After an exhausting tour in Uganda and a 40-hour trip back to the States, I had foolishly planned only a day of rest in Houston before jetting off to Baja California Sur for a 9-day dive trip. Add daylight savings to jet lag, and I was in piss-poor condition for an intensely physical adventure. With mini-addictions of melatonin, Bonine, Pepto, and vitamin C, I managed to stay healthy and have an epic time diving, snorkeling, and laughing with a great crew!
This trip helped me to embrace my panic and anxiety with diving , ask for help from a friend, and return to really enjoying marine life for marine life sake instead of trying to grit my teeth and power through my lingering PTSD from a dive in Komodo years ago.
I recently wrote about this trip and my relationship with diving in my book manuscript. Here’s a sneak preview!
On a dive trip to Baja California Sur in 2019, something shifted for me. It had been a year filled with pushing physical boundaries in diving and white water rafting. I was tired and anxious from panicky dives in the Philippines and Mozambique and getting swallowed up by Class 5 rapids in Patagonia, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. I was dreading the nine-day dive trip in Mexico, wondering “Why am I creating so much stress for myself? What am I trying to prove and to whom? Is this anxiety worth the thrill of seeing sharks?” It felt like being in a ten-year relationship where I was struggling to remember the good times and questioning why I was still in it (and my longest relationship to date had been seven years shorter!).
The trip was run by Megan, a cheerful and ceaselessly optimistic dive instructor from my go-to Playa del Carmen dive shop, Diversity Diving. Megan was also a good friend who I could be completely vulnerable with about the depths of my anxiety. The dive group was small with only two other clients, including another good friend of mine. It was in this nurturing and understanding environment that I allowed myself to accept both my fear AND that I wasn’t where I thought I “should” be.
I was nearing 200 dives but less confident and in need of more attention than someone who had only 10 dives. And that was totally okay. I didn’t need to provide an explanation, qualifier, or disclaimer. I could own my challenge without denial or embarrassment.
I also didn’t have to grit my teeth and power through the challenge. Like Robin, my Burning Man friend, used to say, I could ask the spirits to deliver the lessons and growth in a gentle manner. This time the spirit was Megan, and I asked her for extra attention, checking in with her often, and prompting her to lightly take my arm prom-style and swim along with me on a 140-foot dive. I graciously received her special care with gratitude, not shame. Needing a little help did not diminish my experience swimming through shipwrecks and spotting a school of a hundred hammerheads in the deep blue.
Maybe it hurt my ego, but there was something very liberating in letting it hurt, consoling it through the pain because it was still a vital part of me, and moving forward with grace, vulnerability, and authenticity. That felt much stronger than denial, excuses, or shame.
I also had a conversation with my “internal board”, acknowledging the legitimate fear of my inner child, Sasha, promising her that I would not knowingly put her into unsafe situations, and asking her to trust me with our safety. I also invoked Brad, my inner warrior, who had been forced to take a rest after leading during all my corporate years. I thanked him for his years of service and asked him to step back in, giving me the strength to dive with confidence.
By the end of the ten-dive trip, I felt a lot less anxiety before dives, a little nervousness underwater that felt more like excitement than the visceral panic that would urge me to the surface, and a renewed love for marine life.
At the same time, I also realized that from worsening panic or aging, I might have to abort a dive or even give up diving, which would threaten my ego identity tied to diving and marine life. The fear of losing these core parts is almost scarier than the panic itself. Like with most transitions, it would require deep surrender, allowing my identity to transform and be redefined. It’s also important to remember what really matters to me—is it about being an extreme diver or enjoying the ocean? For me, it’s the latter, and there are many ways to enjoy the ocean. I already do less extreme diving and could shift more to snorkeling to continue enjoying the vibrant marine life. I tend to be an all-or-nothing person, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
In the end, like anything else in life done intensely, something challenging and maybe traumatic will inevitably happen. Perhaps, life is less about avoiding these pitfalls and more about accepting the present reality without resistance, rolling with feelings as they arise, and appreciating the experience with an unbiased mind.