First I will say this: I did it for a man. I attempted to learn how to breathe underwater because a man I loved asked me if I would. I will also say that I sometimes have difficulty breathing and these two things, diving and troubled breathing, do not complement each other. Still, I agreed.
My boyfriend and I sat on our couch watching television and he brought up the idea of learning how to SCUBA dive. Our relationship was at the beginning of its end after five years together, but there was remaining love that we didn’t know what to do with. He thought a new activity, a new frontier, could help. We would take lessons during an intensive weekend course: four hours Friday night, eight hours on Saturday and Sunday. He drew on my obsession with watching the tides crash in and lull out, my need to drive to the water’s edge even in deep winter, to convince me to learn to dive. We both ignored my tendency toward anxiety. His enthusiasm told me there was no reason to be afraid, no reason to feel anxious, but I am a nervous person and have trouble trusting new situations. I wanted to break myself of this habit; I wanted to become someone who didn’t want to, rather than couldn’t—these differences matter.
In SCUBA diving, when someone becomes skilled at controlling the amount of air in her lungs, the lungs act like little internal life vests underwater and equilibrium is achieved; the diver becomes indefinitely suspended. Some sit like a Buddha, floating in the endless blue. I mentioned to my boyfriend one night that this was akin to being back in the womb, before sound, only the gentle rushing of blood from my heart offering a soundtrack. Yes, he agreed, this would feel exactly like floating in the womb. Exactly.
We’d met in college in Pittsburgh, speaking a few times at parties thrown by mutual friends, usually when I’d ask him, always him, to light my cigarettes, usually ending up on a dirty couch in someone’s beer-soaked living room, oblivious to the raucous noise around us. Then, during the weeks after my twenty-first birthday, we went on our first date. Our first Christmas gifts to each other were a test: his record player from his teen years and a homemade comic book for me; a book of noir poster art for him—his favorite film genre after science fiction.
Every Tuesday night, after meeting at a local bar with our group of friends, we’d retreat to my apartment where we watched reruns of The Adventures of Pete and Pete until we were so tired we’d crawl to my tiny twin-sized bed to sleep. He was six feet tall and his feet hung off the end. When the weather was nicer, we’d sleep on his deck overlooking the city, cuddling under a down sleeping bag with too-full glasses of cheap wine at our sides. Pittsburgh’s skyline was dim enough that the stars were still visible above our heads and the freight trains howled endlessly in the background. After college, we transferred our current cozy life one state over to New York.
Now, half a decade later, we were disoriented in our lives, together and individually. We fought almost nightly about our jobs, our parents, our friends, and had grown too comfortable with each other; the boundaries of our respect for each other’s desires, fears, and ambitions were broken, the jagged pieces permanently intermingled. We hadn’t been prepared to want new things from ourselves or from each other as we grew into our adult identities. You’ve become someone fearful, not brave, he’d say. I had. You aren’t the person I thought you’d become. I wasn’t and neither was he. You aren’t the right person for me anymore. The last one neither of us was ready to fully admit to the other.
I experienced my first panic attack during a summer break from college while working as a waitress at Bob Evan’s, a chain of roadside diners along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. One night, while refilling red-frosted glasses of soda at work, I glanced down at the promotional pins attached to the front of my blue apron and felt my chest begin to constrict. My vision transitioned from a blurry haziness to a deeper and deeper black, and finally my knees buckled beneath me. As I propped myself up on the ice chest, my manager walked over, more annoyed than concerned, and told me to go home.
My younger sister and I had gotten into an argument earlier in the day about a Britney Spears song playing on MTV, but the tension between us stemmed from her upcoming move to New York, the city I believed I’d escape to after high school. I realized later that my panic attack was a result of things I hadn’t achieved, the occasions my young mind recognized as failures. My inability to control my reaction terrified me.
As a high school student, and through most of my young life, I, like many other teenagers from rural areas across the country, was desperate to distance myself from the town where I grew up. I convinced myself that once I was away at school new opportunities would open and I’d never have to return. During my first year of college a few hours away in Pittsburgh, I investigated opportunities abroad for the summer—a photojournalism course in Belfast, a language intensive in Florence—but none had fallen into place. Instead, I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom.
A few years later I was living in New York. On one of the first warm days of late April, during my first spring there, my boyfriend and I visited Greenwood Cemetery. We laid in the grass on a Sunday afternoon among the graves of luminaries, clicking portraits of each other, our faces seemingly superimposed against the deep blue sky behind us, as we talked about the next few years of our lives.
I was sprawled in front of him, my body heading downhill, my face looking up. We were both in our early twenties. He had just debuted his first documentary at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and I was leaving for Easter Island on a writing assignment in a few weeks. We pledged our goals out loud as we looked at each other on that hill of the notable dead: he would produce his first full-length documentary by twenty-seven; I would be a freelance writer by twenty-five.
I felt I was on my way. Immediately after college graduation I’d found a job in publishing at a small travel magazine where I worked as an assistant editor. My boss was a fading writer who had peaked as a CNN talking head in the 1990s; she was aggressive, particularly with me. She read my work emails; she sent harassing messages to me while I was abroad for the magazine; she called me on vacation, threatening to fire me if I turned my phone off. For the second time, I began to experience panic attacks. At work, I’d hide in the single bathroom on our company’s floor, waiting for my breathing to slow; at night I’d gasp for breath, never taking in enough. My boyfriend held me as I took in small puffs of air, my chest movements syncopated to no particular rhythm.
Therapy had failed in the past, and I’d had a short-lived disastrous experience with Paxil that had been prescribed by my childhood pediatrician when I was in college. I could have tried medication or therapy for my attacks again, to deal with a tyrannical boss, or even now, a few years later, to learn how to SCUBA dive; but, I decided it was better to stay within the bounds of what made me feel comfortable, what wouldn’t induce an attack, than take medication to overcome my fears. It was a limiting but controlled existence.
The SCUBA course was also an attempt to reignite my passion for anything. I had recently quit a job as a managing editor of another travel magazine that was so stressful it had become damaging to my health and our relationship. I told myself and everyone else that I was a freelancer now, but, instead, I followed a television schedule consisting mostly of sitcoms and talk shows that began at nine in the morning when my boyfriend left for work, and ended at seven in the evening when he returned home. I rarely left the house, or the couch. It would be untrue to use the cliché “I was treading water.” I wasn’t even doing that. I was just drifting.
So, to overcome all of this—a failing relationship, a stalled career, a looming depression—I ignored the feeling that I was losing control over my respiratory system, and believed that I was gaining a new topography, picturing myself describing the ocean’s floor to friends and acquaintances, knowing few would be able to respond with I know exactly what you’re talking about. The exclusivity of the act appealed to me.
I’ll do it, I said. My boyfriend longed for adventure, we both longed to save what we’d built, and to a certain extent I needed to save myself. He looked amused, his lips curving into a gentle smile. He glanced over at me: This will be fun. Trust me. I tried to mirror the sentiments, but I felt my unease show.
Frequently at night in this apartment, when we finished fighting, I sat nearby on the floor of our living room where I plugged in the small gray pump from our inflatable mattress, allowing the gentle whirring noise to calm me as air from the motor filled the flat rectangular form. After my boyfriend turned the lights out and closed the French doors to our bedroom the anxiety of arguing usually stayed with me for a while, but eventually my breath slowed and I’d fall asleep on the living room floor. I usually offered to take the floor; I could never fall asleep in our bed knowing that he was lying feet away in another room because of something I’d said.
On this night, the night we discussed the lessons, we slept in the same bed. He held me for a few moments before rolling onto his back. I barely slept.
Even now, years later, my skin begins to tingle when I remember those first brief moments spent underwater. But, weeks before that, my boyfriend and I spent evenings studying together at the battered dining room table his mother had purchased for us. The cherry-wood-top came to us unblemished but now showed heat damage from dinner parties, scratches in places where our cat had run, and a white paint splotch left by our landlord when he came to finish the trim around our doors. DVDs with covers depicting masculine divers surrounded by diffused halos of sunlight lay at one end. Thick books listing what could go wrong rested in front of us.
Part of the course involved a series of written tests and on some nights we would practice for these for hours. He asked me the questions slowly, attempting to exorcise my fear, to erase my memory of another list, one of personality types who should not dive, provided to prospective divers upon registering for the course. Those who experience panic attacks should not learn to SCUBA dive. I was on that list, though I hadn’t had an attack in years. My boyfriend had seen only glimpses of that person, the one who crumbled under stress, no longer able to control her ability to inhale.
There are long lists available that name and describe medical conditions that can result from SCUBA diving. A diver could suffer from alternobaric vertigo, in which one experiences disorientation as the pressure in the inner ear become imbalanced, or from conditions involving a certain decaying or destruction of the body: the first is a cerebral embolism, potentially fatal, in which the brain is attacked by gas from a substance vaguely describe as a “solution” in SCUBA literature; the second, dysbaric osteonecrosis, occurs when one’s bones develop lesions as a result of a high pressure environment. Each felt like a possibility to me though I knew none were likely.
The night before the class began, I had trouble breathing. I took the deepest breaths I could, enjoying the freedom to inhale and exhale in an open room, not through a hose delivering bottled air. It was as if I was taking in a last meal.
Although my boyfriend and I had yet to integrate our libraries and music collections in our small apartment—combining those collections closest to our inner selves, intermingling obsessions and echoes of teenage angst, was a benchmark we could never reach—we would become dive partners. We would learn to read the expressions contorted by each other’s masks and decipher each other’s hand motions. We would also learn that these things were, in many ways, matters of life and death. I knew that within the next forty-eight hours we would be asked to share air tanks and help each other through a series of fantastical worst-case scenarios. We would practice saving each other’s lives in a cloudy pool in New Jersey.
When anyone asked about my upcoming course, I launched into a story I’d heard while on Easter Island when a traveler described the closest she had ever come to dying while cave diving in the Caribbean. She became disoriented as the person in front of her disappeared with the lamp that was guiding them through the water. The landscape was black and she began to panic, preparing to die, but, almost as quickly as she’d been lost, her partner came back to find her.
A journalist sitting next to her began to tell us another chilling story he’d heard at the adventure magazine where he worked. A group of men had disappeared at the bottom of a cavern in South Africa during a risky dive and their bodies were never recovered because of the depths at which they were trapped. Decades later a man stepped forward, a deep-water specialist who wanted to set a record for depth while also bringing back their bodies. Ultimately, all of the men, including the one who dove to recover the corpses, ended up on the cavern’s floor.
When I say I did it for a man, what I actually mean is that I did it for the man with the shaggy hair lying across a cheap bedspread at a rundown hotel by the ocean, smiling into the camera, embarrassed I’m taking his picture while he’s in his boxers. I did it for the twenty-one-year-old version of myself, the woman who believed she’d found her home in another person. I did it for the two shiny young people slipping on the ice in the deep winter of Montreal, both a little drunk on whiskey and realizing that something big was happening between them.
I did it so all of these memories would continue to matter, even as our skin began to wrinkle, our lives evolve. These moments were each a step leading to the choice I now saw before me: destroy the relationship or face a terror. Neither seemed to be an easier option.
We arrived at the dive center after dusk. The interior of the building was heavy with chlorine fumes, and my eyes began to burn. My boyfriend was friends with the men who owned the pro shop at the pool—weeks before, they had worked on a television shoot for a popular crime drama at a quarry together, all of them camera operators. The episode was about a murder that occurred during a dive.
Now, a few weeks later, this same crew was piling merchandise before me, all assuring me that I would love diving as much as they did. I picked out flippers, a mask, and a snorkel totaling around one hundred and fifty dollars, a sum of money that felt quite substantial. Next, I picked out a wetsuit to rent. It wasn’t that the water was frigid, but that I would be spending many hours in it and would become cold quickly. The SCUBA course I was enrolled in was designed for those with endurance.
This is what it was like:
The murky pool closed over my head, a heavy tank nearly half my size was strapped to my back, and a sticky, mildewed wet suit protected my skin from the water. My lungs froze as water surrounded me, as if my brain couldn’t quite convince the rest of my body that it was going to be okay, that this type of breathing wouldn’t kill me; my breath had already been short that day before the tank of gas controlled it. I felt as if I were feet if not miles below the surface, but the crown of my head was still visible to those on the sides of the pool, my brown hair swaying in a wispy halo. I knew this because the instructor told me later that I hadn’t even gone completely under. Even so, I panicked and dragged myself to the stairs at the entrance of the pool, gasping for air, crying a little. Our instructor rose with me, removed his mask and asked me if I was okay. I wanted to tell him that I wanted to quit, that I’d never wanted to learn how to dive in the first place, but instead I said that it felt strange, that was all. He took my hands in his and told me to put my mask back on and follow him to the bottom of the pool. We did this three times and eventually I stayed under, meditating on my artificial breath and forcing myself to relax into the moment rather than risk further embarrassment in front of my classmates.
The rest of the weekend consisted of drills in which we learned how to deal with a leaky mask underwater or a tank that had unexpectedly run out of oxygen, and how to properly execute a pike dive and a somersault roll off the side of a boat. I didn’t cry or panic again during the classes. In fact, by the end of the weekend I spent breaks lying on my back on the bottom of the pool. As a congratulatory gesture, my boyfriend took me to Red Lobster for dinner that night where I boasted that I felt so good I must be suffering from nitrogen narcosis or rapture of the deep.
When you lose a lover—someone whose life has become terrifyingly indistinguishable from yours—you’re left with a doctorate in a subject you can no longer use. The information left behind is mountainous, but without the proper space in which to apply it, it serves no purpose. The lover becomes a person who can’t exist in past tense. Who will care about the way his calves suddenly drop off into a column of ankle with bone so close to the surface you believe you can see its texture at times? Who will care about the places where his face crinkles when he cries? No one.
Just as useless is the map I could sketch of his body, a detailed drawing just like that of a diver who studies the ocean floor and can create a rendition of vast aquatic plots of land. The point is not to lose yourself to that landscape, and to not become fearful of new landscapes.
I never completed the SCUBA course. My grandmother died days before our trip to the Bahamas where we were to complete our deep-water portion of the certification. He went; I stayed behind, relieved and secretly believing my grandmother had timed her death to save me from the trip and dive.
When he returned from the trip, he showed me blurry photos taken almost sixty feet beneath the surface. He considered these images to be beautiful, and there was a beauty in each. I thought they resembled the mountains around my parents’ home at twilight, when everything became a shade of blue and less defined. He also assured me that after I became certified during the approaching summer in a dark lake in northern Pennsylvania I could see the same things.
But I never planned to continue with the certification.
We became fixated on SCUBA diving, speaking and fighting about it constantly. Each time I brought up the subject of a vacation, he countered with a way in which I could receive my SCUBA certification during it. I’d shriek during arguments in our small apartment, citing the SCUBA course as an example of how little he cared about me, understood me, after so many years. He was silent after these comments. One corner of our bedroom was filled with yellow and blue flippers in black net bags, snorkel hoses that jutted out at gentle angles, face masks that sometimes reflected the sun with an element of haziness; the rest was filled with well-worn vintage furniture, clashing.
We broke up that summer, over a diving trip—his. I asked him to leave; I cried and slept on the air mattress; he was gone when I woke the next day.
Following the breakup, after I’d found a new place to live and settled in to my new life, I sold the SCUBA gear at the first chance. I knew I would never go under again.
Rumpus original art by Claire Stringer.