John accompanied me in the pool to rehab an injury and offer support in the event of an encounter. Annie’s behavior immediately escalated when she spread a nasty rumor about me to a fellow swimmer Zoe who I adore. Zoe shared the gossip out of concern for my well-being, along with being disturbed by the grim energy now shrouding our community.

Before entering the pool the next day, Annie yelled at me twice and, for the first time, physically threatened me by raising her hand to my face. That was it. I went to member relations and made a thorough complaint. Luckily, Zoe, who’d witnessed the happenings, made one as well.

Fortunately, since the Y spoke to Annie, her behavior has simmered. While still avoiding conversation and eye contact, she’s not threatening me, though I’m aware her anger’s just below the surface. Better, but far from okay –and what was once heavenly, now casts a pall.

If I was a fully functional person without high-impact pain, I’d have left this Y many moons ago – and created a healthy community elsewhere. But because of limitations and specific needs, my only choice is to tolerate an unsafe, dysfunctional situation, to make the best of a bad.

Let’s face it. My choice was really no choice – and that’s the way it is with folk hammered by pain and disability. Pickin’s are slim and best solutions are generally the ones that are physically do-able. This not only applies to our places of exercise and community, but also where we live, shop and work. Really, everything we do.

But let’s not let a bully bury the lead. Come hell or high water, I’m continuing to swim which is one of the best self-care cards I hold. And when it comes to wrangling with the pitfalls of pain and chronic illness, holding onto what health we can maintain, can preserve, is always our best choice.