Episodes Swimming and mental health

Lenka Janiurek: Watermarks

Episode transcript:

Jade Hanley 0:04
Welcome back to Wild Swim Podcast.

In this episode I’m speaking to writer, Lenka Janiurek. Lenka lives in Wales where she swims in the sea. Her memoir, “Watermarks: Life, Death and Swimming” charts her life, including growing up in a chaotic family, her early success as a playwright, disastrous relationships and motherhood – and lots of swimming! In fact, the theme of water runs throughout the book, and I was really interested to hear how this theme emerged. We also talk about how swimming helps when you’re facing life’s challenges, whether it’s giving a chance to gain perspective, or just a chance to be playful.

Just a note before we head into this episode that we do touch on the topic of domestic violence, and some context that when we recorded this Sara Everard case was very prominent in the news.

So tell me about your memoir “Watermarks: Life, Death and Swimming”?

Lenka Janiurek 1:13
Okay, I’m a woman of over 60 years, and I’ve got several children and my youngest daughter has been sort of nagging me for some time to write about my life because it is quite unusual and fairly action packed as well. And I really resisted that. I used to write for the theatre. And I couldn’t see a way of writing about myself that I would find engaging, one day I just actually literally woke up and thought I could do it by writing about water. I could do it if I take myself out of the focus. So my life story kind of is chuntering along, but the main focus of each chapter is an experience of water. So then I could start at being born. So it’s written from the point of view of the age that I marked at each different part of my life.

Jade Hanley 2:17
So I guess I wondered how did that theme emerge?

Lenka Janiurek 2:21
Yeah, I mean, it was an easy way to literally dive into some really challenging experiences. I have a kind of fairly dysfunctional family, and also quite a mixed heritage, like my father was from Poland. And I think I’ve had my experience of life has been a search for kind of sense of belonging, quite largely and a sense of place. And I realised that, actually, water, the presence of water in my life, probably, is where I really feel at home. So the book kind of traces, places where I was probably most and times when I was most alienated. There’s a chapter for instance called “Radiator”, which is about when I was feeling like I was married to exactly the wrong person, and just listening to water churning around in a radiator and thinking I needed to actually get out of this relationship. And then there’s chapters where I’m, you know, swimming in a paddling pool or in a thunderstorm and different different aspects of liquid, so I’ve kind of stretched the idea of water. So I’ve got, there’s one chapter that’s called “Blood”. And there’s another one which is about, you know, being in a kayak. But I think it’s in a way in honouring of both the natural world, the elements, obviously, and my journey of of my life trying to find a sense of being at one with nature, at one with that rather than removed in such a very alienated society that we live in and such a materialistic one, so they’re kind of vignettes and little moments of peace in a sense.

Jade Hanley 4:25
Yeah, I really liked that it also included things like, you know the radiator, the washing up bowl, sort of everyday things as well as maybe moments that you would expect to be more memorable.

Lenka Janiurek 4:36
Yeah, I mean it was kind of a breakthrough for me once I started writing away you know I wrote about, you know, we regularly went to the same place in on the Yorkshire coast for the seaside and that those were kind of obvious chapters in a sense, but then when I found myself after my mother had died when I was nine. I was at that point of how that was feeling missing her, and, you know, being part of this large, large family. So the red bowl, that chapter is about doing the washing up of the tea mugs really with my little brother. And that was a way of expressing something grief, confusion, guilt, sort of shame of losing your mother almost at that age because no one else at school had, and that when I wrote that I thought okay, I can, I can cover all these different sorts of experiences and emotions. By sticking to this, this theme and that’s fine. Yeah, rain, storms, everything. So yeah, I enjoy doing it. There was something very freeing about using water as a central theme, rather than me and my rather difficult life.

Jade Hanley 5:59
And the book does touch on some of the difficult moments in your life. You mentioned grief over losing your mother. Relationships ending and health issues as well. I guess when I was reading it, I was wondering whether that connection with water is something that helps you get through some of those difficult moments?

Lenka Janiurek 6:20
Undoubtedly, though perhaps not. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but undoubtedly kind of looking back I’ve sort of aware that that was what I was often seeking, is that sense of freedom and being at home and being able to completely relax and be accepted literally by water. You know surrounding your body. Yeah, there are very difficult things in the book, you know, including, you know, domestic violence of a sort that was terrifying. I’m lucky to be talking to you here today and I mean, on this week of all weeks you know sort of been reflecting on how… yeah I’ve, I’ve tried to come to terms with things that have happened to me physically, obviously, you know, violence against women, it’s, it’s such a violation of everything. On your left than with how to build a life, confidence, self esteem and a sense of that your body is sacred that your body is precious. When you do feel like you’ve been completely trashed, you know. I’m sure a lot of women know that feeling. So yeah, I think, the water has given me permission to kind of go to those places which are painful, they’re personal but they’re also, sadly, very universal and kind of turn them around, find the beauty as well in surviving and more than, you know, obviously thriving and looking for health and harmony and reclaiming the joy of living when you have been living in fear.

Jade Hanley 8:13
Yeah definitely, very powerful as well. I think one of the other things that you touched on there is something that comes through in the book as well about the connection between the body and water.

Lenka Janiurek 8:24
It’s absolutely wonderful to see so many more people swimming. I mean where I live, you know, in the sea, but you know if I go to other places when it’s not the pandemic, you know, clearly there are many more people just enjoying swimming outside – wild swimming it’s called now but you know, just being held and that exhilarated, what-the-hell, and empowering. It does make you feel fairly invincible when you come striding out swimming. You know, your blood’s pumping, all of the wonderful chemicals in your brain are doing something for you, it’s kind of addictive in a good way I think. And I’ve, I’ve really embraced it and it’s fantastic. There have been times when I thought you know I’m fairly eccentric looking person who swims all year round. And now, there are many more people doing the same thing, which is just fantastic. And many more people perhaps needing that that sense of taking control of their bodies and enjoying the weather and all that it throws at you at different times. I mean you’re a swimmer, aren’t you must know about the east wind! You know, here we’ve got the tides and obviously the moon that’s connected with all of that and it is, it is, its very very grounding. And because I had almost 10 years with one of my children as well, we both had chronic fatigue syndrome, it is particularly thrilling to me to think that I can now swim most days, in the sea, because there was a time when I was really struggling to not be exhausted by going up and down stairs, or just go and do the shopping. So, yeah, it’s been quite significant part of my life and recovery and beyond. To, to embrace the oneness that water gives you, because you know we’re made up of so much so much it was is water to understand that you swim in Salford Quays, I wanted to ask you about that?

Jade Hanley 8:33
I do, yes! Haha!

Lenka Janiurek 10:39
Nice! Is it clean? I mean, what’s it like? And are there other other swimmers?

Jade Hanley 10:44
There are normally hundreds of other people there. At the moment it’s sort of one on one sessions. It’s strange because sometimes when it’s very busy I’m wishing that it could be just me, but then now that it kind of is, I’m missing everyone else!

Lenka Janiurek 11:02
The Human Condition, I think you summed it up there!

Jade Hanley 11:04

Lenka Janiurek 11:05
Yeah I mean I generally do go swimming on my own, on my own. I’ve been reflecting on how very fortunate I am to be able to do that living in west Wales were sort of wild beaches and that, you know there are people who go for walks and there are surfers and stuff and there are people walking dogs but sometimes there’s not many people around at all, but I don’t feel the fear that I’ve felt as a woman, being alone, so much so it’s kind of also been for me that swimming regularly has made me feel much, much stronger as a woman in the outside world in what’s called public space, you know. Basically you’re sort of taking most of your clothes off getting really wet, then getting really undressed, getting dry again having a cup of tea and, you know, and there’s some kind of, it’s almost like, that’s an acceptable ritual, and a way to behave, male or female, outside. I’ve just been thinking how lucky I am that I can have that as part of my ordinary life nowadays. What really pumping in the body really feeling like you’re a strong woman, which is a marvellous thing to be able to feel outdoors. I mean obviously the dream swim is when you can go and find a little quiet section of a river somewhere over or a completely cut off little beach that you might have to climb down to, and just not even have to wear anything, because that’s an extraordinary feeling but you know I’m settling for for this!

Jade Hanley 12:39
Do you have any thoughts on what it is about swimming, and the act of getting either completely or nearly completely undressed, that gives you that sense of power?

Lenka Janiurek 12:51
It’s kind of both really simple isn’t it, that what you do when you go swimming, you make sure in the winter that you’ve got your hat and you know you got your change of warm socks and all that sort of thing. And so there’s something very mundane about it is a bit like, takes you back to school and you know “have I got my PE kit me?” and all that kind of thing and then there’s another thing which is because I think, I think your adrenaline starts pumping when you’re getting ready to go anyway like “yes I’m off”. And I think there’s something rather miraculous about it, that you can go and just swim get completely wet and let go of everything that you might, might be going on in your head. You know for me I, you know sometimes I’ve days where thoughts kind of plague me slightly and I focus on small details of things that I might have thought or someone said or done etc etc and it sort of drives me slightly, slightly crazy but then they are. I’m playing swimming and I, and it gives a much, much broader perspective because, you know, body of water, you know all the bodies of water are joined up so there’s a sort of sense of like, “Oh, okay, I’m part of something enormous here”. And it was it literally does wash your cares away! You know I’m not a practising Catholic anymore but you know the idea that baptism is about being blessed with water, it’s sort of quite compelling one and it certainly has lasted. But the idea that you that you can kind of be shriven, I think is the phrase, that you can start each day afresh, that you can, particularly if you’ve had difficult things happening in your life that you don’t have to identify yourself with them and that you can choose your own narrative and definitely my narrative would be sort of floating on my back and thanking the, you know, the sky and the sea for the for really being there and feeling like I’m part of it. I want to feel like I do belong. I don’t have particularly strong sense of sort of place or, or, you know, nationalism or anything like that because I’ve got such a different come from many different strands of different places in terms of my blood heritage, but I think, a sense of belonging is a very important thing and I think for me going, going in the water it thrills you doesn’t it? It just thrills you with immersing oneself in the world, the earth, that you know, it’s, it’s a thing isn’t it! You presumably know what I’m talking about!

Jade Hanley 15:22
Yeah, yeah, definitely!

Lenka Janiurek 15:25
How long have you been doing swimming?

Jade Hanley 15:27
Oh gosh, I probably say, so I’ve kind of been swimming all my life. It’s the only sport I’ve ever truly enjoyed, and family holidays and things like that always centred around the pool and the beach. And so it was sort of in my mid 20s I think when I started swimming again, trying open water, and then completely taken over my life like there’s always swimming kit drying somewhere! Yeah, things like that.

Lenka Janiurek 15:54
Yeah. You know, you know!

Jade Hanley 15:57
But I think it gives you a different perspective.

Lenka Janiurek 16:02
I think, yeah, I mean it. I think it changes the way that you behave in the material world, more than you know in the office or in the home or wherever. I also think it changes the way people see you, and it’s kind of non threatening to be a woman swimmer. And it’s also slightly gives people a lot of amusement, they think “Oh, been swimming again, oh!” you know, they always smile. And I think that’s a lovely thing. That’s a lovely thing that you can have this foot in this other world. I mean, where I live the wild beach is just sensational. I think a beach gives you a kind of licence, or maybe just being by water just being by a lake, it gives you a kind of licence you’re at the edge of something to I don’t know, just feel freer. I mean what’s the first thing you do when you go when you go to a canal or a river or a beach? Is you just sort of breathe out, don’t you like “oh, what a relief!”. And, I mean you can kind of, you can behave quite crazily in water and no one bats an eyelid, sort of, you know, people kind of scream their heads off or what have you or get a laugh or lie around wallowing in the shallows, you know, nobody thinks it’s peculiar behaviour but you could easily be in another context be taken very in a very different light. So I think it’s very freeing. Very very freeing and of the elements you know I think yeah probably water is my, my kind of go to place of safety really.

Jade Hanley 17:41
Yeah so true what you were saying just then. As an adult, I don’t know there’s nothing about water that permits you to be able to jump in off a diving board off the edge or whatever is available. I’ve seen people doing handstands and I’ve done fancy dress swims I like to have a bit of something that may be in everyday life. Otherwise, it’s a bit harder to come by.

Lenka Janiurek 18:04
Well let’s playful isn’t it? Yeah, you know, it’s just, it’s just playful. I mean if you go swimming with somebody, you know when you’re, if you know them quite well and you generally would give them a splash of they’re doing that thing of walking with their shoulders up to that is that they can’t go in or, you know there’s something playful about it or isn’t there. And there’s no judgement involved, and it’s, you know, everybody’s allowed kind of thing. It’s completely inclusive. Yeah, I mean, I think I’ll carry on as long as I possibly can. And certainly like my youngest daughter, Amber, who would suggested I should write something about my life and stuff, and has encouraged me. You know she, if I speak to her on the phone, she’ll she’ll sort of be able to tell if I’ve been swimming yet. She sometimes she says to me, “I think I’ll ring you back later on when you’ve been swimming” because she knows that it’s, it’s a much calmer, and just far more sort of grounded and balanced in myself, and you know she can tell by my voice really, but you know I haven’t been swimming or have been swimming, really quite sweet.

I just hope that people more and more, especially with sort of the epidemic of mental health issues that people are really challenged by, that more and more people find what it is that they can do to play, you know, that’s kind of, it can be seen as kind of exercise, or well being, or health but it’s just being able to relax and play in a way and you know you can push your boundaries and think okay, you know, it’s quite cold today, but I’m going to go for anyway, I’ll take an extra flask, you know, but people might be able to find whatever it is that they allows them to give himself permission to really feel that thrill of being alive. Because I know that in my own life, you know I’ve had, I’ve struggled at times with, you know, what’s the point, etc, and being in life threatening situations and being having a chronic illness was no fun. So yeah, it’s quite interesting to see what will come out of this COVID era, in terms of people taking control of what they do with their time and their bodies. Because that’s all we’ve got isn’t it?

Jade Hanley 20:24
So do you think that swimming is helped with your mental health?

Lenka Janiurek 20:28
Oh God, definitely, definitely, it’s, it’s, it’s a lot it’s a letting go, and to be able to be really, to feel that I’m probably fitter than I have been in my life is quite an achievement at my stage of life. Fit in mind and body, you know, far more so than than when I have been in situations which were really very, very difficult, you know, living in fear is no fun. Being the victim of violence, you know, it leaves a residue that, it’s extremely damaging to one’s nervous system. And, you know, the other things that I think I mentioned earlier, you know. That’s really the story that I think will be kind of examining in the future is, okay, yes, violence and we need to clean up the way that we behave on our streets and you know, men and boys need to really take a look at themselves and we need to really change cultural attitudes, but it’s also well how do we how do we kind of take back our lives really so that they are a celebration, and how, and then that ally that with a sense of being able to work with nature at this extremely critical time in relation to the climate emergency, you know, isn’t going away anywhere, you know,

Jade Hanley 21:58
And has swimming given you more appreciation for nature, or was that already something that was part of your life?

Lenka Janiurek 22:05
I kind of wired that way anyway to notice things, to appreciate you know the pattern on the beach or rocks or, you know, trees, you know, I love nature, it’s just lush isn’t it for goodness sake, you know the sound of the wind in the trees is probably my earliest memory. You know it’s just great, thank God. I think swimming is almost like has been for me really kind of incorporating it into my life in a more disciplined way nowadays on a on a very very regular basis, you know, rest of my life is probably a bit more random my urge to go swimming in a thunderstorm because I happen to be at the seaside or something but I think it’s it is it’s the icing on the cake. It’s like, oh, okay, you know, the natural world notices you back. There’s a raven that’s just above the rocks on the beach where I tend to get changed and, you know, there are seals and you know that there’s a pheasant that goes “hic!”, you know when you arrive at the beach. Nature notices that we’re aware that we’re quiet, and just being in it, you know. It’s a two way relationship. I feel like in a way I’m very, very fortunate indeed. I mean, particularly where the beach I go to is, you know there are trees on the beach and rocks and sand dunes and there’s a cave around when the tides low, you know, and it’s just a sensational it’s got everything you need, so sometimes I do kind of pinch myself and think I’m kind of living a dream! But years ago when I was trying to get into a better position in my life, I did do a kind of collage of what I wanted my life to be, because it really hadn’t delivered what I, it wasn’t making me happy and you know it was at times dangerous. And that collage, you know, it was all things I experienced on a daily basis now. Pictures of things that are mostly green or blue. Cut out of magazines and, you know, a little picture of hope. But yeah, I looked at it now I think well yeah you can make your own narrative really. You can, it’s allowed.

Jade Hanley 24:23
Is there a swim spot that has a particular significance for you or I guess a location that might be special to you,

Lenka Janiurek 24:30
I have a few memories of some extraordinary places, and I’m spoiled now living close to several absolutely magnificent beaches, which have got different characters. So I’d be loath to really name one, because I think what swimming in open water, allows you to do is to totally inhabit the moment. And so each of those “now” moments of having that experience, like swimming in the river estuary in Morocco or this extraordinary pool I came across next to a maize field well kind of picking blackberries for my muesli next to somebody walking a cow along just brushing past my shoulder, you know that the pink rocks surrounding this pond you know that’s a kind of a pearl of a memory, or as a child you know looking in rock pools and thinking well if I could just shrink that will be my perfect pool, you know. But yeah, I mean, I’ve got a got a pretty dream location. I have swum in some interesting little locations that possibly weren’t really technically allowed, but there’s something about “I’ve left a piece of myself there” and that place has given me something beyond because I’ve been immersed in it, and it has been in some ways, immersed with me. So yeah, it’s, it’s a bit of a communion, you can tell I was brought up as a Catholic, can’t you?!

Jade Hanley 26:07
And do you have a dream swim at all?

Lenka Janiurek 26:09
Sometimes women my dreams! More and more lately I think because I think because I go swimming, a lot, and it’s a kind of normal thing to just swim. It’s a normal reflex isn’t it you know if you’re, if you’re in there all the time like, so in dreams I’m often swimming. But a dream swim? I think at the moment actually the one that the dream which is very achievable is that are just go to Henleys with my two daughters, one of them’s in London and one of them’s in Bristol, and we’ll just sort of be the three women in our family together floating on our backs and among those trees and, and they’ve got lilies there I think as well and the sauna which is massive luxury that’d be pretty nice good picnic, you know, job done!

Jade Hanley 26:59
That sounds ideal

Lenka Janiurek 27:01
And easy, really. So I don’t know, perhaps a dream swim will be more likely a secret beach somewhere and you know. I don’t know, interesting. I think I’ve had a few already dream swim so I found myself pretty lucky!

Jade Hanley 27:16
Thank you very much Lanka for speaking to me today.

Lenka Janiurek 27:19
Thank you. Lovely to talk to you. And to think of you swimming in Salford Quays! Makes me think of Manchester very differently, immediately it makes me think of Manchester differently, it’s sort of it’s expanded the idea of Manchester for me.

Jade Hanley 27:34
Yeah, I think there’s a quote that something like “Manchester’s got everything but a beach”. We don’t have a beach but we do have places to swim!

Lenka Janiurek 27:41
That’s fantastic. I think they’ve got a beach in, in Paris and then they’ve got a beach in Berlin. I think they bring in the sand, it’s a little bit questionable but yeah I mean, beach life, you know, why should it just be confined to beaches?!

Jade Hanley 27:56
Beaches for everyone!

Lenka Janiurek 27:57
So, so yeah.

Jade Hanley 28:02
Thank you so much thank you for joining me in this episode, and for sharing your story. I’m really glad that you got to find your blue place that makes you so happy and that you’ve been able to take such strength from swimming. Please check out Lenka’s book “Watermarks: Life, Death, and Swimming”.

And thank you for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Wild Swim Podcast, please consider supporting the podcast through our Patreon. I’m able to keep the podcast running, and keep it free from adverts through the kind support of our patrons. Thank you so much to those people. Details are available on the website,

And until next time, happy swimming.