When was the last time you did something risky?
I don’t mean something stupid like evading the police in a car chase or jumping off a cliff. I’m talking about something that is out of character for you like speaking in public if you are an introvert, or quitting your job before you have something else lined up?
Taking risks sometimes means you must overcome the fear of the unknown.
I had a chance to do something I’ve never done before. I wanted to snorkel. I had seen all those amazing pictures and videos of a beautiful blue sky on a calm sunny day. The water, clear and azure, with barely a ripple on the surface and colorful fish of different shapes and sizes wending in and out of coral.
I could see myself doing this in spite of the fact that I don’t like to put my face in the water. Somewhere over the years, I’ve developed a strong disinclination to be underwater. It is unexplainable. There are no traumatic events that I can account for this, but it is one of the reasons I don’t join my husband when he swims laps at the local community pool. I don’t like the waves in my face and it seems about the time I come up for air one of those waves ends up in my mouth while I’m trying to breathe. I just don’t make a very good fish.
But an opportunity arose on a recent trip to Florida. A snorkeling trip had been part of the plan for a spring break trip before the pandemic of 2020 ended that opportunity. That means this has been in my head for a long time. I knew that it would be a challenge but I felt I was up for it. Besides, I have conquered other things in my life that at least for me began with a little trepidation.
When I was young – probably 10 or 11 – my father, then a lineman for the Commonwealth Edison in the Chicago suburbs, allowed me to go up in one of the buckets they use to reach the top of utility poles. (That’s something I am absolutely sure our litigious society doesn’t allow anymore!) I was petrified when the lineman engaged the bucket and took us up above the vehicles in the parking lot. I crouched down inside the bucket and begged to be taken back down. I remember being really upset with myself for being such a coward and talked my father into another ride when the opportunity came up a few years later. This time the lineman allowed me to work the controls. I’m pretty sure he was sorry that he did! I commanded that bucket like a pro – well, maybe a pro-stuntman or something.
I’ve known this about myself for all these years. I feel great anxiety the first time that I do anything remotely out of my comfort zone. I break out in rashes, sweat profusely, have stomach aches and gut problems for days afterward due to the stress. Then I dig in and try the thing.
I typically don’t do all that well – at least by my standards, but then I’m ready to do it again. Not necessarily fully willing, but mostly fully armed with a little knowledge.
So it has gone with a lifetime of trying things that I fear. Speaking in public. I know that doesn’t make sense since I’m a classroom teacher, but most people don’t know that the first day of class is always a panicky time for me. Riding a motorcycle. I have the burns on my legs to prove this one. Water skiing. I’ve lost two pairs of eyeglasses in the process. Dancing in public. A few adult beverages helped me overcome that. Joining the Navy. Taking calculus classes long after college. Sailing by myself on our Sunfish sailboat.
I’ve done these things and more because I refused to be held back by my own fears. How, though, you might ask? There is plenty of advice about how to overcome fears. Some of them are interesting – like hypnosis. Some of them obvious – like breathing through the moment.
A rough start…and finish
One site on the Internet suggested that you get calm. That was very difficult for me on our snorkeling trip. Remember that I had a very specific vision in my head about what the experience would be like. When we went out we were more than a 30-minute boat ride away from the shoreline. When we dropped anchor we were in 8 – 10 feet of deep water and not really near the reef. It was windy with two-foot swells. I tried to visualize what I was about to do and this entire set-up was completely different than that. My panic was strong and pushing hard on me. I tried to breathe deeply. I donned the vest. Put the mask on my head. I hate hats, so this wasn’t my favorite, but I dealt with it, but the snorkel in my mouth created instant panic. I spit it out. Mind you, I’m still on the boat!
Another site recommended that I use my brain in a different way. It suggested that I employ the logical side to problem solve. My husband was a diver, a strong swimmer, knew water safety, and as a former instructor knew that there was nothing to worry about. He reminded me that I was going to be in saltwater and I was not going to sink. I would be very buoyant. I tried my best to engage the logical side of my brain to accommodate all of this information. I was going to be just fine. My fingers tingled. I was familiar with that physical sign. It told me that I was not breathing deeply enough to oxygenate my body or my brain. I also knew that the adrenaline that was strongly coursing through my veins was taking priority over the oxygen my brain needed to problem solve calmly.
I focused on how much fun everyone else was having. I focused on the gorgeous blue sky, that I love boats and the sea. I focused on the lure of the mimosa awaiting me after we left the reef!
And still, I continued to be anxious. I let everyone else go ahead of me. I inched down the ladder to face the swells. The water was cool, but not completely uncomfortable – just not the soothing warmth of our hot tub. I got in and immediately got a shot of saltwater down my tube. I didn’t have enough breath to blow it out so I ended up swallowing it and then more. I tried to swim out to my husband just a few feet in front of me. I tried to turn so that my back was to the incoming waves but was pushed into the boat. I couldn’t clear my mask.
And, then I began to hyperventilate. I could no longer get a full breath as hard as I tried to slow my breathing.
The boat captain asked if I needed help. Ben came closer to calm me down and move me closer to the step. I lied. “I’m fine. Just give me a minute! I’ll be fine”. But I just wasn’t. I was getting angry and that never helps because being that angry usually makes me cry.
The next thing I know his first mate is hauling me into the boat and helping me to slow my breathing.
I was so terribly embarrassed. I felt bad for my husband who should have been out on that reef having the time of his life, but he was worried for me. Worse, I wouldn’t let him help me. I really messed it up.
So, goes the first attempt at these scary things that I do. And, this is precisely why I had reserved the “Double Dip” package that allowed us two opportunities to dive that morning.
Once we motored over to the second spot, I told Ben to go have fun and leave me to figure this out for myself. I donned my gangly gear, waited for the other snorkelers to depart the boat, and then I began my descent down the ladder. It took me two or three tries, but I focused on breathing. I knew what to expect – not that serene travel brochure set-up but got real with the business of getting in, clearing my mask, and breathing through the snorkel. It was clunky. The first mate kept an eagle eye on me, and me on her. I ventured away from the boat. I tried to put my mask face down and then swim forward. This produced panic, so I just tried to relax in the water and enjoy the buoyancy. I swam about 20 feet from the boat, tried one more time with the mask down, then felt it was time to go back.
Trying again must happen
I am ready to go again. I have talked with several who have said that I tried it the hard way and suggested quieter, less wavy locations. I have not conquered my fear totally, but I’m making progress.
I will prevail. I will prevail.
What fear do you need to conquer?
Truly, there are a number of great approaches to successfully overcoming fears, but for me, I had to be good with a rough first attempt. I had to be okay with embarrassing myself. All of that had to come before the breathing, the visualizing, the thinking logically about the effort, and all other manner of mindfulness necessary to overriding panic.
I rewarded myself with not one, not two, but three mimosas. Oh, yes, I walked off that boat just fine, and I needed a nap after we returned.
My next risk-taking project is to drive my husband’s big Kubota tractor. Watch out world!