New diver and master diver…with Jeff Kachmann

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. –Nelson Mandela

Courage and fear are strange bedfellows.

I tend to be an optimistic, trust-first-ask-questions-later sort of person. And while I’ve been hurt by people a few times, I prefer to take the risk and expect the best. But that doesn’t mean I’m fearless. It’s just interesting what fears take hold, and which ones we ignore. But regardless of individual optimism, bravery, or benevolence, the Joy Ride on Planet Earth guarantees a 100% mortality rate. I know the end is inevitable, but occasionally I’m motivated to push beyond the limits of my comfort zone and so far, I’ve only been grateful for the new experiences that continue to teach me who I am.

Most of us think we know who we are. We can rationally discuss our strengths, laugh about our weaknesses, make a list of our likes and dislikes, and predict with some certainty how we might react in certain situations. But what I find fascinating is the dichotomy that exists when we discuss our ability to change. We say things like “people never change”, and we recognize that most personality traits are with us for life. And yet, every year, we make resolutions, read self-help books, go to therapy, and make vision boards full of intentions to be different. But unless we address the underlying beliefs that limit our behaviors, we will be stuck in an unconscious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. By accepting our flaws, we perpetuate their hold on us. Consider how easily things roll off our tongue:

  • “I’m afraid of heights.”
  • “I’m awful with numbers.”
  • “I’m a homebody.”
  • “I am claustrophobic.”
  • “I have bad knees.”
  • “I hate to fly.”
  • “I’m not flexible. Or coordinated.”
  • “I get motion sickness really easy. “
  • “I don’t have enough time.”
  • “I’m too old to do that.”

We repeat these things over and over, and find camaraderie with others who can either sympathize or at least empathize. We don’t see these statements as excuses; they are our reality. For most of my life, my perception of myself included the words “I am not athletic”. As a kid, I didn’t play any sports or have a lot of exposure to extra-curricular activity. My family had four kids and we simply didn’t have the money to fund the lessons, fees, travel expenses and gear. So regardless of natural ability or even disability, “I am not athletic” was my truth for many years.

And the older I got, the more it limited me. Because most activities are not enjoyable the first time you try them. Or even the 3rd time. And when everyone else knows what they are doing, it’s easier to throw your hands up and quit before you start. But at the ripe old age of 23, I decided that my comfort zone was entirely too small. I was embarrassed by the amount of time I spent with my nose in a book or my butt in front of the boob-tube. I had my first child that year, and though I had read countless stories about pregnancy, and watched Friends Ross and Rachel get through labor and delivery, nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the real experience. I gave birth to a new life. I just didn’t realize yet that it was my own.

I was suddenly in awe of what my body could accomplish, without any thought or direction from my brain. I slept, I ate, I went to work—I just did my thing. And all the while, I was making a baby! And after he was born, whenever he cried, my breasts would fill with milk that quickly turned him from a cone-headed alien into a fat and happy little fella. The intensity of real-life physical, emotional and mental sensations began my process of “waking up”. I realized just how much I could do—not by setting my mind to it, but by just DOING it. Although “I have bad knees”, I went from never having run even a mile to completing a full marathon within a few years. And despite the belief that “I am not flexibile”, I started doing regular yoga and discovered that my body could do any pose that I put into my practice.

By the time my second son was born, I was teaching aerobic classes despite my belief that “I am uncoordinated and can’t distinguish between my left and my right*.”

*that’s actually true. Seriously.

I always believed that I “can’t function without sleep”. But by the time I had four kids, I stopped counting the lost hours and learned to savor rocking a baby in the quiet darkness of the middle of the night. I also had a firm belief that “I will always be a working-mom”. But high daycare expenses offered a blessing in disguise and I joined the “stay-at-home-mom” crowd and never looked back.

And despite “strong cravings” for meat, and membership in the “I can’t live without cheese” club, I took a 40 day vegan challenge over 5 years ago and haven’t even wanted a hamburger or a piece of pizza since. And this is just another example of how the only way we can change anything is to first change our minds. The cliché I’ll believe it when I see it should actually be I’ll see it when I believe it.

Life is too short to live within self-imposed limits. But real life does have real limits, and a healthy respect for Mother Nature is key. Courage and fear are meant to be balanced. Which is why I’ve always considered my angst about ocean water wildlife to be a phobia worth preserving. “I’m afraid of sharks” seems reasonable after reviewing the documentary “Jaws”. But considering I’m more likely to die by a falling coconut* than be eaten by a shark, I decide that hyperventilating as I stand in waist-level, crystal clear water just beyond the surf is indeed a little silly.

So before my beach vacation earlier this year, I decided to sign up for the only class that will either literally kill me or make me stronger.

Open. Water. Scuba. Diving.

I signed up for the certification class, held in February Fort Wayne. I figured the only sharks in the Y pool would painted in fluorescent colors. And I had a lot of studying to do before they’d even let me into the shallow end.

The textbook hooks me on page 1:

It feels strange the first time. Your mask. Your awkward gear, a bit heavy. You ease into the water and your face slips below the surface. Inhale; the air comes with a reassuring hiss, and for the first time, you breathe underwater. In moments, you forget your mask. Your equipment transforms to light and agile, and you’re free like you’ve never experienced before. With that first underwater breath, the door opens to a different world. Not a world apart, but different nonetheless. Go through that door. Your life will never be the same.

Sounds fun and fairly shark-free! I’m in.

The class work was as expected. Boring. It’s hard to get interested in the different styles of facemasks and “procedure’s for emergency ascent” when you’ve only worn swimming goggles and jumped off the high dive a few times. After classroom work, we are issued equipment and taken to the local pool to practice skills for a confined dive. I should mention that I have some lingering beliefs that might limit my enjoyment of this step. But actually, “I hate indoor pools”, “I’m allergic to chlorine”, I’m very susceptible to ear infections”, “it feels like I’m swimming in urine”, and “there are cooties EVERYWHERE” are true stories. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for SCUBA gear to include a dose of Xanex—just sayin’.

Once at the pool, my inner “hot mess” quickly bubbles to the surface. We start with a 200 meter-swim and then tread for 10 minutes. The water smells like dirty-butt, and quickly clogs my ears and gets in my nose. Then our group is told to sit on the bottom and practice breathing underwater while receiving underwater instruction via hand signals. The only problem I encounter here is that I don’t speak underwater sign language, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or scream. And despite feeling like I’m sitting in a pool of urine, I am shivering uncontrollably within 30 minutes of being in the 83 degree Fahrenheit water. My instructor recommends an extra layer of thermal protection, despite the fact that I’ll be diving in Aruba. And as “I hate to be cold”, I consider my comfort to be a significant investment.

The first layer is basically fleece-lined long underwear, and feels comfy cozy. The next layer is a 3mm suction suit, and slips on with the ease of a thick rubber band. By the time my limbs are arranged in their respective compartments, I’m sweating profusely and need a snack and a nap. On top of that goes another 3mm “shorty” to add a layer to my core. And they all zip up the back, which means you need double-jointed shoulder sockets or a personal assistant. On top of my head goes a beanie that is tight enough to double as a condom.

I strap my SCUBA vest to the air tank they provide, and orient the array of hoses as I was instructed in class. “I’m completely illiterate as to technical mechanisms“, so the release valves, pressure gauges and air flow regulators intimidate me. It unnerves me to realize that I am ultimately responsible for the equipment that will serve as my life-support under 60+ feet of ocean water. I quietly chant “Lefty-Loosey-Righty-Tighty”, as I turn the knob towards the L-shape that I discretely make with my left index finger and thumb. As an experienced group exercise instructor, distinguishing my right from my left is now as easy as singing the song and making the shapes with my hand.

I manage to pass the class and feel confident-ish for our upcoming trip to Aruba. My partner in crime is a master diver with hundreds of dives worth of experience. That’s a little comforting, but at the same time, a lot of pressure as I don’t want to hold him back with my uncertainties and uncoordinated efforts. On the first dive, where I have to work with an instructor to complete my certification, I mentally review the pre-dive checklist as I test the functions of my equipment–pressing buttons, pulling strings and reading the digital displays. It would help if the acronym for the process they teach was more helpful than All Bruce Willis Films Are Raunchy. (Because I actually liked Die Hard, and still use “Yipee Ki-yay MoFo’s” when the situation dictates. Armageddon was awesome, and the Sixth Sense made it obvious that I don’t have one. I mean really, who saw that one coming???)

So instead of the acronym, I just start at the top of my head and work down. I’ll just double-check it all, thank you very much. Courage and fear can be friends.

With my swimwear on, I’m ready to wiggle into my backpack. I fasten the buckles at my chest, tighten the straps around my waist. I’m told I need more weight in order to sink to the bottom, so an additional 10lbs are added to the pockets on each side of my vest. I pour the anti-fogging “frog spit” into my goggles and work my feet into my flippers, while balancing my body as the boat pitches through 4 and 5 foot waves. I expect that I’ll fall in before I have the chance to jump.

They say the surface is the most dangerous part of the dive. And for sure it is. Maneuvering to the “plank” in 2-foot-long fins and over 40 pounds of equipment, including a high-pressure tank of gas strapped to the top half of my body makes me as close to a “fish out of water” as I’ll ever be. And when I jump/trip into the chilly waves without inflating my vest and begin to sink without so much as a farewell glance, I remember that it’s the panic-stricken struggle that does the most harm. So I relax and soften my body. It is quiet just beneath the surface—peaceful and full of light. I circle my right arm just as we practiced, and discover my air hose just as expected. I place the regulator into my mouth and clear it with a shallow exhale. And then, cautiously, carefully, I inhale.

The sound of my own breath has a calming effect on my mind. I can see the other divers making final adjustments and positioning themselves in pairs. I add just enough air to my vest to float beneath the waves and wait for the dive master’s gesture to begin our decent. I slowly inhale deep into my belly, which helps the panic drop from my chest and signal my “OK”. We all assume an upright position, and raise our left hands over our head, ready for take-off like astronauts on a mission. Bruce Willis would be proud.

And down we go. With courage and fear holding hands.

My decent takes longer than the others, as I am not efficient at clearing my ears. Basically, it feels like I’m blowing my nose into my mask every few feet. (Because I am, which later explains the look on my partner’s face when I remove my mask at the surface.) But I take my time going down, blowing my nose to equalize the pressure every 5 feet and remember that it’s a slow process. I’m patient and calm and I take my time. Because as I begin to absorb the spectacular view around me, it suddenly doesn’t matter how long it takes.

Dr. Suess must have been a scuba diver.

I realized that I was dropping into a brightly lit snow globe-like world I’ve only read about in Dr. Seuss novels, complete with swarms of fish that shimmered in synchronicity, neon colored animals that darted, dangled and lurked, Truffula tree-like plants that waved in the underwater wind, and suspicious looking characters that watched me as intently as I studied them. It was absolutely breath-taking! I saw a giant green eel that had to be 8 foot long, a shipwreck covered with coral, and saw several 16 leg octopi! (Actually, it was matting season, and we’d stumbled upon happy hour.) Dori and Nemo even made an appearance. Stone fish, clown fish, angel fish and barracudas were close enough to touch.

 Nemo and Dori say hello.

It was so brilliantly breathtaking that I forgot to notice if I was cold or scared, and with my breath providing the background music to this sensational experience, I can only feel grateful that I got to do this, bad knees, clumsy technical skills and fear of shark. I even saw a few sharks. Evidently, I’m not the shark bait I thought I was. Or maybe they just weren’t hungry.

Best day ever.

*Fun Fact: About 150 people die every year by falling coconuts. On average, only 4 people die every year from shark attack. I will submit for consideration, however, that worldwide, 2,300 people vanish without a trace every day. Considering that sharks eat the evidence, I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to stop believing that “I’m afraid of sharks.” Just sayin….

Courage and fear make comfortable friends.