A week ago Friday -- technically last year! Heh, I love that joke -- our hot water heater went. As in, it ceased to be a hot water heater and became a large metallic cylindrical albatross.
This was not a tremendous surprise, given that we were probably due for a new one. Being a responsible homeowner, I did what I always do in such circumstances -- went to Yelp and looked for a plumbing savior. As I am luckier at these totally random home repair selections than I have any right to be, very shortly I had a plumber at my house looking at my no-longer-a-hot-water-heater and promising to call me in a bit with a quote for the replacement parts.
That quote turned out to be as gasp inducing as my now-frigid water supply; I do live in New England, you know, and it is winter here. But worse than that, owing to myriad problems with the particular variety of hot water heater AND the fact that we were rapidly approaching a holiday meant that we would be without hot water at all until Monday at the very earliest.
Now, I have a thing about showers. Oh sure, everybody loves a good shower. But my love borders on the obsessive, even on the obscene. I love showers. I also love baths. I love the bliss of being immersed in warm water in all its many wondrous forms. I love it like flowers love the sun, like nerds love an obscure "Doctor Who" joke, like a beluga whale loves mariachi music.
I love all manner of warm-water bathing so very much, in fact, that doing without it even for a day has a severe impact on my ability to focus and function. At minimum, I take a hot shower every day, even when I am sick (actually, especially when I am sick) and even when I have no plans to go anywhere or do anything. So to be told that I would have to go several days without my precious precious shower was -- well, I’ll be honest. I became very cross and sulky, hot-water-spoiled brat that I am.
The notion of leaving the house shower-free was inconceivable, but the notion of not leaving the house at all until our hot water was restored was equally unpleasant. And so I landed upon the idea of making this an experiment -- an historically flavored cold-water health and beauty experiment.
The storage-based gravity-fed basic hot water heater as we know it today was invented in 1889 by Norwegian Edwin Ruud, who had moved himself to Pittsburgh where he made most of his hot water advances. The idea of on-demand hot water would have seemed like witchcraft even to the super wealthy of the time, but Ruud changed us all.
All things considered, that’s not a tremendously long period of time in which to take hot water for granted, at least not when compared with the whole of human history -- and especially considering in many parts of the world hot running water is still a luxury for millions of people. Surely, if people elsewhere could live their whole lives without ever knowing the euphoria of a hot water tap, I could live a few days.
Besides, there are supposedly a bunch of health benefits to cold-water bathing, backed up by a few tenuous bits of medical evidence! Conventional woo-woo wisdom says cold showers are good for everything from improving circulation and fertility (if you have a scrotum, anyway) to alleviating depression and invoking weight loss. An English study even found that daily cold showers may strengthen the immune system, which, considering I had been feeling as though I was coming down with something already, I could probably use.
Usually when people advocate for “cold showers,” they mean the shower should be cold at the END -- not really a cold shower at all but a short cold RINSE once the main shower effort is completed. This was not exactly an option for me. I had cold water and nothing else, unless I wanted to take the Downton Abbey route and boil up a bunch of water on the stove for hauling to the bathroom -- but without a scullery maid to do the crap work of the actual BOILING and HAULING this didn’t have much allure for me. Also, it seemed like cheating.
Of course, I tried it anyway. Once the plumbers had left on Friday, I dutifully boiled some water and dumped it in the tub, with the intention of mixing it with cold water from the tap to get a bearably tepid bath. This was a failure. It turns out you kinda need a LOT of boiling water to counteract tap water that is very nearly the temperature of pure evil.
So the old-fashioned lady’s bath was a bust. Fuck it, I thought, I’ll just try the top-down approach. An actual cold shower. How bad could it really be? I turned on the shower and felt the water with my hand -- it was pretty cold, yeah. No, I could do this! I’ve swum in the North Atlantic! I am tough and hardened almost kind of like a real New Englander except not at all! But I can pretend!
Bracing myself, I hopped in.
OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING?
It was like showering in razor blades and lemon juice. Like you know there are things that are merely uncomfortable, and things that are painful, and then there are things that transcend any discomfort you have ever before experienced such that they are neither painful nor unpleasant but a whole new world of sensation that the human brain cannot even process. It was like being electrocuted with coldness.
After maybe 30 seconds of this, I got out.
Now is probably a good time to mention that I have an unusual condition called cold urticaria -- essentially, I have an allergic histamine response to cold that causes me to break out in hives all over my body, and in severe reactions can even be life threatening.
For 99% of my awesome life this poses no real issue for me as I can control it with Zyrtec and, um, scarves, but in this particular case my usual defenses were unlikely to help me as I had absurdly just exposed myself to water so cold it would make baby Jesus polar bears cry (or whatever polar bears worship as an alternative to Jesus) and so the reaction was acute and rapid.
Obviously, I did not accidentally kill myself, but after this experience I did figure I should reassess my cold-water bathing plan.
My new approach would follow the George Carlin Method of bathing (armpits, asshole, teeth and crotch). I would add hair and face washing and leg shaving for good measure. My hair I did by leaning over into the shower and running the water only over my head, just long enough to wet my hair completely enough to get conditioner through it -- or until my hands started doing that stinging thing that I believe is the first warning sign for frostbite -- and then to rinse it out.
The rest of the bath I managed in what I called the Victorian prostitute style -- sitting in a couple inches of frigid water, which I splashed over the important parts for washing. Then I drained the water and replaced it with fresh to rinse off. The effect was bracing but not unbearable, and I even managed to shave my legs this way (I told you, I have a particular bathing routine and I was not going to part with any more of it than absolutely necessary).
This is the really shocking thing.
Afterwards, I felt, kinda... AWESOME.
I’m not even kidding. I felt fantastic! Like super awake and energetic and vigorous and a bunch of other terms that I usually reserve for talking about my cat. Like I wanted to go out and chop down a tree and chase a cow or whatever people who do things outdoors in the winter do. I don’t know. I read a lot.
More than that, my hair was shinier than it’s been in probably a decade -- even given my usual cold rinse routine that I use to prolong my hair color prior to this unexpected experiment. My skin, which tends toward the oily and troubled, was GLOWY for the duration of my cold baths, and I am not really a glowy person in the normal course of events, no matter whether I’ve dutifully used my Clarisonic or not.
And this was with no change in my morning habits save for the temperature of the water I was using. Oh sure, I'd heard for years that hot water dries out your skin, and that cold water seals the hair cuticle making it shinier and awesomer, but I'd never really bought into it, until now.
Was my immune system strengthened? Jury’s out on that one, as literally the day we got our hot water back I came down with a fever that would last four days because apparently I had picked up the flu in spite of my total disregard for self-care over the past month or so. B
But maybe it helped. Maybe if I hadn’t been cold bathing, I would be dead right now. (As it is I had to suffer a series of bizarre and terrible fever dreams, possibly the worst example being the one in which Benedict Cumberbatch asked me on a date and I had to say NO because I was sick. WAY TO BE TOO ATTACHED TO REALITY, DREAM BRAIN.)
Oh, and what about that headline? Yeah, that "secret" is cold freaking water. With my hot water restored, I have now broken out in two places and my hair feels way less gleaming and princess-like. Admittedly, while I've been sick, I haven't much been down with the cold-shower revolution because right now hot water helps me breathe, but once my health is back to fighting shape, I am seriously considering adding the magic of cold-ass water to my regular beauty regimen, because it actually seemed to have a profound effect.
Are you already on the cold-bathing bandwagon? Am I just not getting enough oxygen to my brain from all the coughing? Are you as shower-obsessed as I am? Please tell me I'm not alone here.