This will surprise my mother greatly, for I grew up swimming in a lake with a sandy shore and murky bottom, going to and from the dock (or walking when the water was low). Once on the dock, I’d wait until I felt like a lick of heat on the surface of the sun before I’d jump in. Far be it from me to avoid participation in the ‘night swim’ where’d we take the boat out at eleven pm, turn off all the lights and test our courage by jumping in the frigid water, all for the reward of enjoying a hot shower and hot chocolate afterward.
It was all a front. The water freaked me out. Yes, I know, this coming from the dare-devil she, but it’s true. Here’s the backstory.
As a child, I knew that the Loch Ness monster was fiction and I’d never seen a freshwater lake-dwelling shark. Still. Anything below two feet was the great unknown, and it freaked me out. As in, beyond freaked out. I’d close my eyes, swim as fast as humanly possible and spend as little time in the water as I could manage so no one was the wiser. When I jumped off the end of the boat, my ski boot already on and strapped tightly, I’d gather the rope up as quickly as possible, scream ‘hit it’ and start to relax the moment I rose out of the water. I’m sure the reason I learned after 2 tries was because I didn’t want that ever-elusive man-eating trout to snap off my leg. I’d also swim around on the surface, fins on, because I simply felt better knowing I had a bit of extra speed.
It was irrational, and I knew it at the time. Didn’t matter. I wasn’t about to let on that it scared me to go underwater. Then fate intervened.
The Accidental, Glorious Cure
“Please will you come???” My younger brother was fourteen, I was 17, and he was begging me to accompany him to scuba diving lessons. My father had signed them both up for a scuba diving class, and to this day, I still have no idea how or why it came about. Dad had bailed and the class was…that night. As he gnawed his inner cheek, I was wondering how to get out of it without breaking the rose-colored glasses he wore about my love for adventure.
“Where is it at?” No, ocean, no way. Not in a lake. I couldn’t even handle looking at the mushy bottom.
He scrunched his eyebrows and cocked his head. “A pool, of course.”
Oh. Two hours later, we were learning the basics of scuba diving. The course was an accelerated two week course, the first five lessons all in the classroom (sooo boring until I started to appreciate the value of gauges that regulated oxygen flow whilst underwater), and then the last five in the pool. We started in the shallow end, and seriously, couldn’t go under more than a foot of water–for hours. That was so inconceivably boring for a 17 year old, but it served a purpose. The steps of checking out the gear, testing and retesting, then staring at a little bit of water made me want more. We graduated to moving around in our little circle, and then were finally allowed to go in the deep end. All six feet of it. A 20×30 pool is awfully small when that’s all you have to explore.
Yet here again, it served a purpose. My fear of the unknown dissipated as I gained confidence in my equipment, and the power and confidence that came with knowing I controlled my time underneath the water. By the time we went on our certification dive, out in the Sound as it is known, I was ready.
The dive itself would be considered awful by the scuba-purist. The Sound is a body of water that is very cold (we wore wetsuits but the smart divers wore dry suits), it was cloudy (visibility 10 feet) and not full of exotic life. Rather, it was rocks and a few shellfish, except for….
The wall of death. But before I get to that, I’ll say that the first dive removed any and all fear of the water I’d ever had. There we were, diving along at 20 feet, and I was so comfortable the instructor was worried. “Aren’t you breathing?” he asked, worry clear on his face.
“Of course I’m breathing,” I said in my 17 year old trying-to-be-nice sort of way.
He lifted up my gauges to make sure they worked. “This shows you are hardly breathing. Are you stressed? Having anxiety?”
It was then I tried my best to explain to him I felt like I was floating on air, flying underneath with a quiet world all around me. The murky, freezing grey didn’t bother me at all. I was completely and utterly free. Diving was the most wonderful sensation I’d ever experienced.
He nodded and put my gauge down. “You must be relaxed. I’ve never seen a diver with such low figures for a gauge before.” I took that as a compliment, a sign that I’d overcome my issues.
“Time to get you to the wall,” he said, his eyes glinting. I had no idea what he was talking about. He told us that a wall of rock had a sheer drop off down several hundred feet. It would be the “underwater equivalent of looking over a 50 story building, straight down, and then stepping off.” It sounded freaky, and I figured this was going to be my make or break, poop in my pants moment.
The reality was nearly what I expected. We swam along at 30 feet and then came to the edge. Sure enough, we peered over it and look down in to the Abyss. Unfortunately, I’d actually seen “The Abyss,” and those of you who have as well, understand the nature of a huge drop off like the one in the movie (over a mile of straight down). In any case, my heart caught in my throat and I thought I was going to get dizzy. Yet, he swam out over it (and didn’t fall or get sucked in to the great vortex), my brother didn’t hesitate and swam over, so I had to follow. Then….we started to swim down the wall. That too, was altogether like the Matrix, running down the Empire State Building.
Then it happened. We stopped, and the instructor pointed to a dark crevice within the surface of the wall. I gave him a look like “over my dead body.” I could just image an eel taking a chunk of my hand. He saw my fear and inserted his own hand. Out came a tentacle. It cautiously wrapped it’s limb around my instructors hand, reaching, retracting then extending again. I definitely wanted to try that, so I did. It was the first time I’d ever touched a sea animal. I was hooked.
I went on to dive all over the place, Australia and Oregon, California and Mexico. These aren’t places that the ‘real’ divers I know even bother to mention. They go cave diving, ship diving (all require different certifications), night diving etc. I went off to college and haven’t gotten that advanced. I’m just happy to get under the water, and absolutely adore the it now. In fact, being underneath the surface is the most relaxing place for me.
It’s not often that someone will voice a fear of the water, and I know why. It’s embarrassing and, speaking for myself, I never wanted to admit to a fear I considered completely irrational. I’m glad I got the opportunity to dive, and for the few hundred dollars it is to learn, it’s definitely worth the price of picking a new hobby (and probably a lot cheaper than a therapist).