CONQUERING FEAR + SCUBA DIVING IN THAILAND | ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER
I’m so scared that I can hear my heart beating. I can feel it in my teeth. My hands are shaking ever so slightly. I’m clumsily moving to the edge of the boat, waddling in my wetsuit, not quite used to the weight of my gear and lacking “sea legs” that would allow me to stand on the swaying boat without holding onto a stationary object. All the while, I’m picturing in my head all of the things that could go wrong in the next few minutes. I could slip on the deck and hit my head. I could fall into the ocean and disappear forever. I could have messed up my equipment even though it’s been triple checked by my buddy and my instructors. What if I can’t breathe? What if I drown? What if I die? What am I doing? I must be crazy!
I’ll be honest. I was terrified to scuba dive.
So how did I end up on this boat off the shore of a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand?
I probably wouldn’t have come to the decision to get dive certified on my own because it just wasn’t something that was on my radar. However, my partner, Chris, is scuba certified and has been since high school, because scuba certification was an elective at his high school. He’s from Southern California, outside of San Diego. There’s something that just seems so “California” about having scuba classes at your high school. Anyway, he really wanted to scuba dive while we were in Thailand and was thrilled about the possibility of me getting scuba certified so that we could dive together. Once I started looking into it, I knew that I wanted to do it!
I’ve watched documentaries about the ocean my whole life. I’ve always been in awe of the oceans. They make up close to 70% of our planet and are home to tens of thousands of species of fish, whales, coral, aquatic plants, and any number of other organisms. I’ve always been fascinated with the different ocean ecosystems, especially the coral reefs. But I’ve lived in land-locked states my whole life and never really spend much time near oceans, so I had never given much thought to scuba diving. Given that I was traveling to this little island off the coast of Thailand that just happens to have some of the most amazing scuba diving in Southeast Asia, well, I knew I had to give it a try.
I showed up to the dive school on a whim, hoping that I could get into a class that same day. I filled out a mountain of paperwork. Finally, I got to the waiver. I filled it in knowing that I was (thankfully) in excellent health. But then I got to a box I hadn’t expected. A question that threw me for a loop. “Do you now or have you in the past suffered from anxiety or panic attacks?”
I was already more than a little nervous about diving before that little box, but that question was now seared into my consciousness. What if I had a panic attack while under 18 meters of water? I struggled to push the thought from my mind.
I remained nervous about breathing underwater throughout my training. I constantly worried that I wouldn’t be able to get enough oxygen, or that I would hyperventilate, or that I would be on the ocean floor looking up at the surface, so far away, and that it would happen. I would have a panic attack. I thought about quitting. More than once, I considered taking the partial refund and relaxing on the beach for the duration of our stay.
At this point, you might be wondering why I would want to do something that I found so scary.
I didn’t always have issues with anxiety. I was a pretty care-free kid. It wasn’t until I went to high school that I started experiencing anxiety. It wasn’t all the time, either. I had panic attacks here and there in college as well, and sometimes went years without one. When I started my teaching career, I suddenly started having panic attacks again. I was working full time in a tough, low-income school, working with at-risk kids, and going to school full time to get my Masters degree. I was stressed. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was subsisting on what seemed like gallons of coffee just to keep up with the frenetic pace of life surrounded by middle and high school students. All of those factors coupled with some personal stuff, family issues, and deaths in the family, created a recipe for disaster. My anxiety was completely out of control. I was having panic attacks all the time – at restaurants, while grocery shopping, at the movie theater (Jurassic World in 3D, come on – not even scary), sitting in traffic, at concerts – basically anywhere loud or crowded (and often, fun). I became more and more anti-social as I avoided any and all situations that might trigger my anxiety, other than those absolutely necessary, like work.
For a while, my life unraveled around me. I was so unhappy. I felt so out of control. My body and my mind were betraying me. I couldn’t conquer the physical effects of my anxiety and I couldn’t deal with the emotional stuff that was causing it.
It took a long time and some major life changes, but I’m really happy now. I haven’t had a panic attack in what feels like ages. My lifestyle is completely different – more in alignment with what I knew I needed and wanted for myself. My days are calm and quiet, their pace is slow. I have time to breathe and drink tea. I love my life now, and I never want to go back to the place I was before. I don’t want to let the fear of of what could happen stop me from doing the things I love or trying something new, but the fear that my anxiety could resurface sometimes just pops up out of nowhere. Anyone who has ever had a panic attack could attest to this. Sometimes, it just happens. It can happen completely unexpected resulting from something that hasn’t triggered it before. It’s weird, makes no sense, and it’s frustrating to no end. It’s something that I don’t often talk about or open up about. Although I know it shouldn’t be, it’s embarrassing.
That’s why I was totally honest with my scuba instructors about my history with anxiety and laid it all out there. I told them that I was nervous about diving because of the uncertainty of it all – something completely new to me and a situation that I could not completely control. I needed them to know what was going through my head in case I needed help calming down and so that they could teach me what to do in case I started to feel a panic attack coming on while diving. I needed to thoroughly understand what to do in an emergency situation (because not being able to control your breathing with the whole ocean above you is definitely an emergency).
My instructors were great, and so incredibly understanding and patient with me. I am completely indebted to them, because as it turns out, scuba diving is my new obsession. It isn’t nearly as terrifying as I had made it out to be in my head. Once I was under the water, swimming with schools of thousands of beautiful fish, surrounded by brightly colored corals of all shapes and sizes, spiny urchins, octopus, shrimp, and anemones (with adorable clownfish poking their little heads out), all of my apprehension was gone in an instant.
Scuba diving is the single most amazing thing I have ever done in my life. It’s like being transported to another planet. For a little while, you get to experience life as a fish living in an underwater world completely separate yet inextricably linked to our own world.
As I looked around me in awe of the beauty and diversity of life surrounding me, my fears melted away, my tension was gone.
I am so unbelievably thankful that I had the support of my amazing instructors, my classmates, and my partner to finish my open water certification. Three dives and a final exam later, I got my picture taken for my certification card. The next day, I got deep dive certified, something that I thought for certain when I first started my open water course that I would never want to do. Along with my passport, I foresee my diving certification card being one of my most prized possessions.
I could have easily quit. I could have let my fears get the best of me. I could have let anxiety control and cripple me, to steal away memories and experiences that I hadn’t even had a chance to make, but I’m so glad I didn’t. I have explored a part of the world that few people ever have the chance to. I have seen up close what most people only see in documentaries.
Not only was this a huge lesson in conquering self doubt and overcoming fear, the experience has opened up a whole new world for me that is just waiting to be explored. I never would have know how much I love diving if I had let my fears get the best of me. Now I’m hooked. I’m already dreaming of my next diving trip!
I completed my PADI Open Water Certification through Sairee Cottage Diving in Ko Tao, Thailand. They come very highly rated on Trip Advisor, which is how I found them. I also chose them because they are dedicated to being as eco-conscious as possible. They use ocean-friendly practices, are part of ProjectAWARE, and regularly host ocean clean up dive trips. I seriously cannot recommend them enough. My instructors were all fantastic, and went above and beyond to help me feel comfortable doing something I was quite terrified of at first. Whether you are looking for a certification program or just want to do some diving in the Gulf of Thailand, check out Sairee Cottage!