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#2: Diving Into My Fears
COVID-19, scuba diving, and a note on loss.
My eyes burn as I write this. I’ve been glued to my phone and computer over the last week, juggling between SOS messages from friends seeking oxygen cylinders, concentrators, ICU beds, plasma, Remdesivir, home ICU setup, you get the gist... and browsing through crowdsourced databases of suppliers and hospitals created by volunteers overnight.
When I’m not sharing information with friends and strangers, making verification calls, and attempting to catch up on work, you’ll find me doomscrolling, ragescrolling, or just scrolling through my social media feed.
My family and I are safe, but we could very well be next in line looking for oxygen. Call it survivor’s guilt, anxiety about forthcoming doom, wanting to put my privilege of being alive and safe to good use, or just massaging my ego to feel like I’m doing something and not just sitting at home feeling helpless.
I meditate for short bouts of time, trying to practice what I preached in my last post. It helps, for about 15 minutes. Then I’m back on the web, chit-chatting with friends or reading an article until the next SOS message arrives. I wonder how people outside the ambit of social media are coping, running from hospital to hospital, while we make calls from the comfort of our homes to confirm the availability of resources.
Then, there are the images of mass cremations in my city — aerial shots of makeshift burial sites that are fast running out of space.
I cannot fathom how documentary photographers take photos in such situations. What goes through their mind when they press the shutter button? When they publish the images on social media? When they see the photos in print the next morning? Do they treat it as an occupational hazard or do they live with the trauma of witnessing these scenes and capturing them for posterity? Perhaps it doesn’t compare with what other frontline workers see and go through every day during a pandemic…
Whatever the case may be, the photographs grab public attention, within the country and abroad. I, too, ‘like’ them on Instagram and Twitter, and share them on my feed, hoping that seeing what’s happening will jerk some of us out of our privileged bubbles.
Touch has a memory
In pre-COVID times, being physically present for loved ones during crises meant a lot. If a friend was in the hospital, we paid a visit with flowers and dad jokes to cheer them up. If a relative fell ill, we’d drop by with home-cooked food or help with household chores. We hugged, held hands, or simply hung around. Love and support were expressed through physical presence, proximity, and touch.
Right now, most of us are confined to our respective homes, witnessing loss through digital screens and from a distance.
We can only hope that love transcends time and space.
If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, let me clarify, I’m not quite sure myself. Call it a rant or a ramble, this is my break from the devastation around; self-preservation if you will.
As many say, when the world around you is falling apart, it helps to hold on to rituals that bring a semblance of normalcy. So here I am, trying to honor my commitment to write a newsletter post every week.
I’m in no mood to talk about past travels, share recipes, or my current read, but there’s one experience I’ve thought about a lot this past week: scuba diving.
Yes, you read that right. Amidst all the chaos, my mind has been reliving my first scuba diving experience, and it took me a while to decipher why.
What’s the connection between COVID-19 and scuba diving?
On Friday, I watched a video of an oxygen supplier explaining how to operate an oxygen cylinder at home, given the shortage of beds in Delhi’s hospitals. I’d never imagined I would need to learn this skill outside the ambit of scuba diving, but here I was, grateful that if and when the need arises, at least I’ve used oxygen cylinders before.
Other lessons from my first scuba diving experience, too, kept coming back to me at the most unexpected moments. It’s true — what doesn’t kill you, teaches you something.
Here’s a quick recap for context:
I drowned in Goa when I was eight years old. Ok, let me rephrase that. I came under a big wave for a few seconds and I thought I was drowning — no, dying. I remember staring into opaque water and thinking, “this is what death feels like.” I wasn’t panicking; I believed I was dying and was observing my final moments in peace as they describe in movies and memoirs about death.
A few seconds later, an older relative pulled me out of the water. I gasped, spat out the water that had gone into my mouth, and looked around. Nobody had noticed I was gone. Maybe I was overreacting.
Even today, nobody remembers that incident except me. For me, it was a close brush with death because I believed I was dying, even though I was not.
I’ve been scared of deep water ever since, but my interest in underwater life somehow outwitted it over time. While on a sabbatical from work a few years ago, I took swimming lessons. It took me a while to overcome my fear of the deep side of the pool, but it eventually happened.
Relieved and in love with water, I signed up for the PADI open water diver course three months later. Little did I know what I was in for!
A week before the course, I was told there would be a theory exam in addition to the open water dives. I flipped through the theory manual and felt nauseous. It was full of complex diagrams, calculations, and words like ‘buoyancy’ and ‘air pressure’ that reminded me of the dreaded science exams in school. By then, I had paid a hefty, non-refundable fee for the course and there was no going back.
I was so nervous about the theory exam (I was terrible at science and maths in school) that I started studying ahead of my course, feeling more and more overwhelmed with each passing chapter. Why didn’t I pay attention in physics class in eighth grade???
But somewhere along the way, I started enjoying all that I was learning. I could relate to the concepts because they were explained in a simple, practical way. I learned how to calculate the change in air pressure at different levels of depth underwater. I learned how to calculate how much time I had between dives and when to take a safety stop to avoid decompression sickness. I studied the manual so well that I aced the exam (I’ll admit it was an MCQ paper, so some flukes worked too).
Then came the open water dives. I had imagined I would apply the theory, learn how to use the diving equipment, and spend my time watching fish underwater.
The course had other things in store.
My practical exam entailed training for emergency situations like running out of oxygen, clearing my mask and regulator underwater, sharing oxygen with my diving buddy, removing my Buoyancy Control Device (or BCD — the jacket that scuba divers wear) and putting it back on, among other things — in the deep sea!!!
I was scared out of my wits. Even doing a back roll to get into the water terrified me. I somehow managed to perform all the tasks and cleared the practical exam as well, but my instructor refused to certify me.
Being certified would imply that I was ready to dive anywhere in the world up to 18m deep by myself. We both knew I wasn’t ready.
I left Goa feeling like a failure but was grateful to be alive. It was pure terror down there.
Making sense of fear
Weeks after I recovered from the trauma of the experience, I wondered what I could have done better. I reflected on the fear that had paralyzed me and went back for two more dives three months later. This time, I got certified.
There’s nothing new that the instructor taught me on my second trip. It was the same dive site and equipment, the same weather conditions. The only difference between the first time and the second was my state of mind, thanks to a few realizations that ended up becoming life lessons.
Those same lessons came back to me this week:
One, life is a mind game. I knew what I needed to know to dive, but fear clogged my mind and made me panic when I didn’t need to. When I approached the same situation with the same knowledge minus the panic, I fared much better. Today, if I can manage my mind, mask, and movement, that’s half the battle won because most other things are out of my control anyway.
Two, it’s all about the breath (yet again). By controlling my breath, I could control my body underwater. I didn’t have to bounce around like a balloon, out of control (this is what happened the first time, which made me panic even more). To manage my buoyancy underwater, I had to be aware of my breath, practice deep breathing, and regulate it as needed.
This week, having ramped up my Vipassanā practice (something good came out of last week’s post!) I’ve been more mindful of my breath, not just to track my anxiety levels and as a COVID measure, but also to stay in the present moment and not imagine worst-case scenarios of the future.
Three, scuba diving taught me that the first step of overcoming fear is acceptance. I knew how to swim, I was wearing a BCD connected to oxygen, and there was a professional diver with me — there was no way I was going to drown. But I was still scared, and that’s ok. Once I accepted this, it was easier to overcome my fear of doing something wrong and blowing up my lungs.
I haven’t felt that kind of fear before or ever since, and the experience taught me a few things: 1) fear is natural — acceptance is key, 2) fear can be overcome — take things at your own pace, and 3) think about what you’re afraid of and ask yourself if there’s anything you can do about it. If there is, do it. If there isn’t, eat ice cream.
Another kind of fear that scuba diving made me face is the fear of science (as a subject). Thanks to the way it’s taught in school, for a long time I believed that I didn’t have the aptitude to understand science.
While struggling to fall asleep earlier this week, I listened to the latest episode of my favorite podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, where Amit Varma and Anirban Mahapatra talk about the pandemic, vaccines, the science of COVID-19, and science writing in general. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed the conversation. I’ve bought Anirban’s book ‘COVID-19: Separating Fact from Fiction’ and can’t wait to dive into it — but the belief that I, too, could understand science and read science literature was sparked by the scuba diving theory manual (who would have thought!).
Four, it’s futile to read too much into perceived failure and perceived success. In my boss’s words: “You are never as good as they say you are. You are never as bad as they say you are.”
The first time I went scuba diving, I was the only one who didn’t get certified. Everyone else in the cohort scored less than me in the theory exam but sailed through the practical tests. They consoled me, and though I was just happy to be alive at that point, the consolations made me feel like a failure.
The second time around, I was with a group of first-timers who were in awe of my diving skills. “You’re such a pro, Ila,” one of them exclaimed, and I laughed out loud.
During any crisis, there will be people who think you’re doing a lot, and there will be people who think you’re not doing enough. Don’t take either of them too seriously. Do what you can with what you have where you are. Even small acts of kindness compound. Most importantly, take care of yourself.
Parting note on love and loss
Last year, I read a beautiful book called ‘Loss’ by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. I’m always at a loss for words while expressing condolences to those who have lost their loved ones. Most articulations tend to sound the same and feel mechanical, a lot like the “happy birthday” messages from acquaintances on Facebook every year.
Here’s an excerpt from the book that has stayed with me:
“Grief is not a record of what has been lost but of who has been loved. In the end, we weep not only for the death of someone but for the startling question that faces us: what shall we do with the love we have for the deceased? Where will we put it?”
― Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
I am sorry if you lost a loved one in this pandemic or otherwise. We all have and we all will, sooner or later. It’s more painful if we believe it happened before their time or could have been avoided. But it is what it is. I hope you find somewhere to put your love.
While I cannot imagine what losing a parent is like, what has helped me cope with painful experiences are stories. Another excerpt from the book summarizes it well:
“Stories fix us. Stories make us see. Stories remind us how we have failed at love, why we should try harder. Stories teach us when to leave. Stories remind us that we are not alone in our anguish – everyone is a little bit broken, and perhaps better for it.”
― Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
I’ll end this week’s post with a poem by Vikram Seth:
Take care, you.