A long time ago I had a boyfriend who was, shall we say, not the right guy for me. He was extremely brilliant, well known in his field, financially secure, and eight years older; I was completely in thrall to him. He was also possessive, pathologically jealous, controlling and verbally mean. After a very short time with him I put my self-esteem in the closet and ceded control of my life to this person, who exploited the situation to the max. With him, I made just about every mistake I will someday warn my own daughters about. But I'll say this for him: he's the reason I learned an important lesson about fear.
I didn't even learn to swim until I was 30, that's how afraid of the water I used to be. When I was a kid I had a swimming "instructor" whose idea of teaching kids to swim was to practice blowing bubbles, then take us to the deep end of the pool and make us jump in. I guess you could call it the Total Immersion Technique. Whatever it was, it gave me such a fear of the water that whenever I got in water over my head I would immediately hyperventilate. At 30, I did finally get over that fear enough to actually learn to swim at the YMCA, so I give myself credit for that, but still: getting in water over my head remained cause for serious concern. When I swam laps, I did it at a health club where the pool was built solely for that purpose--four feet deep all over.
So anyway, The Boyfriend wanted to go scuba diving in the Caribbean. He had his certification, and since I had granted him control over my life I decided this was something I had to learn how to do. I signed up for lessons, did the course work and finally, one spring evening, found myself at a hotel pool with my classmates, ready to take the final exam. It consisted of putting on your weight belt and fins, picking up your BCD vest, your mask, your oxygen tank and all the assorted hoses and paraphernalia and jumping into the deep end of the pool, which was 10 feet deep. There, at the bottom of the pool, you would be expected to a) insert your mouthpiece, b) put on your mask and clear it, and c) correctly put on the rest of your gear. Then, and only then, you could ascend slowly to the surface.
I watched everybody else do this thing, and then, finally, the moment of truth could not be postponed any longer. I have never felt that kind of fear before or since. It was visceral. It didn't matter that I knew I was in the company of several more than competent swimmers, that the instructor himself knew CPR, that no matter what happened I wasn't going to die....no, reason had nothing to do with this. This was simply my body screaming: No no no no no no! I couldn't breathe. I could not imagine floating in that end of the pool, much less willingly putting on weights and sitting at the bottom. Let's get this over with, I said to myself grimly, and stepped into the air.
Then I was at the bottom, and horror overwhelmed me, and pure, blind panic. I groped for my weight belt, unhooked it, and kicked like crazy to the surface, where I swam over to the side of the pool and held on, white-knuckled, hyperventilating. Utter failure.
The instructor came over and squatted next to me. "Take your time," he said quietly. Somebody retrieved my gear. I went over to the ladder and got out of the pool. And somehow, a measure of calm came over me. I won't say that suddenly I was unafraid--far, far from it--but that moment of being at the bottom proved to me that I could get myself out of a really scary situation if I had to, and survive, even if I didn't look exactly graceful doing it. In a few minutes, I was ready to try again. And this time, somehow, I did it. This time, when I came to the surface, everybody was clapping. I wish I could say I felt exhilarated, but I didn't; I just felt profoundly relieved. I went home and had a stiff drink.
But something about that moment must have stuck. I'd always been fairly confident of myself in situations relating to my work, but this was the first time I'd ever seen myself as just a person, in a situation I had no natural abilities for, facing fear. A tiny seed of self-confidence was planted, and slowly began to germinate. And when that relationship ended, which of course it eventually had to, I got through it okay. I didn't look exactly graceful, but I survived. In some ways, the end of that relationship was a lot easier to survive than my scuba diving final exam.
Several years later, I met met the man who is now my husband, and during our honeymoon in the Caribbean we went scuba diving. I remember we were just noodling around one day, seeing the sights, when my husband grabbed my hand and pointed out an underwater rock formation. We both swam over to explore. There are moments in your life that are like Kodachrome prints, still moments of wonder and awe, and this was one: we both looked up, and through an opening at the top, we could see sunlight coming through. And above us, swimming in that diamond-sparkling water, were hundreds and hundreds of tiny, brilliant, cobalt blue fish.