During my third year in college, I signed up for a marine biology course that required a two-week excursion to Honduras for practical application of everything we had learned in the classroom.
The scuba training involved sessions in the shallow end of the outdoor university pool. Before we were cleared for diving, we had to successfully demonstrate all of those skills during an open water dive. We squeezed into a university van and headed to a nearby lake. Even in warm southern Florida, February is a cold time of the year to go scuba diving, and the water was bone-chilling cold.
The final task of the exam simulated a disaster scenario—your tank runs out of oxygen, and you must head back to the surface without air. You can never hold your breath underwater while scuba diving—you must have a steady stream of bubbles escaping your lips unless you want to risk lung collapse and stroke.
The instructor, my dive buddy, kept his hand on my shoulder the entire time to keep my rate of ascension at a steady and non-lung-collapsing pace. Thirty feet (10 meters) below the surface, I took one last breath and removed my regulator—my only source of oxygen—and started kicking toward the surface of the water.
Inexperienced at controlling my breath while swimming I ran out of air too quickly. Within seconds, my lungs started to burn, and my vision began to blur. I tried to kick faster and harder, but the instructor held me at a steady pace. I thought to myself, “I’m going to drown 10 feet from the surface doing this stupid exam. I’m such an idiot!”
I struggled my way to the surface, arriving completely exhausted and treading water with dead legs. My heart felt like it was going to explode and my numb fingers fumbled for the auto-inflate button on my buoyancy jacket. I couldn’t breathe deeply enough to fill my lungs until finally, I inflated buoyancy jacket and bobbed up to safety.
I was too nervous to admit to anyone that I had panicked. To confess that I made a nearly fatal error and that if something had gone wrong—if I had really run out of oxygen as the exercise simulated—that I would’ve been out of luck. It was the first time that I learned that situations in which we voluntarily pursue could kill us.
Scuba diving wasn’t a necessity. I didn’t have to be in the water that day. I didn’t have to sign up for the marine biology course with a mandatory field trip to Honduras. I chose to be there. I chose to remove my regulator and swim without oxygen. I could’ve placed it back in my mouth and failed the test, but I didn’t. It was painful, and I panicked, but it didn’t kill me.
During the first year after we moved to Sweden, I was essentially 10 feet from the surface of the water—struggling to kick through the murky, cold water. My lungs burning, eyes tearing, and my dive buddy with his hand on my shoulder—there in case of an emergency but totally oblivious to the fact that I was panicking inside.
I was too proud to admit that the challenges of raising our family abroad were more than I had anticipated—that it was affecting me in ways that I hadn’t realized. We chose this hardship for ourselves so can we even call it a hardship? I was unforgiving of myself for selecting a hard path and unwilling to admit to my friends and family that I was struggling. Consequently, I felt like I was drowning.
Today marks my seventh wedding anniversary and ten years of a relationship with my husband. When I think back on how our lives have changed since we said, “I do,” I can see how we zigged and zagged our way to where we are now.
That decision to move abroad was equivalent to dropping a massive boulder off a cliff into a calm lake below. We cleaved off a chunk of family and geographically separated ourselves from the only people we knew in this world. The ripples are still felt even years after the initial plunge.
Without access to our long-established networks of friends, my husband and I turned toward each other for support, friendship, and laughter. In the beginning, we were the only people in the world we knew who could relate to what we were experiencing. Nobody else could walk on our path with us.
When you need to rely on your partner for 150% of your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, it can create an unsustainable amount of strain on your marriage. In those instances, you either break or you bond.
We didn’t break.
Today, the road bumps have evened out and over time, life abroad feels normal. Not only am I no longer feeling like I’m drowning, but I feel completely at ease under the water—kicking and floating without a care. My experience in the lake taught me how to regulate my breathing. How to save air and remain in control under stress.
Living far away from family and friends, we had to create our own buoyancy vests. With practice and perseverance, we can continue to explore deep below the water. We know now that if we need to, we can share the other person’s oxygen until we can get to the top.