fitness · injury · motivation · training

On Love, Fear and Risk

This week I’m scheduled to complete my scuba certification by doing four training dives over two days, demonstrating skills, safety and emergency procedures that I learned in my online and pool course a week ago. I am currently in Puerto Rico for that purpose.

The problem is, I may be unable to complete my open water course this week.

Why? After all, when I bumped into scuba while in Australia a couple of months ago, it was love at first sight (of colorful fish). I adored the feeling of weightlessness, the quiet blue world, and the varied and gorgeous sea creatures I met. I even blogged triumphantly about it, proud of my new discovery.

Once I got back to Boston, I set about getting certified so I could become a real diver. The online course was jam-packed with information about terrible things that could happen underwater to those who didn’t follow proper procedures, especially on descending and ascending. But that didn’t put me off one bit.

We proceeded to the pool for two sessions, all geared up and ready to learn some skills. In session one we learned to clear ears, clear masks, clear regulators, throw the regulators away and get them back again, lie down on the bottom of the pool, inflate and deflate our buoyancy control devices, insert weights, drop weights, and much more. It all went very swimmingly.

Then came session two.

I was having an off-kilter day and couldn’t shake feelings of dread about the session. Likely I was just tired (the course was an intensive one over a weekend), but that didn’t help my mood. As soon as I got in the pool, problems started surfacing. First my regulator was faulty, so I had to change it out. No problem, but it put me behind in the lessons. Then I had all kinds of trouble with buoyancy—this is a huge issue for scuba and takes a long time to master. Still, I was rolling around on the surface like a barrel, and it was making me agitated.

The next problem happened when I was doing a regulator drill underwater with an assistant instructor. Long story short, I couldn’t retrieve my regulator, and when I went for my secondary one, it was tangled in my snorkel. As I was running out of air, I motioned to the instructor (who was one foot away) to get hers. She gave it to me, but I was flat out of air and couldn’t blow out. I panicked and swam to the surface, popped out of the water choking and coughing up water. Not the right thing to do, and not fun. However, I rallied, and after getting my breathing under control, I went back underwater and completed the skill. Mission accomplished.

But wait, there’s more.   While hanging around in 10 feet of water, waiting for my turn to do an emergency ascent requiring dropping weights and a controlled rise to the surface, I casually checked my pressure gauge. Oh no—it read 250psi! That means I’m almost out of air. Like, really almost out of air. Now, I was in a pool in 10 feet of water, so I wasn’t in danger, but it meant I had to change tanks right then and there. Argh. So I did, but then I was even more behind. By the time the pool was closing, I still had one skill test left (everyone else was changing in the locker rooms). I went into the deep end with the instructor, and took off all my scuba equipment, keeping the regulator in my mouth, and then put it back on again. It wasn’t pretty, but I did it.

I passed the pool course, but felt totally deflated. My instructor assured me that I would be fine in the open water dives, but I’ve been worried ever since.  How could my love story turn sour in the course of a 3-hour pool session?  And can I get the love back?

FYI, the way the open water section of the scuba course goes is that every skill I did in the pool I will have to reproduce in the ocean, at a depth of up to 33 feet. There will be no popping up quickly to the surface if I make a mistake and run out of air—you can’t do so safely from that depth. Of course, instructors certify students all the time, and the safety stats for scuba certification are very good.

I totally love the feeling of scuba– swimming underwater while breathing and exploring.  It’s the coolest thing ever– you’re independent of your natural air environment, and get to be a part of the cool blue world of water.  I don’t feel claustrophobic, and the fishes and other critters strike me as fascinating and not scary (I haven’t encountered an eel yet, but will try to keep these words in mind).

However, I’m still really scared. I’m worried about the weather, wind conditions, how much to trust myself, whether to trust these new instructors, seasickness, you name it.

In addition, I’m pretty sure I’m getting a cold and cough.  Naturally, I googled “can I scuba dive with cold/cough?”  The smart money is on “no”. Argh.

I have no idea what I’ll end up doing. Will I grit my teeth, gut it out, woman up, and just do it? Or will I give myself permission to pull the plug if I’m not feeling comfortable or well, even though everyone will know that I canceled and delayed my certification  (really everyone will know now that I’ve blogged about it…). I don’t know.

I’m not asking you, readers, what I should do. What I am asking is to hear some comments from you about how you’ve dealt with fear (and love at the same time) of doing physical activities with risk. If you have a story, tell me. I’ll report back on what happens next week. No matter what happens, I’ll finish my certification sooner or later.

And thanks—it’s really cool knowing all of you are out there.


29 thoughts on “On Love, Fear and Risk

  1. I’d wanted to scuba since forever…I finally had a chance to give it a shot in Malaysia last year. I was adamant about it, even though I had a cold at the time. Got to about 2-3m depth and my sinuses were in so much pain 🙁 I tried a couple more times, same thing – so I had to pull the plug.

    So, my opinion: if it’s just nerves, just do it. But if you have a serious cold, put it off (but definitely do it when you feel better).

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. As I was writing this, I was getting a cold, and have been coughing all night, so it’s a no-go. However, I absolutely WILL do it when I’m better. Did you ever retry scuba?

      1. Hi Catherine, no, I haven’t – since it was such an unpleasant experience, it’s not a top priority in terms of recreation. I was also put off by how much gear you need. Of late I really prefer activities where you can just get up and go (running, walking, hiking, to some extent indoor rock climbing although that does need some gear too.)

  2. Sounds like the circumstances at the pool session almost couldn’t have led to any other outcome. There were too many things taking up your brain space. The joy of diving for me, is being in the moment: nothing else to focus on but my buoyancy, air and the beauty underwater. If I had a long day, or a long drive to the dive site, or a blowing regulator, I have to take some time to focus, which you didn’t seem to have.

    I think you should go through with it, even if it means failing (some of) the tests. I have scuba-related anxiety too (a couple of ‘wrong’ dives, that left me less enchanted, and I’m a rescue diver with a few 100 dives under my belt…), but you have to try and get the ‘feeling’ back. Maybe you can do a short ‘fun’ dive, to get (re)acquainted with the equipment, and help you see the beauty again, feel the weightlessness, focus on the meditative side of hearing your breathing and bubbles.
    When I had to take a step back from diving, I did just that: I did a few very, very easy dives, just to blow some bubbles, and see some seaweed. Nothing more.

    1. Thanks for the perspective, Cora. My cold has developed into a lot of coughing and I can’t clear my ears, so I’m stuck on dry land for now. But your idea of getting back in the water is a great one– I will do a fun dive (if I’m better, I might do an intro to scuba with a newbie friend), and make new plans for certification. Will report back.

  3. Hey Catherine,

    (I’ve been an PADI instructor for a few years and have done hundreds of pool/OW skill sessions!)

    Your feelings of anxiety are totally normal! Think about it, you’re doing something quite unnatural, and there are so many new skills to learn and things to consider. (Interestingly, scuba is a safer sport than most others because of the focus on safety.)

    Apologies now, this is a long reply!

    Doing the open water course you are learning a whole host of new skills. It’s quite a cognitive load, and it’s why you do skills twice, once in the pool and then in the OW (It sounds like you’re doing the PADI Open Water certification, but please correct me if I’m wrong.)

    Think about this course like learning to drive. When you first started learning to drive all the new skills would have seemed really hard, whereas now I imagine driving is like second nature. It takes a bit of practise, just like any new skill/sport before you start to feel comfortable. Even yoga feels hard when you first start out!

    With regards to your getting a cough/cold, diving with congestion means that you will struggle to equalise your ears which isn’t comfortable and it could result in injury if you’re unable to equalise on the way up from depth. If you end up getting more of a cold, I’m sure your instructors will work out another weekend for you to do the OW dives to complete your certification. In fact, having completed all the skills successfully in the pool you can do your OW dives within 6 months and still get qualified, though it’s advised to not wait too long so you don’t forget the skills!

    Diving is an awesome sport and yes, it’s nerve-wracking and a bit scary when they say things like “in the unlikely event you run out of air, you’ll need to breathe off your buddy’s alternate” but these incidents are rare and the more you dive the better you’ll get and the more like second nature it will become. By teaching you the skills to self help you are more likely to have awareness of these things and be vigilant to sort them out before they escalate.

    You have a good fitness level and a grounding in yoga which will help you while diving. You mentioned bouyancy as being hard, well it takes a long time to get to perfect stillness in the water and is hard to do in kit that isn’t yours and in very shallow water like a pool. You will probably find that good bouyancy control comes easier at depth as there is less variation in pressure so you can “set” your bouyancy with variance.

    If you have any underlying anxiety, talk to your instructor. They will be able to set your mind at ease as they are the ones that have seen you in the pool and feel OK taking you to open water. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t feel comfortable that you could successfully complete the course!

    Good luck with the open water dives and I’m keen to hear more about how you get on! I have loved reading your posts about diving and I hope that I have given you a bit of reassurance to keep going!

    1. Hi Pat– thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. My cold has flared up with sore throat and coughing, so I’m pulling the plug for tomorrow. I’m actually doing SSI training (it was cheaper and offered by a dive shop I like), but I hear it’s really similar to PADI. My instructor was very encouraging and also used the driving analogy, which seems completely apt. He also said that diving is different from training/testing, so once I get certified it will open up really fun diving experiences, which I’m keen to get to.

      Question for you: our pool course was only two 3-hour sessions, which were rather rushed. It really seems like 3 (or even 4) sessions might be better. The instructor was frank about how SSI (and maybe PADI, too) has pared down the curriculum for certification to make it doable in a long weekend. Do you have views on this? That said, I really do think I’m ready for OW dives, and I’ll get it going soon! Glad you like the diving posts– there will be more to come!

      1. I’m glad to help, and also glad you’re not too put off to go back in the water! Your instructor sounds lovely and glad he was able to reassure you. Did he use the one about just because you passed your test you don’t drive on the motorway straight away? 🙂

        Sometimes the best way to feel the fear and do it anyway is to acknowledge that you feel how you feel, discuss it with someone in the know or that you trust and then make up your mind.

        Re. the point about it “feeling rushed”, I think different people have different views on this, but the certifying agencies set up these courses with a lot of thought in order to balance the information overload and teach as many of the skills as possible as well as make sure there isn’t too high a barrier for entry to the sport. It does depend in the individual student, but I would advise if you’re feeling nervous, another session in the pool just to run through the skills again won’t hurt, but again if your instructor thinks you’re ready perhaps taking a break and resting up and then going for it in the OW might work as well?

        Just a thought, and of course only you can know how you feel and I don’t presume to know what’s going on in your head, but from the little I have read of your experiences and my experience as an instructor, could part of your lack of feeling ready be the case of imposter syndrome? That because you didn’t feel 100% confident, you don’t feel ready to go to OW, even though your instructor objectively judged you as ready and was happy to sign you off? We are on a website that talks about fitness being a feminist issue after all and you see it all the time with blokes who think they should be able to dive better female instructors when they are beginners (!) and women who are great divers who don’t think they are because they don’t feel confident. Oh the stories I could regale you with!

        That being said, you can always just not do the dive if you don’t feel 100%. We do this for fun after all and one should never feel like they “have” to dive if they don’t want to. So, like in most things, it’s a judgement call and the right thing varies depending on the situation and the day.

        It sounds like you will go ahead with the OW dives so all the best (just remember to keep an eye on your gauges!) I can’t wait to see the post when you tell us all about how great it is to get that cert card! Take the time to really rest up and hope that cold goes away soon x

  4. I used to do a lot of climbing, not in an organized way involving ropes and pitons and, like, training/knowledge, but just hillwalking where I would scramble up steep faces that required dragging myself up by my arms and hanging off tufts of grass, bush roots, luckless small mammals, and so forth. I’d get into some real pickles this way, but I didn’t mind the danger and really enjoyed the challenge. About 15 years ago I got myself into a very serious pickle on a springtime mountain hike involving a series of passages over thin rotten snow, under each of which a river of meltwater was roaring off the high ledge that the path followed. I got really, really scared, couldn’t stop thinking about the people I love and who love me back, and acquired some powerful self-knowledge about just how extraordinarily low this activity was on any list of Reasonable Ways To Die that I might put together at that point in my life. I got over the snow banks in a dignity-free high-surface-area snow angel type of position, basically dragging myself by my eyelids. Then, I stopped doing that sort of scrambling. Just stopped. Haven’t done it since that day. I have many other sources of a sense of adventure and accomplishment in my life, and have not for a second missed that one. So there’s my story of managing fear: I totally gave in to it (or, as I would say, learned from it) and have no regrets.

    1. Wow, that does sound scary (even though I was laughing at your description). Honestly, dignity is highly overrated. My former boyfriend found himself in a similar pickle, climbing in Nepal with friends and a guide of sorts but not enough rope, and some wrong harnesses. They were told to hang onto tufts of grass– not reassuring. So he pulled the plug, and his friends were very grateful (as were their wives and I).

  5. Standing fast against fear is awesome, especially in circumstances where one has nothing (actually) to lose. You can gain perspective on those who have risked everything. Go for it unless you are too sick.

    1. Thanks, Claudia, for the encouragement. My cold has developed so I definitely can’t dive tomorrow, but just writing the post reminded me of how much I do love diving (I edited it several times after the first draft to try to express my positive feelings). I will go for it, and will report!

  6. I don’t know how to swim so I can’t talk about fighting beyond fear on water.

    We need to feel safe in sports and that begins being easier on ourselves and forgetting what other people think of us when they see us perform or are watching out for us.

    A lot of people at least for cycling…get caught up that ie. it looks embarrassing / dent to their ego, if they: walk up a difficult hill, get off a busy street to walk with their bike, or like me get off my bike when I have a very heavy grocery load on my bike and feel I can’t make a safe turn at a street corner. I think this is even goes to some women, who refuse to bike: they are afraid of looking messy. Seriously.

    No one cares, no one thinks less of you. Just feel safe..and not overthink every single manoeuvre. It’s like cycling over a patch of have to NOT brake and just make sure there’s no one around, no wall around if you should fall.

    1. Jean, thanks for the wise words (you always provide a great perspective, and I appreciate it). One thing your comments make me think about is self-trust. I need to trust myself going back into the water, and I think I can do that. Alas, not tomorrow– I’m actually now sick with cold and cough– but I’ll do it soon and will blog about it.

  7. First, any diver can cancel a dive for any reason, or none. You, and only you, decide to dive. I have pulled the plug and not dived several times. Once just because my computer did something different to my expectation. Several times because I felt ill. Colds really do cancel dives, because ears. Sometimes a headache is enough, for me! There will be other dives.

    So. Big rule: you’re in charge. I’m a conservative diver and nobody gets to say boo, and you can be the same if you want.

    That said, if you do decide to dive on the day, take care on land and relax & breathe normally in the water. As you know, it’s magic.

    1. Thanks Rob, for the encouragement and reminder that I’m in charge of this. My instructor said over and over again– don’t dive unless you’re feeling comfortable. If you’re not, don’t do it. There will be other days, other dives. Conservative is good in this realm!

      Tomorrow isn’t in the cards– my cold has really flared up and I’m coughing and can’t clear my ears. So I’ll reschedule the OW dives for another time soon. And will report back.

  8. I’m seriously empathizing. I did okay in my pool course when I certified, but then totally panicked on my first open water test and failed. I was in a lake near hamilton — no nice things at all — and I got completely claustrophobic and hurled myself to the surface. The test instructor guy was not very encouraging.

    I felt stubborn about it, for reasons similar to your desire to do it — I dont like not being able to do things I’ve decided I should be able to do, and overcoming fears is important for me. I rescheduled, ended up with a kind and encouraging tester, and passed the second time.

    I’m now certified advanced and I’ve got 80 dives under my belt, but I still have fear with almost every dive. I’ve had amazing experiences under water in some lovely places, and have felt a certain amount of mastery, but the last time I dived, I didn’t really trust the DM, and I had rented equipment I wasn’t super comfortable with, and I had a totally messed up dive and just ended it early. And I’m not sure whether I’ll be in a hurry to dive again.

    Diving is a really deep engagement with trusting yourself, your equipment and the people around you. And the most important thing about it to me is to listen to yourself. (I see your comment about the cold up above me, but this applies whenever ;-)). I don’t know if I’ll ever have complete ease about it, and the thing that’s important for me is distinguishing between fear I should step into and anxiety based on something real that I should listen to. Yay you for stepping into this new thing ;-).

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Maybe the thing I like best about this blog is the ways it reveals what it is like from the inside to engage in sports, physical activity, etc. as a woman. Instructors and guides almost never tell you this, and when feelings, fears, worries, etc. pop up, they don’t feel normal. Just knowing that they ARE normal helps tremendously.

      I’m posting a brief update tomorrow, but I will be rescheduling the certification for sure. It’s too beautiful down there to miss it!

      1. Catherine, thanks for all of your replies to all of the comments on this piece… I agree with you that this is something I love about this community — the honesty about what the experience of moving our bodies, being in our bodies, feels like.

        As for diving, I agree that it’s so beautiful under there… and it’s private in a way that nothing else is. I had a diving trip a few years ago that resulted in an unexpected and wacko breakup, and I found myself *crying* underwater and not above it. That was surreal ;-).

  9. Love and fear: what a pressurized combination! Not just for scuba diving. I dare state that you do LOTS of things under this pressure. Some say that hate is not the opposite of love, and, courage is not the opposite of fear. Love is the opposite of fear. In my small life, small brain, minuscule existence, I agree. When I am torn between these opposites, when I feel this pressure, I try to remember Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean. Aim high my dear. You are the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. AND have lots of fun doing it! Chao <3

  10. It sounds like your pool sessions went terribly! It’s really hard to cram it all into the time they give you to learn it… perhaps a second session would be the way to go before you do your OW test. It’s more money and time, but going through it again (hopefully healthy, and with properly functioning gear the 2nd time!) will give you a really strong foundation. (OW is easier in a lot of ways, too– not being in <10' of water gives you more room to play with buoyancy and stuff.)

    Last year was a big one for expanding my comfort zone… along with getting scuba certified I went backpacking for the first time… which was 4 days/42 miles on the AT. I wasn't sure if I had it in me mentally and physically, but the only way to find out was to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you've just got to go through it…

    1. Hi G– congrats on your big backpacking trip on the AT! That’s huge. Your suggestion of repeat pool course is a good one, and I may do that (or try to redo part of it with the same scuba place I used; that may be an option). And during my recreational dives (before the course), I noticed that buoyancy was easier to deal with in deeper water, so yes, that is a good reminder.

  11. I had a near drowning as a child, rip tide in Cape Cod. I was lucky, the cops pulled me out. They were following up on a bunch of kids playing with the lobster traps. Pulled the others but I was already under. Scared them good!

    I didn’t swim again for 35 years.

    I was coming up on my 50th birthday and decided that the water I loved so much as child, I would conquer the fear that kept me away.

    January 2009, a friend offered to help me get started to learn to swim all over again. I chose a small try-tri, a mere 100m swim (pool), 12.5 km bike and a 5km run. I was morbidly obese.

    Long story short, I did it. Fear in my heart, night terrors the week before but I did it.

    I wanted to continue. I did train for longer triathlons but was always held back by how far I was willing to endure fear during the swim. One race my mind produced dead bodies and huge monsters in the lake water every time I put my face down… Longest swim of my life.

    I am stubborn. I was going to kill this fear.

    Joined a more demanding swim team. Coach convinced me two years ago i could swim 3km open water competition at the Worlds. Only 6 people finished slower than I out of over 1,100 people. Puked in the water, panicking the whole way but I finished.

    The fight is not over. I love swimming @ 5:30am three days a week. The pool rarely has the whispers of doubt. When I see the lake in the spring, the other side is not that far away any more. Each year gets easier, I get stronger and someday I might even get faster.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story; it’s a powerful one. Congratulations on finding a path you wanted to pursue to deal with the fear, and I’m glad you are finding some well-deserved satisfaction in the water.

  12. Having just returned from one of the most fantstical and life-affirming scube trips of my life I wanted to respond because you seem to feel the real beauty of scuba. So here is my advice. Whenever you start feeling anxious or something seems to going wrong….slow down. Most issues that arise in scuba are fixable under water and just require some minor adjustments. If your ears won’t clear, go down more slowly. If your mask starts to fill up with water, its probably a slow leak, clear if when it starts to annoy you and you are in a good position to do it, not necessarily immediately. And importantly, breathe slowly and steadily, its the key to both bouyancy and conserving air. Scuba is not like other sports. It is not a race. You need never worry that others are “ahead of you” or faster than you. The best scuba divers barely move at all and when they do it is in slow motion. In short, I find scuba to be one of the places to witness how relaxation can squash fear like a grape. I hope these ideas help and you can discovery the real tranquility mixed with excitement of diving.

    1. Hi Shelley– thanks for your advice. it was clear from my second recreational dive that calm slow breathing is solution to every problem under water. It is a rare treat to be mandated to go slowly while doing some activity. I am looking forward to finishing the certification and exploring this very different and fascinating set of experiences. And I want to see more giant clams (saw two of them in Australia!).

  13. Your honesty is exciting. (I do get sick of ra-ra blogging where everything is perfect.) What a great community emerges in the comments you’ve received. All I can add is this. Almost every physical activity that I love has an element of fear. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun. Windsurfing, swimming, dancing on stage, roller blading, gliding, skiing, snorkeling — all have flashes of danger. Joy sits on a knife edge between terror and exaltation. I will now have a perfectly safe cup of coffee, and raise it to your courage! Much joy lies ahead.

    1. hi Rachel– yes, the community around this blog is lovely, and I’m grateful for them and for the opportunity to do the weekly column. Thanks for the toast, and I agree– there’s joy dead ahead!

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