I’m gripping the life ring as hard as I can with one hand, gasping for air, grateful that the ocean salt spray is at least partially disguising the tears running down my face. My heavy dive gear feels like it’s trying to pull me back under as I fiddle with my mask, which I had failed to replace underwater during my certification test.
“Are you OK? Do you want to go in?” my dive instructor, Carol, asks for the third time. It’s clear what she thinks I should do.
“No,” I gasp, knowing I’m supposed to say yes, and that by asking her to continue the dive, I’m putting her on the spot. “I don’t want to give up.”
She looks at me sympathetically, but I can see the doubt and worry in her eyes. “You can always try again another time,” she says.
I’m on the fourth and final dive of my PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) open water certification test, which — should I complete it — will allow me to dive on my own without a professional guide (but with a buddy) to depths of up to 60 feet. Having taken my initial pool training at a dive center near my home in northern California, I’ve come to the south shore of Kauai, Hawaii, to do my open water tests in warmer water.
Despite nerves that kept me up most of the night, all had gone reasonably well up to this point. But then came underwater mask removal, one of the tasks I’d dreaded most, and I’d inhaled water after I couldn’t clear my flooded mask. In a panic, I shot straight to the surface, 40 feet above, failing to regulate my ascent or make the required three- to five-minute safety stop 15 feet below the surface to prevent decompression illness. Most instructors would fail me on the spot.
“Let’s take a five-minute rest and talk about it,” Carol says.
An Unlikely Diver
The truth is, I wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place. I suffer from both generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks, which can occur at any time, causing my heart to race and leaving me weak, dizzy, trembling and unable to think straight. Not exactly a state you want to find yourself in when you’re deep underwater.
Diagnosed in my 30s, my panic disorder was just something I’d learned to live with. I tried to avoid situations that I knew put me at risk of an attack, and carried my prescription medication in my purse for when one came on regardless. And many of my triggers — feeling trapped, claustrophobic, unsafe and unnerved by something unknown — were exactly those I now faced.
So while I’d wanted to explore the ocean’s depths since my first snorkeling expedition in my 20s sparked an addiction to coral reefs and Technicolor fish, I’d always waved the idea away, assuming diving was off-limits. And as I’d gotten older, learning to dive seemed to recede farther out of reach. In fact, PADI statistics show that less than 2 percent of those undertaking dive certification are women over age 60 — a distinction I would reach in a matter of weeks.
And yet, it felt like there was a momentous force propelling me to learn to dive. I was seeking a challenge. But not just any challenge — something so difficult that achieving it might rewire my sense of the possible. I needed to take on something that I was almost absolutely certain I couldn’t do. And then do it.
Because that’s what I’d done just a year before. I’d left the man I’d lived with — though never married — for 19 years. A man I’d assumed to be my final life partner, until his rage and need for control became a tyranny I could no longer live under. In the last years, I’d drifted like a ghost through my own life, isolated by shame from family and friends and armored in numb denial until I could no longer fail to see the damage.
I got out, and I reminded myself over and over again that the strength it took to escape could also help me rebuild. But, as it turned out, it was far easier to rebuild the trappings of my life than it was to reconstruct my shattered sense of self. Eroded by gaslighting and excoriating criticism, I had little trust in others and almost none in myself. What I needed, I felt, was something to help me batter down the wall of self-doubt.
Finding the Faith
“I believe you can do it.” Those were the words Carol spoke when she agreed to let me try the final dive again. And I held on to them as I descended and again went through the motions of the task that had triggered the panic attack. And I did it, awkwardly, and with my mask only partially cleared, but able to breathe through my nose and give Carol the OK signal.
And with my faith in myself reestablished, the rest of the required demonstrations went easily. The certification checklist complete, we had time and oxygen enough to do one more dive “just for fun.” Down we went, venturing through a series of lava tubes and coral-studded grottoes known as Sheraton Caverns.
Suddenly, I felt a tap, and turned to see Carol gesturing excitedly into a deep crevice. Guided by her flashlight, I peeked under a ledge to see a small whitetip reef shark staring sleepily at me from the shadows. Excitedly, we made “Isn’t he cute?” faces at each other, and I found myself doing an absurd little happy dance with my arms to show Carol just how giddy I felt to be deep underwater, a place I’d never thought I’d get to be.
And relieved of the stress of tests designed to simulate diving disasters, I could relax and focus on regulating my buoyancy and breathing as I’d been taught, sipping the air in long, even draws and letting it out in slow, continuous exhalations. Breathe in from below, out from the top, I reminded myself, counting four for each inhale, two to hold and four to exhale. And for the first time, I understood why my diver friends described the activity as relaxing — a concept that had seemed utterly absurd when I was clinging to that life ring, struggling for breath.
It’s been a year since I posed for a triumphant photo with Carol in the parking lot of the Kauai dive outfitter, our hands making the “hang loose” gesture, a dizzy grin of triumph on my face.
I haven’t tried to dive again, and I don’t know if I will. But I do know that I call on that memory of breathing — that slow, even rhythm that I practiced underwater — more often than I ever would have imagined. Picturing myself floating through the darkness, taking slow, even breaths through the regulator, has gotten me through a host of anxiety-provoking situations, including, in the ultimate irony, a panic attack or two.
More importantly, though, the confidence I felt holding that certificate in my hand has stayed with me, and bolstered my confidence over time. I’m thankful to Carol for giving me that extra chance to prove myself, for letting me breathe again. Whether or not I will ever use it, I keep my PADI card in my wallet, pulling it out when I need a reminder that I can do the seemingly impossible.
San Francisco-based journalist Melanie Haiken writes about travel, science, health and the environment for dozens of publications including National Geographic, BBC, Condé Nast Traveler, CNN, Sierra and AARP. She shares her adventures and travel tips at Health-Conscious.Travel.com.
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