The ocean is big. I realized this in a very real way when I dove off the back of a dive boat into the surging sea off Kona, Hawaii, in 2010. The dive instructor told me to imagine myself swimming around in a little aquarium. It was a lovely thought but it didn’t work. I made it down about four feet and silently screamed for help, motioning up, up, UP! with my thumb. I was back on the boat a few minutes later, my eyes dilated with fear for days. That big ocean tried to swallow me whole. I felt like a minnow in the big blue sea. Heck, I AM a minnow.
That day, I waited on the boat while my boyfriend did two recreational dives, returning both times with tales of splendor. The fish! The turtles! The nudebranchs! Just like National Geographic! And for the next two years, I couldn’t get that day and epic failure out of my mind. Fear ruled me, from tip to toe. I’ve jumped out of an airplane. Fought forest fires. Raised teenagers. How could a little dip in gorgeous tropical waters scare the crap out of me like that? Even snorkeling felt challenging.
The next year, on another trip to the Big Island, I snorkeled with a boogie board. Having something to hang on to helped. But I still hyperventilated easily and was prone to panic in deep water. There was something about not being able to touch bottom and putting my face in the water that freaked me out.
For 730 days I thought about the power of fear and why I couldn’t talk myself into something that hundreds of thousands of people do every day. Irrational fear, to me, felt like epic failure. Epic failure pisses me off. So I set out on a mission to get through it and get myself beneath the waves.
Serendipitously, I discovered that one of my co-workers has a similar water fear. Even putting our faces in the water in a swimming pool make us jittery. She told me about a hypnotist who works with all types of phobias. She went, and the next week, enjoyed a fear-free lap swim. I had already signed-up for a full scuba certification course but was panicking about how I would handle the pool sessions and swim test. I’d failed a swim test in college after signing up for a kayak class. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
In the hypnotist’s office, I stared at shelves of ceramic angels and listened to soft music. He explained that water fear is an easy cure and that one session should take care of it. My subconscious mind would be released to deal with the irrational nature of phobia and allow my brain to treat fear as a friend, not a foe. Where the fear came from, whether seeing the movie Jaws on my seventh birthday (thanks, Mom and Dad!) or some kind of claustrophobia, really didn’t matter, he said. Having a good, solid conversation with the subconscious untangles the mess.
After a relaxation phase, the hypnotist took me on a sing-song journey through dreamland. He talked in stories and let me down a visual path. It was actually a very pleasant experience and I left feeling peaceful and calm, like I’d had a two-hour massage. At one point during the hypnosis, I envisioned sitting at the bottom of a body of water, on soft sand while sharks circled overhead and an alligator rested near me. I reached over and patted his head, enjoying the feel of his rough skin on my fingertips. Bizarre, I know, but it was also pretty cool. The fear was being channeled into something else…..
The next day, I went for a lap swim. It was the best experience in the pool I’d ever had. The water felt comforting. Putting my face in the water didn’t make me hyperventilate. A week later, it was do or die time at the scuba class. Task number one: pass the swim survival test, the same one I failed 20 years earlier. I got in the water and could hear the voice of Ellen DeGeneris in my head from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.” Sixteen laps non-stop! No problemo. Success! The float was a little more challenging because I am negatively buoyant, go figure. But, I was allowed to float on my back and with my freshly untangled lizard brain leaving me alone. I bobbed peacefully in the pool for ten minutes. More success! The rest of the class was a blur of hoses and tanks, skills and instructions. The instructor turned off our air so we could experience what that felt like, under water. Quite unpleasant, but I didn’t panic. We had to remove our masks, replace them and clear them underwater. Interestingly, this was the one skill that sent more people into panic than anything else. Still, I didn’t panic. The biggest challenge was removing and replacing the tank and vest underwater. The tank slipped off my knee and I rolled around for a few minutes trying not to lose my regulator while straightening out the mess. At last, the instructor signed off on my paperwork. Ocean time!
On May 8, 2012, I jumped off the back of a boat into the big blue in Kona, Hawaii and descended nearly 60 feet. I watched a giant conch rise from its shell and eat a sea urchin. I learned how to control buoyancy with my breath and do frog kicks. Fear stayed in its proper place, keeping me safe as it’s meant to do, but didn’t rule my existence. I watched an eagle ray glide by and saw moray eels gliding through the coral. I held a tiny domino crab, pulled by the instructor from the mouth of a sea cucumber where they live, in the palm of my hand. I saw more beautiful fish than I can count. I finally swam with my boyfriend, who went through dive training with me. We are both now certified divers.
I can’t wait for the next dive, the next life adventure, whatever that is. And I’m so glad I didn’t give up, thankful that I didn’t let fear get in the way, at least not forever. The answers are always out there, somewhere, if we want it badly enough.