First times are hard for me.
I live in a general state of anxiety, pretty much all of the time. Throw new people, new skills, new rules and regs, and new surroundings into the mix, and my anxiety turns into full-on dread.
So when I showed up for my first day of Scuba Diving class, I was an anxious mess.
I arrived an hour early. The number one rule in scuba diving is “don’t hold your breath”. I didn’t want to forget it, so I practiced my Ujjayi breathing on repeat, like the confident veteran yogi that I am not. “Bowling is more dangerous than scuba diving” said a raspy voice of experience from behind the counter. “Don’t be nervous”. I swallowed the urge to fact check his claim.
I quieted my breathing (to make him more comfortable) and concentrated on the casual nature of my stroll and I perused the dive shop equipment - commenting on the “cool” mask color options and the “fun” prints on the wetsuits.
When class began, I opened my eyes as wide as they’d go to make sure I looked like I was intently listening to the instructor. But it wasn’t until I noticed my randomly selected “buddy” was nearly vibrating, that something shifted. His nerves strangely quieted mine, to almost a whisper.
“My anxiety has my brain feeling like scrambled eggs,” I muttered during our equipment check.
Dials, computers, gauges, boots, flippers, weight belt, air tank, hoses - with the weight of all the bulky equipment I wasn’t sure if he heard me. After a second, his eyes melted from wide panic to a half smile, and I watched him take a full breath in for the first time since we arrived.
Whatever you do, don’t hold your breath.
I took a breath, too.
Once I was zipped into my skin-tight wetsuit, feeling like a sausage, and trying not to panic, a student across the room unzipped hers in a rush. Her face went pale and she was shaking as she pulled in short, labored breaths. Everyone in the room was in a social battle with themselves. Do we say something? Is she okay? Clearly, she’s not okay.
I shouted across the pool, “If you’re feeling activated, massage the muscle on the left side of your neck, like this…or hum!”
She began rubbing her neck, looking away at first, but then rejoined the group, staved off the tears, and shot me a big smile.
An hour later, while learning to “clear our masks,” I sucked pool water up my nose instead of blowing out. I scrambled to the surface of the water, ripped off my mask, choking and coughing. The instructor joined me.
“I panicked,” I said. “I’m going to hang up here for a minute and attempt to calm my nervous system.”
Moments later, my buddy also sucked water. He also panicked and shot to the surface. When the instructor asked him how he was, he said “I don’t know what happened. I’m fine. I’m fine.”
His anxiety-ridden hands trembled as he forced his mask back onto his face, askew. With his nose exposed, he plunged his head back underwater without his regulator (*essential breathing device) in his mouth. Inevitable water-sucking ensued and he shot right back up—only to claim, yet again, that he didn’t know why any of it had happened.
I opened my mouth to say “Yes! You DO know what is happening! You’re nervous, excited, anxious, overstimulated, overwhelmed - You’re human”, but I didn’t speak. Can a lifetime of stigma and emotional repression really be undone in a single moment with a stranger shouting at you in ill-fitting scuba gear?
Learning about my anxiety and how it shows up in my body does not make it go away. But I feel grateful that I can see it coming. Grateful that I can call it out, explain my experience, and ask for support. Grateful that I can see it in others and I have the words to show empathy.
I still dread first times, complicated gear, and tight-fitting clothing. But putting words to my mental state and being open about it means I can continue to live, experience new things, and even blow chlorinated pool water out of my mask.
I will get back in that pool for day 2.
I will get scuba certified.
Hell, one day I might even go on an actual dive.