DAY 124 – Koh Samui airport, waiting for our flight to Bangkok
When I was 6 and my brother 9, my parents took us on the ubiquitous March-break pilgrimage to Florida on our first vacation by plane. I distinctly remember the hotel pool in Orlando, which resembled a cross and had its deep end right in the center, with the shallow ends on all four sides. My brother and I knew how to swim, but I was still a newbie to aquatics. I liked to know that I could plant my feet at the bottom if necessary. My best trick was to swim underwater, eyes tightly shut, for as fast and as long as I could in one breath. On this particular trip, I pulled out my trick as soon as we hit the pool, but inadvertently found myself in the deep end, smack in the center of the pool with nothing to hold on to, feet anxiously kicking out trying to find a footing. I’m sure I knew how to tread water, but if I did I completely forgot I could. All I knew was the fear and panic I felt, and the feeling that the deep end would suck me in. Luckily I soon enough remembered that I could still swim underwater; grabbed the deepest breath I could, shut my eyes, and swam as fast as I could back from where I came.
Fast forward to Brossard (my home). The family next door had an inground swimming pool back when these were a very rare and coveted thing. Most families we knew did not even have an outground pool. My family had a sandbox. I would hang out on our slightly elevated balcony in the backyard and stare longingly over the fence until someone invited me over (another great trick I pocketed young: learn to get what you want!). But who wouldn’t stare? They had an inflatable raft, a slide and a diving board. Our rubber wading pool with ankle-deep tepid water was not even a close consolation. On the random occasions where I managed to snag an invitation, I would happily board their raft with the plastic paddle and float around the narrow shallow end. The raft may have been dependable, but I had experienced the vortex of the deep-end, and was not about to risk another close encounter. I refused to cross the bouy line.
Skip ahead to swimming class a couple years down the road. I was forging ahead, conquering fears and starting in on my maroon badge. I could swim across the deep-end by now, though I didn’t like to linger. A couple weeks into the class, the task to be completed was swimming down the deep-end and touching the bottom of the pool.
Nightmare come true.
No matter how many times I would push myself down towards the bottom, I would just as quickly scramble to the surface as soon as the top seemed out of reach. I could not get to that bottom. It came to such a standstill that I ended up never getting my maroon badge. My parents were satisfied that I could swim, and I was satisfied that I would never have to swim to the bottom of the deep-end (ever). My greatest fear was remaining trapped under all that water. The movies Titanic and White Squall had me shedding tears long past the credit reel.
All that to say – the fear of the deep is real!
Of the things I wanted to accomplish on this trip, I told myself I would risk it all and attempt to do the PADI Open Water scuba diving course. I was going to get to that bottom! A pipe dream at the beginning, which was slowly coming to a head as we made our way to the island of Koh Tao, Thailand – world class diving mecca with more dive shops per square meter than probably anywhere in the world. I booked a class with the #1 rated Ocean Sound Dive & Yoga (only the number 1 would do to assuage the fears), and paid the deposit to anchor it in. No turning back!
Except of course, if a torrential monsoon hits and you are flooded in by streets of flowing brown water and floating debris. For 4 days the course was pushed back in the hopes that weather conditions would improve. On the fateful fourth day, January 9, with grey skies but no rain, my 3 fellow classmates and I were summoned to start our course at 5pm. The course would start with a short orientation so we could meet each other and our instructor, get acquainted and comfortable, go over any questions, and watch the first video of skills we would be learning the following day in the pool. We were also given our manuals and assigned the first two chapters for homework.
We sat down for the hour-long video, and I watched with increasing apprehension as it showed trainees in a pool doing a large amount of things I had never dreamed nor desired to do underwater: removing their masks completely and putting them back on; practising breathing and swimming underwater without a mask on; throwing away their regulator (breathing device), finding it and flushing the water out to breath again; filling their masks with water and clearing it; simulating underwater ‘rescue’ with a buddy who was out of air and sharing their air… on and on the skills went. All of them underwater. By the halfway point I was hardly paying attention. My heart beating in my ears, heat swelling up to my face, and a sure as hell feeling that I was definitely NOT suited to this activity.
After the orientation, Jason and I went for dinner with our Australian friends, Nick and Kat, whom we had met at the hotel during our monsoon hideaway. Though the company was excellent, I could not for the life of me focus on anything being said. I barely ate, my stomach was churning, my insides flipping out. Tomorrow I would be forced to put into practice everything I had just seen in the video. Living hell.
Being the good student I always strive to be, I went home and reviewed the chapters thoroughly and finished the review questions for homework. I figured the more prepared I would be, the more secure I would feel.
Instead, I treated Jason to a fun-filled night of full blown anxiety attack, fear blowing out my ears and tears streaming down my face. Total meltdown. I was going into a pool and never coming back out. I had paid a deposit and given my word – I couldn’t just QUIT! I was trapped to a sinking ship, and going down fast.
Until I realized I wasn’t actually, physically, chained to a boat, right? Who said I HAD to do anything? Scuba diving should be FUN! Why was I putting myself through this hell hole of fear? Maybe scuba diving was not for everybody. I came to the conclusion that the only rational thing would not be to QUIT persay, but merely to POSTPONE to a later time when I was feeling more sure. I finished off the homework (didn’t want anyone to think I was stopping because I hadn’t finished!) and went to bed, calm in the feeling that I was releasing myself from all this unnecessary stress.
The next morning, we got up early so we could make it to the dive school before the pool session started at 7:40am. We walked down to the village, with me alternating between feeling relieved and disappointed in myself, tears sputtering forth every couple meters, questioning every decision. Feeling embarrassed and a quitter, I told the instructor I was not going to pursue this particular course, the panic was just too much, and since I was already scared of the idea of scuba diving, I perhaps better wait until conditions were 100% improved (flooding wasn’t completely gone and possible storms were still on the horizon). I’m crying as I’m saying this of course (embarrassed as the other 3 students are listening in), and my instructor completely tunes in to my fears. Tanya (from Germany) assures me it is totally normal to be scared, it’s completely fine if I don’t want to do it. BUT – she suggests – why don’t you come to the pool, just see how it is? You can get in the pool, see how you feel, if you don’t like it you can just get out, you can always stop at anytime, just see how you feel. She assures me we take everything very eaaaasy, very relaaaxed. We just see how it goes.
Tanya is a professional.
That was exactly the speech I needed. Hating the feeling of quitting anything before even giving it a try, and already feeling the twinges of disappointment in myself at letting the fears get the complete better of me, I was convinced. I would try the pool. I would not think about the ocean – just try the pool and see if I could keep going. Not having worn my bathing suit with the expectation of quitting, I ran back to the hotel in a sweat to get my things and hurried back.
Well, I went to the pool. And I conquered. The mask, the breathing, the not breathing, the rescue, the swimming. I did it. I was exhilarated. Jason met me for lunch and I chewed his ear off, about everything. Raving. I was in love with Tanya. I would DO this. All the way. I returned to the dive school for the afternoon classroom session and left Jason to his own devices.
But something was off. Trying to focus on class I started feeling a bit dizzy, a bit woozy. Blocked ears maybe? I pinched my nose and blew out. Dehydration? I drank more water, trying to focus. But it only got worse. As soon as the session ended two hours later, I ran to find Jason at the coffee shop and ran to the hotel, leaving Jason in my dust.
NOOO!! I took the prescribed antibacterial medication as soon as things seemed to settle down, but the rest of the afternoon, evening and night were rough. Our second classroom session was meant to start the next morning at 8:00am, with the first two ocean dives in the afternoon, but by the next morning I couldn’t move. Jason emailed the school to tell them I would not be coming in. After all that drama! Huge disappointment. There would have been more tears had I not been so focused on keeping the nausea at bay.
I slept in until 10:00am. Jason was scheduled to be on the same boat as my group for the afternoon dives (leaving at 11:30am) for a Scuba Review class he had scheduled. Feeling weak but with the nausea not so high, I decided to put on my swimsuit and accompany him to the dive school, lest I magically feel better when I got there. After finding the perfect instructor, an awesome group, and actually getting through the pool exercises, I couldn’t believe I would actually have to quit now.
I hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day, but was able to keep down a few saltine crackers and even a bit of apple. When I got to the dive shop, one of the owners, Will (a fellow Canadian), looked at me and offered me a seasickness tablet. Helps with nausea on sea and on land apparently. Tablet in hand, I decided to throw down my towel and go for the gold. Come hell or high water (hopefully neither), I would get on that boat. If I had to abort a dive for an emergency, so be it (though apparently you can vomit through the regulator and keep breathing(!!)…not something I’d like to try). If I could make it through, then I would move forward with Tanya and the group. Will informed me I could make up the classroom session I had missed later that day or the next. It was showtime.
Well to make a (very) long story short, I DID IT. Against all odds (or at least, many odds), I completed the theory, the homework, the quizzes, the final exam, and all 4 dives plus the ominous pool session. I was on top of the world (and not at the bottom of the pool as I had initially feared). I did it and finished! Nausea be damned! I’m now a certified Open Water diver up to 18 meters, and I am actually excited to do it again.