The diving bug got me back on Gili Meno, Indonesia. I’d been snorkelling over some of the most beautiful reef I’d ever seen, just off the beach, marvelling at the folds and tendrils of colourful coral, giggling through my snorkel at weird-looking fish with bulging heads and goggly eyes. Sitting on the beach afterwards, a dive boat drove past and I surprised myself by thinking, “I want to do that.”
I had actually had a taste of diving in the Red Sea, Egypt when Tyrhone and I had taken a trip there in 2008. It was like diving for babies, we were guided through a shallow reef straight off the beach, our tanks held by our instructor so all we had to do was paddle our fins slowly, point out cool looking fish to each other and give a hundred thumbs ups (meaning, awesome!).
It wasn’t a certification, just a taster for tourists with more money than time, which funnily enough, we happened to be at the time.
Truth be told, I had friends who dived, but I’d never been keen on the idea. Breathing through a tube under water sounded like a claustrophobic nightmare, and though I don’t have the condition, my tendencies towards fear and anxiety precluded me from putting it on my ‘to do’ list. Our Egypt experience was so mollycoddled and low-key (not to mention on one of the world’s most spectacular reefs), that it kinda slipped through the net of my ‘I’m not diving’ motto.
I was still kinda afraid of the whole thing.
Some fears have to be actively overcome, and some just fall away unexpectedly. My fear of diving properly (like, without a chaperone holding my tank) fell away on Gili Meno. I realised I wasn’t afraid anymore, that I was willing to give it a try. But I wanted to do it with Tyrhone, so decided to wait until we were together again in a part of the world with great diving.
Enter the Caribbean coast of Mexico.
Dive shops abound here in Playa del Carmen, as well as up and down the coast from Cancun to Tulum. Not only does the sea provide a home to the largest coral reef in the Northern hemisphere, but just inland, a vast underground river system provides divers the opportunity to explore them through the many ‘cenotes’, or sink holes that dot the landscape. The dive Gods smile fondly upon these parts.
I was quite keen to obtain an open water certification, that would allow me to dive to depths of 18 meters with other trained divers. I shopped around, and found what I thought was a good combination of professionalism and price at Phantom Divers, one street back from the beach about five blocks from our apartment.
At the advice of diving friends, I booked us in for another Discovery Scuba Dive. Last time in Egypt, Tyrhone had great difficulty equalising his ears (as he does on planes) and I wanted to make sure he could get this right before we handed over a substantial amount of money for our certification. All the dive schools here recommend this, and they even deduct the price of that dive off the open water course if you decide to go on. Perfect!
The morning of our dive I was a little nervous to be trying something new. My fears were allayed when we arrived at the premises of the dive shop, a large and well-equipped building on a lovely leafy street. We filled in our paperwork, paid our fees and waited for our instructor to arrive. When he did, Charlie made us feel at ease with his friendly yet professional demeanor.
He led us upstairs to the gear room, sat us on a wooden bench and proceeded to show us all the gear we would be using: the BCD (Buoyancy Control Device, a vest of air chambers to help you descend and ascend), the regulator to deliver oxygen from the tank, the depth and pressure gauge that tells us how much oxygen we have and how deep we are, and of course the mask to enable us to see all the beautiful fishies.
I listened intently, wanting to grasp as much information as I could before we took to the water. Charlie gave us a demo of some skills we would be demonstrating in the shallow water before going out to greater depths. Then we made our way to the shore, took a few happy snaps, and boarded the boat.
We motored a little way out of the bay, then stopped to put our gear on. The weight belt, mask, and the BCD with the oxygen tank attached formed a heavy artillery with which to conquer our evolution from sea to land-dwelling creatures.
“Okay, now sit on the side of the boat and drop backwards into the water,” Charlie instructed.
Though I hadn’t considered exactly how we would be getting ourselves and our equipment into the water, I froze at the thought of falling backwards, as though my weighty uniform was going to drag me to the sea floor.
Duh, that’s kinda the idea, hence the huge oxygen tank strapped to your back, I can now say to myself in retrospect, but at the time the idea kinda freaked me out.
Tyrhone fell back and his head soon emerged from the water’s surface, bobbing happily above his vest and tank, which apparently, float just fine.
Here goes, I said quietly to myself, tilted back over the edge and splash! entered the ocean. My flippered feet came after me then automatically propelled me up to the surface.
We were going to perform the skills we had seen Charlie demonstrate, but first we needed to descend to the shallow ocean floor. As instructed, we held the rope tethered to the boat and anchored to the floor, released the air from the chambers of our vest, and began to descend down into the ocean’s depths.
I held the rope, and slowly lowered myself down, focusing on equalising my ears with a soft blow through clenched nostrils.
I was about a metre under when a wave of anxiety passed through me. I was not expecting it. After all, this was going to be the easy part.
Light-headed and in a state of mild panic, I tried to focus and breathe, as was suggested. I think I still continued to descend, gripping that damn rope like my life depended on it. It was rather strange response to my overt desire to get out of an unfamiliar situation, descending further into it, but I felt like if I went up, I’d never come back down.
Every nerve in my body was on edge as I tried to talk myself around. As I said, I did not expect such a severe mental and physical response to an activity I had been looking forward to so much, and had in fact even tried before, but there I was attempting to stabilise myself on the sandy floor, all of five meters below the surface, and freaking the fuck out.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Fear had been a longstanding friend since I was a child. Whilst my friends went on the scary rides at Luna Park or Adventure World, I stood back, shaking enough just watching the puke-inducing Gravatron spinning my peers into social acceptance. Even when I tried the seemingly mild Bounty’s Revenge or rollercoaster, my stomach lurched inside my abdomen and my head swam with terror. I did not enjoy it.
Nor did I enjoy being the only one on my year seven camp not to abseil down a ten meter wooden platform, but fear won out yet again.
The skills took my focus away from the terror bubbling away underneath the surface of my consciousness. We each took the breathing regulators out of our mouths before clearing them with a sharp outward breath.
Okay, well done, I thought to myself as Charlie gave me a silent round of applause.
Then we had to take the regulator out, discard it, then retrieve it, place it in our mouth and press a button on it to clear the water out.
Okay, breathe in, take it out, let it go, reach down, pick it up… pick it up… where is it… almost there… don’t panic…
Charlie guided it to my hand, I placed it gratefully into my mouth and pressed the magic button to ensure I filled my lungs with oxygen, not water.
Then I had to do it again. Shit.
I managed okay the second time, then we filled our masks with a little water, before clearing them by exhaling sharply through the nose.
Now it was time to dive.
Gear off, back in the boat, motor out to the reef, gear on, splash! into the water. The second time was much easier.
Descending down the rope again, and the same panic came over me. I’d always thought my fear had been a manifestation of myself, of my thoughts, but this was like something outside of me, that I had no control of.
Breathe, just breathe… I tried to talk myself around. I wouldn’t give in, and hopefully it would pass.
Only it didn’t. I swam around after the instructor, feeling completely and utterly out of my depth (excuse the lame pun), pretending to care about the fish and coral. Occasionally I turned my attention to Tyrhone, who I was convinced must be experiencing the state of panic I was. Worrying about him meant I could take a break from worrying about myself and why the hell the instructor was photographing fish and not worrying about me!
I could run out of air, my air tube could block, I could pass out, I could die, Tyrhone could run out of air, his air tube could block, he could pass out, he could die!
The barrage of fearful thoughts ascended upon my psyche and could not be shifted. Fear took me and made me its bitch, yet again, for the umpteenth time in my life. And down there, in that foreign land that did not belong to me and that I could not communicate in or breathe in without this fallible contraption clenched tightly within my jaw, I felt utterly and completely, alone.
Back on the boat, relieved to be breathing without assistance, I told the others I’d been anxious. At that time I did not have the words to convey the cacophony of terror that had just assaulted me under there, but voicing that I had not been okay, and had not enjoyed the experience, freed me somewhat from fear’s bondage.
Though I had pledged to myself that I would not be going through that again, once back on the boat, I decided to give it another crack. I don’t know if it was peer pressure, or pride, or courage or what, but I’d had enough experience with giving into fear that left me scarred (hence why I still remember the abseiling incident from twenty years ago), which was definitely worse than the fear itself.
What’s the saying, “The only thing to fear is fear itself?” Well for me, fearing fear is worse than fear itself.
So another flip backwards into the water, another descent, this time without a rope, equalising the pressure in my ears as I made my way to the ocean floor. Our instructor was going through some skills with another student, Bob, and I found some peace in standing on the sand, 12 meters under the ocean’s surface, as Bob performed his drills. Here, I could get some perspective, with my feet planted on the floor I reconstructed some semblance of normalcy in this strange, liquid land.
Charlie turned his head around to account for us all. He shrugged his shoulders at me in regards to Tyrhone’s whereabouts. My feet planted, I did a slow 360, and saw nothing but milky blue, and the solitary sandy crab a meter from my left fin.
I’m not going to say I wasn’t worried, though angry is probably a more apt description of my feelings at the time. Very quickly, though, I resolved not to care, as his whereabouts were completely out of my control. I planted my feet firmly and continued to breathe. There was no point worrying.
After a short while Tyrhone’s masked face appeared through the milky depths, his nonchalance greeted by waving arms and beckoning hands.
I’m gonna kill him! I thought to myself, and plotting my revenge on him gave me some peace.
I floated after the group, being sure to stay close to Charlie. He may have been more interested in the fish, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from making my presence felt should anything go wrong.
And aside from a few strange noises freaking me out (boat engines sound strangely like oxygen tanks emptying, and squeaking rubber from the masks very much like eardrums exploding did you know?), I was able to relax somewhat.
I let my new watery home carry me along her relaxed laws of gravity, trying to remember to breathe slowly and steadily. My mouth was dry and I could taste acrid rubber, I was busting for a wee and couldn’t go (something about pressure, I really don’t know), and soon, I realised I was starting to feel cold.
Despite this discomfort, it was a relief to be acknowledging the reality of the moment, rather than the barrage of anxious thoughts that had crowded my brain.
I even marvelled at the fish, swam over wavy coral and observed a moray eel poke his ugly spotty head out of his home in the reef. Charlie pointed out a pale, speckled stingray, smaller than the type I’d seen before, and much less threatening looking. I’d never really been afraid of the creatures of the sea (though I am from shark attack country) so I enjoyed visiting them in their home, despite my heightened awareness that this was not in fact mine.
And apart from thinking Tyrhone was dying at one point (he had his arm across his body to protect from chaffing), my paranoia was relatively low-key.
In spite of this progress and the lovely fishies, I couldn’t deny my excitement when Charlie took a bright orange air-sock from his pocket, inflated it with oxygen from his regulator, and motioned for us to slowly make our way to the surface.
My head found space above the water and “Pffffffffff!” I inflated my BCD, allowing me to bob comfortably in the ocean til the boat arrived.
That evening, I was exhausted and beyond light-headed. My movement felt laboured and strange. I was relieved I made it through the second dive, but honestly, I was a little shaken up from my overdose of fear-induced adrenaline.
That night I tossed and turned, desperately wanting to sleep whilst the fear and claustrophobic anxiety had it’s way with me all over again. The helpless feeling, the unease and the terror all played through my flimsy dreams as I teetered in and out of fitful sleep.
This is bullshit, I told myself. Most people consider diving a fun past time, and I’m frickin’ traumatised!
It’s been a few days since the dive, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on my emotional unease. Yes, I was afraid, but I didn’t give in or give up, and I did overcome some of it. I should be proud of myself for that, shouldn’t I?
So why do I feel so crappy?
In the early hours of this morning, it dawned on me. All my life I have considered my fear a failure. A shameful spot on my character that does not fit the outwardly confident attitude I exude.
But my fear is a part of me, whether I like it or not. I didn’t ask for it or want it, but for some reason we’ve had a long-standing relationship together.
Diving made me afraid. I was able to overcome it to a point, but that only allowed me to tolerate the experience rather than enjoy it.
Yet the only person who says, ‘that’s not okay,’ is me. The only person who sees not being able to enjoy something that ‘the cool kids’ do, is me.
Tyrhone wasn’t afraid of diving. He rather enjoyed the experience, and yet doesn’t see it as something he wants to pursue. Done. End of story, moving on.
I on the other hand am still in the habit of seeing my fear as a failure, and have hence fought with the fact that I don’t think diving is something I want to do more of. So really, the problem is not being afraid, but my own lack of self-acceptance. My child-like desire to be loved and accepted by the things I do, rather than who I am.
I’ve done a lot of ‘things’ in my life, all have which have shaped and changed me. But they are not who I am. Diving, travelling, writing, and climbing mountains are not who I am, just things I’ve done.
I realise now, that unless I can accept this idea that I am enough, that I have nothing to prove, or anyone to impress (least of all my own ego), I’ll be stuck in this never-ending cycle of doing and never really being.
And that would be a hell of a shame.
I know it’s going to be a tough pill to swallow, and I have absolutely no idea how I am going to find a balance between doing and being, but somehow I feel like sharing it here will help.
Because honestly, I don’t see the point of all this ‘following your dreams’ and ‘overcoming fear’ stuff if I don’t accept myself fully. I believe that there is a higher power that created me just the way I am for a reason I do not fully understand, and probably never will. And I was made imperfect for a reason. Fearful and fallible with a future that holds just as much failure and success as my past. To shy away from that would be to shy away from experiencing life fully, and therefore not honour this life that I have been given.
I feel that for me, any notion of personal success cannot involve a fear of failure, or the belief that doing something or becoming somebody is going to make me better than I am.
Because, quite simply, I am enough. I just need to fully believe that myself and all will be well.
*I received a discount from Phantom Divers, but all opinions expressed here are my own… obviously…*
Subscribe to my ramblings and existential crises here…
Support team “Namaste Outta my way” raise a shit load of money for Frank Water here…