Snorkeling My Way Out of the Comfort Zone

By Erica Troiani 08/24/15

Learning how to let go of fear and the need for control when trying something new.


I could feel the knot in my stomach twisting up into my chest and throat. I sat on a bench trying not to panic as I watched tourists check in at the same desk where I’d just been standing. It’s not too late to bail, I kept telling myself. No one would have known the difference except my boyfriend, who surely wouldn’t have held the wasted $25 against me. But I stayed on the bench where I sat as the boat crew behind me started their preparations. This was my last chance to back out and avoid anxiety and terror. 

Like a lot of ACOAs, I struggle with the spontaneity required to have plain ol’ fun.

I was going snorkeling. 

To drive home how low the stakes actually were, let me emphasize: it was in a bay. Where the water’s shallow enough to stand. Why, then, did it make me so anxious? Well, there’s the obvious: I’ve never been a particularly good swimmer. But then there’s the real issue. I’m an adult child of an alcoholic, and I grip tightly to my comfort zone. But I’d become stifled by how small my comfort zone was. Not to mention that it’s an exhausting way to live. To make matters worse, like a lot of ACOAs, I struggle with the spontaneity required to have plain ol’ fun, in large part because my imagination immediately jumps to the worst case scenario no matter the activity. As an adult, I’d held onto a paralyzing self-consciousness and an unwillingness to be a novice at something. I’d approached most of life with an attitude of, Why Don’t I Know This Already? In short: I feel too old to be uncomfortable in natural bodies of water, so I don’t get in them.

I agreed to the snorkeling trip in a renewed attempt to—as cliché as it sounds—get out of my comfort zone. My new rule was that if something sounded fun or interesting, I did it, regardless of whatever excuse the scaredy-cat voice in my brain could concoct.

I’d taken what’s normally a very lazy trip to the beach. I’d scanned dozens of tourism brochures looking for an activity that sounded appealing but that I’d normally avoid because it made me even a little uncomfortable. And snorkeling sat perfectly at the intersection of this fun/scary venn diagram. Yeah. For me, an activity that’s easily accomplished by a nine-year-old is outside my comfort zone. Pretty much any novel life activity takes me outside of it—and hence, I’ve missed out on a lot of life.

Somehow I talked myself onto the boat as the crew promised to carry us to a special secret snorkeling location. I hunkered down on one side of the vessel and immediately checked out the other passengers, casting for the role of person-to-make-me-most-self-conscious. I spotted a group of carefree, bored looking teenagers toward the back, all scrolling their phones and fixing their hair. I immediately imagined them watching me and laughing at what would surely be my terrible snorkeling ability. They were perfectly cast.

We quickly arrived at the secret snorkeling spot. The captain instructed everyone on how to use their equipment and soon enough, it was time to jump in with these foreign objects attached to us. I followed suit, and the second my body hit the water, I regretted my decision to go out that day. My flippers were filled with plant detritus invisible under the water. The wind was blowing hard and I struggled not to get further from the boat while I stopped to adjust my flippers, my mask, and my attitude. I was sure I was going to drown.

I tried to breathe through my terror, but even when I managed to snorkel for a bit, water got in my mask or it would fog up. “This is already a disaster!” was my first thought. And then, as the wind and water pulled me further from the boat, the zero-to-sixty: I was definitely going to drown, and of course everyone would watch. It’s amazing how quickly my thoughts turn me into a victim who’s too weak to handle some bay water that I’m perfectly capable of standing up in. 

That’s when I realized I’ve never liked swimming in natural bodies of water for one basic reason. They perfectly simulate a situation in which I have almost no control, and that sends me into lizard-brain level, pre-verbal panic mode.

The guide explained that holding out a piece of an orange peel would quickly bring fish right up to our hands, and when I tried it, they magically appeared. Then my mask fogged up again and my frustration returned. When I stood up to fix, it I saw a few of the teenagers from the boat. All of them were in life jackets looking how I felt. At least I wasn’t alone. I continued to struggle, but wasn’t quite ready to give up yet. I wanted to see those fish again.

Then my endlessly patient boyfriend made a gentle suggestion. “Instead of doing it all at once, why not stand up in the water and put only your face in?” I fixed my snorkeling mask and did as he suggested, finally alleviating myself of the burden of getting it all perfect on the first try. I could see more than I’d realized under the water—shells, plants, a few fish—and suddenly what had been terrifying felt exciting. I wanted more. 

I started to swim, but felt like I was still fighting against the wind. Then I remembered something a movement professor said to me in college that had been profound at the time, but that I’d more recently forgotten: when we resist, we sink. When we let go, we float. So I let go. Not just physically, but mentally. I accepted that I didn’t have a tremendous amount of control over what direction the wind felt like blowing, but I could do what I was capable of. Part of that was realizing that I’m lying to myself when I say I’m a terrible swimmer. My panicked terror just convinces me that I am. 

Now that I’d relaxed, snorkeling itself didn’t actually get easier. The wind was still battering me. My mask continued to get foggy, and now it was getting tangled in my hair. But none of this bothered me anymore. I’d actually started having fun. 

Suddenly a world opened that I’d never seen before. Fish swam up to me. I explored the shells on the bay floor. Admittedly, the super secret snorkeling location didn’t offer much to see but murky bay water, but I didn’t care because all of it was such a new experience. I pushed the boundaries of where I’d been swimming, slowly going further and further from the boat, enjoying this new lack of fear, so excited to feel free from myself. 

Soon, my boyfriend stopped me. “Do you mind if I go back to the boat? I’m kinda bored.” That was the first I’d paused to look around at who was left in the water. Only a handful of people remained. All those teenagers I was so sure would judge me? They’d all given up and gone back. As much as I’m sure everyone is watching and judging me at every moment, they really are just struggling through their own frustrating snorkeling experience. I was one of the last two people back to the boat. Once I relaxed into the unknown, I realized the things I fear are easier to face when I stop bracing against them. And best of all, I didn't drown.

Erica Troiani is a pseudonym for a writer in Austin, Texas. She last wrote about what led her to ACOA.

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