After almost falling off a mountain, it was only appropriate that I test my sea legs. Apparently, I’m unlucky in adventure—I almost drowned. Quite the hyperbole I know, but I’ll tell you about it anyway.
Thoroughly unsure of myself, I had previously resisted the temptation to try new activities. I agonized and ruminated about the ways I would be deemed unworthy. Performance anxiety had permeated through all levels of my consciousness. Something as simple as not fitting into a new shirt drummed up feelings of shame and self-loathing. Never wanting to “fail” the “test” of a new experience, I completely withdrew from the world to avoid embarrassment. Frozen like a deer in headlights, I refused opportunity after opportunity. Brick by brick, fear sealed me into a future I didn’t want, but couldn’t escape.
And I was stuck. Stuck until I found the strength to leave it all behind. After dismantling my life and starting from absolute scratch, emotionally, physically, mentally, socially and financially; I had nothing to lose. My worst fears had come into fruition and I had survived. Fear melted away and the desire to experience new things grafted itself into my very soul. I just had to figure out how I gotten so far away from home, and so far away from me.
As it got closer and closer to my Aramco “mobilization” date, I channeled my anxiety about returning to Saudi Arabia into my moonlit runs and other fitness adventures. Despite wishing to be done with the desert and all its contents, I was called back to the Kingdom once more. Life lived in Saudi Arabia was not something I had imagined for myself, but I knew Allah’s plan was better than anything I could ever imagine. In light of the mountain incident, any hesitation in removing my feet from stable and flat earth would be understandable, but shortly after my arrival, I looked forward to my next adventure.
My 12th birthday party had been a scuba diving party (yes–my parents rock!). It was like many of the other things I had loved as a child, left in a pile to be done when I had the time…but I never got around to it.
Sixteen years after my first scuba experience, I joined five classmates and an instructor to learn the basics of underwater breathing. The classroom sessions and pool sessions went on without a hitch–it was probably helpful that I’m a strong swimmer and more graceful in water than on dry land. The only emotion I was experiencing on open water day was pure joy.
Saudi Aramco has its own dive beach–we walked straight into the sea from the shore. Once we got out far enough, our dive master gave us the go ahead for descent–and we got fishy with it.
The plan was that we would all take our good old time getting to the bottom, do a sequence of drills individually, then continue on to the shipwreck.
We formed a loose circle and hovered slightly above the bottom. Our instructor, Jill*, faced us one by one, miming the drill she wanted us to perform. A part of the sequence was to completely remove our mask, return it back to our face, and remove the water from it, or “clear” it.
The first two of my classmates did their drills without a hitch. Having practiced these drills a billion and one times in the pool, I was confident in my abilities. While I awaited my turn, my eyes followed a large grouper that was passing behind us. My wetsuit pressed against me, refreshingly cool. Only a few minutes passed before Jill was in front of me. It was time.
I ripped my mask from my face with bravado and then…..it got stuck in my hair. I tugged and tugged but my mask wouldn’t come loose. My hair had wrapped around the strap and would not let go. Panic seized control. I reached my left hand out in front of me wildly swinging until I made contact with a person I assumed to be Jill. My gasping inhales became sporadic and ragged–a far cry from the evenly spaced deep breaths of our training . The salt water pressed deep into my nose. The sensation of my filled cavity drove an ice pick of fear deep into my skull–I became mad. The sensation of suffocation was beyond anything I had ever experienced. In the pool sessions, oxygen flow to the tanks gets turned off underwater. Taking a few breaths teachers familiarity with the sensation of oxygen deprivation, but there was no pain. This was torture–distilled terror coursed through my veins.
An important point that I forgot to mention earlier is that I have astigmatism. In order to avoid being blind under the sea or spending $400 on prescription mask, I wore contacts…which is technically a no-no. This meant, I couldn’t open my eyes. The pressure from the twelve meters of sea that lay above forced water into my nasal passages and left me with the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, despite the fact that I had my regulator in my mouth. Although I was not inhaling water and was getting the proper flow of oxygen through my mouth, the pressure had forced some water up my nose and the spray had entered my throat.
Yanking Jill towards me with one hand, I waved my right hand wildly in the thumbs up sign, which is the equivalent of screaming “Up! Up! Please take me up!”.
She placed both her hands on my shoulders in a strong squeeze. I gathered every bit of brain power whirring through my wild mind.
In for two, out for two.
The bubbles from my breaths began to space apart. She lifted one hand off my shoulder and began to untangle my mask and hair.
It’s gonna be ok.
You can breathe.
You can do it.
Just calm down.
Its just a feeling.
You have air.
What’s taking so long?
Keep hold of your regulator. That’s it.
Inhale. Exhale the bubbles.
After what felt like a thousand and one nights, one strong tug pulled my head to the side and freed my mask. Jill placed the mask back into my hand. I put my mask on my face, tilted my head back, and angled the mask with my thumb to leave a gap at the top. And I blew into it as hard as I could through my nose.
Since I had spent the previous five minutes or six minutes trying not to choke to death caused this to be the most glorious exhale of my life. I blew as hard as I could in three separate sustained breaths and then took the leap of faith. I opened my eyes. Right there in front of me was my instructor Jill, smiling as best as she could underwater. Essentially, her eyes crinkled slightly.
She took my hand and raised her arm over her head to indicate our next drills would be our emergency ascent. As we cycled through them I floated along, carried more by practice than thought. After finishing, we realized that a dive team was missing from the group. Jill left my dive buddy and I reunited to go search for them. The visibility was quite bad that day, as a result our waiting was mostly holding hands and pointing out the occasional fish. Eventually, Jill and the other two returned to complete the rest of the journey to the ship wreck.
After we surfaced, forty-five minutes later, I discovered that while I was panicking, everyone had swarmed to help me, only to be swatted away by the instructor. She had let me struggle a bit with it on my own, to see what I would do. She had placed on my ability to control my panic. One woman in the group was so affected by my situation, she had a panic attack and resurfaced, dragging her buddy along. Although my first day in the open water didn’t start off smoothly, I ended the weekend a certified diver. It was worth every painful moment.
In a bad situation, our lives can feel like they are slipping away. We can fight hard and mighty, thrash against our destiny but not get anywhere. In those moments, sometimes it is necessary to reach out and ask for help. However, reaching for someone else will only get you so far. You have to be able to depend on yourself to finish the job.
What I’ve learned most of all is..that in our most powerless moments…when we’ve deemed others oblivious to our struggle– our suffering can blind us to their compassion.
I’m not sure it’s a pirate’s life is for me, but with my scuba certification in hand–I’ve definitely been deemed worthy of the high seas.
Below are some videos of the Saudi Aramco Dive Beach and ship wreck.