I did not always love long car rides. When I was growing up, my family would often road trip from our hometown in Austin, Texas, to our lake house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I liked seeing new landmarks and observing the changing landscape but I truthfully spent the majority of those car rides wondering how much longer we would be driving. As I grew older, I started to make these sorts of long drives on my own.
Part of my gap year fell during the Fall of 2020 and my plans went through many transformations as a result of COVID-19. I eventually decided that I would go live in the Florida Keys by myself to study for and achieve multiple new scuba licenses. Because the situation with the virus made air travel a risky choice, I opted to drive to and from Florida as I advanced my diving pursuits and also took care of some previously arranged obligations at home.
Driving from my home to Key Largo is a relatively short three-day journey, but I learned a great deal from this repeated experience. There is really something unique about the challenge of driving for many hours with only yourself for company. There are inherently few distractions present when one is driving a vehicle – this can be welcome or unwelcome, depending on one’s mindset that day.
I realized how cathartic this process can be as I spent the days on the road, forced to sit with the fear I had about diving at a new dive shop and with new partners. While I love scuba diving, it definitely still makes me nervous – and that is actually a big reason why I love it. Since I was attempting to advance a level and had so many facts and numbers swirling around in my head as I tried to remember everything I needed to know for the exams, I was especially nervous. Driving toward the very thing you are nervous about for multiple days is an odd feeling and I was initially concerned that I would have a miserable few days if my anxiety over the new skills I would be attempting clouded my time on the road.
As I sat with these nerves and the hours passed, I experienced something unexpected: admitting that I was nervous and going over each factor contributing to my nerves made me feel less anxious overall. I hated admitting to myself that I had fear because I had some misconceived notion that actually thinking about my diving anxiety would make it worse or that a tragic accident was more likely if I opened my mind up to the possibility. Instead of this, it actually released some of the pent-up pressure I was holding because there was nothing left that I was trying to avoid.
If I had flown down to the Keys I would have been able to ignore my feelings because I would not have been forced to push through them. Since I was alone in my car for three days, I had to dig deeper into the discomfort but then eventually came out on the other side having been able to rationalize each fear and make a game plan for how to alleviate those anxieties. My passion is scuba diving and a little bit of healthy fear just comes with the turf.
I think that my nerves prior to testing for a new level or specialty are healthy – they show that I care about what I am doing and that I know the risks involved. I am grateful for this shift that occurred in how I frame those nerves, though. Working through my fear versus avoiding it proved to be quite helpful in the end – my anxiety always felt alleviated after the first several hours of driving on the first day as I gritted my teeth and leaned into it. I made the trek from home to Florida multiple times over the course of that fall, and each time I tried to remember what I learned that first drive. Rather than doing anything I could to pretend that I did not have a tightness in my chest and that I was not mulling over every dive accident I have ever encountered, I got vulnerable with myself and admitted that I get nervous when I am about to do something new in diving. It is perfectly fine to love something and have it make you nervous at the same time. After realizing this, the hard part was done.