When Dave and I were on vacation this summer, we went snorkeling pretty much every day. In order to see much while you’re snorkeling in Hawaii, you have to get pretty close to the rocks and coral, because that’s where the beauty is: schools of fish, families of sea turtles, strange spiky bursts of color that look painted and electric.
Most of the time it’s ok to be close to the rocks, because the sea is calm, especially in the morning, and you can easily control your own buoyancy agains the pressure of the waves. When you spot a turtle, you can hold out your arms and legs and float beside it, staring into its ancient eyes, and mimicking the ways that it buffets itself against the surf.
But sometimes the waves pick up, or the water is murky after a storm. A big thunderhead moved through the islands in the middle of our trip, and after that, even though it was sunny and calm during the day, most of our snorkeling was silty and dim. We’d try to swim out a little farther to clearer water, but I got scared a lot. I couldn’t see where I was going, and I didn’t know what was near me; sometimes I’d look down and realize I was inches above an enormous rock.
And so I would start to hyperventilate. I’d breath faster and faster, trying to catch up to Dave, who didn’t know what was happening, and was just swimming steadily ahead. The faster I’d breathe the more frightened I was, and the more hectic and jerky my movements became. I’d throw out a leg or an arm and smack into something, or get water inside my mask and choke. I put myself in greater danger, because of my fear.
Eventually (it would seem like forever, but it was just seconds, most likely) I’d tell myself to calm down, and once I smoothed out my breathing and forced myself to swim straight, it was all a little easier. My heart rate went down. Basically, I talked myself out of going into shock.
Usually you only have to use these tricks in moments of physical danger: after an accident, or just before; when you’re standing on the edge of something and need to jump, or stop yourself from jumping. But last night as the evening progressed I began to hyperventilate all over again, with the same feeling of terrible floating, the same vulnerability to a force that was, and is, washing over me, that I cannot control. The tide rising. The storm’s debris.
I feel as though I am waiting for a window to open in the sky so I can walk through it to the place I thought I lived. But in the absence of such a window, all I can do is hold close the people I love, and tell myself to breathe a little slower so the oxygen gets to my lungs and my blood and my brain, and it all keeps flowing.
And now I am telling you, too. I wish us all luck.