It’s the time of year to talk about fear — ghosts and zombies and monsters, oh my! This year, however, fear has a different meaning for me, because this year, for the first time in a very long time, I was scared.
Let’s be honest – there’s not that much to legitimately fear these days. Our lives are comfortable, and those things that don’t fit into that comfort are mostly easy to ignore or avoid, to push into the far recesses of the mind. My fears are all vague and cushy, things like not achieving my full potential. I get nervous before speaking in public and could do without the dread that accompanies a Brazilian wax, but true fear? Heart-stopping, breath-stopping, absolutely-can’t-be-ignored fear? Foreign, a far-away idea, a country I’d read about in a multitude of true crime novels but never bothered to visit.
What happened this year is that I decided my husband and I were going to learn how to scuba dive. Not just learn, actually – we were going to get REALLY INTO scuba diving and start taking regular dive trips all over the world. We were going to swim with humpback whales in the Tonga, explore wrecks in the Red Sea, come face-to-face with great white sharks off the South African coast. Adventure called to me; the more dangerous the better. Scuba diving would only be the beginning, I thought – the gateway to base jumping and hang gliding and skydiving. I couldn’t wait. We signed up for a certification program, booked a trip to Belize, and bought all our equipment. My plan was set in motion and everything was good.
Then my plan, along with my adventurous spirit, crashed spectacularly in a 12-foot deep pool in a rec center in suburban Chicago.
I discovered in that pool, all suited up with my new fins and new snorkel and mask, thrilled to be getting certified at last, that I was too scared to breathe underwater. I got to the bottom of the pool and just flipped out. I could breathe but I felt like I couldn’t. I felt crushed under there, like the surface was unreachable, like the world was closing in on me from every side. I closed my eyes and tried to engage the calming breaths I used in yoga, but I couldn’t breathe through my nose. Panic. I opened my eyes and saw the instructor watching me, indicating with hand gestures that I should lift my mask away from my face and allow some water to get in and then clear it out. At that moment, it felt like he was asking me to die. With water now in my eyes on top of everything else, the panic rose until I lost my sense. Shaking my head violently at the instructor (no no no no no no NO), I started frantically kicking my way up. At the surface, I ripped my snorkel and mask out, gulping in the air like I might never be able to get enough into my lungs. I was crying hysterically, and my dreams of the adventurous scuba life were dead.
Because I had only made it about an hour into a 4-hour training, I then had the pleasure of de-suiting, discarding all my equipment, and waiting wet-haired and soaked in failure for my husband in the lobby of said suburban rec center for several hours. I stared blankly at the moms dropping their small sons off for hockey practice and let the reality of the situation sink in. For the first time in my adult life, I couldn’t do something that I really wanted to do – not because I was physically incapable, not because somebody else was stopping me, but because I was too afraid.
When you’re merely nervous about something, a good pep talk is often enough to get you past your apprehensions to where you need to be. I have clichés ready for myself when I’m feeling jittery about teaching a class or giving a presentation. You can do it, I say, and I believe myself. This was a different situation altogether. Deep in fear, I could only think, I can’t. I can’t. I absolutely can’t. True fear takes away your ability to reason, to step outside yourself and rationally consider your options. And for me, that was the scariest thing — that my mind wasn’t strong enough to control my body, that it could be paralyzed and rendered useless, trapped in a white padded room screaming I can’t I can’t I can’t.
Back on dry land, I grew to accept my failure. I had expected on some level that once I had gained some distance from the situation and my fear, I would be ready to gear up and try again, but this was not the case. The panic, the dread – they remained easily accessible and fresh in my mind. I made a lot of jokes about it and was objectively disappointed that I would never scuba dive, but truth was that I was relieved. Yes, I had wanted to scuba dive, but that want had been replaced by a bigger, deeper, and more demanding desire – to never ever feel so afraid again.
A couple of months after the Terrible Suburban Pool Incident, we arrived in Belize. My husband had made plans to finish his certification at a dive center there, and I accompanied him to confirm the plans. The woman working at the front desk verified that he was all set and then turned to me. “And what are you doing?” she asked. “Oh,” I said. “I can’t. I’m too scared.”
The woman — her name was Shelley — refused to accept this. “Just come,” she said. “We’ll work with you one-on-one. You’ll get it.”
I’ll spare you all the gruesome details, but the essence was this: I got it. I hated it, at first. I tried to quit dozens of times in my mind and at least 5 times out loud. Each time, Shelley, who had left the front desk to be my personal underwater savior, told me to stop and breathe. Each time, she told me that I couldn’t quit. Each time, she told me it would be worth it. And over the course of two days underwater, I learned this about fear: conquering it is not about getting rid of it. It’s not about ceasing to be afraid. It’s about standing in the middle of your fear and learning how to breathe. Learning how to see outside of it, beyond it. On my final certification dive, I opened my eyes underwater and for the first time, really saw where I was — and it was beautiful. Schools of fish, every color brighter than the last. A moray eel, terrifying and pulsing, weaving its way along the reef. An entire world available, once I learned how to breathe.
A lot of times, the thing that keeps us from making a lifestyle change is fear. We’re afraid to start a new workout program because we might not be good at it. We’re afraid to attempt to put our health first because we might fail. We might look weak. We might be unable to lift weights as heavy as we would like, or run as fast as we think we ought to be able to; we might look foolish, we might mess up. We might try and then have to admit we were unable to do it. It’s easier and more comfortable to stay on the couch — that is undoubtedly true. But if we stand in the middle of our fear and breathe, we open up the possiblity of another world — one filled with new strengths, new abilities, and new power.
If you know what I am talking about, please hear this: Try. Try again. Find your Shelley, someone who will hold your hand underwater and remind you to breathe. One of my favorite quotes, which came to life for me after this experience, is from Anais Nin: “Life expands or contracts in direct proportion to one’s courage.” It’s hard, but oh, when you are standing in the center of your fear, eyes wide and seeing your expanded world; I promise, you’ll know it’s worth it.