One of the reasons for traveling on a yacht – apart from Barry and me being eager to adventure – is so that Baz can explore scuba diving sites around the world. Instead of traveling to sites around Australia, we decided to take our home to many sites worldwide.
Baz is a Dive Master and adores swimming under the sea’s waves. I do like swimming and actually choose to swim mainly underwater if I’m in a pool, but being in the ocean is a completely different thing. It’s the waves. I know, ocean and waves do go together, but in all seriousness, until recently, if I went further than waist high in the ocean off Australia’s Sunshine Coast, I’d start to hyperventilate.
I teach meditation and I’m pretty good at managing stress, but the ocean is a Lady whose depth and strength trigger instinctive survival issues for me, and even with my 25 plus years of relaxation training under my belt, it hasn’t been enough to quell rising panic on occasion.
So another hurdle that arose for me fairly quickly along our journey into the Land of Adventure, was when Baz said: “I think you’d better learn to scuba dive, then we can both film underwater and get some great shots.”
My long held determination not to scuba dive surfaced as a joke when our son Luke learned to dive a few years ago. When the instructor looked first at Barry, then at Luke and finally rested his eyes on me and said: “So Barry and Luke have learned to dive, I guess you’re next,” all three of us burst out belly laughing. I think “It’ll never happen” is pretty close to what I uttered through chuckles that day.
Never say never
Those of you into myths might have spotted my not so subtle references to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the archetypal Hero’s Journey. In this Journey, Campbell discusses the stages a person goes through when they leave their ‘Ordinary World’ after a Call to Adventure and cross into the ‘Special World’, where they undergo trials and challenges, to return as a Hero. Very often the Call is followed by a Refusal. If you have read my Blog #1 – Call to Action (like I said, not so subtle references), you’ll read my very resolute initial refusal to join Baz on his desire to buy a yacht.
After we overcame this hitch, I thought it would be plain sailing – if you’ll pardon the pun! You know, all those simple things like sell the family home of 20 years, reduce our life’s possessions into four suit cases, leave our 19 year old son in Australia whilst we travel to the other side of the globe ... (Neither Baz nor I can get past that thought without a lump in the throat) ...
But plain sailing wasn’t on the horizon yet, for here I was, with Barry taking me out of my comfortable land-lubber’s stance yet again, with his categorical: “You need to scuba dive”.
The thing is, I knew that if we were going to genuinely have fun and make the best of our time on the yacht together, I was seriously going to have to learn scuba diving. This time, there was going to be no Refusal.
So once again, within a few short weeks I’d been yanked me out of my comfort zone – this time it was out of a “You’ll never get me at the bottom of the ocean taking my mask off” mentality – to actually sitting at the bottom of the ocean a few weeks later, learning how to be an open water diver.
Now, in the Hero’s Journey, our reluctant hero doesn’t have to meet their challenges without Meeting their Mentor.
Enter Ian Johnson of The Diving Company, my amazingly patient Scuba Instructor. And his Able Assistants: Barry (my husband) and friend Gordon, both of whom are very experienced divers. I was so very fortunate too, as instead of learning with a group of students; I had the luxury of being taught one on one. Or with the possibility of sounding risqué, should I say three on one. As you’ll see later though, that was probably for the best because little did I know that my fear of the boundless ocean would turn into a few full blown panic attacks.
Cruisy learning in the pool
Two days of pool instruction were fun and went quickly and I left the weekend’s learning feeling fairly confident about the next weekend’s ocean dives, although towards the end of the week anxious thoughts did their best to challenge my equanimity.
Practising mindfulness helped me to remain more or less in the present moment, instead of letting my imagination cart me off into scenarios of running out of air underwater, losing my mask, having my lungs explode and any other delightfully devilish disasters!
To panic or not to panic, that is the question
On the morning of the first ocean dive, I managed to stay pretty centred, choosing to remain focused on what was happening in front of me and I enjoyed helping to get the scuba gear into the back of Ian’s ute (pick up truck). All that morning, I had been asking the Universe for calm seas and to everyone’s surprise, that’s what awaited us as we picked our way carefully across the sand at Moffat Beach on the Sunshine Coast, towards the sparkling azure water. Challenge number one for me was not falling over backwards with the weight of a 36.5Kg (81lb) full diving kit on my back.
Entering the water my next challenge was going beyond waist deep and trusting my dive buddy Baz to support me from behind as I put on my fins. At this point, the old cold fear was awaking from its slumber in the depths of my belly. My heart began beating more strongly in my chest and I fought to focus on my breathing. Who would have thought something so simple could set off such a depth of feeling? But wait, there’s more!
Meeting the Panic Demon Head On
Fins on, we swam out backwards away from shore until we reached a place that would give us the required depth for the training. Some of the skills I managed the first time; some of them took a few attempts. Some of them brought that old fear to full awake mode and the Panic Demon is what looked out of my eyes at least three times that weekend. Racing pulse, thudding chest, hyperventilation, and according to Barry who was looking at me – whites of the eyes silently showing terror – are not something I would wish anyone to experience. But experience them I did.
I think some of it had to do with the fact that I’d borrowed my son’s BCD (buoyancy compensation device), which was too large and half the time, it floated above me while my little body struggled to stay above the waves! Another contributing factor was that the mask I’d chosen didn’t fit my face and I spent most of that first day with the mask slowly but relentlessly refilling with water no matter how often I cleared it. The upside of that particular challenge is that I now have no trouble clearing my mask (which if you remember, was my main reason for not wanting to dive in the first place)!!
Each time, the panic situations weren’t under water though – especially on day 2 when I wore an amazingly perfectly fitting mask! (OMG I love my new mask). But no, my panic attacks were always caused when I was on the surface.
Childhood trauma surfaces in the ocean
I’ve heard of people talking about buried childhood trauma that was triggered by situations later in life. I didn’t expect that to be the case for me, as I’ve spent many years during meditation in self-reflection and feel pretty ‘resolved’ for the most part. Yet, here in the Pacific Ocean, not far from shore, an old fear of drowning incident I’d experienced as a little girl surfaced.
Wind the clock back a few decades to when I was about six years old and my father took me to the old Victorian heated swimming pool near my childhood home, to learn to swim. There, a crusty old man, with various floating devices suspended off his limping frame, introduced himself to me tersely as my swimming teacher. He took some of the floats off his shoulders and tied them around me until I was so covered with polystyrene that I couldn’t put my arms down by my sides.
He then proceeded to pick me up and threw me far enough from the edge of the deep end, that all I could do was bob around in the moving water. My head bobbed under the water a few times and I choked, and absolute fear gripped me as I couldn’t touch the bottom and wasn’t able to reach the sides of the pool.
He just said, “Swim to the edge”.
I looked at my father and screamed “Help me!”
My dad, deciding to trust the instructor, let him take the lead, and waited. The instructor just looked at me and shouted, “Swim! Move your arms and legs!” Perhaps he was waiting for some instinctual swimming sense to kick in.
That however, didn’t happen. I continued to bob, flailing my arms, hyperventilating and screaming for my dad to help.
Eventually my father turned to the instructor and said, “That’s enough. Bring her in.”
The instructor leaned over the edge of the pool, turned his walking stick around and hooked the handle onto one of the straps that bound me and gracelessly yanked me to safety.
I do know that after that incident, my father never took me there again. I actually learned to swim with my mother about six years later, sitting on the edge of another pool, miming breast stroke at me, shouting “In... out! ... In ... out!”, while I watched her and, putting my trust in the pale blue inflated rubber ring around my waist, set out towards her from the opposite end of the pool.
The irony of this is that my mother couldn’t swim.
Back to the ocean and my panic attacks. What caused them? I reckon it was a pretty good replica of that childhood incident. In those moments of bobbing in an overly large BCD, with no stabilising ground beneath me and no reassuring pool sides to grab hold of, my traumatised little six year old’s unresolved panic, came to the surface.
Back on Terra firma the afternoon of the first ocean’s training, I found myself shivering uncontrollably and feeling sick – both after effects of adrenaline. I calmed myself down – don’t laugh – by kneeling on all fours in our back garden, pulling up weeds. Grounding at its best.
The next evening (I was too stunned to do anything the first night), I spent a couple of hours revisiting the past in a meditative state, where I allowed myself to ‘relive’ the six year old’s experience, only this time with myself as nurturing witness. I reassured myself that as an adult now, I could always choose if I didn’t want to dive, and that with practice, I would get stronger and more confident.
Looking forward to diving off the back of our boat
Now I have a whopping seven dives under my belt, I have had just enough experience to realise that every dive is different. I’m happy to report that the last couple of dives I’ve been on have been thoroughly enjoyable and I absolutely love discovering the amazing underwater vistas that open up each time. My confidence in my partner (and my abilities) is growing stronger, I know that I can float in my better fitting BCD and did I tell you before that I absolutely love my mask!!! I’m actually very much looking forward to our scuba diving experiences off the back of our boat, and feel confident that with more dives, and dive debriefs, I’ll one day be diving like a pro.
I cannot however, finish this blog post without a massive thank you to my awesome instructor Ian and his amazingly patient assistants Barry and Gordon, who witnessed my moments of terror without judgement and who stayed calmly present with me so I could find my own resolve to remain in the ocean rather than return to the shore. For I know if I’d left the water at any time during those panic attacks, I never would have returned and my adventures with Baz would not be as half as rewarding as they will be now I have become a certified open water diver.
Thank you Ian, Barry and Gordon.
One thing I have noticed is that since overcoming my fears that weekend, I have jumped more quickly to action where previously I may have allowed doubt to assuage me. So that experience has had some valuable knock on effects.
So, the next challenge along the way, was to let go of the security of our jobs, and home, in order to step fully onto our adventure. But more of that next time.
To watch the video that accompanies this blog click here.
Link to Aannsha's next blog