Fear cleanses.

Dat (my husband) said there was no way I was reading the TripAdvisor description correctly. There was no way that a scuba diving excursion would be designed for “first-timers.” I had said scuba, but must have meant snorkeling.

“No,” I told him. “it says they can show you how to scuba dive. First-timers. No experience necessary.”

Granted, it wasn’t the scuba diving excursion outfit itself that claimed this; it was a few TripAdvisor readers. But that was all we needed to sign up for the trip. Dat really, really wanted to do some sort of underwater fishy thing. I was really, really secretly scared to try it, but the positive reviews convinced me to give it a shot.

Our hosts, our co-divers, the boat and the ocean were all very nice. Captain Joe played classic rock on his radio, turning the best songs up loud as we sped away from the marina. The sun and breeze made love to my skin as I shoehorned myself into a wet suit. On our way out to the unseasonably choppy midseas, Eric and Jeff showed us how to work the masks and the respirators. “When you start going down the line…” they’d say, over and over in explanation. I didn’t know what line they meant, but decided I’d figure it all out eventually.

I was a little bit nervous. The wet plastic of the mask pressed unevenly against my nostrils, and the respirator didn’t seem to like my inhalations. “Clamp down with your teeth,” Dat said. “Make a tight seal with your lips,” Jeff said. That, plus refraining from snorting the water, plus trying to look like I wasn’t afraid. It was a lot to multi-task.

They said not to get nervous and I said I wasn’t nervous and they said they knew I wasn’t nervous and that was good because the worst thing you could do was get nervous. The best thing you could do was not be nervous. I wasn’t, I said. Because I was forcing myself to breathe nice and slow, like non-nervous people do. I was not clenching anything, except for my teeth when I needed to suck some more air through the freaking respirator because I needed oxygen to live. See? Everything was fine. A. O. K. Under rigid control.

We were the only first-timers on board. The other people were very nice. Two of them were from France. They didn’t speak much English. I told them one of the two French sentences I remember: “Je ne parle pas de francais.” They seemed to know what I meant. (My other French sentence is “Ou est le w.c.?” but I decided to save that one for later.)

The non-first-timers jumped off the boat all haphazard. They came back awed and agog. The French diver said a lot of French words to her mother about the things she’d seen under the sea. It seemed really exciting. For her. I imagined being her and being excited, in a wetsuit I’d purchased myself that fit my bikini’d form like a glove. Being the kind of woman who wore bikinis with no makeup and bought serious sports equipment and traveled across oceans to partake in the oceans themselves. Bringing my mom along to photograph my exploits and enjoy the sun. I admired her.

I admired the dolphins. They seemed happy, just like most dogs do, but they were also tricksters. They knew how our boat and our cameras worked, and they made sure to do flips and spins only when our boat and cameras were facing the wrong way. “Mahalo, bitches!” they’d call as they flipped and spun. “Awww…! O-o-o-oh!” we sighed.

It was first-timer time, then. They asked who wanted to go first, me or Dat.

“Dat’s going first,” I said. They laughed, I can’t remember why. They said something about “guinea pig.” But I just remember thinking that if I watched him do it, I could do it right after him. And not be nervous. Because I was not nervous.

Dat jumped directly into the water, his head going right under, then bobbing up again, then steadily sinking down as he went along the line, which turned out to be a blue rope and not the white rope that I’d spent the last half hour watching.

As soon as he went under the water all the way, my heart started banging against the inside of my wet suit. Then Eric came to get me.

I spit out my respirator. I pulled off my mask. “I can’t go,” I said. Whispered, actually, because no one heard me and I had to say it louder.

Eric sat and tried to figure out what was wrong. Nothing was wrong, as long as I didn’t go into the water like Dat had just done. Everything was fine, as long as I stayed sitting right here.

“Are you sure?” Eric asked. He was a nice man with a very nice face, but it flashed through my mind like a savage bloody vision that I wasn’t going to let him put me into the water. His hands were at his sides. It was okay. “I’m sure,” I said.

Jeff came up – having left Dat below the surface – to pick me up. Eric had to tell him I wasn’t going. I made a joke about it, saying that I’d planned it that way all along.

Jeff went back under and Eric went up front with the others and I was left there alone with my abashedness and the people who mostly spoke French.

The woman I admired smiled sympathetically at me and said, very slowly and carefully, “The first time… my first time… I was… terrified.” It sounds beautiful when French people say words with Rs in them, but I understood that she really meant it. I also understood that she’d overcome her terror that first time, and now felt that it’d been worth it.

Dat came back early. He’d gotten some water in his respirator and asked to be pulled up. Was he okay? Yes, he was okay. “What happened to you?” he asked me. “I got too scared,” I said. “Yeah,” he told me. “When I got down there, I was thinking, ‘There’s no way Gwen could do this.’” The boat started up and pulled away. The dolphins had gone out of sight.

I felt more and more embarrassed – more like a bailing sissy failure. Jeff sat by me again and I asked him questions. “How many people end up bailing altogether, like I did?” I asked. He said maybe one of ten. He reiterated his and Eric’s belief that, if those people would just try it, they’d probably overcome the fear and enjoy it.

Because I hate the way failure tastes, I thought hard and fast and realized that the part that was actually scaring me was the suddenness of the being underwater. What if, I asked Jeff, there was a way that I could go in gradually?

Jeff’s face brightened. It was the easiest thing in the world. I didn’t have to jump in at all. I could slide in. Of course I could! They really wanted me to try it and like it and be glad that I’d done so.

“Hold up! Gwen’s going to try it!” They knew all our names, and they said my name all over the boat. Gwen’s gonna try! Gwen’s gonna do it! Gwen is brave! Gwen is not a failure!

Lickety-split, I got suited back up. Mask, respirator, flippers, vest, weights, tank. Blasting Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” the boat skidded to a halt on the choppy/happy friendly glinting waves.

Jeff jumped in to wait as Eric led me to the plank like… no, not like a pirate leading a prisoner to the gangplank. It was like… something fun. Something good. Something peaceful. Something calm. Something not nervous. I am not nervous. I am breathing slowly because I am calm. In. Out. In, dammit, with my teeth. Slowly. Out, slowly, again.

I sat on the edge of the plank. This is good, I thought. I can do this, I said in my mind. I took a moment to clear my mind. Then I slid into the water. I sank under the water.

And something went wrong.

You know what went wrong? I was under the water, and I had plastic pressing against my nose, and a big hunk of plastic clogging my mouth, and weights all over my body, and crap strapped to my feet. And that was all wrong. And so I had to get out of that situation.

You know how, in those old movies, they’d show a stable burning down and somebody having to go and save the horses? And the horses are always completely freaking out, and they don’t want to do what the person’s trying to get them to do? The person’s trying to get the rope around them and lead them out to safety, and they’re all neighing and jumping up and kicking at the person and completely having horsey mental breakdowns? And you’re thinking, “Why doesn’t that dumb-ass horse just follow the guy out?” But it can’t, because it’s too scared and rife with animal instinct.

That was me, there in the water. And poor Jeff was the guy trying to save me. And Eric was calling from the boat at both of us. “Gwen, let go of the line!” they told me. And I held the line in a death grip, because I didn’t want to sink down again. “Gwen, stop kicking your legs!” they said. And I kicked like there was no tomorrow, because I wanted to propel myself out of the water. “Gwen, keep breathing in the respirator!” I spit that respirator out of my mouth and then fought to keep my mouth above the choppy-ass waves that were higher than they’d looked from the boat, now that I was down in them, grasping and kicking and gulping salty air. Poor Jeff treaded water around me, trying to do I-don’t-know-what. I understood later that he was trying to inflate my vest so I’d float, trying to remove my flippers so I could climb the ladder. But at that moment, I only knew with my horse-brain that I had to breathe and I had to get free and I would have to rear up and kick if anyone tried to stop me. “Grab the last rung of the ladder!” they kept saying. But that rung was under the water and they obviously couldn’t see that I was dying and so I could only rely on myself and I had to save myself and I kicked and struggled and gulped and kicked and fought and grabbed….

Eventually Jeff herded me to a position where he could yank off one of my flippers and Eric could reach over the edge of the boat and rip off my stupid mask, now useless without the respirator. That did the trick, turned me human again. “Thank you!” I sobbed, finally able to breathe right. I stopped kicking and Jeff took off the other flipper, and then it was perfectly easy to climb up to safety.

I was alive.

Back at our seats, Dat comforted me by putting his arms around me and sighing, “I knew you shouldn’t have gone in. But you were brave to try. I’m proud of you, baby.”

He told me then what’d actually happened to him under the water. He’d gotten some water in his respirator, yes, I already knew that part. But then, he’d panicked. His number one instinct was to spit out the respirator and take a big breath of air. Of course there was no air outside the respirator and if he did that, he’d die.

I cringed in vicarious fear as he explained how he’d fought to overcome the urge. He’d signaled Jeff and, slowly to keep the pressure steady, made his way back up the line, breathing long and full around the water that he felt gathering near his mouth. Silently, he’d fought like hell to stay calm.

I felt like crying, imagining Dat having to go through that. I thanked God he’d had the presence of mind not to spit out his respirator. Then I felt so horrible when he said that, all the way up, he was worried about me – worried that I was coming down and that I might get scared and not be able to stay calm.

We sat with our arms around each other and smiled at the water rushing by. We were happy to be alive, proud to have survived what we now knew were survivable ordeals. Dat had learned something about himself that day: He was strong and wouldn’t crack under pressure in life-or-death situations. And I’d learned something about myself, too. It was that… um… No one would get close enough to steal my wallet if I were drowning. Yeah!

Everyone else on the boat – the hosts, the captain, four other passengers – was quiet. They were all downcast. Or maybe something other than downcast – it was hard to tell because they all avoided my gaze. Maybe they were angry and hated me for ruining the boat trip.

Jesus, I felt so horrible then. I had ruined the whole freaking boat trip. The beautiful scenery, the dolphins, everyone else’s awesome dives – they were all overshadowed now by the humiliating spectacle of my EPIC SCUBA FAIL.

Seriously, no one would even look at me. How could they? I asked myself. They’d just witnessed me acting like a wild animal or tantrum-y child. Then, as for Eric and Jeff… when I caught their eyes, they looked almost sad. I knew they were annoyed with me and maybe even stressing over the possibility of me being the kind of litigious a-hole who would sue them.

The only thing that’d stayed happy was the music. I listened to it and laughed aloud, despite everything. Because, hey — I was alive. I turned to the French maman, who regarded me with distant maternal concern. With short words and an elaborate pantomime, I told her that I was regretful and wished everyone would be happy again. She pantomimed that everyone was fine and I shouldn’t worry about it. It was no biggie.

The next time Eric and Jeff walked by, I flagged them down and apologized profusely, and thanked them for saving me from the horrible fate that everyone else on the boat had been able to handle. They said no apology or thanks were necessary. Everything was okay.

The French woman and the couple from Bulgaria by way of Boston stayed busy with their gear, so I left them alone. I stood at the rail and listened to the music that Capt. Joe had turned loud again. I thought about approaching his section of the boat and asking how often he saw people fail so spectacularly at diving. Or maybe I’d compliment his taste in music. But Capt. Joe seemed married to the sea, by the way he kept scanning the water and ignoring the rest of us, so I left him alone, too.

I looked out at the water and sang along quietly with The Who and Steve Miller. I was alive. I giggled quietly to myself. Dat came up and put his arm around me and we absorbed the awesomeness of our surroundings.

After a few songs, I saw that we were actually waiting for one of the other divers to return. He’d been gone for a long time. Capt. Joe was scanning the water for this guy, revving the engine for this guy to hear. Selfishly relieved that we were all focused on someone else now, I scanned the water like hungry seagull. When Casey finally came up (wetsuit-less, his gear over nothing but swim trunks and chest hair), he was sheepish about having kept us waiting so long. He’d had some kind of issue with something or other, but now he was okay. Eric and Jeff helped him put away his tank, and then Capt. Joe drove us away.

“Check this out.” Casey sat by me and showed me the video he’d taken of manta rays and giant fish at the bottom of the sea. It was totally awesome. Afterwards I told him, “Hey, you missed it… I tried to dive and totally failed. I had a major panic attack in the water and everyone was freaking out. It was hilarious.”

“Really? Aw, man.” He frowned. So did I. Casey had moved to Oahu from Colorado two years before and took this diving trip as often as he could. He and I had bonded, earlier, over our shared affinity for classic rock. He was a cool guy, and I’d been willing to sacrifice my dignity to get a laugh out of him and cheer everyone up. But instead, he looked disappointed.

“It’s okay!” I told him. “I’m alive. It’s all good now. I just feel shitty because Eric and Jeff are sad.”

“Naw, they’re fine,” he said. “They just wanted you to have a good time. Did you have a good time, at least, before that happened?”

“Yeah! I’m still having a good time now!” I couldn’t explain it, but I was having a very good time. Maybe it was my newfound pride in my survival instincts, or maybe it purely the post-panic adrenaline rush, but I was so happy at that moment. Who wouldn’t be happy, out on a boat at beautiful sea, with dolphins and music all around?

The next day, Eric emailed us the underwater pictures they’d taken of Dat, of fish, of a sunken ship or car or something, and thankfully none of me flailing like a rabid walrus. Eric said in his email that he hoped we wouldn’t give up on diving, and that the next time we came to Oahu, he would take us out again for free.

I would gladly pay to take his trip again – even the exact same trip, with the dolphins and the French and the Bulgarians by way of Boston, my new friend Casey and taciturn Capt. Joe – with everything except me trying to dive. The trip was worth the money with no diving at all.

And it finally came to me, then, why Eric had looked so sad.

I thought back on his face. It’d reminded me of another trauma – the faces of my old Physical Education teachers. Particularly, the faces they made every time I struck out or got hit in the face with a volleyball or collapsed on the track in sweaty near-tears. At the time, I’d thought that my gym teachers hated me for being such an eff-up. They hated my weakness, and they made me try again and again because they wanted to torture me.

And then I went to college and saw the people my age who went in for their P.E. teacher certifications. Saw that they really liked this physical stuff and wanted to do it for a living.

And now I see that they wanted more than that. They wanted to show little kids the joy of sports and running and doing stuff outside. And I would not see the joy in it. And they couldn’t understand that. And it hurt.

The look on Eric’s face was the same look I get on my face when I meet someone who doesn’t like to read, and I say, “Well, you just haven’t found the right book yet,” and I find what I think is the right book for them, and they try to read it, and it just doesn’t work. And I’m upset. And they think it’s because I hate them for not being like me. But it’s not. I’m just sad that they can’t feel what I feel when I do something that makes me so happy.

I don’t see myself diving again any time in the near future. But I will always be grateful to Eric for taking the time to try to show me how awesome it is. I did see the awesomeness of it in everyone else’s faces. And I was happy just watching them be happy.

It’s good to fail sometimes. It’s good to feel fear and then overcome it, one way or another.

Maybe next year we will go back and I’ll try snorkeling….

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Posted in stories, trauma on 06/19/2009 11:40 pm


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