Notes on Diving and FEAR

Dive, diving, diver

I am not a fish. I was born in May under the sign of the bull, Taurus. I like to hike with my two feet firmly rooted to Mother Earth. Diving does not come naturally to me. If you had asked me only a few short years ago if I would ever learn to dive, the answer would have been a very firm no. Like, “No! Not in this life time or the next.”

I am a person that hyperventilated in a cove I was swimming in once because everyone was pointing to where I was. I assumed that a shark was coming to eat me. I sputtered, through gasping breaths,  to my friend to get me the hell out of there and proceeded to have a massive panic attack. What was I doing in the water in the first place? Trying to conquer my fear of water of course. I didn’t go back in the ocean for a long time. Actually, probably not until I learned to dive. Oh…it was a sea lion they were pointing at by the way.

I learned to dive a little less then four years ago in Fiji while Al and I were staying at The Blue Lagoon Beach Resort in the Yasawa islands. Something I never thought I would do.

dive shop, blue lagoon beach resort,
Blue Lagoon Beach Resort Dive Shop

It took an insane amount of courage for me to break past my fear to learn to dive. But it was my year of (pardon my language) Fuck Fear! I was sick of fear taking ahold and stopping me from doing the things I wanted to do in my life. I embraced the “feel the fear and do it anyway” mentality and went for it.

It didn’t go over so well when I told my dive instructor that I was terrified of the water. I could tell he was thinking, “Oh God… not one of these.” But we persisted and even though I inhaled water during my skills testing and bolted straight up out of the water (you can’t do that on a dive – very bad), we prevailed and got me to the diving part of training.

On my first dive, Josh – my instructor, told me that I had no jobs to do other than to stay alive. To my amusement and his (I’m sure), I did just that AND actually somewhat enjoyed myself. Turns out being “in” the water feels much better than being “on” the water at the surface. I liked that!

There are four dives that are done to become dive certified. My second dive was pretty good and normal. I flooded my mask and then removed the water just fine. My third dive is memorable in that I was seventeen meters (55ft) under the sea, when again, practicing my skills, taking off my mask and putting it back on again. I chocked on water. This time though I did not bolt up and out of the water. I knew I couldn’t. It wasn’t safe and I would be in a whole other kind of trouble if I did. I latched my hands onto Josh’s shoulders and his latched onto mine. I proceeded to cough and choke the water out of my lungs as I watched my life flash before me until I realized I was going to be ok.

I had coughed out the water and everything was normalizing. I gave Josh’s shoulders a squeeze to let him know I had calmed down. He took his hand across his forehead in a gesture of “wiping sweat off” and “Thank God!” and we proceeded to finish my skills tests and enjoy the rest of the dive. That was a hard one. Especially because Al and four strangers were there watching me choke. Funny how embarrassment can still come to your mind in a time of great difficulty such as that.

My main “problem” is that I am a nose breather just like a cat. You will never see a cat breathing with it’s mouth open unless there is a problem. I am the same way. It does not come natural to me to turn off the passage way from my nose to my lungs and just breath in and out of my mouth. My friend Rebecca recently told me to put my dive gear on in the living room and practice breathing while I watch t.v.. A good plan I think because ideally it’s just an issue of conditioning and muscle straightening.

I digress though. Dive four went as smooth as it can for a beginner diver. I retested my mask taking off and performed it adequately along with the rest of the open water diver skills needed. Josh officially pronounced me a diver chick.

I only got one more dive in before leaving Fiji. Then I did not step in the water again until reaching Kwajalein two years later. In the seven weeks I was here, I only did two dives. One was a refresher and the other was my last week after weeks of my friend Cliff trying to get me out in the water. Why only two dives? 1. I didn’t have the equipment I needed and I was trying not to spend money. 2. I had let fear creep back in again. This was the main reason and it happened so easily that it was hard to recognize.

After Kwajalein I met up with Al and we eventually made our way to Bali and did three dives there. This included my first wreck dive. The U.S.S. Liberty sunk off the coast of Tulamben. So close to the shore we walked in. When I am with Al on dives I feel very comfortable. Mostly because he is a fish, an Aquarius and the ocean seems to be his native habitat. We dove with a great company out of Amed called, Adventure Divers Bali. I highly recommend them. It was an excellent experience. Great dive equipment, great dive masters, lovely setting to prepare and drink tropical drinks between dives, very personable, thoughtful and friendly owners.

We had such a great time in Bali that we decided to visit our beloved Nacula island in Fiji before heading home. Only this time, things had changed. We did not have a good experience. The new head dive master seemed rather cavalier and not concerned about safety. We went to do a boat dive but they rushed to get me outfitted in two suits because they were so beyond well-worn I had to double up.  A dive mask was grabbed quickly for me in the last minute and off we were in an aluminum boat flying over rough water to our destination.

On the boat ride they had us wearing our dive weights so we would be ready faster when we got to the dive spot. This was very bad. If we had fallen over, we would have quickly sunk. I was a wreck of nerves when we arrived. I had to pry my hands open off the hand rails, the double wetsuit configuration was pushing onto my throat making me want to gag. By the time I got in the water I was hyperventilating so hard that my ill fitted mask was literally popping off my face with every breath. I aborted the dive and got back in the boat. We did not dive again on that trip and Al reported the problems and our concerns to the resort owners who took the situation very seriously.

That was the kind of thing that could have ruined diving for someone forever. Fortunately I was able to connect it just to that situation and move forward. My advice here is to trust your instincts. If things seem amiss or dodgy – do not partake.

It seems that Al and I have gotten into a habit of international travel every two years. I am once again working on the island of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands and he is exploring France. This time, diving was absolutely going to happen for me many many times. I wanted in these beautiful warm waters and I have been determined to do so each weekend. I mean, how many people get to say that they dove in the beautiful waters of the Marshall Islands? Not many. I’m very fortunate.

It’s been a month since getting here and I have been on five dives. This puts my dive numbers up to fifteen total dives. Not much in the grand scheme of life but fifteen more than I ever thought I would do.

Two have been walk-outs at Emon beach. Just walking into the lagoon with our dive gear on. Another was a Japanese wreck dive in the lagoon, also a walk in. Yesterday I was invited to join in on a boat dive by my friend Rebecca. It was very cool!

We took off to a couple of other islands in the atoll, Carlos and Carlson, and dove off the reef on the ocean side where the reef drops away to the 6000 foot deep ocean. It’s why there isn’t a big problem here if there is a Tsunami warning. Deep ocean = inability for waves to gain strength. Everything was so large and vast, the water was so clear and there were tons of fish, including sharks – white tipped reef sharks. I had this odd fish in an aquarium feeling going on but in the most pleasant way.

dive, diving, diving marshall islands, aquarium
Karen in the aquarium ©Rebecca Bradley

My favorite things about diving:

  1. All the beautiful and amazing reef fish who seem to just accept that I am there passing through their world. Sometimes they are pretty curious and actually hang out.
  2. Coral. Coral is just so beautiful and so variable. There are so many amazing kinds in so many amazing colors and shapes.
  3. Manta rays and turtles. I love both!
  4. The meditative vibe of it all. Once you get your buoyancy dialed in and your breathing figured out, diving can be very meditative. You are in the moment, hearing your breath go in and out, calm and smooth. You are floating in water and looking at so many amazing things right there, in the moment.
  5. The sheer amazement that we have figured out how to breath under water and experience this entirely different world. Wow! I mean it, WOW! It’s a freaking miracle and we get to experience it.
  6. Camaraderie. You are part of a group – a specialized group at that. A group that you trust to have your back and you have theirs.  Fellow adventurers of the sea. Risk takers – measured risks but risks no less. Fellow people who like to live their lives and explore. One of my tribes.
Giant clam
Giant clam © Rebecca Bradley
Red carpet anemone and clown fish
Red carpet anemone and clown fish ©Rebecca Bradley
Dive buddies
The very happy post dive Cliff, Karen and Tammy ©Karen Landes

What I don’t like or rather, what I am still learning about diving:

  1. Getting water in my mask and having to deal with that. Still need to practice that skill until I’m utterly confident in my ability to handle that situation, should my mask get kicked off in a dive.
  2. How am I going to react if something goes wrong? What if my regulator starts free- flowing, my weight belt falls off or my tank falls out of my BCD? These are fairly simple things that can and do happen. What if a real dive emergency happens?
  3. Learning to read the dive computer better and understanding all the information it is giving me.
  4. Becoming proficiently literate in dive hand signals. It doesn’t help when people use different signs to tell how much oxygen is in their tanks. Not to mention the different languages of metric and imperial measurement systems.
  5. The anticipatory anxiety I feel before each dive. More on that later in this post.
  6. I really don’t want to see anything that can eat me (i.e. sharks – big sharks) but I’m told it’s really cool. I’m not sure. I saw a guy in Fiji who had his arm four years ago but two years ago he didn’t. Didn’t help that he was chumping the water to attract sharks but still…

I have had a problem with my ears equalizing but now that I have been becoming more comfortable with diving, this is becoming less of an issue. I’ve figured that one out. It’s more about relaxing than an actual functional problem.

The main problem that I have with diving is still FEAR. Anxiety if you prefer but they are one in the same. Not on the dive though. Once I’m on my way I am not anxious, more like fully aware instead. It’s from the moment a dive gets scheduled until my body hits the water where the problem lies.

The fear is a little something I like to call, anticipatory anxiety. I’ve been plagued with this my entire life. It’s why I’m such a darn good planner. I have to be to survive and thrive through my fear.

To give you an example of what it’s like. Here is what I wrote prior to my boat dives yesterday:

I wish I was one of those people who doesn’t get nervous before I do something new. I’m about to go on my first boat dive on Kwajalein. Not my first boat dive ever but first one here and with people I have not dove with before.

I’ve been anxious about it all week. Looking for excuses to get out of it. Maybe I don’t feel well, wishing myself ill. That is sick.

Last night I had a “pull myself up by the seat of my pants” kind of conversation and said, I am going. No matter what! All these nerves, all these crazy ass stories my mind is making up of what could happen are not real.

Anticipatory anxiousness should have killed every desire I have had to live my life but fortunately it hasn’t. Because I am aware of it. I recognize it for what it is and I can move past it.

I’m reminded of a lesson on fear conducted in the Landmark Forum always when I am confronted with this. A lesson about the difference between real fear and perceived fear. This is absolutely perceived fear – of the irrational persuasion.

So here I am, a ball of nerves. I think I have pooped at least five times this morning. Guess that is a good thing because I was wondering what do I do if I have to go while on the boat? My palms are sweating. I feel like vomiting. My breathing is erratic and my heart is pumping hard.

I have dotted all my i’s and crossed all my t’s. I am prepared. I ate some food, considering grabbing a snack for the boat, I have sunscreened myself, I even brought a jacket in case I get cold on the boat after the dive. I have electrolyte capsules, my hair is braided. My wound on my ankle is covered. My equipment is in order.

I’m going out with very good and safe divers. Rebecca is aware of my nerves. It’s best to not keep that to yourself. Telling someone lends to compassion and lets me know I have someone on the inside.

Trying to practice mindful breathing and being in the moment but I know the only thing that will calm me down is going and doing this and coming back on the other side all happy and thrilled for myself. Pushing past my fear and having an amazing experience. So I go, dread and all because I know the process and I refuse to allow unfounded fear to stop me.

This wasn’t exactly easy for me to share this written description of my anxiety but I wanted to. Regardless of how embarrassing it is.

Partly because I am proud of myself. I am proud that I can be that much wrapped up in my head with needless, baseless, irrational fear and still go out and dive. I’ve learned to see it for what it is.

Advanced Open Water Diver Manual
Advanced Open Water Diver Manual ©Karen Landes

And with that said… I have decided to throw a wrench in the face of my fear. I like to piss it off that way. I have signed up to take the Advanced Open Water Diver course. Something they – the Kwajalein Scuba Club, likes (really wants you to do) if you dive here for more than a month. My dive buddy, Cliff, is the instructor. He has well over three thousand dives under his belt. Four hundred of them here on Kwaj. So I feel safe and comfortable under the water with him.

In this course I will learn about:

  1. Night dives
  2. Wreck dives
  3. Deep dives – 60 to 130 feet on Kwaj.
  4. Navigation
  5. Peak Performance Buoyancy

God help me! Mainly because of my anticipatory nervous wreck syndrome. My goal was to go on a night dive this time on Kwaj so I will be doing that. I have already done two wreck dives so I will learn how to do that better. It would have been super easy to just cruise along that reef edge yesterday and ended up at 100 feet if I had not been watching my computer. I’m great at map and compass on land so I assume that skill will translate to water. The Peak Performance Buoyancy is something I really want to attain. I would like to be a neutral buoyancy Buddha under the sea!

So I’m moving forward – not fearlessly but through my fear regardless because as Hellen Keller says, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Helen Keller quote
I thank Al for first sharing these brave words with me.

Update: 4/26/2017: I have postponed my Advanced Diving Course for now. I know. I know… You all think the anticipatory anxiety got the best of me right? Well, I thought that too. Let me tell you, it was working my nerves pretty darn hard but, that’s not it. It’s something else. I hate to say it. It’s RESPONSIBILITY. Ugh! That was hard to get out. Long and short of it is (maybe I will go into detail in another post), I came to Kwajalein to accomplish a couple of things. 1. Pay down my bills 2. Get one of my business ideas off the ground – so I can live into the lifestyle I would like. Turns out I’m more afraid of making something of my life than  I am of scuba diving. LOL! So I have recommitted to spending my time moving forward in that area. Maybe just maybe I will get far enough and feel responsible enough to reward my hard work with my advanced diving certificate. There are still three more months to enjoy Kwajalein. 

Update: 5/30/2017: Advanced Diving Course complete! My friend Dan, a scuba instructor, made me an offer I could not refuse. That and being stuck in my room for over a month consistently working towards by goals had me needing a little balance over the Memorial Day weekend. I’m still in shock! Me… an advanced diver. Never thought this would happen! I did great on all my dives but I was hit hard with the anticipatory anxiety prior to the deep dive. I took it for what it was, utilized my Buddhist teacher’s breathing techniques to stay present and get out of my head, threw some humor in the mix (thanks to my dive buddies) and got in the water – deep! 98 feet to be exact. Goodness! They were smart enough to actually go down two more feet to get triple digits. LOL! I was still in survival mode. Something I am sure will diminish as I get more and more used to deep dives. Cheers!

8 thoughts on “Notes on Diving and FEAR

  1. Hey Karen,

    I had completely forgotten about this and never got around to posting it on Kwaj Net Facebook. I will post it very soon. Are you still on Kwaj? If so, how much longer is your tour and how much more diving have you done? If not, where are you now?

    Oh, I don’t know if you’ve heard by now, but I finally got the new website up and my latest achievement on it is developing an online store, “The Kwaj Shop”. I have many more designs/products to add to the shop and a TON of more content to add to the overall site itself. However, it is ready for public viewing/shopping. Check it out: https://www.kwajnet.com

    Thanks,

    Bob

    Like

    1. Hi Bob! No worries! My temporary duty assignment as Vet Tech on the island ended in July. I am in Montana now. I ended up getting my Advanced Open Water Dive certificate and went down to 130feet as my deepest dive. I left the island with a total of 30 dives under my belt. I really miss the diving! Cheers to you and thanks for the details on the site. I will check it out!

      Like

    1. …dang autocorrect… Should be too blase. Anyhow, keep it up, and if anticipation fear gets too much just remember the meditative aspects of floating around in the big aquarium. And if you want to be a true advanced diver, keep diving
      and expand your comfort zone.

      Like

    1. Hi Bob! Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. You sure are good at finding all the Kwajalein posts out there. LOL! Feel free to share. I’m honored that you would like to. Take care! – Karen

      Like

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