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Snorkeling Through the Unexpected Waves of Panic

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Yes, it’s March in Colorado, which means we’re in the midst of what is typically our snowiest month of the year. But, because it’s Colorado, it may be in the 60s and Sunny! Or not! Either way, I keep thinking back to our trip to Hawaii in October and dreaming a little. I just can’t help myself.

Photo of me, snorkeling. We brought our new fancy-schmancy underwater camera on this trip, and we had a ton of fun playing with it! I’ll spare you the hundreds of snorkeling photos and videos. You’re welcome.

As you can see by that photo, one of the things I couldn’t wait to do while in Hawaii was go snorkeling. I’ve never gone before, and it sounded like so much fun!

Because the name of the game was Relaxation, we were pretty chill about when we were going to rent gear. The first full day in Hawaii was going to be used to acclimate us to the island, and we’d rent gear the next day.

I love the ocean. I was really looking forward to snorkeling. In the meantime, we were going to frolic on the beach. This was going to be perfect!

My husband went into the ocean and beckoned for me to join him. I happily follow. The warm tide comes in and gently pulls at my legs and waist, and all of a sudden it hits me.

A huge panic attack grips my body. I scramble for a solid footing in the sand. Tears instantly fill my eyes. I’m gasping for air, but I can’t breathe.

It’s no longer 2010. I’m no longer playing in the gentle waves of Kaanapali Beach. It’s 1993, and I’m in Cancun with a group of friends. In my head, I’ve just been pulled under the water by a rip-tide none of us expected. I can’t tell which way is up. I’m being tossed around and pulled out to sea. I’m a strong swimmer, but this lack of control has taken me off guard. I’m frantic. I panic. I’m holding my breath, but there’s no sight of the surface.

A friend pulls me to safety. He’s figured out which way is up. He holds me close as I cry.

My husband now does the same.

To say this was an unexpected turn of events is an understatement. I’ve never had such a big panic attack, and the reason it was so shocking was that it didn’t even occur to me that I hadn’t fully processed the events of that fateful day so long ago.

I love the ocean. I love playing on the beach. Since Cancun, the waters in which I’ve played have been so cold that I’ve never gone in past my knees. Who knew that this demon was lurking?

This panic attack was so strong that my logic and rationale were useless against it. I didn’t even want to try snorkeling. I couldn’t!

My husband reminded me that I’d wanted to take a little snorkel class, and that it would help me. The thought of having this involuntary panic attack in front of a stranger made me sick. I refused the class. I felt horrible disappointing him, but I saw no way around this. This was bigger than me.

I tried to push this out of my head and relax, but I kept turning it over and over in the back of my mind. The next morning (at a decent hour on the mainland), I texted my sister. She’d gone to Hawaii the previous year and had loved snorkeling. This is the same sister who has issues with deep water, so I wanted to see how she had done it.

I told her what had happened. She told me that as soon as her brain figured out that her body could breathe underwater, she was fine. She told me it would be worth it.

It took every fiber of my being to agree to go snorkeling, but I did it. I told my husband that I’d try. I told him that I couldn’t be held responsible for my reaction, but I’d give it all I had. He promised to be patient with me.

We rent gear. They tell us a great place to go, which is literally steps from our hotel room. We go down to the beach. As I’m putting my mask and snorkel tube on, I’m strong. I can do this! I get in the water. As I’m getting my flippers on, I panic. The feeling of the waves tugging on my body is just too much. The jostling knocks loose the anxiety, but I press on. He pulls me out with him, and I put my face in the water.

The prescription lenses of my face mask are a perfect match, and I can see clearly. The tropical fish dart in and out around me, oblivious to the panic in my heart. The colors are amazing! Just below me is a sea turtle. He’s huge. We’re estimating he’s nearly 200 years old, based on his size. He’s obviously come down to the beach to see people. I wonder how many people he’s seen over the years, and how many of them are only pretending to be calm. I physically try to slow my breathing. I try to unclench my jaw.

A calmness washes over me with the next wave. Snorkeling is the coolest thing ever, and I’m instantly hooked.

The fear is still there, but by the end of our trip, it was merely a blip. I still panic when I get in and out of the water, but once I’m out there, I’m free.

Have you ever faced a fear you didn’t even know you had?

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson March 10, 2011

    You’re going to be talking about Hawaii all year long, even during summer’s heat. :)

    Such a scary anxiety attack but I’m glad you were able to overcome it. I had a minor freak-out moment when we went snorkeling in Honduras a few months ago. It came out of nowhere–I’ve snorkeled countless times but I suddenly freaked out over just how deep we were. Fortunately I calmed down pretty quickly but like you, it just came out of nowhere.

  • comment avatar Lori March 10, 2011

    I, too, love snorkeling and I, too, sometimes get panicky at the very beginning of the first try in awhile.

    And I, too, long for sandy sunny days in Hawaii or any other beachy place! Thanks for taking me there with this post.

  • comment avatar JoAnn March 10, 2011

    Amber, does it get hot here? I can’t remember. 😉

    On a more serious note, that’s what was so shocking: The suddenness of the panic and the fact that I had no IDEA it was lurking!

  • comment avatar JoAnn March 10, 2011

    Oh, Lori! I hear ya! Let’s go to the beach RIGHT NOW. Of course, as I’m typing this comment, we’re back in from enjoying the 70s today. I love March in Colorado. Correction: I love the days like THIS in March. Those snowy ones can just stick to the mountains for all I care! :)

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