Slow and Relaxed with Good Technique

This work of fiction is based on actual events. ****

In My College Years

"Slow and relaxed with good technique," whispered the voice in my head.

Holding my breath, I retrieved my diving mask from the bottom of the diving well and put it on. I made sure that none of my hair was between the seal and my skin. The next step was to clear the mask of water.

"Slow and relaxed with good technique."

I was 13 ft. under water. My heart was racing a bit. I tilted my head back and looked up at the surface. I grabbed the bottom of the mask.

I was in the middle of an exercise called the "Ditch and Don." In this exercise, you begin at the surface with a diving mask, snorkel, and fins. You surface dive to the bottom, take off all of your gear and place it on the bottom of the 13 ft. diving well then go back to the surface for up to three breaths. Then, you go back down to put it all back on, clear the mask of water, and clear the snorkel of water at the surface before taking a breath. It's not easy. It takes concentration and a clear head. If you panic, you're done.

I tilted the bottom of the mask away from my face and gently blew bubbles out of my nose to displace the water and clear the mask. Reaching up with my hand to feel for the surface, I kicked up and cleared the snorkel before breathing in a welcome breath.

"Slow and relaxed with good technique," repeated the SCUBA instructor, who was also my dad. It was my junior year in college and I was assisting my dad with one of his classes. At first, I didn't like the idea of going to college where my dad worked, but it was fun seeing him in his "teacher" role instead of his "dad" role. Having a dad who is a SCUBA instructor has a lot of perks, like learning how to SCUBA dive as soon as you can swim. I'd been around SCUBA for as long as I can remember. I'd been diving in some very cool places and had been taught by one of the best since I was a kid. I'd been through some training exercises that you weren't going to get as part of a "resort course," like someone sneaking up behind you and turning off your air or someone ripping your mask off your face. You trained for these types of situations because you might lose your mask or run out of air and you needed to be prepared. I was doing these types of exercises as early as 8 years old in some cases, so I'd had a lot of experience by the time I was in college. I'd heard him repeat, "Slow and relaxed with good technique," literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of times. This is because he loves SCUBA, but he's also going to make sure that you know what you're doing because if you don't, you're dead. He cares about his students and their safety. When you are under water and your mask floods, you can panic and suck in water through your nose and cough and make a minor problem into a big one. Or, you can think, "Slow and relaxed with good technique," and do what you've trained to do and just clear your mask. This is why he's one of those teachers that students remember for the rest of their lives.

As I watched the students practicing their Ditch and Don, I thought back to a diving trip I took with a different group (not related to my dad's classes) to the Florida Keys. One of the guys in the group was a cocky ass. I don't remember his name, but he thought he was the cock of the walk, strutting around the group talking about his adventures. He was the typical jock; I was the typical nerd. I'm the type to just do it more than talk about it, so I just let him talk. He knew who I was and who my dad was, though, and kept trying to get me into a pissing contest with him. I don't think he realized that I probably had about 10 years of experience on him when it came to SCUBA, or that I was SCUBA diving before he was trying on his first jock strap, so I just ignored him and waited for my moment in the water. The next day, on our first dive, he came up behind me and turned off my air. I saw him coming. My dad had been doing this to me since I was 10 years old in the pool as a training exercise, and this jackass wasn't nearly as clever as my dad, so I knew what was coming. I had checked that my dive buddy was right beside me in case I needed her. I let him swim away to his safe distance, then turned to face him. I flooded my mask. Then cleared it. Then reached back and turned my air on and gave him an OK sign, then flipped him the double-bird. He left me alone after that. Slow and relaxed with good technique, my friend. (To be clear, it's one thing to turn off someone's air in a controlled training exercise. To sneak up behind someone in open water is pretty stupid. A lot of things could've gone wrong.)

****

In the Present Day

It's been nine months since this mystery illness nearly destroyed my sense of balance. With a lot of work, my world is more the deck of a boat than a carousel. I feel the water from the shower on my face and it reminds me of SCUBA diving for some reason. I wonder if I'll ever be able to do that again. I really hope so. Going to a party tonight. That's a big deal. It's been hard to go out. Riding in the car is difficult because of the motion sickness, but first I have to get out of the shower. Slow and relaxed with good technique. I wonder if my dad knows how much I think about that. Ok, first make sure I have three points of contact. One foot, then the other. Shift my three points of contact to the wall. Verify balance. Check.

****

When I was 14

We arrived, well, in the middle of a swamp I think. I looked at my dad.

"We're here?"

"Right over there," he said, pointing to a slime-covered pit.

"You've got to be kidding."

We geared up and lowered ourselves into the slime, which was actually duckweed plant, but still seemed gross. Once underwater, that gross layer turned into a beautiful filter for the sunlight flowing down into a wide and open pool about 60 ft. deep. We drifted to the bottom and headed to the cave opening in the back corner. At the opening, a large sign read:

DANGER: DO NOT ENTER

43 44 People have died in this cave

Do not enter without the proper training and equipment

Well, if I wasn't nervous already, that did the trick. This was my first cave dive. Cave diving is dangerous. Aside from the environmental dangers, the equipment is cumbersome. You need multiple redundancies because if something goes wrong, you've got a long trip back to the surface. I'd been training, and my dad is one of the most experienced cave divers in the world, so I felt pretty confident. Still, I'd be foolish not to feel nervous.

We entered the cave tunnel. After a while, it opened into a large room. It was amazing to see this large water-filled space underground. My dad was using his home-made super flashlight to light up the whole space. He had used the bulb from an aircraft landing light, so it completely overwhelmed my little flashlight. To conserve my battery, I turned my light off and clipped it to my belt and soaked in the view. A moment later, I was engulfed by the darkest darkness I have ever experienced and could never accurately describe. I reached for my light and switched it on to see my dad gliding over to me.

He wrote on his slate pad, "Never turn off your light."

Got it. My dad knows how to make a point.

****

In the Present Day

"How are you doing?"

"Hanging in there," I say. We're in the car on the way to the party. My husband is driving. I don't do so well in the car. I have to get pretty medicated, which means I'm pretty loopy at the other end so who knows how I'll do at this party. Right now I just have to focus on not puking in the car. Focus on the breathing. Breathe in and out. Breathe in and out.

****

When I was 10 

"Focus on the breathing. Breathe in and out."

I felt the water on my face and it was cold. There was a fish near my ear and I didn't like that. I think I was supposed to like it, but it was annoying. Like birds. My eyes are closed, but I'm going to have to open them soon and that's when it's going to be hard. Being a mouth-breather is easier with your eyes closed. I don't know why, but it is.

We're at the rock quarry. My dad took me. It used to be a place where they dug up rocks, but they dug up a spring instead and it flooded the quarry so they had to leave and now we get to go SCUBA diving there. It's really pretty and has cliff walls that go right down into the water. The water isn't clear like the pool, which is kind of scary but kind of fun, like when the Hardy Boys went looking for that treasure. Dad says that there's a bus down there. A bus! It sounds crazy, but if he says so.

But first, I have to do the cold water treatment. That means that I have to breathe from the regulator with my face underwater with no mask on and my eyes open. This is in case my mask comes off under the water. If that happens, I have to be a mouth-breather only, or I get water up my nose. You have to get used to the cold water on your face so you don't freak out and nose-breathe by mistake. It's hard at first, because we usually breathe through our noses and this fish is biting my ear.

"Focus on the breathing. Breathe in and out."

****

In the Present Day

"Good job, babe."

"Thanks," I smile. Focus on the breathing. Here we are. Let's do this thing.

Once we make our big entrance, I mingle for a while and then find a place to sit. I want to fade into the shadows where no one will notice me.

I'm so tired from the struggle. Sometimes it feels like a darkness will overtake me. I know that I've come a long way. A few months ago, coming to a party would have been out of the question. I see that. But it's been so long and I'm tired. Do I really have the energy to maintain a social life?

"Never turn off your light."

That voice again. My dad's voice in my head. We haven't always been good at communicating, but SCUBA is a language that we both understand.

"Never turn off your light."

I have a choice to make. I see that now. I can be someone with an illness, or I can take control of this and have a life.

"Never turn off your light. Focus on the breathing. Slow and relaxed with good technique. You can do this."

 

"Thanks, dad."

With a smile, I reach back for my cane and head back to the party.