Not Letting Fear Have the Final Say in Koh Tao
Fear is a sensation I am most unaccustomed with. I sometimes joke that my fear threshold is broken or turned off, and that this could potentially get me into trouble, much like people whose pain indicators are faulty can hurt themselves without knowing it. Jetting off to a foreign land without a plan, jumping off a bridge with only a thin bungee separating me from death–these are things that most people find terrifying, mainly because they are so outside the norms of a typical lifestyle. But for me, well, these things are what make me feel alive.
Thus far my inability to acknowledge what most people call fear has not led to any bodily harm. I’ve jumped off cliffs in India, motorbiked helmet-less around perilous roads, bungee-jumped in Costa Rica, rock climbed in Thailand, hiked through bear-infested trails in Montana, and done countless other potentially dangerous activities. Not being afraid has always been a source of pride for me, and for as long as I remember, I’ve self-assuredly beamed when a person listening to my experiences exclaimed, “Oh my, I never could have done that! You’re so brave.” I smugly smiled, confident that I was invincible and always would be.
Jetting off to a foreign land without a plan, jumping off a bridge with only a thin bungee separating me from death–these are things that most people find terrifying, mainly because they are so outside the norms of a typical lifestyle.
But, my foolish pride caught up to me. One of the main reasons why I chose to travel to Thailand was to get my PADI open water diving certification. I researched and found that Koh Tao, a small island in southeastern Thailand, was a prime location for scuba diving due to its clear waters, extensive coral and aquatic life, and cheap prices. Therefore, I made this my first stop on my three month sojourn through Southeast Asia.
I arrived via bus then ferry from Bangkok, eager to get acquainted with my first Thai island. It didn’t disappoint, with its white sand beaches, friendly vibe, and easily navigable small town roads. Many restaurants and bars sat adjacent to the beach, providing me with a picturesque scene at every turn. It’s a great place to enjoy oneself, but I had a mission, and diving classes started the day after I arrived.
I had never been afraid of the water, and our instructors were informed, kind, and comical, so I was soon at ease. But disaster struck during one of our “skill” lessons. To be certified, you need to be taught these skills and then attain a level of comfort with them. One of these is to take your mask off, swim a few feet, put your mask back on, and clear it of water by blowing out your nose. Everything was going smoothly, I had swam a few mask-less feet, and was attempting to put the mask back on, when it broke. I got confused, I couldn’t see clearly, and I forgot that I could only breathe out of my mouth. I started sputtering, and desperately wanted to go to the surface. Luckily, we were in shallow water and I was able to do this, but my fear had already been kindled.
My heart was racing, and I couldn’t bring myself to go down there, where there was no air, and if something went wrong, I wouldn’t know what to do. I also knew that if I tried to surface too quickly, I could get sick, or even die.
The next day, I knew one of the skills I had to accomplish was to fill my mask completely up with water and then clear it… from eight meters under water. I had been nervous all morning, but when it came time to descend with my dive class in to the briny depths, I found I wasn’t just nervous. I was panicking. My heart was racing, and I couldn’t bring myself to go down there, where there was no air, and if something went wrong, I wouldn’t know what to do. I also knew that if I tried to surface too quickly, I could get sick, or even die.
When my instructor, Yann, resurfaced and asked what was wrong, hot tears of humiliation clung just inside my eyelids, not daring to embarrass me further by showing themselves. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong, that I’d never felt this way before. I kept looking around, searching my brain for a way to rationalize myself out of the fear I was feeling. I felt completely helpless, and for a minute considered not going through with it. Although I hated to it admit it to myself, my fear was getting the best of me.
Not Letting Fear Have the Final Say in Koh Tao
Patience is something many people lack these days. Fortunately for me, Yann made up for other people’s deficit. He calmed me down on the surface, stayed by my side throughout the entire descent, stuck close when I had to do the dreaded deed, and as kindly and effectively as anyone can under water, helped me relax once again after I clumsily choked through the task. For this, I am so thankful. I had to focus all of my attention on deeply breathing in, then breathing out, then breathing in that delicious oxygen. After several minutes with Yann by my side the entire time, my heart rate finally returned to normal. I had done it.
It took a few days afterwards for me to realize that this is what many people have to live with their entire lives. There are all sorts of paralyzing fears, rational and irrational, controllable and uncontrollable, that people suffer from, which prevent them from truly living out their lives to the fullest. My one episode was miserable enough; I can’t imagine being dominated by this feeling to the point where I was missing out on all the highs, adrenaline rushes, and rewards life has to offer by taking a little risk or living adventurously.
To not be afraid of pushing your limits is easy if you have no limits. I found my limit and conquered it.
My invincibility strives on, ready for the next challenge, but it was severely checked, and for that I am grateful. I finally encountered a feat that challenged my fear threshold, and it nearly suffocated me. To not be afraid of pushing your limits is easy if you have no limits. I found my limit and conquered it. To me, this is a thousand times more rewarding than having no fear in the first place.
“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”
-Mary Anne Radmacher