Game Time

August 15, 2012

What I Did with My Summer Vacation

Y’all, I am not exaggerating when I say that a few days ago I had the biggest scare of my adult life.  I was about a fifteen minute swim from shore in a floating raft (the kind more commonly used in pools) with my boo and two others.  Being that far from the waves, it was peacefully quiet and people on the shore looked like little Fisher-Price figures.  Each of us had a hand on someone else’s raft so we wouldn’t float away from each other.  We were making jokes that we were like otters who hold hands when they sleep at night so they don’t drift apart.  Adorable times.

Most people were facing towards the open ocean while I was facing the shore.  And then…  oh, goodness, my stomach knots up and my throat gets tight even now…  I saw a huge black dorsal fin rise up from the water about 150 feet away and cut past us, parallel to the shore.   It stayed up for a few seconds and then went back underwater.  This fin was huge – way bigger than my head.  And this was no dolphin fin.  I know a dolphin fin when I see one and this one was bigger and definitely not attached to a mammal.  There is no doubt in my mind that there was a shark attached to that fin, and that shark was freaking huge.

Ugh, it’s hard to write this post because it’s reminding me how scared I was.  I can now feel myself sweating and typing is getting more difficult because my arms are tensing up, causing me to make more typing errors.  My heart is also beating faster.

So back to the ocean.  I really couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it.  I looked around and no one else in my otter pack had seen it.  My boo reports that I said something like, “Guys, I just saw something in the water that looked like a shark.  I’m going to head in.”  He reports that I sounded fairly calm.  I can tell you from inside my body that the following thoughts were occurring, “Remain calm.  If you freak out then everyone will freak out.  If everyone freaks out then they will leave you behind because they can swim faster and you will be eaten by that shark.  Whatever you do or say, remain calm.  Just remain FReakING CALM!!”  As they were busy telling me that it was just a dolphin (and I repeat, that was no freaking dolphin) I saw the fin rise up again.  I got a really good look at it.  And there was no doubt in my mind that it was a shark fin.   I thought to myself, “I could direct everyone’s attention over there and they will realize that I am right.  And man to I love to be right – I’m not proud of that fact but I have to admit it’s true….  But if they realize that I am right then they will FREAK OUT AND LEAVE ME HERE TO BE EATEN BY THAT NOT-DOLPHIN!!”

Please allow me to pause my typing and unclench my jaw.  Funny that I didn’t even notice that sensation until now – how long has my jaw been that tense?   Inhale through the nose.  Exhale slowly out the mouth.

And Now It’s Time to Freak Out

So I decide to not say a thing about the reappearance of the fin, and instead tell my boo as calmly as possible that I want to go in.  NOW.  I had told the others that I saw something that I thought was a shark.  They weren’t taking me seriously.  I felt like I had done my due diligence and it was now time to get my still intact body to shore.  Now the only way for me to maneuver this raft is to lie on my back, put my head in the direction I want to go, and propel myself with my arms.  And so I did that with gusto.  I was flapping like a chicken on a hot tin roof.  My boo was doing the same motion in his raft right next to me, although more smoothly and less flailingly.  Things quickly went downhill for me.  Within less than a minute of heading back to shore I was in full freak out mode.  I was a maniac.  Whenever he got even ten inches ahead of me I would apparently say something like, “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME!” And in between this plea I was adding, “WE AREN’T MAKING ANY PROGRESS!!”  I said that second phrase a lot.

It was when we reached about the distance from shore where I had seen the shark that I really went into overdrive.  On a scale of 1-10, I was at 17.  I had the thought that all of my flapping probably looked to the shark like a seal with a broken fin who needed some eating.  And there was no doubt that the shark was smoothly and gracefully turning around to snatch up his snack.  I had one leg out of the water, figuring maybe if the shark went for my legs I’d at least have one good one left to use.  I had just barely enough wits about me to realize that I was about to hyperventilate.  This situation was game time.  I was about to have a panic attack, and I needed to take care of business.

And so I took a deep breath.  I quickly made a plan.  Things I had in my control:  my thoughts and my behaviors.  Things I did not have in my control:  whatever that freaking not-dolphin was currently doing.  I looked up at the clouds and resolved to keep my eyes there.  Looking around for a shark swimming towards me was not helping me with my task.   I observed that there were currently no sharks attached to me.  I took one long, strong pull with my arms through the water.  Way less flapping.  Way less broken seal fin vibe.  I took another long pull.  I told my boo that I was really scared and ask him to talk with me about something else to distract me.  He stayed right next to me and started talking with me about dinner that evening.  I tried, but the conversation about eating local seafood still reminded me that I was at the beach and things eat things.  “Can we talk about something else?”  And so we talked about the Olympics.  Actually, he spoke.  I’m pretty sure I was free associating on words I had just heard.  But he stayed with me and we tried to talk about soccer.  I counted the clouds above me.  I counted the rays coming out from the sun. I noted that I was still currently terrified.  And there were still no sharks attached to me.  I felt terrified but in that very tiny moment I noted that I was in fact safe.  And I kept swimming.

Zen and the Art of Fear Maintenance

Dear readers, there is not some beautiful zen experience coming at the end of the story.  I stayed terrified the whole time.  I teared up a few times.  But I pulled myself back from really losing my marbles.  I made progress in getting towards the shore.  My boo stayed with me.  He asked a couple of times if I wanted to hold onto his feet and he’d pull us both in but I figured that would slow us down so I said no.  When we finally started feeling the rise and fall of the wave swells I felt better because we were close.

And that’s when the second wave of complete all out horror flooded through me.  Earlier in the summer I was on my annual summer family vacation on a west coast beach.  At that beach there are schools of leopard sharks in the water.  They are much smaller than what I had just seen and harmless and swim right past you as you play in the waves.  Those sharks love to hang out around the waves.  Sharks can be found in waves …  sharks in waves!  Bam!  That one thought entered my head and I completely lost my cool.  Tears came back, breathing got difficult.  And so for a second time I realized it was game time and I needed to take care of myself.   Again, a deep breath.  Again, I note that I was in fact safe in that teeny tiny moment.  And this time I accepted help.  I put my raft behind my boo and held onto his feet like they were the only thing keeping me from falling off a cliff.  I took deep breaths and counted the clouds.  And my boo got us safely back to shore.


  • Feelings are real.

    That is easily the most scared I have been since I was 10.  Was I ever really in danger?  I honestly don’t know.  But I do know that I felt like I was in danger, and feelings are real things. It doesn’t matter how other people reacted.  I felt scared, that feeling was real, and I needed to take care of myself in that moment.


  • You must practice coping skills before you need them.

    Once I realized that I needed to take care of myself, the plan arose within me.  It really did.  Honestly, I was very surprised how quickly I was able to gather my thoughts and make a game plan in that situation.  This only happens with practice.  I am reminded of work I have done with many clients.  We practice coping skills in session and they are given homework to practice out of session.  And so often they come back the next week to say that they didn’t do the homework because nothing major happened.  That phrase is like a high diver saying she didn’t practice until the competition.  Bananas!  You must practice coping skills until they are second nature.  You must practice them when you are not too anxious or scared.  Only then does learning happen. There is no “practicing” coping skills when you actually need them.  That’s game time.


  • Handling your fear or anxiety does not mean making it go away.

    I was still terrified after I decided to manage my anxiety in the situation.  But I wasn’t being ruled by my terror.  By acknowledging my feelings and managing them, I then had more resources available to deal with the task of getting myself out of the water.


  • “If you don’t have your feelings, your feelings will have you.” –Rachel Simmons.

    In other words, if you don’t check in with your body and label your current emotional state then you run the risk of being controlled by your emotions.  We have no control over how long unwanted feelings will linger after a triggering event.  It’s tempting to ignore these uncomfortable emotions.  But ignoring emotions will cause more problems, often by driving us towards unhealthy coping strategies.  I am writing this post three days after the event and my body is still working through the experience.  I was really tense and jumpy for most of the next day.  I continue to have intrusive thoughts about sharks, despite the fact that I’m back in Durham and have a better chance of seeing an alien.   In fact, I just ran into a friend at a busy store after writing the first draft of this post and I was feeling really nervous about all the people walking past.   Thankfully I was aware enough to realize that my body was holding a lot of anxiety that I stirred up in writing this post, and my brain was just reading my body’s anxiety and looking for a reason in the current situation.  I felt so much better once I could say, “I feel anxiety in my body from that darn shark story.  My brain is confused by thinking my body is saying something anxiety provoking is happening now.  I’m not really anxious about anything in my current environment.”

    And finally,

  • It’s probably not the best idea to watch Shark Week if you happen to be on vacation at the beach.


Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: