WRITTEN BY KRISTA BEAUVAIS
Our mind has the power to lock us inside a mental or emotional prison that can very quickly keep us from living the life we WANT. It does this by making us worried, fearful, or even phobic about certain things. When this happens, we have to fight back against being a victim. We have to break out of our mind’s prison and fight for our right to live the life we WANT. It’s not easy, but it IS possible. I know because I’ve just done it…
I’ve Never had a Phobia Before
I’m not a person with phobias; I can typically easily rationalize my way through any sort of worry to the point of being able to destroy butterflies in the tummy before a job interview or going on stage to address hundreds of students and teachers. In fact, I didn’t even know what it felt like to have a phobia until this one hit!
A bad diving experience turned me into someone who couldn’t put her face in the water and breathe through a regulator without her chest constricting into panicked spasms of hyperventilation. This is not what you want when you’re trying to breathe underwater!
This phobia came on all of a sudden, starting as a fear, a normal and understandable worry born from a bad experience. And then it grew into something sinister. It became larger than reality over the few months that I was dwelling on the fact that I would have to face up to it.
The Birth of my Phobia
In July 2013, Erik and I we were diving Sail Rock in the Gulf of Thailand, which is probably the most famous dive site in the area. It’s basically a little island that just pops up from the seabed, with nothing else around it.
I’m a seasoned diver. The day started as usual and the dive started as usual. I quickly discovered why this site is so famous. We were immediately surrounded by huge schools of fish and groupers so large you’d think they could eat you for dinner. It’s really a special place!
About ten or so minutes into the dive, I started to realize I had a problem. We were 24 metres beneath the surface when I began having a problem with my breathing.
With each inhale, instead of breathing fresh air, it was like someone was misting me with a fine dusting of salt. The salty air was creating an intensely parched mouth. I tried to generate saliva to compensate but quickly realised that I couldn’t generate any saliva whatsoever, possibly a result of the malaria meds we were taking.
Each breath made me more and more desperate for water. But I knew I couldn’t get any. Desperation for water quickly turned into desperation for air and a feeling of needing to escape.
I looked up and saw that my bubbles seemed to go on forever above me. Escape was impossible. I looked around to see that I was surrounded by darkness and enormous fish that seemed to be relics of a time long since extinct.
I saw that my dive leader and Erik were both happily enjoying the sights and were oblivious to the trapped sensation that was starting to smother me, starting to raise my heartbeat.
My desperation for both water and air combined with my sense of isolation to create a feeling of complete and utter imprisonment.
Reason left me (which has never happened before) and I became unable to control my mind. All I could think was:
‘Get me out of here – I can’t breathe – I’m going to drown!’
My heart started to boom through my chest. My only instinct was to bolt to the surface. Luckily I was sane enough to fight against that instinct and instead I somehow managed to let our dive leader know that I needed to ascend. She denied my ascent (for good reason) and I lost all hope.
The urge to bolt to the surface – and knowing I couldn’t – caused me to struggle even more for air. I just couldn’t catch my breath! I was having what I believe was a panic attack. With a regulator in my mouth. Trying to breathe compressed air. Intense claustrophobia consumed me.
Coping with the Moment
Suspended at 24 metres below sea level, she grabbed my hands and held them firmly. She instructed me to look into her eyes. She made some inhale / exhale motions with her hands to instruct me to breath slowly and deeply.
Everything stopped in my world. All I could see were her huge blue eyes behind her mask, black water around her. Her eyes were willing me to keep it together. I don’t even know if she blinked through this.
I don’t know how long this took, but time seemed to stand still and the process felt like an eternity. All the while, we were suspended, my legs dangling, flippers immobile, body frozen stiff with fear. Erik was looking on trying to figure out what was happening, me unable to offer any explanation. I was fixated on her eyes as my only link to sanity, my only source of any calm.
When she was convinced that the worst of it had passed, she interlocked her arm with mine and escorted me to a safer location, slowly and safely bringing me to the surface. I clung helplessly and hopelessly to her, pouring any energy I had into repetitive thought:
‘Breathe in… Breathe out… Breathe in… Breathe out…’
We ascended at a safe rate and I lived to dive again. But the mental and emotional damage were done.
From Fear to Phobia in Two Months
Prior to this incident, we had already booked eight nights on Mabul island in Borneo, Malaysia, so that we could dive the famous Sipadan, considered by many as one of the best dive sites in the world. Of course, by the time we finally arrived there, I had just spent two months worrying about diving again.
Upon arrival at Scuba Junkie on Mabul, I explained my situation and the manager found a Divemaster to work solely with me on our first day. I met Ben, who would be looking after me, and started to feel more comfortable. Maybe I can do this!
I was wrong. I couldn’t do it.
Dedicating to the Battle
My fear of facing this found me making repeat trips to the bathroom; nerves were controlling my physical self – and not in happy ways. Every fibre of my being screamed that I should walk away. Who cares about the lost money; I’ll enjoy the hammock on our patio and read all day as I watch the birds flit in and out of the palms. I was thinking:
‘Who needs this? Diving is supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, why do it? Why am I forcing myself to do this? Surely this kind of stress is not healthy and I should just forget the whole thing!’
But the point is that I was able to do this before. Why should I allow my mind to tell me that I can no longer do it?
Freedom of choice and freedom of action – that’s why I needed to battle this. If I let my mind control this one small, insignificant aspect of my life, then I would risk giving it the power to rule me in more significant ways in the future.
Day 1 of Escaping my Prison
Despite my tummy gurgling with worry, I dragged myself from our room and fought hard against the instint that was telling me to forget it and opt for the hammock instead. I walked to the jetty and suited up, hopeful that it was all blown out of proportion in my head and that I’d be fine.
The problem is that your perception is your reality and that meant that my worry had grown into a full blown phobia that was living a life of its own.
I walked to the edge of the jetty, down the steps into the water, and sat waist deep to prepare my fins and mask. I put the reg in my mouth, which I’ve done many times before – only this time my chest seized with fear and my body felt like it had just been straight jacketed.
I calmed myself down, replaced the reg in my mouth and tried again. I lowered my face into the water and had to withdraw immediately. I was in a prison. It took about ten minutes of trying before I was finally able to breathe with the regulator in my mouth whilst sitting safely on the end of the jetty.
I kitted up three times that first day, each time my insides rumbled with nerves that sent me repeatedly to the toilet. But I managed to find some small success that first day.
On my first dive I made it down the descent line and hung on at about two metres for a few minutes. The goal was to be able to simply breathe underwater without being gripped by fear.
By my second dive I was able to touch the bottom at five metres and I had a short swim around, panic-stricken the entire time. I had many ‘episodes’ or ‘moments’ of pure panic during that dive – and my instinct again was to bolt to the surface.
But I’m very proud to say that I stayed down and I didn’t give in to the instinct. Ben was brilliant and breathed me through each panic attack. I also worked hard to calm my mind by focusing on fish. Ben gave me his tank banger and holding that in my hands reassured me that I could always get his attention immediately if I needed it.
The goal for the third dive was to do the same, but focus on relaxing. By the end of the third dive, I had managed to find some sense of enjoyment, namely by collecting rubbish to distract my mind. Odd? Sure – but you do what you have to do to work through it.
Each person’s journey to success will be very different. For me, for once, I was pleased to see litter – and lots of it – on the ocean floor.
Day 2 of Escaping my Prison
Day one was really tough of me so I took a break on day two and snorkeled to get used to the local sea creatures for which I’d also developed a fear (especially for anything that posed a threat like triggerfish and huge solitary barracuda).
Day 3 of Escaping my Prison
By day three I was kitting up again in my dive gear, again gripped by nerves that were tough to battle through. Erik joined me with Ben so that helped.
For the first dive we stayed in the same area I was before, focusing on a more comfortable descent and a longer bottom time. I had a few ‘episodes’ that Ben needed to breathe me through.
I needed to learn that the surface was not an option; that anything that happened underwater needed to be dealt with underwater. Again, rubbish collecting helped me focus my mind on something constructive, pulling it away from focusing on my fears. It was most fortuitous that the locals litter so much!
By dive two we had collected all of the rubbish and there was positively nothing else to see in this small sandy location – so we strayed a little further from the jetty and I managed the dive with only one ‘episode’ that needed Ben’s help.
The third dive found me on a boat with other people. You can imagine my nerves. My goal was to work through any ‘episodes’ myself. I discovered that talking out loud through my regulator helped calm me. Also, interlinking my hands helped me to feel more secure.
I made it through that dive without needing Ben to help me through any moments of panic. I was overjoyed with how far I’d come!
Day 4 of Escaping my Prison
On day four I needed some emotional recovery time again so I headed out with the dive boat to Siamil island. Erik dove the first two and I read my Kindle on the beach. I think taking a break from all the hard work is actually an essential part of the process. It’s draining to fight against instinct like this!
By dive three I was feeling that I might be able to try. It was a shallow dive (max 14 metres), looking in the sand for creatures, so I felt safe and managed to do it without needing anyone’s help – but I did have to talk myself through a few ‘moments.’
I was really proud of myself! I said that out loud and smiled about it openly as soon as we surfaced after the dive. I really enjoyed the feeling of that important success.
Day 5 of Escaping my Prison
The whole reason we came here – and paid a lot of money for it – was to dive Sipadan island, which is famed as one of the best dive sites in the world – and highly regarded as the most diverse dive site in the world. We had come to do this – and I was determined to follow through. I was determined that my mind was not going to stop me.
We had booked two days at Sipadan – which is not cheap as you need to buy a special permit many months in advance. I had to snorkel the first day; I was just too nervous. I snorkeled the four dive sites while the divers were exploring far below me.
After snorkelling and scouting out all of the sites, I’d made up my mind: I would dive Barracuda Point in two days when we return. And I did!
Day 6 of Escaping my Prison – I Did It!
I snorkeled the first two dives when we returned – and then I kitted up and was in the water for the third dive, Ben at the helm, Erik beside me.
I dove Barracuda Point at Sipadan, the site that always makes the top three dive sites in the world – and is often voted number one! And I can see why – it’s a magical wonderland!
There were a couple of ‘moments’ that loomed but I had worked through so many in the previous few days that I was able to keep a calm mind and talk myself through them before they became an issue. I didn’t need anybody’s help to get through the dive! And I even enjoyed myself!
It was truly worth the week of emotional and mental distress – just for that one dive site. I had already snorkelled it so I was able to appreciate the different perspective that was possible by being beneath the surface, face to face with the amazing abundance in that location.
I did what I went there to do – and it was truly spectacular! I did not let my mind hold me prisoner. It was hard work – very hard work – but I took control of my mind again. I lived the life I WANTED.
I fought back hard and I’m proud of myself for what I was able to achieve. I would have been terribly disappointed in myself, and our visit to Mabul and Sipadan, if I had simply spent the week in the hammock reading my book. I can do that anywhere!
There is only one Sipadan and I wanted to experience it at least once in my life! I’m so pleased that I battled through the nerves and distress – and didn’t give up!
Advice to Others about Breaking out of their Mind’s Prison
If I’m to simplify the above and break down clearly for you what worked for me, it was this:
- Have an important goal and know why you want to achieve it
- Surround yourself with people who will help you, not belittle you
- Feel nervous and uncomfortable – accept it – and then fight against it anyway
- Do NOT give into the feeling of wanting to ‘just forget about it’
- Take baby steps that are manageable so you can enjoy small successes
- Celebrate each success openly and verbally with a real smile on your face
- Each new step should build on what you’ve just accomplished
- Each new step needs to be a clearly defined goal so you can clearly see success
- Receive praise from others for each accomplishment
- Try to hold onto the confidence you gain (you’ll want to doubt yourself)
- Alternate between working hard and resting
- There are different routes to success; experiment to find what works for you
- Keep the end goal in sight and know why you want to achieve it
- Having a time sensitive goal will help keep you focused and driven
If you can control the part of your brain that is letting you down through its creation of limiting beliefs, fears and phobias, then you can work your way out of any prison that your mind is able to lock you inside. That means that you have the potential to live any life you WANT because you can fight against the messages inside you that say:
…it’s too distressing to try…’
‘…I’d rather lounge in the hammock with a book…’
In the comments below, I’d love to hear from others who’ve also had to fight against a metal prison. Maybe you’ve got some more helpful tips about doing this that could help others…
KRISTA HAS ALSO SHARED
- See profile for the full list
- Written, formatted and edited by: Krista Beauvais
- Dates diving Sipada: September 8 & 10, 2013
- Dates on Mabul island: September 3-10, 2013
- Dive Resort: Scuba Junkie
- Email: krista [at] wodara [dot] org
- Contact Form
Congratulations for conquering your fear! I’m not a diver and can’t imagine what you felt, but I do understand similar fears and know how hard it is to overcome them. Don’t ever forget the courage you had and how overcoming it made you feel!
Thanks Tara! I’m sure I’ll need to tap into similar reserves of perseverance a few more times in my life. Let’s hope not too often! 🙂