Random AsidesSkepticism

Fear and Skepticism in Atlanta…

I spent the past 3 days taking a beginner SCUBA diving class. Back in April, for his birthday, I got my husband SCUBA classes and we decided to do the certification together. I had taken the class about 15 years ago and remembered it being a piece of cake. I wasn’t at all worried about it.

Then I got under the water.

We got in the SHALLOW end of the pool (we’re talking four feet), let ourselves sink to the bottom and do some basic skills, like removing our regulators (the device that pumps air into your mouth), clearing them and breathing again, filling our masks with water and clearing them and retrieving a regulator that had gone astray.

Everytime I tried to take my regulator out and put it back in, I would (as I figured out later) not recreate the seal around the mouthpiece appropriately, so water would get in and I would choke and panic.

I made it through 3 of the basic skills, but I got more and more panicked. The fact that I was breathing underwater, the stream of bubbles rising in front of my face, plus choking several times completely freaked me out. I told the instructor I had to surface (i.e stand up) and told her I was not comfortable. She was very nice to spastoid newbie — that’s what happens when you don’t pay for the lessons until after class — and told me to watch and we’d do the rest the next day.

I got through the day and did ok. By the end of the day, I was still not having fun, but was more comfortable in the water and with my breathing. I went home, the adrenaline from the panic still making me a little shaky.

This morning, when it was time to go back to class, the panic moved in again. I didn’t want to deal with it.  For the first time since since I went to my husband’s family reunion, I was just plain scared.  I wanted to quit.  I wanted to spend the day sleeping and not thinking about drowning in a swimming pool wearing a working SCUBA tank while dozens of swimming adolescents watched.

My husband was very understanding about the whole thing. He told me it was entirely up to me, although I could tell he was disappointed (we’ve been planning to go diving in Hawaii in October, once we get certified — if I wasn’t on the dive, he might get paired up with some nubile 20-something, and I would never do that to him).  I was upset, in tears, worried and freaking out.

Then I stopped and took a step out of it all for a minute.  I had been to Skeptics in the Pub the night before so skepticism and critical thinking was on the mind.  (We had a blast, by the way.  Discussion ran from Depeche Mode to women who don’t want to have children to taking a whiz into the mouth of a volcano.  Awesome.)

So there were several components to this fear:

1.  The basic physical issues – water up my nose, not being able to breathe, fear of drowning. You know, girly stuff.
2.  I was doing this in front of a group of other trainees and I was going to make a fool of myself, and traumatize a bunch of kids if I drowned. *I* think of the children.
3.  In doing this wrong or quitting, I would end up disappointing my husband and the instructors who had been so nice, and were waiting for their payment, which they would almost certainly not get if I were dead.

So I looked at this critically. Item 1 was really the biggest issue — my husband would get over it, and the kids need trauma to toughen them up. But I didn’t want to drown or blow snot everywhere. I got past it by focussing on that this class was only for 1 day and that I was only going to be in the pool.  It would be highly unlikely that I would be injured in 12 feet (at the most) of water, particularly with three instructors and eight other students around me at all time.

I also realized that a lot of my breathing issues had to do with how to breathe with SCUBA gear.  I’ve spent many years doing yoga, which teaches you to breathe only through your nose.  SCUBA is the opposite – you have to only breathe through your mouth and it does not come naturally to me.  I had to focus on this and think about how I was breathing and go somewhat against my instincts.

I also realized that although I certainly had the option of not going today and trying again another day, the fear would get worse. I decided not to think about the 80-foot open water dives.  I was just going to get through today, in the pool.

So I went to class.  During the lecture, the instructor walked us through what we would do, including demonstrating lifesaving techniques, towing your buddy, breathing from each others suits. I was also going to have one of the instructors work with me individually, to help me with mask clearing and the other stuff I didn’t do the day before. Right on cue, there was my old friend, Mr. Panic.

Again with the focusing – just today, just the pool.  What’s the worst that could happen?

I got to the pool today and did it all.  It took me a while but I kept using the same methodology.  I examined the problem, broke it into pieces and solved it at an intellectual level, instead of letting the panic get to me.  Mask clearing was really bothering me. I realized it was because I hated having water around my nose and that when I got water up my nose, it would panic me.

So, I spent about 15 minutes just standing in the shallow end, breathing from the regulator, with my face submerged without a mask.  The first couple of times, I could only do it for a couple of seconds.  Within half an hour, I was able to sit on the bottom of the pool, take my mask off, put it back on and clear it.  By the end of the day, I was able to swim maskless for 25 ft, put the mask on and clear it.

I also managed to do all the other tasks, including the rescue skills, with minimal problems. I even dealt with unexpected problems.  When we were practicing sharing the spare regulator on someone else’s suit, my husband’s big broad shoulders caused it to get pulled out of my mouth before we got to the surface.  I grabbed it back, but couldn’t insert it, and drowned right there from terminal Spousus Doofititis.

No, seriously, I cleared it and continued to breathe through the exercise.

I am not sure if I’ll complete the SCUBA certification process. I am going to go back to the pool at least once to make sure I’m completely comfortable before we do our open water dives.  Those of you who are already SCUBA certified are probably thinking that I am a giant chicken.  Those of you who haven’t ever experienced it are probably wondering why I would go in for a hobby that scares the crap out of me.  To those people I can only say “am not” and “just ’cause.”

But it’s really not about that.  Whether or not I get certified, my point that critical thinking is a pretty strong tool in overcoming fear.  We have fears for a reason, there are evolutionary reasons that fear is a good thing.  There’s a reason we instinctively recoil from opportunities to drown, and those reasons aren’t hard to understand. But one thing about that three pounds of grey matter (noticeably more for Skepchicks) on top of your spine is that it can help you overcome irrational, unnecessary fear. Knowing I can do that makes me confident that if I *am* 60 ft underwater and a real problem occurs, I’ll handle it.

Either that, or I’ll just sexily drown :) But what a way to go.  Ya’ll can use this post as an obituary :)  Glug, glug, baby.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. The business about breathing through your mouth when you’d learned to not do that is like my experience downhill skiing. I knew that I was supposed to put my weight on the outside ski when I turned, but for the entire first day I’d put my weight on the inside when I came to the corner, because that’s what I did in motorcycling, especially in racing where the lean angle was extreme. My reflexes were extremely hard to overcome, even though they’re just learned reflexes. I did finally do it, though, but it was really annoying how I’d fall in every single turn every single time when I knew what I was supposed to do.

    Luckily I don’t embarass too easily. :)

  2. In fairness, we actually talked about skeptics who don’t want to have children. Female or male.

    I just don’t want to be alone at PTA meetings.

    My question is, how does the critical thinking help any of us guys who wouldn’t have been able to pee in a volcano?

  3. I just came back from Hawai’i last month. While I am an experienced diver, my travel partner is not – in fact, she can barely swim at all.

    I suggest you look in SNUBA – a cross between scuba and snorkeling, it has several advantages over scuba. The airtank is on a small floatation mat at the surface, and everyone’s on a 20′ hose to their regulator.

    Pros: you don’t have to swim around with a tank strapped to your back, something that n00bs find challeging. Also, you’re all connected by hoses to the tank, so no-one can get lost. And if you panick, there’s the floating mat at the surface that you can grab and just float at.

    Cons: really, only one – you can’t go deeper than the hose, which is 20′.

    Snuba is a good introduction to snorkeling, if you’re panicky. My travel partner had all the panicky stuff you mentioned, plus, as noted, she can’t swim. She quite enjoyed the Snuba.

    Dunno which island you’re going to, but we snuba’d on Oahu, with Breeze Hawaii diving, at Hanauma Bay (which is gorgeous).

    Hope that helps – Z.

  4. Oh wow, you go girl! There are lots of things that are scary in this world, rationally so or not, so that’s a very inspiring story. Just take it all one step at a time, too. :-)

  5. Oh, neato! You can do it! Be skeptical about your chances of death here. ;)

    I got certified when I was 13 years old, and despite an overactive imagination and a severe problem with motion sickness (trips on the boat included an inevitable puke, growing up) I made it through.

    In fact, I contribute my exposure to the certification material and the experience itself to my love of science – and to decreasing my phobia of mathematics. I didn’t know many 13 year olds who would talk to me about atmospheric pressure.

    If you are ever in the Gulf Coast of Florida say something, I’m trying to finagle a dive with my parents on the Oriskany “wreck” off of Pensacola. :D

    Oh, PS…. I still freak out every time I’m in open water, and swear I see great whites out of the corner of my eye. S’how it goes, I guess.

  6. anthrosciguy,
    I have to agree with both of you. I especially empathize with your experience. I grew up in the South with a lot of water and summers filled with water skiing. The instincts you build for that are almost exactly opposite the ones needed for downhill snow skiing. *shakes head in remembrance* Much like you, my first day was filled with a lot of surprise falls when I shifted my weight completely wrong. Still, I got past it and now love both sports. So, here is for all of us pushing through ehh. :)

  7. And here I am sitting here being just a bit nervous about starting my brand-new job this morning. All I need to do is apply some critical thinking, and remind myself there’s virtually no chance of me drowning. :)

    Seriously, though, good job! If you decide to go for the certification, I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colors.

  8. Nice job working through that! I can really relate to your fears. I always get a moment of fear just taking a breath with my head underwater for the first time when snorkeling.

    Have you tried (can you?) nose-clips. My kayaking alter-ego used nose-clips to keep the sinuses dry when learning to roll. Though I don’t know if the clips would fit under your dive mask.

  9. sethmanapio – fair enough, skeptics not wanting kids. I’d had at least 2 glasses of wine at that point and was still working down the adrenaline from my earlier panic so I probably wasn’t paying enough attention :)

    Zoltan – one of the guys in my class was telling me about SNUBA. Definitely an option if I don’t make it through the open water dives. But I’m going to give the SCUBA stuff a shot.

    Jen – good luck in your new job! I can certainly see how the fear is similar :)

    NoAstronomer – no, nose clips won’t work. Your nose needs to be clear within the dive mask in case the mask fills with water. If it does fill, you lean your head back, tilt it open slightly and blow air out your nose to clear it. One of the skills that was freaking me out and also a pretty critical one… :)

  10. I believe what you experienced was called courage.

    Definition = Being scared shitless but doing it anyway.

    Being a skeptic doesn’t make you a robot although I can “do the robot” and it is truly sucktastic.

  11. Good for you! I know how you feel – as I’ve grown old(er) I’ve developed a fear of heights that I didn’t have when I was young. Try as I might I can’t seem to shake it. Ah well, you give me hope!

  12. That’s awesome! Way to drive on and push through the fear. Just remember to stop before you become suicidally reckless. ;)

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