The hardest things I’ve ever done in my life—writing my thesis, giving my best friend’s eulogy, moving to Indonesia for 9 months—have generally happened slowly, gradually, almost inevitably. They were certainly the most difficult tasks and decisions I’ve ever undertaken but at no point did I stop and truly think I could not continue. I have now done something that breaks that pattern and I think that diving is idiosyncratically the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Let me start from the beginning.
As soon as I learned I would be in Manado I’ve been told by friends, family, teachers, and other Fulbrighters that I had to take advantage of this incredible opportunity and dive in some of the most beautiful sites in the world. Once Sam and I settled into Manado we signed up for a PADI Open Water Divers Certification class with a man named Frans who had certified the group of ETAs the year before us. After a week of bookwork we finally came to our first in-water lesson! Mind you, this in-water lesson starts in a swimming pool.
After take a couple mikrol to the Murex Diving Resort, we walked down an almost hidden path into a beautiful lush sight. Pebble paths wound through soft green grass and patches of flowers and canopies shaded cafes and eating areas. At the edge of a kidney bean-shaped pool grew tropical trees where some fabulous jungle birds hopped and squawked and chased butterflies. This is what I imagine people think of when they think of “Indonesian paradise”—this scene was the poster boy of Southeast Asian vacations. And it was also the site of our first lesson!
After showing that we could swim some number of meters (I lost track of the laps) and float for 10 minutes we suited up into our wetsuits and learned how to put together and take apart (and put together and take apart and finally put together again) our scuba gear. When we finally had everything on, all the gadgets checked, and all the tubes streamlined against our body we hopped into the pool and started learning essential skills like being able to take our regulator (the thing we breathe through) out of our mouth, find it, and replace it again and clearing our masks of water.
Things were going just fine and dandy until actually wait no, nothing was fine and nothing was dandy and oh my god my heart is racing and I feel like I can’t breathe and I need to get to the surface (which was barely a few feet above me) NOW. I spit out my regulator, pulled off my mask and took deep breaths of sweet sweet unregulated air. Stop. Breathe. Okay let’s try again. And down we go, kneeling in the medium-shallow part of the pool learning skills. I’m okay. I’m okay. Oh no I’m not okay and up to the surface I go. I can feel the panic rising in my chest and throat and I snap the mask off my face breathing in deeply through my nose. Frans tells me to take a moment, to take off my BCD and tank and just rest for a moment while he continues the lesson with Sam.
I rest on the side of the pool and a moment becomes many and I’m spending many minutes trying to calm down. Unfortunately “trying to calm down” turns into thinking about the panic I felt under water and imagining that panic somewhere in the ocean many meters from the surface and all the panic comes back up. Salty water mixes with the chlorine when I think about either having to go back underwater again or having to quit. I think about all the opportunities I’ll miss out on, about wondering who will be Sam’s dive buddy, about the inevitable FOMO, but most of all about how disappointed I am in myself for being unable to get past the fear and panic. But whenever I try to calm myself and think “yes, I can do this, I CAN do this” my chest tightens and we are all back to square one. And the dread seeps in as I realize that maybe I just can’t do this.
After maybe half an hour, maybe an hour (time moves in strange ways when you’re freaking out), Frans and Sam come back and ask how I’m doing. Shakily I try to explain that I don’t think I can do it. But Frans is patient. He tells me that he doesn’t want to rush me into anything. That his daughter was like this at first too. And somehow he convinces me to try it again, and to just try breathing and nothing else.
And for the first time in my life I must directly face a fear. A fear I was never really aware of, a fear the feels crippling, a fear that stands in the way between me and the things I want to do.
I put the vest back on and the tank, I reluctantly pull the mask back over my head, position the regulator in my mouth, and dip my head beneath the water. I try breathing. I try breathing and it’s scary and I feel that spiky beast of panic begin to sink its claws in. But before I escape back to the surface (less than a foot above me) I focus on that long exhale….ahhhhhh…… purging the carbon dioxide from my lungs and throat and mouth. Frans has told me it is the hyperventilation that increases the intake of carbon dioxide, reduces the oxygen that gets to the brain, and exacerbates the panic. So in and ouuuuuut and in and ouuuuuuut.
I do this until I freak out and come up to the surface. But this time I go back down again and last a little longer. And by the third time Frans is taking me for a swim around the pool and we are practicing equalizing ears and maintaining neutral buoyancy.
By the end of the day we have done our first Open Water Training Dive out in the ocean. By the end of the day I have seen starfish and lionfish and trumpet fish. By the end of the day I have demonstrated skills like recovering my regulator and clearing a half-filled mask all while underwater in the ocean. And by the end of the day I am as proud as I have ever been of myself.
And by the next week Sam and I are doing our third and fourth Training Dives out at Bunaken Island—Manado’s number one tourist attraction for divers around the world. That day we dive with a wall of coral on one side and The Blue on the other. We make friends with other divers and see all sorts of wonderful wildlife including three sightings of a sea turtle! Everything is so worth it and I feel as if I have experienced one of the wonders of the world.
But to be honest: it’s still scary. Every time I go back under I can feel that tightness in my chest and throat and the need for a full breath of air. But I continue those long exhales and distract myself with pretty coral and interesting fish and I can control it. But that fear and discomfort and the verge of panic is still there. On the one hand, it’d be nicer if it wasn’t. But on the other, it’s a constant reminder that I can face my fears and come out on top.