This month marks 10 years since my right knee was reconstructed. Years of basketball accelerated the destruction of my genetically floating kneecaps, which took turns to dislocate, competing until my right knee shot ahead in the tally.
With each click out (and the resulting click back in), my cartilage tore further, and the damage worsened. My orthopaedic surgeon said my joint was one of the worst he’d seen – and I was a teenager at the time.
So he scooped out my flesh like ice-cream, dragged muscle down from my thigh, and inserted lengthy screws to hold my newly sculpted knee together ($80 each from Bunnings, he quipped).
Over six months, I learned to walk again, slowly building out muscle in the pillaged thigh, my pink and puckered scars gradually becoming familiar territory. And I healed in the water: regular hydrotherapy and daily baths.
I’d always loved baths, but in those stretched-out months of recovery, they punctuated my days and brought me relief. A tub was no longer a luxury, but a necessity, a hollowed-out place in which I could rest my hollowed-out leg.
A decade on, a bath is still the best part of my day, regardless of the temperature or season. But there’s something special about a wintertime bath. The days are colder and the evenings darker, so the water feels better. And my knees need it more. Think of touching a metal pole when it’s freezing. That’s what it feels like beneath my skin on cold days – those big screws attract and hold heat, making my knees achy and stiff. It’s like I can feel them sucking the heat out of my leg and into their own twisty, silver bodies.
I can’t feel the metal inside me when I’m soaking in a cocktail of oils and salts and bubbles. My muscles soften; my body feels warm; my knees float and my mind follows suit. I feel calmer in the bath, my anxious mind is slower, cold fear defrosts and busy thoughts untether, given permission to flow away. I read, watch YouTube, close my eyes, apply face masks, lather on body scrubs and hair masks, shave my legs, and have my best thoughts in the bath. It is my favourite place.
The research backs me up: one study says a hot bath has similar benefits to aerobic exercise (though the temperature must be higher than most home tubs can achieve). Baths raise your core body temperature and improve blood flow, which can lower blood pressure, control blood sugar and reduce inflammation. And a warm soak can help you breathe easier, release endorphins, and, as I discovered, reduce pain.
Instagram has boosted the bath’s reputation. As the New Yorker’s Rachel Syme wrote, tubs have become “another theatre set”. We read about celebrity bathing rituals and watch (and post) stories of bath bombs painting the water. We see ads and influencer endorsements for expensive body washes and bath time products. And we regularly pine over exquisite tubs, usually the focal point of an interior designer’s newly renovated bathroom. I am OK with all of this. Like Syme, I emerge from a bath “pink and peaceful, leaving all the grime of the city to circle the drain”.
Still, there are people who don’t understand the allure of a good bath. They say it’s boring. That it doesn’t leave you properly clean. Or that the sensation and pressure of a shower is superior. Too bad I can’t hear them. I’m submerged, an hour-and-a-half into a long and leisurely soak, my body pruned but pain-free.