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Dive Training Day Three: On Fears of Drowning...and Getting over It

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The Nautilus

Dive Training Day Three: On Fears of Drowning...and Getting over It

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forest for the trees
Last week was our first session underwater, and I discovered that--like it or not--my status as a human makes scuba-diving challenging. Our bodies are not built for prolonged stays underwater; as I told Bobby, if we were meant to stay for long periods underwater at depth, we would not get the bends. As such, our psychology is not built for long stays underwater at depth either. Likely, the people who tried to stay under for very long times at very deep depths were not the ones whose genes survived to propagate the species. (Although free divers can hold their breaths for upwards of seven minutes and dive deeper than 100 ft/33 m on a single breath!) Those who were afraid of or conservative in the water, on the other hand, stood a better chance.

I have come to terms that diving is not so much about physical ability as about the mental and emotional ability to overcome my natural inclinations.

Training this week started with a classroom review on Chapter Four, which includes the dive tables, and the Chapter Four test. (Another hundred for Bobby and me both! w00t!) The dive tables are used to calculate how much nitrogen the body absorbs (which varies based on time underwater and depth) and to plan safe dives. If a diver surfaces with too much nitrogen in the body, it forms bubbles in the tissue: that's decompression sickness or the bends. The bends can be deadly and are painful and require time spend in a recompression chamber. Yuck.

So dive tables are heavily emphasized, as one would expect. I find them easy, though I can see how some might find it a bit challenging. Charts filled with tiny numbers and multiple variables have that effect!

After the classroom lesson, it was off to the pool. To begin with, I was just having an off-day. I know that feeling well by now; there were certain days when, skating, I simply could not muster myself physically or psychologically to meet my challenges. We opened the lesson by practicing the giant stride entry into the water, which I did well except that I looked down instead of at the far wall. But when you're trying to remember a dozen details, missing one doesn't seem so bad, and I won't miss it again.

We did a test of our buoyancy in the water, and Bill took two pounds of weight off of me. Next, we descended to the bottom of the deep end: 13 ft/4 m and knelt in our usual semi-circle around Bill. I noticed right away that I had trouble keeping on the bottom as compared to last week, particularly on my left side. My left knee kept floating off of the bottom of the pool, and I would wrangle it back down, not easy to do in a neoprene wetsuit (which has a natural tendency to float).

We started with an exercise on how to breathe off of a free-flowing regulator. Regulators are built so that in the unlikely chance that they fail, they free-flow and deliver too much air rather than none at all. As such, we have to learn how to breathe from a regulator that is emptying itself at a frightening clip. The regulator stays out of the mouth, and you "sip" the rushing air. I was sure that it would be hard or scary...and still thinking this when I realized that I was doing it and it wasn't bad at all. Good deal.

Last time, my chief challenge was removing my mask and breathing with my nose uncovered. As a swimmer, I rarely swam with a naked nose, and when I did, I paced myself to exhale through my nose whenever underwater. After removing the mask, the first thing that happened was that water shot up my nose, which is not a comfortable feeling, especially when weighted to the bottom of the pool with a good amount of water overhead.

One of the first activities we did on Sunday: remove the mask and breathe without it.

As soon as I took off the mask, water shot up my nose and rolled down my throat. I tried taking a breath of my regulator; that was fine. I exhaled through my nose, and that was fine too. I took a second breath and more water went up my nose and down my throat.

The hell with that. I held my breath and put my mask back on. You are never, never, never supposed to hold your breath while scuba-diving. Air condenses at depth and expands as you rise to the surface, and a full lungful of air at, say, 60 ft/20 m will cause your lungs to burst if held until the surface. So even while practicing in the shallows, you never, never, never hold your breath while using scuba.

I held my breath. Bad 'gund! Though for only a few seconds, I was disappointed in myself because I 1) knew better and 2) simply couldn't handle the exercise.

Next was CESA: controlled emergency swimming ascent. CESA is used if you run out of air at depth and your buddy is not near enough to share air. (Another no-no, but we practice these contingencies anyway.) The idea behind CESA is to surface while swimming like crazy while constantly exhaling to avoid lung expansion injuries. In a pool, of course, it is rather silly to do a CESA straight up, so we did it diagonally while Bill swam alongside with his hand on the regulator to make sure that we kept exhaling. I barrelled for that surface and completed the exercise on the first try, but Bill stopped me at the top and asked what was wrong. "You're nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof," he said. "I can see you shaking down there."

I told him how I've really been struggling with the mask removal exercises, how I get water in my nose and throat and feel like I'm drowning. He told me that it's okay to hold my nose when I first take off the mask...but I have to let it go before the end of the exercise. He told me that I was doing fine and not to worry.

I floated in the "shallow" end of the pool with the others who had done the CESA on the first try. Everyone is struggling with the mask removal exercises, but Bobby went on a new diver forum and found that this is a common problem. While waiting for the others to finish with the CESA, one of my classmates told me that I look really natural underwater doing the exercises. I laughed, "If only I felt that way!"

"It looks so easy for you," he told me.

Well, I was to prove him wrong in just a few short minutes.

But first, we had to do surface exercises, "tired diver tows" and fin pushes. That was nice, lying on my back while Bobby dragged me across the pool. It was not-so-nice when I had to drag him--70 lb/32 kg heavier than me--back across the pool. But I did all three without a problem.

Then it was back down, back into the semi-circle. I noticed that I was really having trouble staying on the bottom now, and that damned left knee kept wanting to float. Bill knelt in the middle of us and demonstrated the next exercise: swimming without the mask.

I watched him do it, and I will be honest that my thought was "Oh, fuck no, I am not doing that!"

I couldn't even take off the mask without half-drowning myself much less leave it on the floor and swim. I honestly felt my sympathetic nervous system kick in when I saw him do that. My heartrate went up, my entire body tensed, and I was sucking on air.

Bobby was the first to try it. Like me, he's really been struggling with this particular exercise. And I watched him take off his mask and take a lungful of water. That didn't help matters any, to watch my husband struggle in 13 ft of water, looking like he was drowning. Protective-wife mode kicked in. I wanted to swim over to him, wrench his mask back on his face, and cuddle him all the way to the surface.

As it was, Bill took good care of him (without cuddling, thankfully), and he managed a short swim. But it didn't help me, having witnessed that, and when Bill came for me next and signalled, asking if I could do it, I could only shrug. But I had to try. I could have just as easily shaken my head and tried again next week.

I got the mask off and held my nose, and try as Bill might to get me to let go, I would not. I started to have an anxiety reaction; not an all-out panic because I kept at the bottom of the pool, even if clutching my nose with my eyes squeezed shut while vigorously shaking my head. I started to hyperventilate a bit. It was an interesting experience: having gotten my degree in biopsychology, I could name the parts of the brain that were reacting and list the chemicals that were causing me to behave as I was, but it doesn't take away the panic. However, it does allow me to understand it, to know what psychological factors triggered it so that I can work not to let it happen again.

I got my mask on without doing the swim. I was so frantic that the top part was curled under and causing it to flood. I calmed myself enough to fix that, but then I had trouble clearing. I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong, but then Bill repositioned my hands, and I was okay.

For now, all memories of that had to be put behind me because we were working again on fin-tip pivots and neutral buoyancy hovering. The problem arose that suddenly--even after I had emptied all of the air from my BCD--I could not stay on the bottom of the pool. My left side, in particular, was being wonky. My left fin would not stay pinned to the floor. We had a divemaster Dan, and he observed me for these exercises, and I couldn't do them simply because I couldn't sink. Well, I did the hover just fine because it was my natural state at the moment!

Next, we practiced our ascent and Bill gave us free time to swim around. While dragging me across the pool earlier, Bobby's regulator had free-flowed, and he was down to 200 psi (mind you, we start at 3000 psi!), so I hung with him in the shallow end till Dan surfaced and asked what was wrong. Bobby explained that he was low on air and Bill had sent him to the surface. I said, "He's my buddy. So I'm here." Dan offered to be Bobby's buddy so that I could have some fun. I needed some fun. However, when I went to let air out of my BCD, it deflated but...nothing. I floated. I turned to Dan and said, "I can't sink." (It's amazing how intelligent one becomes when scuba-diving for the first time!) Dan hooked a two-pound weight onto the back of my tank, and that did the trick. I swam idly around without any buoyancy problems at all.

So it seems that the two-pound weight that Bill yanked from me will be going back on me this week.

After we went back to the classroom and finished our paperwork, Bobby and I had a chat with Bill. We asked if it would be advisable to practice no-mask swimming with our snorkels in the pool, and Bill thought that was a great idea, so that's what we planned to do.

Meanwhile, I was very down on myself.

I had freaked. It was that simple. There was something that--for whatever reason, physical or mental--I simply could not do. And I am not used to not being able to do things. I've always been versatile physically and mentally, and while I do tend to be highstrung at times, I am also proud to be able to manage my emotions. Not that day.

We planned to go to the pool the very next day, on Monday. I told Bobby that the twenty-four hours in between the ending of the disastrous class and arriving at the pool were mine to berate myself and just generally angst. After that, I would direct my energies in a positive direction and overcome it.

Actually, I started much sooner. Although I was tired, I could not sleep that night because I couldn't stop thinking about diving. Or--specifically--the no-mask swim. Lying in bed that night, I rehearsed my breathing. Obviously, I can only inhale through my mouth, else I get (as I had been) a throat full of water. I had been exhaling exclusively through my nose to clear the little bit of water that had a tendency to creep up there, then inhaling through my mouth. I paid attention to my breathing and realized that--after exhaling exclusively through my nose--a bit of negative pressure was created in my nose that (guess what?) caused it to fill with water. I switched tactics. I inhaled through my mouth, exhaled through my nose, and then at the very end, exhaled a bit through my mouth too. The feeling of negative pressure in my nose was greatly diminished.

I even woke up from a dream that night about--what else?--no-mask swimming. I was in no mood to deal with humanity the next day. An exaggeration, you might think? But I want this so much. I want to be scuba-certified for a variety of personal and professional reasons. And, as my classmate told me at the surface, I am good at scuba. It feels fairly natural for me. I love being in the water.

But there's this: This single thing that is hanging me up, that--if I don't do it--will cause me to not be certified. That is unacceptable. I simply do not know how to fail at something that I want this badly.

But the idea of breathing water and feeling like I'm drowing...that's daunting. I may have been able to hold my breath for the mask removal, but I could never hold it so long for the swimming, and the fact remains that I'm not supposed to be holding my breath at all.

I thought all day about getting in the pool on Monday. Monday, as soon as I got home, we left.

I got in the pool, took two breaths and had to come up because of all the water in my nose and throat. Three times, this happened. Bobby was chugging across the pool, happy as a lark, without his mask and breathing with his snorkel. But I could not. Why??

I honestly started to think then: What if I can't do this? Could I get by without a scuba certification?

But no, I decided, I would not give in so easily. I decided to simplify things: to breathe exclusively through my mouth and forget the nose, just to see what happens, to be able to break down better whether it was my positioning or if I was actually honking water up my nose.

There is a rule that I was taught in genetics but applies in lots of other things too: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. As I started across the pool, breathing only through my mouth, I realized: I was doing it! I was not feeling as though I was dying, and even though little drops of water were getting in my nose, it was nothing too terrible. Halfway across the pool, I stood up and was so proud of myself.

I went back and tried it again. This time, I let out a little bubble of air when I needed to get the water out of my nose but did most of my exhaling through the snorkel. Again, I did it, several times across the pool without a problem.

Friday, we will go back and Bobby will hold me under the water so that I can remove my mask and then swim across the pool without it. But for now, I am feeling very confident. The swim is not pleasant--when I surface at the end of it and exhale through my nose, it's like someone turned on the faucet for all the water holding in my nose and sinuses--but I found myself able to relax, take it slow, and concentrate on my breathing. And that is my strategy for Saturday: Relax. Think. Take it slow. Don't rush to get it done. Concentrate on staying relaxed and on breathing. With each exhale, I was doing a quick muscle relaxation exercise that was really helping a lot. I will try to do that do while on the scuba.

I told Bobby that I actually felt like weight had lifted off of me. I am meeting my challenge and I believe that I can--and will--do it.

Sunday will tell, of course, but I believe that I will go into it relaxed and with a positive attitude, and that will make a tremendous difference. We'll see, but I'm confident. :)
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