But also as I got older, the years of being careless with my body started to take their toll. Old injuries I hadn’t seen a doctor for (so I could avoid the unpleasant experience of being trans at the doctor’s office) caught up to me, and so did the family tendency toward joint problems, the arthritis, the low back pain, the busted knees. On the day I turned 48, I decided once and for all to try to take care of my body a little better and joined a gym where—on my first day, for my birthday—I tried too hard to keep my heart rate in the “orange zone” and immediately tore my meniscus on the treadmill.

Turns out, saying “listen to your body” to a middle-aged trans man who has been at war with his body for almost 40 years doesn’t really work; I had been steadfastly ignoring my body for decades because it was the only way I could get through life, and all those chickens had started coming home to roost. I was out of shape and in constant pain, limping as I walked our patient dog, sitting on the sidelines while my kids played, counting the minutes in agony when I had to stand on line at the post office or the bank, and sometimes spending the day in bed loopy and fogged out on painkillers when the barometric pressure changed too much.

My doctor suggested swimming.

My immediate, bodily reaction was “definitely no.” But in the weeks that followed, struggling through a damp and chilly fall on the prairies, stiff and sore and cold and losing day after day of work and parenting responsibilities to pain (and, eventually, depression) I started to wonder why not? My scars had faded a lot, and the previous summer I’d had them tattooed over with tiny tropical flowers; I looked more like I’d been injured a long, long time ago than like I’d had chest masculinization surgery. I had a swimsuit again, a baggy, navy blue, very dad situation that had held up during many birthday parties and leisure swims. Something in me shifted, away from my old pain, pointing at my new life. I was married, I had kids, I had a career—things I wanted to live for, reasons to not just lumber along in constant discomfort and hope it wouldn’t get too much worse. On a Monday, while my husband was at work and my children were in school and I very much hoped everyone else was doing the same, I pulled out a towel and my unfashionable trunks and went to the pool.

The first day, I swam the world’s slowest 250 meters of breaststroke, soaked in the hot tub until my knee stopped throbbing, and went home in my wet trunks, skipping the showers and the looks I feared. The next day, I did it again, somehow even slower, and rested in the hot water for even longer. Over the following month, I made myself keep going back, thrashing back and forth in the slow lane with the senior citizens, increasing my distance by 50 meters every week. I finished the world’s slowest 300 meters, and, by the end of the month, the world’s slowest 400 meters, with four extremely splashy lengths of front crawl in the mix. But I was doing it. I sent my friends grimacing post-workout pool selfies for accountability, and their support kept me going on days that I was absolutely Not Interested in going back in the water.