In Over our Heads

As I was driving yesterday, I was listening to a DNTO broadcast that featured the question “When did you get in over your head?”

It was freakishly a propos, since I was on my way home from a failed attempt to pass my Open Water certification dives.  I did the class and pool just fine 3 weeks ago, and I was weirdly blasé about transferring those skills to the lake.  But at the same time, I had this undercurrent of fear I wasn’t really paying attention to.  After the class/pool weekend, I’d had a couple of nightmares about inhaling through my regulator and finding water instead of air.  I woke up from those dreams pretty panicked, and went so far as to research drowning deaths from recreational diving.  (Turns out, mostly people die because they get trapped in caves or wrecks, or have heart attacks or something — very few people drown from sheer carelessness.  Strangely, this did not reassure me much).

So expecting to be able to ignore this current,  I hied myself off to my dives yesterday, in a grungy little lake about an hour away from Toronto.  It was a bad start — I got 20 minutes into the drive and realized I’d forgotten my booties, which meant I had to turn around and ended up late.  Then, when I found everyone, my teacher was impatient to get into the water.  I was fiddling with my rental gear and my assigned buddy pointed out that my main air hose and my alternate (the “octopus”) were switched, and it would be hard for me to recover the main one when I took it out underwater to demonstrate various skills.  That sort of made me twitchy.  My buddy’s husband was a certified diver, and was helping her into his gear, and he turned my tank around and re-rigged it up.  I said I though the valve was supposed to face the other way, he said it was okay, and I shrugged.  Wriggled into the 7 mm wet suit, fussed with the weight belt and had trouble with the buckle, got my gear on, and flailed about in the shallow water trying to put on my fins. The opposite of graceful.

As we were being briefed, bobbing in the water, I noted to the instructor that I thought my octopus and main air hose were reversed.  I showed him and he half laughed — “who’s your buddy?  this tank is on backwards — you woulda sent her to her death if she’d gone like that.”

Well, my buddy was a nervous, fragile, sweet Polish woman, who looked utterly terrified.  I did not feel confident.

Clumsy and confused, I tried to follow directions for the first skill, a surface activity.  I heard the instructions wrong and did it wrong.  Then we descended down a line, bang.  And as soon as I got to the muddy plastic platform at the bottom of the lake, I froze.  I couldn’t relax and breathe, and every part of my body was screaming GO UP GO UP GO UP.  I tried to relax, slow down my breathing, but the dark and the murk were terrifying.  I released all of the air out of my vest, but I was still bouncing up off the platform every time I breathed.  As I was desperately trying not to panic, the instructor immediately launched into skill testing.  I watched three people do mask skills, then he pointed at me.  I was still barely breathing, silt and cold green water pressing in on me, but I tried to comply.  I was supposed to partially flood my mask, but I immediately fully flooded it and couldn’t see.  As I tried to release the water, I inhaled through my nose.  And… panicked, headed straight up for the top.

The worst thing to do as a diver, of course, heading up too quickly. We were only down about 25 ft, so there was no harm.  But completely the wrong impulse. Eyes squeezed shut, I grasped for the surface, the instructor trying to hold me back in the water and slow me down.

On the surface, I remembered to inflate my BCD to get buoyant.  Weirdly detached, I watched one of my fins pop off and float off behind me. My mask was pushed back on my face as I clutched for air, the instructor following me up to yell at me for going to the surface.  You Can’t Do that.  “I know, I panicked, I know I’ll fail, I just couldn’t stay down.”

“Well, compose yourself and come back down.”  He disappeared.

With one fin, I kicked for shore, completely unable to figure out what to do. I wanted to do this because I want to be able to go much further than snorkeling, to play with Finch in reefs and magic.  And for my own sense of tenacity, I wanted to overcome it. I *like* being “the kind of person” who takes on new things, feels like I can pretty much do anything I set my mind to. But it felt the same as the time I’d panicked rappelling, suddenly unable to let go of the edge of the cliff and lower myself over.

Sitting on the shore, disconsolately watching my lost yellow fin bob around 30 metres away, I realized what the rappelling experience and this one had in common — I hadn’t really trusted the infrastructure, the instructor. I’ve hiked in many frightening mountains, but always with people I trust.  I bungee jumped in New Zealand because I trusted the robust, hot kiwi athletic gods running the site.  My first snorkel, I went into very deep water because I was with Finch, and I relaxed, and trusted it.  Every time I’ve overcome physical fear to do something, I’ve had a sense of the ground under my feet, the safety superstructure, as trustworthy.

I didn’t really trust this instructor.  He was not unsafe, but there was no space for relaxing and finding my own rhythm. Not his fault, really, but he was clearly there to check things off the list and certify us, not make us more comfortable with the skills, not be nurturing in any way.  And apparently, I needed nurturing.

As I sat on the bank, I felt in over my head in… everything.  So much movement around the world, so many things I’ve learned in the past couple of years, so much to be responsible for, so much client work to navigate and juggle and work at my very edge at right now.  The nagging under-rhythm of a gravely ill friend, and steady drum of concern for him.

The rest of my group surfaced, and the instructor did check in.  He suggested that I just use the time to make myself comfortable in the water, that in the second dive, I just spend time on the platform, playing with buoyancy, do the skills if I felt like it, swim around with the group.  So I did.  Added more weight to my belt, asked the instructor very nicely to see if he could find my mask and snorkel, which I’d also lost in my ridiculous panic.

Taking the pressure off having to fulfill the certification requirements this weekend made the second dive… easier.  Not easy, but manageable. Still freakishly foreign and horrible, but calmer. I was able to stay on the platform, to allow my regulator to fall out of my mouth and retrieve it without panic. To swim with a reasonable amount of control for 20 minutes or so around the bottom of the lake.  To pause, even, to note a few perch swimming around. (Without wanting to eat them).  But I couldn’t force myself to remove my regulator on purpose, to let go of the air I was sucking like the teat of Life Itself.

And, to be a diver, I need to be able to demonstrate coping if it pops out, getting to the surface without air, switching air sources.  Of course it’s important — and I couldn’t force myself to take it out.  Much like I couldn’t force myself over the side of a cliff at one point.

Realizing, on my way home, that my path to certification has to be a different one. I can’t just jump in without adjusting. And I need it to be with someone I trust, who I feel is really somehow invested in my success.

So I booked private dives two weekends from now with a young woman from the store who has a different kind of approach.  And I’ll see if I can find that space to feel like over my head provides a perspective that opens something up, doesn’t make me feel, literally, as if I could drown.


2 thoughts on “In Over our Heads

  1. A very insightful post. It is so important to take the time to reflect when things go wrong, and figure out how and why, and whether there is a pattern underlying our difficulties that needs to be addressed. Your experience – and more importantly, your ability to identify the pattern – will undoubtedly influence your future experiences in a positive way. Thanks for sharing the learning!

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