Cold Showers Help Me Manage Dysphoria When Nothing Else Works
When I had an eating disorder linked to dysphoria, I thought cold showers would help me lose weight. Instead, I find that they bring me back to myself.
Photo by Sandy Honig.
This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the highly personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Peter Smith writes about freezing out overwhelming thoughts and situations by plunging themself into icy cold water. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.
I did a polar plunge with a gal pal about a month ago. The main idea is entering a body of water despite its miserably low temperature, so we ran headfirst into the steely arms of Mama Atlantic. As I hurled my whole self into her 50-degree throb, I let go.
Exiting the salty slush, my gal pal and I had been reborn. I was in the water for no more than 15 seconds, but I felt lighter. The ocean had taken something from me, as I knew it would: Shockingly cold water has been a cure-all for most of my life. Its frigid embrace takes me off the edge, and the edge off of me.
On the day of our Atlantic plunge, I had just returned from doing a play out of town. The show spanned a century, focusing on the life of a real trans woman who navigated Berlin under Nazi and Stasi regimes. I was the sole actor, playing 35 different people and speaking in 12 accents and two languages for an hour and a half. (As you can tell, there were many different people inside of me that I needed to drown in the ocean.)
Professionally, I am generous with my body. Show business forces my brain to consider my vessel its office. A mobile enterprise. My brain is Big Beef Boss, and my bones act as skyscraper (I’m 6’2” in flats). In this last play, my body would tell you that I was walking and squawking for 90 minutes: moving around, lifting my arms, sweating under the lights, raising my eyebrows, contracting my throat, keeping my eyes open, hurling to my knees.
My brain would say that I was rapid-fire disassociating into various “emotional truths” every 30 seconds, on average. I gave information as one person, then immediately received that same information as though hearing it for the first time as another. Two characters: a trans teen in 1945 Berlin (me), forced at gunpoint against a wall by a Nazi officer (also me). The Nazi, erect and violent, asked the kid’s gender, then—SNAP!—the youth, cowering and about to die, answered. SNAP! The Nazi asked the kid’s age. SNAP! “Sixteen,” I replied to myself. SNAP! The Nazi, in a moment of theatrical humanity, halted the execution squad to preserve the child’s life. My vocal placement, shoulders, face, feet, pelvis, and neck oscillated from passive to active in, ideally, the blink of an eye.
In one scene, I repeatedly banged a wooden rolling pin against the stage floor. Every night, my waist and right arm twisted up to the right, then, with all of my 180 pounds of force, I slammed the rolling pin to the ground five times. (I know it was five because I had to very loudly count to five in German while I did it.) During the fourteenth show, the rolling pin snapped in my hand. I had enough adrenaline in my system to confuse my pain tolerance and went into a state of shock.
In front of hundreds of eyes planning on looking at nothing but me for a while, I thought, Peter, Peter, Peter… Either this IKEA rolling pin is broken, I’ll apologize to the stage manager, and the show must go on, OR, it snapped in my hand, the fractured wood has stabbed through my palm, and the stage manager needs to drive me to the hospital. I have a bad habit of apologizing for myself, so, in the latter case, I decided I would write a thank-you note to each audience member who only saw 25 minutes of their promised 90. I pictured hundreds of blood-stained notes scrawled by my non-dominant hand.
All of that went through my mind in less than one second. The wall of people stared as I spoke my lines on deranged autopilot, acting as a German teen who’d just murdered her father with a rolling pin. Eins! Zwei! Drei! Vier! Fünf! I played that father seconds earlier. Did I just kill myself? I released the rolling pin, and all I had was a tiny splinter: no blood, nothing serious. I flung the broken rolling pin off stage and tried to forget myself again. Luckily, I’m trans.
My childhood was spent learning methods of splintering my brain from my body, and I sought catharsis from my dysmorphia and dysphoria from the inside out. “Down the hatch!” as we say at sea. I smoked my first cigarette in fourth grade. I needed it. I’m grateful for it. Yes, I was inhaling poison, but I was also taking deep, therapeutic breaths when I did it: mindful inhaling and exhaling.
What did I need to breathe through at age seven? When I learned that men attached certain roles to certain bodies, I taught myself tools to cope with emotional fluctuations and social performance. To handle gym locker room body anxiety; having to feign flattery when an old lady called me a “handsome young man.”
Sure, some tools were destructive. Hell, I’ve turned to drugs. Hell, I’ve done more than turn to them—I’ve groveled at their feet. I’ve suckled prescription medication’s teat, because sometimes the symptom is the only thing that’s visible of the wider issue. A psychiatrist in my youth prescribed amphetamines to keep my mind from spiraling into unwanted territory. I was depressed, but why? Speed makes you focus, but not often on the right thing. Nobody, including myself, had any interest in finding out what that was. Sugar was the worst drug I was addicted—it’s more than just legal, it is often mandatory: US food deserts force sugar-soaked, nutrient-deficient plastic-wrapped poison upon the innocent. Scientists have proved that Oreos are more addictive than cocaine, yet they’re available literally everywhere. Flint, Michigan has plenty of options to dunk in the sludge they’re still being told is water.
All of this discord surged through me after the rolling pin show. I came offstage bobbing in a sea of emotional inertia and physical exhaustion, my brain and my body screaming for stability. Behind the dressing room door, I ripped my clothes off.
Alone and surrounded by mirrors, all I wanted was fresh air and a joint. However, the only way to exit the theater was through the building’s front door. I raced out of my dressing room into the long, long lobby and walked briskly through audience members that were in no rush to leave. I jumped in the stage manager’s car, and, by the time we cruised out of the parking lot, I had smoked half of my pre-roll.
It took three tequila sodas, one tequila shot, three shared indica-dominant joints, a lot of dancing and a trip to the Krispy Kreme drive-thru to get me into a state where I was willing to go home. I stumbled into my room three hours after curtain call, still wired. Scrolling through sex apps, I smelled my armpits and remembered that I was covered in mud made out of my sweat and stage floor dust. Into the bath I went, along with Epsom salt, multiple bath bombs, and a few drunken splashes of rosewater. I soaked in the heat; drained the tub. Standing covered in salt and soap, I kicked on the shower to rinse off—SNAP! Fuck, it’s freezing! “AHHH!”
I expected the water to heat up faster, but I was pummeled by cold and shivering for a solid 10 seconds. It undid the hours I spent finding the perfect chemical cocktail and sobered me up. (Admittedly, the weed remained, but alcohol left the picture entirely, thank goodness.) This topical treatment—from the outside-in—had not only dropped the mic on my slew of potions, it had taken the weight of the play down the drain. A blizzard blessing in disguise. I was back in my body. I felt refreshed, lighter, and ready for bed.
I started to take cold showers after every show. (If only real-life Nazis could be chased away so easily.) I started to crave the cold. With hard nipples came catharsis. I would return to this feeling a month later when I ran into the briny deep with my gal pal.
I learned the art of dunking my face into an ice bucket from TV when I was very young. One Thanksgiving, some network had a movie marathon called “You Think Your Family Is Crazy?” (I didn’t have any reason to, yet.) I watched as Faye Dunaway opened Mommie Dearest as Joan Crawford performing her morning beauty regimen. When I saw her claws rub ice cubes on her face like an otter with pebbles, something was triggered deep within me, and I grabbed the age-old baton in the relay race of self-preservation in showbiz, which can mimic, so often, self-harm.
Movies on TV taught me icy glamor, and, later, the internet taught me how to have an eating disorder. In an effort to evaporate my body away, I discovered slideshow lists of unconventional ways to shed some pounds. Did you know that taking cold showers stimulates brown fat? What the fuck is brown fat? There is white and brown fat. Brown fat keeps us warm; white fat is the stuff mainstream media has taught us we are less than if we have “too much” of it. Brown fat, when stimulated by temperature, eats white fat to keep our “selves” warm. Meaning cold showers burn fat? Oh, baby, did my dysmorphic brain looove that. I wove this information into my routine by finishing off typically warm water showers with a 10 second count of cold water baptism. It eased me. It kept me cool. I’m grateful for it.
My track record with cold showers is messy. The antioxidant-producing properties are beautiful and helpful. The muscle-soothing, blood-pumping effects are great for someone like me, a mover and shaker. However, I gleaned all of those benefits in pursuit of a disordered-eating life hack. My first cold showers were a piece of the depression caused by a disconnect of mind from body, but while I was shivering in pursuit of ridding myself of calories, I was simultaneously aligning my ghost and my machine. My reckless imagination shuts up for 10 seconds and forces me to consider nothing else except the cold on my body. Once it’s over, my blood is encouraged, piping warmth back into my muscles and brain. Whatever mental hiccup I was obsessing over before becomes irrelevant. It is a great and terrible thing.
It’s spring now. Rain is watering the flowers, the ocean is getting warmer, the earth is returning to life, and I have to go into a rehearsal for a musical about genital mutilation. The music is gorgeous and hard, but I have to repeatedly mine past trauma in order to hit the high notes. The work I take part in is not easy to let go of, or separate myself from. Living in trauma night after night for money requires unconventional methods. Some could say that freezing water also sounds traumatic, but when I rinse off after rehearsal, I am aware that I’m honoring myself. I am aware and grateful to have found a cure-all whose purpose has shifted throughout my life; has become more great than terrible. I found a palliative with a fluid identity to match my own. I hit the showers.
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If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, you can contact the helpline of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237, or visit their site. You can also live chat with a volunteer via Facebook Messenger , and text 'NED!' to 741741 for crisis support 24/7.
- Eating Disorders
- Gender dysphoria
- this is fine
- cold showers
- polar plunges